FIVE

One Wednesday morning Russell went into the Scholastic Achievement Test in the high school’s auditorium, and an Asian student was there who was under such harsh, parental pressure to gain entrance into a major university that her hands were withered in panic. If she dishonored her family, suicide seemed her only option.

“Help me. I can’t even hold my pencil,” she pleaded with Russell, who purposefully sat beside her.

“No talking,” shouted Mr. Boytoe, the gym teacher charged with monitoring the college placement test. “Anyone who breaks the rules in here will be expelled from the exam and school.”

Kyle Affas and several other Act Teens kept watching Russell closely to see whether he would help the Asian girl during the test, so that they could go to Mr. Boytoe and formally accuse Russell of violating the school’s honor code.

“What part of ‘no talking’ did you not understand Mr. Hicks?” Mr. Boytoe said, noticing Russell’s raised hand. “Seems you have a problem with understanding rules.”

Russell stood and motioned for the shrunken Asian girl to stand with him.

“My question, Mr. Boytoe, sir, is whether it is better during the SAT test to speak words of encouragement or say nothing? Is it wiser to save a life or remain silent?”

“There’s no one here in need of your salvation, Mr. Hicks,” the gym teacher said sarcastically, much to the pleasure of Kyle Affas and the Act Teens. “I think you’d better just sit down before you get into serious trouble.”

Glancing around the room, Russell asked, “And what do the rest of you think?”

When no one responded, Russell’s eyes blazed with frustration at their lack of concern for the obviously distraught girl crying at his side.

“Hold out your hands,” Russell ordered the girl.

“You’re pressing your luck, son,” Mr. Boytoe bellowed.

Ignoring the warning, Russell took the girl’s fear-withered hands in his own and said, “God controls your future, not the SAT. Release yourself to Him, rest in His loveTake this and every test within the identity God has given you and do not find your identity in the test. In this way He will enable you to pass every test that He places in your life.”

Immediately the young woman’s hands straightened and a new confidence filled her.

“Thank you,” she said. Taking up her number-2 pencil with certainty, she looked to Mr. Boytoe and said, “I’m ready now.”

“One day you’re gonna pay for your disregard for rules, Russell Hicks," warned Mr. Boytoe. "Now everyone begin.”

After the test, Kyle Affas consulted with the Act Teen faculty advisors and warned them that Russell Hicks was going to destroy the ministry they had worked so hard to establish in the high school. Agreeing with the assessment, the group began devising a means to have Russell Hicks expelled. 

That afternoon Russell retired with his friends to Lake Toisnot and a large group from Wilkins High School followed him. Students from Hunt High School were also there. Having heard the many things he was doing, they came to him and pressed him to help them with dating relationships, parental problems, substance abuse issues, all of which centered on questions of identity.  

Russell told his close friends to rent a rowboat so that he could stand in it just off the shore and speak to the whole crowd. He had helped so many people that anyone, who had a distressing disease of the heart or mind, kept pressing against him in order that he might touch their lives.

Some of Wilkins High Demons and the Hunt Blue Devils--the transformed ones--whenever they saw Russell, locked arms and kept screaming, “Russell Hicks has come to Wilkins direct from God.”

Embarrassed, Russell begged them again and again not to talk about him like that. “People won’t understand what you mean and it will cause unnecessary problems for me.”

Some distance from the lake, Russell went up on a hillside and called to himself those whom he wanted and chose to be his closest friends and they came to him.

“The time has come for you guys to help me out. I can’t do this by myself, so I want you to start going out on your own and talking to people about a transformed life. You have just as much authority from God to do this as I do, even when it comes to dealing with the Demons and Blue Devils.”

The ones Russell chose were Peter Longley as well as the Jacksons. Russell also selected Andy Pittard, Philip Costos, Nate Bailey, Mike Torrez, Matthew Levinson, Tom McLaughlin, Jim Winslow, Thad Boykin, and Jude Sodestrom, the one who would cause his death.

That evening, the new team met at Peter’s house to strategize, but such a large group of people followed them that they didn’t even have a chance to eat the chicken and dumplings Peter’s mom had prepared for them.

Relatives of Russell, who lived in Wilson, heard that he was wandering around town making crazy proclamations about the Kingdom of God, so they drove over to Peter’s house with a social worker from Child Protective Services.

Uncle Barnie, Aunt Arleen and social worker Glenda Prescott stared in disbelief as Russell instructed a crowd, numbering in the hundreds, on the benefits of personal interaction with God. “If you don’t know how to meet God, then I will lead you to Him myself,” Russell said in conclusion. 

”The boy ain’t right, Arleen,” Uncle Barnie said, regretting missing the championship round of Jeopardy to listen to his deranged kinfolk.

“A good regimen of caster oil and Sunday school would fix him,” Aunt Arleen said, confidently.

“What do we need to do to get this boy some help?” Uncle Bernie asked, looking at his watch and wondering if he could make it home in time for Vanna White and the Wheel of Fortune. “Can’t we just toss him in the car and drop him off at the hospital?”

