Amen Lord, Amen
Bill lay in his bed one early morning smiling. Not at any particular thing, he just felt like smiling. He had lived in the nursing home for several years but he didn't know that as he had lost sense of the present. His long-term memory was still intact but he couldn't digest the moments of day-to-day living. Although his short-term memory had faded he often thought of his wife and daughter and their experiences a missionaries in the Congo. A nurse suddenly leaned over him and the sweet smell of perfume accosted his nostrils taking him back in time.
Bill had cut his teeth on the railing of the fire escape of a run down apartment building in the center of downtown New Orleans. He had been an intelligent child always asking questions of his grandmother who often didn't know the answers. His grandmother would exclaim in frustration, "Damn Billy! How am I supposed to know all that!"
Bill had lived with his grandmother from birth until she died when he was the tender age of seventeen. After her death Bill wondered through life aimlessly trying to find a place to set down roots. He truly was a rolling stone.
One fine spring day Bill chanced to meet a young lady who was going door to door with a church youth group and invited him church. It was instant attraction from both sides. At church that Sunday he sat intently listening to a Bishop (that's what black folk called their preacher men) as he gave his sermon. Although Bill had attended church with his grandmother once or twice he had never been to an all black Pentecostal Sunday night shoutin' meeting. He loved every aspect of it, especially being with other black people and, of course, Millie. He loved the way folks would shout amen when the Bishop would make a good point taken from the Word. Sitting in the pew Bill decided two things. One, he wanted to become a preacher man and two, he wanted to marry Millie. Finally he had stopped rolling like a stone and wanted to gather moss from the fields of life.
The wedding went on schedule without anything disturbing the bliss of the new spouses. Only a year had passed since they met but they felt they had known one another forever. Soon thereafter Millie became pregnant.
Nine months later found Bill entering his second year of Bible College and a daddy. When his newborn babe was laid in his arms for the first time he wept unashamedly and called quietly to God "Amen Lord, Amen."
After completing the courses necessary to become a missionary Bill finally stood before the missions board of his school. The all white missions board decided unanimously that because of the color of Bill's skin he could only be assigned to their mission in the Congo. "After all," they said, "only Darkie can understand Darkies." Their behavior didn't disturb Bill or matter, as he and Millie felt privileged to help others get to know the happiness they had found in Jesus. So one cold New Years Day Bill, Millie and Amy now three set out for the equatorial heat of the Congo.
At first the new missionaries were made welcome by the local people but when Bill began to lead youth groups, telling them that Jesus was the true God and that the God's of their ancestors were false things began to go sour. Twice Millie found all her chickens poisoned in their yard. Millie begged Bill to take the family back to the states for reassignment but Bill insisted things would get better.
One tragic day Bill returned home to find Millie, now pregnant with their second child, and Amy very ill. Bill called the mission doctor to come quickly. It took only minutes for the doctor to pronounce they had been poisoned; most likely from the food the nervous wife of the tribal priest had brought to them as a good will gesture. Millie had innocently believed her would be murderess and as a gesture of friendship had dipped out some of the food for herself and Amy making a face of approval despite its bitter taste. Upon learning that his family was dying Bill fell to his knees in prayer. Amy died first then Millie, her pregnant body fighting to remain alive, died in Bill's arms a few hours later. After she drew her last breath Bill looked up seeking God's face and said, "Amen Lord, Amen."
Bill was startled back to the present. How long had he been in the past this time? He realized he was up in his reclining chair. He didn't remember getting up nor did he know which meal he had just attended.
"Hello sleepy head," he heard a nurse say, "Welcome back."
"Welcome back?" he thought. "Millie and Amy my precious jewels." His unspoken words echoed in his head drowning out the sounds of the other people around him. A dream? More like a nightmare. He remembered smelling perfume and then being transported into the past. The nurse who now spoke to him, he realized, was the source of the scent. It smelled remarkably like the perfume Millie used to wear, even in the heat of Africa. What he wouldn't give to see her one more time, to give her one more kiss, but he knew she was in heaven and he had long ago lost his soul to bitterness and anger.
