THE MIGHTY LIGHT
by Rachel Zeile
Father says he’s in “the business of making miracles.” His church is The Mighty Light of the Nazarene, and he holds sermons every Wednesday, Friday and Sunday morning, as he says these are the holiest days of the week.
Father’s church is in a 20 x 40-ft. shed behind our house. It has a corrugated tin roof and metal siding that is painted blue. Father hand painted a large wooden sign with the name of the church and placed it near the road so the drivers on Highway 301 can see it easily as they are driving by. He didn’t make any other signs or advertising.
“If people are curious enough to come back, to walk in, then their minds are ready and open to accept Jesus Christ into their hearts,” Father says. “‘Cause if you don’t have that open mind, you don’t have that open heart.”
When I was younger I thought Father was being literal. I thought people would enter the church with skulls split open from the top and peeled back. Their mind was this mouth with too many teeth waiting to gobble up the Word. Their hearts would fill and start to digest the writings of Jesus. Only once it was fully digested would you truly understand what Father understood.
Even now that I’m older and wiser (I’m almost 14), I still like to think of it this way. But I don’t ever feel full after sermons like everyone else seems to. It doesn’t move me to tears like Mrs. Worthy, or into spasms of joy like Ms. Cunningham. Mr. Jones will often sway with arms high and eyes closed, facing the tin ceiling where rusted holes dust his face with spots of light. They all leave, various contributions pressed firmly into Father’s hand as he hugs each person before they walk out into the fuzzy light of the Florida morning. They all seem like they ate a full meal. They trudge to their cars parked in our driveway and on the lawn, stepping heavily in the dewy grass that sticks to their shiny shoes.
Sometimes I go into church when Father is taking his afternoon nap and stand at the front and face the chairs. I hold his worn Bible with the cracking red leather cover that has so many little slips of paper and dog ears that it hardly looks like a book and more like a strange piñata. I flip through it and read the passages with my Father’s notes written in the margins in faded pencil. I’ve begged God to talk to me. Every prayer I ask him to send me a sign, to let me know I’m not evil.
I ask Mother about it.
“What do you mean? Are you saying you don’t believe in God?”
“No, I do believe in Him, I just don’t seem to feel Him like everyone else. He doesn’t talk to me.” I look at her. I’m holding my small gold cross at my neck, pulling it across the chain, back and forth. I resist the temptation to pop it in my mouth and let the gold melt on my tongue. Mother hates it when I suck on my cross. She said it is blasphemous, but I think maybe I can directly consume Him by licking the symbol of His Son’s greatest sacrifice.
She smiles at me and strokes my cheek. “Oh honey. Everyone has their own personal relationship with God. No one person is gonna be the same. And it’s not that He’ll speak to you literally. You just have to trust in Him and trust that He’ll guide you. God speaks to us through his actions, through others.”
“But how do you know when it’s God and not the Devil?”
She chews the inside of her cheek and cocks her head at me. “If you follow the Scripture and you believe in God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, then the Devil can’t speak to you. And if he tries you will know, you just will. Like how a dog will bark at a stranger. Dogs can’t tell from looks, one man from another, but they know their owner from a stranger.”
I run my cross along the chain, back and forth, back and forth.
* * *
Hurricane Andrew hits the southeastern part of Florida on August 24th. It’s a Category 5 hurricane and the most destructive to hit U.S. soil, ever. Mother says we were spared by God’s Grace. He leveled the sinners along the southern coast in Miami and Fort Lauderdale. He merely thrashed our trees to remind us of his wrath, she says.
We get a lot of rain and have to clear up a bunch of broken branches. The church flooded but we anticipated it and brought the chairs inside the house where they would be safe. We run the hose over the cement floor of the church to spray it down and sweep the muck and bits of Florida out.
I help drag branches and trash to our burn pile as the rain saturated lawn squelches underfoot. Father cuts a few of the larger branches into smaller logs with the chainsaw. The sun is stuck behind heavy clouds, and the air is thick and damp. Father has his shirt off and sweat runs down his back, which is starting to redden with a sunburn. I look down at my arms and notice they are also starting to turn pink. I look up at the bright clouds that hide the sun.
“Come inside baby,” Mother calls from the porch. “You’re gettin’ burnt out there. Did you not put on sunscreen?”
“But there’s no sun to screen, Mother!”
Mother smiles and shakes her head, “That don’t mean nothin’ in Florida. The sun’s gonna get you whether it’s shinin’ or not. Now come inside and drink some juice. Lunch is about ready anyway.”
After lunch, Father announces that he is going to have an unscheduled sermon tonight.
“I thanked God this mornin’ and he told me I needed to have a sermon tonight. He didn’t say why, since tomorrow’s Friday and we were gonna have a sermon in the mornin’ anyway. But it has to be tonight. And since he spared us from the storm, I think it’s good we thank him earlier rather than later.”
Mother clears the table and Father walks into his study next to the living room instead of heading to his bedroom for his nap. I see him rifling through a notebook. He picks up the phone we keep at his desk. I watch him punch the numbers into the handset. The soft beep they make as he presses plastic into plastic.
