SIXTEEN

Early Christmas morning, Russell was jarred from a troubled sleep by a deputy.

“Come on. You got to see the shrink.”

Russell raised himself from the corner of the cell in which he had sought refuge from the other inmates. His joints ached and his face stung with what he was sure was a burgeoning infectious disease. He touched his cheek lightly, feeling the puffiness, imagining it a pus-filled, bacterial breeding ground.

“Got to warn you,” said the deputy. “Dr. Pilot’s usually a nice guy but he’ pretty pissed having to come in here on Christmas. Better be cooperative or I reckon you’ll never get out.”

Led by the deputy, Russell stumbled down several look-alike hallways, until he was ordered to sit in a blue plastic chair in a cinder-block room painted an institutional green. A slightly built, bald man sat at the lone table, reading through a stack of official looking documents.

“You’re Russell Hicks of Cooleemee, North Carolina?” he asked without looking up.

“Yes.”

“Eighteen years of age?”

“Yes.”

“It appears from the sworn statements about your behavior that you believe you’re on a mission from God. Is that correct?” Dr. Pilot asked, studying Russell for the first time.

“It is as they say.”

“A messiah complex. How appropriate for the season.” Pilot flipped through several more pages of documents, stopping at something interesting. “You claim that you hear directly from God, correct?”

Russell refused to answer.

Dr. Pilot leaned back in his chair, massaging his eyes. “Look, son, I can understand that you might not want to answer my questions, but I’m the only hope you have. If I deem you mentally stable, you might be out of here this afternoon, provided someone posts your bond.”

Silence.

“Do you understand the charges against you? Personally I think they’re petty, but if you won’t talk with me how can I help you?”

Russell touched his facial wound, concerned about the sudden seepage.

“Rough night in the drunk tank, huh? That’s a bad cut. Looks infected. Needs to be checked by a doctor.” Dr. Pilot said, compassion edging its way into his voice. “A young person like you shouldn’t be in there.”

Nothing.

Dr. Pilot persisted. “I’ve read about you in the papers, Russell. I think you’re a good kid. A little naive perhaps, divisive certainly, but well intentioned. I think these charges against you stem from jealousy. Nevertheless, I need evidence by which to evaluate your mental state. The magistrate thinks you’re a danger to yourself and others.”

No response.

The boy’s lack of defensiveness intrigued the psychologist. It was as if the teenager wanted to be punished or sacrificed and therefore did nothing to protect himself. That he didn’t ramble incoherently and had the presence of mind not to self-incriminate, convinced Dr. Pilot that the boy was in possession of his mental faculties. Still, he was an enigma. Being enigmatic, however, did not justify an involuntary commitment. Why had that idiotic magistrate called him out on today of all days? As far as Dr. Pilot was concerned, Hiram Priestly was the one in need of a psychological evaluation.  

“Tell you what, Russell,” he said, his tone gentle, fatherly. “It’s Christmas Day and I want to go home to be with my own teenagers. I’m recommending your release. Think of it as a unilateral act of goodwill.” He rose from his chair. “Merry Christmas, Russell. Go home and be with your family.” When he received no reaction, he shook his head and left.

Russell sat alone in the sterile chamber. He felt exhausted. A white-hot poker of pain seared the base of his skull, making him want to retch. His swollen cheek felt as if it were sliding slowly downward away from the rest of his face like a multiplying, mutinous legion of malevolent microorganisms forming a counter identity—a face of its own.

“Well, isn’t this a happy Christmas for you,” the deputy said, bursting through the door with such abruptness that Russell nearly fell from his chair. “The doc said you’re not a whack job. And, someone paid your bail. You’re free to go on your own recognizance.”

Confused, Russell followed the deputy through the release process, collecting his wallet, belt, shoelaces, and jacket. He signed the receipt of his property at 6:05 a.m., after which he found himself alone on the steps of the Wilkins County Jail.

The morning was overcast, the sky a panorama of brooding, cumulonimbus clouds that hung discouraged above the holiday-stilled town. Russell put on his belt, stuffed his wallet into his back pocket, and slipped into his jacket. He wasn’t sure what to do. He had nowhere to go. His friends had deserted him. There were no crowds begging him to speak. There was not a person to be seen anywhere. For the first time in months Russell Hicks was entirely alone and without direction.

He moved aimlessly south on Greene Street toward the railroad tracks. He had never experienced such silence. It was as if the entire life force of Wilkins had vanished, stolen away in the night by an iniquitous, death-crazed evil that gnawed even now at his own soul. The living inspiration that had filled his heart for as long as could remember was escaping, leaking out through pinpricks of doubt, deflating his hope, his faith, his sense of who he was.

Russell saw the two speeding cars as he attempted to cross the street at the corner of Greene and Westminster Streets. The first one, a red Escort nearly struck him, forcing him to dive backward to the curb. The second vehicle, a blue Toyota, screeched to a stop inches from his prone body. The occupants exited quickly and rough hands jerked Russell up, slamming him backward onto the hood of the car. They were Demons—three of them. Russell recognized them as the ones who continually harassed him when he spoke.

“Well, well, well, look who we have here,” said one of them, the leader, the largest, with a brutal crew cut and chipped teeth. “Russell Hicks. The holy boy.” He seethed hatred, longed to break bones, to inflict pain. “We lost four of our best players because of you. We lost the championship because of you and your religious crap.”

The two Demons, who pinned Russell’s arms to the car’s hood, grinned maliciously. One of them, a defensive tackle, said, “My girlfriend broke up with me on account of you telling her that sex is wrong. This is for what I’m missing.” Freeing one hand from Russell’s arm, he slammed his fist down on Russell’s swollen cheek, bursting the pocket of inflamed tissue in a shower of blood that sprayed across the car’s windshield.

“Wait for me,” someone shouted from a distance. Russell couldn’t lift his head or focus his vision, but he recognized the voice. “I want a shot at him, too.”

Kyle Affas approached, accompanied by three gothic-clad youths.

“Stand him up,” Kyle ordered.

Russell would not have been able to stand had the Demons not supported him. His head drooped forward, the left side of his face a bloody massacre of torn flesh.

“Hi, Russell. Merry Christmas,” Kyle said, his voice singsong, maniacal. “Guess who bailed you out? Me. Isn’t that ironic?” He slapped Russell hard across the mouth. “Got anything wise to say to me now? Any parables? Because if you have something to say that could save your life, you’d better say it now.”

Russell blinked at Kyle, bewildered, not comprehending his detestation. “Make him hurt,” Kyle told the Demons.

Crewcut struck Russell with a forearm shiver beneath the jaw that snapped his teeth together, slicing off the tip of his tongue. Warm, thick blood filled Russell’s mouth, flowing down the front of his jacket and the back of his throat simultaneously.

The next hit, a blow to his right temple, dropped him into a deep, impenetrable abyss from which he could not emerge.

He swooned in the void for what seemed an eternity, until at last a grayish light appeared. He moved toward the glimmer of consciousness, praying that he would surface into the light of wakefulness to discover that all that happened was only a nightmare.

The first image he observed when he partially opened his swollen eyes was a heavy wooden cross. But it was wrong. Something was wrong. It was upside down. Or was he upside down? He tried to sit up, but could not. A rope bit into his neck, preventing him from raising his body. His hands too were bound. Where was he? A warehouse of some sort. What was that smell? Tobacco. He must be in a tobacco warehouse on the east edge of town. Why the cross? He panicked at an image that invaded his mind. Crucifixion? No. The cross was too small and it was upside down. He fought against his restraints but every movement sent glassy shards of pain through his body.

“The victim awakes.” One of the gothic youths stood over Russell. His Mohawk hair was a rainbow of colors, a metallic skull and crossbones necklace hung midway down his black T-shirt. “Welcome to our little temple of death. We call it the Place of the Skull.”

The two other gothic youths, who were present in the street with Kyle, joined their friend in a circle around Russell. The three stared without speaking further.

A door opened in the distance, a brief ray of light, then darkness again. The only illumination in the warehouse emanated from a circle of candles in the center of the room. Footsteps drew closer, until Kyle Affas appeared. He knelt down at Russell’s head.

“Ready to follow through with your words, Russell?” Kyle studied the bloodied, puckered flesh of his victim’s face for some time before speaking again. “Oh, so you’re not going to talk with me. Stoic and silent to the end, huh? The lamb to the slaughter.”

He motioned to the other boys, who cut the prisoner free of his bonds. Russell sat up and massaged his wrists and neck.

“Your theatrics around Wilkins have had a profound affect on me, Russell. Did you know that? I’m man enough to admit it.” Kyle stood and walked in circles around Russell as he spoke. “Sure, you ruined my ministry at the school, making me look like a self-centered ass. And, yes you became a hundred, maybe a thousand times more popular than me because people saw you as more spiritual. But I did learn something from you. Shocked? Thought I wasn’t listening?” Kyle lunged suddenly, grabbing Russell by the hair. “I learned that I was a coward. Surprised to hear that, Russell?” Kyle touched Russell’s earlobe with his lips. “But not anymore,” he whispered. “Thanks to you, I’ve been transformed.”

Kyle straightened and ordered the others to lift Russell to his feet. Too weak to resist, Russell complied with every pull on his body.

“We have something in common, Russell. Did you know that? We’re both on a mission from God. At first I didn’t want to acknowledge my part, because I was afraid. Afraid to obey, you might say. But you just wouldn’t let up. You kept pushing, until suddenly one night it hit me. The whole sovereign plan struck me in a moment of inspiration. For you to fulfill your death wish, you needed someone brave enough to provide that death. And that someone, was me.”

Again Kyle nodded to his co-conspirators. One of them disappeared into the shadows and reappeared with a lengthy coil of rope. Immediately Russell saw the tight noose tied at one end.

Kyle took the rope and threw it up over a water pipe above Russell’s head. He tugged on the line, ensuring that it would support the weight of a body. Satisfied, he said, “You see, I knew that they would release you from jail. You’re not crazy and the assault charges are too minor for any lengthy incarceration. But you have to die, don’t you? Isn’t that your destiny? If you lived after today, you wouldn’t know what to do with the rest of your life, would you? So, I’m here to fulfill my destiny as well. To help you finish what you came to Wilkins to do.”

Kyle secured the loose end of the rope to an iron beam, then slipped the noose over Russell’s head, tightening it around his neck. “Get a chair.”

One of the gothic youths brought a chair, and the other two lifted Russell into a standing position. Kyle tightened the length of rope so that Russell could not move.

“Of course this will be viewed as a suicide,” Kyle continued. “The poor, delusional, Russell Hicks, consumed with his messiah complex, couldn’t stand the humiliation of being jailed as a common criminal so he kills himself in a lowly warehouse at,” Kyle looked at his watch,” 9:00 o’clock on Christmas morning. How tragic. He saved a lot of other people but he couldn’t save himself.”

Kyle kicked away the chair and Russell Hicks of Cooleemee, North Carolina plunged earthward, his journey ended.

The gothic youths stood and watched while Russell suffocated, marveling at death up close. At noon, a burst of wind penetrated the warehouse, extinguishing all the candles, plunging the room into utter darkness.

“What if this kid really was from God?” one of the boys asked. The now terrified youths fled.