Silently Bill looked at the slender worrying nurse who had just awakened him.
The nurse hoped and prayed that being the only black person in an all white nursing home hadn't made his life any more lonely than it had to be. Her own dark skin sometimes raised eyebrows even though it was the late seventies. A black nurse was a rare creature in rural Illinois. She pondered how Bill had been accepted into the home but remembered his religious background and the fact that the home was run by a mission’s board. Leaving her charge to sleep in his recliner she went on to give her empathy to the other residents.
Bill found himself back in the Congo. His family gone he had thrown himself into evangelizing the same people who had conspired to murder his wife and children. Was it love or revenge that drove Bill? He didn't know. Perhaps both. The missionary began to preach boldly wherever and whenever he would, putting his life in danger but his loss drove him to an almost insane need to preach the gospel. After the murders people, even his enemies, left him alone to stew in his pain. Almost daily Bill lead a church service complete with shouts of hallelujahs and amen’s. He did manage to help a few of the villagers find God but he felt such anger at God that he had driven most people away, pondering what the world they had just taken part in.
One hot sweaty day a member of the mission board, who had heard of Bills loss and his subsequent loss of control, arrived in the village to see for himself if what it had heard was true. He was a white man and he could feel the eyes of the people of the village following him as he walked toward the chapel. He found the small chapel and examined the outside of it. It was of simple construction of white washed wood. A large wooden cross stood before the door. Going around to the side he found two graves both bearing Bill's last name. A chill ran up the missionaries back as he remembered how the two had died.
Entering the chapel he spied at the other end at the altar a large black man in simple clothing on his knees praying. The stranger approached Bill and then fell to his knees beside him and began to pray silently.
Bill suddenly became aware he wasn't alone and stood to tower above his guest. He knew who the white man was before him for the board had wired him of the man’s soon arrival. Bill thought he knew the reason for the mans visit so he glared at him.
The visitor felt uneasy under the stern look of the man before him. "Bill Hanson I presume." the missions board representative stated in a stern yet calming tone while reaching out his hand for a handshake. Bill, he noted, did not return the gesture.
Bill finally spoke choosing his words carefully, "You presume correctly.” His eyes ran over the face of the other man as though his face could tell whether he was friend or foe. "To whom am I speaking?" he stated in almost a whispered growl.
Dropping his unshook hand and rising to his feet, perhaps a little too quickly he answered, "My name is James Thorpe. As you know I represent the missions board, the one who has been funding your work here." He looked about at the quaint chapel. "You have done a magnificent job building this place of worship."
Bills look softened. He sensed that James Thorpe was not to be feared. After all Bill had nothing to lose or to hide. "Thank you Mr. Thorpe." Bill responded. "I didn't build it alone. My wife and a few of our converts helped build it." At the mention of Millie Bill's heart, as usual rent within his chest. Had it really been a year since the senseless death of his family?
The pain must have been obvious for James answered gently, "I am heartedly sorry to hear of your terrible loss Mr. Hanson." Tears stung his eyes as he remembered the two graves beside the chapel.
Bill felt guilt for having greeted his guest with such annoyance. Sticking out his hand he said, "I'm sorry Mr. Thorpe for my response. There has been much pain here in the past year and sometimes I forget myself. That is certainly no excuse for bad manners. Please call me Bill." He then flashed his friendliest smile.
Relieved by Bills words James shook Bills hand. "Please, call me James sir."
Bill and James became fast friends. A few days later in the early evening as the sun set in the Congo they sat leaned back against Bill's bungalow on the two back legs of their chairs chatting. After a long silence James spoke in a gentle tone. "Do you know why I’ve come Bill?"
Bill answered without the anger he had felt when he first met James and realized whom he represented. Turning his head to face his would be opponent and answered, "Yeah, I know. You heard about the crazy missionary living in the jungle. Might I remind you and the board that you sent us here to this God forsaken place." Anger had crept back into his voice. He set forward allowing the front legs of his chair to thump hard.
James set forward also and turned to face his friend. "You are struggling Bill. Let me help you. How can I help you?"
