Updated: Mar 22
With each jab of the hoe, dust swarmed around John and forced him into a coughing fit. It was the irony of both starving and being sick. One couldn't live without food, but one also wouldn't live long treating his lungs this way. He stood up straight and arched his back, looking up into the blazing hot sun that had taken over the earth.
He'd have heat exhaustion soon if he didn't take a break.
Throwing the tool down onto the ground, he headed toward the church which had become home for the past five years. The sanctuary was old, and that was putting it lightly. With large arched windows, ancient white stones that still stood strong and even a bell tower, the building had withstood more than he could imagine since the 1900s. Its gothic style had been the single reason it was the only church in the state not burned down during the Life Movement riots.
John tried not to think of the riots.
He'd moved in just so that no one could take it over in the night and turn it into one of the underground clubs that seemed to be swarming the nation. Still, even now, he did his best to keep watch day and night. The muscles in his neck were in tight cords from sleeping sitting up, trying to be in position where he could jump up at any sound.
Pushing open the red front door and collapsing into a nearby pew in the hot and humid church, he took deep breaths trying to cool himself down. He squeezed his thighs as he took a breath in and then squeezed again as he released it. Getting old was painful and horrible, and he was only middle-aged. But times had changed and people didn't live so long these days. He pushed the sad thoughts away—at least he was out of the sun for now. He lifted his head toward the heavens.
"Thank you, God, for the roof over my head."
His head rolled from side to side for a moment before he realized a group of teenagers was staring at him. He tried to sit up and look presentable like a nice, trustworthy leader of the town that wasn't covered in dirt and suffering.
"Can I help you?" he asked.
"Uh, no," said one of the boys. There were four of them and they looked like they were probably in high school. Though people kept getting taller these days and John wasn't sure what heights represented what ages anymore. The one who responded was the tallest, had long hair on top but tightly shaved on the sides and a beginning stubble of facial hair in patches. Hadn't that been a style when John was a kid? He couldn't remember.
John slumped in the pew, too tired to keep up appearances. "Why are you here?"
"We learned about the history of religion in class," said another, the lankiest who also wore glasses. His shirt had Darth Vader on it. John knew better than to try to find a connection on any pop culture represented on clothes. Many of the distribution centers had shut down and there wasn't a lot to choose from anymore. Most clothes were hand-me-downs from the previous generation and there wasn't much left of fashion or what they used to refer to as "in style." More than likely, this kid probably didn't know who Darth Vader was, and it was nothing more than a shirt to him.
"Oh," responded John. Every few years or so an excited history teacher would get a notion that teaching about how groups of people, particularly southern groups of people, had been manipulated to think and vote certain ways by religious leaders. It was their way of warning them away from what had been labeled as Collective Thought. Yet none of them seemed to realize that simply teaching was a form of Collective Thought. John took a deep breath; it was all so exhausting.
"Yeah, actually, you can help us. How did you survive the Life Movement?" the tall one asked, raising his eyebrows. The other two boys that'd been quiet suddenly stopped looking at the large, yellow-bluish-greenish abstract stained-glass window that commanded the attention of the room and stared at John with a gaze that made him feel like he was nothing more than artifact in a museum—a history museum full of old, dead things at that.
John had never told a soul how he'd survived. He'd even made a promise to himself he never would. But that pledge was made during a time of murder and terror. A time where hiding a religious leader was enough for a death sentence. Those times were over, but the feeling of foreboding hadn't abated. Terrible events in history might fade into the past, but not the way they made one feel.
But now, John could feel his lungs closing in. His breaths were becoming raspy. And this time he wasn't going to ask for help. He smiled at his little secret.
"A friend of mine hid me in his basement," he replied.
"But they searched everywhere," the lanky one said. "They searched every room of every house. They tortured people to talk."
"Yes, they did, even my friend. In fact, he died." John blinked and looked out the window at his pathetic potato garden for a moment before returning his attention to the boys. "But my friend had built a wall over a small section of his basement. It was such a tiny space. I could hardly take four steps from one side to the other. It was only wide enough for a twin sized mattress and me. The only way into it was a small, secret door that we had to crawl through under the stairs."
"Your friend died so you could live?" one of the quiet boys asked.
John looked him right in the eye, "Yes, he did."
"So, is all of it true? Did you trick your followers to voting a certain way? To turn against America?"
John let out a laugh, "No, not at all."
