Ten minutes later, Tom, Amy and Billy were sitting along the center aisle in the last row in the packed church. The mixed appeal of Reverend Fogherty’s 50th anniversary and the chance to be on television had brought an Easter Sunday-sized crowd into the modest house of worship. Holding Billy in one arm, Tom waved with his free hand to some vaguely familiar faces at the far end of the row in front of him, then leaned over to Amy.
“Who the hell are all these people?” he asked, a little too loudly.
“Tom!” Amy yelled in a whisper.
Tom sat back in the pew, flashing a mischievous smile at two older congregants eying him with disapproval.
Tom swept his eyes around the familiar church – the church where he’d come every Sunday as a kid, and the church he had returned to when Amy had begun insisting that their new child needed some sort of spiritual foundation.
Suddenly blinking, Tom thought back to the the reason he and his mother had stopped coming to St. Thomas’.
Tom’s dad had suffered his first and only heart attack while watching the Redskins play on TV with his young son. During his dad’s funeral in this church, Tom had prayed and prayed – prayed so hard that his face scrunched up and his knuckles went white where he gripped the seat of the pew – prayed that God would bring his dad back at the end of the service, that his dad would be standing outside the door of the church when they left.
When Tom and his mother stepped out of the church, though, his dad was nowhere to be seen. With tears streaming down his face and his heart sinking, the little boy had frantically scanned the sidewalk, the parking lot, across the street, but …
Tom’s dad was lowered into the ground an hour later, and Tom buried his own faith in God with him.
He refused to come to church the next week, and Tom’s mom didn’t have the heart or the faith left to force him.
A sharp noise just to Tom’s right echoed across the full church. In the aisle, right next to the Smith family’s pew, the WSSS-TV cameraman was setting up, dressed in jeans and a Carolina Panthers sweatshirt. Jim Blake, a once-promising reporter whose career climb had stalled out here in the mid-sized media market of Richmond, Virginia, was sitting glumly in a chair along the back wall. At least Blake wore a tie, Tom thought.
Just then, the cameraman in the aisle bent over to adjust the camera tripod. Up went the shirt tail, down went the belt line, and there for God and all of the back pew to see was the ample, hairy butt-crack of an underpaid WSSS-TV employee. Tom nearly bit through his tongue to keep from laughing, and immediately poked Billy.
Billy looked into his dad’s eyes, and Tom whispered “look“ and pointed (down low, where other worshipers couldn’t see) toward the cameraman in the aisle. Billy’s gaze swept in the indicated direction.
“POOPIE!” Billy shouted before Tom could smother his reaction. The cameraman, apparently used to such reactions, didn’t even flinch. Meanwhile, ten rows of heads turned around as Tom covered Billy’s mouth with his hand, whispering “shhhh!” even as his shoulders shook with convulsive, repressed laughter. Amy rolled her eyes to the heavens, but couldn’t hide a smile.
The merriment was interrupted by organ music, as the service began.
From the rear of the church, a holy procession paraded up the center aisle, led by laymen and laywomen, followed by young Reverend Michael Waite and old Reverend Frank Fogherty.
Poor Reverend Waite seemed almost to be jogging down the aisle. Every step Ol’ Fogey took toward the end of his long career brought the young buck a step closer to being pastor of his own church. Reverend Waite’s aspirations were known to everyone in the church except Ol’ Fogey himself, who seemed to be out to set some kind of longevity record.
The young reverend’s ambitions were not malicious – he would never think of staging a coup or intentionally undermining his boss. Nonetheless, he had a lot of new ideas that were routinely blocked by his more conservative elder, and Waite was clearly looking forward to the day that he could take the helm and lead St. Thomas’ into the Twentieth Century.
As the procession stepped awkwardly over the cameraman and his equipment, Tom could see the white-haired, senior reverend looking around his church in vaguely confused astonishment. Reverend Fogherty smiled blankly at the faces in his newly swollen flock, obviously also wondering who all these people were. Still, any visitor to the house of the Lord was welcome, and this Cal Ripken-of-the-cloth looked forward to spreading the good word to the flock.
The various players in today’s ceremony took their places, and soon the unsuspecting congregation was caught like doomed dinosaurs in the tar pit of an Ol’ Fogey-led service.
As the service ground on, Tom noticed that Billy had become a bit subdued. Typically the youngster was a holy terror during church, squirming in his father’s hands, dropping to the floor and even crawling under the pews. Tom had learned the hard way that nothing brings a church service to life like an 80-year-old woman who has suddenly realized there is a little person poking around under her dress.
As he did every week, the good Reverend Fogherty approached the pulpit microphone while still wearing his clip-on mic. The screech of the feedback jolted the church out of its trance. Young Reverend Waite’s eyes were locked on his shoes as he clenched his holy jaw. Befuddled, Reverend Fogherty stepped away, then realized his mistake, removed the clip-on mic, and stepped back up to the pulpit. Tom had seen the same thing happen every week for the last two years.
