***Sebida Methodist Church***
Bradley Williams huddled in the back pew of the church as the last people began to arrive. He hoped he knew what he was doing. But it wasn’t like he had much choice in the matter. This one lay heavily on his conscience. And as much as logic dictated otherwise, he knew that this was the sermon he was meant to give. The rest he had to leave in god’s hands.
His wife handed Rahab off to her sister, who, along with her husband, sat in the front pew. He and Elena had gone over this time and again since the idea came to him. Her sweet voice began to fill the church as she strummed on that battered old guitar her mother had bought her second hand.
He looked around the church. It was almost empty. The finance committee chair was there but not his wife. None of the other lay leaders or board were in attendance. The man had probably been designated simply because it was his job to count the offering. But Brad was certain news of the events would get back to the others quickly. Maybe you could discount the low numbers on this virus. After all, most of them were elderly and more vulnerable. But in his spirit, Brad knew otherwise.
He smiled to see that not only were Laura and Ryan there, but so too were Lizzie, Abby, and Jack. Was that to show support for his wife? Or had his words last week struck a cord? Planted a seed? But again, he’d have to leave that in god’s hands. Brad just hoped they knew what they were doing.
The song came to an end. But he continued to slink in that back pew. Elena got up and took her seat next to her sister in the front row. People began to look around. Then they started to whisper. Herbert Meadows, the finance chair, glared at him, but he was confident the man did not recognize him beneath the disguise. The man’s eyes panned the rest of the church. Then his foot began to tap as his face tightened.
Less than two minutes and the man stood up from his seat. “Where’s that man of yours, Elena Reynolds? I know this is just some little country church and beneath the likes of him. Maybe that’s why ya’ll go on all those ‘mission’ trips? But this is a new low,” the man attacked his pregnant wife. Laura squeezed Elena’s hand, but Brad saw the tears in her eyes.
He muttered one last prayer beneath his breath as he slowly pulled himself up. Finally, the man turned and looked at him, “And this? This is no place for lazy homeless trying to beg or just get in out of the weather. This is god’s house….”
Bradley pushed the old knit cap off his head, but he kept on the borrowed green fatigue jacket. It was a sacred trust and reminder of why he did this. Recognition lit in the man’s eyes. Followed by anger, “Bradley Williams, I don’t know what you think you’re doing, but the bishop will hear about this one.”
“My house will be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers.” His voice bellowed louder than he had intended. But maybe he didn’t have control of that either. He stepped into the aisle and walked towards the front of the church, making eye contact with each of the half a dozen butts in the seats.
Herb Meadows was still standing when he reached the pulpit. The man looked towards the double doors at the back but then took his seat. Was it some duty to count god’s money that kept him? Or the need to tattle every detail to the others?
“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, then you have chosen the side of the oppressor. With those words, Desmond Tutu reminds us Jesus was a radical. Jesus stood for justice. Jesus welcomed the poor, the sick, the hungry. Jesus embraced women as his disciples, too. He didn’t bow to authority, be it Roman, Pharisee, or Sadducee. Instead, he pointed out laws that were unfair, unjust, or just plain stupid.”
Brad pointed to the stained glass window depicting a blue-eyed, white man surrounded by equally white boys, girls, and lambs. “Jesus was darker-skinned than I am. He was also homeless. He consorted with prostitutes.”
“And ultimately, he paid the price for those actions with his life. The authorities responsible for his murder washed their hands of it all, blamed others for their actions. Two thousand years. Two thousand years and not much has changed in this world.”
“Jesus has been whitewashed, folks. His message of understanding, peace, and love has been corrupted. In his name, men, women, and children have been murdered. Many – no, most of them brown and black men, women, and did you hear me…children.” His voice boomed and echoed off the walls of that mostly empty building. “Two thousand years and women are just now having their right to speak in church restored.”
“When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple courts, he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves, he said, ‘Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!’ John 2: 13 has been called Jesus’s temper tantrum or dismissed as a sign of his humanity.”
“But I want to point out that he sat there and watched what was happening. Not only that, but he took the time to organize his protest by making that whip. Now, I’m a huge fan of non-violent protests. But, folks, even Jesus Christ knew there came a time when it took violence to purge god’s temple of corruption.”
