The Kingdom of Heaven
A week earlier, I’d overheard two men talking on the bus.
“Those people will help you out if you don’t have a place.”
The sign said Caritas. It was next to a church. That’s where I went now. The door was locked so I knocked. A woman peeked out.
“I’m sorry, we’re closed,” she said.
She shut the door and I turned to leave. I noticed the landscaping. I might be able to sleep behind some of these bushes, I thought, if someone’s not already there.
I stopped before I got down the steps. I knocked again. The same woman peeked out.
“I’m sorry, we’re closed.”
I could see by the discomfort on her face that she was the type who cared. She let me in and sat me at a desk. I gave her an abbreviated version of my story. I needed a place.
“There’s only one place, if they have room. They may already be full for the night.”
I took the address and left.
The Salvation Army shelter stood in the shadow of larger buildings. Homeless people waited in the yard out front for the doors to open. As I walked up, a man called out.
I looked and saw him leaning against a wall.
“I’ve got a hotel paid up for the week. You can stay with me.”
I didn’t believe him about the hotel. In any case, it wasn’t worth the price.
“Come back if you change your mind.”
Men could stay three nights. Women with children were allowed to stay a week. Women without children got three nights, like the men. A man wrote my name in a ledger. I waited outside until we were led to a cramped room for dinner served cafeteria-style: a slice of bread, a glass of tea, and a bowl of something pink. It took several minutes to make out the broken beans. I wasn’t that hungry.
After dinner men the women and children were led to our quarters, a long room filled with beds. A large white woman took a bed against the wall and spread five children out around her. Somehow, with her foot in a cast and on crutches, she’d gotten them here.
A skinny white girl said she was sixteen and pregnant but she wasn’t showing. A black girl who looked twelve said she was sixteen, and that her white husband was forty. She’d left behind a baby too sick to leave the hospital. A black girl was visibly pregnant. She said her name was Jackie. She was seventeen.
The woman with a broken leg held forth as an authority. She’d spent more time homeless than the rest of us combined. She knew how the system worked and what didn’t. I sat on my top bunk cross-legged and listening, with Jackie on the bed below.
The skinny white girl left to go to the bathroom. When she came back she said she’d just miscarried on the toilet. The women were alarmed.
“What did you do?”
She said, “I flushed it,” and laughed. The middle-aged woman laughed too.
I wanted to leave. I felt out of place. More than out of place, I felt threatened in a way I didn’t when I was alone.
I packed my bag. When I looked up I saw two women in the doorway.
“Does anybody need a place to stay?”
I looked at them.
Black nuns; I hadn’t expected that. I watched the other women hurry, gathering in front of them excitedly. One nun was barely five feet tall and seemed aged. The other nun was tall and broad, and younger; I couldn’t have guessed her age. Both were wearing robes, which fell to their ankles, and matching habits that spilled over their shoulders and draped down their backs. The older one was dressed all in white, the younger one dark blue.
It was the younger one who’d spoken. The women all answered at once.
I sat on the edge of my bunk, watching, and was the last to say, “Me, too.” I hoped I wasn’t too late.
“We have room for everybody,” the younger nun said. “Everyone can come.”
We followed them out and gathered on the sidewalk. Their station wagon was parked out front. It looked like a remnant of war, paint and chrome gone, a sea of rust and dents. The white girl had her own car and offered to carry as many as she had room for. Squeezed between two cars, we barely fit.
I rode in the station wagon, in the front seat between the two nuns; I was already sticking close. The younger one drove and did the talking, while the older one read a large Bible resting on her lap.
“We’re from King Over Kings and Yahvah Over Lords Temple,” the younger one said. “We believe in the Bible, and that salvation comes through Yahshua, the one you know as Jesus.”
They weren’t Catholic.
Inside, I was sure I’d seen crucifixes around their necks, but I saw now they were unadorned.
“I’m Sister Lydia,” the younger one said, “and this is Mother Ruth.”
Mother Ruth, on my right, half-turned and said, “All praise is due to Yahvah most high, Yahshua the son, and the precious Holy Comforter.”
When the older one spoke it sounded almost like singing. When Sister Lydia began again, her voice sounded flat by comparison but also more pointed.
“Yahvah is the Hebrew name of our heavenly father. It’s found in the Hebrew Scriptures nearly six thousand times. Yahshua is is the name of his son, the one you call Jesus, who died for us on the cross.”
“It’s true,” I said. A Christian band Jenny listened to used the name Yeshua. She’d played me some of their songs.
Their place was just east of I-35, not far from downtown. As we pulled up Sister Lydia said, “Welcome to the Lighthouse.”