By one o’clock that afternoon, a small party of troubled girls began searching for Russell. Leslie Burbee had called Peter, wanting to invite Russell and the gang for Christmas dinner at her house. When Peter tearfully related the events of the previous twelve hours, Leslie called the jail and learned that Russell had been released at six that morning. She contacted everyone she knew, but no one had seen him. Debbie Webster agreed to form a search party and meet at the Piggly-Wiggly. At three o’clock, acting on information given by a black youth who had seen three boys running from a deserted warehouse, the girls discovered the suspended body.

Two deputies cut the lifeless form from the rusty water pipe and an ambulance transported it to Wilkins Hospital, where the on-duty doctor pronounced Russell Hicks dead at 4:40 p.m.  

Joseph Armatha, the father of one of the girls who had discovered the body, wanted to do something to help, so he offered to take care of the necessary burial arrangements. The following day, with the approval of Russell’s mother, he purchased a plot in the town’s cemetery. After a brief, sparsely attended service at the grave site, Russell Hicks was laid to rest.    

Long after everyone else had left, Leslie, Debbie, and a few other girls stood crying, their tears making muddy pools in the freshly turned earth.

 

FIFTEEN

It was now two days before Christmas and some chief pastors, seminary students, Act Teens, and Principal Harrod were gathered together in an emergency session, seeking a way quietly to end the legacy of Mr. Russell Hicks.

“Our church attendance drops every time the Hicks boy speaks. He makes us look like money hungry hypocrites not interested in the needs of our congregations,” said the Reverend Jonathan Edwards Sikes. “At the same time, my own elder board likes him. They want to institute some of his ideas. It’s insane.”   

“He thinks he owns the town,” said Kyle Affas. “He does whatever he wants with no repercussions. Our student movement is down to ten people thanks to the cheap grace he peddles.”

Principal Harrod said, “He’s a lawbreaker. I’m planning on pressing charges for the riot in the school gym. He assaulted Kyle. That should get rid of him.”

Reverend Sikes massaged his temples, deep in thought. “We have to act now, before Christmas. If we wait, we’ll appear insensitive to the town’s people who are deceived by Russell. There could be a large public outcry.”

“Kyle, can you get to someone inside his circle of friends? Someone who knows where we can have him arrested without the public’s knowledge?” Principal Harrod asked.

“Maybe. I’ll see what I can do.”

“Principal Harrod, you swear out the arrest warrant tonight. Arrange with the magistrate to have the deputies ready to act when we call. Kyle, find us a way to end this nightmare. We have to be finished with this by tomorrow.” Reverend Sikes leaned back in his chair. “Let’s pray that when we wake up on Christmas morning, Russell Hicks will be a distant memory.”

Everyone in the room nodded in agreement.    

While the religious leadership of Wilkins schemed, Russell reclined in a beanbag chair at the home of the acne-alleviated youth named Nelson. Though nearly midnight, dozens of people jammed Nelson’s family room to talk with Russell about the true significance of Christmas.

In the midst of the spirited conversation, a senior named Leslie Burbee walked over to where Russell sat, pulling a bottle of very expensive Channel No. 5 from her purse. Unscrewing the top, she held the perfume up for everyone to see. The room fell silent.

“Some of you know that my parents divorced this year. It was very difficult for me because neither of them wanted custody of me.” Leslie paused to wipe her eyes. “On the day of the hearing, it was like I was dying. I felt unloved, unwanted. Suddenly Russell shows up in the courtroom at my side. He took my hand and told me that he was there for me; that nobody would ever love me as much as my Father in heaven.”

Several girls in the room began to cry softly, waiting for Leslie to continue.

“Russell,” she said staring down at him, “you have poured yourself out for all of us with such sweetness, that I want to pour my most expensive perfume out on you as a blessing.”

Russell bowed his head blushing as the fragrance flowed down through his hair onto his shirt. Some people whispered prayers of thanks, while others said, “Glory to God” and “Hallelujah.”      

Jude Sodestrom, however, cursed under his breath. He had loved Leslie since the first time he’d seen her in sixth grade. Each time he gathered the nerve to ask her out, she refused, crushing his fragile ego. Didn’t she think about that? Maybe God was paying her back, letting her see what it felt like to be rejected. And Russell. He got all the girls. He got all of everyone. Adults, kids, male, female, it didn’t matter. His sugary kindness was nauseating. He didn’t have a job. He just took money from people or let them pay for whatever he wanted. Absurd. Jude worked hard at the Food Lion--at everything, though no one seemed to care. Russell hadn’t done anything for him, had he? Peter Longley was such a kiss up. And the Jackson brothers. Russell sucked up all the attention, while Jude was ignored. This has to end. This will end. Leslie Burbee, everybody is going to remember Jude Sodestrom, one way or another.

“Isn’t that a waste of money, Leslie?” Jude said. “Couldn’t you have done something more significant with what that perfume cost? Give it to the Salvation Army or something? We should be good stewards.”

“Leave her alone, Jude,” Russell said, harshly. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing for me.”

Jude’s cheeks flamed. “I just think that poor people need…”

“Poor people are everywhere all the time. As for me, I may be gone tomorrow.”

Jude hated Russell’s dramatics. Can’t these people see through it? Oh, Leslie. Beautiful, beautiful, Leslie. Why do you like Russell more than me? He doesn’t even know you exist. He only cares about his own, silly life.

“Thank you for your gift, Leslie,” Russell said. “Whenever anyone in Wilkins thinks of the goodness of God, they’ll remember what you have done here tonight.”      

That’s it. Jude stormed from the room, out into the cold night. Russell needed to be brought down a notch or two. A little humility never hurt anyone. A plan, insidious and calculated, began to formulate within Jude’s jealous mind. Kyle Affas will help. He hates Russell more than anyone.

At the closest Shell station, Jude dialed information and wrote down Kyle’s number. The phone rang several times before a sleepy voice answered.

“Kyle, this is Jude Sodestrom. You interested in getting even with Russell Hicks for making you look like such an idiot all the time. 

Alert now, angry, Kyle said, “It wasn’t me who fell for his smooth talking nonsense. What happened? Did he steal your girlfriend or something?”

Ignoring the accuracy of the slur, Jude said, “Look, I know you want to nail him with something. I’ll set him up. But it’s going to cost you.”

“Ah. Always looking to make a buck. That’s why you were the Act Teen treasurer before you were…deluded into following Russell.”

“You want him or not?”

“I’ve already got a plan. What I need is for him to be alone somewhere tomorrow, where we can do this quietly.”

“We’re having a Christmas Eve dinner tomorrow night at the Days Inn on Rt. 264. Around six o’clock. He only wants his closest friends there, so it should be easy to get him alone. Usually after something like this he wants to go off and pray. I’ll call you from the front desk when I know where he’s going.”

“I knew you’d come around, Jude. You’ve got a lot more sense than those others jerks. Money sense that is.”

“Just wait for my call,” Jude said, slamming down the phone.

Kyle thanked God for the unexpected news. He notified the Reverend Sikes, who in turn informed Principal Harrod. The plan was set and each crawled into bed that night convinced that the end of Russell Hicks was at hand.

On Christmas Eve, Russell sent the Jackson brothers to the Days Inn to make the dinner arrangements. “The owner’s name is Mr. Singh. I helped his son, Bander, through a difficult situation, so he wants to do something for us. Ask him to show you the room he has reserved for our meeting. He’ll probably take you to the small conference room on the first level that he promised to set up for us.” 
 

When the Jackson brothers arrived at the hotel, they found everything as Russell had said. They stayed for several hours, helping the mostly Sikh employees set up the room, sharing with them the wonderful significance of the sacred Christmas birth.  

That evening, Russell arrived at the hotel with his twelve friends. Mr. Singh met them in the lobby.

“I hope you enjoy the way I have arranged the room. In my country, close friends recline on low couches, eating from communal dishes. Oh, and the food is Indian. Made special for you by my wife Ajaipal.”

“We’re very grateful, Mr. Singh,” said Russell.

The boys arranged themselves on the couches. They plunged into the exotic, succulent dishes with the same enthusiasm they would the dinner buffet at the Golden Corral on Forest Hills Road. Only this was different, better. Flavors erupted in their mouths that reminded them of the diversity of God’s Kingdom. Flaming curries, mollified by cool, creamy yogurts. Foods served to them personally in small powerful portions by a grateful hotel owner, as opposed to the great heaps of same-tasting food, clamored for by bus-terminal lines of overweight people seeking not flavor, only innocuous satiation. The first shall be last? The mustard seed? Stories Russell had told them, manifest in a meal. It was glorious. It made them long to experience the world beyond Wilkins.

“This is sublime,” said Peter, stuffing his mouth with lamb curry.

“What the heck does that mean? Sublime?” Tom McLaughlin snorted, spraying a bisibela bath from his mouth—a dish he would years later request as his last, before his martyrdom in India.

“I just learned it. It means to render something inferior into something of higher worth. Like us, maybe.”

They all laughed. It was a great night. The best ever. Then…

 “One of you is going to get me killed,” Russell said, preoccupied, distant, toying with his dinnerware.

The proclamation was a high, fast curve on the inside of their dinner plates. Their response was a slow swing, slicing the pronouncement backward so that it struck one another unprepared, defenseless. There were bruised egos, battered spirits, and bleeding hearts.

“One of my own friends,” said Russell. “The one who is dipping his bread into the dhal with me right now.” Jude hesitated, his hand in the bowl of yellowish sauce. “Because you see, it has to happen to all of us who live the life. But I feel sorry for the one who betrays the faithful. It would have been better for him if he had never been born.”

The boys confronted within themselves their own thoughts of abandoning Russell. Shamefully they reflected on moments of doubt about their strange friend. Each thought of just being normal. No confrontations. No recriminations from church leaders. No late night phone calls to their parents by concerned friends or youth leaders. Just the normal, insipid Christian life. Why wasn’t Russell satisfied with that? Everyone else was. Yet the journey was exciting, amazing. People being healed. Russell’s popularity. Their popularity. So many wonderful things had happened. And he had such faith in them. Always telling them how great they were—world changers. Who said that about them? No. We can’t hurt him. He has loved us like no other friend.

“Let’s take communion,” Russell said, somberly.

He held aloft a piece of flat, Indian bread, tore it into pieces and gave it to them. “Take and eat. This is the Lord’s body broken for us.”

Then he poured cups of chai, Indian tea, for each of his friends. “This represents the blood of Jesus, the new, transforming promise which was poured out for us.” They sipped the steaming, sweet drink in unison. “I don’t think I will sit with you guys again until we’re all together in the Kingdom.”

Matthew Levinson said, “Yesterday at the Wal Mart I met a lady named Flower who said she was friends with Johnny Witherspoon before he died. She said they used to sit around the trailer park on Sunday nights singing Amazing Grace. She said it was the most beautiful thing she’d ever done.”

“So?” said Peter, testily.

“So, we ought to sing something. Let’s sing Amazing Grace. Want to, Russell?”

Russell smiled. “Sure.”

They sung, off key, heart felt. When they finished, Russell asked if they could go pray together at Lake Toisnot Park. Jude excused himself and went to the front desk to make a call.

At the lake, they sat huddled around a small fire kindled by Tom McLaughlin.

Russell said, “Tonight you all will fall away from the things you’ve learned. You will stumble. You will begin to distrust me. But after I am raised to life with God, you will go out into the world with power.”

“I’m not falling away from anything, Russell,” said Peter. “Even if they all run out on you, I won’t. Not Peter Longley.” 

