“Folks,” the Reverend Jeremiah Saunders said after the first hymn, “I am leaving Nazarene Holy Church as soon as this service is over.” He lifted his voice to carry above the whooshing sound of Sunday worship bulletins rhythmically flapping — a futile attempt by the congregation to move stifling summer air around the sanctuary.
Tom Michael straightened up from his carefully practiced pew-slouch. This was not good news. He liked Jeremiah Saunders. Their last pastor, Abner Miller, had been an angry bore, spending most services scolding everybody to repent and be “washed in the blood”. He snickered, recalling the near-death experiences many had endured at the hands of Reverend Miller for the sake of a clean soul.
The Reverend’s ripe scent — Stoker’s chewing tobacco laced with Aqua Velva — always induced respiratory fits in the repentant sinner waiting for wet salvation. His frailty was another terror. He could manage leaning a body backwards into the water, but his arms shook unmercifully raising the saved soul back up. Tom’s mama said, “Reveren’ Miller gives a whole new meanin’ to trustin’ in the Lord.”
But Jeremiah Saunders was a different sort. He didn’t carry on about getting soaked for your sins. He told jokes and played second base on the church baseball team.
“I’m called,” said Reverend Saunders, “to speak plainly. I’m moving to California to live with the man I love, Donald Baynor.” Women screamed. Men rose up from their seats. Everybody stopped fanning themselves.
Tom, so surprised he almost peed his pants, whispered to his cousin. “John Samuel, did he say he loved a man?”
“He sure did. I heard him clear as water,” John whispered back, “he said, ‘the man I love’.”
“Well that’s some golldang news,” Tom gasped between giggles.
Others in the congregation had a harsher response, calling Saunders “Satan’s eunuch” and “dirty faggot.” Suddenly, Miss Ethel Honeywell stood up and stepped into the aisle. She walked slowly towards the pulpit.
Stopping directly in front of the pastor, Miss Ethel raised her voice in accusation, “You’re the lying snake of Eden, Jeremiah Saunders, a wolf among the sheep, an abomination in the sight of God. Repent and suffa the wages of yur sin.” Reverend Saunders stepped back slowly from the podium, his eyes locked on Miss Ethel’s handbag.
“Whew-eee, Miss Ethel looks like a peeved polecat,” John said in a loud voice.
Two sharp cracks echoed around the sanctuary. Tom let out a startled yelp and fell sideways in the pew, landing on top of his cousin. From their tangled positions, both boys continued staring at the Reverend, watching blood spurt then ooze from two small holes in the middle of his chest.
For several seconds, only buzzing flies could be heard. Even the babies stopped crying. Jeremiah Saunders, still gazing at the spreading stain on the front of his clerical shirt, crumpled like a paper doll into the warm waters of the baptismal pool. Miss Ethel shrieked, “Lawd!”, dropped her small weapon, and sank to her knees.
Behind him, John heard his daddy say, “There’s God’s avengin’ angel at Sodom’s gate.”
“Well, maybe,” John’s mama replied. “But t’other day she was sayin’ she believed the Reverend had a mind to ask her out. He’d visited her sick mama three times in one week an’ asked after Miss Ethel evertime. Told me he was the first Christian man she ever felt a callin’ toward and here he turns out to be a sinnin’ pervert. Seems to me she was avengin’ her ego, not God, and outta her mind to boot with loneliness.”
John turned in the pew and looked at his parents. “Know how you wondered if Miss Ethel could use that teeny pistol she carried? Guess we all got the answer.” His mama scowled and thumped him on the forehead.
Turning back to his cousin, John asked, “What’s Miss Ethel mean, ‘wages of yur sin’?”
“Shoooot!” Tom said, exaggerating his frustration, “the Reveren’ was sinnin’ by not mindin’ Miss Ethel. He had to pay with his life, like all them other Bible perverts.”
“What perverts you talkin’ ‘bout?” John demanded. “You mean Jee-zus?”
“Naw, he was killed for sassin’ back church elders,” Tom stated with authority. “That ole’ boy, Jee-zus, weren’t no pervert. He stuck with men. Perverts get ta doin’ wrong-headed things with women and children. Naw, Reveren’ Saunders was a pervert for toyin’ with Miss Ethel’s affections. Ignorin’ women’s distress is the pervert part, sorta like that Samson with Delilah.”
John peeled himself off the pew and stood tucking in his shirt. “Seems to me Reveren’ Saunders shoulda known better, bein’ a pastor. My daddy says any fool reads the Bible knows the first sin wasn’t Eve eatin’ that apple. It was Adam stayin’ ignorant ‘bout a woman’s determination.”
“Amen, cousin. Poor Reveren’ Saunders didn’ get out with his man friend in time.” Tom Michael paused. “Too bad,” he finally said, “ole’ stinkbreath Miller ain’t here to see this. Miss Ethel gave an in-tire new meanin’ to ‘washed in the blood’.”
John Samuel was about to reply when he felt a second hard thump — this time to the back of his head — and heard an angry “Shush” that had his mama’s voice, or maybe it was God’s, all over it.
JB Smith is a freelance writer living in the Finger Lakes region of New York with her pastor husband, a demanding cat and wall-to-wall pictures of her three grown children. Her goal is to some day buy groceries with income from her writing but will settle for a cup of coffee. Her work has appeared in a Long Story Short, Short Story Library and various regional publications.