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.”