The following is Chapter 8 of A Christmas Story by Mike Furches. You can see the preceding prologue and Chapters in the archives or links section of this page. This story is copyrighted by Mike Furches and intent to publish in book form in 2015. This is the variation prior to final edit prior to publication.
GOING TO CHURCH?
by: Mike Furches
James knew there were adjustments he had to make, getting ready for church this Sunday morning was one of them but he didn't know if it would compare to the changes of the last week or not. He had enrolled at Owasso High School, one of the largest in the state of Oklahoma and adjusting to his new classes. Due to the aircraft industry in the area, predominantly American Airlines there was a new influx of Blacks into the Owasso community. There were few outside of some of his teachers that knew of James' situation. He was fitting in although Owasso High School was different than his previous school Booker T. Washington in North Tulsa.
James was sharing a room in the Hamm home with his new roommate, Sammy. While he hadn't been around a White kid as much as Sammy before, the two of them were getting along fine outside of the "faith stuff." Sammy focused what seemed to be a lot of attention on things like prayer, reading his bible and church activities. The two of them were able to find enough common ground to develop a friendship in a short period of time. Sammy was even looking at involving James in some of the Summer wrestling already going on. With his strength Sammy thought James would be a natural for Greco Roman wrestling.
James was getting used to having the other kids around, it reminded him of his younger siblings. It helped that the Hamm's showed James their interest in his brothers and sisters and they seemed like they really were looking forward to meeting them.
Church that morning was an all together different thing for James. It had been some time since going to church with his grandparents and he had had issues with the churches he had visited since then. James came to the conclusion that he didn't care for church but he also knew it was a part of his parole requirements and conditions of staying with the Hamm's. He also knew he had an obligation to the church he was going to and working for regarding his community service requirements. It was something he had to get used to, whether he liked it or not.
As the Hamm's approached German Corner just to the north of Owasso about halfway between Owasso and Collinsville there was Discovery Bible Fellowship. It was a church that seemed a far fetch from the types of churches James attended in the past. It was a large complex, complete with a full sized basketball gym, a large sanctuary and several hundred people from all walks of life in attendance, although most of them seemed to be well to do. They drove nice cars, mostly new, and even had a parking section for motorcycles. While not everyone dressed up in suits, ties, dresses and the like, there was a fair share of those people. Most were dressed in nice casual clothes with a few in blue jeans, t-shirts and the like. James was getting used to the Hamm's wanting everyone in the family to dress nicely, not with suits and ties but with the exception of a Sunday night or Wednesday evening when blue jeans, or even shorts were allowed, the family dressed in dress casual clothing for Sunday mornings.
The Hamm's arrived early so they would go to the Sunday School and youth activities during the 9:30 hour. They would then attend the later more contemporary worship teaching church service at 10:30. Brenda, Sammy and James all attended class together on the 2nd floor to the adjourning building to the gymnasium. James was shocked as he entered the upstairs Youth Room. While he had taken a tour of the church earlier in the week, this room had been locked and he hadn't seen it.
The first thing James noticed was two pool tables, several video games including not just some stand up arcade games but also several Play Station set ups along with a Wii system. There was also a staging area complete with a band setup. There were a lot of youth his age, having fun, talking and goofing off. He recognized a few from his classes at Owasso High School so it was going to be easier than he had initially thought regarding meeting new people at church. He also noticed a snack bar complete with all kinds of refreshments. James thought he could fit in until some of the interactions started taking place.
Vince was 16 years old and had never been around Blacks. He learned all he knew from conversations with others and what he had seen on television. Vince, trying to be nice, introduced himself. "Hey Brotha, my name is Vince. Welcome to The Hangout." Vince tried to do some modified type of handshake he had seen on television, wrapping thumbs, pounding fists and snapping his fingers. It was disturbingly bothersome for James, it had to be as uncomfortable and embarrassing as it all looked.
James had seen this type of thing before, he was put off by it, the Black community wasn't all about this Hip-Hop finger wrapping, street greeting, certainly not by someone trying to fit into a situation and life they knew little about. James being under the restrictions he was though, wanting to keep his family together tried to respond accordingly, with a smile, "Hey Vince, my name is James, most people just call me Briscoe, thanks and good to meet you."
"Yeah bro, good to meet you to." Vince responded in a way that was clearly not comfortable for him but while he was inwardly wanting James to feel comfortable, not knowing the things he thought he might know just made for a very awkward moment for James. It was clear to James in fact, that Vince didn't seem like much more than a Marshall Mathers wannabe.
