Church Hurts: Chapter 6 – “Birthday Girl”

Chapter 6 – Birthday Girl

Terita pressed 7 on her cellphone to buzz in her guests at the gate. She had invited about 30 people to her birthday get-together and about fifteen were here so far. And of course, some of those guests took the liberty to invite a few other friends so she expected many more people. She was glad she had asked the caterer to bring extra food. Every time she pressed 7, she waited anxiously for Dave to knock at the door. But still no sight of him. He had replied to her text late Saturday night saying that he would try to attend. But she needed him to be here. She had long-term plans for him. And they began tonight.

She looked back at her bedroom mirror to reapply her hot pink lipstick. She looked flawless. Her dark-almond shaped eyes sparkled as she batted her thick false lashes at her reflection. Her smile revealed two perfect rows of neat, white teeth thanks to the thousands she had paid for veneers two years back. She had two dimples perforating the center of her cheek. She had three earrings in a row in her left ear – the side with the short hair. She had curled the long side of her hair into ringlets which cascaded down her face and shoulder with variegated highlights. Her beautician had told her she would run the risk of looking “ghetto” with the hair color, but Terita just shrugged. What the hey? It was Memphis. When in Rome, she had told her.

When she heard a knock at the door, she heard one of the attendants say, “Who is it? Oh, hey, it’s Dave, y’all! The door’s unlocked.” Her smile became wider and her dimples became deeper. She slipped out of her flats and into her high-heeled hot pink, bejeweled Christian Louboutin pumps. She knew her strut would get her the attention she wanted.

She turned the corner out of her bedroom into her front room. She exclaimed, “Hi, Dave! I’m glad you could make it. She gave him a big hug as he told her happy birthday. He handed her a card. She wondered if there was money in it but knew it would be tacky to check right now. She’d wait. She told him to grab a plate and to get something to eat. After he did so and greeted the guests who were all mutual friends of theirs, he sat on a stool at the bar counter between her kitchen and front room. Terita sat down beside him. Lucky for her, there were only two barstools there, so that would greatly decrease their chances of being interrupted.

“I’m so glad you could make it,” Terita beamed at him like an outgoing five-year old. She laid her hand on the back of his hand to drive home the point. “Well, of course I’d be here. You know you and me go way back.” Terita had been the girlfriend of one of Dave’s closest friends back in high school. They were known as the popular church kids who had nice clothes and well-educated parents. There was a group of nine of them that hung out all the time. Most of them were musicians or singers. Terita was talented in liturgical dance. Dave could play the guitar well, but he was most popular for having the richest granddad in the county. They went to private schools and vacation bible school together every summer. They attended the most anticipated revivals in the city together. They dated the most popular, well-dressed, most talented, and wealthiest of the church “elite”.

Church Elitism was quite obvious in their denomination. It was something like a caste system. A social order so speak. At the bottom were the poorest. They dressed most modestly. The women typically wore ankle-length jean skirts and flats. Their women and girls frequented inexpensive clothing stores like Cato’s, Simply Fashions, and Rainbow. They would wear their relaxed hair in low ponytails or home-rolled curls. Some would wear outdated hairstyles like fingerwaves and pompadours. They were humble, but tended to be more judgmental. They usually came from small towns in the Dirty South or the Midwest. And because they came from small towns, they had small town mindsets.

Next in pecking order were the middle-class bunch. They could afford to shop at stores at the mall and outlets. They were usually college-educated. They worked from paycheck to paycheck just as the poorer one’s did only without any government assistance only they had decent paychecks. Some would usually look in pity at the lower “caste” and look up in admiration and aspiration at the upper class.

And then there was the upper echelon. This was where people like Dave and Terita resided. They were the sons and granddaughters of jurisdictional bishops, their parents and uncles were politicians and successful business owners in their cities, most of the people they associated with had master’s or doctoral level degrees. They lived in neighborhoods often as the sole black family on their block. And they wore this privilege proudly. They had tailor-made suits, they could afford real animal skins for coats, shoes, and purses, and they shopped solely at boutiques or either had their clothes custom-made. Their memberships were coveted because their tithes alone were enough to sustain the church more than 200 of the other members’ tithes could. They had the highest titles in the denomination. They married the most beautiful women of etiquette. Their women were members of social clubs and their menfolk were members of exclusive country clubs.

Everyone at Terita’s birthday party was of the higher order. There was Barry the church pianist from the megachurch down the street. His father was pastor there. There was Sheila who had just graduated from Harvard law school following in her mother’s footsteps. There was Marcus who had been successful at opening a male suits clothing store with fine suits that he and his twin brother designed and sold to gospel artists. Lucinda was there. She was a niece of her aunt who was also a member of a famous gospel group that started in the late 80’s. Her aunt had raised her when he mother had died unexpectantly when she was five. Anthony’s father had just been re-elected as the Memphis City School’s superintendent; it was his third term. He saw to it that Anthony never had to pay a bill. Melissa and her sister Megan sat on the couch sipping their punch. They were somewhat antisocial. Their claim to fame was a father and mother who had graduated from MIT as engineers. They were just as smart and withdrawn as their parents.

And then there was Terita. Her dwindling wealth came from her charismatic charm with successful and prosperous men. Terita was brought up poor, but fortunately she had good looks and a great personality. She used these assets to her advantage. She had met a much, much older widowed bishop who was quite lucky in the stock markets. He wanted a PYT to share his riches with. Terita heeded the call. She saw this as her chance to ascend the church ranks. Her plan worked as they always had. After a brief marriage that ended in his timely death from old age, Terita was a young widow who had inherited all of his wealth being as her deceased husband had no children or any other beneficiaries. He had loved her and would have left her everything even if he had had children. However, her shopping addiction did not afford her any wise spending habits so she was losing money hand over first. Whereas before she had enough to last her for a lifetime, she now only had enough to last her the next five years or so. And she had no intentions of slowing down. She had to find a new donor. Dave looked as if he’d fit the part. She was no longer heralded as the youngest bishop’s wife. To be in the elite, it was not enough just to have money and nice possessions. You had to currently hold a high title or be known for your skill at a thing. Terita knew she did not want to go down in church history as the old bishop’s widow who excelled at church mime until she died old, wrinkly, broke, and alone. She figured this time that she ought not just to marry rich, but to marry rich and young. Her mistake was that she had married rich and old. And as much as that man loved her, she didn’t care that the old man had passed. She was disgusted every time he touched her. Every time she went to bed with him, she had to remind herself to do it for the money.

“Happy Birthday, Terita! So, Terita, when’s the last time you talked to Stephen?” Dave was referring to his friend, her ex. “Oh, it’s funny you ask. He sent me a happy birthday message on Facebook as soon as it was midnight.” “Oh, well that’s cool. You do know he’s single now. Things didn’t work out with that Marissa girl. She was too clingy. Called the man all day. Asking what he ate, who he was hanging out with, and all kinda questions. He had to let her go. But yeah. He asked me about you the other day,” Dave said trying to do as Stephen had asked in trying to hook them back up with each other. “That’s interesting. Marissa did seem kind of stalker-ish. But as far as I’m concerned, I’m kinda interested in another guy. No offense, but I’m kind of over him. The past is the past. Like your granddad says, ‘Out with the old, in with the new.’ I’m looking at something new.” “Oh, really? And who just might this be?” Dave inquired curiously. “You know the guy. He’s real cute,” Terita hinted. “Is it that Derek guy who’s been visiting our church lately?” “No, not him. Don’t try to guess because I’m not going to tell you who it is. Not yet. Real soon though.” Terita grinned.

Interrupting their conversation was Anthony bearing a red velvet cake with sparkling candles covered with fondant icing in the replica of a Louis Vuitton bag. She beamed from ear to ear as her wealthy friends belted out an ethnic rendition of the happy birthday song. They surrounded her as she closed her eyes and a made a wish. She only hoped Dave would cooperate in fulfilling it.

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Church Hurts: Chapter 5 – “In the Studio”

Chapter 5 – In the Studio

Nick’s expensive loafers pat down the dark corridor filled with the vibrations caused by musicians in the studio. He’s excited about laying down a track with his good friend Pete (better known by his stage name “Neophyte”). He always enjoyed Pete. They had such a close history with one another that they knew that despite their lifestyle differences, they would forever be linked. Both had the misfortune of being sent to juvenile detention in their mid-teens. Pete had been raised by the streets because of a drug-addicted mother and a dead beat father who both left him to be raised by his great grandmother. He was driven to the streets by his search for identify for a male father figure. And he found that in the form of a gang known as the Red Road Posse. After doing those things that gangsters do for years, he was eventually caught on a drug charge and sentenced to two years in juvy. This is how he met Nicholas.

