Friday, May 05, 2006

Living In Victory, Chapter 7

Copyright 2006, Terry F. Phillips Sr.
All Rights Reserved

Chapter 7
I might not have gotten lost if I could have seen the road signs … or the road. The sky did its best to discourage me. It rained; it thundered and lightning fell; it rained some more. The rain was as cold as the ice water in the local diner.
Fortunately, I started out at 6 a.m. that Sunday, thinking I would get to Victory in plenty of time to look around, which wouldn’t take long, if Allen’s description was true.
I spent the trip wondering if the trip would be worthwhile, if they would hire me and if I would want to return the following week.
I drove a two-lane highway to Champaign where I picked up Interstate 74. The next two hours were simple enough. Head east and on’t get off until you see the “Waynetown” exit. If you see a sign for “Crawfordsville” you’ve gone too far.
I got sleep shortly after getting on the interstate. That was to be expected. I always got sleepy in the car. The thought I might have an exhaust leak into the car crossed my mind, but I had not money to have such frivolous possibilities checked out.
So, I pulled off to the side of the road when the rain slackened to a downpour, made sure my flashers were working, got out and did jumping jacks in the light cloth coat I was wearing. I stood behind the car so oncoming vehicles would see me. See me, they did. More vehicles laid on their hors than I care to remember. I didn’t try to imagine what the truckers were saying to one another about me on their Citizens Band radios.
“Breaker, breaker, we’ve got an idiot on the side, come on.”
“Yeah, he looks like he’s trying to take a shower under the cold water, don’t you know?”
“That’s a big 10-roger, what an idiot!”
Shortly after sunrise, my stomach told me it was time to eat. I didn’t know where I was, so, naturally, I pulled off the interstate. I saw a sign for McDonald’s – somewhere miles off the highway – and I wanted an Egg McMuffin and that was that.
My country mouse in the big city fears kicked in and I kept watching for someone with a knife, a gun, or bigger muscles than mine, who might want to rob me of the $4.39 in my pocket.
My overactive imagination was not fulfilled and I got back into the car safe and sound.
Then, somehow, I managed to get on the wrong road and didn’t catch my error until I saw a sign saying not “Waynetown” or even “Crawfordsville,” but “Chicago.” I swore and then realized I was a cussing preacher that Sunday.
I turned around, found my way back to I-74 and headed east again on my incredible journey.
As interesting as the first two parts of the trip had been, the last part, after I exited at Waynetown onto Indiana 25 was much more interesting. I was about to enter the Indiana wilderness.
Instead of lessening, the rain poured harder the closer I got to Victory. A warning from on high? I wondered.
Waynetown was a clean, pretty little town with a Disneyesque downtown. I marveled at the old buildings and wondered why they were built new in that style but new downtown buildings proved to be so plain, so chromed, and so unlikable.
I drove out of town, reached the “T” where 25 turned south again and I said, “Next stop, Victory, Indiana.”
I was talking back to the Chicago radio station that was playing on my AM-only car radio.
Like a radio beacon for airplane pilots or a friendly signal at sea, I felt that as long as I could hear my favorites, WGN and WLS, I was able to go home again. I had thought about heading west, to see what living in Los Angeles was like, but one reason I didn’t was because I didn’t want to cut that tether to my Chicago radio stations.
Then, State Road 25 ended. It just stopped. At State Road 32.
Oh, sure, the road seemed to go on. I mean, it was paved and everything, but the sign said State Road was ending and, I thought it should have also said, “travel ahead at your own risk.”
I had already seen country farmland. Now, the fields gave way to forest. If there were houses around, they were well hidden.
The road became more twisted with curves banked the wrong way.
“I’m glad this Pinto is a small car,” I thought as I made my way down the road.
The rain was now falling so hard it seemed to splash as high as my fenders. And most of it was being thrown at the windshield, but not before it picked up every bug, every bud and every bit of road grime and oil, depositing them all on the windshield.
My windshield wipers couldn’t make up their minds – would they help me or join the coalition that seemed to be working to turn me back to my college town, chalk this up to an interesting Sunday morning drive and apologize to Allen for letting him and the church down.
The latter thought kept me going.
I was committed to the idea that the Lord Jesus cares a great deal for His church and we mustn’t take that love lightly, so doing less than my best simply wasn’t an option.
I pressed on, thinking I would either find Victory or another highway or run out of gas and be eaten as carrion before my bleached bones were found months later.
Finally, I drove past a grayish church building on the left side of the road and a group of buildings that looked like they were being cast in a live version of L’il Abner’s Dogpatch.
That can’t be a town called “Victory” I thought and decided to keep on driving.
Then, on the right, I saw what looked like a school gymnasium, one of the landmarks Mr. Zellers told me to watch for in Victory.
“Oh, no,” I groaned aloud, slamming on the brakes. “This can’t be my appointment with destiny. Not this place!”
Then another thought cheered me.
“Maybe the people won’t like me.”
I backed up the distance of two city blocks, in driving rain, hoping I wouldn’t hit a person, an animal or another vehicle.
For the first time that morning, the Lord seemed to be watching out for me.
I made it to the corner and turned on the street in front of the church.
