NINE

One Friday after school Russell and his friends went into a Burger King where five seminary students from Wake Forest were meeting with the Act Teens leadership council.

“It’s important to have a positive, public witness,” one of the men, a third year Divinity student named Rex, told Kyle Affas. “People need to know who we are and what we stand for at all times.”

“What about them?” Kyle said, pointing to Russell’s friends, who were gorging themselves on Whoppers and onion rings. “They didn’t pray before they started eating. They never do; not even in the cafeteria.”

Kyle asked this question because the seminary men insisted that the Act Teens always pray publicly before eating, allowing for everyone around them to know their superior spiritual status. This act was religiously maintained in the hope that some wayward teenager might wander up to them, after observing their pious prayer, and seek a more godly existence.

Seizing upon the opportunity as a “teaching moment” for everyone in the Burger King, (the seminary men never missed a teaching moment) the Divinity student approached Russell to inquire as to why Russell and his friends ate without praying first. “Didn’t your parents teach you to say a blessing before each meal?” he asked. “It’s a well-grounded, time honored tradition. To not pray before eating is to show dishonor and disrespect toward God.” 

Russell wiped his mouth with a napkin, considering the situation. “I think it was the prophet Isaiah who wrote about pretenders and hypocrites saying: ‘These people constantly honor Me with their lips, but their hearts hold off and are far distant from Me. Fruitlessly and without profit do they worship Me, ordering and teaching to be obeyed, the commandments and precepts of men.’” He took another bite of his Whopper.

Red-faced, the seminarian leaned close to Russell. “Are you calling me a hypocrite and a pretender? I can read the Bible in the original Hebrew and Greek, so don’t be throwing scripture around with me.”

“It’s not just about head knowledge,” Russell said standing so that he could address the other seminarians and the Act Teens. “It’s about being spiritually transformed.”

“What do you know about being transformed?” Kyle Affas said, loud enough for most of the Burger King patrons to hear. “You won’t even pray before you eat in the school cafeteria. Nobody knows what you believe.”

“You have a fine way of thwarting and nullifying the commandment of God in order to keep your traditions and human regulations,” Russell answered. “Jesus told us to pray in a closet, because if we pray in public for people to see, then our reward stops there—with the praise of people. Thus by insisting that everyone pray in restaurants or wherever, you are making void the authority of the Word of God through your traditions. You’re doing this in a lot of different ways. You spend so much time measuring people’s conduct that you miss their hearts.”

“Conduct tells us who people really are?” shouted another of the seminary students.

“No it doesn’t,” said Russell. “A person’s conduct tells us who they think they are, not who God says they truly are.”

“That’s psycho babble,” said the student closest to Russell.

Russell climbed up on the orange table. “Listen to me all of you and try to understand what I say. American Christians evaluate a person’s walk with God by what they eat or drink. Yet, there is not one thing people can put inside themselves that will defile them. It’s the things that come from within our hearts that make us unclean.” He pointed to the seminary students and said, “You Bible experts did not come over here because you’re concerned about my heart. You just want my outward conduct to conform to your religious code. Whether or not I pray before I eat, does not defile me, but your arrogant motivation in trying to embarrass me publicly defiles you.”

Russell leaped from the table and stormed out of the Burger King. His friends, after gathering up unfinished burgers and onion rings, followed. In the parking lot they asked Russell what he was talking about in the restaurant.

“Are you guys that dimwitted?” he said. “Religious people are consumed with evaluating other people by what they put into their mouths and bodies. If you smoke or drink you’re lost. But these things don’t reach the heart, do they? They reflect a condition of the heart but they don’t create the condition. We think that if we can get someone to quit a bad habit, then they’re saved. No. No. No. It’s what’s in the heart that hurts us; that destroys us. From a deceived heart comes the wickedness that makes us unclean—things like sexual immorality, stealing, murder, adultery, jealousy, envy and pride. These are the signs that our heart is sick and we must always consider the heart first.”

Praying that his words made an impact, he left the parking lot and went to Rocky Mount.

Earlier in the week, Russell had met a Palestinian student who invited him to drink tea with him at his house. There was a significant number of Palestinians living in Wilkins, though the Christian community paid them little notice.

Omar welcomed his new friend into his home, where Russell felt as if he entered another country. Beautifully framed Arabic script covered the walls of various rooms, which were separated by dangling, glass beads.

“We sit on the floor, if that’s okay?” said Omar.

Russell made himself comfortable on a large embroidered cushion. “This is great.”

A beautiful, older woman entered the room carrying a gold tray loaded with a tea service and Arabic pastries. She knelt before Russell, averting her eyes, and served him tea and baklava.

“Thank you,” Russell said.

