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.

Eight

On Sunday Russell left Wilkins and went to his hometown of Cooleemee, North Carolina. He directed Tom McLaughlin to pull his van into the parking lot of the First Freewill Baptist Church, where Russell had attended services as a boy.    

Pastor Ronnie Stafford Jr. recognized Russell and asked him to share in the morning service what God had been doing in his life since they’d last seen him. Russell stood and talked about the little girl who had been raised out of a coma through prayer, and about the hundreds of parents and students whose lives had been radically transformed, both spiritually and physically, since he and his friends had begun intentionally urging people to enter into the Kingdom of God.

The one hundred and fifty-two adults in the sanctuary who listened to Russell were utterly astonished, saying, “How is this teenager accomplishing all this? What is this broad and full intelligence that has been given to him? How do his prayers produce such incredible works and exhibitions of power?” A cloud of disbelief darkened the holy place.

“Now everyone calm down,” Pastor Ronnie said, after thanking Russell for his “interesting” testimony. “Let’s remember that Russell is a teenager and may have exaggerated a little bit, as young people are prone to do. Isn’t that right, Russ?”

“I’m not exaggerating anything, Pastor,” Russell answered, calmly. “Things happen if you live this life within your true identity.”

“What identity? Are you implying that we don’t live good enough lives, boy? That we don't know who we are” an usher in a checked sports coat called out.

“Why don’t miracles happen in our church, Pastor Stafford?” asked an ancient congregant named Harold Wilberforce. “Maybe the boy has a special touch from God and could teach us a thing or two about prayer and healing and identity.”

“He’s only a kid for goodness' sake, Harold,” said Pastor Ronnie. “He has no training or education.” The pastor loosened his tie and fanned himself with a bulletin, very much regretting allowing the boy to speak before his sermon titled, “When God Says No.”

The chairman of the elder board saw the Sunday morning service going to hell (so to speak) and his pastor friend sweating uncontrollably, so he stood and said, “Listen everyone. This is little Russell Hicks, the son of Mary Beth Toberson and the brother of Jimmy, Joseph, Joshua, and Sam. His sisters are sitting right there in the back pew. He’s no faith healer or special messenger from God. He’s a kid with a big imagination and a knack for story telling. Now let’s get on with the sermon, so we don’t miss the football game.” 

The delay in starting the sermon on time and Pastor Ronnie’s conviction that under no circumstances should a carefully prepared homily be condensed or summarized put everyone in a foul mood. Country hams overcooked, rolls burned, and the Falcons-Redskins game was well into the second quarter by the time the pastor concluded his discourse with: “Moses didn’t see God work for forty years in the wilderness. So if you haven’t seen God do any miracles in your life, and you’re under forty, be encouraged. You’re like Moses.”

In the foyer after the service Russell offered to pray with anyone in the congregation who wanted to experience the presence of God, but the people took offense at him. Their disapproval of him and his self-proclaimed authority prevented anything miraculous from happening that afternoon in Cooleemee, North Carolina.

“They don’t seem to like you,” Peter whispered to Russell as people passed them with suspicious grunts and suspect groans.

Russell sighed, amazed at the deadness of their Christian faith. “The hardest place to be a witness for God is in your own town or your own house.”

The only person who asked Russell for prayer was Harold Wilberforce. “The old ticker’s giving me trouble,” he said, thumping his sternum with an arthritic finger. “Cardiologist says there’s nothing he can do except ease the pain. Maybe you could pray it away?”

“Prayer’s more about listening, than talking, sir. Let’s ask God what He’s doing in your heart, okay? Then we’ll know what to do.”

“Never thought about prayer like that,” said the old man. “Maybe I’ve been talking too much all these years.”

The two knelt at the church alter. Russell prayed, “Lord, what do you want Mr. Wilberforce to understand about his heart? Silence all other voices in his mind and spirit but yours, God.”

“How will I know it’s God talking to me?” Harold asked with his head bowed.

“The sheep know the voice of the Good Shepherd, who loves them and calls them by name. Just listen. You’ll know.”

