Gerald Haynes always considered himself poor in geography, but he had no idea just how poor he was. There he sat bewildered in his sky blue 1988 Chevy Nova on the corner of West 42nd and Eighth Avenue, staring at the Port Authority of New York as if it were an alien spacecraft. Where is Pennsylvania Station?
He chugged his old car around the corner and drove down to Tenth Avenue and up to 44th Street. Pulling out his cellular phone, he sighed and dialed Melinda's daughter. Four rings later she picked up, exasperated, as if she were driving around the city at midnight.
"Hello?" she said.
"I can't find your mother."
"Are you sure you're at Penn Station?"
"Um, that's what I called you for," he said, turning off the engine, which was a bad idea for that old car in the cold December air. "Where is Penn Station?"
Melinda yawned and Gerald could picture her rolling her eyes and sitting up in her bed. He imagined her muttering to herself and waving her hands in disgust. She was such an unappreciative young girl who grew up to be a spoiled brat of a woman. Her mother wasn't much better, but at least there was something akin to a good side with her. If Melinda's mother Janice Champ liked you then she'd do anything for you. If Melinda Champ liked you, well, you must be her reflection.
"Penn Station is in Manhattan," Melinda said.
"Uh yeah," Gerald replied. "But where?"
"Why are you bothering me?" she asked. "Ask a cop or something."
"Melinda, I'm picking up your mother. Now the least you can do is help me out here."
She sighed an exasperated "Hold on." Under her breath, but just loud enough for him to hear, she said, "I don't know why he volunteered if he didn't know where he was going."
Gerald clicked off his phone. What was the point of torturing himself? As he wiped his smooth black face, considering himself way too stressed out for a 40-year old man, he tried to start the engine again relieved, it turned over.
If Ms. Janice wasn't such a valuable church member of the 100-member strong Holy House of Worship, and he wasn't a young preacher in need of help, then he'd be home sleeping. But things were what they were and he needed someone to pick up the head of the Women's Fellowship, which, incidentally, ran the church.
"I'll call information," he said to himself.
Gerald opened up his Nokia cellular phone again. The battery icon on the right hand side had a slash going through it.
"This can't be happening," he said to himself.
He was digging in his pocket for change when suddenly someone knocked on his windshield. He cried out and grabbed his chest. Then he looked out his window and there was a young, attractive girl staring at him. She wore an obscenely short skirt with a blouse showing so much cleavage that Gerald wondered why did she bother dressing. He leaned over and manually rolled down the passenger side window just a bit. If anyone knew where Penn Station was, she probably did. He wanted to ask quickly and then brush her off, maybe give her a few dollars, but by no means sustain a conversation. The last thing he wanted was for it to get back to his church that the 40-year old pastor was hanging out with hookers in the city.
"What you want baby?" the young girl asked him in a slightly Southern accent.
She was short, maybe 16-years old, with dirty blonde hair. She wore lots of make up on the left side of her reddening face and hardly any on the right.
"I want to know where Penn Station is," he asked, looking around.
"That's all you want?" she asked, seductively.
Gerald put the car in drive. He had enough games for one night.
"Thirty-fourth and Eighth," the woman said.
"What's that?" Gerald replied.
"Penn Station," she said. "It's on 34th Street between 7th and 8th."
"Oh," Gerald said. "Well thanks."
"I should charge you for the info, but you don't have any money."
"How do you know that?" he playfully asked.
"Your car," she deadpanned.
Gerald laughed. The young woman smiled and for an instant she looked familiar. But he couldn't remember where he might have seen her. Gerald thought he'd look into her desperate face and ask her, but that would sound like a come on line.
Hey foxy mama haven't I seen you someplace before? And by the way how much?
Still, this girl's face was familiar and he had to ask if they touched bases somewhere. It was a ludicrous suggestion that a 40-year old black preacher and a barely 16-year old white girl could have crossed paths in a city of 9 million people. But he had to ask.
"Don't I know you?"
"If you want to."
"No seriously, don't I?"
She shook her head. Gerald wasn't done.
"Have you ever been to or by Holy House of Worship in Brooklyn?"
"Church?!" the prostitute asked as if it were a dirty word. "Why would I go there?!"
Suddenly a blue and white car turned the corner. The girl quickly walked away and Gerald opened up his cellular phone and pretended to be using it. As the NYPD patrol car slowly passed Gerald's idling car the officers glared at him. He returned the look with a smile after pretending to close his phone in frustration. Suddenly they turned on their sirens and sped off into the night. Gerald sighed a breath of relief and looked down the street. The girl had disappeared and he still didn't know why she looked so familiar to him.
The next morning Gerald dragged himself out of his bed. Having just enough energy to pour the milk over his cereal, he refused to put it back in the refrigerator. It sat in front of him like a trophy. With nothing else to look at, he began to spin the milk carton around.
Then he saw it.
Sixteen-year-old Tonya Carter from Oklahoma City was reported missing three months ago. And there it was, an innocent little girl smiling. She looked nothing like the sad hooker he had just seen last night.
"Oh shoot," he said. "I see her every morning!"
But what should he do now? He had to help. He decided to buy her ticket to Oklahoma. Surely she realized by now that running away to New York was a mistake. The church wouldn't like him taking money out of their savings account, but he had to do it. Wasn't this what church was all about -- a chance to do something good and more than just jumping around all the time?
Gerald tossed his uneaten cereal in the sink and got dressed. Like it or not, Holy House was going to save Tonya Carter.
He was at the teller's window taking $300 from his savings account. Gerald had no idea how much a train (or plane) ticket to Oklahoma would cost, but he figured $300 should cover it.