Later that morning after church James had a responsibility to start cleaning the church which was a part of his probation requirements. He had to volunteer for so many community service hours at church. He was only scheduled for up to 4 hours on Sunday. He could do his other hours on other days through the week but tried to get those 4 hours in each Sunday afternoon. It was normally a weekend day he got to spend time with his brothers and sister who stayed at the home of Sergeant Jackson on weekends. On this particular Sunday he was given a walk through the church by Charlie and Sammy.
The walk through and instruction to the things around the church needing to be done and pointed out were things Charlie and Sammy didn't mind. It was a chance to spend 1 on 1 time with James and talk about various things. The Sunday afternoon walk through later turned to a time alone with James for either Charlie or Sammy, it also became a time where James asked questions and sought wisdom regarding spiritual things. Normally those conversations were centered around either the teachings during the youth times that morning or the sermon by Pastor Steve.
As Charlie, Sammy and James were doing the walk through at church Charlie could tell that James was reserved. He asked James, "So James what are your thoughts after your first church service here at Discovery?"
James didn't trust others at this point, it was doubtful if he would ever get to the point of trusting others so he responded in a cautionary way, "It was okay I guess, it was certainly different."
"How was it different?" Charlie asked, as Sammy was walking along with them but holding back from the conversation.
"I don't know, I guess that maybe out of all of the people here, I was one of only a few Blacks. It was also different than the others churches I have been to." James responded.
"Yeah I can understand that but we really are all the same, I mean God loves us the same despite the color of our skin and all, right?" Charlie asked.
James was kind of put off by the response, he thought to himself, 'Did he really just ignore what I said about being one of the only Blacks here? I mean seriously he doesn't even get a clue does he?' While James thought that, after a brief pause and remaining silent, he knew the importance of being careful in these situations. He had been hurt before by those who said their intentions were good, "Yeah I guess so," was all he said as he answered Charlie.
James had seen churches at work in the past. He knew of the hypocrisy of those in the churches he had been to or those who had tried to help who said they were Christians. James had no reason to think Discover Bible Fellowship would be any different, after all it was mostly all rich White people. He hadn't seen any efforts at this point from the people in the church other than the Hamm's and Detective Hay but he wasn't even sure as to their intentions. James was still cautious of opening up to them and they had helped him, he sure wasn't going to open up that much to people at a church he had just met and his opinions would be based off of his past experiences. James knew that at this point, one of the only ones he could relate to was Sergeant Jackson. He was a Black guy who understood most of the issues Black teens were going through, at least that was the assumption James made based on the single point that Sergeant Jackson was Black.
Sammy spoke up trying to ease James by changing the subject, "Hey this next week the youth group is going to go play laser tag. Do you want to go?"
"I doubt it, I don't have the money and it is the only time I have with my brothers and sisters. After working through the week to pay everything back and then doing my school work I just won't have that much time to do anything else." James responded while biting his lip and holding back his thoughts of, 'come on many don't you know it is the only time with my family, I don't have the time to do all of this play stuff.' He was shocked at Sammy's response.
"Hey I wasn't thinking of you not spending time with your brothers and sister. The laser tag place also has an arcade. I think your older brothers would for sure enjoy it and my mom and Brenda along with some of the other girls in the group could spend some time with your sister playing games and all if she didn't want to play laser tag. I also think Sergeant Jackson and his wife would love to come hang out, he is pretty good at laser tag." Sammy responded.
Before James could respond, Charlie jumped in, "Yeah, and as to the money, you are living with us through all of this, it is a part of our responsibility in caring for you and we would want you to also have some fun, so we will pay for it, any other cost will fall on Sergeant Jackson who would love to take out your brothers and sister. Let's do it, besides it will be easier to do this and take care of the cost, plus allow you to hang out with some of the youth group while at the same time, providing a fun opportunity for your brothers and sister. Plus, look at it this way, time on a church activity can count towards your community service obligations and requirements, can't find a much easier way to knock of a few hours from that if you ask me."
James had mixed feelings, while he wasn't excited about spending time around all of the White kids, doing White kid things, he also knew his brothers and sister would love the opportunity to go out and have some fun. He also knew Charlie was right, it would be a good way to knock off some of those community service hours. After a few seconds he responded, "Okay, let's do it, sounds like fun and if I can still work, knock off some of those community service hours plus get to spend time with my brothers and sister all at the same time, then I guess I can do it."
"Sounds great!" Sammy responded.
"Yeah, sounds like you and your brothers and sister will have a great time, it will also be a chance to see how good of a shot Sergeant Jackson is." Charlie responded.
