Friday, August 29, 2014

Captivity Opening

Below are the first five chapters (30 pages) of my novel Captivity, which is now available on amazon.  

Introduction

Captivity is set in Florida.  I sought to write about all aspects of the pernicious private prison industry and the harshly punitive sentencing laws that have conspired to win America the ignominious title of most incarcerated nation on earth.  Mandatory minimum, truth in sentencing and three strike laws vary from state to state, so it was necessary for me to invoke my constitutionally protected artistic liberty and bend all to Florida in my fiction.  Prison regulations also vary, and there are no conjugal trailers in Florida’s prisons.  Only six states permit the privilege, and years ago in Connecticut an inmate I knew well had conjugal visits with her husband in an onsite trailer, which was the inspiration for that storyline.  The arrest stories were culled from the news and are all true, and in many cases I have left the actual names should anyone care to read more.  Special thanks to my long time friend Irving Pinsky, an outstanding New Haven attorney who freely shares his legal expertise with friends and strangers, and who was never more than minutes away with answers to my many random legal questions.

1

The sun was only just rising behind the church when two men met on its steps.
“Thank you for coming so early,” said Roland Hooker to the man he was awaiting, and was greatly pleased to see.
Frederick Strunk was equally delighted to see Roland.  As he approached he paused and pulled from the ground the sign which read:  FOR SALE by Strunk Realtors.  Then he went to Roland, warmly shook his hand and replied:  “Rollo, please, it is I who must thank you, for enabling me at long last to take down this sign.  This church was on the market almost five years.  Today you’ve made me one very pleased and very relieved real estate agent, and this morning there’s nowhere I’d rather be than right here handing you these.”
With a flourish he held out a set of keys and dropped them in Rollo’s palm.  Rollo opened the door and led them into the entryway of the abandoned church.  Fred set his sign down behind the door then followed Rollo inside. 
“It’s going to be a lot of work, but it’s a challenge I embrace.  I have already decided to name this church Zion West, and its inaugural service will be this coming Sunday,” Rollo explained.  “It won’t be perfect by then, mind you, but I’ll certainly have it fit for worshiping the Lord.”
The church was in somewhat disarray.  Folding chairs were haphazardly stacked against the faded, peeling walls, and the once white curtains were tattered and yellow.  Its previous incarnation had been a Russian Orthodox church, and ornate d├ęcor and several icons were visible through layers of dust.  They stepped into the spacious nave, which had a capacity for over two hundred persons.  Most of the worn pews were intact, but a few were broken out and piled in a corner.  Along the bottom of the opposite wall was a row of seven air conditioners and beside the altar there was a table stacked with dusty hymnals and prayer books.
“That’s an ambitious schedule,” Frederick observed, “but you are an ambitious man for trying to start a bank and a church in the same week.”
“The two go hand in hand,” Rollo replied.  “Both need local life blood to thrive, and I can invite the bank customers to join me in praising the Lord, while offering my congregation trustworthy hands to handle their money.  I’m new to town, and seek to build a trust, which I am trusting in the Lord to build.”
“You will start meeting everyone this morning,” Fred said.  “I should get going.  I too have an office to open today.”
“Zion West’s first service is this coming Sunday,” Rollo reminded, “which will be followed by an all day potluck open house meet and greet.  The whole town is invited, so please spread the word to everyone you know.”
Rollo walked him out, where they shook hands again then parted. 
Rollo was a man about fifty with a full head of hair still thick and dark, and skin still somewhat youthfully smooth.  He frequently wore a pair of fake round spectacles, because he thought they made him look more intelligent and introspective, and that they enhanced the upright image he wanted to convey.  While not a man one would immediately call a dandy, he did dress well; and his left ring finger sported a gaudy gold ring, while a diamond crusted gold watch encircled his right wrist.
He had moved to St. Petersburg to open the Neighborhood Bank and Trust, as well as Zion West, a non denominational ministry of Christ.  He had been in banking all his adult life, and had several wealthy investors backing his venture.  He had also preached the word almost every Sunday, in several different churches, for just as long, and thus was versed in both vocations.  He returned inside and inspected the premises more closely, and concluded that it was going to require copious quantities of paint, cleaning supplies and elbow grease.
He wandered into the office, where he was surprised by the sound of snoring.  There was a large oak desk piled with random books and pages, and lying on the floor behind it was a man wrapped in a sleeping bag.  Rollo stood over and looked down at him.  He was black, with a hard wizened face dotted with gray stubble.  His head was bald and his stature diminutive. 
“Who are you?” Rollo asked, tapping him lightly with his foot.
The man stirred, and his eyes fluttered as he brought his hand up to shield them from the light.  He shook his head then replied with the same question:  “Who are you?”
“I just purchased this property,” Rollo answered.  “I own this church. And you?”
He groggily sat up on his elbows.  “I’ve been sleeping here for a little while.”
“What’s your name?” Rollo asked.