As he stood to the side and counted out the 20-dollar bills, he heard a voice behind him.
"Gerald?" a voice from behind him said. "What are you doing? Are you going somewhere?"
He turned around. It was Janice.
"No," he deadpanned.
"Thought you were broke."
"I have a little cash," Gerald said.
"Honey, please don't tell me that's church savings!"
"It's my money," Gerald said.
"Okay," Janice replied.
"Look," he said. "I have to be honest here. I met this woman and..."
"Just listen," Gerald said as they moved to a not so private corner. "She needs help. She's on the back of a milk carton and I'm trying to help her get home."
"A runaway?" Janice asked in obvious disdain. "You're trying to save a runaway?"
"She's been forced to work the streets."
"A hooker?" Janice asked. "You're spending Holy House money on a hooker?"
"It's my money!"
"From our offerings!"
"Look it's not like I'm soliciting a prostitute! I'm just trying to get her to come to the Christmas play, hear the message of Jesus Christ and then send her home."
"But a hooker?"
"Janice, what are we about if we don't help people?"
"Why not let the police help her?"
"They haven't yet and they can't do everything."
"And neither can we," Janice said. "I don't want to have a skinny tree because our 40-year-old pastor is helping a hooker!"
"Jesus wouldn't care about such things."
"Yes he would."
"Jesus wants us to care about the downtrodden."
"Oh save it for Sunday," Janice said. "We'll talk about this Gerald!"
Gerald drove back to Tenth Avenue and 44th Street. Standing on the corner was Tonya. Her fur coat was wide open as men drove past her. She wore heels and fishnet stockings and she stuck her head inside a few windows and waved them off. Gerald drove up before she decided to do more than put her head in one of those cars.
He drove up to her and honked his horn.
"You again?" she cooed.
"How do you know my name?"
He lifted the carton to the window on the passenger side. Tonya saw her own face and covered her mouth.
"They're really looking for me," she said softly
"Do you want to go home?" Gerald asked.
She nodded but then she looked past him and shook her head.
"What?" Gerald asked.
He turned around and there was a black SUV pulling up.
"I can't talk now!" Tonya exclaimed.
Gerald pulled out a crisp $20-bill with his a Holy House of Worship business card.
"I'll be here tomorrow! I'll get you home."
Tonya snatched the bill and the card. Then she quickly walked away onto the next waiting car, which she promptly jumped in. Gerald sighed as the SUV passed him.
The Christmas play was over and Tonya had not arrived. It was time for Gerald, as pastor, to say a few closing remarks.
He opened his Bible, but his mind darted back to Tonya's dilemma. He scanned the congregation and Janice and Melinda's glare met his glaze.
"Yesterday," he said to the entire congregation. "I withdrew $300 from my own account and I did it for a prostitute." There was an eruption as outraged congregants shouted in their rage. "But she's a runaway who just wanted to go home and had no way to get there," he said. The congregants began to quiet down a bit. "And you know what bothered me? When I told her about church, she repeated the word as if it were dirty!
"This is supposed to be where God's grace meets the world. And yet, we Christians have become synonymous with unforgiveness. Jesus said in Matthew 25:40 that inasmuch as you do unto the least of these, you do unto Him. It was a parable sure, but the meaning is clear. If you do anything good in His name, it's like doing good to Him. Why have we forgotten that? If Tonya Carter walked in that door right now..."
And then Gerald was silenced. He stared at the door and lifted up his hands. The congregation turned around to see what had suddenly captured his attention and there was a strange girl wearing fishnet stockings and a fur coat. She was crying.
Gerald walked off the pulpit and through the stunned congregation.
"I want to go home." Tonya whispered.
"Of course," Gerald replied. There was a bruise over her left eye and her lip was swollen. Gerald turned back around and noticed Janice and her daughter seething at him.
"This is how we show the love of God!" Gerald cried. "Amen?"
"Do you see this?" Janice cried to the congregation. "He spent our money on that hooker!"
Gerald closed his eyes and the church mumbled and hissed. He led Tonya off the stage and into his office. He told her that despite what she had seen in the church, Jesus really did love her.
Tonya was scared to death, but she caught the midnight train to Oklahoma after calling her grateful parents. He never found out what she ran away from, but she was happy to go home on Christmas morning. Sitting in his office, getting ready for Christmas service, he was suddenly summoned to the Women's Fellowship room. He slunk in there, ready for his punishment.
"We're relieving you of some of your duties," Janice informed him.
"Isn't that a Deacon's Board decision?" he asked.
"Do you see a deacon?" she asked.
"I don't regret what I've done," Gerald said. "I let God use me to save a life. Now if you want to sit here Sunday after Sunday and not care about the world, fine. But Jesus came to minister to the sick and we're His body on earth. People like Tonya Carter are exactly the kind of people Jesus wants us to help. So go ahead, relieve me. I've had about enough of you."
Janice nodded. Suddenly she said, "I meant that we're reliving you of your duties in the Drama club."
"Oh," Gerald replied. "I didn't mean..."
"Yes you did," Janice said. "And you are right."
Gerald nodded. He knew that this was the best apology Janice could muster up.
"Merry Christmas Janice," Gerald said.
"Merry Christmas Gerald."
He nodded and walked out the office. The following service, Gerald preached about Jesus Christ being the greatest gift to mankind and we honor Him by doing good works in His name.
When Gerald returned home late that evening, Tonya Carter and her family was on his answering machine wishing him a belated Merry Christmas as Hark the Herald played in the background. They said they just wanted to thank the man that God used to answer their prayers and bring their daughter home.