Summer sun filtering through the stained-glass windows did nothing to cheer up Pastor Daniel. He stood at the pulpit and looked out at his flock. Same people, same as every Sunday: ever-devoted wife, Georgia to the left of him at the keyboards singing, eyes closed, as she led the congregation in hymns; ninety-year-old Widow Jinx already slumped and snoring; the artistic Mavis, divorced three times and caring for her grandson; and beside them sat Tannor, the man-child, sweet and slow, who lived in the house across the street with the pot belly pigs. There were others who came and went, particularly those who showed up on potluck Sunday for the free food, which was served in the reception room behind the nave.
Usually outgoing and upbeat, on that particular Sunday, Pastor Dan felt helpless and oddly resentful up in the Siskiyou Mountains of California, tucked away in this fading town with the mill closed, families moving away, and the population dwindling from 1800 to 1200. He believed he ought to be out enduring unsafe worlds.
While Americans gawked over the O.J. Simpson chase and Tanya Harding’s Olympic medal debacle, in Uganda, Pastor Dan’s missionary friends, the Huckleburgs, helped refugees fleeing the aftermath of Rwanda’s civil war. “A devastating time,” the Huckleburgs had written in the letter he’d read just last night, “Families seeing their parents and children butchered with machetes,” the letter said, “And those who escape arrive at our camps raped, bleeding, terrified. How, in heaven’s name, can such suffering exist?”
Georgia had told Daniel time and time again, “You don’t need to nail yourself to the cross, though it seemed to him that you did, hand, feet, thorns on the brow. Otherwise, who were you really saving?”
Pastor Dan opened his Bible to the book of Job. He always preached from the Book of Job with longing, if only to be tested himself. As of yet, living in a stark town bruised by neglect hardly compared to Job, or the Huckleburgs.
Shall we indeed accept good from God and not accept adversity? Job 2:9. These were the words he started with that Sunday when suddenly, through the doors at the back of the nave, they arrived, filing into God’s little log church, two by two. The mother carrying the baby, the father holding a toddler’s hand, two boys appearing to be twins, and followed by a teenage girl, who carried another young child, and, lastly, a teenage boy wearing pants way too big for him, especially without a belt.
Pastor Dan’s flock, eyes glazed over, nodding off in the pews, now sat up right, awake at the sight of newcomers. Whispers fluttered among the regulars while the baby in the mother’s arms began to fuss, and the toddler started to sniffle. The teenage girl shuffled all nine of them into the back pew.
“Why, God bless. Welcome,” Pastor Dan said, after they’d settled, and he glanced over at Georgia, hoping to share this moment with her. Instead, she covered the bottom half of her face with both hands, as if to stifle pity. Something was off, and his smile began to fade as an odd smell wafted forward, down the aisle, the odor of piss and unwashed bodies, something sour and sweet, sweat and trashcans. The rest of the congregation turned pinch-faced, except Widow Jinx, who could no longer smell, and Mavis’s grandson blurted out, “What smells funny?”
The mother shushed the squalling baby, while the father, beard down to his chest, trembled, like he suffered some severe infirmity. The hand that held the toddler shook. None of the kids’ hair was brushed. In fact, there were twigs in it, and the teenage girl’s cut in an uneven shag, the boy’s matted on one side. Clothes stained and dirty, and the little kids’ t-shirts much too big, sporting holes. The mother wore a lace dress with a huge tear in the sleeve, and the father’s vest unraveled at the belly.
Not that Pastor Dan had the finest attire. Most of his clothes were well over a decade old, Georgia forever patching and sewing and stringing on buttons. And when was the last time she bought a new dress?
But it wasn’t the smell or clothes so much as the vacant, statuesque stares of the children. No spark whatsoever, like his boy had, always romping around, and rough-housing, playing in the mud. The charm of lively children.
Pastor Dan cleared his throat and looked again at his sermon notes, so ink-blotted and coffee-stained that he had trouble reading them. Suddenly, preaching about Job losing his family and fortune, seemed unfitting for this Sunday.
He instructed the congregation to turn to Matthew 19:14. Jesus said, Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these. Georgia, who knew he’d planned on talking about Job, tugged on her earlobes, a gesture she used when nervous or confused. But even Pastor Dan couldn’t explain, if asked, why he so abruptly discarded his notes, his carefully thought-out sermon, and instead winged a convoluted treatise on how the innocent shall not be judged.
And then abruptly he dismissed his congregation to the reception in the hall behind the nave. After singing “Great is thy Faithfulness” for the closing hymn, and Georgia taking it through all three verses, Pastor Dan practically dove off the pulpit in order to shake hands with the parents of those seven blank-eyed children.