“Radford Veen, everyone calls me Raddy.  Please to meet you,” he said, extending Rollo his hand.  Raddy had offered his hand to be shaken in greeting, but Rollo used it to pull him to his feet.  Rollo looked around and noticed dirty clothes beneath the desk, and some packaged food and empty wrappers. 
“A squatter,” he muttered under his breath.  “How long is a little while?”
“A couple weeks, maybe a month,” Raddy answered.
Rollo knew the law protected squatters, and how quickly they could become headaches, and that the more swiftly and decisively they were dealt with the better.  Raddy was only about five foot four, and Rollo a full foot taller.  He tried to use this height difference to be intimidating.
“I’m afraid I have to ask you to leave,” he coldly stated. 
“Are you the new pastor?” Raddy asked.
Rollo hesitated, then answered: “I am.”
“Please, man…come on!  I have nowhere else to go,” Raddy protested.  “I had no idea the church had been sold.  At least give me a couple days to find a place.”
“The insurance doesn’t cover tenants, and if anything were to happen I’d be liable,” Rollo answered.  “Since this place is a cluttered mess that’s even more likely, so unfortunately I’m afraid I have to stand firm and ask you to leave.”
“I could help you start cleaning up,” Raddy offered, taking a few steps into the sanctuary and pointing in the general direction of the mess.  “I would have started already but I didn’t want to touch anything out of respect for whoever might buy it.”
“How do you get in here?” Rollo asked.
Raddy pointed to the bank of air conditioners along the west wall.  “The sixth one is missing.  See?  I crawl in and out the hole.”
“You fit through that small aperture?” Rollo mused, then looked down his eyeglasses at Raddy.  “I suppose you do.  I’ll have to fix that first thing.”
“Aren’t you going to hire painters and cleaners?” Raddy asked.  “If you are, you can hire me, and if you plan to do it yourself, I can help.  I’m a handyman by trade, and would love to find some work.”
“What I don’t do myself I plan to contract out,” Rollo coldly answered.  “It wouldn’t be right of me to tell whoever I hire for that who to employ.  But you can drop back by in a couple or few days, and if I can use you then I’ll put you to work.  I just need a day or two to sort things out.  And the church opens this coming Sunday, and everyone is invited, so please tell your friends and please come along yourself.”
Rollo’s eviction registered with Raddy, and he started back to the office, muttering:  “I see how it is…you’re one of those hard hearted, ‘do as I say not as I do’ preachers.  The devil will say anything for a dollar; that’s why the world is so full of false prophets.”  He quickly gathered his things into a little bundle and Rollo escorted him to the front door.
“I’m really not one of those cold hearted preachers,” Rollo protested.  “Whatever that means.  I just need to err on the side of caution.  I did invite you to come back, and as I get the church growing we will be more able and willing to help you to your feet.”
“You did just help me to my feet, only to lead me to the door and show me the way out,” Raddy said contemptuously.  “Like I said, one of those preachers.”  He walked away. 
“You’re wrong about that,” Rollo insisted, then called after:  “Come back in a couple days and you’ll see.”
Raddy ignored him and hastily departed.  Rollo still had a couple hours before he had to be at the bank for the nine AM grand opening, and the big day had him filled with nervous energy, so he decided to burn some off by tackling the mess.  He had rolled his sleeves and had been shuffling furniture and things around for a few minutes when he heard a knock on the door.  He opened it to find that Fred had returned.
“I forgot my sign,” Fred said, pointing to it behind the door.  “I need to post it on another property this morning.”
“Of course,” Rollo responded, showing him in.  “Hey, while you’re here, could you give me a quick hand moving a couple of heavy things?”
“By all means,” Fred answered.  They had moved one large wooden table and were picking up a second when they heard rustling at the front of the church.  They looked and saw Raddy slither in through the hole.
“What are you doing here?” Rollo asked.
“I thought it was because I forgot my toothbrush but I see now that the Lord led me back to show me how things really are,” Raddy observed.  “Your white friend is good enough to help you, but not a brother, and a brother in Jesus at that.”
“It’s not that at all,” Rollo replied, bristling.
“Who is this?” Fred asked.  “How do you two know each other?”
Raddy quickly answered before Rollo could.  “I’m homeless.  This abandoned house of God has been my home for the past few weeks, and now this man, who claims to have come to establish a house of Christ here, has asked me to leave that house.  If a man would do that to a brother he’s supposed to love, can we really be members of the same family?”
“Is that true?” Fred asked, looking to Rollo for an explanation. 
“That’s not exactly correct,” Rollo answered defensively.  “I just need a couple of days to organize my thoughts into a plan, and to get started.  I told him to stop by later in the week, and invited him to Sunday’s open house service.”
Fred’s eyes looked at Rollo scornfully, while Raddy’s were hopeful.  Rollo knew Raddy was manipulating him with shame, and had no choice but to relent.  “Listen,” Rollo continued.  “You’ve actually given me an idea.  Continue to stay in the office while you look for a place and you can help me out here in exchange.  Let me think about it and I’ll come up with an equitable arrangement.”
“Alright!” Raddy exclaimed.  “I’ll grab my things!  They’re right in the yard!”  He ran back to the hole in the wall and crawled out.
Fred gave Rollo a curious, scrutinizing look.
“Let’s just move this table there and then I’ve got to get along to the bank,” Rollo said.  They did so in haste, then at Rollo’s urging Fred took his sign and they left before Raddy returned.