Nicholas’ story was quite different. He had both of his biological parents in this life. They were still married to each other when Nicholas was imprisoned. How Nicholas was caught up was that his father had stored drugs in the car. And when the cops caught wind of it, the father convinced his young son Nick to take the charge because he wouldn’t get any jail time because of his age and clean record. Unfortunately, things did not go as planned. And Nick the pretty, church boy was not cut out for jail.

Because of their small physique, good lucks, and “good hair”, both Pete and Nicholas were easy and obvious targets for the more hardened of the juvy boys and guards. Pete who had already been a victim of sexual abuse at the hands of his uncle who also lived with his great grandmother, felt compassion for Nicholas and would often sacrifice himself to get Nicholas a night off. While fighting the men off of Nick, he gave Nick time to run off, but sometimes he would eventually be overcome by the bigger guys. He only did for Nick what he wished someone had done for him. For that Nick was forever indebted. There was nothing Nick would not do for his friend Pete. And now, they were both out. And both had a passion for Christian music.

“Hey, man! Whassup, Nick! You late as usual. You know studio time is money!” exclaims Pete to Nicholas as they exchanged daps and chest hugs. “Ah, man. You how I do. I got to stay fine for the ladies. Had to get some extra mirror time to keep your great grandma interested.” “Dude, please. I’m just as handsome, and I got here early. Come on in. I got some friends I want you to meet.”

Nick is introduced to three of Pete’s rapper buddies. They didn’t seem to detect his “gayness” much to his relief. He made sure he made a comment about sexy ladies to throw the men off his trail in case they had caught a whiff.

Lastly, Nick is introduced to a quiet man sitting in the corner. He walks up to Nick to introduce himself as a talent seeker of a well-known gospel recording label. He’s a middle-aged man who is only a little less dressed up than Nick. Could this be his big shot?

Nick had dreamt of being signed to a label for as long as he had been singing for the church. He knew he was talented and had the “right look”, but it was unreal to see his chance right before him. Within the hour, he might be able to convince this man to sign them or forget them. This man could crush or fulfill his recording artist dreams.

Hey there, Nicholas. I was invited by Pete here. He sent me some videos of you two’s work a few months back and I finally got a chance to stop by from Atlanta. I think you guys are sitting on something great here. I’m sure you won’t mind if I sit in during a recording.

Nick tries to maintain his composure. He knew that when he got giddy, he lost a lot of his masculinity. He managed to muster out a, “Yeah. Sure, man. That won’t be a problem. And you can call me Nick.”

Nick called Pete out into the hallway for some privacy. He gives Pete a bear hug. “Man, this is awesome! How did you manage to…So when did you…This is huge! So which song do you think we should do for him?” “It needs to be something that showcases my lyrical genius and your range and runs, Nick rambles excitedly.” “Exactly what I was thinking. What about “When God Says It’s Time”? That one has equal rapping and singing parts that way neither of us seems like a ball hog.” “Mane, I don’t even care! I just want a chance to get in that booth and show this man what we got!”

After the two friends calmed down, they walked back into the room cool and collected. Nick’ began by singing: “When God says it’s time, you better get on the move. When God says speak, you better tune up soon. God has a tight schedule, and you got to do what he says. God’s not playing, you’ve got to do what He says. When God says jump, the heights can’t be an excuse. When God says pray, you better ask for whom. When God says preach, you better decree and declare that the word of God is a seed that will bear…”

Nick was very pleased with how it went. He didn’t skip a beat or hit a bad note. His runs and range were on point. And Pete was equally impressive, his hip-hop rhymes serving as a refreshing contrast to the song.

After the song was being recorded, the label’s representative smiled at them while nodding. “I’m very impressed. You guys definitely have a spark. I will run your music by some of the partners at the label. I’ll be in contact. Neophyte and Nicholas. I mean Nick. I like that.” “Actually,” interrupted Nick, “that’ll be Neophyte and Nea Zoi. New Growth and New Life.”

Nick walked out of the studio feeling like a million bucks. From the looks of it, God was going to fulfill His promise to him. As he walked to his car, he checked his phone. There were two new texts and one voicemail. The first text was from Terita. She was inviting him to her birthday party this Friday. He turned his nose up at the invite. How dare she invite him as if they were friends when she was blackmailing him. She’d probably ask him for money at the party. He quickly text her that he had already made plans for that night. The second text was from his mother. She was new to text messages and had managed to type out a brief text which read, “love you”. He smiled. The voicemail was from Judd. His heart sank. How he was supposed to go on to New Life if he hadn’t yet closed the door to his past? The voicemail said, “Hey, lady. Just thinking about you. I hope you haven’t changed your feelings for me since we last met at the church. God bless.” Judd would leave voicemails addressed to the unnamed “lady” just in case anyone was eavesdropping or got a hold to Nick’s phone. The voicemail immediately stripped Nick of his newfound joy. He knew he had to obey God. He had to heed the warning of the song he had just recorded with Neophyte. He knew that he must do what God asks “when God says it’s time”. He just needed to pray for God to give him the strength he needed to do and follow through. And a move to Atlanta near the recording company might be just what he needed to cut ties with his old life.

Church Hurts: Chapter 4 – “Choir Director”

Chapter 4 – Choir Director

The door clicks behind them.

The choir director quickly locks the door. “Hey, Mr. Judd. You had me down there playing that piano for forever!” “Sorry. I had to handle something. You know that Terita girl came by here again asking for more money,” Judd said with disgust. “I thought you said you were going to handle that one,” Nick said. “Now, Nick, you know it’s not that easy. She knows too much. She could blow our whole cover. It’s imperative that we keep our business between us, her, and God.”

By business, he was referring to their undercover relationship. It had been going on for the past three years. Judd had accidentally sent a text meant for Nick to Terita. And ever since then, she would stop by his office to ask for favors, only they knew the favors were not optional. If he did not comply with her requests, it could mean the end of all their dreams.

“But Judd, you know that every time she comes by, she asks for more than the last time. We have to put an end to this once and for all,” Nick reminded him. “I know, I know. That’s why I’m working on something. I have a plan. You know she’s accustomed to nice things. And right now, the only option she has is to blackmail us. But if we can find her a new supplier, she’ll have a new host to leach off of. She has her eye on one person who should be able to have her set for life,” Judd replied. “And who is that? One of your bishop buddies?” “No, even better. He’s right under our noses. She’s really interested in the youth pastor. She knows he’s sitting on a gold mine. His grandfather is loaded. And with his health deteriorating like it is, he and his mother will be the sole beneficiaries of his estate,” Judd informed Nick. “Is that so? So how quickly do you think we can enact this plan?” “Sooner than you think,” Judd replied.

Judd was referring to the birthday party Terita was throwing for herself. He suggested to Terita that she invite him to a small get-together with a few of her closest friends. And then she could launch Plan B. They were both confident in her abilities. Terita was quite the seductress when she had her mind on it. She would have tried to seduce Judd, but she found out via the text that she was probably not his type. Although Judd was known back in the days B.C. for “getting around” with the ladies, Terita saw that it was likely only a cover in case any questions arose about his attraction to men. And if Terita’s skills could not trap Dave, there was always Plan C.

“Hey, Judd. There’s something else I wanted to talk to you about,” Nick said with downcast eyes. “Well, two things actually. One reason I asked about how you were going to permanently silence Terita was because I don’t want any leaked information to have a negative impact on my career in the ministry.” “Don’t worry about that, Nick. I said I have this under control,” Judd tried to reassure his lover. “I’m just saying. I start recording in the studio next week to lay down the single for this album me and my group have been working on. The last thing I need is a rumor like this bringing me down,” Nick stressed. “I totally understand. You know I have just as much riding on this as you do. You have your hopes of being a famous gospel artist, and I have hopes of being a jurisdictional bishop. If this stuff gets out, if she forwards that text to anybody, we’re both ruined. And we’ve both worked so hard for this.”

