By Karen Brode
Wanda Rivers had been my church friend since we were in grade school. We attended the Church of the Everlasting and our parents made sure we never missed a service. If the church doors were open, Mother and I were there.
When Wanda and I got old enough to go to the junior high Bible class, I noticed that she had somehow outgrown me overnight. She wanted to sit with the older kids in class and with the teenagers on the front row during church service. There was no way I wanted to do that. The more, let’s just say, worldly Wanda became, the more she fit in at church. And the more she fit in, the more her mother pressed her to be more like me, which is to say, not in the least worldly.
I missed the days when Wanda and I made each other laugh and had sleepovers and told ghost stories into the night. Once she started sitting with the other kids, I felt alone at church. I sat with my mother and, as time went by, we grew apart.
The last time Wanda visited my house, she spent the whole time calling boys. I sat and watched in amazement. She was so at ease talking with them and they seemed intrigued by her. When she finally lowered the receiver to her chest, I thought she was going to hang up and start talking with me.
Instead, she asked, “Is it okay if Bobby comes over?”
The thought of a boy coming to my house sent me in total panic. I nearly fell off the edge of the chair.
“No!” I said in a voice that sounded more like a squeak than a real voice. I had to think fast because my reason had to be good. “My mother has very strict rules about boys,” I said, barely breathing. I crossed my arms over my chest with hopes she wouldn’t see me shaking.
It was true, kind of. My mom would have been furious if Bobby had come over when she wasn’t home. But it was also true she might never have known he had been there. My refusal had more to do with being terrified than anything else. I simply wouldn’t have known what to say to a boy.
Wanda squinted her eyes as if she could read my real thoughts then she turned away and whispered into the phone, “Sorry. She says you can’t.” She shot me a look and then said, “She’s just being childish.”
I sighed and went to my room so I wouldn’t have to hear anything else.
Church was where things really changed for Wanda and me. When we were in grade school, the Bible classrooms all had windows. I could look outside and see the parking lot. The congregation was growing a lot back then, so they built a new wing to accommodate larger crowds. The new classrooms were for junior high and high school classes. They were built out of concrete blocks and didn’t have any windows.
I remember the first time I sat in the new classroom. Wanda and I were thirteen and had just graduated to that section of the building. I began to panic that I couldn’t see anything but the walls. I fanned myself and hoped someone would ask to keep the door open. I wouldn’t do it. Even if I passed out, I’d sit there and stop breathing inside the concrete box before asking to prop open the door.
It wasn’t just the lack of windows either. There was nothing to break up the monotony of the mint green walls–no pictures of Jesus walking on the water, not even a Bible verse on the walls. In fact, the walls were completely blank.
I felt myself hyperventilating. If the walls were made out of concrete blocks and the door was closed, how could we breathe? And what if there was a fire?
I looked at the circle of teenagers and realized no one would ever ask to prop the door open. No one else was having a problem. Wanda was across the room with some of the older kids, chatting as if she had been their age all along, as if the concrete box wasn’t a death trap. I remember looking toward the closed brown door, longing to go back to the classrooms with windows. I knew then that I was the different one. I was the one who didn’t belong.
When the teacher started talking, he spoke of how important it was not to go to the school prom. He warned us of the dangers of dancing and the bad influence it would have.
At one point in his classroom sermon, one of the beautiful high school girls raised her hand.
“I don’t think going to the prom is wrong,” she said.
I held my breath and looked at her, my eyes nearly popping out of my head. I would never have been able to voice my opinion in such a blatant way in a group that might or might not agree with me.
“Young lady,” said the teacher, his neck and ears turning red, “You seem to think you know better than I do. It’s clear to me you have no respect for me or the Church of the Everlasting.”
He stood up and paced, his short-sleeve button-down shirt showing wet stains under his arms where he was sweating. He pointed around the room and jabbed his finger directly at the girl who had spoken up.
“I can predict which of you girls will be pregnant by the time you graduate. It’s you girls who toss aside my warnings like they were nothing. Oh, the prom itself might not be an evil place, but just wait! Someone will no doubt spike the punch with no telling what and,” he paused and shook his head, “I remember what it was like to be a teenager. You get caught up in high spirits.”
“Just you wait. Nine months from that prom date,” he snapped his fingers over the heads of each girl sitting near the one who had spoken up. “Nine months from then, there’ll be a whole crop of babies born to you unsuspecting girls.”
When the bell rang, I was the first one out of that classroom. I could barely breathe—both from the closed-in room, and the fire-and-brimstone speech. The whole thing had just exhausted me and I was only 13!
I didn’t really want to go to worship but I had to unless I wanted to go sit in my mother’s car. I imagined skipping church and going to sleep in her car without telling anyone. The whole church would organize a search party. The police might be called. They might bring in the hound dogs to sniff for my scent. My mother would weep until they found me, curled up in the backseat of her car asleep.
It was just better if I went to worship.
On my way to the auditorium, I stopped by the tract rack and tried to find something that would help pass the time during the sermon. I chose a tract published by a church-affiliated publishing company with the ominous title of “Almost, But Lost!”
When the worship service began, everyone stood for the opening song. I watched Wanda with the older teenagers on the front pew looking as innocent and interested as possible. In one day, she had somehow been accepted into a group that I knew I would never be a part of.
Mother and I sat in our regular spot on the pew. When the sermon began, I opened the religious tract and started reading.
Almost, But Lost!
