TEN

The following weekend, when another large group of Wilkinsonians had gathered at Timberlake Park, Russell called his friends together and told them, “I feel sorry for all these people and my heart goes out to them, because they are here to understand the things of God, yet they have nothing to eat. If we send them away, I’m concerned that they will attribute their hunger to a lack of provision from God, and might give up on the idea of faith.”

“How can we fill and satisfy the need of every person, every time we get together, especially out here?” asked Peter Longley. “There’s not a restaurant for miles.”

“How many sandwiches do we have left?” asked Russell.

“Seven,” answered Thad.

“Tell everyone to sit down in the grass,” Russell said. He then placed his hands over the sandwiches and thanked God for whatever way He was about to provide for the people.

“They’re out there again,” the lanky golf pro informed his boss in the Timberlake management office. “This place is becoming a regular revival center.”

Mr. Webster watched Russell in the picnic shelter pray over a pile of sandwiches, marveling at the youth’s determination to prove the existence and accessibility of God. “Never seen such a thing,” he said to the golf pro. “What’s he going to do with such little food?”

“Don’t know. I heard him talking last time he was here. I think he’s a little whacko.”

Mr. Webster turned to the pro. “Oh no, Bob. He’s not crazy. He just lives a life on a different plane than us. He’s got my daughter Debbie counseling at a crisis pregnancy center. I couldn’t even get her to talk to me in the past. Now it’s like she’s been born all over again. She’s so different and it’s making me different.”

“Huh,” snorted the golf pro. “That stuff ain’t for me. I like my life just the way it is."

“Bob, call Buddy over at the Smoky Pig and tell him to rush me out…” Mr. Webster made a quick estimate of the crowd’s size, “…about five hundred barbecue dinners. Tell him he’s got free golf for the next month if the order is here in twenty minutes.”

Bob dialed the phone, thinking some alien had abducted his old boss and replaced him with an insanely altruistic clone.

Within nineteen minutes the crowd of people were feasting on plates of pulled barbecue and coleslaw. When they finished, Russell’s friends picked up seven plates of leftovers.

“You’ve been filled by God tonight, my friends,” Russell told the satiated mass. “Now go home.”  


At once he got into Tom McLaughlin’s van with his friends and went to an arcade near the Greyhound bus station. A couple of seminary students present at the Timberlake feeding, followed them and once inside the arcade began to argue with Russell and question him.

“You think that was some kind of miracle or something out there?” one named Jerry challenged. “Because all I saw was a generous barbecue driver, coincidentally driving by, take pity on a group of hungry, misguided people.”

“Really?” said Russell, sliding a quarter into a pinball machine. “Is that what you saw? Then you’ll never witness the miraculous.”

“Why don’t you tell God to do a miracle for us right now?” Jerry said. “If you’re so close to Him it shouldn’t be a problem.”

Russell doubled up in pain, feeling as if he might vomit. He laid his head down on the glass surface of the pinball machine. “What is the motivation of your heart that demands a sign from God? People like you will never, never witness the miraculous.”

Struggling to stand upright, Russell stumbled out into the parking lot to breathe the cool night air. When his friends joined him, he ordered them into the van. “Let’s get away from here.”

Driving north on I-95, Tom and the boys decided on a trip to Rocky Mount to see a movie.

“Oh shoot,” said Jude. “We didn’t bring the barbecue. We must have left it in the arcade. All we got is one plate.”

“Speaking of food,” said Russell. “Watch out for the fast-food religion that some of these seminaries and churches try and cram down your throat.”

“What does that mean?” asked Andy Pittard.

“It’s because we forgot the barbecue,” answered Johnny.


Russell slammed his hand against the armrest, causing the others to jump. “Why do you think I’m talking about barbecue? Don’t you understand yet? Are your hearts in a settled state of hardness?”
 

Peter said, “We just don’t know what you’re taking about sometimes.”

“You’ve got eyes. Can’t you see? You have ears. Can’t you listen?” Russell pressed his back up against the side of his seat so he could see all the passengers. “Have you forgotten the things you’ve seen God do?”

The van was silent; each boy afraid to reply.

“When we prayed for food for the first group at Timberlake, how much was left over?”

Silence.

“How much?” Russell screamed against the noise of the highway.

“A lot,” one of the boys mumbled.

“And this afternoon? How much was left over?”

“Seven plates,” Peter said quickly.

“Don’t you get it? Don’t you understand?” Russell kept asking them.

But none of them answered because none of them did understand.

When they arrived at the Rocky Mount Cineplex, Tom pulled the van into a spot next to a silver Ford Mustang. Inside the Mustang a girl was struggling against the advances of an overzealous boyfriend.

Russell jumped from the van and pulled open the passenger door of the car, catching the girl as she scrambled to escape.

“What the hell?” called the boyfriend, disengaging his large frame from the driver’s seat. He stomped toward Russell with massive, clenched fists.

