The Business of Saving Souls – by Mitchell Toews

THE SMALL HYUNDAI COUPE crept around the church parking lot. Obviously anxious, Jason Halpnuscht peered about as he drove, his head swivelling back and forth. He checked the area around the dumpster and the large hot air outlets on the rear of the building.

Pastor Penn Benner hated to see indigent people on the property.

“We pay to support four separate homeless shelters here in Tribune and I’ll be damned if I have them people piling up on our spotless yard. This is The Lord’s home and I aim to keep it neat and tidy,” he had said to Jason – in covert sotto voce – on more than one occasion.

Jason took sinful pleasure in hearing Benner say, “I’ll be damned,” but he also felt guilty for it. Benner was, after all, the Head Pastor of the North Tribune Church of Christian Fellowship and was Jason’s boss.

“We’re in the business of saving souls not picking up old blankets and all the other crip-crap they leave behind,” Penn Benner would say in the empty church as Jason Halpnuscht listened. The words echoed in the immense chamber, bouncing off the acres of white drywall, the glimmery pot lights and the inlaid glass diamonds that formed a sixty foot cross in the ceiling, stretching from nave to second balcony.

“God loves them, but they are messy. You are the Youth Pastor, Halpnuscht, why don’t you organize the youth into an outreach group for when they – the homeless – congregate on the yard? Have the church youth interact with them. There should be a paucity of homeless on our property.”

Jason Halpnuscht hated Penn Benner’s Word of the Day desk calendar.

Halpnuscht patrolled the yard with particular diligence today. It was Senior Council day — the second Saturday of each month, the NTCCF’s senior group met to review church business. The meeting consisted of Jason; Head Pastor Benner; the Chairman of the Senior Deacon Council, Ronald Strup; and the church Secretary, Jedidiah Davidson. If there were issues concerning specific church functions that were managed by one of the three Associate Pastors (APs), or their assistants (the Sub-Associate Pastors) then they would also be required to attend.

As he made the last of his inspection rounds, Jason noticed a few pansies, growing yellow and purple in the weak November sun. The flowers were huddled in a sheltered spot near the clothing drop-off bins.

“They neither toil nor spin,” he said in a quiet voice to the Hyundai’s Camel interior with Burl Oak accents.

#

As he unlocked the council chamber and began to make sure all was in readiness for the meeting, Jason thought back to his patrol of the yard.

If there had been homeless people there, so what? Some churches – even some businesses – take a more direct approach and set up small structures or distribute clothes and blankets. Just sending people to the downtown homeless shelters seemed a little detached for a house of God. Did Jesus point to the nearest Long John Silver’s and yell, “All you can eat, maximum two sides and no refills on soda…it’s on me, multitudes!”

“Quit yer bitchin’,” Halpnuscht said aloud, to himself. He set about tidying the already spotless room and bumped the temperature up a few degrees. As he stood at the dial, he was reminded of a cartoon he had seen on the internet the night before. Two office workers walk down a winter street clutching their coats to their throats. They pass by a man wearing only a thin shirt, sitting on a flattened cardboard box on the sidewalk. One worker comments, “It’s a constant struggle – we just can’t seem to agree on a comfortable temperature for the conference room!”

#

“Well, gentlemen, let’s start this meeting off with a prayer,” said Ronald Strup, as he settled the group. “Jason, would you please take the conn?”

As Jason bowed and led the small group in prayer in the Leadership Center Chamber, he was reminded of Ron’s love of all things nautical. Despite residing near the navel of the largest contiguous land mass on earth, Ronald Strup’s wealth enabled him to do a lot of boating, “saltwater and sweet,” as the Head Deacon liked to say. The stout man loved to sprinkle nautical terminology into the conversation and Jason needed to know his port from his stern. He secretly called Strup, “Captain Bligh” and thought the powerful man was a lout and a bully.

The large oval room was centred on an impressive red oak conference table. The surface was studded with microphone jacks, pop-up video monitors and USB ports. At the head of the table, a grand captain’s chair was positioned on a small raised dais. This chair was modelled after one that Ron Strup had seen on the internet – a perfect copy of the Captain’s chair from the USS Spruance, a Second World War US Navy destroyer.

On the back of the chair, the words, “”Wisdom, Temperance, Fortitude” were embroidered. The motto was adapted from the Spruance’s “Wisdom, Fortitude, Reason”. Jason’s Youth Group charges enjoyed the WTF acronym and the Youth Pastor sometimes had to dig down to find the fortitude not to laugh along at the banter that he was not exactly supposed to hear.