       
Russell stared out over the frozen lake to where a flock of Canada geese roosted. “Peter, you’re so self-confident. Because of this you will utterly deny our friendship before the clock on the Methodist church strikes midnight.”

“No,” Peter screamed, jumping to his feet. “I would die before I abandon a friend like you. Do you here me, Russell Hicks? I would die.”

Russell wandered over to a place in the parking lot where oil stains shimmered prism-like in the moon’s glow. Peter, Jim and Johnny followed.

“Sit here at the curb while I pray.”

The boys obeyed. They were worried, though. Fear bit at them, gnawed through their small town aspirations like the winter wind through a deficient windbreaker.

Russell too was afraid. Where was Jude Sodestrom? He had disappeared from the hotel. Was this really happening? Fear escalated into terror mixed with an unworldly amazement. Would God just let him die? Sure he talked about living the life and dying the death, but was it actually required? Had he overstated things, pushed too hard, painted himself into a corner? Had he engineered his own destruction?          

”I’m so scared, I feel as if I might die right here, tonight,” he told his friends. “They’re coming to get me. I know it. I made it happen. Keep watch for me.”

Russell staggered away from them, slipping in the frost-glazed grass. He hit the frozen, unforgiving ground hard, snapping his face against the earth. He rolled onto his back, crying. “Jesus, what have I done? Is there another way? Can’t there be another way?”

He wiped his face, tears and mucus coated his palm in a cold, congealed mass. “You’re God. Can’t You think of any other plan? You can do anything. Is death all there is? Don’t make me go through this. I can’t go through with this.”

He tried to stand; couldn’t. “Take away the call, Father. Take it away.” On hands and knees he cried out across the motionless lake, “Take it away!”

“Jesus,” he whimpered, reaching the lake’s edge. He pounded a fist through the thin ice and splashed his face. It wasn’t going to work, he knew. He would suffer without result. A wasted life. No one would remember or care. What’s the point? He needed his friends to reassure him. They believed in him, didn’t they?

Painfully, insides burning with anxiety, he struggled back to the parking lot. Peter was curled up against the others, eyes closed.

“Are you guys sleeping?” Russell whispered in despair. The boys stirred. “Can’t you stay awake with me for an hour? I’m in serious trouble. Please, pray for me.”

Russell staggered off again. The boys wondered what had happened to their confident, conquering leader. Why was he so terrified?

Dropping his dread-wracked body onto a park bench, he marveled at the level of his anguish. “Where is this coming from, Lord? I’ve never felt such terror? Am I afraid to die?”

No.

The response, deep, clear within him, made Russell jerk his body upright. The park was deadly silent. “What am I afraid of then?”

Insignificance.

Russell stood and cocked his head sideways to listen more carefully.

“Insignificance?”

Triviality. All your sacrifice, for nothing.

Shuddering, Russell asked, “Is what’s about to happen worth it?”

Is it worth it? No. Am I worthy of it? Yes. Follow Me. I will use this night for My glory.

Russell inhaled deeply, the icy air resuscitating him like the breath of God. He steadied himself, the truth of God taking hold, swallowing up the fear spawned in falsehood.

“Are you guys still sleeping?” he asked, finding his friends stretched out along the curb. “It doesn’t matter. Here they come. Better get up.”

Drowsy from too much Indian food and the late hour, the boys had not noticed the three darkened police cruisers that had slipped into the park not far from where they had nodded off. Nor had they observed the four officers who had stealthily crossed the park from the opposite side.

“Now,” a faceless, authoritative voice called out, shattering the silence of the night. Immediately headlights, spotlights and hand-held flashlights split the darkness, illuminating the four boys in a brilliant radiance of betrayal.

“Hands out where we can see them,” the commanding shadow ordered from behind the cruiser lights. “Don’t want anyone hurt.” The boys complied as aphotic, crouching phantoms encircled them with weapons at the ready. Blinded by the sizzling, glaring lights, the four friends nevertheless felt a bitter darkness deeper than the winter night closing in on them.

“That’s him, there in the middle.” Jude Sodestrom emerged into the alabaster glow. Behind him came Kyle Affas. Jude walked close enough to Russell to touch him on the shoulder. “This is the amazing, sent-from-God, girlfriend-stealing, Russell Hicks.” He stared at the popular teenager with disgust. “It’s over, Russell. Over.” 

“He’s the one who destroyed the gym,” Kyle Affas said, contemptuously. “He led the assault on me as well. Arrest him.”

Before the officers could move in response, Russell’s eight remaining friends broke through the thin police perimeter, forming a protective wedge around their endangered leader. In the resulting tussle, Peter saw an opportunity. He lunged at Kyle Affas swinging hard and fast. The blow struck the unsuspecting Act Teen leader in the neck just below his ear. Kyle crumpled to the ground in a sniveling heap.

“Everybody stop,” Russell screamed. “Peter, leave him alone. I don’t need your help.”

Russell pushed through the officers and teenagers to kneel beside Kyle. “You, okay?”

“Russell?” Peter said, stunned. “I’m…I’m protecting you. I…

Helping the shaken Act Teen to his feet, Russell said, “Since when do I need your help, Peter? Huh? Since when do I need any of you defending me?”    

The pushing and shoving ceased completely, Russell’s friends suddenly finding themselves without a cause—without a leader.

“And what’s with all the police?’ Russell said, addressing the officer who looked the most in charge. “I walk around town all the time. Why not arrest me then? Why now, with all this force?” He held out his hands to be cuffed. “Take me.”

Sergeant George Bowen surveyed Russell for several seconds before moving. The kid was peculiar. He acted with the authority of a gang leader, but avoided violence, even prevented it. Sergeant Bowen felt drawn to the young man; more so than to that loudmouthed Kyle, who deserved a good crack up side the head.

“Get in the cruiser,” he said to Russell. “The rest of you get the hell out of here before I lock all of you up.”

Forsaking Russell Hicks, the boys fled into the park’s blackness.  

I, however, the recorder of this whole affair, followed Russell to the police car. I was twelve at the time, enamored with Russell and filled with youthful, ill-advised courage. I watched Russell climb handcuffed into the caged backseat. I wanted to say something to him, encourage him, but a gruff officer grabbed me by the back of my jacket, ripping it off my body. Terrified I ran coatless toward the lake.   

Sergeant Bowen drove Russell to the magistrate’s office, where the Reverend Sikes waited with Principal Harrod. The still wobbly Kyle Affas arrived just before Russell to testify on the high school’s behalf.  

Across the street from the magistrate’s office, Peter stood in the shadowy archway of an Episcopal church. In front of him stood three young officers waiting to begin their midnight shift. They smoked cigarettes, while lamenting the need to work through another Christmas morning.

Inside, Magistrate Hiram Priestly, second cousin to the Reverend Sykes on his mother’s side, listened to the sworn testimony of Principal Harrod and Kyle Affas.

“He ordered his friends to attack me, yesterday in the school gym,” Kyle said, relishing the rush of power he felt over Russell. “Tonight, he did it again. Look at this bruise on my neck. I might need corrective surgery.”

“Did this boy actually hit you?” Magistrate Priestly asked.

“Well…”

“Hiram,” Reverend Sykes said, breaking in. “I think the point is that we don’t want to charge a group of innocent teenagers who have been beguiled. We don’t want them to have a criminal record following them around the rest of their lives. We want the ringleader, the instigator.”

Magistrate Priestly considered his cousin’s words. He also considered the free use of his cousin’s beach house in Nag’s Head every August. “I see your point.”

“He caused $178.00 worth of damage to school property as well,” said Principal Harrod. “We’ve got six folding tables that need repair. I have the bill right here.”    

“And what do you have to say for yourself, Mr. Hicks?” the magistrate asked.

Russell stared at his manacled hands without responding.

“You’d better answer, son. If you don’t, you’re spending the night in jail. If you can’t make bond then you’ll be there until your trial date in January.”

Silence.

“Tell the magistrate about your mission from God, Russell,” Principal Harrod said winking at Kyle.

Hiram stood, growing agitated at the late hour. “What are you, anointed from on high or something? A heavenly emissary, perhaps?”   
 

“Yes,” Russell answered. “And you will all see the power of a transformed life, not because you lived it, but because you tried to stop it. Your cathedrals and student movements and positions in the town are meaningless, because you have never experienced intimacy with the Father. I have. I am in the Godhead, and the Godhead is in me.”

“Blasphemy,” said Reverend Sykes.

“That’s all I need to hear,” said the magistrate. “Not only is there sufficient probable cause to detain you for instigating a riot, assault, and the destruction of public property, but I’m also ordering an immediate psychological evaluation.” He scribbled instructions on the arrest warrant sworn out by Principal Harrod. “Take him away, Deputy.”

“You’re eighteen, so you’re in with the big boys,” said the deputy, releasing Russell’s handcuffs. “We’re going to fingerprint you, take your picture, then your spending the night in the drunk tank. Sorry but there’s no other room in the inn.” The burly officer smiled at the joke, as did Reverend Sykes.  

Once processed, Russell found himself on a metal pull-down cot wedged between two drunken men. Four others lay coma-like on the floor, submerged in alcoholic, holiday stupors.

“Whaddayainfor?” the man on Russell’s right slurred.

 Russell did not feel like talking.

“Hey,” the drunk said, belligerent, trying to focus, “you think yer better-en-me?” He slapped Russell hard, slicing open his cheek with razor-like, uncut fingernails. “Too good to speak to ol’ Charlie, boy? You wanna spit on ol’ Charlie, cuz he ain’t good enough?”

With his head bowed, Russell watched the blood drip from his cheek, between his legs onto the cell floor. A red, coagulating puddle formed at his feet, growing larger with every drop.

Ol’ Charlie gurgled up as much yellow-brown phlegm as possible from his tobacco-withered lungs and hawked it at his offensive cellmate. The warm, gluey mass struck Russell’s cut face, where it mingled with escaping hemoglobin and dropped thick and whiskey-scented into the growing pool.

“You ain’t nuttin, boy,” Ol’ Charlie said. “Don’t know who you think you are, but yer nuttin far as I’m concerned.” Ol’ Charlie let out a contemptuous, three-tooth howl that glaciated Russell’s heart, as if he were imprisoned with Satan, himself. 

Outside the jail, Peter rubbed his hands for warmth, but the chill, he knew, came from within. The three officers had left, but Kyle had assembled four of the Act Teens, who stood with him across the street in a devious huddle. Peter couldn’t imagine that they would be planning more harm. Hadn’t they done enough? He took a step toward them, to plead with them to leave Russell alone, but hesitated. Hadn’t Russell said he didn’t need him? Embarrassed him in front of everyone? Him, Peter Longley. The only one willing to fight, to sacrifice everything.

While Peter grappled with his confusion, one of the Act Teen girls lifted her head to brush a stray hair from her face.

“Hey, isn’t that Peter Longley standing there by the church?” The others looked up. “Hey, Peter, you here to help Russell?” she called, chidingly. “Looking for more trouble?”

Stepping out beneath a streetlight, Peter cursed. “I don’t know Russell Hicks anymore. I thought I did once. But not anymore.” Under the humiliation of their laughter, Peter hurried around the corner to the front of the Good Will building. Up the street, to the north, the clock tower above the Methodist church struck midnight. Remembering Russell’s prediction of denial, Peter slumped down against the side of the Good Will and wept.      