The odor strengthened in close proximity, and he noticed sores around the mother’s mouth, and how the father’s whole body quivered like evaporating water. Pastor Dan liked to pride himself on being a nonjudgmental man. After all, Jesus had hung out with prostitutes, tax collectors and orphans, and a lenient, forgiving attitude was one you needed in a town like this.
He found out their last name, Thorle, the mother, Bonnie, the father, Greg. They’d just moved from Stockton, looking to resettle in a more cost-effective locale, one a family as large as theirs could afford.
Pastor Dan made it a point to remember the children’s names, to offer them cookies and tea, and to say, “You’re invited back every Sunday and more. We have a Bible study, and there’s cake. We also have potluck Sunday, last Sunday of every month, and vacation Bible School in June, and Lighthouse Club for the kids every Thursday evening, where they learn about Jesus’s love” and on and on he went, Greg and Bonnie polite, nodding and grinning. Such amiable people, and so fully captivated in what he had to say. Pastor Dan sensed how much they needed Jesus, how hungry their empty eyes.
The rest of the congregation filtered out. The little Thorle children, cookie crumbs covering their mouths, were now acting more like children, kicking and restless. The older boy, Zane, stuffed his pockets with the leftover cookies before Georgia cleared the platters in a huff. Then Pastor Dan realized it was nearly one in the afternoon, the time he and Georgia usually called their son, though half the time he no longer answered the phone. Grown men didn’t have time for their parents. In fact, grown men moved to cities and talked about joining new, big, thriving churches, and studying at the Epic Bible College. Except none of that happened. And pray as they might, their son never came home.
As Dan shook hands with the Thorles, Bonnie said, “Your kindness so touches us, Pastor. It ain’t often we come ‘cross folk such as yourself. And with these here young, it’s so tough to take care, you know, of so many mouths. And I thought I be doing what’s right for God, be fruitful and multiply, and just trusting the Lord, you see, to provide.”
Pastor Dan swelled at such honesty, and a cry for help. How flattering, and before he knew it, he was spewing again. “Don’t you worry, Mrs. Thorle. Just tell me what you need, and by the grace of God, I’ll get it for you.”
Oh, didn’t she blush and smile at that; “God bless you, Pastor, oh, bless you.”
She no longer smelled all that bad. Then, the eldest daughter, Mini, yes, he remembered, she came, placed the baby in Bonnie’s arms, said, “Babes need their naps,” and Georgia, seizing the moment, said, “Let them go, Dan. We’re supposed to call Joshua,” and with that the nine Thorles tottered off down the street, seeming to glow in the summer sun, Jesus shedding his light upon them.
Later that night, Pastor Dan could hardly concentrate, the front-page article all about O.J. Simpson’s DNA. But in the back, in small print, he read about how Zaire had closed its borders to thousands of Rwandan refugees in order to prevent another “Goma,” a place filled with refugee camps. What did the Huckleburgs do about that? Oh, how worthless he could’ve felt, relaxing on his couch reading the newspaper, but that evening the thought of the Thorles kept him hopeful, his Rwanda, so to speak. Lord, please use me to show them Your light.
He got up and, remembering the mother Bonnie’s plea, went to the kitchen, opened the pantry, and began to unload jarred pickles, canned beans and peaches, apricot jam, peanut butter into brown paper sacks he’d saved from Jerry’s Market. Be gone idleness, the very same that had prohibited him years ago from ever going to another country to follow in the martyred footsteps of the Huckelburgs’ and others like them. Idleness birthed of fear, fear for his son, now off to Sacramento and doing who knows what. And Georgia with her severe scoliosis and kidney stones. What would a dangerous unknown country do to his family? All excuses really, with nothing to show but his lack of faith, his fear of suffering.
Now, it seemed, the guilt might be amended through the Thorles family, sent here for his redemption. And to this he whispered, Amen. “Whatever are you doing?” Georgia asked, hunched in the doorway. The light painted her face with an orange hue, and her silver short-cropped hair looked gold.
“We need to make a grocery run,” he said.
He could feel her stare magnified by her thick glasses, “It’s for that new family, am I right?”
“Yes, as a matter of fact,” Pastor Dan said, stacking packets of pasta and marinara sauce on top of the bag. “Large families like those need support. God spoke to me this afternoon. He sent me Proverbs 3:27: Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to act.”
“Oh, for Pete’s sake. What we should do is call CPA.”
Pastor Dan paused, the statement angering him. It always did when Georgia got like this, defiant, and snarky, and impassionate. Like she didn’t care, when of course she did. She hated to think about families being split up, being taken away, broken apart. Dan couldn’t even talk to her about Rwanda, or anything serious. She’d wave him away, say something off topic like, “The pears need pickling tomorrow.” And that’d be that. All the while, their own son never called. Or visited, his mother and father already dust.