Hanging his head even lower, Nick continues on, “But that’s not the only thing I’m concerned about. You know how pastor has been preaching this series on our bodies being the temple of God and everything…” “Yeah, the series has been great. What’s your point?” Judd asked oblivious to the point Nick was trying to make. “Well, you know, I mean, I, I, I’ve been feeling conviction,” Nick stuttered. “Conviction about what?” Judd asked ignorantly. “Well, you know. I’ve been feeling conviction about this. About us.” “What about this? What about us,” Judd pushed. “Come on, Judd. You know I care about you. A lot. But you don’t ever feel weird about what we do?” “Not at all,” Judd replied to Nick’s surprise. “You mean, you never feel weird about being with a man when our denomination speaks so strongly about same-sex relationships? And especially after this series the pastor’s been speaking on? He made the scriptures so plain to me. I mean, I’ve heard all the verses before, but for some reason, this past month, it’s been really getting to me.” “So what are you trying to say, Nick?” “I’m trying to say that maybe we should see about ending this,” Nick said to Judd’s dismay. “Ending this? We’ve been doing this for three years now. Why stop now? If it was so wrong to do, why hasn’t God struck us down dead yet? How come every time you play the piano or sing, people still get delivered? How come every time I preach or teach, people come to the altar to get saved? If it was so wrong, how come God is still using us so mightily in the ministry?”

“Judd, I wonder about those same things. But you know how pastor always says the gifts of God come without repentance. Maybe God is just using us for our gifts. Or maybe God is just being gracious to us. Maybe He’s just giving us a chance before we get exposed. Just like with that Bishop in Atlanta. I’m sure God gave him many chances to repent, but he just wouldn’t. And the rest is history. I don’t want that to be us. I care about you ” “Nick, don’t worry about that stuff. Haven’t you ever read in the bible that God is love? And sex is God’s gift for mankind to express their love for each other. All we are doing is expressing our love for one another,” Judd said defensively. “But, Judd, you don’t even feel a bit of guilt. I mean you even have our bed in your office in the church! I just don’t know, Judd. I have a lot of thinking to do.” But Nick had already made up his mind. This had to end. Judd had been there for him through so much, so he felt bad about just dropped him as the bad habit that he was. But it was hard for him to continue living in something that he felt bad about. There was a time when it didn’t bother him to mess with men in the church because he had ignored that little voice in his head telling him it was wrong. But lately, God had been dealing with him about it. And so many of his friends had been getting sick and dying. All those things kept pushing him in another direction.

Nick unlocks the door and walks down the corridor to his BMW that Judd had purchased him earlier that year. And it was likely bought with the money of the parishioners who trusted in him to practice what he preached and to put their money to good purposes. But Nick didn’t think of them as gullible sheeple because Judd was just that convincing. He could tell you white was black and have you broadcasting to their world the same. I mean, Judd was right about some things. Wasn’t God love? Was there any doubt of the love Judd and him had for each other? He drove off into the sunset towards his expensive downtown loft also funded by Judd.

It was a long ride up the elevator to his top story apartment which overlooked the river. It was such a beautiful view. However, the way he earned it just felt so wrong. He had to engage in behavior that disgusted him in order to attain it. He had received a prophecy as a young boy that God was going to use him in a mighty way to bless others across the nation, and that he would also bless him with the lifestyle that he desired. God couldn’t have meant for this to be the way that he would acquired these things. Was this God’s will for Him? For him to give his temple to a power-hungry pastor who was living a lie? Sure Judd had been better to him than all the other men Nick had been with, but somehow he still knew it was wrong.

He set down his Louis Vuitton briefcase on his hardwood floors. He locked the door behind him. He walked solemnly to his master bedroom to get undressed. Then he ran his bathwater. He felt his emotions bubbling up within him. He got into the tub and scrubbed at his skin until it hurt. He scrubbed so hard to the point that he stopped just before it got raw. He would scrub until he felt clean. Just the thought of all of those men’s hands touching over his body made him feel filthy. Then the tears came pouring down onto his petite body eventually blending into the bathwater.

He couldn’t find the words to say so he just moaned. There were no new words that he could say. He had already had this conversation with God a hundred times. He would feel disgusted. He would feel dirty. He would repent. He would feel sorry. He would feel sinful. He would feel unforgivable. He felt as if it was no way in the world Jesus would have gotten on that cross for a man like him. He engaged in the same sin night after night in the church. There was no way God could forgive him. There was no way Christ would have died for homosexuals. So he just cried and moaned and scrubbed.

Church Hurts: Chapter 3 – “New Membership Orientation”

Chapter 3 – Church Orientation

Sarah is jolted from her heavy sleep with the jarring blasts from her alarm clock. The glowing red 11:10 am makes her roll her eyes. She extends her right arm to slam her palm on the snooze button as her face collapses back onto her pillow. Ten minutes later, with eyes still closed, her fingers crawl over the nightstand to search for the snooze button again. She repeats the process again ten minutes later.

Sarah looks up at the alarm clock and turns it off this time. Those extra 30 minutes gave her just what she needed to peel herself off of her cushy bed onto her feet. She reaches for her glasses and slips her feet into her slippers.

She rubs her twists as she trudges to the bathroom and looks in the mirror. Her hair was flat on one side as usual after a long night of sleeping on her right side. She had the raccoon look that accompanies sleeping in one’s eye-liner and mascara. She finishes her morning routine and heads out the door to the New Membership Orientation. She really had enjoyed the church service and knew she needed to join a church in order to stay out of trouble. She wouldn’t stay accountable otherwise. Her roommate was encouraging her to stay in sin, so hopefully this church, and in particular this cute youth pastor, could help her spirituality. She couldn’t help but smile a little when she thought about running into Dave again. She also wondered if Paul would be there too. She had been thinking about them two all week at work. Which of the two, if either, would God hook her up with? She said a quick prayer over the day hoping that God would move things in her favor.

When she pulls up onto the parking lot, she sees only seven cars there. The new Land Rover must have been Dave’s. She figured he must have come from money since his grandfather had enough clout to have James Tapp throw a half-priced concert in Memphis. Not to mention he appeared to wear expensive clothes from Lacoste and J. Crew. She pulled her black sedan three parking spaces down from his. Something about parking right beside his jeep made her feel a little insecure.

She looked through the glass double-doors when she saw they were locked. It was dark inside. Then she figured the new membership class must be in the smaller trailer building nearby. No need to open the entire sanctuary for a meeting between less than a dozen people.

She walked crossed the parking lot and went up the stairs to the trailer. The door was slightly ajar and she could hear voices within. She tip-toed in self-consciously even though she was only five minutes late. Apparently, this church didn’t get the memo about CP (colored people) time. The chairs were around a rectangular table with sets of paper in front of each chair. The instructor was Paul. Apparently, he was the Outreach Minister. He looked Sarah in the eye, smiled at her, and told her to have a seat. The only available seat was right beside him. “I wasn’t expecting you to be here. Sarah, right?” He pulled her chair out for her. As she looped her jacket and purse on the back of her chair, she caught a whiff of his faint aftershave. Or maybe it was deodorant. All she knew was that it smelled good. “Yeah, I decided to go ahead and join. I had a week to pray over it,” Sarah replied. The other people at the table greeted her with smiles and waves.

Paul makes everyone reintroduce themselves for her sake and then asks her to introduce herself. The lady to her left slides her a sign-in sheet and a pen to sign in with her name, phone number, and email address. Paul then began to go over the New Membership Orientation PowerPoint print-out. An hour later, the class was concluded with each new member signing their name on their membership card and selecting which ministries they thought they might like to participate in. Because Sarah was still in her twenties, she was automatically expected to sign up for the Young Adult ministry which interested her more-so because she knew Dave was over it rather than because she would get to meet other young people her age. She also was interested in outreach which was what she was in charge of at her last church. Something about ministering to the least, the most hurting, the lost appealed to Sarah. She had helped her last church to build quite a successful outreach ministry. They made weekly appearances at the downtown homeless shelters to minister spiritually – and nutritionally – to the men and women there. They also had been working on plans to visit the teens in juvy before Sarah had to leave the church. After she had left there, she had not done anything with a church. Seemed to her like getting involved in church always resulted in hurts. While she loved people, she wasn’t interested in making new friends at church. Her and Denise had followed the motto – NNF no new friends. From elementary school up until college, they had kept the same group of friends and weren’t taking auditions for more.

Before Sarah could make her typical bolt to the door to avoid meeting the other new members, she heard Paul call her name. Her heart skipped a little. Paul looked at her with his green eyes and engaged her in conversation. “So I see you signed up for outreach. That means you’ll be working real closely with me.” “I guess so,” Sarah said. She tried unsuccessfully to stifle a smile. Something about the way he said “with me”, was charming. Paul continued, “So what experience do you have with outreach?” Sarah replied by telling him how she had been the outreach coordinator at her past church. Paul raised his eyebrows apparently impressed. “Oh that’s great! That’s just what we need. I’ve been praying for someone to help me with this. I’ve been trying to begin some new ventures. I’ve even been seeking God about doing a short-term missionary trip later this year.” Sarah smiled within herself at the prospect of going on an overseas trip with this green-eyed cutie. Her straying thoughts were put on pause when she heard the creaking of the trailer door behind her. It was Dave. Her heart skipped another beat.