2

Rollo went straight to the bank, about two miles into town.   The Neighborhood Bank and Trust was located in a refurbished house that Rollo had bought at foreclosure.  Someone else had previously converted the house to a bank, complete with a walk in vault; so Rollo had little to do to ready it to open.  Over the weekend he’d had it decorated with patriotic bunting and oversized ribbon and bows; and had arranged for the local bakery to prepare a tray of muffins and pastry, which he picked up along the way.  Then he entered the bank, set the tray of goodies out along with fresh coffee, and awaited the arrival of his employees.  He’d hired two tellers and an accounts manager to start, who all arrived promptly at eight thirty. 
The tellers were two pretty young women with some experience in banking, Sally Alton and Wanda Benners, and the accounts manager was a recent college graduate with a finance degree named Martin Lafayette.
They were all in their places when at nine Rollo opened the door and…little happened.  A couple people were there waiting to open new accounts, and a couple more trickled in throughout the morning, and a few people wandered in to have a look and a donut, but it wasn’t nearly as busy as Rollo had hoped.  Shortly after twelve he went out for lunch.  The police station was on the next block, so he stopped in to introduce himself.  He met a couple of the front desk people, then was introduced to the captain, an older man named Jim Jarple.  Jarple had a rough, muscular face and the burly body to match.  He invited Rollo to his office for a brief meet and greet.
“We do wish you the best of luck with your bank, and hope it’s as much a boon to St. Pete as to yourself,” Jim said warmly, offering him a seat.
Rollo preferred to stand.  “I thank you for your kind wishes,” he replied.  “Maybe we could sit down some time and go over your finances.  I can probably rewrite your mortgage at a lower rate while putting a few bucks in your pocket.  I’d be happy to treat you to lunch some time.”
“Smaller payments and cash in hand?” Jarple responded.  “How are you going to turn that magic trick?”
“It’s a sacrifice on the bank’s part in the short term to grow the business within the bigger picture of the long run,” he explained.  “He who gets in earliest benefits the most; you would be the first.  It’s not a very complex business model.”
“My wife tells me you’re also opening that church out on State street,” Jim said.
“That I am,” Rollo replied.  “It’s a non denominational church of Christ called Zion West.  Our first service is this coming Sunday.  It’s going to be an all day open house; lunch and refreshment will be served; bring your wife and tell your friends.  Everyone is welcome.”
“I will tell her I met you,” Jim answered.  “She’s more interested in religion than I, and I’m sure she’ll want to know more.”
“Wonderful,” Rollo said.  “I’ll let you get back to your work, I’m new to the neighborhood and you’ll be seeing more of me; I just wanted to show my face and tell you my name.”
“It was a pleasure to meet you,” Jim said.  “If you ever need police, you know where to find us.  And I’ll consider your offer.”
Rollo went to the nearby diner for lunch, where he introduced himself to everyone and invited them to join him at the bank and the coming Sunday at his church.  Then he returned to the bank where the afternoon lulled and crept along then picked up late, and he let everyone leave and stayed a couple hours past closing to write two new accounts.
He had planned to stop by the church on his way home, but rather decided to wait and go early the following day; to keep Raddy in suspense, and perhaps catch him by surprise again.
He softly let himself into the church early the next morning.  He was prepared to confront Raddy, and had rehearsed words; but he wasn’t prepared for what he found.  The church was already half transformed.  The missing pews were repaired, the scattered furniture gathered and arranged, the floor was swept and the walls were scraped and scrubbed and ready to paint.  There were also nine bags of trash neatly piled at the side door.
He wandered into the office to look for Raddy on the floor behind the desk.  He wasn’t there.  He attuned his ears for Raddy’s sonorous snores, and heard them, and followed the sound to a large walk in closet where Raddy was on the floor asleep upon a mattress.  He sensed Rollo’s presence and woke right up.
“Good morning!” he said, jumping to his feet.  “I take it you saw the work I did.”
“I did, and it looks good,” Rollo replied. 
“You just need some spackle for a few cracks and holes, and paint and brushes and rollers,” Raddy explained.  “I was restless, and that mess has been driving me nuts, but I didn’t want to touch anything until I knew what whoever bought it wanted done.”
“It must have taken you all day,” Rollo mused.
“Come with me,” Raddy said, leading the way.  “I’ll show you what I did, and tell you a few ideas I have.”  He gave Rollo a quick tour of the church, detailing what he’d accomplished while offering his thoughts.  Then he pointed to the large, high ceiling and said:  “I was even thinking I could paint a mural there.  I’m no Michelangelo, but neither is this the Sistine Chapel, and I reckon I could render an angel sitting on a cloud in the sky.  I have a very talented hand, I’ve just never had paints and a canvas to show it.”
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here,” Rollo said.  “First thing is to get it ready for Sunday.”
“And I can help you do that,” Raddy responded.  “You said you would arrive at an equitable arrangement for me to stay here.  Did you come up with anything yet?  I like to work, but I sure could use a couple dollars in my pocket, and I did put in twelve hours yesterday.”
“Well, I told you yesterday that you’d given me an idea, and that was to invite potential congregants to painting parties, as a way of bringing them together in fellowship outside of worship,” Rollo explained.  “It would benefit me, and it would benefit them while bonding us all.”
Raddy was crestfallen.  “So you want free help.  You said yesterday you were planning to call contractors.  I know I could undercut what you were willing to pay them, and it’s obvious I do good work.”
“I was thinking I could pay you with your room and board for the time that you’re here,” Rollo suggested.  “You have been staying here for several weeks….”
Raddy was incredulous.  “You want to bill me for back rent?  Last I checked you lease this house from God, and are only subletting to me, and He said I could stay here for free until He takes me where he plans to lead me next.”
“You talk to God?” Rollo skeptically asked.
“No, He talks to me and I listen,” Raddy replied.  “Why, you don’t believe me?  And what do you mean, room and board?  You aren’t feeding me, and there’s no electricity, so there’s no board, only room.  In the meantime I need cash to eat!”
Rollo reluctantly reached into his pocket, removed his billfold and peeled off a ten, which he slowly handed to Raddy.
“Ten dollars?” Raddy sharply responded.  “You want to pay me ten dollars for twelve hours work?  That’s less than a dollar an hour!  Come on, now.  Let’s not set the country back two centuries in one petty transaction!”
Rollo thought it over, then handed Raddy another forty dollars and said:  “I’ll give you six bucks an hour and you can stay here till you find a place.  And I do want you to find a place.”
“Well, a handful of cash certainly makes it easier to look for rooms,” Raddy answered. “And six bucks an hour is a lot of hours before I’ll be able to afford one.  It’ll probably take me at least a week.  Are you going to bring a time clock, or do you trust my watch?  I’ll be working every waking hour saving to get out of here.”
“I have to be getting along to work,” Rollo said.  “There’s a hardware store in town.  I’ll stop on my way and give them some money or open an account with them, and will explain that you’ll be by later today for some painting supplies.  Can you handle that?”
“Surely can,” Raddy replied.  “The hardware store is right next to the grocery market where I’ll be picking up a few things for dinner.”
“Very well,” Rollo said, turning to leave.  “I’ll be back later today or tomorrow morning.”

