The visitor scrapes the dirt off his broken-down shoes, steps into the gleaming entrance hall, returns the usher’s smile. Unlike the usher, he keep his lips shut—understandably, if his teeth differ from the usher’s as much as his clothes do.
The usher gestures him into the sanctuary. He stops just inside the door, staring at the banks of seats, the spotlighted stage, the screens filled with the rapt faces of singers whose music, prodigiously amplified, pulses in his head, flutters in his empty stomach. “I will bring praise; no weapon formed against me shall remain…” People in the congregation sing and sway. The visitor remembers men standing and swaying to the chant of prayer in another time and place; the words were different, but the movement was much the same.
Another greeter smiles in his face, gestures him to a seat in the back row. For a while he looks down at his hands. Then he takes a deep breath and looks around him again.
The music has stopped. The screens show the preacher’s face. The preacher’s eyes shine like his teeth; his arms sweep out in a wide gesture of welcome. “Have you believed the lies of this world?” the preacher asks. “Have you let the Enemy establish a beachhead in your mind? Have you let him tell you that you’re no good, that you’re poor, that you’re sick, that you’ve done terrible things? Have you let Satan tell you that Jesus doesn’t want you? Well, let me tell you the truth. Jesus wants you. Jesus came for you.”
The congregation leans into the promise. The visitor remembers another crowd leaning in as though it were midwinter and the words were fire, their eyes full of the hunger which bites as deep as the hunger for bread. Leaning toward him.
“Maybe you’re thinking, ‘That’s easy for him to say. He’s a minister of the Word, he’s a righteous man, he’s got a nice house, a good life—how does he know what my life is like? How does he know Jesus wants me?’” The congregation waits eagerly for the answer.
“I know,” the preacher assures them. “I know, because I wasn’t always the man you see before you now. If you knew the way I grew up… Brothers and sisters, believe me, whatever you’ve been through, it’s no worse than that.”
The visitor rubs his right thumb over the scar on his left hand, focuses on the preacher’s words to keep the memories at bay.
“I’ve known poverty. I’ve known sin. Drinking, porn … you name it, I tried it. I was lost, friends, I was lost in the darkness. I was destroying my health, I was bankrupt, but worse than that: my soul was dark and hollow, and I was a stranger to God.”
The congregation listens as though this is the first time they have heard his account of how the preacher hit bottom, fell to his knees and asked Jesus into his heart. The visitor studies the preacher’s face as though trying to remember something.
“And he came to me. He came to me, and He filled my life, He filled it with blessings, just the way he promised in his precious Word. Do you know what it says there? It says that God has plans to prosper you and not to harm you. Plans to prosper you. Friends, that word is for you, for every blessing you need in your life. If you open your life to the power of God, if you surrender to His precious will, He will shower you with blessings. When you let God into your heart, then the blessings come until your cup overflows, until you think you can’t take any more blessing—and still they come! When you let God arise, he scatters every enemy. No more sickness, no more poverty, no more sadness, no more pain. When you let God arise, then health comes, then joy comes, then prosperity comes. The path of the righteous gets brighter and brighter. God will give you the victory. God will give you the victory in everything.”
The congregation laughs, claps, shouts out loud. The visitor in the back row clutches his left side with his right hand. The wound there is old, should be healed, but sometimes the memories bring the pain back. Drops of sweat fall from his forehead to the carpet.
“Are you ready?” the preacher calls. “Are you ready to say yes to the blessing? Are you ready to say yes to God, to put your life in his hands and let him fill your cup with every good thing? Then stand with me and tell our Heavenly Father…”
The congregation rises like a wave. The visitor rocks back and forth like a piece of flotsam battered by the tide. Words tumble from his mouth in fragments: Father…this cup…your will…your hands…
The visitor edges toward the nearest aisle; the people he has to pass by let him through, wrinkling their noses as he passes. His stomach growls, and as the preacher’s voice rises in prayer he makes his way to the exit, head bowed.
He stands on the steps for a few minutes, watching two sparrows chasing each other through the branches of the hawthorn tree by the door. Slowly he lifts his hands. One of the sparrows perches on his crooked finger, turns a bright eye on him, flies away singing.
Later he sits at a long gray table, one in a crowd of shabbily dressed people eating macaroni and hot dogs from paper plates inside the Good Shepherd Soup Kitchen. He looks around at his fellow diners. No one looks back at him. Some bend over their food. Others look toward the TV screen on the wall.