He greeted all of the new members and walked over to Paul to ask for a key. When Dave recognized Sarah standing there, he gave her a side hug keeping his left arm draped over her small shoulders afterwards. Sarah blushed a little. She noticed an awkward shuffling of Paul’s feet which made her equally nervous. She liked Dave’s arm around her shoulders, but she disliked how it seemed to be making Paul feel. Paul pulled his keys out of his back pocket and singled out a key which he handed to Dave.

Dave, trying to buy more time with Sarah, turned towards Sarah and asks her if she’s seen the entire church. She tells him she has not, but that she has noticed the renovations. He tells her that they were due to the church growth they had been experiencing over the past few years. Their choir had grown, and they had began streaming live on the internet which would explain the choir steps, the camera, and perhaps also the cosmetic addition of the pillars in the pulpit. He invites her to come along for a quick tour to see the rest of the building. She obliges but not before shaking Paul’s and telling him bye. He tells her he’ll contact her about doing some outreach planning sometime next week. He turns away to say farewell to the other new members.

Dave opens the door to the trailer for Sarah and then leads Sarah to the main church building through a side door that he unlocks. She could hear the pianist practicing perhaps for church service tomorrow. Dave gives her a quick walk-through of the church. He stops by a dozen doors or so to let her know where different classes are conducted and where the different offices are. She excused herself to the restroom before he could conclude his tour. He told her that while she was in there, he would go get what he needed so that he could return Paul’s keys.

She closes the door and after a few seconds flushes the toilet and then turns on the faucet. She didn’t really have to use the restroom, she just needed a place to freshen up. For some reason, Dave made her anxious. She reapplies her deodorant and lip chap. She was annoyed to see that a few locks of her hair were sticking straight up and had probably been sticking up even in front of Paul. Something about people made them think it was okay not to tell women with natural hair when their hair was sticking up. Natural hair did not have to mean messy hair. She reaches into her purse to get a bobby pin to control the unruly hair. She spritzes herself with a few pumps of her Curve Crush perfume before she turns off the faucet to feign washing her hands after feigning using the toilet just in case he was listening outside.

She swung open the door anxious to get back to the tour – back to Dave. Then she halted. She hears a familiar voice. She peeks slowly out of the door down the hall to the left and sees that the door Dave pointed out to her that was labeled “Associate Pastor/Treasurer” is now slightly cracked open. Inside, she can see a sliver of “Miss Louboutin” who she remembered seeing in the restroom at the concert. What was she doing here? Was she a member here also? Louboutin stepped out of view and then Sarah saw a sliver of the man who had raised the offering. His deep voice reverberated down the hall. Sarah knew she couldn’t stay in the restroom forever; she didn’t want Dave to think she was doing Number Two. But she also didn’t want to have to face the girl that Denise had Febreezed just a week ago. She would no doubt remember how Denise and her had laughed at her and her friends on their way out of the restroom. However, Sarah was not as brave without her roomie by her side.

Sarah braves up and leaves the restroom. She sees Dave heading towards her from her right and she sees Louboutin leaving the Associate Pastor’s office on her left. They both reach her just outside the restroom doors at the same time. Louboutin quickly looks Sarah up and down just as Dave puts his hand on Sarah’s left shoulder. Dave says, “Hey, Terita! What are you doing here?” “Oh, just running some errands.” Dave then introduces Terita to Sarah to which Terita shakes her head, furrows her eyebrows, and replies, “What is it with you and me and church bathrooms?” Dave has a puzzled look on his face. Terita puts her hand on Sarah’s left arm, laughs, and says, “Girl, I’m just kidding. So what are y’all doing lurking in the halls in the dark?” Dave responds, “I was just giving her a tour of the church. She just joined our church. I want her to feel at home here.” “Is that so,” Terita inquires. “Hey, did you get my text this morning?” “Yeah, I got it. I haven’t had a chance to reply yet,” Dave answered. “Well you got time to show Sally here around the church,” Terita teased, intentionally calling Sarah the wrong name. “It’s Sarah. S-A-R-A-H,” Sarah corrected with a smirk. Dave, noticing the tension, ends the conversation abruptly and tells Terita he’ll reply sometime later today.

Dave tells Sarah there are two more offices she has to visit before she can leave. He takes her by the associate pastor’s office. He knocks lightly on the door until he hears, “Come on in.” Sarah and Dave enter. Sarah immediately notices the ornate, large oak furniture. He had two 17th century style chairs facing the front of his desk. He was reclined in his cushy office chair with an open MacBook laptop illuminating his face. He had plush carpet that her feet sank into as she stepped onto it. After typing a few more keys, he closes the Mac, removes his eyeglasses, and leaves from behind his desk to approach them. “There’s someone I want you to meet. Her name is Sarah. She just joined. I was just giving her a tour of the place.”

Sarah extends her hand for his. He reaches out and gives her a firm handshake. His hands were strong, but his skin felt soft and a little damp. He squeezed her hand tightly so much so that she could feel his large gold rings pressing up against her tiny bones. It hurt just a little. He held her gaze steadily as he flashed his white veneers. He had obviously processed his hair, and Sarah was impressed that even at his age, he had his full hairline. He seemed the type to get hair plugs had his hair thinned. His expensive, overpowering cologne flooded Sarah’s nostrils. He wore a double-breasted suit and alligator shoes. It was obvious that this man worked out.

“Hey, pretty lady. We’re glad to have you as part of the Deliverance family. You look so familiar. Which high school do you attend?” “Actually, I’m 27, sir,” Sarah corrected him. “Well, it’s a blessing to look so young. Your size probably makes you look younger too. Most women in the late twenties start to swell if you know what I mean.” He chuckles. Sarah laughs nervously. Dave looks off to his left. “Well, it’s nice to meet you, pretty lady. I must get back to work. A pastor’s work is never done. I’m working out this budget. I’ll see you around.”

Dave opens the door behind them to escort Sarah out. Just before she leaves, she glances behind her. She had only looked to the left side of the office, but she didn’t have a chance to see the right side. In the back corner, she sees what looks like a twin-sized bed. Dave notices her looking. “I see you eyeing that bed. It’s strange, huh? Pastor Judd works so late at church sometimes that he just spends the night in his office. He lives across town and decided it would be more convenient to just stay here at times.”

Sarah dismisses it as Dave leads her into his office. His desk is strewn with YPWW booklets, teen study bibles, and worksheets. He has an open closet of blazers and dress shirts against the back wall. She notices a copy of James’ Tapp and Lecrae’s CDs on his desk.

“This is the end of the tour, ma’am. Please excuse my office. I’ve just been so busy I haven’t had time to straighten up. I’m not the neatest person. I guess being raised up with a nanny will do that to you. But yep, this is my office for now.” “For now?” Sarah asks for elaboration. “Yeah, my mom says it’s time for me to upgrade. She says God has greater for me.” “What does she have in mind?” “Well, my grandfather – her father – founded this church. When my parents married, my grandfather gave the church to my dad. But when they divorced, my mom and granddad decided the church had began a new era and that it needed a fresh face as pastor. They say my dad’s time is nearing an end. They said the word for this year is, “Out With the Old, In With the New”. I don’t know how I feel about that. I agree that greater is coming, but I don’t know if I’m ready yet.” “Wow. That is a lot of pressure. Paul said this is a thousand-member church. I know I couldn’t pastor that many people at my age,” Sarah said. “I mean, I’ve practically been groomed for birth to take over at some point, so I’m not scared. It’s just that it feels weird to replace my dad,” Dave “Yeah, I can see how that would feel weird,” Sarah sympathized.

Dave reclines in his chair and intertwines his fingers, “So enough about me, tell me about yourself. You seem so reserved. I want to know a little about you,” Dave said. “Well, what do you want to know? There’s a lot about me. I don’t know where to begin. That’s something you just have to find out over time. I’m a woman with many secrets,” Sarah teases. Dave smiles. He stands up, “Well, I guess I’ll just have to stick around to find out. Come on, let’s get out of here.” He puts his hand on the small of her back walking her towards the hall which sent a chill through her body. He had to have known that would happen. Sarah tried to keep her composure.

As they headed out into the hallway to walk to Sarah’s car, Sarah peers to her right. She sees the choir director quietly slip into the associate pastor’s office and close the door. She furrows her eyebrows in confusion when she hears what sounds like the click of a door lock.