We gathered in the small dirt yard surrounded by chain link fencing. Chinaberry trees provided shade. Weeds grew against the side of the house and along the boundary.
Before she let us in, Sister Lydia told us the rules.
No drinking or drugs.
No sex unless you were married.
Curfew was at seven. You had to attend church services unless you were working or in school. Church was every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday night, all day Saturday, and every Sunday afternoon.
“We keep the seventh-day Sabbath,” Sister Lydia said. “It lasts from sunset Friday til sunset Saturday. We spend that day in in worship.”
The white girl whispered to the woman on crutches.
It was a shotgun house that stretched the length of the lot, with a single hallway down the center and rooms on either side. Halfway through, a door divided the house front from back. Souls lived in front, and the church lived in back.
The biggest room went to the woman with the broken leg and her children. Sister Lydia put me in a room with the sixteen-year-old girl who’d left a husband and a baby somewhere. Her name was Lisa. She said she’d come from the country and I believed it.
There was no furniture in the room, only a pile of donated clothes we formed into pillows for our heads. We slept side-by-side on the floor. I slept peacefully for the first time in weeks.
The next morning, Lisa and I went through the clothes, taking what we liked. I pulled a Levi’s jacket from the pile.
“But you’ve already got one,” Lisa said. I saw the need and want in her eyes. It was true, I was wearing one already, and she had nothing.
“Yeah,” I said, but kept it.
Lisa didn’t trust the church.
“There’s something off,” she said. “Something’s not right.”
I nodded in agreement. If she left, I’d have the room to myself.
She was the first to leave, that first morning. She slipped off without a word. Afterward, guilt ate at me; she had nowhere to go. Still, I was glad to have the room to myself, at least for the moment.
After Lisa, the next to leave was the skinny white girl, who had no taste for the preaching and rules. The rest followed, all except me and Jackie. I didn’t understand why people would leave rather than shelter in place. I’d come to see almost all of them did.
The first morning, before Lisa left, Sister Lydia gathered us in the hallway and told us rent was seventy dollars a week. The women complained.
“You said it was free.”
“You said we didn’t have to pay anything.”
“I knew this wasn’t right.”
Sister Lydia said, “If you don’t have anything, you don’t have to pay. When you get a job and you have something, you can pay then.”
Sister Lydia said we needed to go to Caritas to ask them for groceries and rent money. She drove us downtown, then waited in the car while we went in.
As we began to introduce ourselves a man cut us off in the foyer. He knew who we were.
“You tell Sister Lydia she can do what she wants, but we’re not helping.”
The woman who’d helped me the day before was there, looking down at her desk and avoiding eye contact. Someone gave each of us a bag of groceries.
“If you end up somewhere else, come back and maybe we can help,” the man said.
We each carried a sack to the car. Sister Lydia asked what happened. The women were quick to explain.
“They didn’t want to give us anything because we’re with you.”
“They didn’t want to help.”
“They don’t like you.”
Sister Lydia knew the man we were talking about. “They’re supposed to help those in need,” she said, not for the last time. “They help who they want.”
Back at the house, she collected the groceries and took them to the back. The women were quick to complain.
“It’s for the house,” she said. “We’ll fix all your meals.”
The women grumbled, but I didn’t mind. Twice a day, they served us bowls of beans and rice. The beans looked like beans. I’d never eaten so well.
That night, we went to church. Again, we squeezed into the station wagon and the white girl’s car, and drove to a small house not far from the Lighthouse. As she parked at the curb, Sister Lydia said, “This is the temple.”
She let us into a small utility room then stopped to give instructions.
“When Yahvah appeared to Moses, he told Moses to take off his shoes because where he stood was holy ground. It was holy because Yahvah appeared there. This is where Yahvah makes himself known to us, so we take off our shoes as a form of respect.”
Some complained but everyone complied, lining their shoes in pairs along the wall. Barefoot or in socks, we were led through a doorway hung with burgundy velveteen drapes. The room inside was dimly lit. Mother Ruth sat at an organ, her back to us, singing and playing. It was the song I came to think of as her theme; she used it to open and close every service. It played in my head every day until recently, until I wrote it down. As I wrote and re-wrote this, the song disappeared like a satisfied ghost.
Praise him in the morning, praise him at noontime
Praise him when the sun goes down
The music swelled, filling the room. Mother Ruth’s hands and feet moved each with a life of it’s own, confidently. The organ was the only instrument in the room but she made it sound like a band, and her voice filled the room like a choir. One or two people were kneeling. Others stood, their arms aloft. We crowded into two rows of folding chairs.
A rostrum stood across from us. The light came from two small lamps, one on the rostrum, the other on the organ to our left. The walls were covered in block lettering. I kept going back to them as I watched a man dancing near the rostrum. As he hopped, sang, and shouted, I read.
