A Small Job for God

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The
Supreme Court decision declaring it unconstitutional for athletes
to pray before games was not just a blow to religious freedom. For
all us in Prosperity, Texas, the decree was downright dangerous.

A
lot of good people here spent years flushing all the praying types
out into open places where the worst that could happen was a few
broken legs or an occasional fractured skull. The real reason high
school football in Texas has a quasi-religious nature is because
it’s a place where the only sin is losing the game. For many of
us, it has the added advantage of being a place fairly devoid of
flammable materials to pique the interest of arsonists.

Some
of us assume the worst, but our old teacher, Mrs. Bentley, would
have scoffed. Assumptions were the bane of all mankind, she’d say.
Some of the events that played out here some years ago might lend
some weight to that.

When
we were in sixth grade, she devoted the entire year to making sure
we would never be guilty of assuming anything. She delighted in
making sure we understood we not only lived in a fool’s paradise,
but in demonstrating that we were possibly the biggest fools in
it.

The
school day began, then, with a prayer. This was before it was learned
how truly dangerous that might be. We prayed prayers that might
last for a long time, not because we were really into it, since
we had already made up our minds on the matter, but because we dreaded
the day's lesson which usually consisted of something on the order
of a sing-song session of verb conjugation. At the time, praying
for the rain the farmers needed, but at the same time dooming all
our daddies who were in the building trades, to be unable to pay
their bills down at the lumber yard seemed less like courting disaster
than the days’ lessons.

Mrs.
Bentley would begin the lesson on verbs in a melodious voice. “Sing,”
she would trill. We would repeat the verb, then conjugate the “chorus,”
“Sing, sang, sung,”

“Ring,”
Mrs. Bentley would sing. “Ring, rang, rung,” we would rhyme, beaming
with pride at our newly found talent for conjugating verbs.

“Bring,”
she would sing, sounding every bit like a bell. Too late, we would
rhyme again, “Bring, brang, brung.”

By
the time we all caught on to that, she’d throw in a noun such as
“thing,” which had all the possibilities of making recesses only
dim memories. “Singing isn’t thinking,” she’d say, which perhaps
quashed an untold number of budding musical careers, although there
were those confrontational types who insisted, to no avail, that
“thang,” and ‘thung” could be words that one day might find some
venue. There was always the possibility, she taught us, that even
she might fall into error.

Punctuation
exercises were other ways we might fall into error. She once asked
us to punctuate, “She had freckles on her butt I love her.” This
was designed, no doubt, to see if we knew the difference between
a noun and a conjunction, but knowing Mrs. Bentley, it had the effect
of making some of us feel like trapped rats. Since it was merely
verbalized, some chose to write the noun, and some the conjunction.
It could doom at least half of us to failure with the added bonus
for Mrs. Bentley of determining which students might bear watching
for tendencies toward thoughts a little less than “pure.”

For
a long time, Prosperity, Texas, was pretty big on such things as
prayer and purity and might have remained that way were it not for
George Ridley.

George
was the first one to put in a bar within a thousand square miles
of a truly dry Texas prairie. To say it was less than a popular
place would have been to exhibit true ignorance. Unfortunately,
George misjudged the true thirst of certain of the inhabitants.
He located his bar smack in the middle of town, right next door
to The Church of God.

It
helped, or hurt a lot, depending on ones thirst that he named it
Georgie’s Girl after his favorite movie. He put the name up on a
rather large neon sign that might lead one to believe it was a low-end
cabaret.

For
a time Brother Bob, the pastor of The Church of God, was merely
content to preach about the evils of drink. Whatever possessed him
to make matters worse, no one knows, but before long, he blew a
good deal of the building fund to erect an equally large neon sign
that read: THE CHURCH OF GOD-PARADISE FOR SINNERS. Some of the parishioners
were scandalized by the garish display, but Brother Bob was equal
to the challenge of the deacons and a few others. “If the Devil
can have neon on his places, God can have neon on his,” he said,
pounding his fist on the pulpit. It has always been something that
signaled finality in fundamentalist churches, not unlike a judge
with a gavel. Only this time, there was nothing final, only a lull
before the proverbial storm. In the Tornado Alley of Texas, that
spells: baseball-sized hail driven by seventy-mile-per-hour winds.

