Four

Three weeks later, on a Monday evening, a rumor spread that Russell Hicks was eating supper over at Peter Longley’s house. Billie Balkman and Betty Weeks quickly organized a meeting of students from Wilkins County High School and neighboring Rocky Mount High School at Bob’s Barbecue on Forest Road.

“Listen,” Billie shouted, standing on the hood of his car so that everyone could hear him. “Russell Hicks, the guy we’ve been telling you about, is at our friend’s house. Pile into your cars and follow me.”

Billie, who had never envisioned himself as a servant of others, was discovering an inexplicable joy in helping his fellow students achieve goals they thought unreachable. His rigorous weight training and skills development program, along with a healthy dose of Bible study, had helped the Longley and Jackson brothers become moderately good football players and even play in a few games. He found greater pleasure in watching them succeed than he did in sacking an unsuspecting quarterback in a championship game. He couldn’t explain why; it was just what he was becoming.

The parade of cars clogged the street in front of Peter’s house, but the neighbors didn’t seem to mind. They emerged from their houses as well, anxious to hear the strangely sagacious teenager once again speak of things eternal.

Mrs. Longley welcomed as many people as possible into her tiny front room, but the number was so great that eager listeners clogged the doorway and spilled out into the front yard. Russell stood on a threadbare ottoman and began discussing the Word of God.

“Hey, watch out!” someone shouted from just outside the doorway. “What are you doing?” someone else called out in an angry tone.

The crowd in the doorway surged convulsively as four black teenagers pushed their way through the congested foyer, holding a trembling, bloody, white youth above their heads. Once in front of Russell they dropped the young man to the floor.”

“We caught this guy spray paintin’ some pretty bad stuff about us on a building in our neighborhood,” said the leader of the group. “Normally, we’d take care of this in a back alley, but we heard you talking at the street church the other night and we thought, man, this stuff has got to stop.”

Russell considered the street-hardened leader and asked, “What do you want to do?”

“One part of me wants to break every bone in his body,” he said looking at the quivering mass on the floor. “But there’s another part of me that says this kid is just sick and beatin’ him up ain’t going to accomplish anything.”

“I think you’re right,” said Russell.

“He’s like paralyzed with fear and hatred of people different than him. I don’t know. We thought that maybe if we carried him here, you could help him.”

When Russell saw the faith the four young men displayed in God’s ability to transform the swastika-tattooed teenager before them and their willingness to carry him themselves toward that transformation, he marveled.

“What’s your name?” he asked the bleeding youth.

“People call me Snake,” he said, trying to sound tough.

“I don’t want to know what the world calls you. I want to know your real name.”

“Arnold.”

“Okay, Arnold. Now, do you understand what God has done for you tonight? These guys could have hurt you very badly, but instead they are trying to help you. God has influenced them to have compassion on you. Do you see that?”

Arnold wiped some blood from his lip and nodded.

“You’re crippled by hostility, Arnold. The way out of the prison of your racism is to receive the forgiveness of God and these men here. Do you want that forgiveness, Arnold?”

The broken youth choked back a sob, again nodding his head.

“Say it, Arnold,” Russell ordered.

Arnold turned his body to face the four young black men. “I want forgiveness.”

The group’s leader looked at his companions and sighed heavily. “Maybe it’s a beginning.” Facing Arnold he said, “Okay, man. Okay.”

Russell said, “Your sins are forgiven, Arnold. That means there is no penalty for your actions and your guilt is gone. You are now in a right standing with God and man. You are free.”

It so happened on this particular Monday night, that some Master’s of Divinity students from the local seminary had mixed in among the crowd and began discussing among themselves the theological ramifications of what they were observing.

“Who does this kid think he is, talking like this? Does he believe that he can just pronounce forgiveness, remove guilt, remit the penalty for sin and declare someone righteous? There are proper procedures. He’s not ordained, is he?”     

Russell heard their discussion. “Why are you debating this? Which do you think is more difficult to say to this paralyzed teenager, ‘Your sins are forgiven and put away through God’s grace, or stand up, walk out of here with these men you previously feared and hated, and keep on walking with them in friendship?’” 

When they failed to answer, Russell said, “Just so you know that the transforming power of the living God is not limited to man-inspired, systematic formulas, I say to you, Arnold, get up off Mrs. Longley’s rug and walk out of here with your new friends.”

