The Preacher Man
lifted his eyes to Heaven
. Saint Anthony...
Invoking the prayer
he found himself repeating ever more frequently with age, he rolled up his sleeves and began to dig through the trash
, searching for the rectory keys. And while you're working on this loss, please help me also not to lose what is much more important: my gift of faith in a loving Father; my confidence in His endless mercy; my love for Him in my brothers and sisters. Amen.
He washed his hands in disappointment. Not because he had failed to find his keys, but because he had failed to save a life. "Father, I dream of demons," Jamal had said. "They won't let me go." The Preacher Man had held his hands, and had tried to break the spiral. This was the familiar spiral of drugs and guns and unwanted babies and fear -- the one you read about in the newspapers, the one that's supposedly all around you. That was two years ago. The Preacher Man always read the papers, trying to believe its words, its warnings. This morning, however, it was easier to believe. "The victim was identified as Jamal Westfield, 22 ... self-inflicted gunshot wound..." The words leapt out and stung him. And these are the ones with the courage to come for help...
He returned to his desk to stare at the clipping again, and while sitting down, heard the clang of metal under his foot. His keys had fallen under his desk. Scooping them up and thanking Anthony, he grabbed the tiny clipping and stared. 22. The Preacher Man had grown up in Kensington. He had felt the embrace as the community took its first uneasy steps toward transcending race and poverty. He had seen people helping others, and felt the glow of so many good people. He had watched as the new church was built, and assisted in its first Mass, the aisles packed with witnesses for Christ.
But, he thought as he grabbed his watch and rosary, there is much I do not see. He found it difficult to see the abandoned buildings, boarded up and burning down. He could barely make out the homeless, even as he stooped to give them bread and coffee. He could see the children on their skateboards, grinding the benches in the playground by the Church, but had to squint to see the crack dealers down the street, pretending to wait for the bus. Optimism is a blessing, but why was it that he could no longer feel the lifeblood of his community? Was it no longer pumping? In reaching out to the good, must he abandon the lost? This was not something the Peacher Man often contemplated.
The time had come for the anointing of the sick. Naomi was an elderly white woman, and she was dying of cancer. The Preacher Man loved her spirit, her faith, and her cooking. These beautiful things were coming to an end in the second story of her row home, and the Preacher Man was preparing her soul for the afterlife. There was a kind of art to scrubbing the sin clean, to presenting the purity of an unblemished soul to the Lord. But what it would be like to give the unction to Jamal instead of Naomi. The Preacher Man's could feel the guilt atrophy his logic. Human flaws.
Locking the rectory with his newly-found set of keys, the Preacher Man set out for Naomi's residence. The cool autumn day fought his red sweater with wind and dust, but Nature was always a welcome competitor. He smiled at the empty streets. "So I'm not the only one who feels the rain coming," he mumbled merrily. Naomi's home was four city blocks away, and while walking, he tried to picture the dying woman as he remembered her from 25 years ago. But alas, he was unable to reconstruct the memory; she was always the white-haired quiet lady she was last year. Oh well. This image should suffice to replace what he would see in ten minutes, he thought. The wind played with his carefully-groomed gray hair.
Rounding the first corner, he encountered a beat-up Lincoln resting at the stop sign. The window rolled down, and the wild-eyed young man inside yelled, "Excuse me, old man, I need directions!" The Preacher Man stared at the face. It couldn't have been more than 15 years old. He approached the car and surveyed the travelers inside. The driver was a immense man, about 20 years old. The passenger was a teen, and vaguely familiar. The Preacher Man silently wondered if these kids had known Jamal. "Where do you want to go?" he asked the nervous inquirer.
When something happens quickly on a slow autumn afternoon, the world is imparted a certain sense of the unreal. Fire is usually saved for the fiery days, violence for the violent, anger for the angry... So when the anomalous occurs, time tics instead of ticks, and the scarring force of shock is burned into the surreal scene. "This was never meant to happen," we say, as we pick up the pieces of our worldview, hours later. But it was.
"Um, you gotta come closer, old man..." The door opened and the young man grabbed the Preacher Man's arm. Throwing him into the Lincoln, the nervous face barked to the priest from above, "Give me your fucking money, oreo. Faggot sweater motherfucker." The Preacher Man focused first on the gun emerging from the young man's jacket pocket, and then on the ghastly white eyes and pitch-dark face of his very young assailant, who was almost laying down on top of him. "Brother, please. I have no money..." He'd been mugged before. "Why, son? I have nothing..."
"What the fuck's in this box then?" the tormented screamed, ripping the Preacher Man's ointments from his grip. Suddenly, the passenger turned around, and suddenly recoiled. "Shit, that's the priest! That's the fucking black priest, asshole!" The interior of the car became confusion as hands, words, and firearms made myriad different warnings, plans, and secrets known. With a flurry of kicks, the Preacher Man tried to take advantage of the chaos and free himself from this demented afternoon. Then, lost amid the turmoil, the young one rose up and screamed a demon's scream, first with his mouth and then with his gun.
"Shit! Go, go, go, go, go! Oh, fuck! FUCK!" The words of the passenger repeated thousands of times in the Preacher Man's head. No sooner had the priest been shot than the 15 year-old attacker opened the Lincoln door and rolled him out into the street, the hellfire still churning in the young one's eyes. There was the screech of the tires fleeing the scene, and the vision of the open car door flying all around as the Lincoln sped down the street. There was the sound of another gunshot as the car neared the end of the next block. And slowness and sanity were again given to the world.
Crumpled up on his side, the Preacher Man struggled to get up. No... that won't be happening. He lay down on his side, slowly rolling onto his back. There was no pain, but rather silence and warmth. With a cry and a realization, he felt the hole in his chest, deep and wet. Oh, forgive them... forgive them, my Lord. Forgive... The warmth was on his lips, and in his heart. Hurried footsteps, sirens, and women's screams, all reduced to a bubbling murmur of a stream, echoed to infinity. And the light of the Sun washed over everything, and the light focused like a beautiful beam in the center of his vision, and the world plunged into darkness.
The Preacher Man lifted his eyes to Heaven, contemplating forgiveness and original sin.