The sun was only just rising behind the church when two men met on its steps.
“Thank you for meeting me here so early,” said Rolando Desjarlais to the man he was awaiting and was pleased to see.
Frederick Strunk was just as happy to see Rolando. As he approached he stopped and pulled up the sign which read: FOR SALE by Strunk Realtors. Then he went to Rolando, warmly shook his hand and replied: “Rollo, please, it is I who must thank you, for enabling me to take down this sign. This church was on the market almost five years. Today you’ve made me a very happy real estate agent, and this morning there’s nowhere I’d rather be than 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 church. Fred set his sign down behind the door then followed Rollo.
“It’ll be some work, but I plan to have it ready for its inaugural service this coming Sunday,” Rollo explained. “It won’t be perfect by then, mind you, but certainly clean enough to worship the Lord in.”
The church was in somewhat disarray. Furniture was pushed and stacked against the faded, peeling walls. It had been previously Russian Orthodox, and ornate décor and several icons were visible through the sheen 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 leaned against one wall. Along the bottom of the opposite wall was a row of seven air conditioners and in the middle of the room there was a table stacked with hymnals and prayer books.
“That’s an ambitious schedule,” Frederick said, “but you are an ambitious man for trying to start a bank and a church in the same week.”
“In many ways the two go hand in hand,” Rollo answered. “Both need local support to thrive, and I can invite the bank customers to join me in praising the Lord, while offering my congregation a safe place to keep their money. I’m new to town, and need to build a trust.”
“You will start meeting everyone today,” Fred replied. “I should get going. I too have an office to open.”
“My first service is this coming Sunday,” Rollow explained, “ and 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 who had a full head of hair that was still thick and dark, and skin still youthfully smooth. He wore a fake pair of round spectacles, because he thought they made him look more intellectual and trustworthy. He also sported a gaudy gold ring on a finger, and a gold watch on his wrist.
He was moving to St Petersburg to open the Neighborhood Bank and Trust, as well as a non denominational ministry of Christ. He had been in banking all his adult life, and had several heavyweight investors backing his venture. He had also always preached the word almost every Sunday for just as long, and thus was versed in both vocations. He returned inside and started inspecting the premises more closely, assessing what was necessary to make the church presentable, 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 the man. He was black, with a face wizened by hard wrinkles and gray stubble. His head was bald and his stature diminutive.
“Who are you?” Rollo boldly 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 church,” Rollo answered. “And you?”
He 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 shook, 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 seem intimidating.
“I’m afraid I have to ask you to leave,” he coldly stated.
“Please, man…come on! I have nowhere to call home,” Raddy protested. “I had no idea the church had been sold. At least give me a couple days to find a place to go.”
“The insurance doesn’t cover tenants, and if anything were to happen I’d be liable. Unfortunately I’m afraid I have to stand firm.”
“I could help you start cleaning up,” Raddy offered, taking a few steps back into the sanctuary and pointing to 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 opening?” 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 answered. “It wouldn’t be right of me to tell them who to hire. 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 cold hearted preachers.” He quickly gathered his things into a little bundle and Rollo led him to the front door.
“I’m really not one of those cold hearted preachers,” Rollo explained. “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 going we’ll be able and willing to help you back to your feet.”
“You did just help me to my feet, only to lead me to the door, showing me the way out,” Raddy said contemptuously. “Like I said, one of those preachers.” He walked away.
“You’re wrong about that,” Rollo protested. “Come back in a couple days and you’ll see.”
Rollo still had a couple hours before he had to be at the bank for the grand opening, and he was nervous with energy for the big day, and decided to burn some by tackling the mess. He’d been sliding furniture 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,” he said, pointing to it behind the door. “I need to post it on another property this morning.”
“Of course,” Rollo said. “Hey, while you’re here, could you give me a quick hand moving a couple of heavy things?”
“Sure, 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 to see Raddy slither through the hole and back inside.
“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 see how things really are,” Raddy observed. “Your white friend is good enough to help you, but not a brother, and a brother in Christ at that.”
“It’s not that at all,” Rollo said, clearly bristling.
“Who is this?” Fred asked. “How do you two know each other?”
Raddy quickly answered before Rollo could. “This abandoned house of God has been my home for the past few weeks, and now this man, who is coming to establish a house of Christ, has asked me to leave that house. If a man would do that to his brother, we can’t really be of the same family.”
“Really? 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 on Rollo scornfully, while Raddy’s were hopeful. Rollo knew Raddy was manipulating him with shame, and had no choice but to give in. “Listen,” he continued. “You’ve actually given me an idea. Stay in the office while you look for a place and you can help me out here in exchange. Let me think about the specifics and I’ll come up with an equitable arrangement.”
“All right!” Raddy exclaimed. “I’ll grab my things! They’re right in the yard!” He ran back to the hole and crawled out.
Fred gave Rollo a curious, scrutinizing look.
“Let’s move this table there and then I’ve got to get along to the bank,” Rollo said. They did so quickly then Fred took his sign and they left before Raddy had returned.