One Tuesday, Russell and his friends were eating lunch in the school cafeteria.
“What is this stuff?” Johnny asked, pushing clumps of an unidentifiable, brownish goulash around on his lunch tray with his fork.
“I don’t know,” answered Peter, “But whatever it is, it tastes like death.”
“You know what’s amazing,” Russell said. “There are people sitting right at this table who will in no way taste death before they see the Kingdom of God come in power.”
The boys looked at one another, troubled. Russell’s increasing references to death alarmed them. They were well aware of the school’s policy toward any student making statements about suicide or homicide. Perhaps the administration should be warned and Russell protected.
Six days later, on a blustery November afternoon, Russell took with him Peter, Jimmy and Johnny, and led them up the back fire escape to the roof of the old Belk building on Barnes Street. From this vantage point, the boys could see all of the downtown as well as the newer, wealthier housing developments to the west.
Russell was exuberant. He walked to the edge of the roof, spreading his arms out over the town that seemed to have laid claim to his existence. “This is my favorite place to pray. Up here, where I can see all the people God loves, I feel close to Him—transformed by Him.” He spun around to face his friends, his hair whipped about by the wind. “Something special always happens when I pray alone up here. I want you three to be a part of that.”
Neither Peter, Jimmy nor Johnny knew what to say, so they remained silent.
Russell climbed up on the roof’s ledge, balancing himself against the wind.
“Get down from there,” Peter called. “Are you crazy?”
“Come, Lord God,” Russell prayed aloud, his arms raised skyward. “Fill us with Your Spirit. Show us Your glory.” He teetered sideways with a blast of wind, looking as if he might fall.
“Grab him,” Peter commanded, rushing toward the ledge with Jimmy and Johnny in close pursuit.
Before they could reach Russell, however, another gust of wind swirled a dense, low-lying cloud across the rooftop, enveloping the boys in a milky, translucent, whiteness. Disoriented, Peter tripped on an exposed pipe, sprawling headlong to the roof’s surface with his two friends on top of him. Untangling quickly, the boys refocused their attention on Russell. He was facing them now from his precarious perch, his arms still lifted heavenward. Draped in the cloud’s luminescence, he looked to be speaking with someone beside him.
“Maybe we ought to just get out of here,” said Peter. He was terrified at what was happening, wishing he were far away.
“God wants us to be continually listening to and obeying Him,” Russell called from within the passing cloud. And then, the cloud was gone.
Jumping down from the ledge, he told his friends not to tell anyone what had just happened. “They’ll think we’re all lunatics. Wait until I’m dead and in heaven before you say anything.”
As frightened as the boys were, they did keep the incident to themselves, arguing with each other as to why Russell had become so fixated on death.
In the parking lot behind the Belk building Peter Longley asked Russell, “Wasn’t Johnny Witherspoon the one who started everything that’s going on in Wilkins?”
“Yes. God wanted him to come before me to get things going—set things up.”
“If God sent him, then why’d he have to die?”
Russell looked deep into his friend’s eyes. “Someone’s always got to die. The problem is people want to be great witnesses for God, but they aren’t willing to do things God’s way. The Bible says that Jesus had to suffer many things and be utterly despised and be treated with contempt and rejected. That was the only way salvation could come. It’s no different now. Johnny Witherspoon understood this. He came to Wilkins understanding what his life was for. And they did to him whatever they wanted. This was God’s plan.”
As they rounded the front of the building, they met their nine other friends who were surrounded by a group of people. Among the people were four seminary students questioning and disputing with them. When the crowd saw Russell, his face still glistening from the cloud’s dampness, they ran to him and greeted him.
“What’s everybody arguing about?” Russell asked.
One of the group, a man named Clinton Suggs, said, “I brought my son to you because he’s got an attention deficit disorder. Whenever he’s in school he gets real aggressive. Even has convulsions. He won’t obey the teachers, so they keep telling him he’s dumb. I brought him here to your friends, but they couldn’t help him.”
Russell glared at his friends. “How many times do I have to teach you these things? You don’t believe what God can do. Bring me the boy.”
The father had some trouble corralling his son, who was flipping the dials on parking meters. Clinton Suggs wrestled the boy over to where Russell stood. As soon as the boy saw Russell, he squirmed and fought to get away. Clinton held him down on the ground.
“How long has he been like this?” Russell asked.
