I sat in my car in the public parking lot across the street from the tiny brick building sandwiched between two much larger brick buildings on a Nashville side street nervously debating whether or not I would actually go in. I had never been in a bar before and I hadn’t come to Nashville expecting to visit a bar. In fact, I was, in my then rather fundamentalist mindset, somewhat incensed that the Gospel Music Association would choose to use a bar as a concert venue for a living Gospel Music legend. After a couple of minutes of waffling back and forth between complete disbelief and unbridled excitement, I decided to offer a prayer of forgiveness to the GMA and head across the street. I walked through the door, and showed my ticket to the. . .are they called bouncers at a gospel concert?. . .doorman. I scanned the darkened, cramped room for a seat as far from the bar and as close to the door as possible–I wanted a quick way out if the conviction of the Holy Spirit got too strong to resist. I finally settled on a small table in the back corner of the room, against the wall and only a few feet from the door I’d just walked in. I sat alone, in the glow of neon beer and liquor signs, watching as about 100 or so other guests milled about talking to one another, laughing, seemingly oblivious to the fact that we were lounging in a den of iniquity awaiting the chance of a lifetime–the chance to be a special guest at the invitation-only appearance of the Queen of Gospel Music, Vestal Goodman!

I don’t remember the first time I ever heard her name, or knew who she was. Vestal, Howard, Rusty, and Sam–The Happy Goodman Family–were names that I’d known since childhood. My great-grandmother loved Southern Gospel Music, so I grew up knowing those names and hearing their music. To me, Vestal Goodman was as big a star as any rock musician I could think of, and being on the list of invitees to this special performance was a moment I knew would never come again. The small stage at the front of the bar was empty except for a microphone stand and a stool with a bottle of water sitting atop it. As I sat waiting for the concert to begin I couldn’t help but think about my great-grandmother, and how thrilled she would have been to get that same opportunity. I thought of all of those Sunday mornings when she watched what must have been reruns of the Gospel Singing Jubilee on television and how, as a young kid, I didn’t truly appreciate the significance of the music or its message. All I knew was that every now and then, a family quartet would come on camera led by a woman with the most joyful countenance I’d ever seen, a beehive hairdo spiraling heavenward, and waving a white handkerchief as she sang songs like “O, Come Angel Band,” “Lookin’ for a City,” and more.

I was startled out of my memories as the lights dimmed and a voice came over the speakers. . .

“Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome to our stage, for a very special one-time performance, the Queen of Gospel Music, Vestal Goodman!!”

Almost instinctively, I rose to my feet along with everyone else in the room, cheered and clapped over the opening strains of The Goodman’s signature song “I Wouldn’t Take Nothin’ for My Journey Now.” The spotlight pointed toward a small door to the left of the stage and, suddenly, there she was. . .Vestal! Smiling, hair aimed toward Glory, hanky fully unfurled, and that voice. . .that one-of-a-kind, golden voice that had led thousands, maybe millions into celebration of the goodness and love of Jesus. . .that voice that was as strong as ever! For the next 45 minutes I sat and listened as this incredible force of nature that had been part of my life for as long as I could remember sang song after song, all of them to thunderous applause. I clapped to the beat (on the 2 and four, not 1 and 3) to the fast ones, and listened intently to the slow ones, and on more than one occasion found myself genuinely worshipping God in the glow of a neon Bud Light sign. I didn’t even mind anymore. Bar or not, that little room was church that night.

When the concert was over, we were invited to meet Vestal and have her autograph our ticket, CD’s, pictures–I brough my copy of her autobiography which had just been published earlier that year. I hung back from the rest of the crowd who rushed the small table where she was seated. Finally, after most of them had cleared the room, I made my way to the table. She looked at me and smiled and I handed her the book. “What’s your name, darlin’,” she asked. I told her my name and then babbled on about my great-grandmother and listening to her singing my whole life and how much she and her music meant to me–all things I’m sure she’d heard countless times that night alone. But, she listened, smiling and nodding as I rambled on. Then, unexpectedly, she stood up. She put her hands on my shoulders and hugged me. When she pulled back, she moved her hands to my cheeks, looked me straight in the eyes and said, “God bless you, you sweet thing!” You could’ve knocked me over with a feather.

I’m pretty sure that I cried on my way back to the car. I don’t know whether it was because I was just a little star struck or because I actually felt like she meant what she said to me. Either way, once again I found myself sitting across the street from a bar on a Nashville side street. This time, though, there wasn’t any anger or confusion, just happiness because of what I had just experienced. I didn’t even look at what she wrote in the book until I got back home a few days later: “For Jason. Love, Vestal”

I doubt she would have ever remembered me, or anyone else she met that night, but I’ve never forgotten her. That short concert remains one of the most significant experiences in my Christian faith–not because of who SHE was, or because of what she sang, wrote in my book, or even said to me that night, but because I learned an important lesson from her–one that I’m sure she taught many, many times during her life and career. It’s not about where you are that leads to worship and celebration. It’s not even about who you’re with. Instead, it’s about who you BELONG TO; and there’s no doubt about it, Vestal belonged to Him! She sang it, she lived it, and she taught it. And, somehow, I got to hear it up close and in person. What a blessing!

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