Church Hurts: Chapter 2 – “Gospel Concert”

Chapter 2 – Gospel Concert

The rain stops just as Sarah is leaving the drugstore parking lot to head home. Sarah pulls into the narrow driveway of her duplex. She sees her roommate’s black Camaro parked askew which forces her to squeeze her way in with the left side of the car skimming the grass. She slams her door and tip toes gingerly in the muddy grass as there was no room to walk on the gravel. “I’mma get Denise for this,” she mutters under her breath while shaking her head.

“Honey, I’m home!” she playfully exclaims to Denise. Denise is just getting out of the shower wearing her robe with a towel wrapped around her hair and piled high like a turban. She has a toothbrush wedged in her mouth as she flashes Sarah a frothy smile.

“Eww, Denise! Nasty put some clothes on! And don’t be showing me all that toothpaste in your mouth!” Sarah goes on to tell Denise how much she enjoyed church. Then she proceeds to tell Denise about the two cute men she met. Denise raises her eyebrows to denote more interest. She could care less about the service, she wanted to see about getting Sarah a man. She rinses out her mouth and sits attentively on the couch for the details. “Ooh, girl! Tell me about the men. Were any chocolate?”

Sarah laughed. Well, one was. Well, not really chocolatey. He was more like was coffee. The other was light-skinned. Both were cute though. But I’m not trying to get involved in nothing right now. I’m working on me. Plus, I still have unfinished business as you know.”

“Did you get the morning-after-pill?” Denise inquired switching to a more serious face. “Yes, girl. Just in time,” Sarah replied. “Had I been 10 minutes later, it would have been a problem. A WHOLE problem. I shouldn’t have waited so late. They only give you 48 hours to take the durn thing, but I was feeling cheap. Those pills cost $40 a pop!”

“Girl, I know first hand. Those pharmacists know me on a first name basis. When they see me coming, they head back to get it. Haha! Maybe I should get on birth control.”

Sarah remarked, “Me too, but I want to be abstinent. I feel like getting birth control will serve as my license to sin.”

Denise retorted, “Girl, sex is not a sin. God made it. It’s beautiful It’s His gift to mankind.” Sarah replied, “No, it’s His gift to married people. And I don’t want to be partaking of something that’s not meant for me at this time. A gift out of time is worse than not getting a gift at all,” Sarah’s voice faded out. Denise rolled her eyes. “All I know is that if God didn’t want single people having sex, He wouldn’t given us the equipment and the know-how.”

Sarah couldn’t agree with that. She had been raised in church all of her life. Her parents had brought her up in a traditional, holiness church. Everything was a sin there. Drinking, smoking, cursing, and especially sex before marriage. Her father had even made her and her sister wear skirts as little girls because the small country church they were raised up in as children was stricter than most churches. The women were dissuaded from wearing make-up and even extensions. They didn’t even care for them to wear flashy jewelry nor arch their eyebrows. So even though things had changed in her denomination over the years and they had become more open-minded, she still felt a stinging guilt whenever she engaged in premarital sex. Her roommate had always teased her by calling her, “Saved, Single, and Having Sex” after some book they had come across in a bookstore one day. It was humorous, but it still left her feeling convicted.

But Sarah didn’t want to repeat that conversation with Denise. Denise already knew her upbringing. But furthermore, Sarah didn’t tell her the REAL reason she had waited so long to take the emergency contraceptive. It was because up until early that Sunday morning, she had thought they maybe she WANTED to get pregnant with her ex’s child. Maybe it would put an end to all that making up and breaking up. They say the first break never takes, but in her case neither had the second, the third, or the fourth. She just couldn’t get Jason out of her system. And she wasn’t sure that she wanted to. She loved him and had loved him since she was 20. But she realized early that Sunday morning, that this wasn’t a match made in heaven.

Denise interrupted her wandering thoughts by mentioning that she was going to the James Tapp gospel concert in a few hours. Sarah exclaimed, “Oh, really?! Why didn’t you tell me?! You know how much I love him.” Denise replied, “You can still come. It’s not too late. It’s gonna be a few other gospel artists performing there to.” Sarah said, “But I don’t have a ticket. Money has been tight. I had to spend the would-have-been ticket money on that pill remember? And I don’t get paid ’til next Friday.” Denise grinned and said, well you’re in luck. Charron just text me saying she couldn’t make it. Her trifling babysitter couldn’t come through. So she has to stay home and watch Trevor. So it appears I have an extra ticket for anyone who’s interested…”

Sarah gave Denise a big hug and ran upstairs to find something to wear. She’d be wearing the heels tonight. She knew that black gospel concerts doubled as fashion shows. Besides, maybe meeting some more cute men would help her to get over Jason. She raided her closet for something to wear. She was looking for something in particular. She wanted something modest, but something that would also get some male attention. At this point, she didn’t care whether it was negative or positive. Besides, she also knew that whenever you went with Denise somewhere, you had to come correct. Denise had naturally good looks. Typical to her Native American descent, she had long, flowing hair to her waist, fair skin, and high cheekbones. She was also a certified fashionista. It was hard not to be overlooked when going out with Denise. Sarah decided on the high-waisted skirt pencil skirt. The skirt accentuated her narrow waist and gave her the illusion of hips which she was not naturally blessed with. She donned a button-down white long-sleeve blouse made of chiffon. She accented it with the black, patent leather Jessica Simpson pumps with a buckle around the ankle. She applied a glittery MAC lip gloss and a thin black eyeliner to give her a simple beauty. On second thought, she decided to accent her full lips with a deep red matte lipstick. She had prided herself on being au naturel. She wasn’t much for foundation and such. She had clear skin and didn’t need it anyway, but she wore the lipstick to help her to stand out. When both roommates were done, they stepped into Denise’s sports car, inserted the newest Lecrae CD to get them in the gospel music mood, and sped off towards the concert.

***

As they neared the huge downtown church building housing the concert, they marveled at the large crowds that were heading towards the main entrance. Just as she had expected, there was fashion. Dozens of male twenty-somethings strutted about cockily dressed in narrow, well-tailored suits, bright bow-ties with matching pocket handkerchiefs, a long, curve-toed Stacy Adams. Most of the men had either well-oiled and well-brushed waves or freshly-twisted dreadlocks braided back into ponytails and buns. Likewise, the females pranced about in their Christian Louboutin look-a-likes, various assortment of fishnet stockings, and brightly-colored dresses, skirts, and blouses. Everyone was smiling as they crossed from group to group to meet up with familiar faces. The younger girls talked and laughed loudly to get the attention of the nearby huddles of young boys who were discreetly eying them.

Denise and Sarah hurriedly brushed past the crowds towards the doors with their tickets in plain view. While the others were congregating, they wanted to get good seats and to freshen their make-up. They went into the nearest women’s room which was filled with young women primping and preening themselves in the row of mirrors that lined the wall opposite of the toilets. Denise disappeared into one of the empty stalls.

The restroom was bustling with the women competing for mirror space. Of all the women three stood out in particular. They apparently had come together. One was taller than the others. She was shapely. She wore red fishnet stockings to coincide with the long red Remy extensions she had cascading down her shoulders in loose curls. She leaned over the sink in the mirror to apply some matte red lipstick. She then stood up to pull down her tight white dress. The friend to her left was a few inches shorter. She was petite, about the same size of Sarah, so she couldn’t have been over 110 lbs. She likewise wore a tight dress only it was black. She wore a red blazer with the sleeves rolled up just below her elbow. She had her hair shaved low on one side and the other side was full with wavy weave down in front of her shoulder. Unlike the women outside, she had real Louboutins. Sarah wondered if she had the money to buy them herself or if maybe she had to do a favor or two to get them. The third friend was stocky. She had thick long braids that were swept up on top of her head in a neat bun. She was the louder of the three. She had on black tights with a sheer button-down shirt that barely met the top of her tights. Beneath her shirt, you could somewhat see her bra. Sarah wondered if she should tell the lady, but something told her it was intentionally exposed. She had a cute face, but had wore so much contouring make-up it was distracting. The stocky friend playfully nudged the smallest one so that she could see the mirror to reapply her lip gloss. “Girl, move yo skinny butt out the way! You been in the mirror every since we got in here.” The small one replied, “Niecy, you don’t need a mirror to put on lip gloss as big as your lips are. I need to make sure my eyebrows are drawn on straight. The left one looks thicker than the right.” The tallest one seemed oblivious to their conversation. She was too focused on her impressive waist-to-hip ratio. She said to her two friends, “Girls, does this dress make my butt look big?” “The petite friend said, “Yup. Kim Kardashian big.” To that the tall friend smiled and said, “Perfect. Just the look I was going for. Who knows? I might meet my Kanye here tonight.” Her eyes never left her reflection in the mirror as she made different angles making pouty lips.