3

That morning was slow at the bank, so Rollo left for lunch early and spent the afternoon walking around the neighborhood introducing himself to the locals and inviting them to utilize the services of Neighborhood Bank and to attend services at his new church, Zion West.  Depending upon the person he offered a fifty dollar bonus if they opened a savings account at a certain minimum maintained for six months, or as he had with captain Jarple, a mortgage refinanced at a lower rate.  He also engaged in a couple discussions about the Bible.  He went from the bank to the neighboring insurance office, which was owned by William Alvers.  Then he went to the newspaper office, where he met the editor in chief, Gilbert Goodrich, the managing editor, Adele Benevides, and  a couple of reporters, Barnabas Devereux and Chelsea Hobbs.   He stopped by the florist and introduced himself to the owners, a married couple named Danny and Dolores Leigh.  He then went next door to Valentini’s Pizza where he met Guido, Biaggio and Antonio Valentini, the three brothers who owned the shop, and where he purchased a couple of pizzas which he walked across the street to the firehouse, where he introduced himself and had lunch with several firemen, Kelly Llewellyn, Manuel Rodriguez, Harry Brazleton and Elvin Birdwell, the fire chief.  Thence it was onward to the library, where he presented himself to the librarians, Marion Eckles and William Bongwell; and to the office of CPA Milton Hastett.  The accountant was married to Melissa Eward Hastett, who ran the Spanish restaurant that occupied the front half of the building.  From there Rollo went across the street and met a printer named Joel Crebona, and then went next door and said hello to Georgina and Melody Sweet, sisters in the family who owned the bakery he’d recently patronized.  He bought a box of their cookies and brought them to back to the bank and shared them with his staff and customers then passed the rest of the afternoon in his office.

4

As the week went by and Raddy fervently completed the work of three men, Rollo decided to save a few dollars by chipping in his own hands redecorating the church, and on Thursday afternoon he went to there, donned overalls and got to work alongside Raddy.  They were scraping at faded wallpaper and rolling out paint when Jarple stopped by.  Raddy and Rollo both paused to put down their implements and say hello, and when it was clear the conversation was between Rollo and Jarple, Raddy excused himself to go the hardware store.
“I’ve thought over your offer,” Jarple said, “about re writing my mortgage, and if you’re serious, I’d like the details and to go ahead with it.”
“Of course I’m serious, and I can explain it quite simply right now.  Let’s have a seat,” Rollo suggested, motioning to the pews. They made themselves comfortable on one in the last row and Rollo continued.  “As I explained before, it’s a deal on which the bank takes a slight loss in exchange for exposure and good word of mouth in the community, which is priceless.  That is the best way to build business, especially in a place like St. Petersburg, where the people are many and the competition fierce.”
“Well, I’d like to take advantage of your offer,” Jarple said.
“Acceptance of offer accepted,” Rollo drolly replied.  “I’ll draw the paperwork in the morning knocking roughly one percent off your interest rate and giving you two thousand cash in hand for the refinance on the equity.  You can stop by any time in the afternoon to approve and sign the documents and collect your cash.  I would ask, however, that you keep this between us—strictly between us.  I may extend the similar offer to a select few, but people finding out I was treating them differently than others would be just as bad for business.”
“If you can’t trust a cop to remain silent, who can you trust?”
Rollo chuckled and rejoined:  “A pastor who runs a bank.”
They laughed together, then Jarple gave utterance to some thoughts that had been in his mind.  “I’m torn between trusting the pastor and the banker here,” he said.
“I am one and the same,” Rollo replied.  “You can trust both.”
Jarple paused before continuing.  “We have a Policeman’s Benevolence fund that accumulates and disperses rather large sums of cash at varying times.  We do a lot for public charity, but…”
Surprised at the sudden pause, Rollo finally said:  “But what?”
“I don’t know whether to confide in the banker or confess to the pastor,” he finally finished.
“Do either with confidence,” Rollo declared.  “The pastor won’t pass any judgment and the banker would never betray.  I regard both confidences as sacred as those between patients and doctors, or defendants and lawyers, or penitents and God.”
Jarple looked carefully into Rollo’s face, which he softened to be warm and trustworthy.
“We receive many generous donations from the public we protect, of course,” Jarple began, “and which we return to them in the form of camps for underprivileged children and other charitable outreach…but we do have other revenue streams.”  Chafed with curiosity, Rollo waited patiently and Jarple continued.  “A couple of revenue streams that aren’t exactly…that might not be condoned by the public for some reasons, and the law for others.”
