When I feel like it I’ve been writing a series of essays on the years I attended a small, conservative Bible school in Wyoming. This is one of the essays. It was late October in Nebraska and we were standing on the side of the road, yelling to cars. There were fifteen of us in the parking lot, washing cars to raise money for soccer uniforms. I tried to be one of the guys holding the signs and yelling at the commuters because it was too cold to stand there with the hose and sponges. It started to snow.
I wondered how I got to be there. I hated soccer. My parents made me play it in the second grade, and all I excelled at was trying to trip the other team. And sitting down.
So why was I standing there, wet and shivering? Why was I trying to pay for a uniform? Trying to be on a team? Why did I have a limp?
* * * *
Jerry was a native of Trinidad and Tobago, although I’m not sure which. He stuck out in La Grange, with his accent and thick head of hair and the fact he wasn’t super white like everyone else (except for Tim the Korean Kid.) A few weeks into our freshman year he appeared in our classes. We didn’t know quite what to think of him, but odd people were pretty common at the school, so he blended into the background. Until he spoke in chapel.
Those of us in the back pew looked at each other in surprise. Why was a freshman speaking? It was usually a teacher or a country pastor or some seriously lost missionary. One time a ten-piece steel drum band from the Caribbean played. That was the only chapel more bizarre. What could another freshman possibly have to teach us?
He stepped to the pulpit, politely thanked Mr. Knapp for his introduction, and told his story. He told us about the small village he grew up in, how is father was the chief and the witch doctor. A multi-hyphenate tribesman. Jerry told us how he was next in line to become high priest of his village, until the Lord came into his heart and saved him from his idol worship.
We listened, fascinated how he would walk thirteen miles to the closest church to learn about Jesus, how he was violently beaten by his father and cast out of his family for his new beliefs. People along the long road would sic their dogs on him. Eventually, though, his mother and sisters and brothers came to Christ. And then his father. Probably the whole tribe. Probably most of Tobago. Or maybe it was Trinidad.
His story jumped forward some years and found him in a helicopter, swooping over the jungle. Jerry, we found out, had become a member of an elite police unit that hunted drug lords. He also drove a sports car. And had pretty women. And he was a champion black belt. And he was on his country’s World Cup soccer team. Jerry was basically the backstory of every 80’s action movie.
Then he told us how God called him away from all that. I’m a little fuzzy on the details of where he went then, but apparently God wanted him in Wyoming for a bunch of years. Jerry then got very serious in his talk and asked us many times why we did not care that people were going to hell.
All in all, it was an interesting chapel talk and we were very impressed with Jerry.
* * * *
Jerry wanted to teach us karate. We had nothing else to do, so a bunch of guys piled into the basement of the men’s dorm, ready to learn from the sensei.
Here’s what I remember: Jerry walked around with piece of a broomstick and used it to hit himself in his shin. Again, I was very impressed with Jerry. He talked about toughness and states of mind and attitude and kept hitting himself in his shins. He wouldn’t even flinch. Three minutes into the karate lesson and it was already turning out to be awesome.
Then he asked us if we wanted to be tough. We said yes. So he walked across the room and kicked me as hard as he could in my thigh. I fell down and got dizzy and had a charlie horse that lasted about twenty minutes. He kicked some other guys, too. When I could walk again, I left the basement.
And that is the extent of my martial arts training.
We were eating lunch in the cafeteria and I made a gay joke. I’ve since come to be friends with gay people and they have politely mentioned how they would appreciate it if I stop making fun of them, and I’ve found that to be a reasonable request.
I can’t remember, though, what my joke was that lunch. I don’t recall it being very mean or very crass. I think all I really did was reference the fact that, yes, homosexuals do exist and that my friend Derek was probably one. Derek laughed, but Jerry glared. He stood and used his preaching voice to let me know how terribly inappropriate that comment was to utter in front of his fiancé, who was sitting at the table.
I thought back to him kicking my leg and tried imagining what he could do to my face.
So, I apologized. He told me he wanted to see me later and discuss it further. I was informed when and where.
At the assigned time, I knocked on his dorm room door. He announced that I should come in and take a seat. All of the rooms had desks, which most of us pushed up against the wall so that we had more room. But Jerry had placed his so that he could sit behind it and I would sit in an uncomfortable chair on the other side. He made his room into an office and began lecturing me on how a gentleman should act in front of a lady. He was very strategic about giving himself the illusion of authority via interior decorating and it was the first time I realized someone was making a power play on me. And I just sat there and took it. It was a great power play.
By our second year, Jerry was on the faculty. Our third year, we had to sit in one of his classes. He had married his girl by then and moved out of the dorm to a house. He had his own office then, too.
He strode across the stage, then back again. We had taken a van from the school to watch Jerry speak in a high school gymnasium in Cheyenne. He was wearing his slacks and his pair of dress shoes. His short-sleeved button up shirt was tucked in. His hair looked great. Intimidating. Powerful. He held the microphone in one hand. He waved the other one. He didn’t need notes. He only had the one sermon. It was all he needed. He told his story about walking fourteen miles to the church. He hit the part about the dogs, then the helicopter. He made his transitions, his anecdotes, and we knew where this was going, where it always went. And before you knew it, his tone changed from joyful and playful to something darker. It turned to sin. Our sins. And our souls; the souls of the world. His brow was furrowed. He seemed angry. He gripped the microphone tighter and grew louder. Jerry had a question for us. The same question.
