The Minstrel

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Rain. The rain had been falling for two days, since the week after the riots. There had been a drought of sorts since then, no rain had fallen from the time of the indictment until now. God’s judgment for the sins of liars and thieves, cried the ministers on their low-frequency radio waves. Emmanuel and Williams were praying together for grace and strength for the church in this time of crisis. The congregation was being affected. The white segment had all but disappeared from the church. Emmanuel couldn’t help but feel scorn at their cowardice in times of trouble. He couldn’t conjure forgiveness as easily as Brother Williams seemed so adept at doing so.

Lately, Emmanuel was in a constant inexplicable state of anxiety. Prayers were a chore. There seemed to be a soundproof barrier between him and God, one too high for him to be able to climb and for God apparently to listen. He felt like Job when he was afflicted and seemed like God wasn’t speaking to him. He came to Brother Casper Williams for counsel; he was the only one that he could even remotely show he was human, he couldn’t break in front of anyone else. Brother Williams was convinced that the culprit of Emmanuel’s setback was the arrival of the stranger from his past. Satan had strange ways of trying to undermine the elect, was his explanation. The devil was using Emmanuel’s past as a stumbling block to his future. There was no reason for Emmanuel to feel guilty about what happened, murder or no murder. After all, Paul of Tarsus was had been a murderer when he was called Saul. He killed those he was later called by God to serve when He transformed him into Paul. God had a mighty vision for him. God was doing it for Emmanuel, and he would continue to do so, provided that he didn’t let Satan trap him into a sense of false guilt.

But Williams’ words rang into an empty soul. At that moment, Emmanuel felt stripped of an identity. He felt unworthy to be the leader of a flock, so he felt no connection to his role of pastor. The rest of him felt like an open sore that shamed him when the mirror of truth reflected upon him. Unclean, unclean, it said. Stay outside the walls of Jerusalem because you are unclean. The mirror of truth did not reflect a pure lamb washed by the blood of Jesus. It reflected Emmanuel the gangster, Emmanuel the dealer, Emmanuel the john. Emmanuel the pastor, who seemed like some idea of a joke next to all that, was afraid of these three men, but he couldn’t escape the fact that all four of them dwelled within the same temple. He found it impossible to throw those men into the sea of forgetfulness as Brother Williams admonished to do. He wondered if Paul ever had, or if his past was his proverbial thorn in his side in Romans, if Paul’s past led him to do what he didn’t want to do in Romans as well. He certainly felt doomed himself.

Patience, gentleness; the fruits of the Spirit. Emmanuel had been baptized two weeks after he had been saved in the prison chapel, and even now remembered the power he felt when he was flung under the water, the power that surged as he was submerged. He had never felt power like that, even when his life was threatened on the streets, even when the time came when he had power to take a life. No, this power was giving life, and it was the first time he could ever believe that good was more powerful than evil; that his life had possibility of doing good. Before, goodness had always been a sign of weakness to him. In fact, even his being saved had been expression of his powerlessness. It had been utter helplessness that drove him to his knees before the Lord. Just two weeks later, he felt useful and alive again. That he would be able to turn around even the tragedy of his woman’s death and bring good from it. Romans 8:28 promised it. God would bring good for all those who loved Him; God was faithful to keep His promises.

But that power evaded him now. Little by little, over the years, instead of getting stronger, it escaped from him, like a small leak in a giant balloon slowly, it became more a faded glory than the Glory of the Living God. This terrified him, panicked him. He was supposed to be the leader of many, in control, in charge. He was supposed to lead them to the Source of Power, and through that, they looked to his power to do that. How was he supposed to be a reservoir of strength when he was sapped of the very essence that made up the core of his spiritual life?

It was in the middle of praying with Williams that Emmanuel voiced what he was going to do. He was leaving. He would not lead anymore.