“I thank God for finally sending us a President who truly values and protects Christians,” the man on the screen says. His compelling blue eyes stare directly at his listeners. “Our Lord Jesus Christ told us that the world would hate us because we bear His name. We see that every day, don’t we? Look at the violent Islamists massacring Christians for their faith. Look at the terrorists who hate America, who hate us just because we’re free, we’re Christian, we’re blessed by God…”
“Amen!” says one of the diners. The visitor looks at her snaggled teeth and hair, the cross pinned to her sweatshirt, the hunger in her eyes.
He looks back at the screen as the interviewer asks about the church people who criticize the President for turning away refugees.
“That simply isn’t a Bible issue,” the interviewee says. “A country has laws, a country has the duty to protect its own. That means not letting in people who want to kill us.”
The visitor no longer sees the speaker on the screen. The memories are on him again. Earlier memories, this time. His mother’s hand over his mouth as they creep out of the village in the dead of night, and again every time a patrol might be passing near them. The heat beating down, the hurt in his dry throat and empty gut, the long, long journey through the desert. And when they arrive… His father—at least, the man he always called father–asking directions, first in the language of the country they fled from, then, awkwardly, brokenly, in the language of the new land. People not answering. People laughing, a hard-edged laughter. People answering—he didn’t know their language then, but he understood You are not wanted . That is one of the first messages any child learns to understand, especially a child of refugees.
He was a small boy then; many people would say he was too young to remember. Nevertheless he remembers. He also remembers what anyone would say he should not, what he was not there to see, what they fled, what happened just after they escaped the village. The soldiers shouting; the women wailing; the children screaming briefly, then silenced; the soft thuds of bodies dropped in the dust; the silence among the living that followed the soldiers’ departure, broken occasionally by a curse, a prayer, a sob, then settling again like dust over the hopeless and the dead…
“Hey, what’s wrong with him?” a voice asks. “What’s he staring at?” He pulls himself out of the memories far enough to see the faces of his fellow diners turned toward him, far enough to see the fear that stirs behind the faces. Some of them are looking at his dark troubled eyes. Some are looking at his brown skin, long beard and hooked nose. “Hey, where are you from, anyway?” the first speaker asks. He doesn’t answer. “Has anyone heard him say anything?”
“Yeah, I was behind him in line. He said he was hungry. Said he didn’t want a hot dog. Wouldn’t say why. He had a funny accent.”
“Don’t you eat pork?”
“Where are you from?”
“I was a stranger…” he begins; bites the rest off.
“What kind of accent is that? What kind of stranger are you? What’re you here for, anyway?”
“This place is to feed Americans.”
That look in their eyes. He remembers that look. He pushes himself back from the table, walks away, leaving his food uneaten. They don’t follow him. Their voices do, and their fear. The servers don’t look at him; they are still busy scooping food onto plates for newer arrivals.
Most of the diners don’t look either; they keep their eyes down, their bodies curled around their own treasures and wounds. A woman with a beaky face and a tangle of grey hair fumbles in her jacket pocket until the pocket tears out. Coins ring and roll. Scraps of paper covered in spiky writing flutter in several directions; her attempts to grab them make eddies in the air that only push them further away.
He kneels beside her, catching the papers as they fall. A girl with dark makeup around her eyes and a dark bruise on her jaw crouches on the woman’s other side, raking coins together. The woman screams, a high tearing sound. “No!” she cries. “Those are mine!”
“I know,” he says. She darts a glance at him. Looks away. Looks back, steadying her eyes on his; takes a deep breath; doesn’t start screaming again.
“Oh,” she says. “Oh. I’m sorry.” And to the well-dressed man hurrying over from the server’s line, “No, it’s all right. He’s helping. They’re both helping. I didn’t know.”
The girl bundles the coins back into the woman’s remaining pocket. The visitor holds the papers up to the woman in his cupped hands. She reaches down to take them. Leaves her hands in his while her breath comes deeper and slower. He feels something stirring inside him, something that comes from beyond him.
“You’ll be all right,” he says to her, knowing it for the truth.
She nods. “Will you be?”
He has no answer. He releases her hands gently, goes out the back door. Pauses to pick up a sheet of paper from the table by the door: The Daily Word, it says across the top. The woman at the table smiles encouragingly at him as he carries it out into the light.
The man from the television screen looks into his eyes from the paper. He reads the curly script under the photo: Hebrews 13:17. “Submit to your leaders and those in authority.”