Russell’s friends circled the angry, varsity star, dreading another of Russell’s hazardous confrontations.

“I’m going to break your face,” the athlete warned Russell.

“Your lust has made you blind,” Russell shouted. “Don’t you want this girl to care about you?”

With cat-like speed the rudely interrupted teenager swung at Russell with enough force to topple a concrete post. Russell dodged left, avoiding the blow and circled behind his attacker. Spitting in his palms, Russell clamped his hands over the eyes of the assailant, temporarily immobilizing him. “Lord, let him see what’s really happening here,” Russell prayed aloud.

The hefty youth broke free of Russell’s grip and spun to face this odd opponent. Before he could speak, Russell said, “Look at the girl and tell me what you see.”

“What? Huh?” the confused youth stammered. “I see a girl that looks a lot like she wants sex.”

Russell jumped at the teenager once more, fastening his hands over the boy’s eyes. The combatants swung in lumbering, elliptical orbits around the Mustang, until they both fell, exhausted to the asphalt.

Amazed, Russell’s friends watched as the varsity star rolled off their friend, laughing hysterically. “You are the craziest kid I’ve ever met. You fight like a girl.”

Russell brushed bits of gravel from his shirt, breathing hard. “Really. Look at her and tell me what you see.”

Leaning back on his elbows, the boy regarded his date more seriously. “I see Linda. We’ve known each other since first grade but she hasn’t been allowed to date. She’s very religious and…I don’t know…I guess I saw her as some kind of challenge. But now that I’m looking at her like this, I see her more clearly.” He rubbed his eyes. “I’m an idiot.”

The couple climbed back in the Mustang, where an apology was offered and accepted.

“Let’s go to my house and watch TV with my family,” the girl suggested.

As they were pulling out of the lot, the coupled hollered thanks to Russell, after which he warned them not to tell anyone what had happened.

After the movie, during the drive back to Wilson, Russell asked, “Who do people say that I am?”

They said, “Some people get you confused with Johnny Witherspoon, and others think you’re a kind of prophet to Wilkins.”

“But who do you guys say that I am?”

Peter said, “You’re a guy who’s really living the life God intended in your true identity.”

And it was then, on that Saturday night in October, that Russell first told his closest friends that anyone who was really living the life must suffer many things and be tested and disapproved and rejected by the town’s religious leaders and be put to death, in order that he might be raised again with God. He was very explicit in speaking about himself and his friends did not miss the point.

In the parking lot of a Taco Bell, Peter took Russell by the hand and pulled him away from the others. “Stop talking all this crap about giving up your life for God. You can serve Him without dying, can’t you?”

Russell covered his ears and turned his back on Peter. “Get away from me, Satan. You’re not interested in God’s will, only in doing what makes you look religious without being uncomfortable. You are not on God’s side, but that of a wayward humanity.”  

    
Walking into the Taco Bell, Russell said to everyone in the place, “Anyone who wants truly to follow God must disown and lose sight of themselves, and take up whatever purpose God has for their life in their true identity. Whoever tries to protect or save their own life, will lose it. But whoever gives his life to God will save it. How does it benefit you if you gain all the things in the world you think you want and forfeit your soul? What can you give in exchange for your soul? If you’re ashamed or embarrassed of God’s plan for your life, then God will be ashamed and embarrassed of your plan for your life when you meet Him face to face in heaven.”

After saying this, Russell went out and sat in the van. 

 

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.

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.
 

 

Seven

After the riot, Russell and his friends came to a graveyard on the south side of town. As soon as Russell emerged from Tom McLaughlin’s van, there came to him out from among the tombs a youth under the power of an unclean spirit. This teenager, along with other members of his Wicca coven, continually met among the grave sites and his parents, try as they might, could not subdue his obsession with witchcraft. They had often shackled him with home restriction, trying to handcuff his exposure to his dark friends, but he broke every rule and attempt to restrain him. During the Wicca rituals he ran shrieking and screaming among antebellum headstones, slicing himself with razors that he wore sewn within his clothing.

When from a distance he saw Russell, he ran and knelt before him in desparation. Crying out in a loud voice, he said, “What do you want with me, Russell Hicks, servant of the Most High God? What is there in common between us? I implore you by God, do not begin to torment me.”

Peter and the others moved back toward the van, urging Russell to let the kid alone and leave with them, because Russell was commanding the unclean spirit to come out of the youth.
 

“What is your name?” Russell asked the unclean spirit.

“Wicca,” the boy said in a hissing, cryptic voice. “We are many here in the high schools and churches. Do not send us away. This is our place.”

 “You must leave. The Kingdom of God is here.”

“Then send us into a neighboring county where the people deny the reality of our world and are defenseless against our schemes.”

Russell looked off toward the east, as if grieving for those who would succumb to the deception and destruction of this wily, insidious hater of mankind.

“Go,” he said, nearly whispering.

