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As the empty flatbed of an 18-wheeler rumbles by, Howland, a white 45-year-old, points to a stowaway compartment behind the door of the truck's cab. Stashed behind the driver's seat, this sleeper, a little hole, was Howland's home during her years on the road. Like others who've found stability at the ROCK, Rikki Howland had been something of a drifter for much of her life.
Orphaned at age three, she was passed around to live with different parts of her extended family for her early years. Whichever family she was living with determined what church she might attend -- "sometimes Pentecostal, sometimes Baptist, sometimes none at all." All through this period she hungered to be part of the Norman Rockwell portrait: the all-American family going to church, going to dinner together. She explained this longing with the easy, frequent smile of a sad woman whose blue eyes display an eager friendliness. At 17, she left her home in Tennessee and went on the road as a trucker -- wandering nomadically for years at a time and battling to enter the male-only sphere that is part of the profession. "I never believed God wanted anything to do with me," she says, folding, then refolding, her paper napkin again. "It made me angry for a long time."
On the night of March 24, 1984, that rage came to a climax.
"I decided to kill myself," she says. "To go to hell where I belonged."
She recalls the night vividly. She sat down in her bedroom. Put a Bible on one side. A knife on the other. And cried out, weak with inner pain -- "Okay, God, if you want me to be alive in the morning, I'll be there." Only silence awaited her.
In the morning, Howland woke up face down on the floor. Her dog scratched at the door. She hesitated, uncertain if the personal hell would linger on, unclear if she would remain forsaken. But as she opened the door, the world opened up to her. "All of a sudden, creation was out there," she says. "I heard birds chirping and the sky was a pretty blue. I felt a gentle breeze blow through me and I heard the voice of God say, 'I'm here.'"
In the 19 years since, she says she's tried many churches. On March 9 of this year, she discovered the ROCK when a member flagged her down as she slowly drove by the new church. "Three songs into the service, it clicked in my spirit," she says. According to Howland, race was never a factor.
"My conflict is not from people's skin; it's from their attitudes," she says. "I feel God has called me to this church, that God wants me to be here."
The Reverend Carson himself admits that history is against him in his effort to reach whites and Hispanics. (The Associated Press recently reported that one black pastor in Louisiana had actually taken to paying whites $5 and $10 an hour to attend his services.) Rice sociology professor Dr. Michael Emerson, author of Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, has done research on this issue.
"Lots of people won't attend a church led by a black pastor. Also, certain traditions unique to the black church will hold people back," he says. Emerson says he's done extensive interviews with whites and their comments have reflected discrimination ranging from doubts about a pastor's competence to the lack of a children's area during church services. What's more, he says, as Carson's congregation is already primarily African-American, it may be difficult to overcome the social label in the minds of whites that he heads a "black church."
"In terms of becoming a multiracial church, miracles can happen, but it would take a miracle," says Emerson.
Carson need not look to ancient history for a miracle of that kind. The first quarter century of Pentecostalism was marked by astonishing racial harmony as blacks and whites worshiped side by side at a time when no one else did.
Emerson believes that the ROCK can grow to megachurch proportions through the minority community. Being situated in Alvin will not hurt its cause, as he claims the neighborhood parish is a dying institution, as more and more people expect to drive to church. (Many current members of the ROCK now drive in to Alvin from their new homes in Houston.) And Alvin's perch at the edge of a major city gives Carson prime real estate to catch growth from the surrounding subdivisions that have been sprouting up along the Texas 288 corridor.
Shirley Brothers, spokeswoman for the Alvin Independent School District, estimates an increase of more than 2,500 new students in the next four years. These young families will be drawn to the one-stop shopping experience a megachurch provides, says Emerson. It takes, of course, a magnetic preacher.
Following Carson's transition-theme Bible study, an African-American baby crawled around at Rikki Howland's feet, as adults chatted near the altar. Howland picked up the child and cradled her in her arms -- a poignant snapshot confirming, even if only slightly, Carson's vision of a multiracial family gathered at God's table. "This feels like family. This is where I fit in," says Howland. "It was like a puzzle coming together. I just don't know which piece I am right yet."