When Denise came out of her stall, she said excuse me to the three young ladies so that she could wash her hands. The stocky friend replied, “Excuse me,” only it was not in a polite manner. Denise shrugged her shoulders and proceeded to wash her hands. She powdered her slim nose and smoothed down her long hair. When she finished, the three stooges looked at each other and laughed. Denise, not to be outdone, grabbed a can of air freshener and asked Sarah, “Ooh, girl, do you smell that? It stinks in here!” Denise expelled an excessive amount of the air freshener high above the three women’s heads and put down the can. Her and Sarah laughed out loud as they let the bathroom door slam behind them.

Just as they claim their seats, Sarah immediately recognizes the voice of the emcee. It’s the Dave guy from church. “Look, Denise! That’s one of the dudes I was telling you about that I met at church. Ain’t he fine?!”

Dave lifts the mic off the stand and says, “Good afternoon, Saints, and welcome to our Annual Youth Day Gospel Concert! Let me hear you make some noise! Come on now. I know you all can do better than that! These men have come from all over the country to show some love for the youth of Memphis. We even have a Grammy-nominated, Stellar-award winning artist who could have been performing at sold-out concerts in L.A., Atlanta, New York, Houston, wherever, but he decided to put on a show for half the price as a favor to my grandfather and as a token of their love for the Memphis youth and young adults. Half of the proceeds will go to five lucky seniors as scholarships. And we will announce who they are after the concert, so stay until we do that. As some of you may know, I am the Youth Pastor of New Jerusalem which is located just three blocks down the street. Our church was founded by my grandfather Bishop Norris L. Hendrickson. It is currently pastored by my father Sal Hendrickson. Make sure you all come visit some time. But that’s just my plug in. But you all didn’t come to hear about me and my church, you came here to hear these gospel stars. We have a few new artists who will open for the main artist, none other than the Mr. James Sapp! So without further ado, let’s hear a loud round of applause for the first performers, the Hope Boiz!”

The huge crowd goes wild. The Hope Boiz was a new gospel rap group that had recently been shot into fame with their latest album, “From the Trap House to the Church House”. They were all very handsome men who despite their cheesy stage name were very talented. Wherever they went, the women were sure to follow. They were the best of both worlds. So many church girls wanted bad boys, but they also wanted saved boys. They wanted the badness that came with Dope Boys, but they wanted church boys too to please their parents. They dressed like thugs. They were tatted up, they wore sagging pants, and they spoke in slang. It wasn’t Sarah’s taste in men, but apparently it appealed to many other church women.

After the Hope Boiz did their most popular songs followed by a couple of new ones, a couple of other local artists sang a couple of selections. Sarah and Denise and the others were having a great time, but all were waiting anxiously for when it would be time for James Tapp to perform. The crowd went even wilder than before. James Tapp was a cool metrosexual type. He dressed like many of the men in Sarah’s denomination did. He wore a very finely tailored suit. Even from the tenth row, Sarah could see that the suit couldn’t have been less than a $2,000. Beneath the suit jacket, he wore a crisp, white and grey polka dot shirt whose cuffs and collar perfectly matched his socks. He wore diamond cuff links that glistened in the overhead stage lights. It shined just as much as his platinum and diamond wedding band. His light-skinned face was neatly shaven with a low beard and mustache. He had long dreadlocks that were gathered into a low ponytail. The locks swung back and forth as he walked the stage singing and leaving the audience in amazement and awe. Around her, Sarah could hear the men and women alike marveling at his sense of style and his smooth voice. He couldn’t hit a bad note if he was paid to. He had a range like Jessica Reedy and could hit runs like J. Moss. He performed even better than Sarah had expected. Denise and Sarah snapped away with their camera phones and made frequent picture posts on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook to their followers and friends who were unable to attend. What a great way to end what started off as such a bad day for Sarah.

After the concert had ended and the five seniors had received their scholarships, Sarah and Denise filed out into the hallway. After a few minutes, Sarah was pleasantly surprised to run into Dave. He smiled at her and gave her a hug. “Didn’t think I’d see you twice in one day,” Dave said. Sarah introduced him to her roommate, and they all talked about how much they enjoyed the concert. As they stood around people-watching, Dave excused himself. Said something about having to make a quick call to see if the limo was waiting outside for James Tapp. After confirming that it was, he put his focus back on the two roommates. He asked if he could walk them to their car. Sarah obliged. They walked into the brisk evening air just in time to see James Tapp duck into the waiting limo. He cracked his window to thank Dave. The three walked to the black Camaro, and Dave opened Sarah’s door for her and then shut her door behind her. She lowered her window to thank him again. He reminded her of the new membership class which would be this Saturday at noon if she cared to join the church. They all exchanged good-byes.

While Denise looked through her purse for her phone charger, Sarah smiled while humming some of the Hope Boiz lyrics. She looked in the side-view mirror and noticed a limousine pulling up behind them. It was James Tapp’s limo. After a few brief moments, she saw a familiar face. It was the shapely redhead she saw in the restroom. Where were her two flunkies? Sarah kept looking in the side-view mirror. After quickly looking over her shoulders, the redhead smiled mischievously as she crawled into the back of the limousine.

Church Hurts: Chapter 1 – “When Sunday Comes”

Chapter 1 – When Sunday Comes

11:15 am. Sunday

Church was the last place she wanted to be. After the weekend she had, she just wanted to roll over in her warm bed and sleep the day away. But custom won over comfort. Sloppy rain patters on the windshield of her candy red 1999 Volvo C70 as she pulls up onto the nearly packed, gravel parking lot. She is quickly approached by two men in bright orange vests carrying wide black umbrellas directing her towards the rear in an adjacent field. She is so glad she wore her flats. It had been a rainy weekend, and the soil would be a puddled mess for her had she worn her pumps. Although, she’d rather be in bed, she hated coming to church late. It would likely mean she’d have to sit in the back pews stretching her neck to see the pulpit over the tall men and high hats. Maybe she’d luck out and get a good seat being that she had come to church alone. It shouldn’t be too hard for the ushers to find a seat for her towards the front. Besides, she had heard that it was good for TV for the pretty, young women to sit up front nearest the video cameras. But she felt nothing like pretty on a day like today.

With her skinny legs dangling out the driver’s side, she leans over the driver’s seat to snatch up her bible from the passenger seat door and leans up to swing her oversized bag over her petite shoulder. She slams her door shut as she quickly deploys her umbrella. She briskly trots toward the church building already feeling the vibrations of the music. The praise and worship team was likely already up at this time. Maybe it was a good thing, she was coming late. That would mean less focus on her from the church mothers who lined up the front row. She flashes a quick smile at the two, portly ushers posted at the double doors leading into the sanctuary as she dips into the ladies’ room. She bends to look for feet under the three stalls. Good. It was empty.

She puts her purse on the wet sink counter just before she yanks up her sagging pantyhose and straightens her slip. She finger-combs through her short coils and reapplied her lip gloss and headed into the sanctuary. Then she pauses. Her eyes are bloodshot and a little puffy. She forces a fake smile to go and face the crowd in the church. No one cares if you’re sad, so you might as well be glad.

The usher to her right greets her and enthusiastically stuffs a church bulletin program wrapping an offering envelope into her fingers while gently guiding her towards the usher who would seat her. The tall, middle-aged woman smiles gingerly at her and asks if she wouldn’t mind sitting up front. She raises her eyebrows and shakes her head to eagerly denote a yes. She was sat behind the deacon board whose deacons were seated in the front row opposite of the mother board. She is sat between a cute baby and his mother and two sleepy teenagers who apparently were not impressed with the service.

She sets down her purse, umbrella, and trench coat under her pew as she rises to her feet. She looks around to get a quick survey of the place. It had been so long since she had last visited. She had stopped by a few times about three years ago after she had graduated from college nearby. There had been a revival that her roommate had invited her to. Then she visited a couple of more times afterwards. They had since remodeled. A couple of pillars were added in the pulpit. A video camera was placed in the back. A few steps were added to serve as the choir stand. Same plush, violet carpet, same wooden benches with purple cushions, and same satin purple curtains along the back wall. Deliverance Temple Holiness Church was on display behind the praise and worship team in gold, glittery letters.