It hadn’t taken Emmanuel long to come to this decision. He was tired of putting on an act, tired of acting stronger than he really was. Each Sunday he mouthed words that he knew he was supposed to believe but sounded like a foreign language upon his ears. The past that he had held at bay for so long was with him now. It was not something he’d discussed with anyone in his church, nothing about the gangs, the violence, or the pimping. It sounded too seedy for even his ears. They’d known about the drugs, but drugs didn’t sound so bad. They were done by socially upright people with family and jobs at a party every so often. Most people knew some one who did them and carried on with life like they were drinking coffee. They might even know some people who hustled a little grass here and there. But pimping, killing, killing little girls

When he looked into the mirror, he saw a human tumor, not an angel saved by grace. A little girlwhat could he have been thinking? What purpose had it served to mutilate an innocent life like that? Her mother, her screamsthen killing, maiming her. What had she done? The eyes of the father as he was held back, pummeled, forced to watch his family taken from him. His eyes, watching, judging. He had made them close as much to turn our the light that shone upon his evil deeds as to complete the mission he’d set out to do, but even before he’d pulled the trigger on the father, he knew he had the wrong man. The eyes told him so.

He thought back to his seminary days. At the time, the whole idea of going there made him uncomfortable. Emmanuel had quit school before he received his high school diploma. Actually, he’d been expelled. Expelled from public school. He’d brought a gun to school and showed it to a teacher when the Uncle Tom told him he should be in class and not roaming the halls. SO at sixteen, he had his whole life in front of him, and nothing to do with it. The idea of a university then and once he became a pastor was a joke to him. It was an institution of snobbery and racism where the rich little white kids got a chance at a better life, and the only black kids who got there were the ones lucky enough to get there because of their feet or the way they threw a ball; and they were always treated as less than because their smarts were of the street kind and not the kind you would find hidden in a book. He was educated by the university of the streets, where you learned real life and where you could earn respect in spite of or even because of being black. He loved to walk down the streets of the rich white snobs in his full gang regalia and watch the whole lot of them cower from him in fear. Several times he’d gotten arrested for loitering. He hadn’t cared. It had been worth the fun.

Jackson Emmanuel was his real name. It had been a real major obstacle his whole life. People had expected too much of him, somehow attributing to him the role of angel and Savior all in one breath, all because of his name. He had been a preacher’s son, too, though he’d been a child born of sin. The only time he ever saw his Papa was the time when he was a guest on Oral Roberts’ show, telling the world how he’d delved into a life of sin even as a saved man but he’d turn his back on that now, spent time with his wife and two sons. Emmanuel was the third. He was only eleven when he saw the show, but even then, he wondered if he was part of that life that his father put behind. In the mind of a newly sanctified man, Emmanuel’s existence was deemed unworthy and unclean.

That didn’t stop his Momma from loving the ghost of his father. Her dream was for one day having her son to be a great holy man like his father. She would go around, making predictions for him, saying all the things he was going to do as a great holy man. He would inspire hope and Jesus in the black ghetto. Emmanuel hated the expectation, mostly because deep inside, he didn’t think he’d be able to fulfill it. His father’s rejection of him was damning, made him think that holiness to high a goal to attain. Living a holy life took effort that he didn’t have the strength to do, especially in a place where to turn the other cheek could mean death. The streets captured his soul early on. They were the family who accepted him. He didn’t want to follow his father, a hypocrite. He didn’t want to follow in the footsteps of someone too cowardly to acknowledge him, anyway. His father was not someone he considered worthy of respect. Neither was the God he supposedly followed, if He even existed.

When he left school, he left his Momma’s home. He couldn’t bear to face her tears anymore. Each time she had to bail him out of jail, come to the school, or got a call from the hospital that he’d been busted up again, he had to face her tears. He could tolerate a beating from her more than seeing her heartbroken. They ripped at what little conscience he had left. She worked so hard to support her three boys, each from men who had promised to stay and left; they all represented the love she tried to hold on to. And this life he led was how he repaid her, with violence and guns, a juvenile delinquent of a son. His older brother Samuel was already dead when Jackson left, dead of an overdose. As far as he could see, Emmanuel was just as dead as he.

He started with the drugs then. At first, he just sold them, they were a quick way to get money, soon the only way for a black boy with no education to make money. It wasn’t long before he started sampling his products; initially, his rationalization for his usage was that he wanted to make sure that his product was pure; after all, competition was stiff. Soon, he didn’t need the excuse. The drugs made him high. He felt good. The drugs helped him escape the disease that he was and the decay that was his world.

