Roger had a serious problem. Nobody in his congregation would talk to him. Oh, they would say a few words at the door as they exited the sanctuary every Sunday. They would say, “Howdy Preacher,” or “Thank ya, Preacher,” or, his favorite, simply nod once or twice staying fixated on his shoes and then scurry off.
When he went to Sadie’s diner around the corner, the people inside got very quiet. As much as Roger would like to say it didn’t affect him, it did. Those blank, stone-cold faces staring expressionlessly at him for half an hour every Sunday, without feedback, good or bad, started tearing his nerves up. He tried getting anecdotal with his sermons. Nothing. Only passive gazes from the people. He tried a hell-fire and brimstone sermon good enough to make a seasoned saint repent, but even that failed to move his little parish. In fact, the harder Roger tried, the worse things got. The little flock dwindled and dwindled and dwindled. Only twenty-five left. There had been eighty-five when he started only six months ago.
Roger had been a Marine. He was a man of action. Something had to be done. He wasn’t going to accept defeat on his first church assignment out of seminary. He tried asking a couple of the people for an honest critique. They just shrugged and mumbled that nothing was amiss with him. Fed up, Roger called the town janitor into his office and vented his frustrations.
“Duly,” he said. “I’ve done everything I know how to connect with these people. It’s clear I’m the worst pastor this church has ever had, at least as far as the numbers go. But they just won’t talk to me. I’m really at a loss of how to minister to them. How can I, if I don’t know what’s bothering them, what situations their facing, where they’re struggling?”
“Preacher,” said Duly, “I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, but people here are just private and they don’t want anybody in their business.”
Roger had a comeback ready for that. “That’s not what the body of Christ is about. We’re supposed to bear each other’s burdens.”
“Well, you aren’t going to change the people around here.”
Roger sat back in his chair. He took a deep breath. “Ok, Duly, what do you suggest?”
Duly took off his crumpled straw hat and raked his hand through his comb-over. “You might have an easier time of it up at Brighton. Might fit in better.”
Roger sat still for a moment, the words registering slowly like when he got the news his friend had wrecked his car, or when his girlfriend had said “I think we should break up,” or when his mother had told him his dad had died. Words like these took their time sinking in, and by the time Roger could move his mouth he felt like he should have already said something. “Duly,” he said, keeping his voice under control. “Until the board tells me to go somewhere else, this Marine is stationed here at this church, and I will not move. I promise I will do whatever it takes to find out what matters to these people, and how to help them.”
Duly shrugged and jammed his cap back on his head. “As you say, Preacher.” And he left.
Roger tossed and turned in bed that night, replaying Duly’s words in his head, changing his response six different ways, each more vehement that the last. How could the people of Creekwood Revival treat him like a complete outcast? It was wrong. He hadn’t done anything to deserve it. These people were ridiculous. Just because he grew up across the state didn’t disqualify him from being a good pastor. He drew a deep breath, calming the frustration pulsing through him. What was motivating these people? Selfishness? Fear? Pride? Whatever it was, it was the enemy. He needed to do what he did best to identify it…recon.
The next day he contacted some of his military buddies, calling in some favors. One week later, Duly walked into his office with a small brown package. He seemed curious, but there was no way Roger was going to tell him what he was doing. If the town folk of Brent Creek were so determined to keep secrets, it was time he had a few of his own. He just needed a way to hide the contents on his body until he could get the operation underway.
Thankfully, the temperature was colder than normal that evening, so he had an excuse to wear his jacket to the diner. As usual, the people inside hushed as soon as the bell above the door tinkled announcing his presence. He hated that bell.
He slid into a booth near the back, the one with a rip in the vinyl seat, and carefully began his stealthy work. In between ordering his chicken cordon bleu and apple pie ala mode, he wired a bug into the frame work of the table underneath.
He had a gnawing feeling that it was wrong, and the feeling was so persistent, even the ala mode didn’t help it go away. He rationalized it away. Wasn’t he only using the talents, gifts and abilities God had given him to help the people of the church? What could be wrong with that? Besides he was about to lose his job. He could sense it. The elders had been whispering to each other, casting guilty glances in his direction for the past two weeks. This was the only way to turn things around.
