It was Word's first day preaching at City Haven, the storefront ministry where Reverend Theodore Lee had taken him on as an assistant pastor. "It's an act of faith, young man," said Rev Theo, as everyone called him. "Not in you, but in God's ability to transform you."
From what to what? Word wondered. But he smiled and said nothing. He had his college degree, but after trying two divinity schools he was done with education.
The first one tried to make him an expert in theology while discouraging Word from having any belief in the supernatural. Word could only shake his head at their oh-so-sophisticated religion, because he knew from experience that supernatural things could happen in LA. So why shouldn't he believe they could happen in Palestine two thousand years ago?
The second one, though, was just as annoyingly off the mark. Full of all kinds of ideology on current political issues, the professors had no idea how good and evil actually worked in the world, and no plan for how to stop evil—not when evil was capable of working dark miracles like the birth of Mack Street from Word's mother's body.
That's why Word chose City Haven, which sat between two boarded-up storefronts in a failed shopping center in a neighborhood that even the Koreans wouldn't buy up and renovate. The parishioners were mostly women, and mostly elderly women at that. Children were dragged along to church meetings, but few over the age when the gangs started reaching for them. The mothers were worried sick about their children—the fathers who weren't dead, in jail, or unidentified were usually part of the bad influence.
And yet these were the hopeful women, the Christians who still had faith that God would reach out to them and save their children if they just prayed hard enough for a miracle. Behind them, out there in the deceptively sunny streets of the city, were thousands of women who had no hope, who saw their children headed down dark roads and knew they could not stop them.
Word felt them out there, the hopeless ones, and thought: I know that there are miracles. Dark ones that I've seen, and bright ones that I hope for. I will find you, I will touch your hearts, I will bring you together in faith to demand that God do something about this mess. And I'll do it because nobody is angrier at evil than I am. Most of the world doesn't really believe it exists. When they say
"evil" they mean "sick" or "nasty." When I say "evil," I mean power that makes use of human bodies like they were puppets. Evil is the spirits that inhabited the woman who spoke filth to Jesus, and whom Jesus cast out of her and into the bodies of the Gadarene swine. That's the power we need in this world, right now, to cast out the filth-speaking devils and free the children of God to hear his sweet word and redeem their souls from despair.
I won't let them be like my mother, forgetting everything, or my father, denying everything. I will wake them up.
The trouble with all this grim determination was that Word wasn't much of a speaker. He knew it, too. Growing up in Baldwin Hills as the son of a fine-spoken English professor and poet, Word spoke English too fluently and clearly to be credible on the street. He sounded like a foreigner here—but not foreign enough for anyone to take him for Jamaican or a highly educated British black.
As one little boy said it when Word asked him where the unlocked entrance to City Haven might be,
"You sound like a white man." To which Word could only smile and say, "You've never met a white man who talks this well."
He had tried for a while, back in grad school. He rented movies that were full of street slang, but the more he listened, the more it dawned on him that most of these scripts were written by white guys faking it. Spike Lee he could trust, but when he tried to talk like characters from Spike's movies, it sounded so phony that even Word himself was disgusted. It was too late for him to pick up any of the street-black dialects in America. The most he could do was lapse back into the phony Baldwin Hills version, and he knew that talking that way would open no doors for him in the gang neighborhoods.
And yet there were his dreams. He could see himself standing in a huge arena, with tens of thousands of people, black and white, screaming and chanting "Give us Word, give us Word!"
In the dream, Word walked out onto the stage and saw all the faces, and in his dream he was able to see each individual of them, all at once, to understand what they wanted, to feel their need and he knew that he could grant their wishes, feed their hunger, shelter them from all that they feared. If they truly believed in him, then anything was possible, because with their faith joined together with his own, God himself could not say no to them.
He opened his mouth to speak...
And every time, the dream stopped there. Just a sudden flash of being in a car riding along a road between canyon walls, and then he'd either wake up or go off into some random silly dream that he couldn't even remember in the morning.
But the dream of that arena, of that audience, Word remembered every bit of it. He knew it was real. He hungered for it.
So he set out to become Reverend Word Williams, and when he gave up on divinity school, the only route left to him was apprenticeship.
He knew right away that Rev Theo was the right choice. His preaching wasn't empty—he felt the fire. More important, he really loved the people and they knew it. He cared what they were going through. He tried to help them with their children. Even their money problems. Sometimes he'd turn down their contributions—small as they were. "You can't afford that, Sister Rebecca."
"Oh, but I want to, Rev Theo."