In stilled, hallowed silence Harold listened for the voice of God. Russell watched him closely. The old man’s wrinkled eyelids fluttered and he began to rock slightly on his knees. “Oh, Maggie,” he mumbled, laughing softly and crying at the same time. “Yes, I miss her very much, Lord.” Harold touched his chest above his heart. “Yes, I see. Thank you, Lord. Thank you. I’m sorry I haven’t been listening to you. Yes. Okay. Thank you. You’re so kind.” Harold opened his eyes.

“Pretty amazing, huh?” Russell said, shedding tears himself, knowing what Harold had just experienced.        

Mr. Wilberforce hugged Russell. “It’s so beautifully, simple. God talks to us. Doesn’t the Word say so? But, I’ve never listened. Not in eighty years of being a Christian. Never been told to.”

“The enemy is clever,” Russell said.

“I recognized God’s voice, though. I’ve heard it before. Just never paid attention. He said not to worry about my heart because He’s taking me home soon to my beautiful Maggie.” Harold bent double and sobbed for several minutes. Russell patted his back. “I can’t wait to see her. He said He’s been taking care of her and He wants us together again in His presence. Oh, the peace is overwhelming, Russell. I want to stay here a while and rest in it.”

“Okay,” said Russell, standing. Looking toward the cross suspended above the pulpit he said, “Thank you,” and left the church.

He called his twelve friends and told them about Mr. Wilberforce. When they arrived back in Wilson, Russell said, “I want you to go around town as ambassadors of God.” He encouraged them to pair up, and prayed that the Lord would release the power within them. “Don’t take anything with you; no money or food, because you need to learn to trust God for such things. Since Monday and Tuesday are teacher workdays, stay out in the community until Tuesday night. Don’t go home. Sleep wherever the Spirit instructs.”   
 

"I want to see something happen,” said Peter.

“Don’t seek out individuals, but communities. If a community rejects you, don’t argue or dispute with them, just move on. If a neighborhood accepts your message, stay as long as you think necessary.”  

So the twelve boys went out and spoke on basketball courts and at family picnics. They talked with kids playing T-ball and parents watching soccer games. Wherever a community of people gathered, a pair showed up. They told everyone who would listen, that the Kingdom of God had come, and that it was time for the people of Wilkins to be transformed and filled with belief. And they saw many unclean lives washed pure, and cured many who were afflicted with the diseases of life in a fallen world.   

Principal Harrod heard of what the boys were doing, for Russell’s name had become well known. He was convinced that Johnny Witherspoon’s death motivated Russell, and that was why these public displays of religion were happening.  

Local principals kept calling Dr. Harrod, teasing him that perhaps Elijah or some other prophet of old had been reincarnated at Wilkins County High. Dr. Harrod didn’t find the calls humorous, in fact they gave him nightmares about Johnny Witherspoon being raised from the dead.

Dr. Harrod cursed himself for sending three local toughs to teach Johnny a lesson, which resulted in his murder. But didn’t Johnny ask for it? Why didn’t he mind his own business? The nerve of that boy telling him, a school principal, that his relationship with the librarian Judy Dupree was adulterous—walking right into his office and saying, “It’s ungodly and you have no right to betray your wife that way.” Of course when Judy found out she was furious. She demanded that he silence the loudmouthed freak, but he refused. He could not hurt a student. Besides he regarded Johnny with a kind of reverential fear, knowing that he was a good kid. Whenever Johnny came into his office, he secretly enjoyed listening to him. He didn’t understand what he said, but he respected the strange teenager. Then Judy threatened him with a sexual harassment lawsuit, swearing that she would ruin his career if he didn’t do something about Johnny Witherspoon. “I want his head on a platter,” the exasperated librarian screamed during one of their liaisons at the Quality Inn in Smithfield. He relented for numerous reasons, agreeing to send three recently expelled students to visit Johnny’s trailer in Wildwood. Apparently things got out of control and Johnny struck his head against a metal fence post, dying instantly. The police called it an accident. Dr. Harrod grieved for days after hearing the news, yet maintained his relationship with Judy, and his denial of any involvement in the incident. Johnny’s neighbors found his body and buried him in the woods behind the trailer park swimming pool.        

