Three

Now after Johnny Witherspoon was imprisoned in a yearlong, in-school suspension, Russell enrolled in Wilkins County High School and began sharing the good news about the Kingdom of God. He walked about the halls between classes saying, “A very unique time has come to Wilkins and the kingdom of God is right here among us. What we need is a radical transformation in the way that we understand ourselves and the world around us. We must take hold of this spiritual insurgency and believe it with all of our hearts.”

One evening, Russell was walking along the chain-linked fence that separated the school’s football field from the baseball diamond when he saw Peter Longley practicing. He was still wearing his football pads and running through plays though practice had long since ended and the field was nearly empty.

Russell watched them for a while, then walked onto the field and said, “It’s pretty late to be practicing, isn’t it?”

Peter dropped down to a knee and removed his helmet. “I have to work harder than most of the other players. I’m not very good and I never get to play in the games, but one day…” he stopped to catch his breath. He smelled of August, cut sod and sweat.

“Tell you what. If you hang around with me, I’ll show you not only how to be a good football player, but a football player that changes the lives of the people around you.”

Peter measured Russell for several seconds. “What do you know about football? You ever played before?”

“Everything comes from the heart. I know about heart.”

“Well, I suck at football. So I guess if you can help me with that, then okay.”

“Good,” Russell said, smiling.

“Hey, what about the Jackson boys?” Peter asked, pointing at two players running wind sprints at the far end of the field. A man sat in the bleachers watching the boys, sipping a beer and hurling out an occasional expletive. “You know, they suck worse than me, and their dad just keeps forcing them to play. He’ll beat them right out here in front of everybody. I feel sorry for ‘em.”

Russell walked the length of the field and spoke with the Jacksons. After several minutes and much cursing from Mr. Jackson, the two brothers, Jimmy and Johnny, dropped their pads on the field and followed Russell toward the gate. Amazed, Peter ran to join them.

That Sunday, the four of them went to the First Christian Church of Wilkins. It was the first time Russell’s new friends had attended church since they were children, so Russell suggested they visit the high-school-aged Sunday school class.

The teacher, a retired school administrator named Mrs. Habershaw, was so shocked to see four teen-aged, male visitors that she completely forgot what it was she was going to say about the sacrificial system in Leviticus and asked instead if one of the boys would like to introduce themselves.

Russell surveyed the class of eight students. A deep sadness welled up within him as he read the deadness in the eyes of the seven awkward girls, and the unmitigated lust in the eyes of the only other male in the room. His name was Billie Balkman, but he preferred the nickname Bull Dog, which aptly described his physical appearance and his rabid behavior on the gridiron as the leading tackler on the Wilkin High School Demons’ football team. Bull Dog growled as Russell and his friends found seats; jealous that competition had entered his sacred domain.

“Watch out for Bull Dog,” Peter whispered to Russell. “He’s pure evil.”

After thanking Mrs. Habershaw for the opportunity to speak, Russell stood and introduced himself and the others.

“Sissies,” Bull Dog said with a snarl. “They suck at football.”     

Ignoring the remark, Russell proceeded to explain God’s message to the students, encouraging them that they were more than they thought themselves to be and that the secret to achieving their dreams in life was the transforming power of the living, loving God.

Mrs. Habershaw felt so uplifted by Russell’s words that she purposed in her heart to pull out the romance manuscript she had written and send it forthwith to a publisher. Why not? Dreams and aspirations filled the mind of each person in the room such that there was a collective amazement at the words of the young speaker.

Seventeen-year-old Betty Weeks said, “You speak like you’ve already been to seminary, but not the seminary here in Wilkins. Mrs. Habershaw, could Russell speak to us again next week? I’d like some of my friends to hear what he has to say.”

Someone inviting a friend? Actual class growth? Mrs. Habershaw couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “Why yes, Betty. That’s a fine idea if Mr. Hicks is willing to return.”   

The accolades were more than Bull Dog could bear. No one steals his glory. Nearly blind with jealousy for Betty Week’s attention and affection, the all-state linebacker raised up out of his chair in red-faced rage.

“What are you doing here with us, Russell Hicks? Are you here just to show off all your Sunday school smarts and mess up what I got going? I know who you are. You’re that nut case that thinks he’s some messenger from God.”