“Since he was about five. He nearly burned our house down when he was six—almost died. Please. If you can do anything, have a heart and help us.”
“I can’t do anything. But, all things are possible for those who put their trust in God.”
Clinton Suggs began to cry. “I’m not a good father and I don’t go to church. But I do believe God can heal my boy. I do. Oh, Jesus, help me to believe you want to heal my son.” He hugged the writhing youth tightly to chest, continuing to pray.
Noticing the crowd enlarging, and not wanting a public spectacle, Russell gripped Clinton’s shoulder. “Reclaim your son from the world that has labeled him wrongly. Ask God to restore your son to his true identity as He restores you to your true identity as his father. Do it, now.”
Clinton confessed his shortcomings as a dad, then asked for a chance to start again. The boy convulsed within his father’s crushing embrace, then went limp.
“Is he dead?” asked a woman observer in the growing crowd. “Should we call an ambulance?”
“He’s okay,” Russell answered, smiling and touching the boy’s head. “Take him home. Teach him to listen to God for who he is, and you do the same. You’re a good dad, Mr. Suggs.”
Back in Tom McLaughlin’s van, his friends asked Russell why they could not help the boy. “We told the father what to do, but nothing happened.”
“People aren’t transformed by throwing truth at them. How did you decide what to do in that situation, anyway?”
Andy Pittard said, “We just talked with each other and came up with a plan.”
Russell shook his head. “Ask God what to do in each situation. Get His plan through prayer and fasting. Never rely on your own interpretation of an event. Most times you’ll be wrong.”
They drove over to Parkwood Mall, where they sat in the food court to talk.
After draining a milkshake, Russell said, “Things are heating up here in Wilkins. Johnny’s dead and I’m pretty sure I’ll be next. It’s they way it’s got to be, but I want you guys to be ready when it happens. Don’t worry about me because I’ll be raised to eternal life.”
Frustrated, Peter stormed off, throwing his half-filled milkshake angrily into a nearby trashcan. The others followed, leaving Russell alone to ponder his future.
Later that evening, when they arrived at the Piggly-Wiggly to shop for Peter’s mom, Russell asked them, “What were you arguing about in the van?”
They wouldn’t answer him though, because they were arguing with each other as to who was the most influential and important in the increasingly popular band of twelve.
Russell leaned up against the meat counter, where two children were poking their fingers into a stack of fresh fish. He called his friends over to him, and pointing to the laughing children said, “If anyone wants to be a leader, he must first be a servant of all people. You see those kids there. They are just as important to God as any famous preacher or professional athlete. You guys learn how to show them respect and then you’ll earn the respect of God.”
He ran and scooped up one of the children in his arms. “A true believer welcomes and accepts all people, even the ones least desirable. Believers are not exterminators. We don’t boycott and protest against others. We take their hand and lead them to transformation in the Kingdom of God.” He set down the child, who scurried off to find his mother.
“Something’s been bothering me, Russell,” said Johnny. “The other day we saw a guy in front of the K-Mart telling people about God, and saying that he was one of your friends. But we have never seen him before. We told him to lay off saying he was with us.”
“See, that’s what I mean,” said Russell. “We’re too worried about who’s in my group or denomination. We’re servants of all people. Was the guy saying anything bad about us or wrong about God?”
“No, he seemed okay.”
“Then encourage him. God’s team is big and diverse. Someone may explain the things of God differently than you or I, but if they’re not against God’s message then they are for it.”
Russell watched a homeless man slip a pack of bologna under his shirt and move toward the cashier. Before the shoplifter could pass the register, Russell tossed a dollar bill to the teenager working the front. Looking back to his friends he said, “If anyone does a work in the name of Christ, whether we agree with how the person did it or not, they will be rewarded by God.”
A group of veiled, Muslim women entered the store, grabbed a cart and headed off down an aisle.
“Do any of you have a problem talking with them or seeing their need?”
The boys were silent.
“Because if your tongue can only attack and condemn, or your hand is too Christian to reach out to the Muslim, then cut it off. Anyone, whose bigotry or prejudice hinders another person from knowing God, will wish that they had never been born. Hell will be filled with people who called themselves Christians, but did nothing to serve people they considered not worth the effort. It’s like a religious writer who has the gift to encourage millions of people with their words, but instead writes books aimed at condemnation and attack. What value then are the words?”
Russell smiled at his friends. “Be servants to all people. Fill your hearts with words of peace and live in harmony with one another.”