Forty miles away a group of teenagers cracked the seal on a bottle of whiskey, the second of the night, as they sped south on I-95. The driver, a senior at Beddingfield High School, felt a sudden, breathtaking infusion of power burst within him. A similar, intoxicating sense of immortality swept through the souls of the car’s other four passengers and they screamed for higher speeds and more whisky. The now invincible driver jammed the accelerator to the floor and when the speedometer reached 110 mph he lost control of the station wagon. The guardrail above the Tarboro River barely slowed the vehicle as it ripped through the barrier and landed upside down in the cold, dark depths, where the five young people drowned. 

Two police officers, dispatched to the nightly complaint of teenagers loitering in the Wilkins Cemetery, arrived to find Russell and the Wiccan youth, with whom they were quite familiar, sitting on the curb.

The older, more portly of the two officers shined his flashlight in the faces of all the boys standing and sitting in the parking lot, but fixed the beam on the face of the Wiccan boy.

“Hey Lewis, take a look at who we got here, sittin’ real quiet and calm.”

The younger officer finished checking Tom McLaughlin’s license and registration and walked to his partner. 

“Well, I be damned...”

“I pray that you won’t, officer,” said Russell.

“…if it isn’t Kenny Madison the warlock or witch or whatever you’re supposed to be.”

“I’m finished with that stuff now,” said Kenny rising to his feet. “I’m sorry for all the trouble I’ve been. I didn’t really know what I was doing.” He offered a conciliatory hand to the policeman.

“You’re creepier now than when you were spray painting tombstones,” said the officer, refusing Kenny’s hand. “And who’s your pal here?”

“His name is Russell Hicks and he came out here to set me free from the demonic power that controlled me.”

“Run them out of here, Lewis,” said the senior officer. “I don’t like all this talk about demons. Gives me nightmares.”

As Russell climbed back into the van, Kenny Madison said, “Let me hang around with you guys from now on.”

“No, Kenny. Go home to your family and friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how He has had sympathy for you and mercy on you.”    

So Kenny Madison left and began to proclaim publicly in his part of town how much God had done for him, and all the people were astonished and marveled at his transformed life.        

The following day Russell sat in Chemistry class wondering how he might help his teacher, Mr. Emory, who talked often about a bitter dispute he was having with his oldest daughter. One of the school’s secretaries entered the room and ordered Russell to Principal Harrod’s office.

Wondering if he was in some kind of trouble, Russell knocked and then entered Dr. Harrod’s office.

Unceremoniously the principal said, “Russell, this is Mr. Jarris, a leader in the Episcopal church here in Wilson. Because he is a very influential man I have allowed him to interrupt your class in order to ask a favor of you.”

The two men eyed one another with an intensity that suggested to Russell that a volatile discussion had preceded his entry into the room.

“For the record I think this is nonsense, but I won’t deny a father’s right to do everything he thinks necessary to help his daughter. I’ll leave you two alone.” Dr. Harrod closed the door behind him with some force, restating his disapproval of the meeting.

“My little daughter is in such a deep state of depression that I’m afraid she’s going to die,” said the church leader. Deep lines of anxiety creased his face. “We’ve tried everything but nothing seems to help. My sister said you helped her son with a serious skin ailment and Billy Balkman’s father said his son is an honor role student now. I thought maybe if you just came and prayed for her…” his voice cracked in anguish. He removed a monogrammed handkerchief from his breast pocket and wiped his eyes.

Russell reached over and put his hand on the man’s shoulder. “Let’s go ask God to heal her.”

As the two exited the administrative office the bell rang dismissing classes. The halls flooded with students hurrying to exchange books in lockers, visit restrooms, or catch up on any juicy gossip that might have developed in the last ninety minutes. Russell and Mr. Jarris were jostled and jolted in the sea of students. Getting to the exit was proving difficult.

Just outside the surge of students stood Debbie Webster. Clutching against the knife-like pain slicing through her abdomen she watched Russell trying to pass through the crowd. She wondered if he could help her. The abortion had been more horrible than anything she could have imagined. It had been thirty minutes of invasive agony, where she felt as if her organs were being ripped from her. And her baby. What had she done? The tears gushed across her heavily rouged cheeks, like the flow of blood that never seemed to stop pouring from her body. The termination of her pregnancy had not made her life easier, but more tragic. Debbie Webster knew that mentally she was bleeding to death.

Gathering up her courage she pushed toward Russell. She had heard other students talk about how Russell had helped them; how in touch with God he was. She thought that if she could just touch someone that spiritual, perhaps things would change. It was a stupid idea, she knew, but she had no other hope.

“Ewwwh, don’t touch me,” one of the Act Teen girls said as Debbie squeezed between her and another student. “We saw you going into the abortion clinic the day we were protesting. Murderer.”

Debbie cried harder. She strained her right arm above the head of a freshman, grabbing Russell’s shirt collar with such determination that he spun around to face her.

“Who…who’s pulling on me?”

