I don’t understand religion and the appeal of it. To tell you the truth, it has always scared the crap out of me. The dogma, the mindlessness of it, the attraction of it, the automatic responses it engenders in those to whom it does appeal. For most of my life, I would go around in a mild state of fear whenever I’d encounter anything approaching a religious service. “When in Rome, do as the Romans,” my mom used to wisely say. And so I would do the minimum to escape the notice of religionists. When they’d pray, I’d bow my head, or (preferably) get out of the line of sight so that I could watch them in this most bizarre exhibition of ritual.
A few years ago, when I delivered mail in a very impoverished area of the city, I would stop daily at a storefront church. I couldn’t say what denomination it could possibly have been, and if truth be told, I’d have to say it was not connected to any denomination at all, and was, in fact, likely created out of some strain or another of the Protestant faith (which excels at spawning all manner of poisonous thought).
I don’t know what purpose the building served before it was transformed into a storefront church, but it was solidly constructed of old brick and mortar, with barred windows, a steel-shuttered front door, and was about 4,000 square feet in size (I estimated, from my experience in my days as a retailer). I rarely saw anyone there, other than the self-appointed minister who drove a rather flashy sedan, who dressed in rather loud (and expensive) hand-tailored suits, and who never spoke (to me). On the rare moments when I’d see him, I would say hello and hand him the mail, and he’d accept the envelopes (some of them obviously heavy with cash or checks), but he never replied to my greetings. Never.
As the US mail is not delivered on Sunday, I didn't have occasion to see what kind of congregation gathered there for services. From the look of the minister’s automobile and of his dress, and of the gold and diamond-encrusted rings I’d seen on his fingers, I assumed the place was drawing them in fairly well. He must have been a decent speaker, for there certainly was no paucity of established churches in the neighborhood. So he was able to pull in his own flock against the tide of various Baptist, Catholic, and AME Zion churches that littered the landscape.
Generally, I never saw anyone at all when I’d deliver the mail to this church. Nineteen times out of twenty the place would be padlocked and I’d just shove the mail through a steel slot in the armored front door. In all kinds of weather I would walk along this mainly warehouse district and when I’d come to the storefront church I’d just cram their allotment of mail through the slot and go about my routine.
However, one day I arrived and the minister’s flashy car was parked in front of the church. The door was standing open and so I walked in. There was an office door also standing open with a desk. Behind the desk was the minister. He was counting money. Lots of it. More cash than I’ve ever seen outside of a bank. He had stacks of bills banded to his right and his left and he was counting money as I walked in. “Hello,” I said to him as I always did, never expecting (by now) a response. True to form, he said nothing, tamped down a stack of bills, and pushed the letters aside as I turned and walked back out of the ersatz church building.
I heard the steel doors slam shut behind me as I walked to my vehicle.
A few days later I got to the storefront location of this minister’s project to find a couple of elderly women standing outside of it. They were trying to look inside, but the windows were barred and shuttered (as they always were), and the door was stoutly locked (as it almost always was) and the only place they could possibly steal a glance would have been through the mail slot. As I dropped the mail in, one of the ladies approached me.
“Do you know where he went?” she asked.
“Minister F-----. Where is he? He didn’t open the church on Sunday and no one knows where he is.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am. I don’t know.”
“He didn’t leave a forwarding address?”
“No.” I thought of the huge stacks of cash. Of the bastard counting it and banding it. Sitting there in the dark, his diamond rings, his tailored suits, his flashy car waiting to take him away with the loot.
“Oh, dear,” she said.
Alas. No forwarding address. No recourse.
I stand out of sight and observe you strange folk and your bizarre rituals. I will not be in Rome.