Chapter 4: Hellfire and hypocrisy
Jennifer Claiborne parked across the street from the church. She was always running late with little Marcus on Wednesday nights. No matter how hard she tried she just couldn’t get from work to home, through dinner with Marcus, changed for church, and then to church on time. Being a teen mom had been hard, especially in a small town. The eyes, the gossip. She thought she had found solace in the church when she was nineteen, but now it was just another way for her to disappoint people. People sneered at the way she dressed; her clothes weren’t nice enough. She was raising a kid alone, how was she supposed to afford nice clothes? The niceness of how one dressed somehow represented how much you were going out of your way to worship God. But she knew full well that the preacher, Elron, shopped for suits at Goodwill. Those were only eight dollars for a two-piece suit. Did God not know Elron was being cheap? Could God not see through that?
And then there were Wednesdays.
She always came in late, during the song service, and the ladies always turned and sneered as she found a seat at the back of the building for her and little Marcus. It was so embarrassing. And sometimes Marcus couldn’t help himself, he’d find something to remark and speak way too loud or right as a song finished; drawing all the attention to them. And she’d feel so small in those moments. Smaller than her little Marcus. The only light in her life.
“Now Marcus,” Jennifer turned around and looked back at Marcus in his car seat. “Remember. We have to be very quiet in church, right?”
“Right,” He said, his feet kicking below.
“That’s my boy.”
She tried so hard to keep the doors from slamming behind them. She slowly snuck into the chapel area and Kinsey turned and saw her. She rolled her eyes and looked forward once more. She never broke from singing praises to God. She could sing praises and pass judgment; she was a Christian Multitasker.
Judge not, lest ye be judged, Jennifer thought to herself. She always had plenty of snarky and scriptural comebacks. But they never made it to her mouth. Just bounced around in her head. Like her ideas of nursing school; getting an education, getting a better job, getting a better life.
She sat down with Marcus in a booth against the back wall under the stained-glass windows. Marcus had kept quiet this time. She looked at him and gave him a wink and thumbs up. He sat up, proud. She gave him a hug. They grabbed their hymn books and turned to the song just as it ended. Another song started shortly.
As they sang, Jennifer noticed Elron was pale and sweating on the front pew, which was odd. He normally wasn’t sweaty until about ten minutes into the sermon. But even then, he was usually reddish, not pale. It was all his hellfire and brimstone preaching that would get him all worked up. Lately he’d been focusing more and more on external groups, which was odd. Homosexuals, transgendered, Muslims, and more. He normally wasn’t so specific, much less focusing on people who weren’t even present to hear the sermon.
He coughed several times. It sounded violent on the throat.
She wondered if maybe he was coming down with something. She’d ask him after services, if he still looked pale. Which, she doubted.
The hell we make
Elron felt so darned cold. He’d been trying to get warm for hours, but nothing would work. He was wearing a sweater under his suit. Still. Nothing. He was shaking all over. And he was irritable. Everything was getting on his nerves. Things that usually were small annoyances were a kick to his balls.
He offered a small prayer asking for forgiveness for thinking crudely.
He kept trying to focus on his sermon, but his mind would wander or sometimes just blank. He had lost almost thirty minutes earlier in the day. He had no idea what he did or if he even had a conscious thought during those moments. He figured he had some bug, but he wasn’t going to miss a service. Even for being sick. Christ died on a cross for his sins, a little discomfort during a service wouldn’t kill him. And he sure as hellfire wouldn’t be late like Jennifer Claiborne.
He looked back at her usual spot, and there she was with her bastard child, Marcus. She was looking at him. He turned away.
The little bitch whore, he thought to himself. Jesus almighty! He was shocked at the words that had gone through his mind. He closed his eyes and prayed for forgiveness again. It was going to be a long night.
It was time for him to get up and introduce his thoughts for the evening. He slowly stood up, his knees almost buckling from the shakiness. He stepped up onto the podium and got behind the pulpit. He leaned into it, his sermon and Bible spread out on it for him to look over. The little, green lamp hanging over it so he could see every word. Every. Blessed. Word. It was a sermon about the declining morality in the world. It centered on a passage in 2 Timothy which read, “But evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse, deceiving, and being deceived.”
It wasn’t enough. He needed to dig deeper. He slammed his fist down on the pulpit and people jumped. He grabbed a piece of chalk. He headed over to the chalkboard and wrote firmly across it. The chalk broke when he finished the last letter. He dropped the rest of it on the carpet. He turned back to the congregation and pointed at it.
“The hell we make!” He shouted. “That’s what I’m gonna talk to you about tonight.” He stumbled back to the pulpit and leaned against it once more. “I was gonna talk about the word, and how it’s waxing worse and worse out there. But no. I look out over the sea of faces tonight and I see it in here. Sinners. Wretched, filthy, stinking sinners.” He sniffed. “I can smell it. I smell your sins like meat. Like rotting flesh. And I want to tear it from your bones. Peel it off you and devour it. I want to eat your sin. Filth.” He looked around the room and he could smell it. It was grotesque, yes, but it made him hungry. He wanted it in his mouth. He looked at Bethany and he could smell it strong on her. “Filth. Bethany has it.”