Immediately Arnold arose, lifting with him the contriteness of a man forgiven, and walked out with the four black youths who had carried him upon their shoulders into emancipation.

The people were all amazed and praised and thanked God, saying, “We have never seen anything like that before.”  

The next afternoon, Russell walked along the shore of the county reservoir with students from his world history class, discussing the perilous exclusivity of institutionalized religion. As he was passing by a secluded picnic area, he saw Matthew Levinson, the son of a prominent tax attorney named Levi Levinson, selling plastic bags of marijuana to a group of younger boys.

“Hey, Matt,” Russell called out. “You got a minute to talk?”

Dismissing his customers with a furtive exchange of money, Matthew approached Russell suspiciously.

“What’s the problem?”

“No problem,” Russell said, smiling. “I was hoping you’d be a part of what God is doing in our town.”

A sardonic grin twisted Matthew’s face. He pulled a silver case from his shirt pocket and jammed a Marlboro between his lips. “Is God doing something here?” Fishing a gold, Zippo lighter from another pocket, he lit the cigarette and shot a stream of smoke above Russell’s head. “Seems like God would have better things to do than waste his time in a piece of crap town like this.”

“You dress well,” Russell said.

Confused by the change in subject Matthew said, “I’m guessing that you didn’t call me over to compliment me on my wardrobe. So what the hell’s the point of this conversation?”

“You’re good at what you do.” 

Matthew Levinson drew deeply from his cigarette, shaking his head and appraising Russell with an inherent business acumen that enabled him to build a lucrative narcotics clientele while avoiding zealous sheriffs’ deputies.

“Look,” he said, “I’ve heard about you around school and I’ve lost some good customers because of you. I know what you are and you just saw what I am. I don’t see any mutual interests.”

“What are you, Matt?” Russell asked.

“You think I’m embarrassed or ashamed about who I am or what I do?” Matthew said, flicking his unfinished cigarette at Russell. “Well I’m not. I’m a damn good businessman and I’ve got more vision and money than any kid in this town. Did you know that I’ve been accepted into Duke’s School of Business? I don’t care what people think about me. I’m doing something with my life.”

“Exactly,” Russell said, brushing cigarette ashes from his shirt. “You’re exactly the kind of person God wants.”

“That’s it. I’m out of here.” Matthew pushed past Russell and walked toward the reservoir.

Without moving, Russell said, “I’ve got a hundred dollars that says if you and your friends will spend one hour with me tonight, listening to what I have to say, you’ll all want to be a part of what is about to happen in Wilson.”

The drug dealer slowed, but refused to turn around.

“You think you have vision, Matt? Wait until you hear what God wants to do with you.”

Matthew stopped. A solitary hawk circled low above the reservoir’s surface searching for prey. The financial success of his business endeavors had brought him significant reward, but the isolation was becoming more difficult to ignore. Sure, he had people he partied with, but he was always on guard, distrustful of every relationship. He hadn’t thought about it in such lucid terms before. He was lonely.

The boys turned toward one another simultaneously as if it were high noon in a western drama.

“I can make a hundred bucks in half an hour,” said Matthew.

“I’ll throw in supper at Flo’s Place.” Russell said. “Come on, Matt. This will change your life and the life of those you hang around with. It's a good business proposition."

“You’re a different kind of person, Russell.”

“Yes. And, so are you.”

Matthew studied Russell, trying to gauge the sincerity of his offer. Free dinner and the possibility of a transformed life seemed a reasonable business risk. If things didn’t work out, at least he could spend one evening with a person who seemed genuinely interested in his welfare. “I’ll be there in the parking lot at 7:00. I’ll be driving a black BMW.”

“See you there,” said Russell, watching Matthew Levinson vanish within a cluster of ancient, North Carolina pines.    

That night, as Russell, together with the Longley and Jackson brothers, sat at several pushed-together tables, Matthew Levinson, along with other local drug dealers and people stained with various crimes and perversions, came and dined at Flo’s all-you-can-eat, chicken fried steak buffet.

Matthew sat next to Russell, where he listened carefully to an explanation of God’s perspective on his life. So astounded was Matthew at the lack of condemnation and the soul-liberating encouragement of Russell’s words, that he ordered everyone in his sordid crew to shut up and listen to what his new friend had to say.

Russell stood up near the salad fixin’s bar and said, “All the things you guys do that society despises or criminalizes, may in fact spring from the very talents and abilities God has placed in you to make you great. But these positive qualities have been degraded because you don’t know who you really are.”