On Tuesday evening, when Russell’s friends returned from their mission, they gathered at Timberlake Park and celebrated all that they had done and taught. Russell chose the park as a meeting place because he knew his friends were tired and needed rest.

Eddie Claxton, who was hitting balls at the Timberlake driving range, saw them and decided to phone a few friends. It wasn’t long before the news spread and carloads of teenagers streamed out to the park to meet with Russell and his friends.

As Russell watched the teenagers assemble around the picnic shelter where he sat, he was moved with compassion for them because they were like little children with no one to guide them. He walked among them, listened to them, and taught them many things.

At ten o’clock, his friends came to him and said, “We’re out in the middle of nowhere and this is a school night. Send everyone home so they can eat and go to bed.” 
 

“Why don’t you give them something to eat yourselves,” said Russell.

“It would take two hundred dollars to feed this crowd,” said Thad. “Anyone got that much?”

”What do we have to eat?” asked Russell. “Go ask around and see what people have brought.”

After polling everyone they said, “We have five Twinkies and two Big Mac’s.”

Russell ordered the crowd to sit in the grass by high school. So, they flopped down in groups of fives and tens, looking like neatly trimmed garden plots of broccoli and squash.

Taking the five Twinkies and two Big Mac’s, Russell looked heavenward and, praising God, gave thanks. “Lord, we’re all gathered here before You. It’s a glorious night and we wait in expectation for You to demonstrate Your greatness. Thank You for what You will do.”

Mustafa Al-Ubaidi raced north on Highway 117, praying that the traffic delays were part of Allah’s plan for his life. Barely escaping with his life from Iraq, Mustafa cherished his job with the independent delivery company and didn’t want to miss his scheduled delivery to the Timberlake Golf Club. “Allah, forgive me,” he prayed as he tipped the step van on two wheels, struggling to make the turn into the park.

“Awas! Awas!” cried the Indonesian driver as the step van crossed dangerously close to the front end of his MacDonald’s delivery vehicle. The Hindu youth recalled readings from the Veda, guaranteeing good results for good deeds done. “That was dangerous,” he said aloud. “So, I must have done enough good things.” This boded well for the future.

Unfortunately, or seemingly so, the fortuitous event that came was that Mustafa slowed his step van to see the crowd of students in the picnic area, and Wayan, the Indonesian youth, sped up to deliver the 300 Big Mac’s to Dr. Mittinghouse’s seminar attendees, who were investigating the cultural impact of junk food in a post-modern world.

The resulting fender bender would have ended the citizenship hopes of both Mustafa and Wayan, except that the club owner, Mr. Webster, examined the accident scene and pronounced no one at fault. “You boys were just trying to make an urgent delivery, so no harm no foul. Tell you what,” Mr. Webster said in a moment of magnanimous spiritual insight, “just deliver the food to the conference folks, and give whatever’s left over to the kids in the park.” Since Russell had helped his daughter Debbie, Mr. Webster gladly paid both drivers. “Except for a couple of flattened snack cakes and burgers, I think everything has turned out for the best.”

Wayan and Mustafa delivered the food to the conference and were shocked to discover when they finished that their vehicles were still half-filled. They drove over to the picnic shelter, where they began distributing the burgers and cakes to the ravenous teenagers. The supply never seemed to end. At the end of the evening, twelve Big Mac’s and Twinkies remained.    

Mustafa and Wayan waited around to hear Russell speak, and the explanation of the prayer for food made them both feel an integral part of some miraculous, cosmic plan.     

Following the late night picnic, Russell insisted that Peter and the rest of the guys go ahead of him to the other side of town, while he was sending the crowd away. After they left, he went off into the woods to pray.  