 

FOURTEEN

Chapter Fourteen

 

At eight p.m. on December 23, Russell attended a Christmas banquet at Barton College sponsored by the Wilkins County Minister’s Association. It was a lavish, annual event where clergy of all denominations gathered with at least the appearance of unity. Despite the season of good news for all people, most of the ministers sat along theological lines. The general division among the ornately laid place settings was that the conservative evangelicals sat to the right of the dinning hall, whereas the more liberal theologians tended to drift to the left side of the room. Within the two larger groups, smaller divisions occurred. Those of the Calvinist persuasion elected to settle themselves in chairs predestined for them before the foundations of the earth, while the Arminians wandered about their section choosing places to sit as an act of the will. As for Russell, he sat at a table in the back, center section with the Reverend Stephen Combs, who had invited him.

Stephen pastored a small flock of unbecoming, previously unchurched individuals who met weekly in an elementary school auditorium. Unlike the wealthy, heavily jeweled congregants of the more established churches, the majority of Stephen’s parishioners, men and women alike, were unemployed, heavily tattooed ex-cons. The large Wilkins churches tolerated Stephen’s ministry, but regarded it with suspicion due to its lack of proper denominational affiliation. Any church that lacks a building of its own lacks God’s approval, they believed, concluding therefore that whatever was going on over at Forest Hills Elementary School was probably cultic.

Despite the news of Russell’s riotous actions at the high school, Stephen insisted he attend the banquet. He thought an appearance among the priestly establishment might bolster the young man’s flagging reputation among the religious elite.

The eating segment of the program was uneventful with most people too consumed with the roast beef, mashed potatoes and collards, to pay any attention to Russell. Then, the presiding president of the Minister’s Association, Jonathan Edwards Sikes, upon finishing his Christmas pudding, stood to address the gathering.

“I thought it would be in keeping with the spirit of the season to begin this part of our program with some spontaneous testimonies as to how God has blessed our various congregations this year.” He offered an orthodontically perfected smile to his brethren. “Perhaps I can begin with a big thanks to God for the new educational wing we’ve added to our building.” There was head-nodding applause, followed by several other pastors reporting on their multi-million dollar building programs.

“We’re building a kingdom here, ladies and gentlemen. Cathedrals of greatness,” said Jonathan Edwards Sikes, generating more enthusiastic applause.

“Once a man built a business,” Russell said, standing. Heads turned to the back of the room. The clapping ceased. “It was a business focused on transforming the lives of the people in his city. The man built every part of the business so that it might succeed, then he moved to another country to work there. He left his business in the charge of capable men and women.”

An uncomfortable stirring circulated the room, begun by those who knew Russell and his propensity for accusatory allegories. Some considered interrupting the boy, but Southern hospitality forbade such an action. 

“After a few years, he sent one of his assistants back to the business to interview people the business had helped, but those in charge refused to meet with him and sent him away.

“Again he sent to them another assistant, and this one they threatened with legal action if he did not leave the premises immediately.

“Finally, exasperated, the owner sent his own son to reason with the people and explain that they didn’t start the business, and it wasn’t theirs to keep. But they denied the legal role of the son, questioning his authority and birthright. They had him arrested for trespassing.”

Russell surveyed the hushed room, fixing his gaze finally on the Reverend Jonathan Edwards Sikes. “Now what will the owner of the business do?” Silence. “He will come and destroy the people he left in charge and give the business to others.”

Sweeping his arm in an arc to include everyone in the room, he said, “Aren’t you people afraid of God? The very buildings that you brag so much about are your stumbling blocks, because you have forgotten Who is the cornerstone.” 

Offended by the boy’s allegation, several in the room, who knew he was referring to them, thought of nothing more satisfying then taking the lad outside for a good whipping. But others, like Reverend Combs, considered Russell’s words accurate. Their support prevented any violent response.

To alleviate the tension, Russell went out into the hallway, where the president of the local seminary pursued him.

“Son, listen to me. You seem sincere in what you say, but I think you undervalue the business of ministry. It takes money to build churches and seminaries. Our institutions provide jobs for people and tax revenues for our town. You’re not one of those anarchists against taxes, are you?”

Russell pulled a fifty-cent piece from his pocket. “What is the motto on our money, sir?”

“In God we trust.”

“Yes. Now who do you trust more, God or money? American Christianity has become too much of a business. We’ve lost the ability to listen to God ourselves. We judge the value of a church or speaker by wealth and popularity. If they’re famous then God is with them. If they’re poor and obscure, we never even hear about them. If Jesus walked the earth today he’d need a press agent and a publicist or we wouldn’t notice Him. Is that right? Is this the way it’s supposed to be?”

The seminary president offered Russell a condescending pat on the shoulder. He’d seen many an idealistic student like this in his career and had done his level best to educate them into realists.  “What’s the most important thing in ministry to you…Russell, is it?”

“We must love the Lord our God out of our whole heart and out of our whole soul and with our entire faculty of thought and moral understanding and with all of our strength. This is the most important thing.”

The seminary president nodded.

“Also,” Russell said, continuing, “we should love our neighbors in the same way in which we love ourselves. So if I love myself enough to build a multi-million complex for my friends and myself, then I should build one for my neighbors. Done anything for the Muslims or Hindus in your multi-million dollar development lately, sir? Any homosexuals or atheists allowed in your fellowship hall?”

The older man smiled, reconsidering the youth. “You’re a tough kid. Naïve perhaps, but tough. You ask the tough questions. Perhaps you’re right in some of the things you say. I’m going to think about these matters seriously.”

It was Russell’s turn to smile. “You’re close to the Kingdom of God, sir.”

“Glad you think so,” he said, offering a hand of friendship. Russell accepted it gladly. “Shall we go back inside?” the older man asked.

Once inside the banquet room, Russell asked a group of inquisitive clerics, “How was it that David, in all the splendor of his kingship, maintained a right view of Jesus as his eternal king?”

Delighted at the provocative thinking style of the high school student, the men and women discussed the question among themselves. Russell said, “Be careful of religious leadership who like to go around teaching seminars and writing best selling books. They’re on all the talk shows, but they’ve lost touch with the single mother whom they ostracize. They cover this up with long speeches that impress the media, but their condemnation will be great.”

Russell watched a Hispanic waitress clearing plates from tables. Sweat beaded her forehead as she piled dirty dishes on a tray on her shoulder while taking drink orders from overstuffed banquet attendees.

“You see that woman?” Russell asked those around him. “She’s working herself to death to provide for her kids, but none of the multi-million dollar pastors pay attention to her. She is doing more for the Kingdom of God then all of those pastors put together. They serve out of the abundance of their perceived self-worth, but she serves out of her poverty. She gives everything that she has, expecting nothing in return.”

 

THIRTEEN

In late November an enterprising Lifestyle editor at the Raleigh Observer began a search for undiscovered writing talent in North Carolina. In the Saturday edition of the paper, she requested that previously unpublished authors send submissions of no more than 3,000 words to her office. In the following weeks Lisa received hundreds of pages of disappointing prose. Ready to abandon her project, her assistant handed her a poem that he suggested she read. It was titled “Growing Up Again.” Lisa read it and cried.

The poem appeared in the December 10th edition of the Observer, garnering such rave reader response that the author, Harold Owens of Wilson, became a local celebrity.

“I’m in my first semester at Wilkins Tech Community College,” Harold said during a local television interview. “College is great but I owe everything to a teenager named Russell Hicks. I used to be blind to my true identity, but he helped me see.”

Russell Hicks. Local papers had done back-page stories about the boy, but when Nelson Wallthorpe saw the interview on television, he rushed for front-page copy ahead of the larger newspapers.

“Get an interview with the Hicks boy,” he screamed into the phone to a reporter. “I want something written by yesterday. Get my meaning?”

“He’s not in town,” a recent, UNC journalism, graduate told Nelson the following day. “Kids are all out on Christmas break. Some neighbors said he’s away on a retreat. A lady named Mrs. Longley said her son’s with him and they’ll be back Tuesday.”

Nelson cursed. Leaning back in his office chair with his hands clasped over his head, he pressed his brain for a semi-original idea. Remarkably he birthed one—a semi-original one.

“It’s the Christmas season, right?” The graduate nodded. “So let’s do the whole miracle of Christmas thing. Dig up everyone who claims Hicks helped them. Get a picture of him from the yearbook and print it along with the page-one story.” Nelson stood up, the ideas flying. “Do a history on the kid and his relationship with Johnny what’s-his-name, the one that got killed earlier this year in Wildwood Trailer Park. They were friends, I think. And pull the original ad written by that nut case Isaiah Cranston. See if it fits.” Nelson blew a stream of coffee-scented breath through his teeth with satisfaction. “We could have us a story that’ll bust hell wide open. If we do this right the wire services might pick it up. Put us on the journalistic map where we belong. Get on it.”

After the graduate had left the room, Nelson had another thought. He thought that this was going to be a Christmas to be remembered.

On the snowy morning of December 22, Russell and his friends were returning from a prayer retreat in Redman, where they had spent a day praising God for all that He had done in Wilkins. As they approached the town limits, they decided on hot, egg and cheese biscuits at Flo’s. When they entered the restaurant, Flo herself gave Russell a ferocious hug.

“What’s that for?” he asked, blushing and stomping snow from his shoes.

“That’s for all the good you’ve done here, Russell.” The ten or so customers in the restaurant applauded. “Look,” Flo said, holding up the Wilkins Daily Tribune. “You’re famous.”

Peter and the others gathered around the newspaper to read the article. Dated the previous morning, the article described Russell’s exploits in great detail. Most of the people the boys had met in the past months were quoted at least once in the report.

“I doubt if you’ll get home without getting mobbed,” said a burly factory worker. “People are looking for you; reporters and others. They know your van.”

“I don’t want all this attention,” Russell said, trembling. “How can I get home without people seeing me? Really, Flo. Can you help me?”

“Most people want fame,” Flo said, not seeing the problem. “But you can use one of my other cars if you want. I have a new Dodge Colt that’s never been driven. It’s across the street at Hanson’s Automotive. Just go in there and tell them I said to give you the keys. Bring it back when you’re done.”

“Peter, can you go?” asked Russell.

So three of them went and found the Colt in the parking lot of Hanson’s. When they opened the car door, Charlie Hanson came out to see what was going on.

“Flo said we could use the car. Russell Hicks needs to get home.”

“Russell Hicks,” said a wide-eyed Hanson. “The kid in the paper yesterday?”

“Yes sir.”

“Sure he can use it. That kid is amazing. I was in jail with Harold Owens way back. Harold’s been helping me quit drinking. I’ll get the keys.”

The boys brought the Colt to Russell. He slid into the driver’s seat, while his twelve friends piled back into the van, carrying steaming bags of biscuits.

The snow made driving difficult. The Dodge Colt bucked and lurched over plowed icy patches, tossing Russell like a bronco buster. Trying to make the turn onto his street, Russell over steered, slamming sideways into a snowdrift. He gunned the engine, but was unable to extricate the vehicle from its frozen hold. It didn’t matter though, because the crowd surrounding his apartment building had spotted him. Camera crews, newspaper reporters, and grateful Wilsonians descended upon his whining Colt, ready to offer what was for some of them, reciprocal help.