Alarmed and frightened at her own actions, Debbie tried to break free of the crowd. Her feet became tangled with those of a lanky basketball player and she fell to the floor at Russell’s feet.

Kneeling beside her, Russell slipped his hand under her arm, helping her to sit upright.

“I had an abortion,” she cried, hysterically. “I…I killed my baby. It was a girl. I’m so sorry. Oh God, my insides burn all the time.”

Russell pulled her head to his chest and held her tightly. “God calls you His daughter,” he whispered into her ear. “Did you know that?”

Knotted, spasmodic cramps within Debbie began to loosen. She lifted her face to examine the sincerity of Russell’s words.

He smiled down at her. “What’s your name?”

“Debbie,” she said. Makeup spread clown-like across her face and a filmy trail of mucus bisected her lips, yet Russell saw the beauty trapped within.

“Why’d you grab me, Debbie?”

She shook her head and sniffed hard. “I think I was really trying to grab hold of God.”

“Come on. Stand up.” Russell helped her to her feet and Mr. Jarris offered her his damp handkerchief.

“Debbie your trust and confidence in grabbing hold of me springs from your incredible faith in and longing for God. He has already restored you because He has already paid for your mistakes. Just receive what He has done for you and go in peace. Be continually healed and freed from your pain and distress.”

While Russell was speaking, there came from the administrative offices another secretary, who handed Mr. Jarris a phone message. He read the note, then crumpled it and let it drop to the floor.

“I’m not going to bother you anymore, Russell. My daughter’s comatose and in intensive care at Wilkins General.” Debbie returned Mr. Jarris’s handkerchief to him. He dabbed his eyes.

Ignoring the news, Russell said, “Don’t accept this information. You came here in faith, so let’s keep believing.”

The Longley and Jackson brothers approached, so Russell asked them to accompany him to the hospital. When they arrived at the waiting room outside the intensive care unit, Russell looked carefully and with understanding at the tumult and the people weeping loudly. Gaining the permission of the nurse in charge, Mr. Jarris, Russell, the Longley and Jackson brothers and the family entered the girl’s room.

“Why are you making such a commotion weeping?” Russell asked the family, exasperated. “Reject death. This little girl is not dead but is only sleeping.”

“Are you a doctor?” said a relative, scoffing. “This girl has been dying for weeks now. I’m sorry, Bill,” he said referring to Mr. Jarris, “but accept the fact she’s beyond help, and begin the grieving process.”

“Get out!” Russell screamed, clasping his hands over his ears. “Get them out of here.”

Mr. Jarris and his wife ushered angry relatives from the unit and rejoined their daughter. Russell knelt by the bedside and gripped the motionless child’s hand firmly. “What do I do, Lord?” He waited a moment, listening, then leaned close to her face and said, “Little girl, tell death to go away. Right now. Say it in your spirit. Tell death that God orders him to leave you alone.”

Mrs. Jarris shot a questioning glance at her husband, but he nodded reassuringly as if to say, “what can it hurt?” Then, a movement beneath the sanitized sheets.

“Oh, God!” Mr. Jarris squeezed his wife tightly.

“Yes, God,” said Peter Longley hardly believing what was happening.

“Little girl, is anybody with you?” Russell asked, bent so close to her face his lips nearly brushed her cheek.          

“Yes,” she whispered, her eyes still closed. Mrs. Jarris nearly collapsed at the sound of her daughter’s voice.

“Who is with you?” Russell asked.

“A bad man and Jesus,” was the faint reply. “Jesus is telling the bad man to go away.”

“Is the bad man leaving?”

“Yes,” the girl said nodding her head. “Yes, he’s leaving.” A slight smile lifted her pale lips, but her eyes remained closed.

“What does Jesus want you to do?”

“He wants me to come take his hand. He’s holding it out to me.”

“Jesus is life, little girl. Take his hand.”

The child lifted her arm from beneath the sheet and clasped her fingers around an invisible object. She opened her eyes and sat up in the bed. The Jarris couple rushed to embrace their daughter in an astonished outpouring of affection and joyous relief.

“Don’t try and explain this to anyone,” Russell warned the appreciative parents. “Oh and give her something to eat. She’s probably really hungry.”

Without another word, Russell and his friends left the room.

 



 

SIX

On Saturday Russell and his friends drove out to Lake Wilkins where they met with students from the local high schools and many of their parents. Willie Mitchell of Mitchell’s Barbecue fame, suggested that Russell stand on the deck of his new Bentley Party Cruiser so everyone could see and hear him clearly.

Russell taught them many things using illustrations or comparisons set beside spiritual truths, so the people could understand Kingdom life more plainly.

“Living in the Kingdom of God is something like this. Let’s say the CEO of a large, international corporation mails an important, registered letter to everyone in the world. Before the CEO is finished sending out all the letters though, some are returned; rejected and unopened.       