“Well, the public outcry was wrong when it demanded Christ’s blood, and the Bible does say that where there is no law there is no transgression, and that many laws of men are wrong in God’s eyes,” Rollo replied.
“Behind the iron clad cover of the thin blue line we run two major financial generators,” Jarple bluntly admitted.  He had been sufficiently comforted in Rollo’s presence that he not only decided to confide, but to do so with the slight braggadocio that was his inclination when speaking of the enterprises to friends or trusted acquaintances.  “First began with our systematic removal of the mafia from the city years ago.  After fighting them for so long we came to the realization that it was easier—and safer for the public—to simply take over their collections and keep them at a distance from within the city rather than battling the endless army of replacements as we took them out one at a time.  It’s been going on for years, very quietly, fairly and without complaint, and amounts to as much as several thousand a week.  I truly believe lives have been saved and the public made safer by this arrangement.”
Rollo sought to justify him.  “You are the force of good in the ongoing battle against evil.  When God gave the Israelites the promised land they too had to fight with the many enemy nations they eventually conquered, and in many instances along with victory God gave the Israelites houses to dwell in that they had not built, and vineyards to enjoy that they had not planted, and much booty of silver and gold, so you are not necessarily doing wrong in God’s eyes, but rightly ignoring sinful and aberrant laws of men to do what is truly right.”
“It encourages me to hear that, especially from you,” Jarple said.  The relief he felt further emboldened him.  “The second source of revenue is high stakes poker.  Some years ago we started a game for recreation, but poker is not poker unless there are stakes—without value chips are nothing more than snacks, and the game no more than mindless card turning.  There are a number of policeman and other local high rollers who alleviate the pressures of their lives through poker.  So rather than forcing them to trek to a casino and play with strangers and have their winnings raked, we make it more comfortable and convenient and enjoyable, and we take a smaller vig, a percentage of which finds its way into the Benevolence fund.”
Rollo was about to respond to Jarple when he noticed Raddy standing in the doorway behind them, and instead turned and addressed him.  “How long have you been standing there?”
“Not long,” Raddy answered.  “I need bolts so I can secure those last few pews.  I was halfway there when I realized I forgot to bring one along so that they could match it exactly.  I just need a wrench.”  He went to the tool pile, found a wrench and returned to the nave to remove a bolt from the floor.
“How much do you think he heard?” Jarple quietly asked Rollo.
“I have no way of knowing,” he softly and nervously answered.  “I was paying attention to you and didn’t notice when exactly he appeared.”
“He’s been around here his whole life, and in trouble with the law several times,” Jarple explained.  “We watch him, and know he’s been staying in this church for about a year.  Be careful letting him stay here—the law favors squatters, and if you ever want him gone you may find it more difficult than simply asking him to leave.”
“I have been wondering and worried about that,” Rollo replied.
With the bolt in hand Raddy took his leave a second time and headed to the hardware store.  They waited in awkward silence and stared hard at him as he departed, then resumed their conversation.
“As to the card game, I wouldn’t worry much about the security of making deposits into a Benevolence fund,” Rollo reassured.  “I’m the top of the chain, and if I don’t question anything, nobody will.”
“Well, if I can trust your full confidence, that can amount to several thousand dollars a month, and while we do a reasonable amount of charitable work, we also…we pay ourselves bonuses.  We consider ourselves underpaid—after all, what price is fair exchange for putting one’s life on the line every day?  Rather than fighting with the politicians who seek to underpay us while destroying our union, we find it much simpler and easier and less stressful on ourselves and our families to go along with them while redressing the difference in our own quiet way.  Everyone’s happy and the public is safer,” he concluded.
“Again I see no wrong,” Rollo appeased.  “God gave us the gift of life, and betwixt great joys and sorrows, lighter moments and entertainment are not sin.  If you’d like to move the Policemen’s Benevolence fund to our bank I’d be happy to place it into a non profit, tax exempt account.  You’ll be able to move money in, out and around it however you like.”
“I’ll do that tomorrow afternoon when I come by to sign the refinanced mortgage,” Jarple said, rising up and extending his hand.  “Thank you for your trust.”
“It is I obligated to thank you for trusting me,” Rollo replied, returning the handshake.
Jarple moved to the doorway, then said:  “Watch that Raddy.  Him I don’t trust, and I’m frankly uncomfortable with the thought that he might know our business.”
“I’m uncomfortable too, and intend to watch him very closely,” Rollo answered, then they parted.