Imagining Russell as an unprotected, opposing quarterback just begging for his signature, Demon pride, bone-crushing forearm shiver, Bull Dog dropped to an attack stance and prepared to drive Russell Hicks through the wall into the senior adults’ class next door.

Peter scrunched up his face in anticipation of the pain Russell was about to experience, while the Jackson brothers buried their faces in their hands.

“Be quiet, Bull Dog and sit down,” Russell said without raising his voice. “You’re not mad at me. You’re angry because you don’t really like football but you think you’re too stupid to do anything else. You’re not a dumb jock, Billie Balkman. You’re one of the smartest kids in the school. You just believe something false about yourself, so you don’t try to study. With God’s help, that destructive, Demon linebacker hostility can come out of you and you can be free. I think Betty Weeks might like the real Billie Balkman if she ever met him.”

Billie stared slack-jawed at Russell unable to move. Dumbfounded by Russell’s insight, he dropped back into his chair without a word. He glanced at Betty and she offered a smile that he would remember for the rest of his life. That smile would carry them through many happy years of marriage until the December morning when Betty, age 92, would smile at Billy for the last time.

As for the rest of the group, they were so amazed by what had happened that they questioned one another asking, “What is this? What awesome teaching. He speaks with such authority that even the meanest of all the Demon football players obeys him.”   

Immediately, as is understandable among high school students and small town folks, rumors concerning Russell Hicks spread everywhere throughout the town and even into the surrounding county.

Due to commotion, Russell left the church at once and went to Peter’s house, accompanied by the Jackson brothers.

“I’d offer y’all something to eat but my mama’s been sick, so you’ll have to fend for yourselves.”

“What’s wrong with her?” Russell asked.

“She’s got a fever that won’t go away. I took her to the doctor, but the medicine isn’t working.”

Russell went to her and pulled a chair up beside the bed. Curled tight in a fetal position, she lifted her head slightly and asked, “Who are you?”

“I’m Russell Hicks, ma’am. Is it okay if I pray for God to heal you?”

An expression of doubt oozed from her glazed, runny eyes, culminating in a skeptical upturn of her parched lips. “Why not? Tried everything else.”

The moment Russell took hold of her feverish hand and began to pray, the room’s yellowed, lace curtains lifted with a fresh breeze that washed over her infected form. A light glaze of sweat emerged across her forehead and she straightened her body beneath the sheets.

“My God,” she whispered, sitting up in the bed, not wanting to release herself from his touch.

“That’s right, Mrs. Longley—your God. He did it.” Withdrawing his hand gently, he left the room. Shortly thereafter, Mrs. Longley entered the kitchen and made lunch for the boys.

That evening, as the autumn sun gradually relinquished its ownership of the heavens, students from the Sunday school class brought their friends to Peter’s house.

“We normally go to the Sunday night service at church,” explained Betty Weeks to Russell, “but since that’s so boring and you were so…well…interesting, we thought we’d come talk with you. Look, even Billie came and brought some guys from the football team with him.”

“Hey, Russell,” Billie called from the street. “I got some Demons to come with me. Can you help free them up like you did me?”

There were too many people to fit into Peter’s meager house, so the students sat in the front yard. The crowd aroused the interest of passersby, who abandoned walking their dogs and leisurely evening strolls to listen to the strange teenager speak so authoritatively about the things of God. It wasn’t long before it appeared that most of the town were sitting or standing in front of Peter’s weathered, insignificant house.

Russell prayed with many who were afflicted with the various diseases of life; and drove off a few of the Demons because they came drunk and tried to disrupt the gathering. Dozens of high school students confessed their alienation from their parents and institutional religion, receiving in return the revitalizing breath of a God whom they’d never met but always hoped existed. Hardened men who had reluctantly left their television programs at the insistence of a damn dog that had to take a leak, returned home transformed. And arrogant, self-sufficient Demons cried out in agony as Russell prayed them into broken submission before the Lord of All. As they wandered back to their cars, physically depleted but spiritually renewed, Russell warned the Demons not to tell people about him.  

Early the next morning, long before the sun rose to usher in the kingdom of the day, Russell got up, still tired from the night’s activity and went out to a deserted cotton field and prayed.

When Peter awoke, and discovered that Russell was not on the couch in the front room, he woke the others. They scoured the neighborhood, questioning the paperboy and a homeless man without success.