It was very late now, past midnight, and the fuel pump in Tom McLaughlin’s van stopped working. The boys were frustrated and exhausted, trying to push the heavy vehicle another mile up Raleigh Road to Boykin’s Auto Repair, where they would leave it for the night.

“What’s that?” asked Tom, pointing up the road ahead of them.

Everyone stopped pushing. They stared, mouths agape, at a shadowy figure walking toward them on the double yellow line in the center of the street.

“We’re near that graveyard where Wiccan kids hang out,” said Andy Pittard. He needn’t say anything more, having ignited a spark of fear that spread from boy to boy until all of them were consumed in a collective blaze of terror. They all began screaming for help.

“Calm down you guys. It’s me,” said Russell. He climbed into the driver’s seat of the van and turned the ignition key. The Chevy engine immediately roared to life.

“How’d you do that?” asked Tom, reflecting the amazement of the band of boys. They were dumbfounded because they failed to consider or understand the teaching and meaning of the miracle of the Big Mac’s; in fact their hearts had grown callous—become dull and had lost the power of understanding.

When they reached the part of town where the former Wiccan youth lived, even at that late hour, people rushed out to meet them having recognized the van. The boy’s parents were especially exuberant and insisted that Russell and his friends spend the night at their house and leave for school the next day from there.

The following afternoon, they organized a neighborhood outreach to which many people came and were transformed and restored to spiritual health and true identity.
 

 

Seven

After the riot, Russell and his friends came to a graveyard on the south side of town. As soon as Russell emerged from Tom McLaughlin’s van, there came to him out from among the tombs a youth under the power of an unclean spirit. This teenager, along with other members of his Wicca coven, continually met among the grave sites and his parents, try as they might, could not subdue his obsession with witchcraft. They had often shackled him with home restriction, trying to handcuff his exposure to his dark friends, but he broke every rule and attempt to restrain him. During the Wicca rituals he ran shrieking and screaming among antebellum headstones, slicing himself with razors that he wore sewn within his clothing.

When from a distance he saw Russell, he ran and knelt before him in desparation. Crying out in a loud voice, he said, “What do you want with me, Russell Hicks, servant of the Most High God? What is there in common between us? I implore you by God, do not begin to torment me.”

Peter and the others moved back toward the van, urging Russell to let the kid alone and leave with them, because Russell was commanding the unclean spirit to come out of the youth.
 

“What is your name?” Russell asked the unclean spirit.

“Wicca,” the boy said in a hissing, cryptic voice. “We are many here in the high schools and churches. Do not send us away. This is our place.”

 “You must leave. The Kingdom of God is here.”

“Then send us into a neighboring county where the people deny the reality of our world and are defenseless against our schemes.”

Russell looked off toward the east, as if grieving for those who would succumb to the deception and destruction of this wily, insidious hater of mankind.

“Go,” he said, nearly whispering.

Forty miles away a group of teenagers cracked the seal on a bottle of whiskey, the second of the night, as they sped south on I-95. The driver, a senior at Beddingfield High School, felt a sudden, breathtaking infusion of power burst within him. A similar, intoxicating sense of immortality swept through the souls of the car’s other four passengers and they screamed for higher speeds and more whisky. The now invincible driver jammed the accelerator to the floor and when the speedometer reached 110 mph he lost control of the station wagon. The guardrail above the Tarboro River barely slowed the vehicle as it ripped through the barrier and landed upside down in the cold, dark depths, where the five young people drowned. 

Two police officers, dispatched to the nightly complaint of teenagers loitering in the Wilkins Cemetery, arrived to find Russell and the Wiccan youth, with whom they were quite familiar, sitting on the curb.

The older, more portly of the two officers shined his flashlight in the faces of all the boys standing and sitting in the parking lot, but fixed the beam on the face of the Wiccan boy.

“Hey Lewis, take a look at who we got here, sittin’ real quiet and calm.”

The younger officer finished checking Tom McLaughlin’s license and registration and walked to his partner. 

“Well, I be damned...”

“I pray that you won’t, officer,” said Russell.