He left a generous tip for the waitress to assuage his conscience and headed home. The next day, Saturday, he went to the grocery store, and had a terrible time maintaining eye contact with the cashier when she asked him for his rewards card. Rewards? Would this be considered a good deed by God? Or wood, hay, and stubble? Feeling sick to his stomach, he went back to the house and set the receiver up in his bedroom. Turning the volume up a bit, he pulled up a metal folding chair and opened a legal pad.
There was some chatter from the diner, but nothing close enough to distinguish anything intelligible. As the receiver crackled out some clatters and mumbles, Roger worked on his sermon notes for Sunday, and played solitaire, and checked his email, and arranged the pencils on his desk. Then he heard scuffling in the receiver.
“George, how’s your boy doing?” it was Duly’s voice, loud and clear, and he was speaking to George Patterson, an elder in the church. Jack pot.
Roger shifted the legal pad and poised his pencil.
“Wellll,” drawled George, “Doc said that he’d be in that cast for at least five weeks.”
“You need any help with the cattle?”
“Naw, I reckon I’ll manage it.”
“Market’s tomorrow and you’ve got bulls to load.”
“I said, I’ll manage. You got enough to worry about cleaning up after that parson.”
Duly snickered. “He’s a bachelor all right. Needs a woman.”
The two men guffawed loudly.
Roger scowled at the receiver and made some notes on his legal pad. The next morning he drove out to George Patterson’s farm. As soon as he stepped on the ground, he knew he had made the right decision. George was trying to herd a bunch of cattle onto a trailer, by himself, and judging from the tired look on his face, the manure caked up to his thighs and the scattered proximity of placid, cud-chewing cows, he was struggling.
“Bad time to come calling, preacher!”
“That’s okay, George, let me help you.”
“You’d best get yourself back to town. I can handle this.”
“I know you can, but I’m here. Might as well lend a hand.” And before George Patterson could say anything else, Roger Jeffries had climbed over the fence into the pasture with him. At first George blubbered, and, nearly cussed, getting half a word out before he caught himself, then chewing it down he would flap his arms in exasperation. Roger ignored George and herded the cattle into the trailer, darting, swiveling, cutting back. It was exhausting, and he slipped more than once, but when those cows started marching up the ramp, and George started getting a smile on his tired face, he was glad he’d done it.
“All right then,” George shook his hand. “That just leaves the bull.” George pointed to the end of the paddock. It was black and enormous. It had a ringed nose the size of his head, and horns the size of Nebraska.
As soon as that bull lowered its head and began to charge, Roger knew he had made the wrong decision to come out and help. He feinted right, then left, then scrambled over a fence faster than ever before. And, after much coaxing, and yes, a bit of trickery, he and George got the bull into the trailer and off to the market. The next time Roger ate a steak, he would think of that bull.
The next discussion Roger overhead was about Miss Minny’s chickens. A bad thunderstorm had left a lot of wind damage and her chicken coop was in need of repair. So, Roger wound up at Miss Minny’s place, uninvited, inspecting the chicken coop…or what was left of it, as twelve happy chickens clucked around his feet. “Miss Minny,” Roger said, “I’m afraid this is only good for toothpicks at this point. Could you send your chickens to George Patterson’s farm?”
“Preacher, me and my chickens will be just fine. I won’t be sending my chickens to George’s farm. He’d get them mixed up with his own and then we’d never be able to make a fair split of it. I just don’t think it’s a good idea. I’ll still be able to sell my eggs, the chickens will just have to live in my house until I can rebuild the coop.”
Roger looked over at the old woman’s house. It was a historic home, straight out of a Victorian heritage magazine. It was no place for chickens. “Miss Minny, I thought you were taking a trip to Charleston.”
The old woman’s hand flew to her mouth. “So I was. Oh my…” Her forehead wrinkled up tightly. “Oh preacher, I just can’t let those chickens go to Pattersons. They’ll never want to come back to me. But, I’ve promised Viola I’d come to Charleston for so long, I can’t very well go back on my word. Let me see now. Let me see now…” her frail, twisted fingers began to tremble as she moved them back and forth across her mouth.
“Listen,” Roger started talking fast, before he could change his mind. “I’ll keep your chickens in the parish. By the time you get back from Charleston, we’ll have your chicken coop rebuilt.” Miss Minny hugged him, squeezed him, kissed him, and declared he was the best young man she’d ever met, and proposed about twice. Before Roger knew what had happened he was driving down the road toward town with ten chickens caged in the back of his pick-up and two free in the cab.