Several of the crowd tried pushing the car loose while Russell pressed the accelerator, but the number of good Samaritans was such that they worked at counter purposes. Billy Balkman, along with six reformed Demons lifted the front end of the Colt, as Kenny Madison and four former WICCAN youths shoved from the back. Debbie Webster ordered three girls she was counseling at the Crisis Pregnancy Center to pull on the passenger side of the car at the same time as Arnold, the repentant white supremacist, suggested to his African-American friends that they pull from the driver’s side. The end result was that the Colt remained stuck.

I have an idea,” shouted Mr. Jarris’ daughter. “Let’s lay down some branches to give the car traction.”

The crowd agreed, so they pulled branches from trees planted by the Wilkins Department of Parks and Recreation and laid them out in a path before the Colt. Slowly the car moved forward, surrounded by the cheering throng, some of whom threw their coats in front of the car where there were not enough tree limbs.

In this way Russell Hicks of Cooleemee, North Carolina entered Wilson to begin what would be the final week of his brief life. He thanked the people for their help and appreciation but refused any interviews. His friends arrived to shield him, giving Russell the chance to slip away from the people.

Later that day, Russell walked along the frozen football field at Wilkins High School, wondering at the way in which the events of his life unfolded in such sovereign unpredictability. His commitment was to live the life of truth without wavering, yet that commitment seemed to take on a life of its own. He didn’t understand it at all. Still, he would see it through.

He wandered across the school parking lot into the open school gymnasium. The Act Teens were busy setting up tables, painting placards, and arranging freshly printed brochures.

“What’s going on?” he asked a senior he knew to be an officer in the teen group.

“We’re setting up for our protest rally tomorrow.”

“What’re you protesting this time?” The cold, vacancy of the sports sanctuary made Russell shudder.

“A group of homosexual students has gained permission to start an afternoon club beginning in January. We can’t have that happening in our school.”

“We can’t, huh?” Russell said, wanting to scream. “Got to run them off, huh?”

“What would you do, Mr. Celebrity,” said the student with a sneer. “Join them?”

In a blaze of revelation that jarred him like a lightning bolt, Russell knew what he must do. He considered acting immediately, but it was already late. Instead he left the gym, returning to the football field, where he sat in the empty bleachers listening to God.

The following morning, Russell was hungry, so he invited his friends to meet him at a small diner near Barton College. Arriving first, Russell found the diner closed. He checked his watch against the operating hours posted on the door. It should be open.

“Is it closed?” asked Peter, who arrived with his friends to see Russell yanking violently on the front door of the diner.

Russell slapped an angry palm against the locked door. “No one will find comfort in this unwelcome place again.”

“Take it easy,” Peter said. “It’s just a place.”

Russell glowered at Peter. “No place is just a place. Don’t you understand that?”

“What?”

“Let’s go. I’ve got something I need to do.”

The boys followed, concerned at the rage that seemed to be simmering within Russell.

They arrived at the high school, where Russell went directly to the gymnasium. Pushing past the youth he had spoken with the previous day, he marched to the center of the gym and looked around.

Huge banners covered the walls, screaming rejection at the gay community. Words so steeped in condemnation that Russell’s stomach twisted, firing hot bile up into the back of his throat. Teams of Act Teens and their parents marched around the gym, clothed in anti-gay T-shirts, chanting derogatory slogans. 

At the far end of the cleverly named “Rally for Righteousness” stood four teenagers who Russell presumed were the offending group. One of them, a slight boy wearing an American flag jacket, gathered the courage to raise a placard that read: “Freedom and Justice for All.” Once held aloft though, the sign was pelted with plastic bags of paint, thrown by an assault force led by Kyle Affas. The sign-bearing boy began to cry.

“Look at him cry,” Kyle said, laughing. His followers joined in the mocking. They began to advance on the retreating group of four. 

“Matthew, find the cops,” Russell shouted. “They must be here somewhere. If not, call them.” Looking at Peter, he said, “Kyle’s got the football and there’s tens seconds left in the game. Don’t let him score.”

Seeing the Act Teen leader closing in on the paint-splattered boy, Peter grinned widely. “Got it.”

He sprinted across the gym, zeroing in on his prey with the Jackson brothers at his heels.

Kyle Affas was preparing to throw the first punch of his life, when Peter slammed into him with such force that the Act Teen leader felt certain he was en route to meeting his maker. The Jacksons, between the two of them, leveled the rest of the advancing Act Teens with a bone-crunching thunderous clap that earned them the nickname the Sons of Thunder.

Russell flipped over the folding table in front of him, spilling badges and pamphlets across the floor. Furious at the intrusion, parents and participants alike chased Russell back and forth across the gymnasium as he ripped down banners and overturned displays.

At the height of the pandemonium, Russell raced to the top of the bleachers, where protected by his friends he faced the disoriented mob.

“No place is just a place. Every place is God’s place. God’s places are places of prayer for all people. This gym is God’s place. But you have turned it into den of condemnation where you are robbing these students of a chance at transformation.”

Some people in the crowd dropped their heads, while others simply began setting tables upright.

Russell walked down through the people over to the four teenagers. “I’m Russell Hicks. Come on and let me by you lunch.” As they left the gym through a rear exit, the police arrived.

Sheriff’s Deputy, Don Burrnett, interviewed a hundred witnesses, the majority of whom did not wish to press charges. The majority thought that perhaps the protest was a little harsh, though they hadn’t intended to hurt anyone’s feelings. They considered the Hicks kid pretty brave to do what he did, and his words made a lot of sense. Plus he’d already helped so many people in Wilkins; maybe they should just forget this little incident.

There were others, however, who were not about to let this go—Kyle Affas and the seminarian protest organizers to be exact. Once Kyle regained his senses, he and the others began seeking a way to destroy Russell Hicks. They thought the gym assault might have been the way, but they feared the popularity Russell had gained, so they waited and plotted against him. 

That afternoon Russell met with the Gay and Lesbian Student Youth Organization at the Wilkins Community Center. They talked for several hours about spiritual wholeness and understanding one’s true sexual identity. It was not an easy discussion, but the youth organization thanked Russell for his help. They agreed to remain friends and meet on a regular basis to deepen their friendship..

After the meeting, the boys passed by the diner where they had been the day before. It had burned to the ground. 

Peter said, “Russell look. The diner you were cursing is a pile of ashes.” 

Eyes straight ahead, Russell said, “Constantly put your trust in God. Don’t let any opposition stop your from doing what God has asked you to do. If you command that bridge abutment up there to be ripped up from the ground and thrown into the river, and don’t doubt it in your heart but believe that what you say will take place, it will be done for you.”

The boys stared uneasily at one another.

“I’m telling you this because whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that it will be given to you, and it will. Also, whenever you pray, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him and let it drop, so that God may also forgive you your own failings and shortcomings. If you don’t forgive others, neither will God forgive you.” 

Matthew Levinson asked, “Are you talking about Kyle and the others that oppose you?”

“Let’s go back to the school,” said Russell, leaving them to find their own answers.

The school parking lot was deserted, so Tom pulled around to the back, where Principal Harrod stood with his hands on his hips.

“Uh oh,” Tom said.

“Just the person I wanted to see,” Mr Harrod said, eyeing Russell as he exited the van. “I had a feeling you’d be back to the scene of your little riot.”

Russell said nothing.

Agitated by the defiant silence, Mr. Harrod said, “By what sort of authority do you storm into a lawful protest against degenerates in our society and disrupt it?”  

“Tell you what, Mr. Harrod. If you’ll answer my question, I’ll answer yours. Was Johnny Witherspoon right or wrong in accusing you of cheating on your wife?”

Mr. Harrod furrowed his brow in troubled thought. He realized that if he said that Johnny was wrong in accusing him, then Russell would ask why he had Johnny killed and the whole problem might resurface with disastrous results. On the other hand, if he admitted that Johnny was right, then he’d have to admit his affair publicly, also with potentially career ending ramifications.

“It’s none of your business, Russell,”

“Then by your choice, the authority by which I live is none of yours.”

 

TWELVE

Russell Hicks left Wilson and went to Lucama, a town east of Interstate 95, where crowds of people gathered around him. Reporters from the local newspapers were beginning to document his popularity and apparent successes, so, as is often the case with celebrity, people came to hear him more out of curiosity than any sense of spiritual need. There were also a growing number of detractors in attendance when Russell spoke; those who felt it their spiritual duty to protect an overly accepting community from religious charlatans who contributed to a decrease in Sunday attendance, as well as tithes.

For his part, Russell ignored people’s initial motivations, realizing that the thoughts and intentions of the heart were a murky business best left to the judgement and transforming power of God. He simply encouraged those listening to pursue intimacy with the Creator who was offering them life in all its super abundance.

“Stop settling for mediocre, tolerable lives,” he challenged. “If God has given us everything in this world and the next for our good, why turn it down? Why not receive all He wants to bestow upon us?”

A representative contingent of concerned clergy, who were in attendance at the Lucama gathering, waited patiently for Russell to finish describing the victorious spiritual life actually lived out, in order that they might publicly expose him as a liberal-minded, untrained and unaffiliated quacksalver.  

When the opportunity arose, the Reverend Ed Neckermann asked, “Being a postmodernist as a result of your generation, do you hold truth to be relative? In other words, do you reject absolute truth?”

“How do the scriptures define truth?” asked Russell.

“What?’ Reverend Neckermann said, momentarily disarmed by the return question.

“Do the scriptures make a distinction between kinds of truth?”

“No. There is only one truth,” the Reverend answered, regaining his composure.

“And what is that one truth?”

Off balance once more, he countered with, “I’m ordained. I’ll do the examining here. Why don’t you tell us what truth it is that you believe?” He felt better—more offensive in this tactic.

Russell frowned. “The scriptures say that God is spirit, and His worshippers must worship in spirit and truth. They further teach that it is the Spirit of truth that guides us in all truth. So I suggest that instead of arguing with me about a human definition of truth, you spend your time teaching your people how to know and hear the Spirit, Who will lead them into all truth.”

Dismissing any further questions from the clerical critics, Russell said to the crowd, “We have lost our ability to hear God’s Spirit within us, so we have retreated into silent sanctuaries of rules and traditions. It is difficult to hear the gentle voice of God. It is much easier to listen to loudly advertised religious writers who tell us what to believe and how to think. Look to the scriptures! Listen to God! Learn to hear His voice above all others. You don’t need anything or anyone else.”

A commotion broke out in front of Russell. Several families were attempting to bring mentally handicapped children to him that he might pray for them but his friends were reproving them.

When Russell saw this he grew indignant. Pained, he said, “Allow them to come to me. Do not forbid or prevent anyone from seeking the Kingdom of God. No one is too unworthy or beyond God’s reach. To the unworthy and hopeless belongs this kingdom. Whoever does not welcome and receive the Kingdom of God in this way, shall not enter it at all.”

Russell lifted a small, Down’s Syndrome girl into his arms. He wept at her simple innocence. Hating the defectiveness of a sin-plagued world, he fervently invoked a blessing on the child.

As Russell was climbing into Tom’s van to leave, a Lutheran pastor ran up to him and asked, “Mr. Hicks, you seem like an essentially moral young man, what would you say I needed to do to inherit eternal life?”

“Why do you call me essentially moral? Do you think that has something to do with why I am who I am? As if being essentially moral is the way to inherit eternal life?”

The pastor shrugged.

Russell said, “If morality is the answer, then follow the Ten Commandments.”

“I do. I’ve tried my whole life to do what’s right. I gave up law school to attend seminary.”

