By David McAfee
“AMEN!” The preacher shouted. The men and women of the church clapped and shouted back. Jake sat still… his eyes focused on the blood red robes of the choir. Jake sat as if he were above his family and the other churchgoers, staring forward in silence during song and prayer alike. “I didn’t bring you to church to sit and sulk.” His mother said in a venomous tone. For the first time in the hour since they arrived in the old church, Jake spoke:
-“We have to accept Jesus to go to heaven, right?” He asked.
-“Yes, son. That’s why we are here Jacob.”
-“…And if we don’t… We go to hell?”
-“Jesus died for our sins and all we have to do is accept him into our lives.” She said angrily, dodging the question.
-“What about the people who have never heard of him? Like people in remote villages?” The thirteen-year old boy had been building up to the question in the naïve hope of receiving an honest answer from his mother.
-“That’s why we have to spread Catholicism to every corner of the world; we have millions of missionaries around the world doing that already.”
Again, feeling as if she was avoiding his questions, Jake didn’t respond. He sat silently for the remainder of the service and didn’t speak again until he and his parents were back in the car, and the old “Lord’s Mission Catholic Church” was only visible in the rear-view mirror. Jake had more questions that he had planned to ask his parents who seemed, in his eyes, to be very knowledgeable in regards to the Catholic canon; he was always in deep thought about issues on which his peers rarely pondered. He chose to withhold from further questioning for fear of the dismissal he was so used to; he felt like he was rarely taken seriously among the adults in his life because of his age.
Jake felt slightly happier to be out of the coldness of the archaic building. “Krystin, what are we doing for lunch?” Jake’s father, John, asked his mother from the driver’s seat of their new silver sedan. “We will find something at the house.” As he felt the leather seat of the family car, Jake’s mind began to wander once again. The car came to an abrupt stop as they approached a red light. Directly outside of his rear window, the young boy saw something that would shape many of his thoughts for the remainder of the slow and quiet ride home. It was a man, no older than twenty-five years old, but his eyes were dull from what appeared to be a lifetime of pain. The man was thin with tan skin and dark, thin, oily hair that lied flat against his face. The man was not searching frantically for cans to recycle or begging for change, instead he simply lied limp on a bus stop bench in tattered clothing as his dark eyes seemed to pierce the tinted window of the Meyers’ family car.
Hours after the service, hours after the car ride, and the man on the bench would not stop prying into Jake’s subconscious. He could not understand why his family sat together for an enormous dinner, which they couldn’t finish, and then went to their large, soft, beds at night while the man on the bench slept outside, cold and alone. He stayed up late at night wondering what justification god could possibly have for allowing this man’s suffering to continue. Jake carried on for the next week silently, though the man on the bench never fell from his mind. Sitting in class, studying at home, and meals with his family; he could not understand why god felt him to be more deserving of warmth and food than the man on the bench and the millions like him throughout the United States and the world. It was Sunday morning once again, and for the first time in Jake’s memory, he was actually excited to attend church. Lord’s Mission was having budget issues and, as a way to increase revenue and bring in new members, the church leaders designed a fundraiser complete with “Father Jim’s Q and A: Where no bible question goes unanswered.” The day had come and having already eaten breakfast, Jake approached his parents who were struggling to finish their eggs, bacon, and toast Krystin made earlier that morning.
-“Do you think he’ll answer everyone’s questions?”
-“Who… What?” His mother responded between bites of food.
-“Father Jim. Will he have time for them all?”
-“I hope so; God knows we don’t have time to answer your silly questions.”
As his parents dressed in their Sunday best and grabbed money from the dresser for the Sunday offering, Jake studied his notes in preparation for what seemed at the time to be an interview of a lifetime. The house was large, giving him plenty of room to for his questions in peace. His parents had always condemned his inquisitive nature and his grandmother hadn’t visited them for three months since he asked her why the Priest at their church drives such a nice car. “HUNNY! – It’s time to go!” His mother called from downstairs. Jake gathered his things and ran down the stairs to the front door where his family awaited him. They were out the door and on their way, in the same car, on the same road, headed back to the same church. His parents had faith in the church and in Catholicism, but attendance of Lord’s Mission was a social responsibility as well in the town in which they lived, after all it was the most popular Catholic Church in Santa Bernadette, California. The McDowell family, the Blackwells, even the Houston family attended the church on a regular basis. What would everybody think if the Meyers family didn’t show up? That they couldn’t afford to take time off work? Or that they were raising little Jake Meyers as an atheist? Jake did not know if he was an “atheist” or what he was; he only knew that, though he wanted to believe in a higher power, he wanted evidence of an all-powerful ‘GOD’ before classifying himself as a believer.
The car ride was smooth and slow as usual, Jake paid special attention to the corner to the street corner where he remembered seeing the man on the bench. The light was green and they passed by the bus stop where he had seen the man a week earlier… nothing. Jake wondered if he would ever see the man again, and where he had gone. Upon their arrival at the Lord’s Mission Church, the Meyers family left the comfort of the silver car and head towards the building where children were playing and families were participating in the activities in celebration of the fundraising occasion. There were nuns marketing baked goods, “Pie-A-Priest” booths, and a number of other carnival-like spectacles. “Jacob, go play with Aaron over there” His mother demanded. His father nodded in agreement. Jake obeyed his family’s wishes and approached the young Aaron Houston who was in the middle of purchasing a “collector’s edition children’s bible” while chomping on a crucifix-shaped sugar cookie. “Let’s pie a priest!” Aaron said to an unenthused Jake. They hadn’t been the closest of friends but at church functions, their families always paired them together.
-“What are you gonna ask?” Jake inquired.
-“Father Jim… the bible questions?”
-“I don’t have questions.”
-“Don’t you ever wonder about the stuff they tell us?”
-“No, not really. Did you see they have a live band?!”
-“Yeah, I saw.”
Aaron was a year younger than Jake and he hadn’t expected to pique his interests with debate. Finally, it came time for Father Jim to field the questions of any one with two dollars, in the private setting of a church confessional. There weren’t many people in the line, only three before Jake, and one after. The girl who was first in line was accompanied by her parents, her blonde hair in pigtails as she awaited the priest to welcome her. After about ten minutes, it was Jake’s turn in line and he dropped his two dollars in the collection plate. Father Jim welcomed him warmly into the confessional; the stale air of the enclosed room was warm on Jake’s face.
-“Welcome, my son.”
-“Hi. How are you Father Jim?” Jake asked as he sat uncomfortably in the wooden booth.
-“My day is going well. What questions do you have for me?”
-“Well…” Jake shifted his blue notebook uncomfortably as he searched his notes for the question to ask first. “… I have a couple of questions… about the bible… and about god.”
The Priest was silent at first… Leaving Jake to ponder which question he would like to be answered first; he was holding out hope that this time, he would get a straightforward response from a Christian authority and resolve his doubts and instill in him the same faith that his parents so obviously retained.