More glass diamond crosses embossed the walls. The ceiling was sixteen feet high and the starboard wall was constructed of glass panels that admitted a view of the chamber from the sanctuary below.

The WTF chair was equipped with a Star Trek-worthy armrest of command controls – projector, lights, audio, etc. Ronald Strup sat in this chair as he now called the meeting to order.

“Fellows,” he began as he rolled a motorized projection screen down. “Let’s begin and end on one issue today. I’d like to focus our fellowship around the decision we need to make concerning our role in the demonstration at Tribune City Hall next week.”

Ronald Strup scanned the room, his gaze resting for a second on each individual.

“As a member church – the one with the largest single congregation by over 250 souls, I must add – as a member of the Regional Ecumenical Council – the R.E.C. – we have been asked to send a clergy to the activity.”

“What is the activity?” Pastor Benner asked.

“Good question, Penn. It is an occupation of the City Hall in a show of faith and support for the Indian band that is having some problems with that oil pipeline. Only clergymen will be sent, as there may be arrests. The R.E.C. believes that by sending pastors, we will avert violence and help these tribes to get their message heard,” Ronald Strup explained.

Jason was glad to hear that his church would be involved. Many of his friends, in and out of church life, supported this bold initiative and Jason was passionate about playing a part.

“Is there a financial cost?” asked Jed Davidson.

“Rely on Jed to ask that, am I right?” Strup said. It was obviously meant as a compliment, but he said it with false exasperation. Smirks and knowing stage nods were returned.

“Apart from any fines and legal fees that might attach, no,” he said, and then motioned towards Jason, clearing his throat.

“Jason,” said Secretary Davidson, “please open the email I sent you this morning and put it up on the screen so that I can review it with the group. Thanks.”

Jason opened the attachment and displayed it on his tablet, which was connected by Wi-Fi to the projector. A copy of a local ordinance concerning lawful assembly popped up on the screen. A small green dot appeared in the top corner of the projection.

Using a laser pointer, Jed Davidson covered the key points in the law, highlighting the fact that arrests would be summary – meaning that those detained would be immediately transferred to the city lock-up and held until their bail bond could be secured. A judge needed to approve each bond and it was incumbent on the judge’s schedule and discretion as to the release of those detained.

The room was quiet except for the scratching of pens on paper as the men took notes.

Ronald Strup spoke. “Crew, Jed is going to send a picture to Jason for him to put up on the screen. This person is, I believe, God’s answer to our situation here. Her name is Flora Shook and she is a member of the Indian band and is on their tribal council…” he peeked at Jed Davidson as he said this. Jed affirmed with a practiced nod.

“I have heard her speak and she is super literate. She attended State University and has a Social Workers degree of some sort. She is a Christian woman and is married to a half-white guy who works, as it happens, at Ronald Strup Hyundai and Dodge – Dinny Shook,” said Strup.

“Dinny?” said Penn Benner. “That’s weird. Are you sure it’s not Danny? Or Donny.”

“No, Penn,” said Jed, “it’s Dinny, all right.”

Penn Benner amended his notebook entry.

“Ok, so we are going to be the biggest battleship in this fleet,” Ronald Strup continued. “As such, we need to understand that there will be heavy discernment of other churches and congregants, heavy media attention, and also a lot of review by our peers in the Tribune area – including local government, business, associations, school boards, and so on.”

“I do not need to remind you that we have set, with Jesus’ guidance, a growth goal of ten percent for new members this year. We are behind that,” Ronald Strup paused, looking at Davidson, who held up four fingers.

“We are behind four percent, year to date,” he confirmed.

Ronald Strup slipped down from his seat. He opened an oak door on the wall behind him that concealed a whiteboard. On the board, a neat two-color flow chart had been drawn.

“Now, this chart illustrates our course here. That is, it shows my recommendation. Please observe the ‘drivers’ – shown in red – and the ‘possible actions’ – in blue – you can see several different outcomes.” Ronald Strup extended a black baton to direct the groups’ attention.

“I should mention that my manager at Ronald Strup Hyundai and Dodge is about to promote Dinny Shook to Head of Fleet Maintenance. That’s a significant pay hike and also a semi-management role at the company.”