“Other letters are signed for by the recipients, but the people are busy. They don’t have time to consider the letter fully, so after a day or two they throw the letter into the trash. 

“Other recipients accept the letters and open them eagerly. They are thrilled by the good news, but they have other mail to read as well. There are store advertisements, credit card applications, and invitations to vacation in exotic places. The message of the original letter is soon forgotten.

“And still other letters are signed for and received by enthusiastic people, who open them and considered the content carefully. The power of the message affects the recipients with such power that they copy the message and send it to thirty or sixty or even a hundred other people. In this way many lives are transformed.”

Russell concluded by saying, “The person who desires to understand what I’m saying, will comprehend the things of God.”

As soon as Russell was alone, his twelve best friends and a few other people began asking him about the illustrations.

Finishing his hamburger, Russell said, “You all have been entrusted with the mystery of the Kingdom of God—that is the secret counsels of God which are hidden from those who refuse to believe. For the people outside of our circle, everything becomes a confusing allegory.”  

“That seems kind of exclusive and unfair,” said Tom McLaughlin.

“Not really,” said Russell, tossing a finished Mountain Dew into a trashcan. “If a person listens to the words of God but is not able to understand them, than perhaps he’ll admit his unbelief and seek transformation. In this way his former rejection will be forgiven.”

Peter considered Russell’s words for a moment and said, “I believe in God, but I didn’t understand what you were saying about the CEO, the letter and the recipients.”

“Peter,” Russell said, alarmed. “If you don’t get what I mean in that story, then how will you understand any story I tell?”

“If you just explain this one to us, maybe we’ll be able to figure out the next one.”

Russell laughed. “Okay. The CEO of the corporation is God and He is continually sending his message into the world. There are four types of recipients.

”For whatever reason, the first type of recipient doesn’t even want the letter. The Enemy of God has done such a work of evil in their heart that they reject the message of God outright. 

“Then there are those who receive the message but fail to considerate it carefully. Its shallow hold in their life cannot withstand any opposition or testing. So they become indignant and resentful. As a result they trash the message.

“And then there are those people who receive and carefully consider the message of God, but are then distracted by the other messages of the world. They become introspective and dispirited. God’s message is drowned out by the multitude of voices, screaming for their attention.

“And finally there are those who receive the letter, read it, believe it, and accept it with joy. They then spread the message and impact the lives of many other people.”

Russell watched his friends mulling the illustration over in their minds. “God is not playing games with us in the way He reveals Himself. He is a floodlight shining into the hearts of people so they can understand who He is and who they are. Can you hide a floodlight?”      

”Keep talking,” said Jim Winslow. “I think I’m tracking with you.”

“God hides things from us temporarily so He can be the one who reveals them to us. There’s nothing hidden in us, that God won’t reveal, nor anything kept secret except in order to be made known. We must be continually listening to God if we are to perceive and comprehend anything about our lives. It's all about mindfulness toward God.”

“How do we listen to God?” Thad asked.

“We listen to voices 24/7. We listen to the voices of parents and teachers, friends and enemies, as well as the media and the Internet. People know how to listen, they just don’t know to whom they should be listening. Be careful what you are hearing. The measure of thought and study you give to the truth that you hear will be the measure of virtue and knowledge that comes back to you—and more besides will be given to those who hear only the truth. Because, to the one who listens and pursues truth, more will be given, but to the one who ignores truth, even what little truth they do possess will be taken from them by force.”

Peter Longley set an empty Coke can on a picnic table and smashed it with his fist.

His brother laughed. “Pumping iron with Billy Balkman is going to your head. You think you’re Arnold Schwarzenegger or something?”

Seizing the example, Russell told Peter to flex his biceps. “You see that?” he asked pointing to the bulging muscles. “The Kingdom of God is like a skinny kid who starts hitting the weights three times a week. Even when he is sleeping the muscle tissue grows and increases in size. The body produces the new tissue by itself—first a toning, then a ripple, then a massive bicep.”

Peter dropped his arms, blushing.

“But,” Russell continued, “when Peter’s physique is Arnold-like, he needs to use it to impact other people’s lives for God.”

In this way, with many such illustrations, Russell explained the Kingdom of God to the people of Wilkins, North Carolina. He did not tell them anything without an illustration, but privately, to his closest friends, he explained everything fully.

On that same day, when evening had come, he said to his friends, “Let’s drive over to the other side of town.”

Leaving the crowd of people at Lake Wilkins, they took him with them in Tom McLaughlin’s Chevy van. Some other cars followed them as well.

The small convoy of vehicles crossed the railroad tracks at the abandoned Amtrak station in the center of town and entered a beleaguered neighborhood where scores of migrant families crowded into tiny, ramshackle houses without plumbing or electricity.

A drunken altercation had erupted on the parched lawn of one of the houses, and by the time Tom McLaughlin steered his van onto the block, the hostility had spread among the indentured community with such rapidity, that a furious riot of hurricane proportions swept down the street and engulfed the Chevy.