Glenda Prescott hesitated in answering. She hadn’t heard anything yet that indicated the youth was a danger to himself or others; the prerequisite to an involuntary commitment process. Furthermore she found the boy’s words intriguing. She had struggled her entire life with overeating, using social work as a means of giving value to a life that tipped the scales at an embarrassing two hundred and forty pounds. Could God change her—make her a new creation like the boy claimed? Perhaps she should talk with him in a non-professional capacity.

While Uncle Barnie studied his watch and Glenda Prescott imagined herself thin, seminary students from Wake Forest explained to interested bystanders that Russell Hicks was demonized and deluded by Satan. 

Russell heard what they were saying, so he called them to him. He was hurt that these students of the Bible were so intent on discrediting him.

“If you were Satan,” he asked them, “how would you destroy a community like Wilkins?”

When they didn’t answer Russell continued. “This town is filled with churches of every denomination including yours and look at the condition of these people. They’re starving. Many of them have grown up in the church but they know nothing of spiritual transformation. They have knowledge about God, but they’ve never heard Him speak to them in the deep wounded places of their hearts.”

“God has said everything He intended to say right here,” said one student, waving a Bible. “He’s finished talking.”

“No, no, no!” Russell screamed, clenching his fists in his hair and bending double.

The seminary students stepped back, red faced at the outburst.

Russell lifted his head, his eyes filled with tears and said more softly, “God is still speaking to His creation, it’s just that we’ve stopped listening. The enemy has convinced us that God has nothing else to say and so we listen to voices other than His. We listen to the voices of common sense and introspection; to the voices of popular religious leaders and conservative talk show hosts, but we ignore the voice of the Good Shepard who calls each of us by name.”

“So we don’t need the Bible?” said another student disdainfully.

“The Bible reveals to us the existence of the mysterious, wonderful Kingdom of God and then offers us the key by which to enter that Kingdom. Within the Kingdom, according to the Bible, we dwell in the presence of the King Himself. Is it possible that we sit at His feet and He not speak to us?”

“You’re speaking a dangerous heresy,” shouted the Bible-wielding student, wetting Russell’s face in a vindictive spray of saliva. “People could say God told them whatever they want to hear. They could justify anything.”

“Our danger is not in hearing anything we want from God,” replied Russell, “it’s in hearing nothing at all from Him.”

Russell turned away from the seminary students and faced the entire crowd.

“Everyone listen. God is merciful and forgiving. There is nothing you can do that is beyond God’s willingness to forgive. But, if you refuse to hear His voice in your heart, what can He do?”

Pointing to the seminary students he said, “You can study the Bible all you want, but without the breath of the Spirit speaking into your lives, you have nothing but prideful knowledge. Satan himself knows the Word of God better than you ever will; yet he is condemned to eternal torment. Will you follow him?”    

Furious at the insulting insinuation, the seminary students climbed into their car and sped off down the street shouting that Russell was filled with some foul spirit.

Russell pushed his way through the crowd into Peter’s house. Finding the rooms filled with people he fled to the back yard, where he knelt between a tin, storage shed and the fence. His insides convulsed and he wept.

In the street in front of the house, Russell’s mother and siblings arrived at the request of Uncle Barnie, who still hoped to make it home in time to watch Hollywood Squares.

“He’s a real mess, Mary Beth. He just got through telling the boys from Wake Forest that they’re going to hell. He thinks he’s Moses or something.”

Mary Beth absorbed her brother-in-law’s words with all the shame of a single mom who didn’t spend enough time with a son she knew was different. Elizabeth’s son Johnny should have been a warning to her. She had let him spend too much time with Johnny Witherspoon and his crazy talk about living the life. Living the life? What was that? She thought it was just a phase. She never imagined her son would see himself as some kind of savior. But maybe there was still time. Maybe she could stop this craziness.

“Russell,” Peter said touching his friend’s shoulder. “Are you okay? You’re scaring me. You were kind of hard on those seminary guys. I mean they’re like Bible experts and here you are telling them they’re going to hell and stuff. Now you’re back here hiding and crying.”

Wiping his face on his sleeve, Russell emerged from behind the shed with Peter to find his closest friends, faces downcast, waiting for him.

Andy Pittard cleared his throat and said, “Your mom’s out front looking for you, Russell. Maybe you’d better go on home with her.”

“I don’t even know who my mother or brothers or sisters are? They think I’m emotionally disturbed because I want to see Wilkins changed. Does a mother say that to her son? She thought it was sweet when I was twelve and I wanted to be a messenger of God, but now that I’m eighteen and actually doing it, I’m mentally ill?"

Russell gathered himself up and shook his head. “That’s not my family out there. You guys are my family because you want to do the will of God in Wilkins. We’re family now, okay?”

The boys nodded their heads but wondered in their troubled hearts if Russell Hicks really was crazy.