It was not a very good time to be us.
We had just moved 3,000 miles for a job, only to be told that the processing to reinstate my security paperwork would take 18 months. Sorry, they said. I made a conscious effort to say nothing that could jeopardize that illusory job a year and a half in the future, and tried to figure out how to support a family of six living hand to mouth in an over-priced two-bedroom apartment.
I looked around; after all, Paul Harvey had said that in America, if you are willing to work, all you have to do is open up the want-ads, and there is work available! Mr. Harvey, have you checked your want-ads lately? There were jobs in there, and I was willing to work; but those jobs fell into three unsavory categories:
- Jobs that required a pre-qualification I didn't have. (Like a specific degree or expensive certification.)
- "Jobs" that required an up front investment of anywhere from $500 to $X thousand dollars. We had $30.
- Jobs that didn't pay enough to buy the gas it would cost to get to them (Restaurant jobs offered $3/hr; security guard $7 -- but they weren't hiring).
The first category was right out the window. I already owed several thousand dollars for my failed attempt at truck driving. I started putting in applications for jobs in the third category, figuring if I got several jobs it would make up for the meager wages. I even tried carpet cleaning -- a category 2 & 3 job -- for 13 days; but my brakes went out after putting more than 1,000 miles on the car, and I managed to make a grand total of -$130 for my troubles. I only came out ahead because I could legitimately put the $800 in brake repairs on our taxes as a "business expense".
In case you don't read subtext well: we were desperate. That's when the owner of a franchise of a prominent national hotel chain took pity on me and offered me two jobs: shuttle driver and desk clerk. The pay wasn't great, but it was near our apartment, and he offered me all the hours I could legally work. I am still grateful to him. After a few weeks, he decided to let me train on the night audit; a great position of trust that included a significant raise. That was where I met "Wallace".
Wallace was a very neat, and proper man. He was the kind of person the word "fastidious" was created for. When he tallied the receipts at the end of the night, he was fast and accurate, and scrupulously honest. The other clerks had made some remarks about him, mildly mocking but not very informative, and he seemed somewhat scornful of them. I learned why when, after finishing his duties for the night, he pulled out his Bible and some study materials, and began to read and pray. It wasn't hard to figure out the usual dynamics of a deeply religious person working amongst those who don't share his faith. I had been there myself once.
"Will this bother you," he asked me, that first night. I told him it wouldn't. I had been raised in a Southern Baptist church, but had "gotten over it," I said, a little too flippantly. I felt badly, then; I try not to insult people. But I also try to discourage them from trying to save me. "I've learned a bit about 'live and let live' since my zealous youth," I told him, hoping to make both an apology and a barrier to further delving. He didn't press the issue then, but after a few nights, we fell into a discussion about it.
I recognized all of the classic signs that I was being "witnessed to"; it's not a subtle thing. He led me through the usual set up, asking what I thought about Jesus and the Bible, working his way toward presenting The Choice. The way it is supposed to work, the one being witnessed to is supposed to be backed into a corner, whether by their own ignorance of scripture, or by the patiently logical way the witness frames his questions. The Choice is that loaded question, "Why do you reject Jesus?" What it really means, though, is, "Why do you reject me and my belief system?"
I let him lead me through to the point where he asked me, "Do you know what will happen to your soul when you die?"
"Not to be rude," I said, "But isn't that between me and God?"
"Well, yes," he said. "I am just concerned that you might not know what you're missing in your life."
"I know all too well what I'm missing; but there isn't a church out there that is going to support my family for me. Letting a particular group of people into my head to tell me what I should and shouldn't do, or think, isn't going to get me a better job or a cheaper apartment. I am quite satisfied with the state of my relationship with the Creator of the Universe, and I don't see a need to give other people a way to manipulate my mind."
"Look," I continued, "I have nothing against you, and if what you are studying and learning is helpful to you, and makes it easier for you to make good choices and cope with your life, then please, continue doing it. But in my experience, even the most well-intentioned religion aims to control the individual members through their doctrine and through their social structure. It amounts to brainwashing, and no matter how benign or well-intentioned it may be, I have no use for it. I have spent years trying to free myself of outside claims on my soul, and I'm not about to give that up now."
He blinked again. Then he said, "I understand completely. But the last thing we would want to do is 'brainwash' you!"
This was a lie.
He smiled, and pushed a packet of photocopied pages from his study book toward me. "Here; take these. They are little 'prayers' that I read, and what I suggest you do is take them home, and read them over and over again. And while you're reading, try to believe what you are reading as hard as you can. You'll see, after about twenty-five times, the truth of the words will start to sink in!"
He looked proud, as though he had brilliantly countered all of my years of struggle with myself and with my family, and had answered the innermost questions of my soul. He didn't look like a pusher of poisonous ideas. He didn't look at all like a man who had just proven my deepest qualms about religion, and justified my discomfort with evangelism.
I looked at the packet he had given me. "I am a sinner, without value." That was the first line. "Nothing I do can save me." It went on; it got worse. There was even a version of the old "Footprints" poem -- the one where the writer accused God of not walking beside him as he went down the "beach" (the symbol of his life), and God told him "That is when I was carrying you."
They were words I had grown up with; words I had worked hard to believe, hating myself for hating their trite smugness. They were words that had caused me unbelievable pain, because I was afraid to disappoint the people who had taught them to me.
I looked back at Wallace, and I could feel the anger welling up. I wanted to throw the papers back at him, and scream in his face in frustration. I wanted to make him understand that if I went down that path again - if I started believing I had no value again - it would destroy me. But he was there, telling me about his life, and how this church of his had broken through his ego and helped him overcome his self-destructive past. It was the same old testimony I had heard from hundreds of people while growing up, and I hated that he was trying to use it on me again...
But, I saw that he needed that crutch. He needed that faith in something outside himself. He needed to believe that his morality was enforced by something greater than himself, or he wouldn't be able to stick with it. If I let him, he would try to convince me that I didn't deserve credit for keeping my own life together, and while I wasn't about to let him do that to me... who was I to kick his crutch out from under him?
"I'll take these home, and let you know how it goes," I said. He patted my hand. It reminded me of my grandfather, who used to pull us kids aside and whisper small sermons in our ears until he was satisfied he had taught us something. We all got good at smiling and nodding, mouthing whatever platitudes would show grandpa how devout we were, so we could go back to playing. I did that to Wallace, now, too.
A few weeks later, I managed to get hired pulling cable. It doubled my salary, and with the overtime available, we would be able to pay all of our bills, AND start to dig out of the crater that the transition from Air Force life had left in our bank book. On my way out the door of the hotel, Wallace shook my hand, and beamed. He said something about God providing, if we just believe on Him. I smiled, and nodded, and walked out the door.
I left Wallace there with his God, and I walked on alone. If there were any footprints left next to mine, I couldn't see them in the concrete.
But I won't waste any more time looking for them. I have work to do.