Bethany looked around, afraid, and began to cry for being called out.
He looked around and spotted Chelsea, only 13 years old. She had it. “FILTH!” He pointed with his finger. “Not even a woman, and I can smell it on you.”
Chelsea sobbed and ran out of the room.
Many of the men and several of the women, including Kinsey, were getting riled up by Elron.
“MORE!” A voice called out.
Elron looked around more. The crowd was in a tizzy, as Kinsey would often say. He pointed a finger at another of the sisters, their only black member. “Filth!”
She crossed her arms and held her head up high. Unmoved.
It is not permitted unto them to speak
Jennifer was in absolute disarray. What was going on? She had never seen such an event from Elron. What was he doing? Was he losing his mind? And poor Bethany, she was completely humiliated.
She looked at Marcus. He was shaking and gripping her arm so tight he was going to leave marks. She patted him.
“FILTH!” He called out another.
He had only called out women, Jennifer noted. And she wondered if it was because women weren’t allowed to speak up in the assembly. If he called out a man, he could offer a rebuttal. But judging by their responses, the men were all-in on this charade. They were lapping it up like a dog is turned to his own vomit again.
Jennifer stood up. “That’s quite enough!” A silence fell over the room. No one had ever heard a woman speak during a worship service before. They were taken aback. “You’re embarrassing yourself. All of you. And you, Elron, I don’t know if you’re drunk, or high, or just sick and need help, but this has got to stop. Look at what you’re doing. Look around you. Consider your words.”
There was a moment of silence. She hoped it was because they were considering what she had to say.
Elron slowly raised his hand from the pulpit and pointed to her and shouted, “’Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law.’ First book to Corinth, chapter 14 and verse 34.” He paused for effect, and then, “FILTH!”
There was applause at the condemnation.
“SLUT!” Kinsey yelled at her, her finger pointing. “Where’s the father, slut? Where’s the father?”
She glanced at Kinsey’s husband, Frank. It was him. She had gone to the Homecoming dance alone their sophomore year, but as she was leaving, he had pulled up beside her as she was walking home. He asked if she needed a lift, and she got in. He took her out to Lover’s Peak, an enclave that overlooked the town. She had protested, but he persisted. After it was over, he took her home—which was all she wanted. For years she’d wanted to tell the truth. She wanted to go to the authorities, too. But she never did. She was afraid it would be her word against Frank’s, and he was the star quarterback that year. He was only a sophomore and yet he was starting quarterback. His dad was a judge, his mom the superintendent. And who was Jennifer Claiborne? She had come from a long line of high school dropouts, housewives, junkies, mechanics, poor. Not bad people, but not respected either.
She wanted to say it. She’d been trying to get that point for years, but as she looked at all the angry faces. All the pale, sweating, and angry faces. She knew. This wasn’t the time. This wasn’t the place. This wasn’t…
They were all circling around her, she noticed. They had been slowly coming out of their pews and making their way back to her. Marcus tugged at her arm and indicated he was scared. She nodded.
She looked at them, and raised her voice. “‘He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone!’”
That didn’t work. They kept coming.
There were screams. Frank and Kinsey ran for the door. The screams continued.
Jennifer tried to peer through the crowd, and as she did, she saw that several men and come down on their black sister. There was blood.
She turned to Marcus, “We run. To the car. We don’t stop. Got it?”
“Piggyback, bud!” She stood up and he jumped up on the pew, and then up onto her back. His arms wrapped around her neck and legs about her waist firmly. “Out of my way!” She ran straight through the crowd pushing where she could.
She broke away for a moment and headed for the door. But Frank and Kinsey had locked it and were blocking anyone from leaving. There were more screams. Jennifer turned and bolted passed Frank and Kinsey into the hallway. The bathroom door opened, and out stepped a confused and teary-eyed Chelsea.
“Back! Back in!” Jennifer yelled at her. She could hear Frank and Kinsey on her heels.
Jennifer grabbed Chelsea and pushed her back into the bathroom. She turned to close the door and saw Kinsey lunging towards her. She slammed the door harder than she’d ever done growing up. Kinsey crashed against it face first and it shook in the frame. She locked it.
She dropped to one knee, and peeled Marcus off from her. “Hold him!” She yelled at Chelsea who grabbed him and pulled him into her arms. Jennifer dropped on the floor with her back against the door for added protection. She figured it wouldn’t be long before Elron came along with his key to the bathroom. They needed a plan. Fast.
She scanned the bathroom for any sort of weapon. A plunger. A Christian didn’t need weapons, they had the word of God, which was sharper than a two-edged sword. She randomly remembered the gun collection Elron had and for the first time realized how ironic that was. And that he and other brethren often complained about their right to bear arms being taken away. Why hadn’t she noticed that before until now? What an odd time to be thinking about it, she thought.
“Hey, kiddo,” she spoke to Marcus, “I’m sorry. We shouldn’t be here.” She looked at Chelsea who she could tell had done a lot of crying in the bathroom. “You didn’t do anything wrong. You’re a good kid and a good person. Period.”
It was quiet.
All Jennifer could hear was Kinsey’s labored breathing through the door.
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