After a few more minutes of praise and worship, the praise and worship team recede into the choir stand as the choir members leave their seats in the pews to gather to sing a few selections. The announcements are pronounced by a brightly adorned lady in a wide-brimmed hat as the choir members are stationed into their respective places as sopranos, altos, and tenors. It was obvious that the choir had doubled in size from when she had last visited. As was customary for their denomination, the choir sang a fast song followed by a slow song. The slow song was to set the mood for when the pastor would pray and begin his homily. It felt good to get back into the swing of things. It felt to be back in the presence of the Saints. She said a quick prayer for God to let the sermon be what she needed.

After the pastor preached what he referred to as the last installment of his three-week series on deliverance, he said he felt led to pray for people. She too had found herself being pushed along the warm bodies and weeping faces flooding the altar for prayer. She wondered what all the people had come for prayer about. They were asked to lift their hands and to lower their heads in prayer while they awaited an olive-oily touch from the pastor, but Sarah couldn’t help but discreetly peek around to see who was up there. In front of her to the left was a young man likely in his late twenties who had his hands lifted as he rocked back and forth from his left foot to his right. He had a pained expression on his face. Maybe he had an issue with a court case. He looked like he might frequent the streets. Maybe he was facing serious jail time? Immediately to her right was a little girl who looked about curiously at what was going on around her. Sarah figured she had just came along with her mother. Behind her was a lady who was sobbing uncontrollably. Sarah noticed a small, gold ring on her left ring finger. A small group of church missionaries surrounded her while whispering in her ear. Sarah wondered if maybe she had marital issues. Or maybe she had a wayward son. Or maybe she had received a bad doctor’s report. She felt a pang of guilt for trying to judge people’s issues and decided it was best for her to just bow her head and focus on what she needed God to do for her. There was that unresolved issue with her ex. She closed her eyes and braced herself for when the heavy-handed preacher would slap his greased palm onto her forehead.

After the pastor briefly prayed for her, she returned to her seat to look at her phone. It was now 1:47 pm. Service had run much longer than she had expected. The lean, somber deacons took their place holding deep buckets to receive the tithes and offerings. As the ushers began to walk the aisles to disburse envelopes to the late comers who had slid past them earlier, a handsome man in his early fifties of middle muscular build approached the microphone with a charming grin. He either had good hair or a kit which allowed him to part his hair on the left and slick it down on the sides. His smile revealed a row of white, neat teeth. She stifled a giggle and figured he was supposed to be the man people could trust to sell them dreams. He was well-dressed, he looked educated, and he looked healthy. Who better to trust to raise a good offering? She looked down and thought, “But how can you sell dreams to someone who’s experienced nightmares?”

“Saints, it is time for the most important segment of this service. It is time for the ministry of giving.” The crowd applauded perhaps as they had been coached to do. “As most of you know, I serve as both the associate pastor and the treasurer of this here church. I know of every penny that comes in and leaves out. I assure you that you are sowing into good ground. I’m sure if we were to search the scriptures of the New Testament, we would find that 90% of what we read about Jesus pertained to His giving. Now how can we claim that we are Christians when we hate to give?” A few women in the church gave a hefty amen. “Please extend your hands. Raise them high, and an usher will serve you. Quickly, ushers! I see two hands in the back. Keep those hands raised, Saints. You don’t want to miss out on this part of the service!”

The ushers rushed to lower the waving hands with white and purple envelopes. She pulled a folded $5 bill out of her wallet and stuffed it into the envelope. She chuckled to herself when the teens beside her searched their pockets for loose change to put into envelopes while borrowing a pen to write $10 on the envelope. When offering time was over, Sarah anxiously checked her clock again. It was 2:05 pm. She grabbed her things and made a B-line for the door. She had only 40 minutes left before it would be too late.

On her way out, she bumped into two men knocking her umbrella and Bible onto the hallway floor. Both were about her age in their mid-to-late twenties. Both were handsome. “Whoa, slow down! We’re not going to raise another offering,” joked the taller one. He was brown-skinned with a wide, pretty grin. He bent over to pick up her things and handed them slowly to her. My name is Paul. What’s your name?” She laughed a little embarrassed. “Sorry,” she muttered. “I’m kind of in a hurry. My name is Sarah.” “Sarah, like Abraham’s beautiful wife?” “Yea, like that,” she said. The other guy asked, “I’ve not seen you around here before. I’m Dave. Are you a first time visitor?” “No, I’ve visited a few times before,” she replied. “Well, don’t be a stranger. Come back next Sunday.” This second guy was light-skinned with dreadlocks to his shoulders. He had on a plaid shirt and was a little muscular. He looked her in the eye for a brief second before they both looked away. “Okay, I’ll try,” she said. “Naw, don’t try. We want to see you again, alright?” “Okay, Paul and Dave. Bye.”

She grinned as she trotted to her car and sped away to the nearest pharmacist two blocks from the church. Both men were really cute. But she could not think about them right now. Not until she took care of business. There would be no dating if she did not get this done now. She warily looked about the parking lot to see if she could see any familiar faces. Good. No one she knew was there. She quietly asked the pharmacist for what she needed. She was relieved the pharmacist hadn’t looked at her with judgmental eyes. It was obvious that she had just come from church, and here she was asking for these pills. She slid the exact change over the counter; she knew exactly how much it would cost. She had never used her credit card for these kind of purchases. She had always feared that maybe some day, some one would trace the pills to her charge card. If she used cash, it would be more confidential. Sarah rolled the bag up three times to hide any words from the prescription box. She stopped by the front counter to purchase a bottle of water and sat in her car. As many times as she had used this product, she always carefully read the instructions as to avoid any mistakes. As expensive as this pill was, she just couldn’t take any chances taking it the wrong way. There were only 10 minutes left before the pill would be rendered ineffective. She popped the emergency contraceptive, swallowed a gulp of water, and threw the receipt and box in the garbage can before releasing an all too common sigh of relief. Now she could go back to bed.

Wise Soulwinning 101: Marketing “Jesus as the Product”

It was T.D. Jakes who said the controversial statement, “I think that Jesus is the product.” When I first heard this, I was horribly offended. I said, “How DARE he reduce the Savior of the World to a mere marketable product?” But after receiving insight from God about “soul winning” the other day, I can now see that at least in SOME sense, Jakes made some sense.

I learned in middle school that in opening and operating a business, people are either offering a product or a service. College, for example, offers a service of educating people for the price of tuition. Starbucks, for example, sells a product – coffee – for cash. So if Jakes is right about his statement, then Christianity/ministry would be the service provided; and Jesus would be the “product” (for lack of a better term).

In marketing classes, I learned and remembered a thing or two. One thing I learned is about target audiences and advertisements. I learned that your ads and commercials must be tailor-made to appeal to your target audience. For example, if you are selling Gerber baby food, you are likely and mostly targeting caring mothers who have infants. And your commercials will be specifically made to appeal to these mothers. And you will have a marketing team that will spend much time and money making commercials that will grab the attention of and secure the business of these parents by strongly persuading them to buy Gerber food for their baby for as long as the baby will need it. And if you advertise just right, the mother will only buy Gerber food, and she will buy it not just for the baby she has now but for all babies she births in the future. Now that’s what you call “sealing the deal”.

So how can we relate that to Christianity? Well, just think of the churches you see that are publicized on radio and television. They are usually one of many church programs you see on the channel or station. And the pastor or one of his or her spokespersons will say and do specific things to appeal to you. They may say something to the effect of:

  1. “Not too many churches preach and teach the unadulterated word of God anymore. They compromise to fit in with the rest of the world. Give me that old time religion; it’s good enough for me….”
  2. “Too many churches are legalistic and judgmental. They give you a list of Do’s and Don’ts to put you in right      standing with God. But here, we love and accept everybody – just like Jesus does. Everyone is welcome….”
  3. “Are you tired of church as usual? Well, this isn’t your grandma’s church! This is the church home of many of this      city’s youth who are looking for a fresh perspective and relationship with Jesus. It’s time out for dry, dead services. There are no little u’s (you’s) and Big I’s here….”

And before and after they air their services, they will usually petition you to visit or join their church and/or to send financial donations.

Does that not sound JUST like marketing? You can tell that they each have a target audience in mind that they are petitioning. They are trying to appeal to a specific type of Christian or unbeliever by telling them what they want to hear so that they will come visit, join, and or financially support that church. You can probably guess from my abovementioned examples the type of people the three churches are appealing to. The first church is appealing to a stricter, older crowd. The second church MAY be appealing to backsliders or “lukewarm Saints”. The third church is likely appealing to a young, hip generation. Every church appeals to a target audience.