"It's the widow's mite, Sister Rebecca, and the Lord knows you gave it. Now I give it back to you as Jesus' own blessing on your family."
But then sometimes he'd keep the contribution—and from someone in worse shape than Sister Rebecca. When Word asked him about it, he said, "It's important for her to feel like she's part of the church. Sister Rebecca contributes often and gets the blessings that come from her sacrifice. But Sister Willa Mae, this is her first time, and to refuse her gift would be to deny her a place in the Kingdom of Jesus Christ."
The man was wise, Word decided. Wise and good, and I should be like him.
Only when it came to the sermons, Word was terrified, because he knew he'd fail. Rev Theo's sermons were musical, rhythmic, passionate. Above all, though, they were personal. He knew these people, named names from the pulpit. "Don't you be afraid like Sister Ollie is afraid! You know she hears a noise in the night and she thinks it's a burglar come to steal from her! Oh, Sister Areena, you laughing, but that's cause any noise you hear, you hoping it's one of your men coming back to you to make another baby! You know we love you, Sister Areena, but you got to let Jesus teach you how to say no when a man wants what he got no right to have. You know that. And at least you got hope!
Any kind of hope better than living all the time in fear. You can go to sleep on a dream of hope, but fear will steal the sleep right out of your bed.
And Sister Ollie was sitting there weeping because he knew her heart, and Sister Areena, too, and now the whole congregation knew them and loved them anyway. Sister Ollie called out to Rev Theo, "I won't be afraid no more, Rev Theo! I let Jesus into my heart!" And Sister Areena cried, "I ain't lost hope yet!" And everybody clapped and cheered and laughed and wept and...
And how the hell was Word going to touch their hearts the way Rev Theo did? Lucky if he didn't put them straight to sleep.
So Word helped Rev Theo in his ministry, visiting people, taking notes at meetings, going with him to ask for money from ministers of richer churches or from black businessmen. Word went here and there in Baldwin Hills, asking people he knew had money if they could help sustain a little storefront church in South Central. He smiled and nodded when they patronizingly said, "I didn't know you were with the Lord now, Word. I'm glad to see you found Jesus."
I didn't, thought Word. Not yet. But I sure found the devil, and I'm hoping Jesus won't be far behind.
He was energetic. He was dedicated. Rev Theo counted on him for more and more. And one on one, Word liked talking to the members of the church. They liked him—though of course they all told him to learn from Rev Theo, because he was a real man of God. "That's what I'm here for," said Word, "but the Lord doesn't work through me the way he works through Rev Theo."
"The Lord works through everyone," said Rev Theo. "They just don't always know it."
But what Word had most hoped to learn never happened. Despite his love and faith, Rev Theo didn't have the power. People who were ailing would ask him to lay on hands and he did, but they didn't get better except in the ordinary way. "That's how healing works," Rev Theo explained to Word. "All in the Lord's own time." But Word had seen another kind of healing, where a gravely injured old man gripped the hand of a magical boy and rose up from his bed and his cast fell away from his broken leg and he walked on it, and his clothing was restored to him—filthy as it was, but when the devil worked miracles, what could you expect but filthiness?
Now it was time to preach. To stand before the congregation. It was the nighttime meeting, for the people who worked during the day, so it was a smaller group. And it included a couple of men, neither one of them married, trying to come back from drug dealing and even darker sins. At first they scared Word a little, and they knew that he was scared, and that amused them but both of them at different times had said to him, Don't be afraid of me, the only person I harm these days is me. But what could Word say to them? He'd been raised in privilege, surrounded by literature and love and the comforts of life.
Rev Theo introduced him—including a reminder that it was his first sermon and they should be as kind to Word as Rev Theo's first congregation had been to him. Word appreciated what he said, but also resented it a little because he had hoped that Rev Theo might believe that he'd do a good job.
Why should he, though? Why should anybody believe in him?
Word gripped the two sides of the pulpit and locked his knees and looked out at people he knew well and loved and cared about and he was terrified all the same. "Why am I talking to you?" he said. "What do I have to say to you? You know everything about pain and suffering. I don't know anything. You know about sacrifice. I don't know anything." He had begun this as candor. But now he was picking up the cadence of a preacher and feeling the music of it and he had a fleeting thought: Is this all? Is it this easy?
And in that moment it all dried up.
