The room was stuffy. Sweating people lined the pews and filled the church with a sea of Sunday hats and shiny hair forced into submission for one day a week. There was not much room for the small green-eyed girl between the two large women in the third pew. Their Sunday best included big hats that shaded Rachel like grotesque straw and feather tents. Purple polyester closed in on both sides obscuring the view of Pastor Ben’s red face as he ranted on and on. The booming message of salvation made Rachel sleepy, but her itchy white lace dress kept her in a constant state of discomfort.
As she did every Sunday, she toned out Pastor’s loud voice and thought on what she would get at the local Dairy Queen after church. Her mama had promised Rachel a whole sundae to herself. Usually she had to share something with Betsy Reynolds. Betsy never let Rachel have the cherry on top because Rachel was the youngest. But today was going to be different. Today, Rachel got to be the big girl and have her own treat.
Many of the families gathered for lunch together after the morning service. They would all pile into their cars that filled up the large church parking lot and drive down to the neighborhood’s only restaurant. Rachel’s Auntie Lou said that it was much better then the diner that the other church in town used three blocks over. But Auntie Lou thought anything that other church used wasn’t as good. People from their neighborhood came to the Dairy Queen, so every body knew everybody and had a good time. Rachel’s mama always said, “Socializing is as important in God’s community as the Sunday service.”
As Pastor carried on and on about the crucifixion, she blew away the smothering sleeves of her mama and Auntie Lou’s dresses and tried to decide if she wanted to have nuts on her sundae or not. Maybe she should ask for cherries. Or maybe she should get a banana split instead. Her thoughts were interrupted when her mama and aunt surged to their feet with the rest of the church in a thunderous chorus of “Hallelujah” and “Amen, Pastor”. Rachel reluctantly got to her feet when her mama gave her a pointed look and joined her warbling voice with the rest of the church.
Pastor Ben was on a roll today. His face flushed florid as he marched from one side of the stage to the other, hands waving in the air like he was swatting flies. He said, “Jesus saved his people with his sacrifice for a reason. He didn’t die a horrible death on that cross so that his children, his chosen people, would turn their backs on him.”
The Pastor’s wild eyes bulged from his face like a frog’s. The church folks roared their approval and stomped their feet, shaking the walls of the large building. Pastor’s eyes looked fever bright and his chest was puffed up like he was about to explode. Everyone in the church seemed to soak up his every word as if they’d die if they didn’t. Rachel’s mama said that Pastor was the Shepherd and the church folks were his flock. He sure looked as if he could take on a rabid wolf.
“What happened to the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah? Y’all know the punishment those devils got. And just like those sinners, those blasphemers, our own people are straying away from God. They are consorting in sin.”
Pastor Ben motioned to Frank Haynes and Peter Jones at the back of the church and they began leading Lily Jenkinson’s boy up to the front of the church. Rachel wondered how much longer they would have to stand. Her mama and auntie Lou were starting to shake and the whole church was getting louder and louder. She looked past her Auntie Lou’s big belly and saw Bobby Jenkinson shuffling to the front of the church between Billy and Junior’s dads. He looked pale. His brown hair was plastered to his head and his white dress shirt was sweat stained. Bobby was staring at the floor, tremors shuddering through him. His hands were balled up at his sides, pale flesh with blotches of red. Blue eyes twitched toward her as he passed by and she smiled at him. His eyes darted back to the ground and his shoulders slumped some more as another tremor racked his narrow frame.
Rachel was confused. Bobby was always quick with a grin. He was popular with most of the older boys but he was real nice to her and always played games with the smaller kids at the BBQs the community gave every month. He would run races with them and some times let them win. He was a fast runner. She remembered her daddy saying he was going to join the high school football team this year when school started again. He didn’t look too healthy right now though. She thought maybe she would share some of her banana split with him Then he would smile again.
Bobby stopped in front of the podium. Everyone was holding their hands out toward him and the band had added their instruments to the chorus of joined prayers echoing off the vaulted ceilings.
Pastor had to raise his voice even louder to be heard. “Y’all know this boy. Y’all watched him grow under his mama and daddy’s care. Some of you even helped raise him yourself. He has played next to your children and stayed in your homes. And every Sunday he has come to church and stood with you as you praised the lord’s name. He stood beside you and listened to the good Lord’s message.”
Pastor Ben paused, his lips pressed sternly together, and bowed his head. “And you all have probably heard that this boy,” he pointed to Bobby standing alone in front of the congregation, “has fallen from grace.”
The church had finally fallen silent, their voices tapering off like a leaky faucet. Rachel slid past her Aunt and stood up against the edge of their pew so she could see Bobby. He had gotten paler and was trembling even more. Rachel looked around the church in trepidation. Where was his mama? There she was in the second pew on the left. Bobby’s daddy and her were sobbing and trembling, holding onto one another as if they were sinking on a boat. Their friends surrounded them in support. Rachel wasn’t sure what they were supporting them about though.
Pastor Ben continued, “This boy has sinned against God, Jesus and this Church. This congregation has given him our love, and he has spit in our faces.”
Rachel frowned, her gaze going to Pastor. Bobby never spit. At last week’s BBQ he had told her he thought it was gross. She had agreed as they had watched some of the other kids hold a contest. The winner had gotten an extra hotdog.
Pastor’s face had steadily gotten redder and now it was as blotchy as Bobby’s fisted hands. He was really roaring now. “Bobby Jenkinson is fifteen years old. Fifteen! As y’all have heard, he was discovered sinning with another boy in his bedroom two days ago. Another boy! One of those boys from that other church’s congregation. Y’all know that this is wrong,” he implored, “Bobby knows that this is wrong.” Pastor Ben again pointed a shaking finger at Bobby.