“I know who I am,” shouted a heavily tattooed, gothic youth sitting next to the soft ice cream machine. “I am a spawn of the night.”

“No you’re not, Greg McDonald.” Russell moved to the youth and put a hand on his shoulder. “You are an intensely spiritual person who hides in the dark, gothic world because you feel unworthy of the Kingdom of Light where true power awaits you. Walk into it, Greg. The Source of all true spirituality invites you into His presence.”

Moving to the ice cream machine, Russell filled a cone and held it up to the group. “What is this?” he asked.

Nervous laughter erupted from a few of the listeners, but no one answered.

“This is sweet, white cream intended for pleasure.” Russell licked the cone and smiled. “Umm, good.” Then he slammed the cone down into a plate of half-eaten collard greens, splashing those nearby with bits of milky colored vegetables.

“I like you, Russell.” Matthew said, clapping. “You’re more dangerous than we are.”

Russell raised the destroyed dessert above his head. “What do I have now? Something that was once good has been crushed into something detestable.” Dropping the mangled food onto the table he said, “Every hour of every day there is an enemy who crushes your potential goodness, your true identity, under the weight of evil and deception. This deception corrupts your ability to influence people for good into a knack for selling them drugs. This persistent, eternal lie reduces your search for the spiritual life into a shadowy prison of malevolent ritual and your longing for intimacy with another person into cheap pornographic coupling.”

Russell spread his arms wide to include the entire group. “You are the people who can transform this town. You, the very ones who the teachers and the police say are the scum, can be God’s hands in turning this place upside down.”

“How?” Matthew asked.

“By being transformed yourselves.”

“What does that mean, though?” the gothic youth said.

“If you will follow me, I will teach you.” Russell answered.

Much discussion followed about what it would mean to follow Russell’s lead and in the end the disreputable of Wilson agreed that the promise of a transformed life was just too good of an opportunity to pass up--that and the idea of turning the town upside down.

As the depraved members of the community considered their future, a religious student organization from Wilkins County High School entered Flo’s Place. Famished from a three-hour hymn sing the Act Teens, as they were known, descended upon the buffet like a plague of locusts.

While shoveling mounds of pulled barbecue onto his plate, Kyle Affas, the president of the Act Teens, noticed Russell Hickman dining with the unsavory characters.

“Hey, Peter?” Kyle called to the older of the Longley brothers, who was piling mashed potatoes into a salad bowl. “What’s Russell doing eating with that disgusting Matthew Levinson and his friends? Doesn’t he know what those guys are into?”

Russell heard Kyle’s comments, so before Peter could answer he met the Act Teen president by the meatloaf.

“You have a question about who I associate with, Kyle?”

“Just thinking about how this discredits your already questionable testimony, Russell. As people of God we need to be above reproach, don’t you think?”

“These people don’t come to your Bible studies, do they?” asked Russell, smiling at Matthew and his friends.

Kyle huffed. “This collection of troublemakers refuses to change. They’d just disrupt our study and prayer times. But, Russell you could come if you wanted. Digging into the scriptures might help you straighten out some of your doctrinal misunderstandings.”

Russell shook his head sadly. “You don’t need me, Kyle. The Act Teens have everything about God already figured out. But these errant ones here, they need help. I was born for them.”

“Born for them, huh?” Kyle said rolling his eyes. “That’s a major messiah complex you’ve got there, Russell. Better watch out. Messiahs tend to get themselves killed.”

“So I’ve read,” said Russell, and then rejoined the lost. 

The following Wednesday, Johnny Witherspoon’s Bible study groups and the Act Teens were fasting for revival in the country and some students asked Russell, “Why aren’t you and your friends participating in the National Day of Fasting?”

“The gospel is new to the people I’m teaching. Our gatherings are celebrations of grace and forgiveness. If I start telling them that they need to fast then they might be tempted to find their spiritual value or worth in conduct rather than faith. But don’t worry. The day will come when their faith will be tested and they will fast.”

“Why don’t you join in with Act Teens?” they asked.

“No one pours a freshly opened coke into one where the can has been left open too long and the fizz is gone. The Act Teens are trapped in an opened coke can of tradition and they have lost the effervescence of the Spirit of God. If the Spirit attempted to pour into them, the conventionality of their religiosity would grieve the very Spirit of God Itself into flatness."