TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 15, 2009
In this small city the minister had a very nice church, well-respected and generously funded by the congregation. The building was in good shape, social action was strong, religious education was progressive, and the sermons were admired. But the minister sometimes felt that they were a little — well, maybe “slick” would be the word. It’s just that life was pretty good for everyone there. He felt the lack of chiarascuro, to be pretentious about it: not much dark. But he cheerfully received visitors in his comfortable office lined with theology tomes and listened to their thoughts and worries. They didn’t seem to have any dramatic sins. They were liberals: educated, prosperous, sometimes psychoanalyzed, always adjusted.
Down below the basement was a sub-basement that few people knew about. It was mostly a repository for old and broken stuff that somehow never quite got thrown away. Then there were bits of scenery and equipment, things like Christmas pageant sets and boxes of bunting to hang on Fourth of July. And the heating plant, of course. That corner of the sub-basement was warm and cozy. Someone in the past had partitioned off a room around the furnace room door, which the minister jokingly referred to as the door to Hell. He had made the space his unofficial back-up secret office where he actually got his work done amidst disorder and paper piles.
On the wall behind his desk hung a poster that he would never dared to have put up in his regular office. It said, “Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I shall fear no Evil, for I am the Meanest Sunnavabitch in the Valley.” The picture was of a scary man in clerical garb.
He kept slippers down there and his secret vices: cigarettes and even a bottle of therapeutic liquid to lubricate the mind. No one else knew except the janitor, a black man who had come to the church through some do-gooder program. He was a genuine African who had a hook instead of a hand on his left side because in some kind of war or revolution that no one really understood, his hand had been lopped off by a machete. When sympathizers tried to commiserate over such a horrible thing, he remarked that it was actually a kindness: his attacker had spared his right hand and he was right- handed.
He had renamed himself, since no one could pronounce African words with clicks in them anyway, and signed his checks “Embrace Love.” Mostly people called him “Em,” and gradually assumed it was an initial. They could never find him in the phone book because they were always looking for a first name that began with the letter “m.” The congregation never realized that he was a valuable advisor to the minister. The two would slump in their old comfortable chairs, producing a thin layer of tobacco smoke and sipping a little inspiration while they reflected on the problems of the day. The minister felt then that he touched on a world none of the church really knew, a depth of human extremes. It appeared that Em had not been made evil by all that had been done to him but he did talk about the Devil.
One day Em was fussing around about something to do with the men’s lavatory in the back hallway on the first floor, a convenience rarely visited by most parishioners. He wanted to keep it locked but was reluctant to say why until the whiskey did its work. Then he confessed that one of the men in the congregation, a rather prominent man actually and a big pledger, had been coaxing little boys into that bathroom. Em had no evidence that anything was happening. No boys ran out screaming. But he made it his business to go in to replace the paper towels or empty the wastebaskets whenever he saw the man head in with a child.
The two sat contemplating the problem. There was the publicity aspect. Any hint of what might be happening and it would immediately be exaggerated, augmented, and demonized. The man would retaliate, possibly blame the janitor, and the children would be withdrawn from the church, collapsing the religious education program. There would be lawsuits and, indeed, there was no evidence — just suspicion. They could install a hidden camera. But it wasn’t a good idea to wait for some incident that would traumatize a child. And what kind of church had hidden cameras in its lavatories? What were they REALLY watching? Sex and religion, such an inflammatory combination. This was the kind of situation that would not yield to reason.
The conclusion they came to was physical threat. The minister was not large or athletic and had never been in playground fights. Em said he would back him up. They got the offender off to the side in that back hallway and the minister puffed himself up, used his strongest voice, and told the man that they knew what he was up to and that if he ever showed his face around that church again, the minister would beat the hell out of him. Em stood by with a broom that had a stout handle. The reaction of the man, guilty and anxious to escape, reassured the vigilantes that they had not been mistaken, which was one of their main worries.
That night the minister was restless. He was “up,” even “high,” and felt more powerful than he had ever felt in the pulpit. He went to his sub-basement office and stood smoking, looking at his poster. Is this what it felt like to be the meanest sunnava bitch in the valley? Not a bad feeling. But when Em opened the door, he jumped. Why should he? They hadn’t laid a hand on the man, they had not committed a violent act. Or had they? Was violence always physical?
Em laughed at him. “You’re not used to this!” Em was not high. He seemed relaxed but somehow gratified. “Think you might get hooked?”
“This congregation declares that it hates violence,” said the minister. “But it’s so effective! Much more than fund drives and marches and seminars. Just tell the bastards you’ll tear their heads off and they shape up!”
“Ah, yes. But then you are the bastard.” Em accepted a finger of whiskey in a rather cloudy glass. “And next comes the Devil.”
Years later when the minister had gone on to a finer and even more liberal church, he got word that Embrace Love had died. Of AIDS. He had no family. The minister never managed to get a sermon out of it. Long ago he had stopped putting up that poster about the Valley of the Shadow of Death, a lonesome and mysterious place no matter how loving or mean a person was.