Lisa drew a breath between clenched teeth. “I can’t believe he had the nerve to show up here,” she hissed. Jasmine followed her sister’s gaze across the crowded sanctuary and tensed. Their grandmother’s no-good neighbor was sitting there, acting like he belonged at the memorial service. It was almost a slap in the face. How could he be so disrespectful? It was bad enough he pestered Grandma Bess while she was alive, but now?
Jasmine thought back to the last time she and Lisa talked with Grandma Bess about him.
“Grandma, he may be a smooth talker, but he’s really just after your money,” Lisa cautioned.
“She's right,” Jasmine agreed. “He’s like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, preying upon you because you are so trusting. You need to be more careful.”
Grandma Bess listened politely and patted her granddaughters’ hands. Her dark eyes shone stubbornly. “Sometimes you have to look a little deeper,” she told them.
Lisa was indignant. “It’s not because he’s white, Grandma, it’s because he’s been … in prison.” She whispered these last two words, as if to even utter them aloud was unseemly.
Grandma Bess rose from her seat, closing the conversation. “Now, who would like some more sweet tea?”
Jasmine shifted her attention back to the present. The preacher was calling people up to share their stories about Grandma Bess. The stream of people flowed for almost an hour. Tales of Bess helping family and church members filled the room. Then, just as the line slowed to a trickle and the preacher started to call up the choir, a wave of murmuring passed through the crowd.
Jasmine stiffened as she watched the man approach the front. A hush fell over the crowd as he stepped up to the microphone.
“Now, I don’t know most of you, but a lot of you think you know me. I just have one last thing to say about Miss Bess. I need to set the record straight. Not for me, but for her.”
The silence in the room was palpable. Every eye was riveted on the young man, every ear turned in anticipation.
“A lot of you know my parents lived next door to Miss Bess. After they died, I kind of got in with the wrong crowd, and got into some bad stuff. Anyway, I had to go to prison for a few months.” He paused, looking over the crowd nervously before continuing.
“After I was there a week, packages started coming. Each week I would get the mail from my house and a box of homemade oatmeal cookies. I had an attitude, and didn’t want to listen to nobody, but I loved those cookies. I didn’t know who was sending me everything, but I had an idea. Miss Bess knew that I wasn’t about to listen to some do-gooder old black lady, but she got to me anyway.
After about a month, a Bible came with the box. I had time to kill, so I started reading it. I shared some cookies with my cell mate, and he started reading it too. Because of those cookies, I found Jesus.” He wiped a tear from his eyes, and went on, a little shakily.
“I eventually realized that with all the mail, I wasn’t getting any bills. She took care of everything while I was gone. The day I got free, I went to my house and found it cleaned and aired out, with a box of oatmeal cookies on the kitchen table. I went straight to Miss Bess, who told me she prayed for me every day. When I told her I found Jesus, she just cried and cried.”
He looked out over the crowd. “Ya’ll know how good Miss Bess was to her family and friends. The Bible says it don’t do us any good to only love those who love us. Miss Bess took a chance and loved me, when I was the most unlovable. That’s what Jesus did.
With Miss Bess’s help and her recipes, I have a mission of my own. I’m back on my feet again, and I’m sending cookies to the prison until every one of those men knows the love of Jesus. I owe Miss Bess no less.”
With tears running down her cheeks, Jasmine looked over at Lisa. “Grandma was right; we do need to look deeper. I guess he is a sheep after all.”
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