"That's what they said you'd say," the lanky one said. John liked him; he wasn’t afraid to ask a question. John had been that way—curiosity had always gotten the better of him. When his friends were playing football, John would be reading because he wanted to know everything. Now, there wasn’t much to do for kids like football. There weren't any professional teams anymore, the world was too sick, and the spectators were all but gone.
"I could say of course that's what they'd say," John retorted.
They all stared at him for a moment before inching closer and sitting in the pews around him.
"If you didn't do that, then why did the movement happen?" the tall one asked.
"I never thought of religion as manipulation. God has always given me peace and a sense of belonging. But..." John paused, wondering for a moment how to explain exactly what God meant to him. Had it really been that long since he witnessed to someone? "Well, it's like exactly what they're teaching you, they're teaching you that religion is bad. Well, some of us were taught that worldliness was bad."
"What is worldliness?" the other quiet one asked.
John offered a quick smile before answering. "Some religious leaders thought that being gay or women having their own voice was because of the influence of the world. But not all, not all of us thought that way." John took a deep breath before continuing. "But remember the Vice President last year that was caught making deals and illegal stock trades? He wasn't religious, but he was wrong. Just because he didn't have religion didn't automatically mean his choices or opinions were right. Well, there were religious leaders who were misled. Anyone can be misled, religious or not. Do you understand?"
The boys slowly nodded their heads.
"What about you? Do you hate people that are different?" asked the tall one.
"Well, no. I'd be happy if anyone came to church, to tell you the truth. And I wouldn't care how they voted, what they looked like, or who they loved."
"But not all ministers were like you?" the lanky one asked.
"It wasn't all ministers..." John stopped because he realized that priests, ministers, and pastors were all the same to these boys and there was no reason to dive into all of that. "Many were like me, and many weren't. Some that weren't were still good people who would help anyone and some that were like me, well, just because they said the right things didn't mean they were nice people." He slumped down a little lower into the pew and put his hand over his chest.
"So, it was sad that the good ones had to die along with the bad ones?" the tall one asked.
"It's sad when anyone dies!" John blurted out with force and an anger he couldn't hide.
The boys jumped a little at his outburst.
"I'm sorry, forgive me. But don't you see? It's sad when anyone has to die. Why should it ever be okay to kill someone because they have a different opinion? Or because you hate them? It doesn't make sense to me that everyone has to have the same opinion. Some people have real hurt in their past, some people might just be stupid, but that doesn't mean we eradicate them." John suddenly felt a wave a guilt wash over him, as a minister, he was never supposed to admit he thought some people were stupid.
"But they were hurting America," the lanky one said. "They were hindering progress."
"They were hurt too—can’t you see that? Their families were hurt, and people everywhere were afraid to speak out and frankly they still are. How is that progress?" John was getting light-headed from not being able to breathe. And strangely, in this pivotal moment in which he got to share a different idea, force these boys to think for themselves, his thoughts wavered to the potatoes he was trying to plant and how they'd never grow. How no one in the town came to church and there was no money to speak of coming in for him. How he'd have no food this coming winter to eat. And how he'd never been able to pay the last hospital bill and the fact that he'd be turned away even if he asked these boys to take him there now.
"Look, I've been working on something. Go to the church offices, through that door there," John pointed at a door at the far corner. "You'll see a really thick leather notebook. I've been working on a translation of something, I call it the New Life Adaption. Can you get it? Give it to the library for me."
"Why don't you give it to the library?" the lanky kid asked.
"Oh, I hardly ever go that way. Can you take it there for me?"
"Sure," the tall one said.
After the tall one returned from the back office, the boys were ready to go.
"Are you alright?" the lanky one asked.
"Yup, I'm just fine. Did I help for whatever you were doing for class?" John asked.
"Yeah, you did. Thanks."
"Good," John nodded.
The boys slowly walked out of the church and closed the door behind them.
John sat alone in the last church standing that he knew of and thought about his life's work he'd just handed away. He'd done the best he could with the resources still available for concordances were hard to find. But with Greek and Hebrew translation books, he'd spent the last five years translating the Bible into the New Life Adaptation. It was adapted to skirt past the hard topics that had gotten them all into so much trouble. It focused on the fact that love really does conquer all and that anything else is really quite trivial. It focused on the fact that people needed a place to come together, to be safe. And that's what church is truly supposed to be about.
Would they turn it into the library or just throw it away? Would the library throw it away? Would it fade into history like the horrible events of the riots? Would people dare not challenge themselves to rethink all that they'd been taught?
With his skin turning blue and his lungs closing, he realized he'd never know. He tried to take one final breath, but the oxygen never came.
(c) Creativity Untamed, LLC 2021