As the congregation belts out a familiar hymn, it is time for Elizabeth's extended flashback. When she was eight, her sickly mother died and her world changed; her aunt came and brought Elizabeth back with her to Maryland, effectively banishing Elizabeth's beloved father from her life. She despised her aunt for taking her away, for her aunt's austerity, for her constant reminders of all that she was doing for Elizabeth. Elizabeth's defense was her pride, and for this, her aunt rebuked her the more, warning that the Lord would lay her low soon enough.
Richard was working as a grocery clerk when Elizabeth met him in 1919. She fell completely in love with him. He hated the South and asked Elizabeth to join him when he left for New York, where they could get married. Claiming she wanted to take advantage of the North's superior opportunities for black people, she persuaded her aunt to let her stay with a distant relative in Harlem. She and Richard got jobs in the same hotel.
Under her aunt's watchful eye, or in fear of her aunt's judgment, Elizabeth had preserved her "pearl" (i.e., her innocence) while in Maryland. But in New York City, among the multitudes, no one cared how she acted—and she fell into sin with Richard. Richard and his friends were bitterly anti-religious, but she could not think of leaving him and this profane world behind for fear of what might happen to him without her. He was fragile and she was his strength. They were very happy together at first, and despite what Gabriel might tell her, she will never regret their time together. She does regret, however, not telling Richard that she was pregnant. She hadn't wanted to burden him further or pressure him into marriage.
One night, after escorting Elizabeth home, Richard was waiting alone for the subway when several black youths who had just robbed a store ran up and joined him on the platform. The police hauled them all off together. Richard was beaten, held in prison, and brought to trial. Although he was eventually released, the damage to his reputation had been done, and his name was known to the police; he committed suicide that night.
Elizabeth met Florence when the two of them worked as cleaning women in the same Wall Street office building, soon after John's birth. The two became friends, despite the difference in their ages. Through Florence, Elizabeth met the recently widowed Gabriel when he came north. Gabriel brought her back to the faith from which she had strayed; he offered her strength, protection, and guidance, promising to love John as his own. For the first time since Richard's death Florence had hope.
Elizabeth remembers the day of John's birth—all of her cursing and suffering and then the moment she heard John cry. At this moment a real cry wrenches her from her reverie. John is on the church floor (the threshing-floor), crying out. He is "astonished beneath the power of the Lord."