by Quinn MacKeen
I first preached in church when I was 17. Wore a light blue polyester suit.
I had never spoken in public before. Never. Not even in school. Every year, my English teachers would insist that I do public-speaking in front of the class. Every year I’d refuse, they’d give me a zero, and that’d be that. I was happy to crack jokes from my seat, but go stand up front? No chance. Same thing kept me from answering the phone, or buying things in the store. I had to get other people to do it for me.
But one day, I felt seized of a topic. A message. Couldn’t sleep. Knew what I had to do. I talked to my father – a Deacon – and he arranged for me to preach. We were the kind of Baptist Church that tried to live out that “priesthood of all believers” thing, so we let members of the congregation preach from time to time. The Deacons ok’ed it. After all, I was a conservative, clean-cut kid. Never drank, had never had sex, was on my way to becoming a lawyer, and maybe someday, the next local Conservative MP.
The Sunday came, and I stepped up to the pulpit. Terrified. I remember gripping the edges of the wooden pulpit and not letting go. I knew what scripture I wanted to read. I say “wanted to,” but truth was, it felt like “had to.” The scripture was just a couple of verses from Luke 4.
17 And there was delivered unto him the book of the prophet Esaias. And when he had opened the book, he found the place where it was written,
18 The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised,
19 To preach the acceptable year of the Lord.
After that opening verse, I said what came to me. Said that “poor” meant just what it said – poor. I talked about how our village of 480 people was split into the reasonably well off, and those who had nothing at all. I stated what we all knew, that the poor were easy to find, because they all lived on the dirt roads. That was the boundary. They had houses with dirt floors, outhouses and broken windows. I was polite when I came to this part, because I liked the people in my church – the paved road people. They’re weren’t rich, just better off. Their houses were well kept, they taught school or ran the post office or had a gas station or owned a functioning farm. They sang in choirs and provided free bricks and labour to build our school, made a baseball field for us kids. My people.
But I knew – we all knew – that you didn’t cross that line from the paved roads onto the dirt ones. Unless you were after bootleg liquor, or women maybe – “running the roads,” everyone called it. Or maybe you went there because you needed extra hands for picking apples, or some welding done.
But we all knew what went on in those homes. There was no way to say it directly. But this is what I knew, what I saw.
A family with 11 kids, the old man jovial, always talking, bright-eyed. He picked one of his boys out, nobody knows why that particular one, but he picked him out from when he was 2 or 3 years old, to be tied to a chair and beaten. Regular. He beat that kid with everything he had – sticks, fists, chairs. The old man would break his bones, they’d heal, the old man’d break ‘em again. Just the one boy. Another family, the father’s name was exactly the same as that President you lost in 1963. This guy drove truck. The family lived in the top of an old chicken barn. The dried chicken shit was still there, inches deep. That was their floor. With a big color tv set up on it. Both kids were his, a boy and a girl. They say he fucked ‘em both. The boy used to drool out the window of the bus. The girl somehow went to college. Second year, jumped out a residence window and killed herself.
A different kid, from down the road, used to come up to the farm a lot. Told my Dad he liked it at our place, asked if it was ok to come hang out. Dad said sure. A few months later the kid comes up to our place with a gun. Goes out behind the barn and blows his head off. Another time, my Dad gets a call, this welder guy, 50 maybe, had been on a bender for a week. Was out of control. Everybody phoned my Dad when stuff like this happened. We drove down. The guy came raging out of the shed where he fixed equipment, screaming. Dad walked up to him, and the guy bit him. Tore a chunk right out of his arm. I drove with Dad to the hospital afterward. A different guy, I worked with him when we built the ball-field. Old guy. Nice. Sweet. Just never bothered much with fixing his place up. Tough as nails. Except, you let your house slide too far, and hit a real cold night, you might not make it. He didn’t. Froze. And the really badly off families lived on the dirt roads that went up the mountain. The cops broke one incest ring up there, dozens of adults involved, going back generations. They gave this one kid 7 years in the Pen for incest.