The story was about a milk deliveryman who watched his wife and daughter go to church. They went every Sunday morning and night, and also on Wednesday night. There were also extra activities at church as well. Vacation Bible School lasted for a week in the heat of summer. On most Sunday afternoons, there were wedding showers, baby showers, and the occasional men’s business meetings. The milkman had the impression that the men’s business meetings were code for “How can we make people give us more money?”
But he was too tired to go to church. He just wanted to rest on the weekends because he worked hard during the week. His wife and daughter wanted him to go to church. He never did, though, because he knew if he took one step inside a church building, they would hound him forever. And they wouldn’t be satisfied with just Sunday mornings. If he went to Sunday morning worship, they would complain that he didn’t go back on Sunday night. There would be no end to their expectations of him.
He never told his wife this, but he often prayed to God, and at times he felt that he and God were pretty good friends. He couldn’t imagine himself in front of a church praying. He was a private person.
His well-meaning wife had asked one of the church leaders to talk to her husband and try to save his soul from hell while there was still time. When the church leader came to the door, the milkman ran out the back, climbed a fence, and walked to a store in a nearby neighborhood. When he returned home, his wife’s cold gaze let him know that, not only was he destined for hell, he wasn’t going to have much fun on earth either.
After a few days of silence, the milkman told his wife he was thinking he might go to church with her sometime. If he only had to go to worship on Sunday mornings he might could stand that.
The next Sunday morning, his wife rose to cook breakfast while the milkman stayed in bed with the newspaper. She didn’t say a word to him, but he knew she expected him to go with her to church. He stared at the ceiling and wished he could be the man his wife wanted him to be.
After his wife and daughter left for church, he went to the kitchen to make some scrambled eggs and toast for himself. He knew his wife had only cooked enough for herself and the little girl. It was her way of letting him know of her disappointment in him.
Suddenly, there was a loud noise outside, and the milkman ran out into the backyard. He saw Jesus descending on a cloud with his arms stretched out to welcome his people to eternal life. The milkman looked on as he watched people rising to meet their Savior in the sky.
Jesus looked down at the milkman in disgust as he gathered his true followers to him. Then, as fast as he had come, Jesus turned his back and headed on back to heaven with his band of angels.
The milkman sat stunned on his back steps. The sky turned black and the sun began to fade.
He fell on his knees and screamed for Jesus to come back and get him, but it was too late. He realized he would be separated from his wife and daughter forever. He fell on the ground and wept.
Upon finishing the story, I threw the tract into the songbook rack on the back of the pew like it was on fire. I didn’t want to take that home! I didn’t want to think about it anymore.
I looked over at Wanda and her new friends and wondered if heaven was going to be like earth—the cool kids on the front row, while the rest of us sat with our moms. I pressed my eyes shut and shook my head. I didn’t want to think about that either.
As soon as church was over, I walked quickly and quietly to the car and waited for Mother. While I waited, I thought about how the tract and watching Wanda with her new friends reminded me a little of the night I had been baptized at a Gospel meeting.
A regular meeting usually ran for four nights, but the more ambitious ones lasted a week. This particular meeting was held at the football stadium because the preacher was well known and followed by so many. A church auditorium would never have held all the people. I had listened intently as the preacher talked about how sad it would be for someone to leave this meeting and go home unsaved.
“Who knows if tomorrow will ever come?” he asked with concerned gravity. “What if Christ comes this very night? It might very well be the last chance.”
The the song leader ran up the steps to the podium and the preacher stepped aside as the audience began singing:
Oh do not let the word depart
And close thine eyes against the light
Poor sinner harden not your heart,
Be saved Oh tonight
Tomorrow’s sun may never rise
To meet thy long deluded sight
This is the time, oh then be wise,
Be saved Oh tonight!
Normally, I would have been too terrified to stand up in front of so many people, but I was more frightened at the thought of being left behind by Jesus should he come anytime soon. I was ten and could no longer ignore the state of my soul. I got in line with the other people who could not risk another day of sin and degradation. I felt hyper alive. I was a part of something bigger, accepted by God and his church.
All the people in the stadium continued to sing another verse of Oh Do Not Let The Word Depart. On the last verse, the preacher stopped the song to give out a final plea:
“Brothers and sisters, I cannot stress to you enough how important this one step is in your life! Maybe you are scared. Maybe you are embarrassed. It doesn’t matter. God sees your heart and will accept any and all who come to claim the free gift of salvation. Get up now, and come as we sing the last verse.”
From my place near the front of the stadium, I scanned the bleachers and noticed they were only half full. A lot of people were up front to rededicate their lives to God. These only required prayer, not baptism.
When it was my turn, the preacher asked me if I believed that Jesus Christ was the Son of God.
“Yes!” I almost screamed.
The preacher pushed me under the water and lifted me up. As soon as I climbed up the steps of the baptistery, someone else was coming from the other side to be baptized. I remember thinking that it seemed like an assembly line.
As I warmed myself with a towel and changed into dry clothes, I looked in the mirror. I didn’t look any different. I didn’t even feel any different. But I knew I must be different in my soul.
Karen Brode is a senior contributor for Jet Planes and Coffee. She grew up in Denison, TX and graduated from Denison High School in 1972. She took courses at Southeastern Oklahoma State University and worked in a church office for 25 years. She and her husband, Gary, have been married 39 years and they have one son, Brandon. Karen’s hobbies are writing, sewing, and gardening.