“…if it isn’t Kenny Madison the warlock or witch or whatever you’re supposed to be.”

“I’m finished with that stuff now,” said Kenny rising to his feet. “I’m sorry for all the trouble I’ve been. I didn’t really know what I was doing.” He offered a conciliatory hand to the policeman.

“You’re creepier now than when you were spray painting tombstones,” said the officer, refusing Kenny’s hand. “And who’s your pal here?”

“His name is Russell Hicks and he came out here to set me free from the demonic power that controlled me.”

“Run them out of here, Lewis,” said the senior officer. “I don’t like all this talk about demons. Gives me nightmares.”

As Russell climbed back into the van, Kenny Madison said, “Let me hang around with you guys from now on.”

“No, Kenny. Go home to your family and friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how He has had sympathy for you and mercy on you.”    

So Kenny Madison left and began to proclaim publicly in his part of town how much God had done for him, and all the people were astonished and marveled at his transformed life.        

The following day Russell sat in Chemistry class wondering how he might help his teacher, Mr. Emory, who talked often about a bitter dispute he was having with his oldest daughter. One of the school’s secretaries entered the room and ordered Russell to Principal Harrod’s office.

Wondering if he was in some kind of trouble, Russell knocked and then entered Dr. Harrod’s office.

Unceremoniously the principal said, “Russell, this is Mr. Jarris, a leader in the Episcopal church here in Wilson. Because he is a very influential man I have allowed him to interrupt your class in order to ask a favor of you.”

The two men eyed one another with an intensity that suggested to Russell that a volatile discussion had preceded his entry into the room.

“For the record I think this is nonsense, but I won’t deny a father’s right to do everything he thinks necessary to help his daughter. I’ll leave you two alone.” Dr. Harrod closed the door behind him with some force, restating his disapproval of the meeting.

“My little daughter is in such a deep state of depression that I’m afraid she’s going to die,” said the church leader. Deep lines of anxiety creased his face. “We’ve tried everything but nothing seems to help. My sister said you helped her son with a serious skin ailment and Billy Balkman’s father said his son is an honor role student now. I thought maybe if you just came and prayed for her…” his voice cracked in anguish. He removed a monogrammed handkerchief from his breast pocket and wiped his eyes.

Russell reached over and put his hand on the man’s shoulder. “Let’s go ask God to heal her.”

As the two exited the administrative office the bell rang dismissing classes. The halls flooded with students hurrying to exchange books in lockers, visit restrooms, or catch up on any juicy gossip that might have developed in the last ninety minutes. Russell and Mr. Jarris were jostled and jolted in the sea of students. Getting to the exit was proving difficult.

Just outside the surge of students stood Debbie Webster. Clutching against the knife-like pain slicing through her abdomen she watched Russell trying to pass through the crowd. She wondered if he could help her. The abortion had been more horrible than anything she could have imagined. It had been thirty minutes of invasive agony, where she felt as if her organs were being ripped from her. And her baby. What had she done? The tears gushed across her heavily rouged cheeks, like the flow of blood that never seemed to stop pouring from her body. The termination of her pregnancy had not made her life easier, but more tragic. Debbie Webster knew that mentally she was bleeding to death.

Gathering up her courage she pushed toward Russell. She had heard other students talk about how Russell had helped them; how in touch with God he was. She thought that if she could just touch someone that spiritual, perhaps things would change. It was a stupid idea, she knew, but she had no other hope.

“Ewwwh, don’t touch me,” one of the Act Teen girls said as Debbie squeezed between her and another student. “We saw you going into the abortion clinic the day we were protesting. Murderer.”

Debbie cried harder. She strained her right arm above the head of a freshman, grabbing Russell’s shirt collar with such determination that he spun around to face her.

“Who…who’s pulling on me?”

Alarmed and frightened at her own actions, Debbie tried to break free of the crowd. Her feet became tangled with those of a lanky basketball player and she fell to the floor at Russell’s feet.

Kneeling beside her, Russell slipped his hand under her arm, helping her to sit upright.