5

With Raddy working twelve and fourteen hour days, the preparations for the first service and open house progressed apace.  On Saturday Raddy decided to utilize the church’s small kitchen to bake round loaves of fresh bread for his contribution to the pot luck dinner.  While he was occupied with that, Rollo moved a table to the back corner of the nave.  Then he brought in a box containing three relics, which he arranged for display. 
The first relic was a cross shaped stone about the size of a large hand.  A placard explained the object and its history.  ‘A particularly nasty Roman named Cucullus used this same rock for years in the second century to stone Christians.  He lived near the place where they brought the Christians for execution, and was usually one of the first to arrive for the stonings.  Cucullus always brought his own rock, this rock, and always retrieved it after the executions and brought it back home with him.  He preferred it because it fit perfectly in his palm, enabling him to hurl it with maximum force.  Ironically, the rock was used against Cucullus by his own wife when he was ultimately stoned for his late life conversion.  Following Cucullus’ execution a member of a wealthy Roman family recognized his notorious rock and took it home.  The same aristocrat subsequently wrote down the story of Cucullus and displayed the rock in family home for centuries.’
The second relic was an opaque, green glass honey pot the size of a fist, intricately designed and well weathered by time.  The placard beside it read:  ‘This ancient honey pot dates to the second century BC, and was recovered from an excavation at Gehenna, or, the Valley of Hinnom, outside the southwest wall of Jerusalem.  The ancient Israelites living in Jerusalem used the valley for their refuse, and it was also the accursed place where the evil Israelites sacrificed their children by fire to the pagan gods Ba’al and Moloch.  Accordingly it is the destination of wicked souls in Christian, Jewish and Islamic scripture.’
 The third was a reproduction of an ancient urn, and contained actual ashes.  The placard read:  ‘This urn contains ashes from the forty martyrs at Sebaste (modern day Turkey) who died together in 320 AD.  The forty martyrs were Roman soldiers who had openly confessed Jesus Christ and were immediately condemned by the local prefect.  He sentenced them to be frozen to death by exposing them naked overnight on a frozen pond, and set a guard over them.  During the night one of the confessors snuck off to seek the warm baths reputed to be near the pond.  At that moment one of the guards witnessed a preternatural brilliance and cast off his garments, proclaimed himself a Christian and joined the other thirty nine on the ice, maintaining their number a perfect forty.  In the morning their stiff bodies, some still seeming half alive, were burned.  Some of their ashes were scattered on the river and some were gathered by locals and kept for relics which were distributed throughout numerous cities.  They are still widely venerated and many churches, from Cappadocia to Kiev, have been erected in honor of the forty martyrs at Sebaste.’
Beside the urn was a medieval style parchment reproduction of portrait miniatures of the forty men’s faces, with their names underneath:  Hesychius, Meliton, Heraclius, Smaragdus, Domnus, Eunoicus, Valens, Vivianus, Claudius, Priscus, Theodulus, Euthychius, John, Xantheas, Helianus, Sisinius, Cyrion, Angius, Aetius, Flavius, Acacius, Ecditius, Lysimachus, Alexander, Elias, Candidus, Theophilus, Aglaius, Dometian, Gaius, Gorgonius, Leontius, Athanasius, Cyril, Sacerdon, Nicholas, Valaerius, Philoctimon, Severian, and Chudion.
On Sunday morning Rollo arrived early to nervously await the turnout.  He feared few or no people showing, but at ten o’clock the church began to fill up nicely with several dozen, most of whom Rollo had already met during the week.
He sermonized about the story of Abraham receiving the three men of the Lord on the plain of Mamre, whom he honored first with water and bread, then with meat and hospitality.  The reference was made as a way of expressing Rollo’s prayerful hope that the town would receive him as warmly as Abraham did the men of God.  He intentionally kept the service mercifully brief—which was his wont anyway—as not to alienate anyone at the outset, so after Raddy and another man passed the collection plates, and a short benediction, Rollo ended by encouraging everyone to introduce themselves to each other in fellowship before descending and doing so himself. 
Following fellowship the congregation moved into the large common room at the back of the church.  Raddy had arranged several tables for the potluck buffet, which he tended while greeting folks as they wandered over to graze.  Rollo reminded himself to keep an ever present smile on his lips, then began introducing himself to the congregants he hadn’t yet met.  While thus engaged a woman stepped forward and introduced herself.  “I’d like to welcome you to town.  My name is Margaret Bamberg, but I go by Peggy.”
“Margaret is such a lovely name,” he suavely replied.
“Why thank you,” she answered, clearly flattered.  “As you like.”
She was in her sixties and well preserved, having gracefully resigned her blonde hair and fair skin to the years.  “I love the relics,” she remarked.  “Are they real?”
“Why of course,” he answered.  “I have provenance and certificates of authenticity; that stuff just doesn’t display well, so I have it in safekeeping.”
“I see,” she said.  Along with the rest of the congregation she was curious, and she asked:  “Where did you acquire them?”
“In my twenties and thirties I wandered churches in Europe and Africa, teaching and preaching and studying the word,” he explained.  “I spent time in many cities and towns, and made friends with many locals and fellow pastors in those churches along the way.  I greatly enjoy collecting the relics myself, and have found that they serve the additional purpose of driving attendance, by drawing curious eyes into the church that might not otherwise come.  Those three are just the beginning—I acquired a veritable collection in my travels, and now that I have a place to house them, my friends who’ve been holding them are going to start sending them to me from the four corners of the world.  Enough about me and my antiques….what do you do with yourself?” Rollo asked.
“That’s so interesting, I would love to hear more,” she responded.  “I’m a widow and my children are grown and gone, and my husband left me well provided for, so I live in a lovely place where I spend a lot of time gardening and studying the Bible and listening to the birds.”
“And what did your husband do?”
“He was a very successful businessman,” she explained.  “He imported Italian furniture.  He died of a heart attack a few years ago.”
“I’m sorry,” Rollo consoled.
“Thank you.  I’ve actually been thinking of paying you a visit at the bank,” she continued.  “I want to seed several small trust funds for my grandchildren.”