“Watch out!” Peter screamed from the front passenger’s seat as a beer can struck the windshield, cracking it vertically from top to bottom.

Generations of injustice propelled the raging mob against the van. The despair of endless hours of picking cucumbers and watermelons under the scorching sun for minimum wage welled up within the rioters, driving them to destroy the symbol of servitude that had inadvertently driven into their wrath.

In the midst of the storm of anger, Russell slept peacefully in the back of the van.

“Wake up!” Johnny Jackson yelled as the van rocked violently. “Don’t you care that we’re going to die?”

Russell sat up and rubbed his eyes. He surveyed the situation calmly, then kicked open the rear, van doors and hoisted himself up on the vehicle’s roof.

 “Knock it off,” he shouted to the mob. “I rebuke the source of your anger and oppression. I call upon the God of justice and mercy to lead you into freedom and worth. Receive His way toward social dignity and reject the enemy’s way which will only lead to greater imprisonment and despair.”

The wind of destructiveness ceased and the crowd sank to rest as if exhausted by its own maniacal raving. A great calm filled the neighborhood—a serine peacefulness. The people returned to their homes.

Russell dropped down to the street to face his friends. “Why are you so timid and fearful? Why don’t you trust that God has called you to impact Wilkins? If He has called you, won’t He protect you? You’ve got to live the life.”

As they drove out of the neighborhood, the boys were filled with great awe. And yet, beneath their respect for their friend who could calm crowds with a word, they were each deeply afraid. Who is Russell Hicks and where or to what was he leading them?     

 

                     


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

        

 

Four

Three weeks later, on a Monday evening, a rumor spread that Russell Hicks was eating supper over at Peter Longley’s house. Billie Balkman and Betty Weeks quickly organized a meeting of students from Wilkins County High School and neighboring Rocky Mount High School at Bob’s Barbecue on Forest Road.

“Listen,” Billie shouted, standing on the hood of his car so that everyone could hear him. “Russell Hicks, the guy we’ve been telling you about, is at our friend’s house. Pile into your cars and follow me.”

Billie, who had never envisioned himself as a servant of others, was discovering an inexplicable joy in helping his fellow students achieve goals they thought unreachable. His rigorous weight training and skills development program, along with a healthy dose of Bible study, had helped the Longley and Jackson brothers become moderately good football players and even play in a few games. He found greater pleasure in watching them succeed than he did in sacking an unsuspecting quarterback in a championship game. He couldn’t explain why; it was just what he was becoming.

The parade of cars clogged the street in front of Peter’s house, but the neighbors didn’t seem to mind. They emerged from their houses as well, anxious to hear the strangely sagacious teenager once again speak of things eternal.

Mrs. Longley welcomed as many people as possible into her tiny front room, but the number was so great that eager listeners clogged the doorway and spilled out into the front yard. Russell stood on a threadbare ottoman and began discussing the Word of God.

“Hey, watch out!” someone shouted from just outside the doorway. “What are you doing?” someone else called out in an angry tone.

The crowd in the doorway surged convulsively as four black teenagers pushed their way through the congested foyer, holding a trembling, bloody, white youth above their heads. Once in front of Russell they dropped the young man to the floor.”

“We caught this guy spray paintin’ some pretty bad stuff about us on a building in our neighborhood,” said the leader of the group. “Normally, we’d take care of this in a back alley, but we heard you talking at the street church the other night and we thought, man, this stuff has got to stop.”

Russell considered the street-hardened leader and asked, “What do you want to do?”

“One part of me wants to break every bone in his body,” he said looking at the quivering mass on the floor. “But there’s another part of me that says this kid is just sick and beatin’ him up ain’t going to accomplish anything.”

“I think you’re right,” said Russell.

“He’s like paralyzed with fear and hatred of people different than him. I don’t know. We thought that maybe if we carried him here, you could help him.”

When Russell saw the faith the four young men displayed in God’s ability to transform the swastika-tattooed teenager before them and their willingness to carry him themselves toward that transformation, he marveled.

“What’s your name?” he asked the bleeding youth.

“People call me Snake,” he said, trying to sound tough.

“I don’t want to know what the world calls you. I want to know your real name.”

“Arnold.”

“Okay, Arnold. Now, do you understand what God has done for you tonight? These guys could have hurt you very badly, but instead they are trying to help you. God has influenced them to have compassion on you. Do you see that?”

Arnold wiped some blood from his lip and nodded.

“You’re crippled by hostility, Arnold. The way out of the prison of your racism is to receive the forgiveness of God and these men here. Do you want that forgiveness, Arnold?”

The broken youth choked back a sob, again nodding his head.

“Say it, Arnold,” Russell ordered.

Arnold turned his body to face the four young black men. “I want forgiveness.”

The group’s leader looked at his companions and sighed heavily. “Maybe it’s a beginning.” Facing Arnold he said, “Okay, man. Okay.”

