I get kidnapped all the time. That’s how I ended up in Sunday school as a child and on stage as a shepherd for three years in the annual pageant. Coercion. It happens less frequently these days. Ever since I got my driver’s license I mostly wiggle free. I live in a Baptist town now, but I don’t go to church anymore. I get my religion elsewhere.
In the region of the country I live in, pastors and prophets come in all shapes. They walk the streets, preach to you from an aisle over in the hardware store; some of them sit on the wall of a law office downtown asking for change. But each morning on my way into work, I get a little church at the gas station on the corner where I take my coffee. The cashier is a young, black grandmother with a gold tooth. I know a bit about her from the pieces I’ve put together over the last few years. She used to work at another gas station in my old neighborhood, and when I moved to the other side of the county, there she was. Put here by God, I reckon. I usually walk in and interrupt her informal sermon. There will be a gathering of two or three in front of her cash register pulpit. “A pack of Camel menthols,” I’ll interject. I don’t usually linger, just pick up little parables and verses. When I leave to walk out to my car, my own schedule cuts off the religious debate she’ll be having. But then, Bible lessons always do end abruptly. If you just stop right in the middle of a thought and add “said the Lord,” it makes it immediately compelling. Feels unfinished, yet complete. The lack of resolution means there’s more hidden meaning. Said the Lord.
Her lively commentary with other customers is where I get my lessons of good and evil. No pretense. No fancy decorative crosses or candles, aside from the silver plated dime store stuff behind Plexiglas. There’s the rack of decorative bumper stickers, graphic puns, and inside jokes. Army and Marine and Navy remembrances. Prayer hands. Redneck pride. God ain’t a sissy. Stuff like that. An Obama silhouette and a Muslim prayer rug; I’m for separation of mosque and state.
On Israel: “Israel is God’s people, that’s why we have to help them,” she says to a white guy in a ball cap.
“Nowhere in the Bible,” he replies, “does it say anything about us having to help Israel defend itself. If they’re God’s people, He should take care of them.”
The debate continues, factoring in nuclear proliferation in a modern world. What would Jesus do? “I tell you what,” says the man. “I wish they would just blow the whole place up over there, turn it into a big parking lot. Then I wouldn’t have to hear about them killing each other every night on the news.”
On tithing: A middle-aged, fit Army veteran is of the mind that since the price of tithing is set at ten percent it has something to do with government control. “It says a lot about the lack of human generosity that we have to set it at ten percent or else nobody will give it. Now let me tell you, you know the church don’t pay taxes, and it being set at ten percent makes me think it’s all going into a big pot that the politicians are dipping into. Buying commercials and things. Talking about clean coal with money meant for hungry folks.” She nods. He continues.
“That’s why I write my checks directly to my pastor. Because I trust the man, and at least I know he’s accountable to God. That conscience keeps him honest. Better than putting it in the tip jar when you don’t know how that stuff gets split up. Plus the man drives a 1992 Le Baron and wears the same two suits ever since I met him. I’ll take my chances.”
On faith: On a different day, the cashier gets a phone call from a family member in feigned distress. After she hangs up and shakes her head, the Army man comments, “I was going to say, sounds like her faith is weak. There are so many fair-weather Christians.”
“I know it,” she says. “And it’s all the same worldly tests. Same tests, different faces. The devil is always trying to get you. And when you really study him and get to know him like I do, you see that he’s just got the same game every time. Same old ball of tricks.”
I like church, don’t get me wrong. The prescribed singing and the kneeling and the drinking of the wine. It’s a good outing. But now the gas station chorus has got me thinking. If church is only on Sundays, maybe it’s a trick by Beelzebub himself to get us counting on an hour out of one day a week to bring us salvation. That if we plaster a sticker on our truck that says PRAISE BE or JESUS WEPT or one that’s a crown of thorns, it’ll follow us around and douse us with the spirit. False idols. Like maybe those stickers of the kid that looks like Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes peeing everywhere is actually a metaphorical baptism of holy water. Transubstantiation rationalized. That’s why I go to my church every morning on the corner and get it straight from the source. From Rock of Gibraltar Christians who know the dire situation, who watch the devil and know his dance moves. They give it to me straight—none of this watered down church wine. And my preacher has a gold tooth; just in case her pocketbook is light, she always has something to tithe.
“Yep, Camel menthols,” I say. “And these sunglasses. It’s bright out there.”
“Got to protect those eyes, baby. You got to see.”
Originally published in Country Roads Magazine. Winner of 2014 "First Line Fiction" Short Story Contest.