Rollo’s eyes could not conceal perking.  “Please do…the bank would be happy to help you in any way possible.”
“And while I’m there we could discuss another banking matter,” she added. 
His eyes widened a second time.  “But of course,” he encouraged.
“I want to start a charitable foundation, and now is the time.  I need something more to devote my days to.”
“For charity, I put both my church and my bank at your disposal,” Rollo said.
“Aren’t you kind,” she replied.
“Why don’t you think it over, call me during the week with exact figures, and I’ll prepare some paperwork.  When I have that ready you can come by the bank or I can bring it by your home.  I’ve never met a gardener who didn’t like to show off her flowers.”
“Having you over for tea would be lovely; I’ll look forward to it,” Margaret warmly answered.  Officer Jarple and his wife were hovering nearby, so Margaret politely said goodbye and went to mingle and the Jarples stepped forward.  Captain Jarple’s wife Sylvia extended her hand into Rollo’s and said:  “I’ve been looking forward to this.  I always love meeting new men and women of God.”
“And I’ve already heard about you, and your interest in my humble church, which is most welcome and for which I am most thankful.”
“I’m trying to be as welcoming as Abraham, as your wonderful words today reminded, and I hope your reception to town has thus far been a warm one,” Sylvia said.
“Indeed it has surpassed my greatest hope,” Rollo replied.  He and her husband acknowledged each other and shook hands.
“Well, I pray you and your church feed on God’s blessings for years to come, and I will be happy to water its roots by joining your congregation,” Sylvia said.  “We live just a block away, a three minute walk beyond the trees behind the church.  I love the relics, so fascinating!”
“I’m very honored and look forward to getting to know you,” Rollo replied with affected humility.  Then he smiled and added: “The relics are a hobby of mine….”
Rollo went on to explain everything again as he just had to Margaret, then Jarple said to his wife: “Why don’t you go fix us a couple of plates?  I’ll be right over.”  She smiled and went to the buffet, and when she was out of earshot, Jarple said to Rollo:  “Do you think Raddy overheard us the other day?  I can’t stop wondering.  If he were to say anything it could damage us both irreparably.”
“I asked him on Friday how long he was standing in the doorway before we noticed him when he came back for the bolt and he said, ‘not long, just a few moments.’”
“A few moments?” Jarple repeated.  “A few moments could be long enough to know everything.”
“I should never have asked him, and regret it,” Rollo admitted.  “If he didn’t suspect something was up before, by now I’m sure he does.  I would have been smarter to stay dumb, but I couldn’t help myself; I was so curious to know if he overheard us that before I could think I had already opened my mouth.  I’m getting more paranoid by the hour that the longer I let him stay here the more the residency law strengthens as his ally.”
“I don’t like it,” Jarple observed, looking over at Raddy where he stood at the buffet table.  “We need to keep a close on eye him.”
“Believe me, I already am,” Rollo answered. 
Raddy had been around St. Petersburg much of his life; he recognized many of the faces there, and likewise they knew him.  And while many held him in low opinion, they kept it within themselves out of respect for the house of God they were in.  Raddy, however, was radiant, and enjoying himself more than he had since he could remember.  He greeted newcomers, received dishes of food and kept the plates and forks stocked while bussing the room and constantly smiling and saying hello to everyone.  He had just noticed Rollo staring at him again when he heard a soft voice say:  “Radford, is that you?”
He turned, and cried:  “Juanita!”
They fell into each others’ arms; then stepped back, and holding hands, beheld one another.  Her hair was shiny jet and luscious; her hazel eyes penetrating; her olive skin a delicacy.  She was the Latina beauty who had been Raddy’s high school sweetheart almost two decades before.
“I was wondering and hoping I might see you again,” she said.
“And I want to kiss you again,” he fumbled to reply, at which both blushed.  “Where have you been?”
“I went to university in California, then got married and got a job,” she replied.  “There’s not much to tell, really.  My marriage ended last year, childless, and my mother is not well, so I have returned home.  And you? What have you done in fifteen years since high school?”
“I’ve had some good times and I’ve been laid low,” he answered.  “Lately life has started looking up, and in the last two minutes has brightened considerably.”
“Always so kind with your words,” she observed.
“This past week I worked to get this church ready to open today,” he said.  “We painted and cleaned and did repairs.”
“Nice work, much of it looks new,” she replied.  She gazed about, then remarked:  “I need to find work myself.  I’m looking for a job that will allow me to continue to tend my mother.”
Rollo reared himself into the conversation, saying to Raddy:  “And who is your lovely friend?”
Raddy reluctantly presented her to Rollo and explained: “This is Juanita.  She’s from St. Petersburg too.  We went to school together.”
Raddy smiled at her while Rollo warmly shook her hand.  “My pleasure, and welcome,” Rollo said.  “Did I overhear that you’re looking for a job?”
“You did,” she answered.  “I recently returned home to care for my mother, and try as we do, we can’t live on love.”
Rollo and Raddy’s eyes met: Raddy’s flared with jealousy while Rollo’s clearly admired Juanita’s beauty, to whom he quickly turned them back.
“If you’d consider working in a bank, we need someone new soon,” Rollo said to Juanita.  “Based on the success of today’s service and open house, business is going to bustle.  It’s Neighborhood Bank on State street.  Stop by, even tomorrow, if you think you’re interested.”
“I would be,” she replied, “I will, and thank you.  I worked part time as a teller while in college, so I bring some experience.”
Raddy bristled with envy; Rollo perceived it and said:  “I look forward to it if you do, and it was a pleasure meeting you.”
Rollo walked away, to Raddy’s great relief. 
“He seems like a nice man,” Juanita said. 
“That’s one of his faces,” Raddy softly muttered, almost contemptuously.
“I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to see you again,” Juanita said, melting him with the warmth of her eyes.  “I’ve thought about you often over the years.”  She withdrew a card from her purse, wrote her phone number on it and handed it to him.  “It’s been a long morning and I need to get home, but I’d like you to call me.  I’d like to see you and get to know you again.”
“He looked down at the card, then back up at her and replied:  “Memorized.  You are more beautiful than ever and I can’t wait to see you again.  I promise to call very soon.”
“I’ll look forward to it,” she replied with a sweet smile.  She waved goodbye with her fingertips and left the church.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