Russell said, “Your sins are forgiven, Arnold. That means there is no penalty for your actions and your guilt is gone. You are now in a right standing with God and man. You are free.”

It so happened on this particular Monday night, that some Master’s of Divinity students from the local seminary had mixed in among the crowd and began discussing among themselves the theological ramifications of what they were observing.

“Who does this kid think he is, talking like this? Does he believe that he can just pronounce forgiveness, remove guilt, remit the penalty for sin and declare someone righteous? There are proper procedures. He’s not ordained, is he?”     

Russell heard their discussion. “Why are you debating this? Which do you think is more difficult to say to this paralyzed teenager, ‘Your sins are forgiven and put away through God’s grace, or stand up, walk out of here with these men you previously feared and hated, and keep on walking with them in friendship?’” 

When they failed to answer, Russell said, “Just so you know that the transforming power of the living God is not limited to man-inspired, systematic formulas, I say to you, Arnold, get up off Mrs. Longley’s rug and walk out of here with your new friends.”

Immediately Arnold arose, lifting with him the contriteness of a man forgiven, and walked out with the four black youths who had carried him upon their shoulders into emancipation.

The people were all amazed and praised and thanked God, saying, “We have never seen anything like that before.”  

The next afternoon, Russell walked along the shore of the county reservoir with students from his world history class, discussing the perilous exclusivity of institutionalized religion. As he was passing by a secluded picnic area, he saw Matthew Levinson, the son of a prominent tax attorney named Levi Levinson, selling plastic bags of marijuana to a group of younger boys.

“Hey, Matt,” Russell called out. “You got a minute to talk?”

Dismissing his customers with a furtive exchange of money, Matthew approached Russell suspiciously.

“What’s the problem?”

“No problem,” Russell said, smiling. “I was hoping you’d be a part of what God is doing in our town.”

A sardonic grin twisted Matthew’s face. He pulled a silver case from his shirt pocket and jammed a Marlboro between his lips. “Is God doing something here?” Fishing a gold, Zippo lighter from another pocket, he lit the cigarette and shot a stream of smoke above Russell’s head. “Seems like God would have better things to do than waste his time in a piece of crap town like this.”

“You dress well,” Russell said.

Confused by the change in subject Matthew said, “I’m guessing that you didn’t call me over to compliment me on my wardrobe. So what the hell’s the point of this conversation?”

“You’re good at what you do.” 

Matthew Levinson drew deeply from his cigarette, shaking his head and appraising Russell with an inherent business acumen that enabled him to build a lucrative narcotics clientele while avoiding zealous sheriffs’ deputies.

“Look,” he said, “I’ve heard about you around school and I’ve lost some good customers because of you. I know what you are and you just saw what I am. I don’t see any mutual interests.”

“What are you, Matt?” Russell asked.

“You think I’m embarrassed or ashamed about who I am or what I do?” Matthew said, flicking his unfinished cigarette at Russell. “Well I’m not. I’m a damn good businessman and I’ve got more vision and money than any kid in this town. Did you know that I’ve been accepted into Duke’s School of Business? I don’t care what people think about me. I’m doing something with my life.”

“Exactly,” Russell said, brushing cigarette ashes from his shirt. “You’re exactly the kind of person God wants.”

“That’s it. I’m out of here.” Matthew pushed past Russell and walked toward the reservoir.

Without moving, Russell said, “I’ve got a hundred dollars that says if you and your friends will spend one hour with me tonight, listening to what I have to say, you’ll all want to be a part of what is about to happen in Wilson.”

The drug dealer slowed, but refused to turn around.

“You think you have vision, Matt? Wait until you hear what God wants to do with you.”

Matthew stopped. A solitary hawk circled low above the reservoir’s surface searching for prey. The financial success of his business endeavors had brought him significant reward, but the isolation was becoming more difficult to ignore. Sure, he had people he partied with, but he was always on guard, distrustful of every relationship. He hadn’t thought about it in such lucid terms before. He was lonely.

The boys turned toward one another simultaneously as if it were high noon in a western drama.

“I can make a hundred bucks in half an hour,” said Matthew.

“I’ll throw in supper at Flo’s Place.” Russell said. “Come on, Matt. This will change your life and the life of those you hang around with. It's a good business proposition."

“You’re a different kind of person, Russell.”

“Yes. And, so are you.”

Matthew studied Russell, trying to gauge the sincerity of his offer. Free dinner and the possibility of a transformed life seemed a reasonable business risk. If things didn’t work out, at least he could spend one evening with a person who seemed genuinely interested in his welfare. “I’ll be there in the parking lot at 7:00. I’ll be driving a black BMW.”

“See you there,” said Russell, watching Matthew Levinson vanish within a cluster of ancient, North Carolina pines.    

That night, as Russell, together with the Longley and Jackson brothers, sat at several pushed-together tables, Matthew Levinson, along with other local drug dealers and people stained with various crimes and perversions, came and dined at Flo’s all-you-can-eat, chicken fried steak buffet.