In
the meantime, the town was growing a bit. George married and had
three little girls. He altered his sign to commemorate the events,
a pharmacist by the name of Hiram Van Alstyne, a name that no one
could pronounce, put in a drug store and an adjoining tack and saddle
shop. The only growing in The Church of God was Brother Bob’s growing
agitation that “things pertaining to God” were not growing according
to some schedule only he knew.

The
storm that struck soon after, and changed things forever, was not
some storm of the century, as they say, just the ordinary kind that
we have almost every time it rains. It turned Prosperity into a
little Las Vegas Strip of sorts. What was left of the neon signs,
after a withering barrage of hailstones, now read from the Interstate:
GEORGIE’S GIRLS- PARADISE FOR SINNERS-DRUGS-SPURS-ICE CREAM. It
was a place, as one said later, “that really brought out the country
boy in me.” Whether he was referring to some “down home” innocence
or just an inability to deal with the recent and unheard of traffic
snarls, no one seems to know.

It
was a turn of events that might have done in a lesser man than Brother
Bob, but again, he rose to the occasion. “What’s needed now is for
us to pray for another act of God!” he said, bellowing from the
pulpit. “What’s needed is a miracle!” he went on. “Not hailstones,
this time, but something on the order of fire and brimstone! It’s
a small job for God, I can tell you that, but it’s gonna take a
lot of prayer. They’re all saying we come down here ever’ time the
doors open, but people, they ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

A
real miracle might have been to convince The Cap Rock Fire and Casualty
Company, even with tens of thousands of shareholders, to just fix
the neon signs. At the time, God seemed more of a pushover than
the insurance company, and so, the congregation agreed. For an entire
year they prayed. And loud enough to be heard all over town and
heaven too, for God to smite the source of all the sin. Namely,
George’s bar.

Now,
George was known to be something of an atheist, but no one was for
sure since he was fairly young and nowhere near passing the test
of all mortality. Unfortunately for The Church of God, he came into
the fold far short of a death bed conversion, and fairly quickly
at that on the night Georgie’s Girls was struck by lightning. It
burned to the ground in less than thirty minutes. By the following
morning, George had filed suit against The Church of God for bringing
the wrath of God down on his establishment.

The
suit went down in the annals of Texas case law as possibly one of
the more bizarre, which is saying a lot. It was a case where an
atheist argued on behalf of an “act of God” and against a church
that argued on behalf of the Devil, as in, “just a devilish storm.”

In
court, Rodney Brown down at the Cap Rock Fire and Casualty Company
weighed in for George with his tens of thousands of shareholders
although George didn’t have any insurance with them. They had the
uncommon good sense to add “war” to “acts of God” as exemptions
in their policies, but unfortunately for The Church of God, left
out “acts of the Devil” as being either non-existent or fairly unworkable
due to their exorbitant premiums.

George
won, of course, what with the jury being mostly people of the faith.
It isn’t known how many might have been stock holders in Cap Rock
Fire and Casualty, but at least one witness opined during the trial
that few, if any, insurance companies ever burn down what with all
those millions of policy disclaimers giving God his due. It was
a fact not lost on George.

Having
to rebuild George’s bar depleted what was left of The Church of
God’s building fund and so far they seem even unable to make needed
repairs. It seemed to disturb them a great deal less than George
renaming the bar. He named it The Saloon of God and erected a sign
that said so. So far, it seems to have escaped the most recent hail
storms. Others have not been so fortunate. The one on the church
next door now only reads: Paradise for Sin.

June
22, 2000

Judith
Vinson is a Texas rancher.

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