The men of the church sat at a round table in a room of red velvet and highly polished wood accents. There was a fire blazing in the fireplace and the logs crackled as the men ate ham sandwiches and sipped cherry martinis. They were somewhat disgruntled as they fumbled through folders of papers. Elder Sam was wearing a baby blue sweater and his hair was white and his nose was swelled from years of drinking. He peered over the top of his glasses, looked at the other men, and cleared his throat.
“Are we ready to begin?”
There was a communal nodding of heads in agreement.
“Is the door locked?” Elder Sam asked.
Elder Paul was the youngest and newest. He had tight curly hair the color of beach sand and was very thin and not that tall. He wore heavy spectacles and it always seemed like he was squinting. Outside of the church he worked as an appliance salesman in one of those big crappy stores. He was content enough with his life, but he got bored sometimes; he felt he needed added purpose in being alive and so joined the church with his fairly new bride. He went and checked if the door was locked. He tugged on the knob like a wimp.
“Locked tight,” he said.
Elder Sam cleared his throat again.
“I called this meeting of the church elders because there are certain concerns among the people that have started to bubble up to the surface. There’s been a lot of talk about the demographics of this growing church … I for one am very concerned about how things are changing around here. If we are going to sustain ourselves as a fine and upstanding church, we’re going to have to do a lot of house cleaning.”
Elder Bob was a bulbous man who ate more meat than he should. He looked like a balding bulldog and when he was up in front of the congregation singing with the choir, his jowls flubbed around like creamy rubber. His facade shined, but inside he was soured. He slammed a fat fist on the table and the men jumped.
“I noticed another black family has decided to join us on Sundays. Where do they all keep coming from!?” he complained.
Elder Sam coughed and scratched at his face.
“That reminds me – from now on we need to make sure the collection money is completely secure. And no more fried chicken at the church picnics!”
The other men made noises like sheep and agreed.
“And we have another problem,” Elder Sam continued. “A couple of queers came in the other day and wanted to talk to someone about getting married here.”
“Oh no,” Elder Paul worried. “Queers? I didn’t hear about that. What happened?”
“Not much,” Elder Sam answered. “They were politely asked to leave – and damn it all! – could someone please take down the All Are Welcome from the marquee out front? This church is gathering dust.”
“So now we have to worry about gays wanting to worship with us?” Elder Bob interrupted.
“I think we already have gays,” Elder Paul said. “A couple of weeks ago I saw two men in the back sitting real close to each other. I walked by just to check it out, and sure enough, they were holding hands. I had to rush off to the men’s room because I nearly got sick.”
“Oh good lord!” Elder Bob boomed. “This is outrageous! The next thing you know they’re going to get naked back there and start doing unspeakable things.”
Elder Jim was a slender and well-groomed man who enjoyed his privacy. His goatee was always in perfect alignment, and thick black hair flawlessly sat atop his head. Elder Jim was a perfectionist to the highest degree – Cleanliness is next to godliness – he would always say. He secretly kept a travel-size bottle of hand sanitizer in his pocket at all times and he was always pulling it out and squirting it into his palms when no one was looking. “Gentlemen,” he began. “I’m afraid our problems run much deeper than that. We have lesbians and Mexicans filling our pews as well – and what about that Irish guy who keeps trying to drink all the sacramental wine.”
Elder Jim stood up and neatly walked to an easel supporting a large tablet of white paper. He flipped over the first page.
“As you can see, I’ve been doing a little statistical work and I’ve come up with some startling findings. What I have written down here is a – a disturbing census, I suppose you could say. Over the past six months we have had visitations, as well as requests to join our beloved church, from the following: Four black families, three homosexual couples, 12 Mexicans, six newly immigrated Orientals, a vegetarian, two Islamic converts, a handful of confused Catholics, that drunk Irish guy I was talking about, a quadriplegic, a bald woman from Croatia, a family with a disfigured set of twins, someone with chronic psoriasis, seven homeless people, a strange Canadian, a transgender teen, a fat woman with diabetes and only one breast – and gentlemen, even a Jew.”
The men around the table looked at each other and huffed and puffed.
“We can’t have any of that!” Elder Bob bellowed. “This is god’s house!”