I hear Mother in the kitchen washing the dishes. I want to eavesdrop on Father as long as I can, so I grab a napkin from the table and pretend to dust the various knick knacks in the living room. I like dusting the mantle the most. It has all the pictures of our family, past to present. Fuzzy black and white next to crisp color, all faces that mirror my own.
In the center of these pictures is a roughly whittled wooden cross. According to Father, his father, a Methodist Preacher from Archer, carved it from a 300-year-old cypress that had come down in a storm. He said the cypress had almost fallen on the house but missed it by mere inches. Had it come down on the house, it would have killed my grandfather and my then pregnant grandmother while they slept. But God spared them, so grandfather carved this cross as a reminder that our family was blessed and meant to spread the Word.
As I wipe the cross off I listen to Father. I hear him say a name I don’t recognize. “What are you doin’ out here?” Mother asks, startling me so much I drop the cross. It falls onto the carpet with a soft thud.
“I was just dustin’!” I quickly pick it up and place it back in its rightful spot between the bloodlines.
“Well hold off on that. I need help in the kitchen and then we gotta start gettin’ ready for tonight.”
After I help her in the kitchen we grab every spare lamp we have and bring them into the church for the night sermon. We set up all the chairs plus a couple extra because Father has a feeling they will be needed.
As the sun sets, the parishioners start to arrive, parking on the muddy drive, tires creating more mud as they drive to park on the lawn. Father stands in the doorway of the church, shaking each person’s hand as they enter. The sky is a mottled pink and orange, the shy sun setting behind clouds. The air is still damp and hot and the mosquitoes are ravenous, but no one seems to mind. Sweat plasters hair to faces and necks, creating dark patches on men’s pastel button downs and lines through the foundation on the women’s faces.
Father is right. It is a full house. There are faces I haven’t seen in a while as well as ones I have never seen. Father’s face is beaming. His smile gets wider with each chair Mother drags in from the house until it’s standing room only.
Once it appears as though everyone has arrived, Father makes his way to the front altar. He glances from side to side while hugging his worn Bible.
At the altar, he faces the congregation. He lifts his Bible above his head, the cracked red leather cover facing out, the gold lettering glinting dully in the lamplight.
As he opens his mouth to speak, a man walks in through the now dark maw of the church. The man’s large hand is gripping the small shoulder of a boy. The boy seems to struggle under the weight of the hand, leaning down under it, tripping slightly as they walk in together.
Father hesitates, watches for a moment while the man walks the boy down the narrow makeshift aisle. The man pushes the boy to walk in front of him.
Father clears his throat, “Welcome, brothers. I’m afraid we’re full up tonight, but I want to welcome you to stand wherever we can squeeze you in.”
The man holds up a hand, “I ain’t here for your sermon, Preacher. I’m here ‘cause my boy needs your help.”
Father looks down at the boy. He looks to be around my age, maybe a year younger, his hair is a greasy, dirty blonde, cut short and uneven. He wears a dirty camo shirt that has several holes. His face is bright red and plagued by pus filled pimples. The boy stares at the floor.
“And how does he need my help?” Father looks back at the man, who is dressed in greasy navy coveralls. He has scuffed steel toed boots that make his giant feet look clownish. His hair is also an unevenly cut, greasy, dirty blonde.
“He’s been real quiet and stayin’ in his room, and I thought he was just bein’ a teenager, but then I found this.” In his hand he holds a black and white composition notebook. He looks down at the boy while he shakes it at Father. “This has pages and PAGES of him talkin’ about lovin’ Satan.” His grip on the notebook makes it almost bend in half.
Father looks down at the boy. “What do you have to say son? Is this true? Do you worship the Devil?”
The boy won’t look up. He shakes his tomato face from side to side. I see something drip from his face and land on the cement floor.
“I don’t know what to do, Preacher. I asked him about it, and I asked him about it and I prayed on it and I brought him to our church. But the Pastor there wouldn’t do nothin’ and just said he’d find his way. But he ain’t gonna find his way. He’s in too deep. I found symbols and magazines and … and other stuff.” Now the man’s face is beginning to match the boy’s. “But then I seen your sign by the road. And I seen it before and didn’t pay it no mind. But today, I think God was tellin’ me somethin’. Tellin’ me to come here tonight and get you to pray the Devil out of my boy.”
Father nods and looks out over the church and once again holds his Bible high. “This was meant to be, brothers and sisters. This is a message from our Lord. We were meant to be here. We were summoned to save this poor boy from the grip of the Beast.” He turns to a young man in the front row and asks him to please give him his chair. The young man practically jumps up and brings his white plastic chair to father and then goes to stand to the side of the church.
Father sets the chair in front of the altar, facing out and directs the man to put his son in the chair.
The man shoves the boy onto the plastic chair, making the legs bow and causing the feet to squeak on the cement. Father motions for the man to stand off to the side.
“Now brothers and sisters I call on you. I can’t do this alone. I am but a humble messenger for the Lord, and I need your help, your grace, to help me bring this child back. Everyone, please, pray with me and together we will cast out the darkness and deliver this boy into His Holy Hands and Heart.”