Since the reappearance of his nemesis, Emmanuel had a strong desire to return to that world. It had been twelve years since his last drugging episode, and the Lord had been more than generous in providing abundant joy in that time, but he wanted to throw it all away. The pain he was feeling was too unbearable . Twelve years ago, he’d became a killer. Eleven years ago, he became an angel of God. Instead of sounding like a statement of showing the grace a and wonderful mercy of God, it sounded like a crazy joke. Looking into his eyes, he didn’t feel forgiven. He felt condemned all over again.

Valesquez. The name popped into head. It sounded familiar in a personal sense, though he couldn’t quite attach the name with a face. The same name had popped up before. With a disquieting feeling, he wondered if it was the name of the thorn in his side. Emmanuel really didn’t want to know his name. It would make his crime more real, more personal. In order to put his crime behind him, Emmanuel needed to have no identification to it, no names, places, or anything else that was with him now. This way, he could live with the fabrication that it was part of another existence and that he truly had been born again to a new life.

The spirit in him was dead. Gone was the life that God had so freely given him so long ago in his time of need, and instead in its wake was desolation, the haunting that plagued him in the quiet days that followed that last arrest. But all the prayers in the world did not alleviate his suffering as they did then. It would seem that God had deserted him. Methodically, Emmanuel searched Scriptures and stumbled upon the passage in Matthew in which Jesus said all sins would be forgiven except for the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. In his despair, he obsessed over the fact that this Scripture might be the reason for his present darkness, for God had led him to that Scripture, and he could find no other reason why He would do so. The passage condemned him rather than consoled him. He had always tried to love God in these last twelve years. What had he done that was so unforgivable?

Williams lodged a strong protest when Emmanuel informed him of his resignation. He demanded that Emmanuel come before all of the elders before leaving. A shepherd had a duty to his flock, and it was not possible for Emmanuel to shirk that duty. After all, if Jesus said he would never leave or forsake his flock, what right did Emmanuel think he had to act any less? Williams wouldn’t buy Emmanuel’s spiritual valley explanation. That was Satan trying to lure him into a trap. By leaving, Emmanuel was walking right into it.

Emmanuel hardly heard what Williams was saying; all that rang in his ears was the phrase regarding how Jesus would never leave him or forsake him if he believed. HE did believe. SO where was Jesus? Had He lied?

His decision still stood, with or without the approval of the elders. He needed space, away from the incessant needs of the council and the rest of the church. He felt like an empty well being raped for the last two drops of water he had. What he needed was to replenish himself. Jesus had promised that no one who came to him would be thirsty, that he was spiritual drink, for the Samaritan woman and for him. Emmanuel was parched for it, though his doubt in Jesus’ faithfulness was growing. Still, he was clinging to the shred of faith he had left. A mustard seed was all he needed. He hoped.

It was at night when he left the pastoral office for the last time of his life, after carefully packing all that was his and visually taking in the refuge that had been his for years and feeling his heart breaking as it did, feeling that, as he started a new life twelve years earlier, once again, at thirty-nine, he was starting a new empty chapter in his life. What was it supposed to mean? He didn’t know what it was supposed to mean. He didn’t know anything anymore.

It happened twenty minutes later. At first, he felt nothing. It came from behind. His initial reaction to it was that he had some kind of stroke, for suddenly he couldn’t sense any feeling whatsoever in his right side. It was when he collapsed that he saw the real culprit. Looking into a ghost of a dark face, featureless except for vacant dark eyes that caught the light of a stray lamppost, proved to be more terrifying than any pain he felt now. Where was Jesus then, he thought as he tasted the sticky sweetness that was his blood as it slipped from his kidneys and his heart. Jesus, if you exist, please remove me from this terror, he thought, as the oblivion began to take him over.

An eye for an eye. A tooth for tooth. All that a man ever did would come back to him tenfold. Revenge tasted bitter on the tongues of the avenged.

Revenge had made him a permanent prisoner.

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