Tom and I have this arrangement--maybe it’s sexist, I don’t know. When “our kids” have real problems, I take the girls, and he takes the guys. So I went to see Theresa Baker.
"The kids?" my secretary said when I left the office early.
I told her yes, even though I didn't say whether they were mine or someone else's. When you take a job like youth leader, I suppose they're all yours.
I hate to say this, but I could tell immediately that if I was to get anywhere with Theresa, it would have to be outside of that house. Her mother was crying, balled up in an emotional lump in a rocker. Theresa’s father was nowhere to be seen.
The school year wasn’t quite over, but track season was almost history, so I took her to the stadium out back of Apollo High School. There were only a half-dozen kids, probably state qualifiers, working out. We sat in the bleachers--the two of us--alone.
“People can’t take a joke,” she told me. I can’t begin to explain how unsorry she seemed.
“What people?” I asked.
She nodded, rolling her eyes.
“You thought they’d laugh?” I asked.
She put her feet up on the seat in front of her and leaned on her knees with her elbows, never looking at me.
“You thought they’d think it was cute?” I pushed a little father.
She shrugged her shoulders. “We were just having a little fun . . .”
“But do you know what it means?” I asked.
“The burning cross--do you know what it means to African-Americans?”
“‘African-Americans,’” she mimicked. “They all think they deserve special treatment or something.”
Right in front of us, two young girls, one of them black, were taking turns sprinting down the path toward the long-jump pit.
“So that’s why you did it?” I said.
“It was something to do,” she told me. “There isn’t anything to do in this place.”
“So you thought you’d burn a cross.”
“It's a free country,” she said.
Sometime or other during our conversation, I suppose some great, perfect youth leader would have hugged her. But I couldn’t.
“You represented God,” I told her.
“What do you mean?”
“You stood up there in church that night, taking people’s offerings. You represented the Lord God Almighty.”
She dropped her feet, looked at me for the first time, and laughed.
“I’m serious,” I said. “Does that mean anything to you?”
“What’s that got to do with what happened?” she said, looking away again.
“I just want you to know that sometimes things have meaning far beyond what we might think,” I told her, “like burning crosses.”
She stared out toward the field, where those two long-jumpers kept sprinting.
“You let us down--all of us,” I told her.
“I told you, it was just something to do--”
“No, it wasn’t,” I said. I was angry--I’ll admit it. “Don’t you dare say that, Theresa, because it isn’t true, and you know it.”
“I don’t care,” she said.
And right then I asked myself why I even bothered. Why on earth was I getting myself so wrapped up in this girl who just didn’t care?
“Just a few hours,” I said, “and you go from representing God to representing Satan.”
“It was a joke,” she insisted, hitting her knees. “What’s the big deal?”
“The big deal is love and hate,” I told her. “That’s the big deal. There is no bigger deal,” I said. And I got to my feet because I couldn’t sit there beside her anymore.
Then I said something I never thought I’d say. I did. I admit it. But you don’t know what I saw in that girl’s eyes. I can’t really describe it. “Theresa,” I told her, “this is what’s real. If you don’t ask God for forgiveness, you’re going to hell.”
That’s what I said. Believe me, I never thought I’d say anything like it. But that’s exactly what I told her, because I thought right then--with such full-bloomed belligerence in her eyes--that that’s exactly where she was bound.
She looked up at me, mad enough to spit. She got to her feet and walked down the row toward the steps, then left the bleachers and started walking home.
There I stood, out in front of me those two long-jumpers taking run after run after run at that target board, trying to get it just right. There I stood, bawling.
A few minutes later I tried to pick her up in my car, but she wouldn’t even turn her head.
I got home an hour later, after picking up the kids and hugging them so tight that Josh asked me if I was going bye-bye. The light on the answering machine was flashing, so I punched the button and listened.
“I’ve heard it was your idea to put Theresa Baker in the front of church Sunday night to take the offering. Do you think that was right? I know you could have had no idea what would happen later, but shouldn’t people who participate in worship give some evidence of being God’s people?” The speaker left no name or number.
As the voice that sent Theresa to hell, what do I think? I’m not sure. Who of us is really pure, and who isn't? Whose lives give evidence of righteousness, and whose lives don’t? Is racism the very worst of sins?
I wish I knew.
And that’s why I sometimes fantasize about being in some happy mega-church where everyone loves each other, gives holy kisses as if they were solid chocolates, and no one ever, ever sins.
Lord Jesus, as some old prophet might say, come quickly.