The boy sits, head down, hands clasped in his lap. He is shivering. How is that possible in the heat of the church that is now not just filled with the humidity of the ending day, but also the excited breath of a couple dozen parishioners? Father places his Bible on the greasy head of the boy.
“Oh Heavenly Father, I now call on you to help me, with the help of my brethren, to save this poor child from the grip of the darkness of Satan. I call on you and your Son to cast out this greatest of sins from this boy’s heart and bring him back into your Grace, your Love.”
I look around. Several people are swaying, mouthing words but no one speaks. Some people stand completely still, unblinking, unbreathing, so focused on Father and the boy that I think their eyes will pop out from their faces and roll to the altar, leaving slimy, bloody trails of devotion.
I look at the boy. He is shaking so much the chair might start moving across the floor. He still won’t look up. If anything his face gets lower and lower, like the Bible on his head is heavier and heavier with each word Father speaks.
“Satan, now I call on you to leave this child of God’s! You don’t belong in his heart. Get out of his mind and heart! Stop filling it with filth and corruption. Release him, Satan! Stop abusing this boy with your vile wants and gross lies. Stop using this boy for your evil! Get OUT SATAN!”
An audible sob escapes from the trembling boy. I try to concentrate on saving him. I try to pray, but I feel like I’m suffocating. It is too hot, too crowded in the church. I feel like my clothes are constricting me, my dress clings to my legs. I keep pulling at it, trying my best to get it away from my body. Mother quietly slaps my hand and gives me a look.
I hold the cross on my necklace and close my eyes, wishing for God to enter me so I can save this boy from Satan. But I feel nothing. No filling of my soul. I start to panic that Satan has left the boy and is now inside me, filling me with his evil. I imagine Satan feels like the opposite of God’s Love, that his evil feels like emptiness.
“GET OUT!” Father roars. He holds the boy’s face in his hands, screaming into the blotchy red that is wet with sweat, tears, and snot. The boy cries harder.
Father pulls the wooden cross that usually sits on the mantle in the living room from the pocket of his jeans.
He replaces the Bible with the cross on the boy’s head. Then he asks the boy to take it. To hold it and tell him if he still worships Satan.
“The wood will burn you if you lie!” Father yells. The boy clutches the wooden cross which looks so rough and old in his hands. He shakes his head.
“You must declare it! Tell every witness here you accept the Lord and Savior into your heart and cast the Devil from your soul!”
“I … I accept the Lord. I don’t worship Satan,” the boy stammers. His voice sounds so light and frail in the heavy air.
“Say it louder my Brother in Christ!” Father yells.
“I don’t worship Satan! I worship the Lord! I worship Jesus!” the boy cries.
Father suddenly hugs the boy, hugs him so hard the plastic chair rocks back dangerously.
The entire church cheers. Several women and men drop to their knees crying, their hands clasped and their wet eyes cast to the ceiling thanking the grace of God for saving this child.
Mother kneels, gripping her Bible to her chest, tears running down her cheeks.
I look back at the boy, his arms now around my father, one hand still holding the cross. I want to run up and grab the cross from his dirty grip and beg Father to save me next.
The man who brought the boy in stands unmoving on the side, his large arms crossed in front of his chest. He still holds the boy’s notebook.
Father releases the boy. He grips his shoulders and looks at his face. “Go now with God, my son.” Father steps aside and puts a hand on the back of the boy’s neck and pushes gently.
The boy gets shakily to his feet. He places the cross on the chair and pulls on the cuff of his shorts that have bunched into his crotch. He glances over to the man, who steps forward and they walk back down the aisle and through the dark mouth of the shed and disappear into the night.
Father smiles at the congregation and spreads his arms out wide, “Thank you. Thank you all for this miracle we helped to achieve. I have no sermon for tonight. The Lord gave us the greatest gift: the knowledge that his Love is all we need to overcome the Devil. Goodnight and God Bless.” Father walks out and stands off to the side of the entrance to shake each parishioner’s hand and thank them while accepting their hard earned tithes.
I stand at the altar while everyone slowly walks out. They all appear exhausted. I pick up the wooden cross from the seat of the plastic chair. It feels warm, like the boy’s hand had actually burned into it. I pop my cross into my mouth and feel a weird tug at the back of my neck. I take the cross out of my mouth and the necklace chain falls from around my neck, broken.
I hear Mother calling my name from outside and I look up to find myself alone in the church. Just me and the many chairs now all askew and the lamps that cast odd shadows on the metal walls.
I put the wooden cross down and stuff my necklace into the pocket of my dress. Mother peeks her head into the church. “Oh there you are. Turn out all the lamps, will you?”
I turn each lamp off, casting the church fully into darkness. I stand for a moment looking out through the front door. I can see the lights on in the house and the headlights of cars reversing and maneuvering around each other on the lawn.
I put my hand in my pocket and rub the small cross between my fingers. It’s just a small bit of metal. If I wanted to, I could snap it in half, just like the chain.
Rachel Zeile grew up in North Central Florida, and despite living in Oregon for the last 10 years, her stories are often set in her childhood backyard of oak trees, alligators, and humidity. She currently works as an X-ray tech in Portland. This is her first publication.