Dominee Gert felt many years past his age as he shuffled up the steps to his pulpit; he had become an old man overnight, withered, tired and worn by tragedy and conflicts, broken and depressed by the loss of a brother in arms and dire realizations.
He surveyed his flock and there was not a seat to be had. It was many a year since every pew was crammed as it was today; even the aisles were overflowing with a crowd standing to the doorway, straining to hear.
A sea of silent somber faces, mainly white, watched him worriedly; he looked like death hovering over the casket of his dead friend. It pleased him that the few brown faces peppering the throng were respectfully well away to the back of proceedings, out of the fold as he thought they should be.
But in that entire crowd two faces leapt at him—the black of their skin drawing his eye and ire—the boy, the devil-child from his school class—the Indian and his father, and alongside them his mistress, the mother of the child; Gert could not bring himself to recognize that they had been married in the eyes of God. With impertinence and no shame they occupied seats that could have been had by good people, by the Godly; they’d seized seats near the front—only a row back and sickeningly close to the bereaved widow, her daughter and the dead man’s mother; a pitiful trio alone on the empty plain of the front row bench.
With a surge of nausea the reason was clear—they were at JJ’s right hand; JJ, the son who had driven his father to take his own life… the unrepentant prodigal with no shame who now brought the instruments that caused this tragedy right into the holiest place; not just under God’s roof but almost up God’s very nose.
The insult of it all made him want to clear the entire church hall. This was a service for the eyes of his Lord and for the heart of his departed friend… And then it struck him; this was God’s will that he should endure this provocation and prevail.
“I want to go,” Dara had insisted.
“But what on earth for?” Marsha had responded. In her opinion it was an exceedingly bad idea.
“To support the living, my friends,” he’d said simply.
“I can’t fault that,” Al had shrugged. “Funerals are for the living—to say goodbye and to help the family say goodbye.”
And so it had been arranged.
Marsha had spoken with JJ and he had agreed that it would be a nice touch, he’d agreed with the point of a funeral along the lines Al had suggested.
“Frankly JJ, I am rather concerned though. We are going into a hornet’s nest,” Marsha had fretted.
“I’ll take care of you. The first two rows always stand open for family and close friends. You are about my closest friends in this town right now so you walk in with me and I’ll seat you close at hand. I’m coming to your address at the school beforehand, so we can go out for lunch and then straight on over to the church if that works for you.”
Dawie and Dara had discussed it and Dawie had wanted to go too, to make the statement of solidarity that Dara had explained to him; but his family would not allow it, not even with JJ’s protection.
“We are gathered here today to say our goodbyes to a great friend and pillar of our community. He was a brother to me…”
Uncharacteristically—in all his decades of preaching it had never happened before—Gert’s throat clammed tight and his voice fluted an octave too high as he dabbed at a tear that broke over the rim of his eyelid.
“…A brother... A brother and a husband…” he looked at the widow, Johanna—so hunched and small on the hard wooden benches; “…a son and a father,” he looked from Andre’s ancient mother in the family row to Sonja, his eyes passing over and through JJ as if he was not there.
“He has gone home to his Father and will for eternity remain in his father’s Grace. Andre was a man of uncompromising justice. Like the Lord Jesus who was his model and guide, our brother Andre was a protector of the poor and a shield against evil. We are born in sin and many die in sin. And some are born in the Lord’s favor but become prodigals who leave and return in glory…. And then there are sons who take the devil’s path and refuse to yield.” He glared at JJ long and accusingly, and JJ held his stare unblinkingly as if nothing had been said.
“There are many who cannot be with us today,” he said, “…they have sent their apologies and condolences. I want to read from some of these for the family.”
He began to read them, one at a time, skipping past the condolence from Morgan for her estranged farther-in-law in favor of more deserving messages:
“To my father; Oom, since I was a small boy your name has rung in my mind as more than an ordinary man. For me you were like God. You were so big and so powerful and so scary that I really did think that perhaps you secretly knew God personally. That is foolish I know; but it is not a blasphemy: To a small boy your uniform was so impressive and your gun and authority… the confusion was easy to make. But as I grew in the Spirit and you became my guide as an Elder, I could see for myself how the Lord can work through a man and raise him above his circumstances and cruel fates that hold him back, to give him the character to be better than those earthly ones who have oppressed him. I know I am now only a young man, Oom, and perhaps many will call me a foolish one for saying it but you were like a prophet to me, lifting my mind to a higher power and urging me to be all that I could be. I wanted to be like you; I hope some day to be in your shadow when we walk together again through Paradise.”
It was signed off Neels Vermaak—Petersburg, Kentucky, USA.
Once more Gert’s voice caught and he teetered near the edge of tears, his voice failing him, becoming threadbare and undisciplined to his most urgent insistence that it should obey, slow its cadence and deepen its tone.
Hymns were announced and sung and extracts of scripture recited. On and on the service went, reminding those present that they were sinners, that Satan, the Duiwel himself, was among them and that God was watching—testing and watching.
More hymns and more praise and more assurances that the only way to avoid a miserable eternity was to make the commitment today to follow Almagtige God.
Then the Dominee, coming to the end of the service, did something that nobody expected; he threw down a gauntlet:
“Too long have bad people ridiculed us here in our own home. To take one’s own life is forbidden, but the Lord knows that this is not the case here. Our friend is a martyr, his life taken from him by outsiders determined to destroy all that we hold dear. Only this morning,” he looked accusingly from JJ to the black-faces, “they saw fit to besmirch our friend, Andre’s good name by holding a service in praise of their beloved science, their mammon.”
The despair that had shrouded him until this moment suddenly lifted, his voice began to soar.
“In honor of my fallen brother and by his blood I will send a challenge to these newcomers and their ways of error. My challenge will be that we turn the other cheek… to stand on a podium—to share a stage with them and address my people and allow the false prophets to reveal their faults before the living God.”
As his fury of loss and passion for retribution built momentum, his white knuckled fist clung to the rail of his pulpit like a sailor in a tempest. His other bunched fist began beating out a rhythm, thumping down again and again onto the lectern, punctuating his words. And then the old gesturing from his zealot youth began, his accusing finger scanning and tracking over the sea of faces, poking and singling out all those known to be wavering in their faith.
“We will hold a debate… here… in this church. A debate to expose all the lies once and for all—we will debate about morals and ethics, we will show them that they cannot live a moral life without our God.”
Gert paused, raining a withering stare down the row of heretics who had dared defile his church and this ceremony with their presence. He felt the surge and power of the Lord rising even higher within him, confirming that he was right to follow these suggestions prompted to him by others abroad, to make this challenge.
“We will challenge those who want to see us change our ways, and we will fight the heathen as we always have fought. I choose this topic for my friend, the man who was my right arm… for the man and his forefathers who tirelessly stood by me and by us for generations; fine men of morals and ethics.
Let us show these interlopers for who and what they are—they are men of paper, driven by the devil. They have come here to challenge our Lord and His work, work of devotion that we have tirelessly offered and given so freely to the poor and wretched for generation after generation.”