Russell studied the man with an intense compassion. “You’re missing the main point. You think it’s what you do for God that permits access to the Kingdom of God, instead of what God has done for you. If it’s based on your goodness, then leave your pastorate in North Carolina where there are many churches, and go to a country with there are none.”

At this, the man’s countenance fell. He walked away sorrowful because his church was large and he was a man of influence in the community.

Russell looked around at the people driving off in cars and pick-up trucks. “It’s difficult for people who hold onto their possessions to enter the Kingdom of God.”

This bewildered his friends.

“It’s hard for those who place their confidence and safety in what they own or where they live to enter the Kingdom of God. It’s easier for a Baptist to turn Catholic than for a self-absorbed, moral person to enter the Kingdom of God.”

“Then who can enter the Kingdom?” his shocked friends asked.

Glancing around at them, Russell said, “It is impossible for people to save themselves, but not for God. Everything is possible for God.”
 

Worried, Peter said, “I hope you’re noticing that we have abandoned everything for God. We’re doing exactly what you’re doing. We’re totally committed to living the life.”

“Peter, there is no one who has given up houses or families for the sake of God, who will not receive a hundred times as much in return in this life and in the life to come. But there are many now who consider themselves to be great, religious leaders, that will discover themselves to be nothing. And the insignificant ones, will in fact be first in heaven.”

During the drive back to Wilkins, Russell’s friends were confused. Russell’s words and actions were becoming more obscure. They felt as if a new Russell were emerging; one consumed with death and bent on alienating people of religious influence. Fear gripped them. What was Russell Hicks really planning?

Sensing their fear, Russell asked Tom to pull over at a rest stop. He once again began to explain to them what he thought was going to happen.

“We’re going back to Wilkins where I feel certain that I’m going to be arrested. I believe I’m to be a martyr for the sake of the people of Wilkins. People will probably make fun of me during this process. I think they will kill me like they did Johnny Witherspoon. It’s okay though, because I will be raised to live with God in heaven.”  

The Jackson brothers motioned Russell to follow them out of the van, over to the vending machines. “Russell,” they said, “We want you to do something for us.”

“What do you want me to do?”

Jimmy Jackson said, “We want to be your right hand guys when the real glory comes to you from the newspapers and television.”

“You don’t know what you’re asking. Are you willing to go through the public humiliation that is required in order to be considered great in the Kingdom of God? The whole, fallen world will cry out for your destruction. Is that what you want?”

“We’re willing to do whatever it takes,” Johnny said. “No pain, no gain. Huh?”

Russell looked to the northern sky, where a distant galaxy loomed low above the horizon. He sighed heavily. “If you’re willing to do whatever it takes to advance the Kingdom, then you will sacrifice your lives like me. But to be honored for it is not up to me. God honors those whom He has chosen; those who follow Him to the end.”  

Peter stormed up and pushed Johnny Jackson away from Russell. “Who do you to think you are? You two think you’d be better leaders than me or the others?” 

“Hold on,” Russell yelled, stepping between the fractured group. “Stop acting like Kyle Affas. He’s the leader of the Act Teens and he makes sure they know it. He makes rules just so he can punish kids who break them. He loves his greatness.”

Johnny Jackson straightened his rumpled shirt, glaring at Peter.

“You guys are not like him. Whoever wants to be great among you must serve the others. You don’t demand respect through rules and titles, you earn it. Even Jesus didn’t come so that people could serve him, but that he might serve us. Jesus served us by dying for us.” Russell looked at his friends, his eyes ablaze. “You want to be leaders? Then be servants. You want to be servants? Then be ready to die. That’s the example. Now let’s go. Wilkins needs us.”

At a traffic light on the edge of town a man staggered from the Kit Kat Roadhouse. The boys watched him fumble with his car keys while trying to locate his car. He bent forward in the pale glow of a street light, still fingering through keys, when he lost his balance. Unable to move his hands quick enough to break his fall, he struck the pavement face first. From the van the boys could hear the nauseating thud of bone against pavement. The man began to scream for help.

Anticipating Russell’s thoughts, Peter said, “Leave him alone. He’s blind drunk. We can’t help him.”

“Jesus, help me,” the man wailed. “Oh, Jesus.”

“Stop the van, Tom,” Russell said. “You guys jump out and carry the guy over here.”

Five of the boys, led by Peter, approached the moaning, drunken figure. Yellowish streams of vomit covered the man’s florescent orange, hunting jacket.

“Oh, he stinks,” said Peter, pinching his nose. He knelt down and slipped a hand under one puke-drenched arm. “Come on, pal. Believe it or not, Jesus is answering your prayer for help.”

They pulled off the man’s jacket before hefting him into the van next to Russell. The man, struggling to focus on the image in front of him, believed he was in some god-like dream. “Are you Jesus?” he asked Russell.

“Something like that,” Russell said. “I know you can’t see straight right now, especially with that broken nose, so just lay back. We’ll take care of you.”

“Thank you, Jesus,” the drunk said, sinking into unconsciousness.

Four hours later, in a curtained section of the Wilkin's Memorial emergency room, Russell helped Harold Owens sip some water. Harold’s insides burned from the recently completed stomach pumping and his freshly set nose throbbed in competitive agony. He hated sobriety.

“What do you want me to do for you, Harold?” Russell asked, returning the paper cup to the bedside table.

With great effort, Harold turned his head to regard his teenaged rescuer. “I’d like to see life like a kid again.” He began to cry.

Russell took hold of Harold’s hand. “See it now through the faith that can heal you.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Close your eyes.” When Harold complied, Russell said, “Lord, let Russell see himself as a boy.” He waited a minute, then asked, “Where are you?”

“Reading a poem in front of my third grade class.” He wiped a tear from his cheek, wincing in pain as he brushed his bandaged nose. “Why am I thinking about this?”

“Maybe God wants you to. How was your poem?”

“Teacher said it was the best she ever heard. Said I ought’a be a writer. It was the best moment of my life. But it didn’t last.”

“What happened?”

“After class, some bigger boys beat me up. Said something was wrong with me because I write poems.” Harold’s body convulsed in a sob that wracked his body with pain. “They broke my glasses.”

Russell rubbed Harold’s forearm, waiting.

“I spent the rest of my life proving I was a real man. I fought, drank, picked up women, whatever.”

“And your life now?”

“What do you think,” Harold screamed. “It’s crap.”

A night watch nurse poked her head through the curtain, asking if there was a problem.

“We’re okay,” Russell said, calmly. “He’s in a lot of pain.”

The nurse said she’d send the doctor in when he wasn’t busy, but drunks usually got what they deserved.

Harold, eyes still closed said more softly, “I’m divorced. I’ve been in prison. Can’t seem to get rid of the hurt. I ache all the time. Drugs don’t help. Neither does the whisky.”

“God wants to get rid of the hurt, Harold, but you’ve got to let Him.”

Opening his eyes, Harold said, “I know the Jesus talk, son. I’ve been in church a thousand times. It don’t work either.”

“You’re right, Harold. The talk doesn’t work because it comes from people. But let God give the talk and it’s different—transforming.” Gripping the patient’s hand more tightly, he said. “Will you listen to God right now?”

“Okay,” Harold whined. “Okay.”

“Ssshh, Harold. Listen. Lord, what do you want Harold to know?”

The emergency room hummed with the sounds of machines propping up flagging lives. Somewhere in a distant, curtained cell, Russell heard the kind of crying that suggested perhaps a woman had lost a child or husband. People wait to meet eternity in as if it’s a final duel, when they have been living or dying in it all along.

“Oh my God,” said Harold, nearly whispering. “Is that Him? Is it You?” He clutched the sheet up tight against his chest, eyes clamped tight. “I can’t believe it.”

“What do you hear, Harold?”

“He says…God says, I’m His poet. He is telling me to be a poet.” Harold wept sweetly, softly.

“That’s Him,” said Russell. “That’s God.”

“How do I do it? I’ve never been to college or anything.”

“Get in the habit of asking God those questions, Harold. If you listen, He’ll always answer. He always has. ” Russell touched Harold lightly on the forehead and said, “You’re not blind anymore.”  Then he left. 

  

 

  

ELEVEN

One Tuesday, Russell and his friends were eating lunch in the school cafeteria.

“What is this stuff?” Johnny asked, pushing clumps of an unidentifiable, brownish goulash around on his lunch tray with his fork. 

“I don’t know,” answered Peter, “But whatever it is, it tastes like death.”

“You know what’s amazing,” Russell said. “There are people sitting right at this table who will in no way taste death before they see the Kingdom of God come in power.”

The boys looked at one another, troubled. Russell’s increasing references to death alarmed them. They were well aware of the school’s policy toward any student making statements about suicide or homicide. Perhaps the administration should be warned and Russell protected.

Six days later, on a blustery November afternoon, Russell took with him Peter, Jimmy and Johnny, and led them up the back fire escape to the roof of the old Belk building on Barnes Street. From this vantage point, the boys could see all of the downtown as well as the newer, wealthier housing developments to the west. 

Russell was exuberant. He walked to the edge of the roof, spreading his arms out over the town that seemed to have laid claim to his existence. “This is my favorite place to pray. Up here, where I can see all the people God loves, I feel close to Him—transformed by Him.” He spun around to face his friends, his hair whipped about by the wind. “Something special always happens when I pray alone up here. I want you three to be a part of that.”

Neither Peter, Jimmy nor Johnny knew what to say, so they remained silent. 

Russell climbed up on the roof’s ledge, balancing himself against the wind. 

“Get down from there,” Peter called. “Are you crazy?”

“Come, Lord God,” Russell prayed aloud, his arms raised skyward. “Fill us with Your Spirit. Show us Your glory.” He teetered sideways with a blast of wind, looking as if he might fall.

“Grab him,” Peter commanded, rushing toward the ledge with Jimmy and Johnny in close pursuit.  

Before they could reach Russell, however, another gust of wind swirled a dense, low-lying cloud across the rooftop, enveloping the boys in a milky, translucent, whiteness. Disoriented, Peter tripped on an exposed pipe, sprawling headlong to the roof’s surface with his two friends on top of him. Untangling quickly, the boys refocused their attention on Russell. He was facing them now from his precarious perch, his arms still lifted heavenward. Draped in the cloud’s luminescence, he looked to be speaking with someone beside him.

“Maybe we ought to just get out of here,” said Peter. He was terrified at what was happening, wishing he were far away. 

“God wants us to be continually listening to and obeying Him,” Russell called from within the passing cloud. And then, the cloud was gone. 

Jumping down from the ledge, he told his friends not to tell anyone what had just happened. “They’ll think we’re all lunatics. Wait until I’m dead and in heaven before you say anything.”

As frightened as the boys were, they did keep the incident to themselves, arguing with each other as to why Russell had become so fixated on death.

In the parking lot behind the Belk building Peter Longley asked Russell, “Wasn’t Johnny Witherspoon the one who started everything that’s going on in Wilkins?”

“Yes. God wanted him to come before me to get things going—set things up.”

“If God sent him, then why’d he have to die?” 

Russell looked deep into his friend’s eyes. “Someone’s always got to die. The problem is people want to be great witnesses for God, but they aren’t willing to do things God’s way. The Bible says that Jesus had to suffer many things and be utterly despised and be treated with contempt and rejected. That was the only way salvation could come. It’s no different now. Johnny Witherspoon understood this. He came to Wilkins understanding what his life was for. And they did to him whatever they wanted. This was God’s plan.”

