“Do you have no respect for my Faith? For the Faith of your father?”
“Oom, I respect you as a man as I respected my father,” JJ countered. “I respect your… and his… intelligence. I respect this intelligence so much that the way I honor it… the way I show it respect, is to say that I think you are more intelligent than the ideas you hold,” and he braced for the backlash.
JJ was not disappointed; the Dominee grew red in the face and growled about the insult the younger man had served to him, proceeding to admonish him for degrading his Belief and Faith as mere ideas;
“How dare you?...!”
“It is not about ‘daring’ or my arrogance, Oom. What I said I really mean. I felt the same emotion of Faith as you do… you and my father crafted that in me but I have since then exposed myself to the medical realities of how the brain works and through that knowledge I came to understand that…”
“I’ve heard enough of this modern rubbish to last me a lifetime,” Gert cut him off. “And this is why I am against Neels going to Cape Town and living under your guidance,”
“I’m afraid there is no option to that, Oom,” JJ did not take offense, and he tried to deliver his message without unduly giving any. “With all respect, that Dominee is against it, is academic. Neels is guilty of offences here and in America too that will send him to a far worse place than living under my rule. May I ask what offends you about my influence?”
“Since you went to the city and married that woman, you changed. You left here as a good young man strong in your Faith. You have become influenced by her and the modern world and I don’t like the modern world and its teachings. I don’t like what you became… All the nonsense from the city and that foreigner changed you; that’s the evil they’re trying to force on our children here...”
“Really?” JJ kept his voice neutral and resisted the urge to add a provocative response. “What of the modern world offends you? We have better communications, easier travel, safer food, better medicine… the list goes on.”
“I’m in favor of these things,” Gert declared.
“You say you are, and then you actively try to suppress them at the school,” JJ charged.
“Suppress? What do you accuse me of?” Gert’s affront was real, he was unaware of suppressing any of these matters.
“In the science class. I met with the new teacher, Mr. Fiske. As just one example he says you are pressuring him and the other teachers to leave evolutionary studies out of the biology syllabus. Pressuring the children to boycott it.”
“Yes… evolution… I don’t like lies and evolution is a lie. Another of these modern lies to confuse and mislead the children. It has no benefit to them,” the Dominee insisted.
“It’s a hundred and sixty years old, I wouldn’t call that modern; But it does underlie all modern medicine… antibiotics… cancer treatments, anaesthetics, yes Oom; in that regard it is perhaps modern. You’ve said you were for medicine but you want to ensure that the children in your care can never understand it? That makes no sense to me. ”
“Well, I don’t believe in evolution and I can’t support children learning what I don’t believe in.”
“And I don’t believe in evolution either,” JJ let the statement hit the Dominee and gave it a pause to let it sink in.
“You don’t? I thought you did? I thought you were arguing for it?”
“I am arguing in its favor, yes; but, of course I don’t believe in evolution… Then again I also don’t believe in arithmetic—I understand arithmetic, Oom … understand and apply it. That is the proper way with science we don’t ever believe in any of the sciences. We only aspire to grasp them so that we can apply them and master our world, master engineering and master biology.”
“You have developed an answer for everything,” the doominee accused.
“Thank you,” JJ took the insult out of it, “that’s because I think deeply about everything Oom, and I’m not ashamed of that. I expose myself to others far more intelligent than me who are experts in understanding and studying about things….” He paused, “I did not come here to argue about these things. The matter with Neels is settled. His parents have signed the Memorandum of Understanding already, the document I need as a surety to help them get him back here and to have the charges here suspended against him. I only wanted to inform you of it as a courtesy.”
The Dominee shook his head, turned, and walked slowly away down the aisle toward the altar. His head was bowed and JJ could see from behind that he had his right hand up to his mouth—his finger would be crooked like a question mark tapping his pursed lips; the pose meant he was deep in thought digesting the angles to see if there was an escape out of the trap.
“What I really came to do, is talk about your problems,” as he said it the Dominee whirled and looked at him.