Oh my God! Bobby had gotten caught looking at dirty magazines, thought Rachel. Rachel had heard the older boys in the church talk about the stash they had hidden in the storage shed at the back of Billy Jones’ house. Rachel couldn’t believe they had brought him in front of the whole church for that.
“The word of God is very clear on this issue. A pervert will not be tolerated or accepted by this church.” Pastor Ben snarled. “Gay people are not God’s people.”
Realization hit Rachel and she looked back at Bobby. He looked miserable, even from the side. He stared steadily at the cross in the middle of the podium.
Pastor Ben looked out to the crowd. “However horrible his crime, and however great his offense, it is our responsibility as his Church and his community to fix what is broken inside of him.”
Bobby did look broken. He looked alone and broken standing in front of the whole church by himself with his splotchy balled up fists.
The Pastor continued, “Now I ask that y’all gather around this boy and pray those demons away.” Pastor Ben’s white hands beckoned, “Everyone come forward, we’ll need all the help we can get. And let us hope that this works because if Bobby Jenkinson continues as he is, there will be only the fires of Hell for him.”
Pastor Ben gave a small smile as his congregation started moving determinedly toward the front of the church. None of them had protested that their was something wrong with Bobby. Pastor had taught them that God didn’t want homosexuality in his world, much less in the church. He had complained to Rachel’s mama when he saw Liz Boswell at the grocery store and noticed a nose ring glittering in her face.
Rachel’s mama looked surprised when she rushed up to the front with the rest of the church. Rachel knew it usually took a cattle prod to get her to participate in anything except eating at gatherings, but something was happening. She wasn’t sure what it was exactly, but it was important.
Rachel pushed past the people circling around Bobby until she was right beside him. This was horrible. The people around her were staring daggers at Bobby. They didn’t look like they wanted to help him. As the prayers began the crowd began to sway in unison and the prayers grew louder and the hands touching Bobby grew rougher. Rachel was pushed to and fro by the crowd and almost lost her position at Bobby’s side. She reached out to his balled up fist and pried it open. She grabbed hold of his hand and gave it a squeeze. For the first time, he looked away from the cross on the podium and looked down at her. She knew she was mostly hidden under the hands touching him, but she could see his face. It was so twisted with pain that she hardly recognized him. His eyes looked desperate and wild. The prayers grew louder until they climaxed with a chorus of “Please God!”
The crowd swayed in silence for a moment and the hands that had bruised Bobby steadily gentled. The Pastor stood in front of Bobby and took his head into his hands so that he could look him in the eye.
“Well Bobby? We have done what we can to help you stay in touch with your eternal soul.” Pastor’s eyes looked almost loving from where Rachel was standing. “Have we saved you?”
Rachel gave Bobby’s hand another squeeze. He looked pale, but finally calm. His wild eyes had become still. He was back to staring over the pastor’s shoulder at the cross on the podium
again, but his voice was unsteady. “Are you saying that if I am gay, then Jesus doesn’t love me?”
The Pastor seemed flustered. “Well you can’t expect Jesus to love a gay pervert can you?”
Bobby continued to look at the cross. “Yeah. I can. And one day, I hope you all will too.”
Pastor’s face turned red again, and stark white around his pursed lips. He stepped away from Bobby and went to stand behind his podium.
“It is apparent to us all that this boy will not repent or change his ways so that he can once again live with the blessing of Jesus.”
Rachel still held onto Bobby’s hand. She couldn’t believe that the people who had seemed so kind and were always talking about their generosity could look at Bobby with hatred. But they were. They were staring and she felt afraid for him.
“Bobby Jenkinson will no longer be allowed to remain in this church, and as a member of the community I urge you to consider how you treat him outside of these walls as well. Your children and family members can’t be trusted around him He is tainted by the Devil.”
The crowd once again grew rough around Bobby. Mr. Jones and Mr. Haynes grabbed his arms and turned him around, wrenching his hand from Rachel’s. The crowd parted as they pulled him down the church aisle to the door. One of the people in the back, Rachel recognized Bobby’s dad, opened the door for the two men. They pushed hard and sent Bobby sprawling outside the door. Bobby’s dad forcibly shut it. Pastor smiled from behind his podium.
“I know that God is proud of his people this day. Let’s continue with my sermon.”
The church members returned to their seats, but Rachel couldn’t sit down. Her confusion threatened to surge up from her gut and drown her unless it was dealt with. Her Auntie Lou looked at her oddly but didn’t follow her when she slipped out the door of the church. Bobby was just getting to his feet when Rachel got outside.
“You okay?” She asked.
Bobby gave her a small smile, “Not really. But I’ll be fine.”
“What’s your mama and daddy gonna do?”
“I’m going to live with my grandpa out on his farm. They say he won’t have as loose a hand with me as they did.”
Rachel looked up into Bobby’s sad face as he brushed the dust from the pavement off his clothes. “God loves you Bobby. I know it.” She said quietly.
“Does he, Rachel? I’m not brave. I should have just said I was fixed in there, but I couldn’t.” Bobby looked worried and older then his fifteen years.
“I don’t feel bad,” he said. “I just feel like me.”
Rachel looked uncertain. “Maybe it’s Pastor that’s wrong, Bobby. Maybe you are just you.”
Bobby smiled at her again and motioned her to go back inside. He walked out to the parking lot to wait on his parents as she slipped back into the church.
The Pastor had continued his sermon and was then mentioning the amount of jewelry Liz Boswell wore. She immediately removed it all and gave it to Mr. Jones. After church Rachel’s family went to Dairy Queen and her mama was rather surprised when she didn’t want anything. All Rachel could think about was that she thought Jesus really could love Bobby.–e-