Jim Blake reduced the angle of slump in his chair. The cameraman aimed his tripod-mounted camera at the pulpit to capture this historic moment. And Reverend Fogherty began.
“My sons, my daughters, uh… my sons’ and daughters’ children, whether they are sons or daughters themselves of those, my sons and, uh, daughters… Um, my children… I don’t mean my children, of course… I don’t have any children… what I mean is God’s children… In a very real sense, we are all God’s children, in the sense that he is the Father, and we, all of us, in the world, we are the children… Yes, um, that’s it. We are the world. We are the children…”
Ol’ Fogey didn’t weave sermons as much as tangled them like old fishing line. Members of the congregation exchanged glances as Reverend Fogherty wandered further and further from any discernible point in his homily.
“I am often reminded of a time, um, when…” Reverend Fogherty paused, looking down at his notes. His face creased with mild confusion. “I seem to have forgotten…,” he murmured.
Sitting in the background, lean, fit and under-employed, Reverend Waite had a stranglehold on his Bible. Unlike the young reverend, however, many of the rest of those in attendance seemed to have resigned themselves to waiting this one out, and some were moving into the head bobbing stage.
Tom’s own family was not immune. While Billy quietly looked around the church, Amy was… looking down in prayer? Asleep? Hard to tell. Tom felt the “Ol’ Fogey fog” rolling into his own brain. He wiggled his toes to stay awake, and then resorted to trying to think about something exciting enough to keep his interest, yet not so inappropriate in church that he’d wind up in Hell…
Just as the sermon was settling on the room like a wet quilt, Billy abruptly and painfully jammed both heels into Tom’s thighs, and stood straight up in his arms. Tom leaned out and around the boy to look into the toddler’s wide-eyed – but very composed – face, and was struck that his dark-haired little boy looked very different all of a sudden.
Then, turning away from his dad, Billy let rip an ear-splitting, teeth-rattling, guttural belch lasting well over five seconds.
Tom was so shocked he nearly dropped the boy. Amy did drop her copy of the church bulletin, as did several attendees nearby. Reverend Fogherty’s sermon also had been dropped, dead in its tracks, like a charging bull sloth. When Tom looked up, the eyes of the entire church were on him and his son. But before Tom could even inhale in preparation for an explanation, Billy provided one for him.
“I AM THE LORD GOD!” Billy bellowed in a low, booming voice.
The cameraman crouching in the aisle fell sideways to the floor, away from Billy and Tom. Ahead, five hundred quizzical looks changed to five hundred shocked and frightened faces. Tom heard a soft cry to his left. It was Amy, panic-stricken and staring at the contorted face of her beloved Billy.
A long moment of shocked silence ensued. Tom sensed a movement to his right, and realized the cameraman, having quickly regained his composure, had swung the camera around and was now focused at point-blank range on Billy.
Reverend Fogherty, perched on the pulpit at the front of the church, tried to take charge.
“S-s-see here young man,” the reverend began.
“I AM THE LORD GOD,” Billy repeated in the same loud, low, rumbling voice, his cherubic face twisted unnaturally. “I SET IN MOTION THE UNIVERSE AND THE WORLD FOR YOU, AND CREATED YOU, OUT OF LOVE FOR YOU, MY CHILDREN. I ASK ONLY THAT YOU LOVE EACH OTHER AS I LOVE YOU.”
Billy fell silent. The words echoed in the hushed hall. The only other sound came from the cameraman, fluidly manipulating the controls of his instrument.
Billy’s contorted face relaxed, his eyes fluttered, and the toddler slumped back into his father’s arms. A second or two later, Billy’s head popped back up, and he was a child again. The thunderstruck crowd remained transfixed on his round, smiling face.
Looking around at the silent congregation, Billy was puzzled, but delighted, to be the center of attention for hundreds of people. He seized the opportunity.
“BIG TRUCK!!” he yelled in his high-pitched voice – and the congregation reacted as if the kid had announced he was wired to a bomb. The room exploded in panic.
With one mind, the churchgoers bolted for the doors, shouting and screaming and shoving and pushing. Babies cried, children called for their parents, and the elderly fought to hold on against the current. The cameraman and the camera fell to the ground under the surge, the cameraman struggled to regain his footing as he was swept toward the exit.
As the crowd rushed by like a flash flood, Tom put Billy between himself and Amy, and the two leaned together to protect their child from the chaos.
After an incredibly long three minutes, the cacophony of the mass exodus had receded outside, leaking in through the doors at the rear and front corners of the church. Tom peek out at the nearly empty sanctuary. Among the debris field of clothing, shoes, pocketbooks and other accessories, a handful of elderly worshipers cowered, unable to flee and abandoned by their fellow congregation members. At the front of the church, Reverend Fogherty still stood at the pulpit, too stunned to move. At his side was Reverend Waite, surveying the scene, just as shocked. The rest of the church was deserted.
© Chuck Hansen – 2015