"Come on dad, he'll take you out in a heartbeat, you have a hard enough time with me playing against you, there is no way a good Mennonite like you can outshoot a trained police officer." Sammy responded
Everyone laughed, including James. After completing the four hours cleaning up the church Detective Hay came to pick James up and take him to Sergeant Jackson's home to spend the rest of the evening with his brothers and sister. This became a regular routine; spend the weekends with Sergeant Jackson with Detective Hay picking him up for church on Sunday morning, taking him back to Sergeant Jackson's after the work shift to spend another 3 or 4 hours with his brothers and sister prior to them going back to their temporary foster homes. James could see people going out of their way to help him but that didn't make it comfortable for him. He was still a proud, young Black man as far as he was concerned. He had questions about some things he heard in church that morning, things better discussed with another Black man who understood the ways of the Black community better than the ways of rich White people.
Sergeant Jackson took James brothers, Charlie and Buddy, along with his sister Barb to the foster homes they were staying at. He was now sitting on the couch watching television with James. "So tell me about today and church." Mike asked.
"I don't know." James responded, "I mean I wonder, is everyone doing all the things they are doing because it is a way for them to get saved or something? I mean seriously, do they get it? Do they even understand what poor people and people like us have to go through?"
"I'm not so sure I understand your question when you say people like us? I don't think I am poor or anything but are you talking about Blacks when you talk about 'people like us'" Sergeant Jackson asked.
"Yeah, I guess that is what I am talking about, I mean they have their White Jesus they worship, they talk about doing the things they do, at least it sure seemed like it this morning. Pastor Steve spoke about acts of service, helping the poor, things like that, it just makes me wonder if the way they think you get salvation is by doing good stuff or something." James responded with some reservation but opening up more than usual because he thought he could relate to Sergeant Jackson based solely on the color of his skin.
"I am sure it was a little uncomfortable in a church like that for you this morning, even after attending churches in the past with your grandparents, I would assume they were mainly Black churches, is that right?" Mike asked.
"Well you know what they say about assuming?" James joked, "But yeah you are right, what little I went to church they were always Black churches and they were a lot different than the one I went to this morning. I mean it seems like there was more good times in the Black churches and I liked the music a lot better, I love the mixture of Gospel and Blues. I know people talk a good game at church but do very little to practice their faith away from the church. I would assume, yeah I know what I said about that, but I would assume this church probably isn't any different in that regard from any other church I have gone to in the past." James said, now expressing more of his true feelings than he anticipated doing for himself.
"That's interesting," Mike said showing some interest, "I think the concept of focusing on salvation and respect from God coming from the doing and not understanding the importance of serving and loving is something most churches do. I agree with you on that point. I don't think that is what we should be looking at though and I think a good pastor will focus on something else entirely, it all depends I guess on how one presents it and what the focus is on by the person doing the talking and sharing."
James, interested in what Sergeant Jackson was saying asked, "What do you mean? What should the focus be on, the stuff people are doing or what? I mean if it is, it sure seems like a lot of folks are missing it."
Mike responded, "Yeah you got that part about a lot of people missing it right. They are! I think a lot of people focus just on what you are talking about, they think we can get salvation by the things we do and they put an emphasis on the things and not the person. Because of that, those around us see their screw ups and mistakes all of the time. You see salvation isn't about anything we do really because we as people are so imperfect and God knows that. It is really about accepting and understanding, looking at if you will, who Jesus was and what He did and then receiving Him into our lives where we can have a personal relationship with Him."
"You mean the White dude we see the pictures of hanging on the cross?" James asked with a touch of sarcasm.
"Now there you go making assumptions again!" Mike said while laughing, "But think about it, yeah a lot of people get it wrong, even Blacks, because of our pain from the past and our hatred of the many things that hurt us over the years we also assume that Jesus was that White dude in the pictures. The truth is, Jesus was more olive skinned, kind of a cross between White and Black if you will, but definitely not White or Black. The thing is we shouldn't let our own prejudices stop us from seeing who Jesus really was and loving Him. After all, He did all He did for everyone not just a few. He left Heaven to be born in a manger, it is what we celebrate at Christmas."
"Come on now Sergeant Jackson, we just had Easter, let's not jump to Christmas so quickly." James responded with a bit of attitude.