“It’s past time, long past time that this nation and Jesus’s church quit sanitizing the truth. Jesus was a brown man. Jesus was a homeless person. Jesus knew that sometimes you had to kick some ass to set things straight.” Brad heard the gasp and a couple of snickers, but there was an even louder whoop.
“If that had been Jesus sitting in Tommy Samuels’ old Marine jacket with that dinted metal cup and cardboard sign, what do you think he would have done this morning? Do you believe he would have said, ‘Well done, my good and thankful servant’? Or would he have braid a whip out the pages of those hymnals and opened a can of whoop-ass on this church?”
“The truth is that Jesus didn’t do his work in the temple often. Most of the references we have to Jesus being in the temple were either questioning its leaders or turning over those tables. Jesus was a man of the people, the streets, and hills. His greatest works were done out there,” he pointed to the doors.
“And in here,” he brought his finger to his heart, right over that embroidered nametag, Samuels. Did these people notice? Did they know? Herbert Meadows and the church council had to. She was the only member who had refused to sign that letter requesting the reinstatement of an old man who abused his family.
It had taken some work to reach Esther Samuels. He had heard the tears in her voice when he asked her permission to borrow this jacket that was more sacred than any robe he had ever worn. But to him, it was another symbol of the blood on the hands of this town and these people, who rejected the woman and her son for her skin color.
“I believe Jesus knew he could never change the minds of those Pharisees and Sadducees. That he could not make those temples holy. That’s why he spoke on hillsides and in marketplaces. He wasn’t trying to change minds. He wanted to open hearts. Are our hearts today open? His messages of reconciliation are just as relevant today as they were then.”
He pushed the button on the tablet he had hidden on the altar earlier. The pop medley began to reverberate as he stepped off the dais. “No message could have been any clearer. If you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and then make the change,” the falsetto voice crooned.
He held out his arms, and Elena passed a fidgety Rahab to him. He shifted his daughter onto his hip then offered his wife his hand. She smiled in thanks as he gently pulled her fecund beauty up.
He accepted Ryan’s hand as Elena and her sister embraced, “Powerful words.” Brad considered that high praise from his brother-in-law.
Together they walked to the back of the church. There were tears in his wife’s eyes as they turned the knob and threw open the doors together. “It was beautiful, Bradley. I wish Mama could have heard it.”
“Oh, she will,” a smiling Lizzie held up her phone. “Mercy asked me to record it and send it to her. She’s gonna post this one too. You know that the other one she posted on Reconciliation has over a hundred thousand views?”
He saw Herbert Meadows rise from the pew. The man glared at him as he pushed past Jack and Abby. “You forgot something, preacher.”
Bradley knew precisely what the man spoke of but politely asked, “Really, what did I forget?”
“The offering. You know this is a church. It isn’t your personal platform for political gain. It’s about saving souls. You forgot to invite people to salvation or rededicate themselves to Jesus, too.”
But he did not get the chance to defend himself because Jack Greywolf did it for him as he passed an envelope to him, “I don’t know, Herb. If I remember right, Jesus himself told folks to sell all and follow him. You ready to dedicate yourself to that?”
Brad smiled as he passed the unopened envelope to Herb. Lizzie also handed the man something. “At least some people realize that churches aren’t free.” Herb already had his phone out by the time he hit the bottom step.
They watched the man storm off in silence. Elena squeezed his hand and smiled at him. If Brad might have doubts about the church, this woman’s presence in his life was the only proof he needed in a benevolent higher power.
He noticed that Lizzie Patterson took a step back and dropped her head. He made a note to check in on her later in the week. The Reynolds women had taught him that being a strong woman wasn’t always an easy path. “I appreciate you’re coming today, Lizzie. Even if it was only because Mercy asked.”
She shook her head as she looked up, “No, thank you. And don’t tell that other preacher in town cause I don’t need to stir up no trouble for the diner, but I like your sermons. They give me something to think about. Besides hellfire and eternal damnation.”
Jack laughed as he drew his wife closer. Lizzie sighed and looked away. Yes, there was something definitely bothering the woman. Perhaps he needed to stop by the diner for a cup of coffee tomorrow during a quiet spell.
