As he knelt before the altar, Pastor Walsh sighed. He inhaled and the mustiness of the tiny chapel filled his lungs. The slight odor of melted wax from an altar candle wafted in the air.
Again he sighed. The threadbare carpet under his knees spoke not only of the many penitent souls who had sought forgiveness but also of the poverty and age of his congregants. Would this church ever be restored as a light in the darkness of its neighborhood?
From his position before the altar, the rickety wooden benches and the cobwebs in the rafters were invisible to him. Just as well. Even if he looked, he would purposely ignore what his senses screamed out to him. This church was within a decade of dying if something did not happen.
He lifted his gaze to the remaining symbol of the church’s more affluent past.
A shaft of sunlight entered through a cracked window pane and illuminated the jeweled cross on the altar. Long ago, church elders contemplated selling it and using the money to recarpet the floor. They reasoned that new families might come if the chapel decor was not so stark.
Pastor Walsh had argued against the sale. “This cross ties us to those who have gone before us. It’s a symbol of our fellowship with those saints and our own faith. How can we sell it?”
Now he rubbed his weary eyes and wondered if he was wrong.
A chilled breeze stirred dust particles in the ray of light.
Pastor Walsh clambered to his feet and faced the door. “Is someone there?”
He squinted at the shadows at either side of the entrance and saw movement.
“Do you need prayer?”
He heard a sniffle, then a stifled sneeze.
“Who’s there?” He strode down the aisle toward the sound.
A shadow, briefly framed in the autumn sunlight, scurried through the opened chapel door.
Pastor Walsh followed. In a corner of the churchyard under a clump of lilac bushes a trembling shape caught his attention.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” he soothed, approaching the crouched figure with caution. “Come on out.”
A snarling, batwielding boy sprang out from his hiding place and struck him across the left temple. Dazed, the pastor sank to his knees and instinctively covered his head with his arms. His fingertips touched something warm and sticky above his eye before the second and third blows landed.
Urgent voices surrounded him. A cool hand gripped his wrist, took his pulse. Emerging from unconsciousness, he saw Tom Jenks, the church custodian, kneeling beside him. He tasted blood.
Unnatural lights, red, white, blue, and orange, flickered above the church in the night sky. Pastor Walsh struggled to rise. Flames licked at the church roof.
“There’s nothing you can do, Pastor,” Tom muttered, holding him down. “They think they caught the meth-head kid who attacked you and started the fire. He had the altar cross with him. Probably wanted to hock it.”
“The church. . .”
“It’s hopeless. The firefighters are trying to get the fire contained, but I’m afraid the building is a total loss.”
Pastor Walsh closed his eyes in resignation. Selling the altar cross, buying new carpet, links to the past . . . What did it matter now?
A new revelation dawned in his heart. Reopening his eyes, he spoke with a sense of urgency. “Tom, I want you to gather the people here tomorrow morning. We’re going to have a prayer meeting like they’ve never seen before. And one of the first needs we’ll pray for is the salvation of the young man that did this.”
Tom frowned. “Why?”
He clutched Tom’s shirt sleeve. “Don’t you see? Because his soul is worth saving!” Have we so easily lost sight of Your calling, Lord?
As the ambulance paramedics tended to his wounds, Pastor Walsh felt the stirring of the Holy Spirit. People like that boy who lived in this neighborhood, in this city, were perishing everyday. For years, no one had reached out to them. Everyone, including himself, was intent upon survival. But he knew that God’s people were called not to be survivors, but conquerors. The cross of Christ had won that victory and went before them.
He reflected on the revelation that had been given him. Just as the altar cross symbolized the past, this boy was the key to the future. The church building would somehow rise again. When it did, the neighborhood would be ready.
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