As they rounded the front of the building, they met their nine other friends who were surrounded by a group of people. Among the people were four seminary students questioning and disputing with them. When the crowd saw Russell, his face still glistening from the cloud’s dampness, they ran to him and greeted him. 


“What’s everybody arguing about?” Russell asked.

One of the group, a man named Clinton Suggs, said, “I brought my son to you because he’s got an attention deficit disorder. Whenever he’s in school he gets real aggressive. Even has convulsions. He won’t obey the teachers, so they keep telling him he’s dumb. I brought him here to your friends, but they couldn’t help him.”

Russell glared at his friends. “How many times do I have to teach you these things? You don’t believe what God can do. Bring me the boy.”

The father had some trouble corralling his son, who was flipping the dials on parking meters. Clinton Suggs wrestled the boy over to where Russell stood. As soon as the boy saw Russell, he squirmed and fought to get away. Clinton held him down on the ground. 

“How long has he been like this?” Russell asked.

“Since he was about five. He nearly burned our house down when he was six—almost died. Please. If you can do anything, have a heart and help us.”

“I can’t do anything. But, all things are possible for those who put their trust in God.”

Clinton Suggs began to cry. “I’m not a good father and I don’t go to church. But I do believe God can heal my boy. I do. Oh, Jesus, help me to believe you want to heal my son.” He hugged the writhing youth tightly to chest, continuing to pray.

Noticing the crowd enlarging, and not wanting a public spectacle, Russell gripped Clinton’s shoulder. “Reclaim your son from the world that has labeled him wrongly. Ask God to restore your son to his true identity as He restores you to your true identity as his father. Do it, now.”

Clinton confessed his shortcomings as a dad, then asked for a chance to start again. The boy convulsed within his father’s crushing embrace, then went limp.

“Is he dead?” asked a woman observer in the growing crowd. “Should we call an ambulance?”

“He’s okay,” Russell answered, smiling and touching the boy’s head. “Take him home. Teach him to listen to God for who he is, and you do the same. You’re a good dad, Mr. Suggs.”

Back in Tom McLaughlin’s van, his friends asked Russell why they could not help the boy. “We told the father what to do, but nothing happened.”

“People aren’t transformed by throwing truth at them. How did you decide what to do in that situation, anyway?”

Andy Pittard said, “We just talked with each other and came up with a plan.”

Russell shook his head. “Ask God what to do in each situation. Get His plan through prayer and fasting. Never rely on your own interpretation of an event. Most times you’ll be wrong.”   

They drove over to Parkwood Mall, where they sat in the food court to talk. 

After draining a milkshake, Russell said, “Things are heating up here in Wilkins. Johnny’s dead and I’m pretty sure I’ll be next. It’s they way it’s got to be, but I want you guys to be ready when it happens. Don’t worry about me because I’ll be raised to eternal life.”  

Frustrated, Peter stormed off, throwing his half-filled milkshake angrily into a nearby trashcan. The others followed, leaving Russell alone to ponder his future. 

Later that evening, when they arrived at the Piggly-Wiggly to shop for Peter’s mom, Russell asked them, “What were you arguing about in the van?”


They wouldn’t answer him though, because they were arguing with each other as to who was the most influential and important in the increasingly popular band of twelve.

Russell leaned up against the meat counter, where two children were poking their fingers into a stack of fresh fish. He called his friends over to him, and pointing to the laughing children said, “If anyone wants to be a leader, he must first be a servant of all people. You see those kids there. They are just as important to God as any famous preacher or professional athlete. You guys learn how to show them respect and then you’ll earn the respect of God.”

He ran and scooped up one of the children in his arms. “A true believer welcomes and accepts all people, even the ones least desirable. Believers are not exterminators. We don’t boycott and protest against others. We take their hand and lead them to transformation in the Kingdom of God.” He set down the child, who scurried off to find his mother.      

“Something’s been bothering me, Russell,” said Johnny. “The other day we saw a guy in front of the K-Mart telling people about God, and saying that he was one of your friends. But we have never seen him before. We told him to lay off saying he was with us.” 

“See, that’s what I mean,” said Russell. “We’re too worried about who’s in my group or denomination. We’re servants of all people. Was the guy saying anything bad about us or wrong about God?”

“No, he seemed okay.”

“Then encourage him. God’s team is big and diverse. Someone may explain the things of God differently than you or I, but if they’re not against God’s message then they are for it.”

Russell watched a homeless man slip a pack of bologna under his shirt and move toward the cashier. Before the shoplifter could pass the register, Russell tossed a dollar bill to the teenager working the front. Looking back to his friends he said, “If anyone does a work in the name of Christ, whether we agree with how the person did it or not, they will be rewarded by God.”

A group of veiled, Muslim women entered the store, grabbed a cart and headed off down an aisle.

“Do any of you have a problem talking with them or seeing their need?”

The boys were silent.

“Because if your tongue can only attack and condemn, or your hand is too Christian to reach out to the Muslim, then cut it off. Anyone, whose bigotry or prejudice hinders another person from knowing God, will wish that they had never been born. Hell will be filled with people who called themselves Christians, but did nothing to serve people they considered not worth the effort. It’s like a religious writer who has the gift to encourage millions of people with their words, but instead writes books aimed at condemnation and attack. What value then are the words?”

Russell smiled at his friends. “Be servants to all people. Fill your hearts with words of peace and live in harmony with one another.”

TEN

The following weekend, when another large group of Wilkinsonians had gathered at Timberlake Park, Russell called his friends together and told them, “I feel sorry for all these people and my heart goes out to them, because they are here to understand the things of God, yet they have nothing to eat. If we send them away, I’m concerned that they will attribute their hunger to a lack of provision from God, and might give up on the idea of faith.”

“How can we fill and satisfy the need of every person, every time we get together, especially out here?” asked Peter Longley. “There’s not a restaurant for miles.”

“How many sandwiches do we have left?” asked Russell.

“Seven,” answered Thad.

“Tell everyone to sit down in the grass,” Russell said. He then placed his hands over the sandwiches and thanked God for whatever way He was about to provide for the people.

“They’re out there again,” the lanky golf pro informed his boss in the Timberlake management office. “This place is becoming a regular revival center.”

Mr. Webster watched Russell in the picnic shelter pray over a pile of sandwiches, marveling at the youth’s determination to prove the existence and accessibility of God. “Never seen such a thing,” he said to the golf pro. “What’s he going to do with such little food?”

“Don’t know. I heard him talking last time he was here. I think he’s a little whacko.”

Mr. Webster turned to the pro. “Oh no, Bob. He’s not crazy. He just lives a life on a different plane than us. He’s got my daughter Debbie counseling at a crisis pregnancy center. I couldn’t even get her to talk to me in the past. Now it’s like she’s been born all over again. She’s so different and it’s making me different.”

“Huh,” snorted the golf pro. “That stuff ain’t for me. I like my life just the way it is."

“Bob, call Buddy over at the Smoky Pig and tell him to rush me out…” Mr. Webster made a quick estimate of the crowd’s size, “…about five hundred barbecue dinners. Tell him he’s got free golf for the next month if the order is here in twenty minutes.”

Bob dialed the phone, thinking some alien had abducted his old boss and replaced him with an insanely altruistic clone.

Within nineteen minutes the crowd of people were feasting on plates of pulled barbecue and coleslaw. When they finished, Russell’s friends picked up seven plates of leftovers.

“You’ve been filled by God tonight, my friends,” Russell told the satiated mass. “Now go home.”  


At once he got into Tom McLaughlin’s van with his friends and went to an arcade near the Greyhound bus station. A couple of seminary students present at the Timberlake feeding, followed them and once inside the arcade began to argue with Russell and question him.

“You think that was some kind of miracle or something out there?” one named Jerry challenged. “Because all I saw was a generous barbecue driver, coincidentally driving by, take pity on a group of hungry, misguided people.”

“Really?” said Russell, sliding a quarter into a pinball machine. “Is that what you saw? Then you’ll never witness the miraculous.”

“Why don’t you tell God to do a miracle for us right now?” Jerry said. “If you’re so close to Him it shouldn’t be a problem.”

Russell doubled up in pain, feeling as if he might vomit. He laid his head down on the glass surface of the pinball machine. “What is the motivation of your heart that demands a sign from God? People like you will never, never witness the miraculous.”

Struggling to stand upright, Russell stumbled out into the parking lot to breathe the cool night air. When his friends joined him, he ordered them into the van. “Let’s get away from here.”

Driving north on I-95, Tom and the boys decided on a trip to Rocky Mount to see a movie.

“Oh shoot,” said Jude. “We didn’t bring the barbecue. We must have left it in the arcade. All we got is one plate.”

“Speaking of food,” said Russell. “Watch out for the fast-food religion that some of these seminaries and churches try and cram down your throat.”

“What does that mean?” asked Andy Pittard.

“It’s because we forgot the barbecue,” answered Johnny.


Russell slammed his hand against the armrest, causing the others to jump. “Why do you think I’m talking about barbecue? Don’t you understand yet? Are your hearts in a settled state of hardness?”
 

Peter said, “We just don’t know what you’re taking about sometimes.”

“You’ve got eyes. Can’t you see? You have ears. Can’t you listen?” Russell pressed his back up against the side of his seat so he could see all the passengers. “Have you forgotten the things you’ve seen God do?”

The van was silent; each boy afraid to reply.

“When we prayed for food for the first group at Timberlake, how much was left over?”

Silence.

“How much?” Russell screamed against the noise of the highway.

“A lot,” one of the boys mumbled.

“And this afternoon? How much was left over?”

“Seven plates,” Peter said quickly.

“Don’t you get it? Don’t you understand?” Russell kept asking them.

But none of them answered because none of them did understand.

When they arrived at the Rocky Mount Cineplex, Tom pulled the van into a spot next to a silver Ford Mustang. Inside the Mustang a girl was struggling against the advances of an overzealous boyfriend.

Russell jumped from the van and pulled open the passenger door of the car, catching the girl as she scrambled to escape.

“What the hell?” called the boyfriend, disengaging his large frame from the driver’s seat. He stomped toward Russell with massive, clenched fists.

Russell’s friends circled the angry, varsity star, dreading another of Russell’s hazardous confrontations.

“I’m going to break your face,” the athlete warned Russell.

“Your lust has made you blind,” Russell shouted. “Don’t you want this girl to care about you?”

With cat-like speed the rudely interrupted teenager swung at Russell with enough force to topple a concrete post. Russell dodged left, avoiding the blow and circled behind his attacker. Spitting in his palms, Russell clamped his hands over the eyes of the assailant, temporarily immobilizing him. “Lord, let him see what’s really happening here,” Russell prayed aloud.

The hefty youth broke free of Russell’s grip and spun to face this odd opponent. Before he could speak, Russell said, “Look at the girl and tell me what you see.”

“What? Huh?” the confused youth stammered. “I see a girl that looks a lot like she wants sex.”

Russell jumped at the teenager once more, fastening his hands over the boy’s eyes. The combatants swung in lumbering, elliptical orbits around the Mustang, until they both fell, exhausted to the asphalt.

Amazed, Russell’s friends watched as the varsity star rolled off their friend, laughing hysterically. “You are the craziest kid I’ve ever met. You fight like a girl.”