“Listen, all of you, black or white or any other color. There’s no reason for you to be afraid of the police,” the message begins. The reader remembers other words like that: Have no fear of those who can kill the body… The words trail shadows, remembered fears. He shakes his head to clear it, looks back at the words on the page. “There’s a simple way to keep safe: OBEY. Follow God’s guidance. Submit to your leaders and those in authority. If a policeman tells you to do something, you do it. If they say freeze, you freeze. If they say lie down, you lie down. Obey. Don’t argue, whether or not you think they’re right—OBEY, as God commanded you. Remember Romans 13, the opening verses: Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except what God has established… He who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will not escape judgment… Authorities hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong.”
The reader crumples the paper in his hand. He’s not seeing the printed words now, he’s seeing the images from his childhood: the bodies nailed to posts along the roadside as a warning from the authorities, a sign to strike terror into the hearts of would-be rebels.
He shakes his head. That was another country and another time, he tells himself. In this land, in this time, when the authorities kill they may leave the bodies lying in the road for hours, but they don’t stick them up beside the road for days. Well, they hardly need to, now that the images of the bodies can pass from screen to screen in an instant, so that everyone sees and remembers what they can do to you if…
The memories catch him, drag him forward. He is a man, not a boy, back in that other country. He is a man, but the guards treat him like a beast; they have taken his clothes away, they have blindfolded him, they are hitting him again and again. They are authorities. They say he has rebelled. This is the beginning of the judgment.
He clutches at his side again. Sits curled around the wound and also around that presence like a fire in his bones.
A shadow falls across him and he flinches. The woman standing over him flinches too, drops something on the ground in front of him—on purpose, he thinks it’s on purpose—and backs away. He looks at her: the fish with the name JESUS on her sweatshirt front, the shirt’s frayed neck, the kindness and the fear in her face. She turns and hurries down the street.
He picks up the thing she dropped, examines it. There’s a portrait of a bewigged man over the words ONE DOLLAR. He flips it over. There’s an eagle, a bunch of arrows, the emblems the armies of the occupiers used in his other country. But the inscription says IN GOD WE TRUST. He looks back and forth between the pictures and the words. To whom does this belong? Who does she think he is, that she has rendered it to him?
The back of the Daily Word sheet is printed with the addresses of local churches that support the soup kitchen. The church he went to earlier is there. So is another church on the same street as the soup kitchen—a church with an afternoon service.
He walks to that church. Music spills from an open door. He waits in the foyer until the music stops; goes in quietly and takes a seat in the back as people sit back down and the preacher stands to speak.
By the time he has quieted his memories she is well launched into her message. She wears white robes and gold earrings; she speaks eagerly and warmly.
“Don’t let anyone lay a burden on you,” she says. “Those problems you think you have? God has already taken them away. They’re not yours any more. All good things are yours through the power of Jesus.” She makes a sudden gesture of throwing down. “There is no burden for those who believe!” she says. “Jesus took it all on himself. Jesus took all the evil on himself, so all the good was left for us. Jesus was wounded so we could be healed! Jesus took on our poverty so we could have God’s rich abundance! Jesus became a curse so we could have the blessing! Jesus died so we could live!”
It is only in his mind, the visitor knows—or in their minds; the distinction is not absolute—that the people of the congregation answer Yes. Yes, the blessing is for us. Let the foreigners stay in their bloody hungry countries: the richness of this land is for us. Let the rebellious die in the streets: the protection is for us. Let the people who didn’t get the blessing go hungry; we will want for nothing. Let Jesus suffer and die. We are the living, we are the prosperous, we will inherit the earth.
The visitor unclenches his fist, tears his gaze away from the preacher, looks above her to the crimson curtain and the empty cross that hangs in front of it, waiting. He flinches, looks back down, shutting his teeth against the phantom pain.
But it’s not just his own pain that moves through him now. It’s the pain of the people around him, the strain under their smiles. Their desperation. Their certainty that the curse remains, that if they ever set aside their armor of insistent faith in being blessed, if they ever relax their conviction that they deserve more than the rest, it might lay hold of them. He remembers that fear as well from the other country and the other time.
He knew words for that. Woe to you rich… Give to the poor, and then come, follow me… Woe to you when all speak well of you… Take up your cross and follow me… My kingdom is not of this world… Have no fear of those who kill the body… Be not afraid… Perfect love drives out all fear… Love your neighbor…Love your enemy… I was a stranger and you welcomed me… Enter into the joy of your Lord…
These people in the church with him today have heard all those words over and over, they can’t really hear them any more. He remembers other words: If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.
And yet, and yet…
He rises. The wound in his side is still throbbing, but the wind is blowing through him now, the light is shining. As their faces turn toward him, he opens his mouth to speak again.