I Desire Mercy, Not Sacrifice

Several months ago on facebook I shared a graphic of a picture and quote of Bill Maher, who in speaking of Syrian President Assad, said:  “Using harmful chemical weapons to hurt your own people?  Who does this guy think he is, Monsanto?”   
Dan commented.  Dan and I had been friends for thirty years, but it was only in the last few that I learned both that he was politically arch conservative, and considers himself Christian.
Dan wrote:  “Bob.  You posted a link of Bill Maher re. Republicans.  He shares your political views, sure.  That’s alright.  But you must know by now he’s a tirelessly outspoken atheist who thinks people who believe in God, especially Christians, are hypocrites and idiots.  That includes me and you brother.  There are so many links, quotes and videos I could post to back me up it’s a joke.  So I won’t.”
I replied:  “Seriously, Dan?  Should I shun Bill Maher because he’s an atheist?”
Dan responded:  “No, shun him for calling you an idiot.  I have atheist friends.  Woody was an atheist.  But he never thought I was a hypocrite, or stupid for being a Christian.”
The next day Dan posted a link to Michael Savage’s anti Obama vitriol, the hypocrisy was too stark for me to stand, and I decided to unfriend Dan, which I did by posting the following comment to him on facebook.
“It has been an amazing thing to watch an entire circle of college friends all lose their minds over thirty years.  Mary Ellen is insane—unless you consider bringing a rabbit named Woody to Woody’s funeral to be perfectly normal.  Zak lost his mind when he gave it to Mary Ellen when he willingly submitted himself to the underside of her thumb.  Woody lost his mind and it cost him his life.  Shaumyan has lost his mind, and is now an incoherent drunk who has aligned himself with the very wicked men and women he used to call out for being bastards, and is still writing his pathetic ‘fuck the world’ poems at a third grade reading level.  And alas you too Dan—you now dwell in a muddled parallel universe where Jesus Christ is a money worshipping, earth raping, warmongering, machine gun toting, child abusing homophobic racist hypocrite who hates the poor and serves the rich.
If I thought you were a Christian I would rejoice.  Instead I am deleting you from my friends list.  I still hope you someday come into the light, but I find some of what you publish on facebook to be offensive filth, and your perversion of Christianity to be misguided and blind.”
That was several months ago.  Last week I received this email from Dan.
Hello Bob,
Lately in church, one of Jesus’ teachings kept coming up, the one about leaving your gift at the altar, “leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.” It’s of course, about forgiveness, in this case, me forgiving you, and perhaps more significantly, you forgiving me. You kept entering my mind when this was addressed during service.
We disagree politically. Had we approached it differently, we might’ve actually found common ground. But I believe we at least agree on an even more important topic, which is why I’m writing this.
Of course, you can either accept my apology for what I’ve said or not. But I had to at least broach the topic with you, because the Lord says we must.
Hope all is well.
Kind regards,
-Dan
I decided to turn my response into this blog post.
Dan,
Just the fact that you write to me expecting a response can be regarded as arrogance, as there were two occasions in the past couple years where I wrote lengthy answers/responses to your comments/question that you not only did not answer, you did not even bother to acknowledge that I had taken the time to write them.
You’ve forgiven me?  Pray tell for what?  For the sin of speaking the truth?  I have done you no wrong.  While you’re standing at the altar offering heartfelt forgiveness to someone who’s done you no wrong, I think this would be the more appropriate scripture to contemplate, if you want do what the Lord says we must.
But I say unto you, That in this place is one greater than the temple.  But if ye had known what this meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless.  Matthew 12:6-7.
God will have mercy, not sacrifice.  He wants your heart, not your hard cash.  You can’t bribe your way into heaven with tithes.
The concept of mercy not sacrifice must be really important, because it appears throughout the Old Testament and Jesus referred to it repeatedly.
Here it is in Hosea:  For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.
And I just read it again this morning here in Psalm 50:16-17:  For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it:  thou delightest not in burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.
Jesus said, if you love me, keep my commandments, which he summed up by saying above all love God and thy neighbor as thyself.
My politics stem directly from Jesus, the most liberal man who ever lived.  He overthrew the establishment while healing and feeding everyone who came to him, and brought light to the world before laying down his life for his friends in it.  That is LIBERALITY, and I accordingly vote for the rulers that will most liberally legislate to create ‘on earth as it is in heaven’ as Christ demonstrated during his stay here, and to write law that loves my neighbor as myself with particular respect to the disadvantaged--the elderly, the widows, our children, the poor and the sojourners; the politician who would show mercy by lifting me up if I were in unfortunate straits.  Such leaders are the liberals.  You detest them.
In demonstrating ‘on earth as it is in heaven’ Christ also taught his disciples socialism.
And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul:  neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things in common.
And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all.
Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold,
And laid them down at the apostles’ feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need
.  Acts 4:32-35
That is socialism, Dan, which you also despise.  How can you despise what you hope to attain?
Jesus also said that he who is not against us is with us.   You, Dan, are against us.  Your heart is with the enemy, who is the Devil.  Is Jesus good or evil?  Then why do you vote for leaders whose works are nothing but evil? To quote scripture: an evil tree cannot bring forth good fruit.  Truly Christian politicians would make certain all impoverished children are fed.  The politicians you vote for rip that food out of the mouths of babes and give it to BIG BANKS and OIL COMPANIES.  That is evil.  Truly Christian politicians would create a universal health care system that covers EVERYONE.  The politicians you empower with your vote would take away health care from as many poor people as possible.  How is that Christian?  How is that loving thy neighbor as thyself?  That is evil.
Thanks directly to Obamacare I now have health insurance for the first time in my life.  If you’d had your way in the last election that would have been ripped from me and I would be back in the position of having to give up my home to an insurance company or a hospital were I to become catastrophically ill.  If you tell me I’d be better off that way and that you love me like a Christian brother you are nuts.
And have you seen the latest right wing persecution of the poor—criminalizing homelessness?  It’s been happening in recent years in local republican legislatures across America.  Read some of the stories here and explain to me how it is Christian to vote for these sons and daughters of the Devil.  It’s pernicious malice, utterly heartless evil—and these are the lawmakers YOU choose to rule over your neighbors.  Since we know that blessed are the poor, and theirs is the kingdom of heaven, how can you persecute the children of God in the name of Christ?  You cannot, that is a kingdom divided, which cannot stand.
You, Dan, are the perfect example of the person Christ describes here:  Ye hypocrites, well did Isaiah prophesy of you, saying, This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoreth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me.  Matthew 15:8-9
And who but the phony Christians, wolves in sheepskin whose lying lips speak righteousness while their hearts are full of hate, is Christ talking about here?  Not everyone that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.
Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful things?
And then I will profess unto them, I never knew you.  Depart from me, ye that work iniquity.
  Matthew 7:21-23
As to forgiveness, why do you seek mine?  I really don’t understand.  For being what I perceive to be a phony Christian?   You have to account for your cold-hearted disregard, neglect and contempt for some of your neighbors to the Lord, not me.  And if you really think that Jesus Christ just coincidentally shares political views with Rush Limbaugh, Ted Nugent, Dick Cheney, Glen Beck, the Bush family crime syndicate, Ronald Reagan, the NRA and Wall Street, then you are crazy and there is no sin in my saying so.  
As to any reconciliation, what do you suggest?  I refuse to have your hypocritical antichrist right wing rubbish infesting my facebook feed.  It seems to me that if your heart were truly reconciled with Christ then we would already be on the same page and not having this discussion.  That is the reconciliation I would suggest you pursue.
Next time you’re standing at the altar with your precious gift (that you now know the Lord does not desire in the first place), you might want to write this scripture in your palm and read and ponder it in your heart while standing there, for it is you.
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy and faith:  these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.  Matthew 23:23