“Amen,” the men murmured in unison.
Elder Fritz was the oldest. He had a few remaining white hairs left on his speckled head and his face was thin and drawn all around the eyeglasses that were too big for him. He usually sat quietly with his old hands resting together atop the table listening intently to the conversations. He was rarely stirred unless something really gnawed at him. He raised a wobbly arm and asked for attention.
“I don’t want the Jew here – that’s for damn sure,” he demanded.
Elder Sam stood up and raised his hands.
“Gentlemen, please, please. It’s more than obvious thanks to Elder Jim’s research that we have a serious problem here. That much we know. The question is – what are we going to do about it?”
Elder Paul assertively raised his hand.
“Why don’t we just make a big sign listing all the kinds of people we don’t want here and post it on the front door?”
There was some silence, some deep thinking, and scratching at faces.
“I love that idea!” Elder Bob boomed as he pointed at Elder Paul. “That’s brilliant.”
Elder Sam sat back down at the table and bowed his head. “That might just work. We’ll pray about it,” he told them – and so they did.
Elder Paul was assigned the task of compiling and creating the list. He worked day after day in his office at the church and his desk kept piling up with suggestions of who to keep out: The French, eskimos, hippies, people in wheelchairs, Mormons, truck drivers, unsightly lesbians, people who like birds as pets, anyone with cancer or AIDS, drug users, the grotesquely obese, pedophiles, people who drive mini-vans, Buddhists, people with mentally disabled children, extraterrestrials, single moms, alcoholics, people with tattoos, non-Christian foreigners seeking refuge, janitors, ex-cons, the blind, Indians (both kind), schizophrenics, prostitutes, anyone who doesn’t speak English, gingers, welfare recipients, environmental activists, the unemployed, terrorists, carnival folk, writers, gamblers, Polish people, fast-food workers — and on and on and on the list went.
Elder Paul worked on the list for two weeks straight and he was so proud of it that he had it printed on a large ornate banner that could be unfurled and run down the entire front facade of the church so everyone could clearly see it. The list read like names on a war memorial, and at the very bottom in big red letters it said: NOT ALLOWED.
On the day of installation, someone was hired to come with a cherry picker truck to hoist the gigantic banner up and attach it. Elder Paul also had a lighting system installed below on the ground so the flaming banner could be illuminated with bright colors and seen at night.
Once it was hung, Elder Paul looked up at it and he felt proud of himself. Elder Sam emerged from the church and stood there beside him looking up at it too.
“You did an excellent job, Paul. I think you have a fine future in our church.”
“Thank you, Elder Sam. I prayed about it constantly and did my very best.”
Elder Sam clamped a hand on the young man’s shoulder and smiled.
“You most certainly did.”
“I can’t wait until Sunday,” Elder Paul said.
“I can’t either,” Elder Sam smiled. Hopefully now we can worship as it was always intended.”
The elders all sat together in an empty and quiet church the following Sunday. They waited and waited and waited. No one lit the candles. No one played any music. No one burned any death incense. Even the preacher was absent.
“Where’s the pastor?” Elder Paul whispered to the others.
Elder Sam looked around. “I have no idea. That’s rather uncharacteristic of him to be late for a service.”
“That Jew isn’t here is he?” asked Elder Fritz.
“No Fritz,” Elder Sam answered. “There isn’t anyone.”
A door finally opened at the rear of the sanctuary and the elders all turned their heads to see who it was.
There was a man standing there with bronze skin, long hair and an unruly beard. He was dressed in ratty clothing and the sandals on his feet were covered in dust and dirt. Elder Sam stood up and pointed at the man.
“Hey! You can’t come in here looking like that! Didn’t you see the sign out front?”
The stranger said nothing and simply took a seat in the very last pew and stared straight ahead.
“I’ll take care of this,” Elder Bob steamed, and he pushed his way through the row of elders and out into the aisle. He walked his blubbery body briskly toward the stranger and pointed a finger at him. “Didn’t you hear what he said? You’re not allowed in here. We’re trying to worship.”
The man looked up at him and his crystal blue eyes sparkled.
“Why?” he asked. “I’ve just come to pray.”