“I had an abortion,” she cried, hysterically. “I…I killed my baby. It was a girl. I’m so sorry. Oh God, my insides burn all the time.”

Russell pulled her head to his chest and held her tightly. “God calls you His daughter,” he whispered into her ear. “Did you know that?”

Knotted, spasmodic cramps within Debbie began to loosen. She lifted her face to examine the sincerity of Russell’s words.

He smiled down at her. “What’s your name?”

“Debbie,” she said. Makeup spread clown-like across her face and a filmy trail of mucus bisected her lips, yet Russell saw the beauty trapped within.

“Why’d you grab me, Debbie?”

She shook her head and sniffed hard. “I think I was really trying to grab hold of God.”

“Come on. Stand up.” Russell helped her to her feet and Mr. Jarris offered her his damp handkerchief.

“Debbie your trust and confidence in grabbing hold of me springs from your incredible faith in and longing for God. He has already restored you because He has already paid for your mistakes. Just receive what He has done for you and go in peace. Be continually healed and freed from your pain and distress.”

While Russell was speaking, there came from the administrative offices another secretary, who handed Mr. Jarris a phone message. He read the note, then crumpled it and let it drop to the floor.

“I’m not going to bother you anymore, Russell. My daughter’s comatose and in intensive care at Wilkins General.” Debbie returned Mr. Jarris’s handkerchief to him. He dabbed his eyes.

Ignoring the news, Russell said, “Don’t accept this information. You came here in faith, so let’s keep believing.”

The Longley and Jackson brothers approached, so Russell asked them to accompany him to the hospital. When they arrived at the waiting room outside the intensive care unit, Russell looked carefully and with understanding at the tumult and the people weeping loudly. Gaining the permission of the nurse in charge, Mr. Jarris, Russell, the Longley and Jackson brothers and the family entered the girl’s room.

“Why are you making such a commotion weeping?” Russell asked the family, exasperated. “Reject death. This little girl is not dead but is only sleeping.”

“Are you a doctor?” said a relative, scoffing. “This girl has been dying for weeks now. I’m sorry, Bill,” he said referring to Mr. Jarris, “but accept the fact she’s beyond help, and begin the grieving process.”

“Get out!” Russell screamed, clasping his hands over his ears. “Get them out of here.”

Mr. Jarris and his wife ushered angry relatives from the unit and rejoined their daughter. Russell knelt by the bedside and gripped the motionless child’s hand firmly. “What do I do, Lord?” He waited a moment, listening, then leaned close to her face and said, “Little girl, tell death to go away. Right now. Say it in your spirit. Tell death that God orders him to leave you alone.”

Mrs. Jarris shot a questioning glance at her husband, but he nodded reassuringly as if to say, “what can it hurt?” Then, a movement beneath the sanitized sheets.

“Oh, God!” Mr. Jarris squeezed his wife tightly.

“Yes, God,” said Peter Longley hardly believing what was happening.

“Little girl, is anybody with you?” Russell asked, bent so close to her face his lips nearly brushed her cheek.          

“Yes,” she whispered, her eyes still closed. Mrs. Jarris nearly collapsed at the sound of her daughter’s voice.

“Who is with you?” Russell asked.

“A bad man and Jesus,” was the faint reply. “Jesus is telling the bad man to go away.”

“Is the bad man leaving?”

“Yes,” the girl said nodding her head. “Yes, he’s leaving.” A slight smile lifted her pale lips, but her eyes remained closed.

“What does Jesus want you to do?”

“He wants me to come take his hand. He’s holding it out to me.”

“Jesus is life, little girl. Take his hand.”

The child lifted her arm from beneath the sheet and clasped her fingers around an invisible object. She opened her eyes and sat up in the bed. The Jarris couple rushed to embrace their daughter in an astonished outpouring of affection and joyous relief.

“Don’t try and explain this to anyone,” Russell warned the appreciative parents. “Oh and give her something to eat. She’s probably really hungry.”

Without another word, Russell and his friends left the room.