“Yes Oom, with the Americans,”
“What…” Gert was going to ask “What Americans?” but he caught himself—JJ was too smart and connected to be unaware of their presence in town, “What problems?” Gert tested him to see how deep his knowledge of the details and his folly ran.
“Oom, I don’t want to waste our time so I will come directly to it. There are two Americans in town and they have with them Andy Selbourne; a man who has been dazzling you with his salesmanship. I know about him, I know about their arrangements with him. I know about their interference outside of South Africa… about their angles and arrangements with government, I know what their agenda is and that part of it is to swallow up churches that are in trouble…”
Gert was trying to keep the surprise at the succinct summary and reference to additional information that even he did not know about off his face.
“…When I was youth leader here,” JJ went on, “…people queued out the door on Sunday—only white people, the blacks and coloureds went elsewhere. Now everyone comes here, and yet there’s still plenty of room…”
“There is nothing wrong with our attendance,” Gert bridled at the truth.
“Maybe… maybe not. We’re in tough financial times, and even a parent church has a budget…”
“They would never allow that to happen,” Gert blurted his deepest fears and wiped the expression of worry from his face a moment too late.
But for all his emphasis on never, his voice and eyes did not have conviction, and JJ saw it, “Perhaps in Oudtshoorn and Swellendam—and now in Kimberley… there is an ex-pastor who said the same thing?”
The truth stung Gert and his mouth set to a thin and hard line. He brought his fist down on the back of a pew, “Never!”
“I am not the executioner here, Oom,” JJ reminded him. “I am just an observer. You believe I have moved so far from my Faith that I have no regard left for my culture and my people, but that is unfair and untrue; the two are not indivisible. I can still love my people and yearn for my memories of how it felt, and want to protect this simple way of life without agreeing with its every detail.”
Gert was stationary, paused with his fist still down on the back of the pew.
“Religion is our culture, Dominee. Without religion, we don’t really have a culture—and I’ve recognized that.”
The two statements staggered Gert. The prodigal had turned, he was facing his home for the first time in a decade; the boy had called him by his religious title; he had not done this in years, always pointedly preferring the neutral ‘oom’ since he’d lost his Faith; this instantly softened the old man’s heart and Gert saw that the Lord was at work here so he let the boy talk.
“Much as I’ll not deny how I’d like to see our culture evolve toward reason, I recognize that it is a slow process. Accepting that things take time to change,” JJ was explaining his mind carefully, “the bigger threat to us all and to progress in general is not the old church that you represent; for all its follies of the past and faults of the present. Much as I’ve come to disagree with it; you and what you represent is sincere. The threat is the moneymaking churches—they are conniving. They appeal to the youth, they are positioned like the business that they are, to draw the new generation away from our culture. They don’t have the welfare of the individual or the community at heart; what they want, are mind-slaves contributing into their fund. That is the threat and that is our common enemy.”
Gert turned and faced the man who he had once known, the man who was like the young lion his father once was.
“What are you proposing,” he looked JJ in the eye.
“I propose that you were duped, Dominee. I’m not going to sugar coat it and pay you the hollow respect of pretending that it didn’t happen—you were had. I don’t doubt that your heart was in the right place, but somebody with an agenda—a businessman—did a sales job and convinced you to pick a fight you shouldn’t have picked, a fight with progress.”
Gert was about to argue against it, but JJ held up his hand.
“I am not insulting you, Dominee, I am telling it as it is. There is no argument the NG Church has with science… perhaps there is one they should have, because science does corrode faith; I don’t want to argue that… In this debacle you were convinced by someone else to take the lead role without elevating the proposal up the chain of leadership to the synod; am I wrong?”
Gert couldn’t deny it and he was surprised at the man’s insight to how it had in all fact happened.
“I get a sense that you know this already… the signs on every street pole out there…”
The look on Gert’s face confirmed to JJ all he needed to know.
“…they’re taking control already? Acting like they own this gemeente—our parish. They think they already own you.”
