Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Burning Cross--a story (1)

Today and tomorrow, a short story, "Burning Cross," an old story I wrote because I wanted to see if I could create a contemporary story about a sympathetic character who would, seriously, warn someone that if he or she didn't change, they could go to hell--not some fanatic, but an ordinary, loving human being.  Don't know if I did it or not--you'll have to judge.


Sometimes I fantasize. I see myself in one of those big, bursting-at-the-seams megachurches, where dozens of people are baptized weekly, where everybody smiles, where six or eight-piece bands lead the singing, where everybody's spit-shined and eager, where some big-shouldered, TV-handsome preacher stands up in front to start the show and says just one line: "This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it," and the whole grinning place shouts Amen.

Are there places like that?

My husband and I have been church youth leaders for longer than people should--almost eight years. It’s not that I don’t love the job. There are times when we’re coming home in our van and the whole vehicle bounces with the life of the kids in the back, singing and laughing and teasing. At moments like that I know there’s nowhere I’d rather be. Sometimes the kids say some really moving things to Tom and me too--things that make us think we’re being what we should be people they can trust.

This may sound egotistic, but I don't care. Last year Shane professed his faith publicly and when Pastor Jed gave him a minute to do something of a testimony, this is what he said. "And I want to thank Leasa and Tom Gardner for always being there for me--and for all of us. They know what I mean." I yawned to cover up my tears.

We've had our good moments, but we've got our own kids now, two of them, and when things happen like last week I start to wonder if maybe it isn't time for the two of us to quit while we've still got some heart left.

We've tried doing service projects this year, and while I wouldn't admit it openly to Tom, they've been something of a bomb--installing smoke alarms in the inner city, painting the downtown mission. We ask the kids to donate their Saturdays. Sometimes we get a third of them, adn always it's the same half dozen.

Can you force kids to do good? That's what I want to know. Is it worth it? Do missions of mercy come out of their hearts if we tell them they can't go skiing with the group if they don't rake leaves for shut-ins?

A youth service. It was Pastor Jed’s idea. “We need to integrate the young people into our worship,” he said. “It’ll make the kids feel more a part of what’s going on, give them some presence in worship.” So Tom and I agreed to give it a try.

Gregg is a National Merit finalist who has been to Mexico on a summer mission program. All right, my husband and I thought, Gregg can preach. Nancy and Sharice sing like Amy Grant clones. Burt can play the organ--he’s not always accurate, but we’ll need someone. Use a few tenth graders for ushers. Some others to serve coffee and juice afterward. And we’ll write a litany that involves a few more.

“What about deacons?” Tom asked. “We’ll need kids to pick up the offering.”

I hadn’t thought of it.


“How about Theresa Baker?” he said.

Theresa Baker. I had to run the idea through my mind a few times. She comes to youth meetings once a month, at most, and when she comes, she wears a face so cold it can freeze your blood. Her hair’s dyed in a purple sheen, she’s got an earring in her nose, and she buys clothes at some St. Vincent DePaul that carries late-sixties psychedelic delights. When she comes, the only time she moves is to check the clock.

But Tom and I know her mother, and believe me, that’s another story. That Theresa comes at all is something we should be thankful for.

“Theresa, a deacon?” I said.

Tom hunched his shoulders. “Be good for her maybe,” he said. “Besides, we don’t have many kids to choose from who can be there.”

I scratched in Theresa’s name.

We brought the idea to the kids and happened to hit them in one of those infrequent sweet moods they unexplainably fall into--a time when they seem nearly human. (I shouldn’t be so critical--I love them, really!)

Gregg thought the service would be okay (although that was before we told him he was going to be the preacher). Nancy and Sharice--all the juniors and seniors, really--went along with it too. Enthusiastic? Hardly. But sometimes you take joy in tacit acceptance.

So we talked about it--what it might look like, what kinds of changes are permissible (Shannon said to skip the sermon and show a Star Wars movie since they were religious), and who might get together to write a little litany.

It was Gregg’s idea to do an offering in what he described as an “Old Testament” way--bring it to the front. “I’ve always thought we should try that once,” he said. “That’s the way the Israelites did it.”

When kids come up with reasonably good ideas, you don’t squelch them. And when Gregg said it, I wasn’t thinking about Theresa.

“Sure,” I said. “I can’t imagine anyone would have any trouble with that kind of change.”

We assigned the kids their duties, and that’s when I thought of Theresa Baker standing up front--what could we do? All of the other kids we had chosen had their own assignments.

She wasn’t at the meeting, so I called her on Thursday and told her what we were doing, what her job was. She said she’d do it, but I was pretty sure she wouldn’t show up. In fact, I called Sammy Lansink and told him to be ready to stand up there with Annie Blevens, just in case we had a no-show.

I was wrong, Theresa Baker was there with bells on--literally. Striped bell-bottoms. A black “motorcycle” leather jacket. A paisley hair band. Earrings in all the inappropriate places. Her oddly colored hair fell over her eyes with such regularity that the continuous jerking she had to do to keep it away from her face made her look like a woman possessed.

(Imagine, for a moment, old Clarence and Jenny Vander Zee offering their tithe to our own Janis Joplin. Imagine Ralph Bonhomme, an IBM exec whose suits cost more than our organ, standing in front of Theresa!)

Actually, Theresa did better than we expected. She had no lines, and she politely refrained from wearing the veil of stubborn darkness that otherwise shrouds her face. She had nothing to do but stand there, and, believe me, she could well have done that worse.

*~*~*

But the following Tuesday, Theresa’s mother called me at work and told me her daughter had been arrested. On Sunday night--after the very service in which she’d stood in front--she and her cohorts had headed over to the other side of town and stuck a cross in the ground.

And then they lit it. They burned it. And the yard just happened to belong to a black family who had recently moved into the neighborhood.

Theresa had been one of the ringleaders--the same Theresa who’d stood up in front of the church two hours before and taken our offerings like some anointed Old Testament priest.
________________
Tomorrow:  a visit with Theresa.

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