“Brother, don’t you care?”
He delivered it in his Trinidad accent. Brudder don choo CAH? We were brothers, he and I. Our Lord had seemed fit to reach to me as a child in Florida, to give me His salvation. It was the same Lord that had found Jerry in his village or wherever it was he was from. And there I was, sitting and smiling and content with my future in heaven. But what about the others? The others who did not hold such a prize? The people who had not heard God’s call?
Brother, don’t you care?
The high schoolers furrowed their brows. They weren’t used to being talked to this way. They were not used to evangelists. With being confronted with the eternal. Not unexpectedly, after a funny story. There you are laughing at one of his jokes, and then he asks you why you don’t care one little bit that all of your friends, all of your neighbors, all of our mothers and fathers and sisters are going to hell. Then you stopped laughing and felt like a real dick.
The fact that most of the people in the world are going to hell was a basic law in our Christianity, and we couldn’t ignore it. You can try to talk your way around the subject or convince yourself that for a couple thousand years the church has gotten it wrong, but the fact is that the Bible says a big chunk of the world is going to hell. If they have not accepted Christ as their savior, if they have not accepted his salvation, turned over to Him their hearts or asked him in or whatever, if they have cannot properly answer several bits of crucial spiritual trivia, they are damned. Not damned because they were especially bad; they just were always screwed.
People go to hell without Jesus. It was just another one of those inescapable dark facts that you’re forced to deal with. Like the duck and cover drills we had in elementary school in the early 80’s. If the tornado strikes or the Soviets hit us with their warheads, the best you could do is climb under your desk. And once you had done that, it was time to crawl back out, sit up, and learn about fractions.
So Jerry would pace the stage or the gymnasium or the sidewalk and tell his story, before he started growling.
Brother don’t you care?
He was worked up now. Little bits of spit began to spray on the kids in the front. How could we just sit there and be okay with this? People were going to hell. The high schoolers shifted uncomfortably. Us Bible schoolers shifted uncomfortably, and that took quite a bit. We were used to brutal preachers.
Brother don’t you care?
* * * *
I tried contacting Jerry a couple years ago. He had a website that showed his happy family and testimonials by area pastors about how effective his ministry was. There was an email address you could contact if you were interested in Jerry talking to your group in the Wyoming-Nebraska area.
I wrote to the address and asked about his timeline. Told him I was having trouble putting all the pieces of his life story together and if he would mind setting me straight. Help me understand some of the inconstancies in his story.
I never heard back.
He was right in our faces now. He had jumped off the stage, leaving the microphone. It was just this wild man, this crazed prophet, eyes wide, teeth all showing. We had seen it before, but each time it got to us. It got to me.
Oh my god, I thought. Everyone IS going to hell. And I know the answer, I know the cure. I know Jesus. Why aren’t I doing my part?
Everyone gets so mad at the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses for knocking on your door. And for televangelists hogging valuable cable channels. And for Tom Cruise going on about Scientology. They can all be intrusive and bothersome and repetitive. But I think these are just people who have decided to confront their beliefs, that have had the guts to confront the very deepest and demanding parts of their ethos and listen to their conscience.
The heroes in all the action movies are often the only ones who see what is really going on. Only Pierce Brosnan could see Los Angele was going to turn into a super volcano. Only Bruce Willis knew European terrorists were taking over the Nakatomi Building. Only Wesley Snipes knew that Passenger 57 was a bomber or something. I don’t know… I didn’t watch that one. But each time, these heroes accepted that they knew the dark truth, that they alone are the key to saving the lives of others, that they had to act and they would face persecution for doing so.
They had looked at the truth, the maddening truth, and answered the call. And as Jerry got low and growled at us, and pushed his finger into our chests, I saw them all. The hundred trillion souls trapped in eternal anguish. The faces of the people I had known in my life that didn’t have a clue of what was waiting for them on the other side of death.
In that moment I saw the world I had planned for myself crumbling away, making way for a new life. The only responsible life, the only heroic or decent life. To spend each moment, each breath, doing everything I could possibly do to guide them away from the wide path that leads down to destruction and onto the narrow path which leads to salvation!
I knew that if I were to care, to really care, every action and every thought must be disciplined and broken and reformed. I must give into this madness. It was the only thing to do. I must give up my life and my ambitions and my desire to love and be loved. Everything else was secondary.
Jerry had done it. He had given up the sports cars and wealth and fame to be with us here today in the gymnasium.
A few minutes later he would ask us to raise our hands if we were ready to rededicate our lives.
We got the soccer uniforms. Maroon and gold.
The games were slaughters. We’d play some local high school team, or a group of migrant farm workers playing in their work boots. People that knew the game and understood it and loved it. We had no chance. It turned into an hour of watching Jerry hog the ball and do his fancy dribble spins and scissor kicks. It was cold and miserable. I sat down in my little Umbro shorts on the part of the field that hadn’t yet turned into mud. Dan ran past me, trying to cut off some really fast Guatemalan striker. “Hey bro,” he yelled. “We’re losing! Don’t you care?”
I kicked my shoe into the dirt a little and thought about the tornados that never came and the mushroom clouds that never spread out above my school. I guess you could live your life under a desk, but I didn’t want to. It was easier just to go about your day imagining nothing bad was ever going to happen. I felt the bruise that still covered my thigh.
“No man. I don’t care.”
I just couldn’t.