Billy. We knew him from school. He used to stand and bang his head against the concrete blocks. He wasn’t really retarded, just slow. Spoke in a real soft whisper. Anyway, the whole thing’s in the national papers, tv. Judge says to him, “I’m giving you 7 years because you have shown no remorse. Do you have anything to say for yourself?” Billy says, “What’s remorse?” He meant it.
I knew these kids and their families by name. In a village with lots of Anglos, but mostly Scots and Irish families, your name told it all. “Oh, the MacX’s. They’re a little touched in the head, y’know.” Often, the labels held a lot of truth.
But the church didn’t really reach out to the dirt roads. Not in any organized way. The best of our community helped, gave, did things worth respecting. Gave ‘em work. Dried ‘em out. Pulled shotguns out of their mouths. My Mum gave ‘em clothes and sheets and took food for kids in her class, everyday. She wouldn’t cook for us – not once in 18 years – but she’d make up extra lunches for the worst off. Even my Grandfather, miserable old bastard that he was, would drive around mid-Winter, hand out food, blankets, boots. One of these dirt-floor families decided to thank him by taking Grandfather’s last name and giving it to their new baby boy as a first name. When he couldn’t talk them out of it, he just sat and shook. His name… that family.
We’d had one Minister a few years before, a genuinely great man. He’d tried to break this pattern. An Englishman. He was kind, educated, compassionate. Had this big swoop of black hair, curled up across his forehead. He’d spent the war bringing Jews out of Europe. A genuine hero. He and my Dad and a few others worked to erase the lines. But when the old guard in the church had had enough, the Minister was subjected to that odd thing our local Baptists do. He arrived one day at the church to find he’d been locked out. Of his own church. That was how we handed out pink slips.
Anyway. I preached. Could barely look up. Said precisely what I felt moved to say. Had to say. I leaned on it fairly hard, but like I say, I wasn’t a nasty kid. I knew how to talk politely, no pointing out people by name or calling anyone down. And though I’d never spoken in public before, I knew I could. Knew I was good. Just hadn’t wanted to speak until then. When I looked up at one point, I remember seeing this one old woman, Bee, just crying and crying. Remembered that she’d come from the dirt roads.
I sat down when it was over. Relieved. Went outside after the service, and stood across from the Minister. Each of us was shaking hands with people as they passed between us. I remember noticing that he was shaking a lot more hands than me. Bee shook my hand though.
My Dad got asked to stay behind for a quick Deacons meeting with the Minister. Later that afternoon, he asked me to go out for a walk with him. Told me the Deacons and the Minister had decided that I was never to be permitted to preach in our Church again. Never. Said it was all he could do to keep them from expelling me entirely.
I was pretty upset, so we walked for a while. Eventually, I asked him, “Don’t any of them know the rest of Luke 4?” “No,” he says. Which was pretty hard for me to take in. Because it had been Jesus’ first recorded sermon. The one he preached in his hometown. The one where after he was done, his hometown congregation tried to throw him off a cliff. Jesus got away, and said that famous line, “No prophet is accepted in his own country.”
Now, I was no Jesus, that was pretty clear. But my stomach fell, just went hollow, when I realized the Deacons and the Minister didn’t even seem aware of what they’d just done. So I asked my Dad again. He didn’t look up for a while, and when he did, he just looked really sad. Said, “I don’t know if they’ll ever get it, son.”
I stayed on at the Church. Showed up every week, for years afterward. Talked and listened and worked alongside them. I don’t know why. It guess I’d just said what I had to say, and that was enough.
7 or 8 years later, that kid Billy gets out of prison. Found an old wreck of a car he wanted to fix up. Got a friend with a truck to tow him. Coming down the mountain, the brakes in the old wreck failed.
He went off the cliff.
Quinn MacKeen is a writer living in TorontoHOME