Chapter 1 of The Underground Railroad
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“…We’ve no less days to sing his praise, than when we’ve first begun.” The congregation finished singing as each member slowly resumed their normal breathing pattern. The piano player’s fingers danced across the old instrument, sending a melodious coda bouncing around the walls of the tiny white church. As the music finished, Karl Adler smiled, gathered several sheets of paper and his hymnal, and walked down the steps that led up to the pulpit. He silently took a seat on the front pew with his wife, Dorothy, and their two rambunctious sons. The boys were grabbing at each other’s shirts and doing their best to bother one another in every possible way like young boys do.
The preacher rose like a great monolith bursting forth from the sea and made his way towards the pulpit. He moved with such a holy finesse that it appeared to some eyes in the congregation that he wasn’t walking at all but gliding through the air like some modern-day Hermes. As he ascended into the pulpit, the sound of his boots could barely be heard thudding against the oaken steps. Once he reached the summit, he turned to the small congregation and breathed deeply.
Joshua’s years had detracted little from either his strength or handsomeness. In fact, as he delivered the Word’s of God each week, he appeared as one of the patriarchs in a Gustave Dore illustration: powerful, stoic and displaying a real authority. His voice had grown gruff and guttural from four decades of tobacco use; yet, it had a sort of melodic, sonorous quality that made it easy to listen to. His jaw was pronounced and heavily squared off with whiskers like freshly cut grass covering from one ear to the other. As he looked out on the congregation, his eyes, black as pitch, seemed to penetrate into the very hearts and minds of the people. He was that rare kind of man that could open one’s intentions as most men open a book; all was laid bare for him. More than one of the congregants had wondered if Saint Peter might employ him to help with the screening process at Heaven’s gates. Over the past twenty-five years of shepherding this flock, Joshua had become a mythic figure. It was something that he had only recently begun to realize and he despised it.
Joshua reached down and very gradually opened the sacred tome that lay before him. He turned each page, one by one, building a tension that he finally broke when his voice sounded through the building.
“Matthew, chapter twelve, verse twenty-five.” Without hesitation, the room was filled with the sound of rustling pages. It slowly faded away. A moment of silence filled the room while everyone sat, waiting to hear what was next. Over two dozen years of preaching had taught Joshua that the worst thing a preacher can do is say too much. A slight sense of anxiety was good for people, he thought. It drew them in and made them listen.
“Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand.” He read the words in an almost staccato manner, emphasizing each but slowly building in volume and intensity. Then, his voice exploded, “We live in difficult times. It is as if Jesus is speaking to our generation: a generation of people who have turned on their neighbors, friends and…” he paused, “even their brothers.”
Nearly the entire congregation was silent. Even the children were listening and although they didn’t understand exactly what this prophet of God meant, they did know that he spoke with an authority that they seldom heard.
“Last week, five men were senselessly killed in Kansas. Murdered…” he shook his head as he continued, “and for what cause?” His hands were thrust into the air and swirled around like he was performing some ancient rite or incantation.
“Is this just? Is it right? I should think not for it was our Lord who spake thus, ‘Resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.’” His words were practically running together as he finished the quotation. The blood pulsed through his face causing it to turn red and making the vein in his forehead protrude slightly. The passion in his voice and countenance was palpable.
“We cannot fight for freedom with instruments of flesh and blood! We might fight with the greatest weapon of all! If we fight, we must fight with a sword that cannot fail. We must fight with the Word of God and with Prayer!” His breathing had grown heavy now and he took a moment to catch his breath. He looked around and made eye contact with each person sitting before him. A few of them looked rather apathetic, others politely nodded in agreement. But one man, Jonathan Winters, seemed to be physically restraining himself from interjecting something. He held the side of the pew in a tight fist.
“This violence that we hear about, it’s coming here. The division that is consuming this union is spreading….spreading like a disease and we know that no kingdom divided against itself can stand. We are on the verge of a violent age that is unprecedented in our history but we must resist the temptation to fight for we have an advocate who is greater than ourselves. We hav—“ Gun shots pierced the air and silenced Joshua’s booming voice. His hand instinctively reached towards his hip but then he thought of himself and placed his hands deliberately on the wooden pulpit.
The congregation exchanged nervous looks that slowly settled on Joshua. He was about to continue his sermon when the doors to the congregation flew open and nearly came off of their hinges. Four men barreled down the aisle and into the church. They stank of rotten tobacco and sweat. The one in front was tall and barrel-chested; his arms were as big around as small tree trunks and he appeared to be solid muscle. He spit a mouthful of brown liquid onto the pristine, wooden floors. Some of it splattered onto the boots of a young man who was seated on one of the middle pews. He started to rise and address the interloper but before he could make it to his feet, he was shoved down to the ground between the two pews. He struggled to get back up and when he did, he decided to keep quiet. The big man walked forward and looked Joshua dead in the eye.
“We’re looking for a handful of negroes. Escaped property of a very wealthy man in Texas.” Before he could get another word out, Joshua leaned forward in the pulpit.
“Get out.” The tone of his voice had changed. He was no longer speaking as a pastor and if they had listened closely, his church might have heard a hint of gunslinger in the words.
“What did you just say?” The big man was so large that he could look Joshua in the eye while he stood on the floor and Joshua remained in the raised pulpit.
“Listen here, old man, all we’re interested in is collecting a bounty. Just let us say our peace.”
“This is God’s house. It ain’t no meeting place, understand?”
The man rested his hand on the gun that hung by his side; he ran his fingers along the wooden handle as he spoke.
“I don’t want more trouble than I got to have. All I want is to collect my bount—“
“You can say whatever you want after our service is over. Right now, we’re having church. And we won’t stop just ‘cause you want to talk.”
And then, without missing a beat, Joshua continued preaching exactly where he had left off.
“We have a God who is greater than flesh and blood and their weapons—“ The big man too another step forward and his hand latched on to the pulpit. He stared into Joshua’s eyes with an intensity that screamed murder.
“I only have one thing to say—“
“And you’re going to wait to say it.”
The two men stood there for a moment, locked in a battle of the wills. To everyone in the room, they appeared to be two great generals or world leaders, neither willing to budge an inch. It would end in war. And then, the bounty hunter gave in. He gave a loud huff, turned around and stormed out of the church, slamming the door behind him as he left. His three partners quickly followed him outside and the last one out, a scrawny boy who couldn’t have been more than sixteen or seventeen, shut the door hard, imitating his leader.
Joshua began his sermon once more except this time no one was listening. Their ears were focused on the sounds that came from just outside the door: the sounds of angry voices yelling, curses being thrown and a fist thudding hard into the wall behind them. Joshua, as calm as ever, preached as if he heard none of it. But he did hear it. And as he spoke, a legion of other thoughts rushed upon him, each vying for his attention. He fought them off one at a time. He was focused on one thing: finishing his sermon.
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