Jason’s mind wandered as he quickly mapped out the rest of the meeting and the likely outcomes. He thought of the incessant TV ads for Ronald Strup Hyundai and Dodge, “Strup yourself into a new Hyundai or Dodge today, at (cue jingle) Ronald Strup Hyundai and Dodge!” He remembered how excited the church choir had been as they were given the honour of recording the catchy jingle for Ron’s company.

Jason also knew that one of the Associate Pastors, Wally Gross, had come to Penn Benner to pray on a weighty decision. Wally had an opportunity in the oil patch and the money was extremely good – he wondered if God was guiding him away from the church leadership and towards a better income for his family of five. Jason remembered his own thoughts when he heard about Wally’s conundrum. Like Wally, Jason wondered if maybe the ministry was not for him, after all. It was not the first time these doubts had bothered Jason. It often occurred to him that his true calling ran on a parallel track, but one distinct from the formal ministry.

As Strup continued to outline his illustrated plan, Jason paused to pray. He felt exposed and rather alone in the room, but he set his lips in a firm line and bowed his head. His palms lay flat on the tabletop, fingers splayed apart. Jason’s large hands looked like two starfish on the sandy bottom of a resort beach.

As the other men concluded their discussion, their attention came to rest on Jason when they noticed him so engrossed in prayer. The room fell silent except for the occasional sniffle or the soft click of the keys on Ron’s cell phone.

Jason Halpnuscht said, “Amen,” lifted his head and inhaled, his chest rising. He picked his hands up off the table and rubbed them together for a few seconds, then paused before standing up straight.

“I’ll go,” he said directly to Ronald Strup. “I’ll go to the protest.”

“I am a registered clergy in the R.E.C., I have a divinity degree from Duke, I have never been arrested and my family is from out of state. I even have training in defusing confrontation – I took a ‘civil–disobedience’ course! I propose that I am the perfect candidate and furthermore, I am a believer in the cause,” he said. He had raised his voice and his hand gestures were much more animated than usual.

“I feel God’s calling. It is clear,” the young man concluded.

Incredulous, Pastor Benner stared at his Youth Pastor.

“Son,” Benner said, motioning for Halpnuscht to be seated. “Deacon Ronald Strup has a wonderful plan and you should hear him out.”

“Well,” Jason said, feeling in his vest pocket for his car keys, “if the Deacon’s plan is to hire Flora Shook as our new Associate Pastor and send her to the sit-in as the church representative, then I think I’d prefer to not hear that. I’m not certain that an arrest would be the best thing for her or her kids. In fact, I know it’s not.” Jason rapped twice on the table with his knuckle before continuing.

“Flora Shook,” Jason said, staring at Ronald Strup, “may have a criminal record. I am not sure if it was expunged or not – it was a minor thing a long time ago. But an arrest at the sit-in would be hard on her. That is not the outcome we want.”

Jason stopped speaking for a minute; he leaned forward and put his weight on his fingertips as he looked into the faces of the three men, one by one. “This council should consider my proposal,” he concluded, a hard edge in his voice.

“Pastor Halpnuscht, give us the room, please,” said Deacon Strup, in a similarly hard, low voice.

“I’m not finished,” Halpnuscht said, his lip quivering as he stood in the awful quiet of the glass chamber. “I will attend the sit-in, I will be arrested and I will resign afterwards. My post-dated letter of resignation can be in your hands before I leave here today. If needed, my resignation lets the church disavow me. If not – no harm, no foul.”

“Listen, Halpnuscht,” Benner interrupted, agitated. “We can’t just hire a woman, off the reservation, to be an AP!” Benner stood on the key words like they were indictments in a list of charges, a military snare drum audible in Jason’s mind, echoing dramatically in the background.

Jason Halpnuscht pushed his plush executive chair back with his leg and stood with his arms dangling at his sides. Then he pointed at Pastor Benner and continued, his voice a bit louder. “But you already are going to hire her as an AP according to the plan on the whiteboard.”

“Yeah, sure,” replied Benner, his face reddening. “But, she will be in and out – it’s more of a token thing, really. Great for her resume, I might add…”

Deacon Strup raised his hand to silence Benner, but before he could speak, Jason continued. “I know about Wally Gross and it gives you options, Penn. Offer him my job. The pay hike might enable him to stay on. He is qualified to be Youth Pastor, as you know,” Halpnuscht said.