“Yeah, maybe it is Grandfather’s teachings, but I never have figured out how a just and loving god could do that shit. Most of us aren’t evil, just ignorant or stupid. Too many never had a real chance in this life. Ain’t that punishment enough?”
“Well, I better head back to the diner. Connor is such a blessing. For the first time, I can take small breaks from the place. But not even he will be able to manage when that other church lets out.” Lizzie embraced Elena then held out her hand to him, “If you can cook, I’d offer you a job.”
Brad laughed, “Thanks, but I burn water. I’ll stop by some time this week, though, and we can have a chat, okay?”
She nodded, hugged Abby, and made her escape. Jack grabbed his hand and drew his attention away from the woman. “I’d offer you a job, but….”
Brad had heard the rumors too. “Times are getting tough for a lot of folks. Let me know if there is anything we can do. I can check with the Center for Justice, Reconciliation, and Witness in Austin and see what the church might be able to pull together.”
“Thanks, but I think you might have bigger fish to fry with Austin. Besides, I’m committed to doing whatever I can to make this as easy as possible for my people.”
Brad smiled as the couple walked away; sometimes, it was easy to forget that for every Herbert Meadows in this world, there was a Jack Greywolf. Too often, the bad simply stole the stage from all the good. He knew that he would need to keep that mind in the days ahead.
“He’s right, you know,” his sister-in-law had her arms wrapped around his wife, holding her up. Now that the shit show as he had heard Jack and Reb refer to such things was over, it was taking its toll on his wife.
“Are you okay?” He reached for her, but she only smiled as her eyes filled with tears. After those silent prayers in the back row, he had let the spirit take him. Spoken the words that he was given in the moment. But so had another brown man from Galilee. And look where that had gotten his pregnant wife. He kept such thoughts to himself, though.
Except with her. Elena was his other half. Though she spoke little, even among her own family, his wife held a quiet strength that was every bit as commanding as her sisters and mother. Yes, they had discussed all this. They knew what was almost sure to come. But still, she had supported him. Come what may, he would protect and defend this most extraordinary gift of the universe.
“Why don’t ya’ll come to the house for Sunday dinner? I have a proposal I’d like to discuss with you both,” his sister-in-law smiled at her husband as their sleeping daughter woke with a loud protest in the carrier that Ryan wore almost as often as he did the new sheriff’s uniform.
Elena nodded her head and allowed her sister to guide her steps as Brad turned to do the one that bothered his spirit most. What would that man who had kicked ass in the temple think if he knew the thousands, no, hundreds of thousands of buildings that stood as monuments to his name? Some of them so full of the gold he decried in his life and ministry that they could feed the poor for years. If used wisely, perhaps eradicate hunger altogether? How would he feel to know that most stood vacant except for a few hours each week? While men, women, and even children lived on the streets?
Brad was sorely tempted to leave this place open, but he turned the key in that lock for likely the last time. Yeah, maybe it was time. Perhaps he didn’t belong here anymore? At least not in that type of temple to a whitewashed god. Where would they go next? What would a man who had trained and educated himself for over three decades to preach the gospel do now? He’d keep preaching the truth. The good news of reconciliation. Just not here. Brad was okay with that.
It was his wife and daughters that he worried about. But this church was their heritage too. And not all of it good. He had heard Stacey Reynolds talk about the ‘sins of the father,’ but she misunderstood that verse. Not that that was her fault, most people were taught the wrong meaning. Generational trauma was the term that psychologists used.
This building indeed held plenty of that for the Reynolds women. And today might have only added to that. Sometimes this reconciliation shit seemed too hard. Even for him. Perhaps especially for him. The mixed-race little boy raised by a white family who saw his very existence as something shameful. Mark of Cain. Maybe he was still that vagabond, the wanderer cursed to roam.
The only home he ever knew was in her welcoming arms and body. No, as long as they had one another, he was blessed. Not cursed. He turned back. Put that key into the lock and turned it again. He even dared to leave the door to god’s house cracked open for all in need.
Then he set his face towards home as he began to hum her favorite song, “I set out on a narrow way many years ago. Hoping I would find true love along the broken road. But I got lost a time or two. Wiped my brow and kept pushing through. I couldn’t see how every sign pointed straight to you.”