Finally, he asked, “You still upset that Joshua didn’t answer the phone?”
“One whiff of those folks, Daniel, and I knew,” Georgia said, folding her arms across her chest, time for the big one. “I know sadness when I smell it, like decay. So, if you insist on being responsible for the plight of others, you’ve got to face the burden all the way.”
He shook his head. “What do you have against the Thorles? You’re not acting Christian.” How daft he sounded. She turned away, back into the living room, picked up her needles and spool of yarn, and resumed knitting, the needles clicking together.
Pastor Dan knew better than to bother her and resumed his donations. The microwave consumed a lot of counter space, and so he added that, plus the popcorn maker, the blender, the toaster, appliances they used seldom since Joshua moved out. Their meals now consisted mainly of boiled noodles, and simple dry sandwiches with the occasional jar of gifted jam.
Next, he went upstairs to Joshua’s room and rifled through the closet, where they kept all the old clothes bagged in the back, for what reason, he wasn’t sure. He thought of Zane, the mop-headed teenager, thin and acne-riddled, sullen and quiet. And what terribly misshapen clothes he wore. No belt for his pants. Holes in the knees. Pastor Dan tore open the bags, dug out jeans and t-shirts that emitted the faint scent of Old Spice soap, summer sweat, and grass. The smells of his boy, back when he still read the Bible, played flag football, and led the youth Bible study at the high school. Back when he cared.
Downstairs the phone rang. Sounds of Georgia rising from her rocker, the knitting needles clacking to the floor, frantic footsteps, her voice breathy on the phone, “Hello, hello? Oh, Joshua.” Pastor Dan, holding a Raiders t-shirt, paused in his charitable pursuits, listening.
What? Oh no. The Lord has been so good to me and your father. A new family showed up at church today. They have seven children. Wouldn’t that bring Sunday School back again? Remember when the church was full of families? Little Robbie Bennet and sweet Janice Mae. We actually used the Sunday school rooms then.”
Hearing Georgia, her voice switched from moody to light, and the way she talked about the Thorles, Dan thought, You’d sure never guess she’d suggested they call child protective services just a half hour earlier. Partly this pleased him, that their son finally called and rescued Georgia’s evening, and yet another part of him fumed. How could Joshua treat his mother that way? Making her sit anxiously all evening, waiting for the phone to ring, worrying. After all Pastor Dan had done so that they could enjoy a safe, happy life unlike the poor Thorles. Or those in suffering in Rwanda. He didn’t bother to talk to Joshua, and instead continued to stuff his son’s old clothes into donation bags.
The following Sunday he presented his gifts to Bonnie Thorle. She giggled and clutched the bags, saying, Oh, no, how can we accept these, how can we? But then there she went with her crew of seven, Zane and Mini carrying two garbage bags each. Zane wearing Joshua’s belt that Pastor Daniel had insisted, Go on, it’s yours.
Meanwhile, Georgia had no idea, alone at home, waiting for Joshua’s ring. Joshua, the boy Pastor Dan felt no longer deserved his time, so spoiled and shielded his entire life. No, it was the Thorles who needed his attention now. Already they looked better wearing his son’s old clothes. He’d told Georgia earlier, “Go talk without me. I’ll buzz another time.”
But he never did, his days becoming busy: driving Bonnie to the dentist, tutoring the twins in math, Bible study with Greg, grocery deliveries every Saturday morning. So enraptured in the Thorles, he had no time to worry about Joshua, or Rwanda, for that matter.
A month later, an early morning call from the Sacramento police, explaining that Joshua had hung himself. No note. It seemed unreal. Like a prank. He who used to carry a Bible under his arm and tell people Jesus Saves. And Georgia wailed, “He wanted to talk to you, I knew something was wrong. He no longer spoke of God. He no longer sounded like he believed.”
Pastor Daniel stole from the bed, his body moving without him, knives jammed in his eyes, and he found himself upstairs in Joshua’s old room, clanking through hangars in the closet, opening and shutting drawers, tearing sheets off the bed, throwing the mattress, looking under it. But nothing was there. Not a trace of Joshua, no clothes, no worn sneakers, no baseball mitt, no trophies from Bible Camp, not even his Bible, taped up, the pages tattered with his sloppy ball-point notes in between verses. All this Pastor Dan had given away.
And he fell to his knees in the center of that empty room.
Forever after, he would wonder, ask, cry out to God, how responsible are we for other people’s sorrows, for other people’s lives? Have I finally suffered enough for an answer?
J. Saler Drees currently resides in San Diego. Previous works are published in Bitterzoet, Bridge Eight, Broken Skyline, Change Seven, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Spark: A Creative Anthology, and West Trade Review. Forthcoming works can be found in OxMag, Blue Lake Review and Evening Street.