Russell brushed bits of gravel from his shirt, breathing hard. “Really. Look at her and tell me what you see.”

Leaning back on his elbows, the boy regarded his date more seriously. “I see Linda. We’ve known each other since first grade but she hasn’t been allowed to date. She’s very religious and…I don’t know…I guess I saw her as some kind of challenge. But now that I’m looking at her like this, I see her more clearly.” He rubbed his eyes. “I’m an idiot.”

The couple climbed back in the Mustang, where an apology was offered and accepted.

“Let’s go to my house and watch TV with my family,” the girl suggested.

As they were pulling out of the lot, the coupled hollered thanks to Russell, after which he warned them not to tell anyone what had happened.

After the movie, during the drive back to Wilson, Russell asked, “Who do people say that I am?”

They said, “Some people get you confused with Johnny Witherspoon, and others think you’re a kind of prophet to Wilkins.”

“But who do you guys say that I am?”

Peter said, “You’re a guy who’s really living the life God intended in your true identity.”

And it was then, on that Saturday night in October, that Russell first told his closest friends that anyone who was really living the life must suffer many things and be tested and disapproved and rejected by the town’s religious leaders and be put to death, in order that he might be raised again with God. He was very explicit in speaking about himself and his friends did not miss the point.

In the parking lot of a Taco Bell, Peter took Russell by the hand and pulled him away from the others. “Stop talking all this crap about giving up your life for God. You can serve Him without dying, can’t you?”

Russell covered his ears and turned his back on Peter. “Get away from me, Satan. You’re not interested in God’s will, only in doing what makes you look religious without being uncomfortable. You are not on God’s side, but that of a wayward humanity.”  

    
Walking into the Taco Bell, Russell said to everyone in the place, “Anyone who wants truly to follow God must disown and lose sight of themselves, and take up whatever purpose God has for their life in their true identity. Whoever tries to protect or save their own life, will lose it. But whoever gives his life to God will save it. How does it benefit you if you gain all the things in the world you think you want and forfeit your soul? What can you give in exchange for your soul? If you’re ashamed or embarrassed of God’s plan for your life, then God will be ashamed and embarrassed of your plan for your life when you meet Him face to face in heaven.”

After saying this, Russell went out and sat in the van. 

 

NINE

One Friday after school Russell and his friends went into a Burger King where five seminary students from Wake Forest were meeting with the Act Teens leadership council.

“It’s important to have a positive, public witness,” one of the men, a third year Divinity student named Rex, told Kyle Affas. “People need to know who we are and what we stand for at all times.”

“What about them?” Kyle said, pointing to Russell’s friends, who were gorging themselves on Whoppers and onion rings. “They didn’t pray before they started eating. They never do; not even in the cafeteria.”

Kyle asked this question because the seminary men insisted that the Act Teens always pray publicly before eating, allowing for everyone around them to know their superior spiritual status. This act was religiously maintained in the hope that some wayward teenager might wander up to them, after observing their pious prayer, and seek a more godly existence.

Seizing upon the opportunity as a “teaching moment” for everyone in the Burger King, (the seminary men never missed a teaching moment) the Divinity student approached Russell to inquire as to why Russell and his friends ate without praying first. “Didn’t your parents teach you to say a blessing before each meal?” he asked. “It’s a well-grounded, time honored tradition. To not pray before eating is to show dishonor and disrespect toward God.” 

Russell wiped his mouth with a napkin, considering the situation. “I think it was the prophet Isaiah who wrote about pretenders and hypocrites saying: ‘These people constantly honor Me with their lips, but their hearts hold off and are far distant from Me. Fruitlessly and without profit do they worship Me, ordering and teaching to be obeyed, the commandments and precepts of men.’” He took another bite of his Whopper.

Red-faced, the seminarian leaned close to Russell. “Are you calling me a hypocrite and a pretender? I can read the Bible in the original Hebrew and Greek, so don’t be throwing scripture around with me.”

“It’s not just about head knowledge,” Russell said standing so that he could address the other seminarians and the Act Teens. “It’s about being spiritually transformed.”

“What do you know about being transformed?” Kyle Affas said, loud enough for most of the Burger King patrons to hear. “You won’t even pray before you eat in the school cafeteria. Nobody knows what you believe.”

“You have a fine way of thwarting and nullifying the commandment of God in order to keep your traditions and human regulations,” Russell answered. “Jesus told us to pray in a closet, because if we pray in public for people to see, then our reward stops there—with the praise of people. Thus by insisting that everyone pray in restaurants or wherever, you are making void the authority of the Word of God through your traditions. You’re doing this in a lot of different ways. You spend so much time measuring people’s conduct that you miss their hearts.”

“Conduct tells us who people really are?” shouted another of the seminary students.

“No it doesn’t,” said Russell. “A person’s conduct tells us who they think they are, not who God says they truly are.”

“That’s psycho babble,” said the student closest to Russell.

Russell climbed up on the orange table. “Listen to me all of you and try to understand what I say. American Christians evaluate a person’s walk with God by what they eat or drink. Yet, there is not one thing people can put inside themselves that will defile them. It’s the things that come from within our hearts that make us unclean.” He pointed to the seminary students and said, “You Bible experts did not come over here because you’re concerned about my heart. You just want my outward conduct to conform to your religious code. Whether or not I pray before I eat, does not defile me, but your arrogant motivation in trying to embarrass me publicly defiles you.”

Russell leaped from the table and stormed out of the Burger King. His friends, after gathering up unfinished burgers and onion rings, followed. In the parking lot they asked Russell what he was talking about in the restaurant.

“Are you guys that dimwitted?” he said. “Religious people are consumed with evaluating other people by what they put into their mouths and bodies. If you smoke or drink you’re lost. But these things don’t reach the heart, do they? They reflect a condition of the heart but they don’t create the condition. We think that if we can get someone to quit a bad habit, then they’re saved. No. No. No. It’s what’s in the heart that hurts us; that destroys us. From a deceived heart comes the wickedness that makes us unclean—things like sexual immorality, stealing, murder, adultery, jealousy, envy and pride. These are the signs that our heart is sick and we must always consider the heart first.”

Praying that his words made an impact, he left the parking lot and went to Rocky Mount.

Earlier in the week, Russell had met a Palestinian student who invited him to drink tea with him at his house. There was a significant number of Palestinians living in Wilkins, though the Christian community paid them little notice.

Omar welcomed his new friend into his home, where Russell felt as if he entered another country. Beautifully framed Arabic script covered the walls of various rooms, which were separated by dangling, glass beads.

“We sit on the floor, if that’s okay?” said Omar.

Russell made himself comfortable on a large embroidered cushion. “This is great.”

A beautiful, older woman entered the room carrying a gold tray loaded with a tea service and Arabic pastries. She knelt before Russell, averting her eyes, and served him tea and baklava.

“Thank you,” Russell said.

The woman smiled, holding her head down so that her hijab, the traditional Muslim head covering, concealed most of her olive complexioned face.

“My mother speaks only a little English,” said Omar, serving himself. “My father was fluent and wanted her to learn before they came to the United States, but he was killed while my sister and I were still young.”

“Killed?” Russell said, sipping the rich, sweet tea.

“Yes, he was standing near a car that was hit by an Israeli tank shell.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Yes, the West Bank is a place where even the peaceful are not safe.”

The two sat in silence, enjoying the moist baklava. Each time Russell emptied his plate or cup, Omar’s mother refilled them.

“I was afraid you wouldn’t want to come to my house, Russell. You’re the first American to eat with us.”

“The first? Really?”

“We have been visited by Christians who want us to come to their church, but once they find out we’re Muslims they become insulting.”

“How do they insult you?”

“Once I tell them I’m Muslim, they attack our prophet and our holy book. I don’t think they mean to offend us, they’re just ignorant about Islam.”

“Yes, perhaps.”

Omar’s mother spoke to her son in Arabic with an insistence that put Russell on edge. She was upset about something that Russell surmised was the real cause for the invitation.

The Palestinian youth pushed away his teacup and cleared his throat. “I’ve been telling my mother about you, Russell. I told her that you are well known in the high school for the power of your prayers and that you are filled with the the Spirit of God.”

“Yes?” Russell said, feeling his body tense. Omar’s mother stared openly at him now with an air of expectation. “What is it that you need, Omar?”

“My sister is 16 and has run away from home. She was 4 when we came to the United States and she became fully Americanized. I don’t wish to hurt your feelings, but the more American she became, the more disrespectful and disobedient she became. She rebelled against the faith of our family and became involved with drugs and sex. We don’t know where she is. She has been gone for two days. My mother is sick with fear and shame.”

Russell smiled at the elegant woman, who understood enough of what her son had said to show her genuine concern. “Please pray for my daughter.” She began to cry.

“I really don’t know how to pray without making you uncomfortable, Omar.”

“What do you mean?”

“I believe that God can restore your sister back to you, but we must pray in the name of Jesus for that to happen. Our views of who Jesus is are different. Perhaps I’d better just spend my time with Americans and let God work this out for you in some other way.”

Omar translated for his mother, her eyes beginning to burn with anger. She fired off a short, scorching speech in Arabic that Russell was glad he couldn’t understand.

“My mother is from a family of great Syrian imams, or religious teachers. She has been taught that answered prayer is the great proof of Allah’s existence and acceptance. She says that if you are so certain of Isa Al-Masih’s, sorry, Jesus the Messiah’s role in prayer then share with us even just the crumbs of your faith and we’ll see what is true.”

Russell marveled at the women’s determination and faith. He wished the Americans in Wilkins were open to such tests of God’s willingness to respond to prayer.       

“Your mother is a great woman, Omar. I would be honored to pray for your sister.” Omar and his mother knelt with their hands opened in toward heaven. Russell imitated their posture and prayed in the name of Isa Al-Masih for the salvation and restoration of the lost daughter. When he finished, he instructed the mother and son to keep praying in this manner until the girl returned to them.

The following evening, Khalida did return home, having dreamed that a bearded man in white stood beside her bed telling her it was time to be reunited with her family and God.

Two days later, on Sunday, Russell met with a student named Alex, with whom he was working on a class project.

“I can’t give a speech in front of the class, Russell,” Alex said, “As soon as I stand up in front of a group of people it’s like I can’t speak. It’s like I’m deaf and dumb all the sudden.”

Russell said, “Let’s spend some time asking the Lord why this happens—what scares you. Once you know, then we’ll ask Him what to do about it.”   

It had never occurred to Alex to ask God why public speaking terrified him. When he did pray about class speeches, he just kept apologizing to God for being so afraid and screwing up so badly. He often cursed himself for being such a coward.

In the time of prayer, Alex remembered Moses and his dislike for public speaking. But Moses was such a great man and chosen by God to speak in the situation in which God had placed him. “So are you,” a voice said deep in Alex’s spirit. “Don’t tell Me who you are, Alex, I’ll tell you. You are a good speaker. Your are My speaker.”

On Monday, Alex spoke with such clarity and confidence that his teacher, Mrs. Crenshaw was actually speechless. Alex’s tongue, normally immobilized as if in concrete on such occasions, was loosened and he spoke with distinction. He was so grateful for God’s oratorical liberation that he began tutoring struggling students after school.

Russell asked Alex not to tell people how he was involved in the process, but Alex did so anyway. All the students with whom Alex worked heard about Russell and they went around school saying that Russell did everything well and even helped dumb kids to speak eloquently in class.