Mike was laughing, "Hey now while we are at home, you call me Mike. When I am at work then I am Sergeant Jackson, but get this, you can't have Easter without Christmas, and yes, we did just celebrate Easter which is about the resurrection of Jesus from the dead prior to going back to Heaven. That said, also understand, the story of Christmas may start with the manger, which is really a nice word for a feeding troth that is used on farms and so forth but Christmas really ends with the cross where Jesus showed us that He loved us so much that He was willing to die on the cross for us. I believe, Jesus is the Son of God and He loved us so much that it just like the Bible says, 'For God loved the world so much that He sent His one and only son to die for us, so that whoever, Red, Yellow, Black, White or any mixture between, believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life. In other words, the salvation that has been provided for all of us comes from Jesus, not Christians or the church. It is why we have to be careful when judging Christianity based on what we see Christians and/or the church doing. It is certain that the church and Christians are going to fail, therefore, instead of looking at them, look to Jesus, no other, but Jesus. If making an evaluation on what is and isn't real when it comes to issues around faith and Christianity He is our example, far more so than people or institutions. Now there is obviously more to it than this, but I believe this is the jest of it."
"Sergeant Jackson, do you really believe all of that?" James asked.
Mike responded, "You bet I do, remember I grew up Black, living as hard a life as anyone in North Tulsa. I have never really tried to be anyone other than who I am. Heck James, I grew up not far from where you lived when you got into all of that trouble, I am a graduate of Booker T. Washington, played ball for them and love my alma mater. I know times are changing though for the Black community, while not nearly fast enough, they are still a changing and we can't forget about that progress. There are a lot of Whites and Blacks that are working together now but also remember it was a Reverend that helped facilitate this working together thing. You may have heard of him, his name was the Reverend Martin Luther King Junior. Let's not forget all kinds of people have been and are working together to overcome the injustices of the world. Let's also remember, it was a Pastor who helped get this started in recent history, before that, it was the Quakers and yes, even Mennonites like the church the Hamm's go to that worked to overcome racial prejudice, sexual inequality and even things like Slavery way back in the day. Almost all of those were White people, not all, but they certainly were critical in motivating the Blacks to stand up for themselves and many of them, just like back during the Civil Rights of teh 50's and 60's died for our cause. While there are still a lot of people who don't understand, there are more and more who do and they are trying to learn how to improve the conditions hurting the lives of many. While there may be a lot of things they don't know, have forgotten about or have forgotten, there is progress being made by many. Of course there are those that dangerously assume they do know when in reality they don't. It is one of the reasons it is so important that we all work together. We all need to be careful of the types of prejudice we may have or exhibit at times, and that includes Black people just as much as it does those White people. Does that all make sense?"
"I don't know," James responded, "I mean I agree with you and all but you are asking for a lot of stuff for me to grasp and take in all at once, I just don't know for sure right now."
"I am just asking you to think about it. I know it is a lot to take in but remember the example of Jesus in all of this. Of course you won't know the truth or reality if you only base your opinions on what you hear, at some point you need to read the Bible to understand and see, that yes in fact, Jesus really does love you. I pray you will discover and see the Bible as I have. I don't really see it as a book of rules, although many do, but I see it as The Ultimate Love Letter and Instruction Manuel on How To Live. When you look at the things Jesus did and the lives of those who dedicated their lives to following Him, I think you will understand, you have an option to where you can be one who will either build bridges of understanding between all people to make this world a better place, or, you will be one who continues to bring about division where things continue to get worse instead of better."
Mike, then jokingly said to James, "Oh yeah, once again, don't forget, when I am out of uniform, and here in the house, I am just Mike." Mike was wearing a large smile as he finished this serious point that showed compassion to James.
"I guess it is something I will have to think about but I don't have a Bible so it will be kind of hard to read it." James stated.
"Well tell you what, I'll pick one up after work for you tomorrow. I'll get one you can understand when you read it and bring it up to you at the Hamm's if that is okay." Mike responded, smiling even more at the willingness and expression of James to read the Bible.
"That would be great Mike." James said with a smile on his face realizing that he hadn't said Sergeant Jackson.
That next day, just as promised Sergeant Jackson delivered a Bible to James at the Hamm's house. James was pleased when he opened it up after being encouraged to do so to see if he could understand it. He was also encouraged to read the passage out loud when going to it by Sergeant Jackson. As James opened it, it fell open to the passage, Acts 4:12 which read, 'Only Jesus has the power to save! His name is the only one in all the world that can save anyone.'
While they didn't say anything, Sergeant Jackson and James was wondering, 'Did God just cause that passage to fall into place like that for a reason?' They didn't say anything out loud, but inwardly, they both thought, they very may well be seeing God working in a mysterious way.
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