“God doesn’t want to hear your prayers. You’re filthy and unruly. You need a haircut and some clean clothes – and a hot shower wouldn’t hurt either.”
The man looked down. “I just wanted to pray.”
The other elders exited the pew and joined Elder Bob in berating the stranger.
“Do you want me to call the cops?” Elder Sam said. “I used to be a cop and I could get my brothers in blue over here in a heartbeat. Do you hear me, mister?”
“I hear you just fine. But I don’t understand how you can say you are for me when you are so against me.”
Elder Jim moved forward. “
What the hell are you talking about?”
“I saw your list out front,” the stranger said. “How could you post such a desecration?”
“We have every right to decide who is welcome and who is not,” Elder Bob flushed. “It’s our church.”
The stranger blinked and shook his head.
“No, it is my church.”
“Go now, Elder Paul. Call the police,” Elder Sam ordered. “We have an unsightly trespasser here in our midst.”
“Can’t you see what you’ve done?” the stranger pointed out, and he stood up. “You’re blind to all the casualties of humanity. You are completely blind to the need of your fellow man. I’ve never taught anything like that.”
“I think this guy’s on drugs,” Elder Jim concluded. “He’s surely not right in the head.”
The stranger smiled at them and looked up toward the high ceiling of the church. He then closed his eyes and began to ascend toward the lights. Up and up and up he went, like some angelic elevator of golden light, and when he nearly reached the top, he looked down at them and they were stunned beyond reason.
Elder Paul came scrambling back into the sanctuary.
“The police are on their way. They said to make sure he doesn’t try to run off.” He suddenly saw their upturned faces and followed their gazes to the rafters where the man was still floating at ease.
“Do you still want me to leave?” the stranger called down.
The elders were speechless.
“What’s the matter? I thought you believed in me.”
“I think it’s Jesus,” Elder Paul whispered among them.
Elder Bob snapped his head toward the younger one. “Don’t be ridiculous! This is obviously some kind of horrible prank. This whole thing – it’s all just a prank.”
Elder Sam stepped forward and cupped his hand to the side of his mouth.
“Why don’t you come down now? We don’t want to be sued if you get hurt up there.”
The stranger chuckled and then he began to swim around up there, floating, effortlessly flying in circles like a great soaring bird.
Elder Sam looked over his shoulder at the others.
“I hope to god he doesn’t make a mess of anything up there. It would cost us a fortune.”
Elder Paul stepped out in front of them all.
“Are you not seeing this? It’s Jesus. It’s damn Jesus up there. This is a miracle!”
Elder Jim beamed at him.
“Take it easy Paul, that’s not Jesus. This is clearly the work of the devil.”
After a few more circles, the man swooped down and landed softly on his feet in the middle of the main aisle of the sanctuary.
“I’m not the devil,” he scolded. “You are! You all are! Now you will truly know that hell is a real place.”
He moved toward them with subtle rage and that’s when the police stormed into the sanctuary with their guns drawn.
“Stop right where you are!” one of the officers yelled. “Put your hands in the air!”
The man complied and a cop moved toward him.
“Wait!” Elder Paul cried out. “That’s Jesus!”
Two other cops joined in and they roughly forced the stranger to the ground and held him down. They nearly tore his arms off as they put his hands behind his back and cuffed him. They yanked him to his feet and dragged him outside to a waiting police car, furiously kicking and punching at him the whole way.
“See,” Elder Jim boasted. “I told you he wasn’t Jesus. If he was Jesus he’d be able to get away.”
“He was just some crazy son of a bitch with a warped sense for acrobatic theatrics, that’s all,” Elder Sam said. “It was nothing but a hoax my friends – an unbelievably stupid and faithless hoax. Let’s just all go home now and pray. Paul, would you mind locking up?”
Elder Paul shook his head and watched as the others filed out of the church. He looked up at the ceiling one final time before shutting down the lights – he thought he saw swirling contrails of heavenly white. He went out the front doors and locked them behind him, then paused to look up at the banner gently moving in the wind. The police were still in the parking lot and he saw the roughshod stranger sitting in the back of a patrol car and looking out through the window at him with sad eyes. Elder Paul moved closer, and when he was sure the stranger could see him clearly, he gave him the finger.