The streets, amazingly, were paved.
I later learned the paving was part of a WPA project during the Great Depression, some 40 years earlier.
The WPA workers must have done a good job; the streets were in better shape after 40 years than most city streets after five years.
Inside, the Sunday school was singing joyfully. Out of tune and almost screaming, but joyfully.
The song leader was a plump, middle-aged woman with bleached hair that was the color of dishwater
Her head bobbed in time with the chorus, like a parakeet I once owned.
The Sunday school superintendent got up from his seat behind the pulpit.
“Are there any announcements this morning?” he asked.
Hearing none, he said, “Classes may take their places.”
I stayed in the sanctuary, near the door so I could make a quick escape if so inclined, not really knowing where a college-age class might be held.
“It looks as if we have a visitor,” the teacher said.
Clearing my throat I over-enunciated my words, trying to sound as I imagined a “reverend” would sound to these people.
“I’m Kelly Stevens,” I said. “I may be preaching for you later.”
My announcement was met with a few snickers and titters.
“Very well,” the teacher said.
He pulled a lectern from a group of pews at the front of the church and began teaching the class.
Following Sunday school, the superintendent took his place again and announced that since it was the last Sunday of the month, it was time to award the banner.
A deep blue cloth banner was presented. It had the words “Attendance Banner” in white above a design. It was suspended by a gold string with tassels on each end. The banner could have been hung from a nail, but I never saw any class display the banner in such a way. It was usually draped over a chair in the classroom.
“Class 7 wins the banner this time,” he announced, as the song leader fiddled with her songbook, apparently in a hurry to get the service over.
Everyone, except me, seemed to know which class was Class 7. Everyone applauded until an 8-year-old girl made her way to the pulpit to receive the banner.
Between services, one of the deacons introduced himself and asked me to follow him.
I soon realized why the song leader wanted to get the singing over. As soon as Sunday school was dismissed, about two-thirds of the attendance left the building.
Although people filled about two-thirds of the church, the place looked like a vacant storehouse. The Sunday school had been boisterous and had so packed the little church building that when the worship congregation remained it seemed very sparse.
I might have thought they were all leaving because of my announcement about preaching in worship. But, in the Sunday school room, as they called it, I looked about and saw an interesting framed document.
It announced the formation of the Victory Union Sunday School and had been dated many years earlier.
So, I surmised, the Sunday school was not made up of just the Christian Church, but other churches must participate as well.
“Where are they all going to worship?” I asked another man who saw me studying the document.
“Oh, lots of those people are Methodists and Lutherans,” he told me. “They’re going home.”
“Oh?”
“Yes. Their churches were closed years ago. Now they come to Sunday school and then leave.”
“Why don’t they stay and worship here?” I asked.
He shrugged and was saved from answering by an announcement from an older man, who seemed to be in charge.
“Uhh, I want you guys to meet Kelly Stevens,” he said, rubbing his hands together. The man’s gray hair was combed straight back and held in place with what used to be called the “greasy kid stuff”.
“This is Kelly. He’s a student at an Illinois college and he wants to be our next minister.
“Do any of you have questions for him?”
The following silence led me to believe that a) they were not interested in me already, b) they had already talked it over and decided to hire me, or not or c) I already had the answer as to why this town looked like Dogpatch.
“Let us pray.”
I thought they might ask me to pray, to see if I could do it, but the chairman of the board, Frank Zellers – I later learned his name – asked a blessing on the service.
The board walked into the sanctuary together, led by the preacher (me). I later learned it was a tradition began when the new Sunday school rooms were completed.
Being new to the situation, I went to the far aisle and walked toward the pulpit. I watched the song leader, trying in vain to stay in step with him. The rest of the board came in behind us; two elders taking their seats on either side of the communion table and two deacons seated in the pew immediately in front of the pulpit.
When the piano stopped, the congregation sang “The Doxology”; I said, “Let us pray.” And we recited “The Lord’s Prayer”.
I got through the service OK, but I noticed some looks of disapproval on the faces of members who were not used to their minister reading his sermon from a manuscript.
I was nervous enough and was glad to look at the sheets of paper in front of me instead of the congregation.
After the service, everyone filed out with the exception of Frank Zellers and another elder.
I had not been paid and groaned inwardly, thinking I would have to pay for gas out of my own meager funds.
The two men questioned me about my family, my beliefs, my education and so forth.
That was all there was to it. I was hired on the spot as the new minister of the Victory Christian Church, Victory, Indiana.
Almost as an afterthought, Frank handed me a check for $15. We shook hands and I left the little church, feeling exultant for reasons I could not fathom.
It was only as I drove north, out of town, that I realized we had not discussed salary. I groaned again.
In the following weeks I learned the church would pay me $100 to drive from Illinois – three hours each way – to preach on Sunday. Before long, there were other duties I would “enjoy.”