Apparently, Miss Minny’s chickens didn’t like the sound of the police sirens. Martin, the police officer, didn’t listen to any excuses. Livestock had to be transported in keeping with the ordinances, and even if they weren’t, they should be properly restrained within a vehicle so they wouldn’t fly into the driver’s face and cause an accident. The wrecker who towed his truck out of the ditch wouldn’t stop laughing. Roger didn’t have the heart to contact his insurance agent.
Over the next three days Roger had to settle a dispute between four boys over the ownership right to the frog racing track behind the church, shoot some squirrels eating a hole in the roof of the fire station, pay a fine for discharging a fire arm in the city limits, put up hay (meeting more snakes in one day than in all the days of his previous twenty-eight years combined,) and judge a beauty contest, which disintegrated into a heated debate between the conservative beauty-is-vain faction of the church against the liberal Queen-Esther-did-it faction.
And every night, he chased all the chickens into his cleaned out pantry, stuffed newspaper around the bottom of the door, locked it, and stuffed his ears with cotton balls. And every morning, he entered the kitchen to find the pantry door open, shreds of newspaper and downy feathers floating through the air, cereal spread across the counter tops, poo everywhere, and, usually, a fresh egg on his toaster.
On the fourth day, the conversations at the diner filled up his notepad with more tasks. Wincey Mullinax needed to dig a well, Sadie was going to convince Miss Minny to rewrite her will because her no-account son Duly didn’t deserve one red penny, George had pigs to take to market, Viola was going to finally divorce Martin, the police officer, and Jessica Mullinax, Wincey’s sister, was in love with…the preacher. Roger Jeffries.
The next morning, Sunday morning, Roger stood in the pulpit and stared out at the sea of stoic faces—attendance had sky-rocketed. Small wonder. “I want you all to know,” he said slowly, “that I’ve appreciated the opportunity to serve as your pastor for the last six months. I’ve experienced more spiritual growth in my short time here than…” he summoned more composure, “than at any other time in my life. But, there are certain tasks that God calls us to, which are measured for our talents and abilities, and honestly I’ve come to realize that I’d be doing a disservice to you if I stayed.” For some reason he looked straight at Jessica Mullinax. It wouldn’t have been so awkward if she wasn’t so pretty. He looked away. “I cannot be your pastor. You need a shepherd who is more experienced and capable of giving you the spiritual leadership you deserve—“
“Preacher.” It was Duly, standing in the back. Straw hat crumpled between his clean, oversized hands. “Preacher, I think I speak for all of us…” he paused, looking around the room.
Roger frowned. Some of the women were blushing. George Patterson was staring at the ground. Wincey Mullinax had a sheepish expression.
“Preacher, we, or I, well…”
Roger felt a knot in his stomach tighten. “Duly?”
“Preacher, I knew about that little listening device you put into the booth at Sadie’s. And, I told everybody in the church about it. And everybody around town too.”
Roger stared at him blankly. “What?”
“We were angry, really angry that you’d done that, so we talked about all kinds of things, to get you worked up. We thought you’d give up and go up to Brighton, or something.”
Roger gripped the sides of the pulpit to keep himself on his feet. He knew his mouth was hanging open, he knew the people were starting to chuckle, and he knew he’d been royally had.
Duly was grinning as he shifted his hat around in his hands. “It’s just, with all that you’ve done, we’ve begun to see that you’re a good preacher. You’re a really good man, Preacher, and we’d be terribly sorry if you left now, because I promise you, I promise you we’re really not that bad.”
Roger looked at Sadie.
“I don’t really think Miss Minny should change her will,” Sadie said flatly.
Roger looked at Jessica Mullinax.
The young lady burst into a short laugh and covered her eyes, shaking her head. Then she lifted her head high. “I was frankly tired of you running yourself all over the town trying to fix everyone’s so-called problems, and thought if I said I loved you, it would convince you to leave before you went crazy.”
“I see,” said Roger, deliberately closing up his Bible. “Duly, George, Sadie…Jessica…” he drew a deep breath. “I’m ripping that bug out of Sadie’s diner, and I’ll never do it again.”
“Preacher,” Duly held his gaze for a long moment. “You’ll never have to, ever again.”