Matthew sat next to Russell, where he listened carefully to an explanation of God’s perspective on his life. So astounded was Matthew at the lack of condemnation and the soul-liberating encouragement of Russell’s words, that he ordered everyone in his sordid crew to shut up and listen to what his new friend had to say.

Russell stood up near the salad fixin’s bar and said, “All the things you guys do that society despises or criminalizes, may in fact spring from the very talents and abilities God has placed in you to make you great. But these positive qualities have been degraded because you don’t know who you really are.”

“I know who I am,” shouted a heavily tattooed, gothic youth sitting next to the soft ice cream machine. “I am a spawn of the night.”

“No you’re not, Greg McDonald.” Russell moved to the youth and put a hand on his shoulder. “You are an intensely spiritual person who hides in the dark, gothic world because you feel unworthy of the Kingdom of Light where true power awaits you. Walk into it, Greg. The Source of all true spirituality invites you into His presence.”

Moving to the ice cream machine, Russell filled a cone and held it up to the group. “What is this?” he asked.

Nervous laughter erupted from a few of the listeners, but no one answered.

“This is sweet, white cream intended for pleasure.” Russell licked the cone and smiled. “Umm, good.” Then he slammed the cone down into a plate of half-eaten collard greens, splashing those nearby with bits of milky colored vegetables.

“I like you, Russell.” Matthew said, clapping. “You’re more dangerous than we are.”

Russell raised the destroyed dessert above his head. “What do I have now? Something that was once good has been crushed into something detestable.” Dropping the mangled food onto the table he said, “Every hour of every day there is an enemy who crushes your potential goodness, your true identity, under the weight of evil and deception. This deception corrupts your ability to influence people for good into a knack for selling them drugs. This persistent, eternal lie reduces your search for the spiritual life into a shadowy prison of malevolent ritual and your longing for intimacy with another person into cheap pornographic coupling.”

Russell spread his arms wide to include the entire group. “You are the people who can transform this town. You, the very ones who the teachers and the police say are the scum, can be God’s hands in turning this place upside down.”

“How?” Matthew asked.

“By being transformed yourselves.”

“What does that mean, though?” the gothic youth said.

“If you will follow me, I will teach you.” Russell answered.

Much discussion followed about what it would mean to follow Russell’s lead and in the end the disreputable of Wilson agreed that the promise of a transformed life was just too good of an opportunity to pass up--that and the idea of turning the town upside down.

As the depraved members of the community considered their future, a religious student organization from Wilkins County High School entered Flo’s Place. Famished from a three-hour hymn sing the Act Teens, as they were known, descended upon the buffet like a plague of locusts.

While shoveling mounds of pulled barbecue onto his plate, Kyle Affas, the president of the Act Teens, noticed Russell Hickman dining with the unsavory characters.

“Hey, Peter?” Kyle called to the older of the Longley brothers, who was piling mashed potatoes into a salad bowl. “What’s Russell doing eating with that disgusting Matthew Levinson and his friends? Doesn’t he know what those guys are into?”

Russell heard Kyle’s comments, so before Peter could answer he met the Act Teen president by the meatloaf.

“You have a question about who I associate with, Kyle?”

“Just thinking about how this discredits your already questionable testimony, Russell. As people of God we need to be above reproach, don’t you think?”

“These people don’t come to your Bible studies, do they?” asked Russell, smiling at Matthew and his friends.

Kyle huffed. “This collection of troublemakers refuses to change. They’d just disrupt our study and prayer times. But, Russell you could come if you wanted. Digging into the scriptures might help you straighten out some of your doctrinal misunderstandings.”

Russell shook his head sadly. “You don’t need me, Kyle. The Act Teens have everything about God already figured out. But these errant ones here, they need help. I was born for them.”

“Born for them, huh?” Kyle said rolling his eyes. “That’s a major messiah complex you’ve got there, Russell. Better watch out. Messiahs tend to get themselves killed.”

“So I’ve read,” said Russell, and then rejoined the lost. 

The following Wednesday, Johnny Witherspoon’s Bible study groups and the Act Teens were fasting for revival in the country and some students asked Russell, “Why aren’t you and your friends participating in the National Day of Fasting?”

“The gospel is new to the people I’m teaching. Our gatherings are celebrations of grace and forgiveness. If I start telling them that they need to fast then they might be tempted to find their spiritual value or worth in conduct rather than faith. But don’t worry. The day will come when their faith will be tested and they will fast.”

“Why don’t you join in with Act Teens?” they asked.

“No one pours a freshly opened coke into one where the can has been left open too long and the fizz is gone. The Act Teens are trapped in an opened coke can of tradition and they have lost the effervescence of the Spirit of God. If the Spirit attempted to pour into them, the conventionality of their religiosity would grieve the very Spirit of God Itself into flatness."

 

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.