But when it comes to Christianity on a larger scale – and more specifically – soul winning, what are the best marketing strategies? Here is what I’ve learned about drawing in unbelievers to lead them to salvation. Here’s what I learned of what does and does not work in “Evangelism Marketing”.

1. You can’t present a product or service in only ONE package and then expect it to appeal to everyone or expect for everyone to respond favorably to it.

Jude 1:22-23 – And have mercy on (1) those who doubt; save (2) others by snatching them out of the fire; to (3) others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh.

From the looks of Jude 1:22-23, there appears to be different types of unbelievers or backsliders. One type are doubters. They just need assurance of the gospel’s validity, security of what Christians are saying, and strengthening of their faith. With these types, we shouldn’t bash them over their head with a bible. We shouldn’t utilize scare tactics to get them to get saved. We shouldn’t scream at them and call them damned heathens. They simply need a lot of questions answered. They have some questions that they need answered and settled. They might have just left another religion or a cult. They may really want to know why they should become Christians as opposed to Hindus, Buddhists, or Muslims. So if you apply the wrong “treatment” to their condition, you can have lost them forever.

The second type needs to be snatched quickly off of the wrong path because they are on their way to eternal fire either certainly or soon. The third possible type needs to be showered with mercy, but fearful mercy. And with this type we shouldn’t be lackadaisical about their lost condition, but we are to ABHOR, HATE, DETEST that they have been contaminated by lustful, sinful flesh.

While the gospel should not be altered to cater to everyone’s fancy, wisdom knows that everybody doesn’t like – and therefore won’t always respond to – every presentation. Not everyone responds to hellfire and brimstone messages. Does that mean that preachers should never tell the truth about the harsh and horrorshow realities of hell? Absolutely not. But I do believe that brimstone sermons – at least when overdone – will cause churches and preachers to lose (sometimes permanently) the attention of SOME people.

Some people don’t respond to scare tactics. You have to KNOW your “consumers”. Study them. See what pushes their buttons so to speak. If you come at them in a way that they will respond to, then obviously they will respond. Don’t think for a minute that every unbeliever is an unbeliever because they have not encountered one of your particularly fiery and scary hellfire sermons. Many people who WILL be saved have heard plenty of those types of sermons week after week, year in and year out, and yet they have never responded because that ad did not appeal to them.

Some people are intellectuals. Appeal to their intellect. Explain to them how Jesus is obviously the only way to go. Some people are fearful. Appeal to their fear of death and their anxiety about being uncertain of where they will reside of eternity. Some people have been poor for a long time. Appeal to them by saying that God will provide for all of their needs in one way or another. Some people are lonely, let them know that Jesus will never leave nor forsake them. Some people like to be radical, appeal to their interest in being a “Jesus Freak”. Some people feel they have no purpose in life; appeal to their desire to have a God who gives them a purposeful future. It’s all the GOSPEL – which is another word for “the good news”. It’s all true. But use one aspect over another if that’s what it takes to draw them in.

2. At the risk of sounding facetious, you may have to leave some things in the fine print until later.

Matthew 4:19 – And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.

Let’s be real talk. Becoming a Christian has its costs. And many converts are just not willing to pay it all up front. For example, if you tell someone that before they get saved they must cut out every sin – even their favorites, they may not come any time soon, if at all. But if you tell them to come as they are, they will come as they are. And after they make the commitment, maybe then would be a better time to tell them that God doesn’t love the fact that they listen to violent rap music or the fact that the women dress with her cleavage overly on display. The bible does say to count the cost before you become a disciple of Christ, so they do need to know that it will be “expensive”. But you don’t have to give them a break down list of everything they must cut out within the next week in order to secure their salvation!

For some people, if you can get them to come down the altar as a public act of their surrender to God and their belief in Jesus as their Savior, that is the most important step. It’ll be easier to convince a Christian to surrender gambling to Christ than it would be to ask an unbeliever to quit gambling. As I was told, you have to CATCH the fish before you can skin it. If they can see the hook, line, and sinker all up front, they may never bite the bait! Jesus told the disciples that He would make them fisher of men. Some men catch fish with nets; others catch fish with bait and hook. You have to bait them in first. And once they bite the bait, you have the hook already in them. Then you skin them.

3. Know your target audience and minister accordingly.

It is quite difficult to sell a man something that he doesn’t feel/think/know he needs just like it’ll be impossible to convince me to take some medicine that I don’t think I need. It’ll be challenging to get someone to commit to a time-consuming, inconvenient, gruesome workout plan when they see no need for it. And so it will be near impossible to convince a man to receive salvation when he doesn’t feel that he is lost or damned.

Proverbs 11:30 – …he who winneth souls is wise.

The bible says that whoever wins souls is wise. This is so true! If you can win a soul to the Father, you are wise because it requires wisdom to know how to persuade someone to do something, to buy what you’re offering when it comes to salvation. First, you have to know that person fairly well or at least be able to discern things about that person. And then when they trust you, they’ll trust when you offer them something that you see that they need. If my doctor knows me and if I know my doctor’s history, I’ll trust when he says I need a certain medicine or procedure done. And so when it comes to ministry, you have to know who you’re after first of all. Study the audience. Discern their needs. Pray to God about what it is that is keeping them from believing and receiving the gospel message. Pray to God to tell you what that person needs to hear to draw them in. Pray for wisdom to win their soul. This might be controversial, but I’m going to list the name of some well-known ministers, who I believe their target audience is, and how they wisely present the gospel accordingly:

  • Joel Osteen – Discouraged believers/unbelievers – Encouraging, motivational bible verses and stories/prosperity gospel
  • Joyce Meyer – Defeated believers – Wisdom and personal testimonies of how God helped her to get the victory and related bible story examples
  • Creflo Dollar – Financially struggling believers – Bible passages from the Old and New Testament about how God will financially bless His children/prosperity gospel
  • Kenneth Copeland – Sick believers – Bible verses on healing/prosperity gospel
  • Paul Washer – Lukewarm Christians/unbelievers – Passionate, hellfire sermons
  • Charles Stanley – Conservative Christians – Fundamental, conservative, old school messages
  • John MacArthur – Educated Christians – Hermeneutical, expository, exegetical, scholarly teaching
  • TD Jakes – Discouraged, traditional churched believers – Charismatic churchy with a new twist/prosperity gospel

Now whether or not we agree with all that these ministers preach and teach, we can all agree that they have seen much “success” in the “ministry business”. They have wisely presented certain aspects of Christian living in a certain way to certain people. I’m sure they all haven’t voiced their ENTIRE opinion publicly. And depending on how much they disclose, it determines how far they can go and how many people they can reach.

For example, many people do not know of Paul Washer and John MacArthur because they are very opinionated and unwavering in their strict beliefs. But those preachers who are not as fundamental get bigger platforms. They will reach more people. Now we all may not agree with how they do what they do, but I see a purpose in it. I can see that the unbeliever, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist that Paul Washer will NEVER reach, has a chance of hearing Washer SOME DAY perhaps after that unbeliever stumbles across Joel Osteen while flipping through the channels. You may not like someone’s style or approach of getting the word out about God and Jesus, but at least He is being preached. And I do believe that some men can open the door/sow the seed, and then another man can seal the deal by drawing them in/reaping the soul. Maybe one man can pass out the “coupon”, but another man can sell the product.

Philippians 1:15-17 – Some indeed preach Christ even of envy and strife; and some also of good will: The one preach Christ of contention, not sincerely, supposing to add affliction to my bonds: But the other of love, knowing that I am set for the defence of the gospel. What then? notwithstanding, every way, whether in pretence, or in truth, Christ is preached; and I therein do rejoice, yea, and will rejoice.

Rejoice when Jesus is being preached and proclaimed and accepted as people’s Lord and Savior regardless of who closed the deal! That is one less soul that will spend an unspeakable, unbearable eternity in the lake of fire.

Many people have amazing inventions and services that many people would do well to patronize. BUT the problem is that they have the arduous task of convincing others to purchase their product or services. Our product/brand/service is THE BEST without a doubt. The hard part is PROMOTION. If everyone knew how great is our God, how sweet our Savior, how beautiful our afterlife, and how precious our faith, they’d all get saved. But they don’t know how great our product is. And they don’t know how badly they need it. Persuade them of their need. Glorify Jesus so that Christianity looks attractive. Pray for wisdom when evangelizing for souls. The product is so good, it can sell itself once they see what it can do for their life. So be the one who wisely introduces it to them! Seal the deal!