"Brothers and sisters, I don't even know humility. Just that moment I was thinking, This is easier than I thought. But it isn't easy. It's only easy if Jesus is in your heart, and I don't know if he has ever been in my heart. I know I've seen the Lord in Rev Theo's heart! I know I've seen the Lord in your heart, Brother Eddie. I've seen Jesus in your face, Sister Antoinette! So I ask you who know the Lord so well to pray for me. Let Jesus into my heart, so I can know what you know about the Lord."
Word fell silent. He had a prepared sermon but he didn't know how to get to it from where he was. Why had he started out this way? Why was he off on this tangent?
Sister Antoinette spoke up from the congregation. "Lord Jesus hear the prayer of your servant Brother Word and let him know that you already in his heart."
"Amen," said Brother Eddie loudly. "Amen to that prayer, Lord Jesus!"
And then, as a murmur of amens spread through the congregation, Word felt something astonishing. It was like somebody had reached a hand into his body, right through the back of his head and down his spine and into his heart. He was filled with fire. His heartbeat became a jackhammer.
"O Lord!" he cried. "Give me the words they need to hear!"
And the words came.
It was as if Word heard someone else speaking through his mouth. Only instead of advice and counsel from the Bible, he heard himself making specific promises. "Sister 'Cookie' Simonds, the Lord heals you of your female trouble. Go to the doctor and he'll tell you that it's not cancer. But I tell you that it was cancer and the Lord has taken it away. Brother Eddie, call your son again. Tonight, no matter how late, you telephone him again and I promise you that this time the Lord will soften his heart and he will listen to you, every word you say, and he will forgive you and let you be the father that you should have been all along. And Sister Missy, go home to your baby Shanice right now, get out of your chair, because she is about to choke and your daughter's watching television and won't hear her.
Get home and put your finger down your baby's throat and save her life!"
Word knew there was nothing to say after that. So he opened his mouth and sang. A common ordinary hymn, but he put new words to it, words about baby Shanice and Sister Missy and the healing power of God. The words fit the music perfectly and Word vaguely noticed that as he sang these new words, so did the congregation. They were standing up and singing with him, rocking back and forth, many of them with their hands upraised, and they were singing along with him the very same new words, without hesitation, as if the power of God was putting those new words in everyone's mouth all at once.
And then the song was over. The room was filled with weeping and laughing and murmurs of amen, hallelujah, praise God.
Now Word felt Rev Theo's hand on his elbow and he backed away from the pulpit and sat down and numbly watched as Rev Theo said a short prayer and sent them home. "Remember the miracles you've seen tonight," he said. "The Lord has answered many prayers in this holy house."
It took an hour for everyone to leave. Word felt like his arm was about to be pumped right off his shoulder, they shook his hand so much, congratulating him on a fine sermon, thanking him for his promises. Some of them looked at him with perfect faith. Others had some doubt. But they all had an air of wonder about them. They knew that they had seen something spectacular and that it had come from God by way of Word Williams.
When they all were gone, and Rev Theo was locking the door, he began talking softly to Word.
"Don't count on it being like that every time," he said.
"Rev Theo, I can't believe it happened this time."
"I am a wicked man," said Rev Theo. "I doubted the power of God. He granted the very prayer I asked of him, but I doubted. I touched your arm to try to get you to sit down. I was going to tell you, Word, boy, you can't promise them things like this. It'll just break their hearts when they don't come true. But then Missy Dole came back and... Swear to me in Jesus' holy name that this comes from God."
"Rev Theo, I don't know, but if it saved Shanice's life, who else could it come from but God?
The world is full of evil, but I've been given the power to fight it. Just a little, but power all the same.
Power for good. To combat the power of evil."
Word only shook his head and smiled. "Rev Theo, don't you understand? I could open my mouth right now and it would happen again." He reached out his hand and took Rev Theo by the shoulder and said, "I promise you right now, the Lord has heard your prayer and he will take away the wickedness in your heart and turn your desire back to your wife, and your wife's desire back to you."
He let his hand fall away.
Rev Theo's eyes were wide and full of tears.
"I didn't know you were married," said Word.
"She left me ten years ago," Rev Theo whispered. "A year after I left my fine church and came to this place. She couldn't take the poverty. I couldn't take her materialism. She took my children away from me. I vowed that I could forgive every sinner but I could not forgive her."
"But you do forgive her," said Word.
"As God has forgiven me the pride of my righteousness."
Rev Theo threw his arms around him and wept onto Word's shoulder and Word embraced him as his body heaved with his sobs of relief and gratitude.
"Thank you, O King of Kings," murmured Word. The power to defeat the devil was back in the world again, and it was in his hands.