James' sincerity touched Bill deeply. "Help me find my soul again James."
Tears streamed down the face of James as for the first time he truly recognized the agony seen in Bill's eyes. They were blank of any expression except hurt.
"I'll try my best my friend. I promise I'll try."
Bill's mind awakened to the knowledge he was back in the present. Tears stung his eyes as he thought of the request of James Thorpe so many years ago. He still struggled to regain that part of himself that had died with Amy, Millie and their unborn child. Was there any hope for his soul? His mind wondered and he felt himself drifting near unconsciousness. This feeling was different than he was accustomed to; he was not receding into the past but into something else entirely.
Bill found himself standing behind James Thorpe as his friend read his Bible by candlelight, for there were no power companies in the Congo. A sudden den sounded outside and both men ran to the window to see what was going on only to see an inferno where the bungalow of the priest who had Bill's family murdered had been. Both men heard desperate shouts coming from the crowd outside. James rushed outside and it struck Bill that his friend would die in the fire he now witnessed just as he had those many years ago.
Bill followed James calling out for him but suddenly understood that he could not be heard. He felt great anger at the people who stood about watching as James picked up a wet blanket and ran for the door of the priest’s bungalow. For the first time since the deaths of Millie and Amy he came in contact with his own emotions and didn't like what he saw. He had become hard and hateful, two things neither his wife nor his daughter would have wanted him to feel. Clarity flooded Bill's mind and he ran after James.
Upon arrived at the door of the burning building he found the wife of the priest desperately trying to go into the inferno but she was being restrained by her neighbors. As they held her fast she screamed in her native tongue, "My baby! My baby! I've got to get my baby!"
As soon as the trouble was understood by Bill he too wrapped a wet blanket about himself and ran into the flames just as he had seen James do.
Once inside Bill immediately felt the hairs on his body singe from the intense heat. Bill ran as quickly as he could through the flaming home looking frantically for the little girl he knew was the same age Amy had been when she died the year before. They had been close friends, sharing stories and giggles despite the language barrier between them. Suddenly bill heard the cry of a child and running to its source spied her hiding beneath a bed. The smoke was so great Bill could no longer see the door that he had entered and reaching down he grabbed the child and bundling her into the blanket he began to run through the house smoke filling his lungs with searing heat.
Bill became aware that the flames and smoke no longer bothered him. Astonished he looked into the eyes of his charge to find her lying in his arms smiling. He placed her on the floor and felt great confusion. Was this a miracle like happened to the three Hebrew children in the book of Daniel? He felt the little girl take his right hand and giggle. Looking down at her he felt another small hand grasp his other hand. Startled Bill looked down and to his joy found Amy standing in the flames with he and the little girl he had attempted to rescue. "That was it," he thought out loud, "I have only attempted to save her. We are both dead! But it was supposed to be James who died in this fire!" A feeling of fear briefly flooded him but it was soon dissipated by the giggles of the little girls.
Slowly Bill became aware that James was standing beside him. "Hello Bill." He said with a big smile on his face. The two preacher men embraced.
"James, it was you who died in the fire not I." Exclaimed Bill.
James smiled big at his friend. “Many years ago you asked me to help you regain your soul. Even as you embraced the flames of this burning bungalow your thought was only for another human beings suffering. You could have done as you did years ago and only watch as I ran into the flames, this time you set aside your own life for another.”
Bill felt elated than a sudden feeling of grief for he knew he would soon return to the present and the nursing home.
"Your body now lies lifeless in the nursing home where you have lived for ten years my friend." stated James flatly.
"Ten years?" Quoted Bill. "That long...?" With tears streaming down his face Bill realized that with an unconditional gesture of love he had been given back his soul.
Suddenly a bright light appeared before them and the outline of someone could be seen standing in the center.
"Bill." the voice sounded sweetly.
The missionary released sobs of joy for he knew that voice well, it was Millie!
"It's alright Bill. Go to her" intoned James still smiling.
"Its time to come home." Entreated Millie.
As Bill walked toward Millie with the children and James he looked into God's light and said,
"Amen Lord, Amen."