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.