“There he is,” shouted Peter, who had climbed atop an empty boxcar as the boys crossed the railroad tracks at Barnes Street. “He’s out in the field on his knees.”

They ran to him. Johnny Jackson said, “Come on, Russell. People are already showing up at Peter’s house looking for you. You’re famous.”

The boys smiled at each other, excited to be a part of what was happening.

“I’m not going back there,” Russell said, rising to his feet.

“Why not?” Peter asked.

“I didn’t come to Wilkins to be famous,” Russell answered indignantly. “Let’s go to some other neighborhoods, where other people need help. That’s what I’m here for.”

Bewildered, the foursome trailed off after Russell with small puffs of parched soil signaling each step. 

So Russell and the others went throughout Wilkins, speaking in Sunday school classes and youth meetings, regularly driving out the Demons who disliked him because their star linebacker had left the team to concentrate on his studies and prepare for the upcoming Math Olympics.

On Tuesday, during lunch in the school cafeteria, a ninth-grader marred by severe acne pulled an empty chair close to Russell and said, “I heard you speak at the Wesleyan church on Hines Street and I believe what you said about hope and a transformed life, but look at me.”

Russell stared unabashedly at the boy. Red-based papules topped with pus-filled lesions peppered the boy’s face from forehead to chin. The sight of the leprous freshman forced the Jackson brothers from the table in appetite-suppressing revulsion.

“I’m like an outcast,” the boy said, his eyes filling with tears of desperation. “If you want to, Russell, I think you can help me. Please?”

“What’s your name?” Russell asked.

“Nelson.”

“Well, Nelson I am willing to help you. Tell me what you see when you look at yourself in the mirror?”

Nelson dropped his head, the acne flaming more intensely with his shame.

“I see zits. Millions and millions of ugly zits.”

“That’s not what Emily Parker sees when she looks at you in Algebra class, Nelson.”

“What? Emily Parker?” The freshman’s pimples plummeted into to a dark, purplish-blue color at the mention of the ninth-grade homecoming queen. “What’s she got to do with this?”

Russell reached out and took Nelson’s oozing, bumpy chin in his hand. “Listen, I could tell you that God loves what He sees when He looks at you, but I doubt if that will encourage you much. God knows that of course, so He puts people in our lives that help us understand just how much He cares for us. So, he put Emily Parker in your Algebra class.”

“She wants to puke when she looks at me.”

“No, Nelson. You want to puke when she looks at you, because of how you see yourself. Why don’t you ask her what she sees?”

“What do you think she sees, Russell?”

“I think she sees a guy who could help her with her Algebra; a guy who would be more interested in who she is than what she looks like. I think she sees someone with whom she could be herself and talk about the things in her heart that cause her to feel isolated and abandoned.”

“Really?”

Russell smiled. “Really. And, Nelson, I see someone who knows the truth about God; a God that Emily Parker desperately, desperately needs.”

Nelson sat silent for several minutes, head bowed, considering what Russell had said. When he lifted his eyes he spotted Emily Parker entering the cafeteria surrounded by the most popular ninth-graders in the school.

“How you look is not who you are, Nelson. And how Emily Parker looks is not who she is. Let God free you of that false identity so that you can help her be free of hers. Now go on. She needs you.”

Nodding his head, the freshman rose from his chair. “Okay,” he said, pursing his lips with determination. “Okay.”

Nelson marched across the cafeteria and, leaving his pockmarked visage behind, offered Emily Parker a clear-skinned invitation to join him for help in Algebra anytime she felt necessary. Emily thanked him and suggested the soonest possible date.

Later that week, after three tutoring sessions and the most rapturous conversation Nelson had ever experienced, he found Russell in the library to tell him the good news.

“That’s great, Nelson. Do me a favor, though. Don’t go around telling everyone what’s happened because then every guy in the school will be bothering me. Instead, talk to your youth group at the Wesleyan church about what God has taught you so they can see what kind of joy is possible in life. Agreed?”

“Agreed,” said Nelson, who then proceeded to tell everyone he could think of about how Russell Hicks had helped him. Nelson told so many people, including his very grateful parents, that Russell could not walk around openly in town without being stopped by people requesting his help. To be alone, he tried eating his lunch in the custodial closet at the school, but the janitor, Mr. Cleveland, found him and asked how he could put some fire back in his marriage with Mrs. Cleveland.