“Then, after he fills my spot, offer Flora Shook an AP job. One she can keep.”

He looked from man to man, laying his palms on the table once more; the starfish returning.

“Every…one…wins,” he said, mimicking Benner’s earlier staccato delivery.

Benner’s face flushed red again and he stood up, unzipping his leather motorcycle jacket as he did so. (The church had given Benner a new Harley Davidson as a ten-year anniversary gift. It was parked outside with a full tank of gas.) He was about to reply but before he could, Ronald Strup cut in.

“Let me, Penn,” the businessman said in a calm voice. He regarded Halpnuscht, who stood at his place, his fingers tapping the glossy tabletop, betraying the young man’s shaky nerves.

Wearing a shrewd expression, Ronald Strup ticked off points in his notebook. A fly butted its head against one of the sixteen-foot glass panels; the only noise in the sterile room.

“We would have a hard time replacing you,” he began, after a lengthy pause. “I suppose Wally could do the job. Any conditions here, Jason?”

“Yes, one. Donnie Shook keeps his new job, no matter what,” Jason said, his voice steady and a new certainty in his manner.

“It’s Dinny,” said Penn Benner.

“Don’t be silly, Penn,” Jason shot back. “His name is Donald Shook and he was in my first Youth Sunday School class here, six years ago. He’s a wonderful basketball player, one of many things he is good at, including computer programming, by the way. He and Flora support his grandparents and her parents, who live on reservation land. He is a great guy.”

“I woulda thought you’d know that Pastor,” Ronald Strup said, cocking his head to one side as he stared down at Benner.

“No matter,” said Ronald Strup, retaking the Captain’s chair on the dais. “Jason, you have given us tremendous alternatives here and we are gonna examine the situation. We are gonna,” he repeated, glancing sidelong at Benner and Davidson. “I believe it offers some advantages for us to do God’s work and serve our community. Both.”

Jason nodded, staring out the window as he spoke. “Ok. I will take that as a yes unless I hear otherwise. My resignation will be emailed later today, dated for next week’s sit-in,” Jason said. Then he faced Ronald Strup and said, “I’ll stay in touch with Donnie and if anything goes wrong, I suppose I may have to rely on the recording to reconcile things with the R.E.C., the Tribune Free Press and Robbie Cole down at TV9.”

The fly buzzed, trying in vain to escape to the clear November sky.

“Come again?” said Ronald Strup.

“The audio recording I made of this meeting,” Jason responded. He pointed at the raised chair that Ronald Strup sat upon.

“See the red light on your armrest? And the green light up on the screen? That indicates that a recording is underway. I do that automatically, per standing orders from Jedidiah Davidson whenever a legal matter is under discussion; it’s in our corporate by-laws. I started the tape when we reviewed the materials Mr. Davidson provided earlier today.”

“Where is this recording kept?” Ronald Strup inquired, gazing down and taking his time drawing a spiral doodle in his notebook. Adagio, thought Jason as he watched him. A slow tempo meant to create a specific mood – as described in the hymnals set in the pews below them.

“One copy is here — in your chair’s hard drive — and the other is here,” Jason replied, holding up his cell phone and waggling it. “It’s on my phone, Captain.”

Ronald Strup tapped his open notebook with his collapsed carbon fibre pointing stick. He pressed it against the doodle he had just drawn, putting a pronounced bow into the slim pointer. The red light glowed next to his arm. Deacon Ronald Strup cleared his throat and looked across at Benner and Davidson, who avoided his gaze.

The fly renewed its urgent efforts, switching to a new pane of glass.

“All good,” Ronald Strup said, his smile theatrical and rigid. “If that is all,” he began to reset, but Jason held up two palms like a stop sign at third base.

“Just one last thing,” Jason interrupted. Then he pulled the Hyundai key fob out of his pocket and rattled it in the air above the gleaming table. “My car… should I give the keys directly to Pastor Flora Shook, your new AP and first female and first indigenous pastor? It would save you a trip!”

mitchelltoews

Mitchell Toews is a former advertising and marketing professional. He now applies himself almost entirely to literary fiction – writing it and also living a boreal primeval version with his wife Janice. They live beside a lake in Manitoba containing the precise point at which the top of the water meets the bottom of the sky. Mitchell’s short fiction appears in Red Fez, CommuterLit, Fiction on the Web, Literally Stories and Rhubarb magazine as well as several other worthy locations in print and online.

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