NOW THE WORKS OF THE FLESH ARE MANIFEST, WHICH ARE THESE;
ADULTERY, FORNICATION, UNCLEANNESS, LASCIVIOUSNESS, IDOLATRY, WITCHCRAFT, HATRED, VARIANCE, EMULATIONS, WRATH, STRIFE,
I didn’t know what VARIANCE and EMULATIONS meant, but thought I understood the rest. I’d done most of them. The passage ended with another list. This time I recognized the words but couldn’t say what they meant.
BUT THE FRUIT OF THE SPIRIT IS LOVE, JOY, PEACE, LONGSUFFERING, GENTLENESS, GOODNESS, FAITH, MEEKNESS, TEMPERANCE: AGAINST
SUCH THERE IS NO LAW.
The man dancing near the rostrum was tall and thin. He wore a black choir robe. His hair was natural, a little long, his beard patchy under high cheekbones. If I said he looked like Marvin Gaye you might think I’m the kind of white woman who can’t tell Marvin Gaye from Isaac Hayes, and I may be, but even now everyone agrees: he looked just like Marvin Gaye. He was hopping from foot to foot, singing a tune that bore no relation to the song Mother Ruth was playing. He hopped, then leapt, knees pumping sometimes as high as his chest. Sometimes he’d jump straight up as if trying to touch his head to the ceiling, which he almost did. He sounded like a ghost.
A second man knelt. His hair was cut close, his beard neatly trimmed. Thick glasses gave him a studious look. Later, Jackie would say she thought he was the handsome one, but I disagreed. I saw his lips moving but couldn’t hear his murmurings.
A woman near me looked just like Sister Lydia, but Sister Lydia was across the room, her arms held high, her fingers splayed. The lookalike held an infant in one arm and waved the other in the air. Children stood on either side of her, some singing, others looking bored, looking, probably, like children in places of worship everywhere.
An older woman sat in a folding chair. She gently waved an arm, handkerchief in hand, a Bible resting in her lap. From time to time, her body jerked with a spasm that worked its way out through her limbs, and left through her fingertips. Her face was rapturous.
Another woman, much younger, danced across the room, then in the middle, then in a corner, then across again, her eyes shut, then wide open, her movements graceful, then spasmodic. She wept. She was silent, then sang, then screamed, louder, then laughed forcefully, bending over and clutching her belly as if it hurt. She quieted and closed her eyes. When she opened them, she was staring at me. Since I was staring at her our eyes locked. She was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen.
“Come here, sailor,” she said, smiling now. She said it like Mae West. She crooked her finger to beckon me.
I smiled back, uncertain. Her robe was soaked with sweat.
“Yes, you,” she said. She reached out and took my hand. She began moving easily, pulling me to her, wrapping her arms around me, then spinning me; She was smooth. I tried to keep up, but was clumsy. Too quickly, she let go.
She began to sing again. The melody was a roller coaster ride. The words stuck in my head.
“I’ve got the Holy Ghost and fire, why don’t you get high?”
When a pretty woman looks at you and says, “I’ve got the Holy Ghost and fire, why don’t you get high?” you sit. You stay.
Later, the man who sang like a ghost preached, mostly by shouting. He preached with his whole body, pausing to draw a chest full of air before shouting some more. It was a newcomers’ sermon, a warning to repent now, before it was too late.
There was more music, more prayer. My senses were distorted, and I was, somehow, strangely, high. It was a sensory high. I lost all sense of time. When the room settled and I looked around, only Jackie and I remained of the group we’d come with. I was on the floor. Mother Ruth knelt beside me and took my hand. She asked me if I was ready.
I said, “Yes.”
I had almost no idea what I was doing.
Jackie knelt nearby. The woman who’d danced with me was holding Jackie’s hand, coaching her while Mother Ruth coached me. I stole glances, wishing I’d gotten the pretty one.
Mother Ruth was earnest, focused. “You need to ask Yahshua for forgiveness,” she said. I nodded. She asked me to repeat the prayer she made.
I stole another glance at the woman with Jackie. Jackie was weeping and praying out loud. I got the sense she’d done this before, or at least seen it happen.
I re-focused on Mother Ruth, trying to maintain a proper solemnity.
“I was shapen in iniquity.”
“In sin did my mother conceive me.”
“Thou desirest truth in the inward parts.”
I sensed more than knew what the words meant. Mother Ruth clutched me to her chest, squeezing me tight. She was crying. It seemed like everyone was crying except me.
She put her hands on my shoulders. I stared back.
“You belong to Yahshua now,” she said. “You belong to the kingdom of heaven.”