Gert was nodding on the outside, seething within; seething that the whole true state of affairs was so obvious to a man who he’d rejected, one whom he’d come to despise and now found himself grudgingly having to respect.
“We fix it by recognizing that it is true. We reconcile it by making apologies—you to your superiors, to the gemeentelede—to the parishioners who you have wound up on this issue. And you let them think they are winning, you let the outsiders have this media event, you let it go ahead and you watch them fail in front of the volk.”
“You propose that I give them my church and my altar? That I expose my flock… to people with an agenda?” Gert asked, squinting with deep skepticism. “Tonight you have spoken more sense than I knew you had, but this… this idea…”
“You think it’s too much of a risk? You have that much faith in their ability to swing our people?”
Gert heard the conviction in him as he said “our people” and he knew instantly that JJ was in the fold of the community again.
“The world we are entering is not like the one we are leaving, Dominee. When you did your ministry the world was closed, there was our church and few others out here, very little other influence. Out there has come here. Whether we or you like it or not, it is an open market of ideas and only those ideas that can compete on their own merit will survive. If you try to keep the lid on and pretend there are no other ideas for the next generation to choose from, those ideas will come right in past you and take them away. No… you give them your stage and let them compete—then you rely on real strength of character to come through in the people you have served for so long. These newcomers will make no inroads here if you allow them to be defeated in open battle… If you deny them an open battle, they’ll do it with stealth, that’s precisely what they’re masters at doing… and that’s an infinitely tougher fight for us to win.”
“Allow them to be defeated?” Gert was cynical.
“Yes, with no shadow of doubt they’ll be defeated. I’m so sure of it I would also like to make a donation… a donation I would like to see them match. A big donation for all that I learned from you as a young man.”
“I can’t be bought!” Gert snapped.
“I’m not suggesting you can be, Dominee. But it is in my capacity to help this community… and I believe you help this community, so I will help you to help. I would like to see these people do more than talk. I’d like them to show their commitment.”
“You surprise me,” Gert admitted. “But I do have serious reservations.”
“It is your choice… cancel the event here in the church and they’ll take it elsewhere to another hall. If you hold it here, our people coming in will already be on their own familiar turf aligned to you and less open to persuasion as they’ll be if they’re on more neutral ground in another hall.”
“I don’t know…” Gert shook his head.
“This is what I do, Dominee… strategize. I know what I’m talking about …. Why not think on it? Pray on it,” JJ suggested.
“I will do that,” Gert agreed.
They began to make their way to the exit door, walking slowly, contemplatively, each in thought about the world they’d shared, their paths that had diverged; now, a glimmer of finding commonality seemed possible.
As they reached the daylight, still under the shade of the tall spire, the Dominee put his hand on JJ’s shoulder as he would when the boy was youth leader. Back then he’d have reached down to do so, now he had to look up as he put an earnest question;
“For many years I have feared and prayed for you. I have feared that you left the path and will only inherit hell. Do you not fear this? Do you have no dread for the hell that your path has surely put you on?” Gert implored.
“Yes I fear hell, Dominee,” JJ responded.
He allowed the old man a moment to think he had a triumph, and then he went on;
“But I want to first tell you about heaven. My heaven is the knowledge that this is the only life I'm going to get. It is that thought that makes me fall in love with reality every day. To savor that reality… Even when I sat saying my private goodbyes to my father in this church just days ago I was at peace that I will never again see him or anyone else that dies. This makes me value those who are alive. This makes me deeply grateful for the curious experience I am able to have of being alive and with people I love. In the tragedy of my father’s loss… in all the other tragedies and challenges I face, I keep in mind that just being alive and experiencing life… and family, and community, is the greatest privilege. And it is this heaven of truly living that makes me want to make the world a better place and treat others more kindly.”
“Then death becomes your hell?” Gert challenged him.
“No, Dominee. Hell is far worse than that.... Hell is for the living… for those who believe it exists. It is their hell to torture themselves with that idea every day that they live. It is their hell to reach the end of their finite time of being a living and thinking person and realize they have wasted it on hope.”