The elders walked around in hell together. They thought it was disgusting and sinful and much too hot. Elder Bob was sweating like an Easter pig and he stumbled on some rocks and went to the ground. All of evil hell began to laugh at him.
“I can’t take it anymore!” Elder Bob cried out. “This is absolute torture!”
The others struggled to help him to his feet. His knees were on fire and Elder Paul quickly slapped at the flames with his hands to put them out.
“He’s right. I can’t handle this anymore either. I want to go home,” Elder Paul whined.
Elder Sam stopped the others and they went to a corner and huddled together.
“We need to find a way out of here,” Elder Sam stewed. “And when we do, someone is getting their damn asses sued.”
Elder Jim looked at all of them with deep sadness.
“I just don’t know what we can do. Our hands are tied.”
“Maybe there’s a secret passage that leads back to …” Elder Paul began.
A man approached them from behind and poked his head inside the secretive circle.
“Back to life?” he suggested. “But the only true life there is – comes through me.”
Elder Bob looked at him in shock. “Hey! You’re that guy that flew around inside our church.”
“I see the endless fever hasn’t affected your memory,” the man said. “Yes, it is I.”
“I told you he was a phony, and a sinner too,” Elder Sam sneered. “Ha! Looks like you got what you deserve as well. You’re in hell, too.”
“For your information, I do counseling work down here.”
“You really are Jesus. I knew it!” Elder Paul exclaimed. “I knew you were the real Jesus.”
“Is that so, Paul?” Jesus wondered. “If I am so believable to you – then why did you flip me off after I was shackled and beaten?”
Elder Paul stepped back and said nothing as the lord’s blue eyes bore into him like a diamond-tipped drill bit.
“But you all should be equally ashamed,” he said, angered. “It is astonishing to me how boldly you exalt me at the very same time you soil my word. I built you a church and you tore it down. You preached love and peace when your actions spoke nothing of it. You practiced hate and bigotry and the turning away of those who were in the greatest of need. Your church was nothing more than a den for the devil – and had nothing to do with me!”
The elders bowed their heads in shame.
“You will spend eternity here, now. You will suffer for the suffering you’ve caused others. Mercy does not shine upon you now, but mercy smites you instead. You have all cast your lots in life, and now you shall lie in the dust of your heartless deeds.”
Jesus turned and began to walk away but then Elder Sam spoke.
“Please, Jesus. Isn’t there anything we can do? It’s horrible down here.”
Jesus snapped his head back at him.
“Of course it’s horrible. Hell is a very horrible place.”
He began to walk away again when Elder Paul jumped out and followed after him. He pulled on the tunic.
Jesus turned and looked at him.
“I’d be interested in some of that counseling if you don’t mind.”
The lord smiled and placed a hand on his scrawny shoulder.
“Of course you would, Paul. Of course you would. I could see you next week.”
“That’s fine. I’m looking forward to it.”
“Walk with me to the gate and say goodbye,” Jesus commanded, and Paul followed behind as the lord strolled through the bottom of hell to the gate. Once there, they saw the devil and he was chatting up the demonic guards. Jesus forced a smile and carefully extended a hand.
“Hello, Satan,” he said. “How are things?”
“Oh, can’t complain. Been a bit hot,” the devil answered with a menacing chuckle. “Who is this at your side? He isn’t trying to escape is he?”
Jesus looked at Paul and chuckled as well. “No, no, no. This one is damned as damned can be.”
Elder Paul frowned at those words as Jesus turned to look at him again.
“I’m going now Paul. I suggest you do a little reading of the Bible before we meet up again. You may actually want to read it before spewing hateful nonsense.”
“Where can I get a Bible?” Paul asked.
“In the library,” the devil answered. “But you will need to go early if you want to get a copy. Everyone seems to want that damn book now.”
“Goodbye,” Jesus said to them.
“Hey Jesus, wait.” The devil said.
“What is it?”
“Do you think you could drop off some of our recyclables on your way back to Heaven? They’re kind of piling up and you know me, I just can’t stand clutter.”
Jesus glanced over at Paul in an instructive way, and then he smiled. “Of course I can,” he said. “I’d be happy to.”