The woman smiled, holding her head down so that her hijab, the traditional Muslim head covering, concealed most of her olive complexioned face.

“My mother speaks only a little English,” said Omar, serving himself. “My father was fluent and wanted her to learn before they came to the United States, but he was killed while my sister and I were still young.”

“Killed?” Russell said, sipping the rich, sweet tea.

“Yes, he was standing near a car that was hit by an Israeli tank shell.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Yes, the West Bank is a place where even the peaceful are not safe.”

The two sat in silence, enjoying the moist baklava. Each time Russell emptied his plate or cup, Omar’s mother refilled them.

“I was afraid you wouldn’t want to come to my house, Russell. You’re the first American to eat with us.”

“The first? Really?”

“We have been visited by Christians who want us to come to their church, but once they find out we’re Muslims they become insulting.”

“How do they insult you?”

“Once I tell them I’m Muslim, they attack our prophet and our holy book. I don’t think they mean to offend us, they’re just ignorant about Islam.”

“Yes, perhaps.”

Omar’s mother spoke to her son in Arabic with an insistence that put Russell on edge. She was upset about something that Russell surmised was the real cause for the invitation.

The Palestinian youth pushed away his teacup and cleared his throat. “I’ve been telling my mother about you, Russell. I told her that you are well known in the high school for the power of your prayers and that you are filled with the the Spirit of God.”

“Yes?” Russell said, feeling his body tense. Omar’s mother stared openly at him now with an air of expectation. “What is it that you need, Omar?”

“My sister is 16 and has run away from home. She was 4 when we came to the United States and she became fully Americanized. I don’t wish to hurt your feelings, but the more American she became, the more disrespectful and disobedient she became. She rebelled against the faith of our family and became involved with drugs and sex. We don’t know where she is. She has been gone for two days. My mother is sick with fear and shame.”

Russell smiled at the elegant woman, who understood enough of what her son had said to show her genuine concern. “Please pray for my daughter.” She began to cry.

“I really don’t know how to pray without making you uncomfortable, Omar.”

“What do you mean?”

“I believe that God can restore your sister back to you, but we must pray in the name of Jesus for that to happen. Our views of who Jesus is are different. Perhaps I’d better just spend my time with Americans and let God work this out for you in some other way.”

Omar translated for his mother, her eyes beginning to burn with anger. She fired off a short, scorching speech in Arabic that Russell was glad he couldn’t understand.

“My mother is from a family of great Syrian imams, or religious teachers. She has been taught that answered prayer is the great proof of Allah’s existence and acceptance. She says that if you are so certain of Isa Al-Masih’s, sorry, Jesus the Messiah’s role in prayer then share with us even just the crumbs of your faith and we’ll see what is true.”

Russell marveled at the women’s determination and faith. He wished the Americans in Wilkins were open to such tests of God’s willingness to respond to prayer.       

“Your mother is a great woman, Omar. I would be honored to pray for your sister.” Omar and his mother knelt with their hands opened in toward heaven. Russell imitated their posture and prayed in the name of Isa Al-Masih for the salvation and restoration of the lost daughter. When he finished, he instructed the mother and son to keep praying in this manner until the girl returned to them.

The following evening, Khalida did return home, having dreamed that a bearded man in white stood beside her bed telling her it was time to be reunited with her family and God.

Two days later, on Sunday, Russell met with a student named Alex, with whom he was working on a class project.

“I can’t give a speech in front of the class, Russell,” Alex said, “As soon as I stand up in front of a group of people it’s like I can’t speak. It’s like I’m deaf and dumb all the sudden.”

Russell said, “Let’s spend some time asking the Lord why this happens—what scares you. Once you know, then we’ll ask Him what to do about it.”   

It had never occurred to Alex to ask God why public speaking terrified him. When he did pray about class speeches, he just kept apologizing to God for being so afraid and screwing up so badly. He often cursed himself for being such a coward.

In the time of prayer, Alex remembered Moses and his dislike for public speaking. But Moses was such a great man and chosen by God to speak in the situation in which God had placed him. “So are you,” a voice said deep in Alex’s spirit. “Don’t tell Me who you are, Alex, I’ll tell you. You are a good speaker. Your are My speaker.”

On Monday, Alex spoke with such clarity and confidence that his teacher, Mrs. Crenshaw was actually speechless. Alex’s tongue, normally immobilized as if in concrete on such occasions, was loosened and he spoke with distinction. He was so grateful for God’s oratorical liberation that he began tutoring struggling students after school.

Russell asked Alex not to tell people how he was involved in the process, but Alex did so anyway. All the students with whom Alex worked heard about Russell and they went around school saying that Russell did everything well and even helped dumb kids to speak eloquently in class.