George had warned me about the shirt, so I wore a blue polo. Match my eyes, not that that mattered here, simple, collegiate and in deference to my mother, clean. “The Pastor’s a real stickler for the ‘walk an extra mile and give him your tunic too.’ The Pastor in question would be the Reverend Ryan Hardinger. I was going on my first mission trip to Africa, Rev. Hardinger had more stamps on his passport than I had candles in my birthday cake. He spoke Equatorial French, Swahili, German, Spanish and passable Ethiopian. I knew a few Yiddish words from watching Seinfeld. The reason I volunteered for the orphanage project in Kenya was I was the only man in the recruiting meeting who looked capable of handling a wheelbarrow.
I read over the preparatory handbook. Of course it made sense not to wear jewelry to this part of the world. I didn’t quite believe someone would cut my hand off to snatch a watch, but why not tell time by the sky if it kept my skin intact to serve another day? The proverb that, “He who tempts a thief is no better than the jailer,” seemed a bit over the line of my Westernized decency, but if the girls were going to forgo shorts and tank tops I allowed I could leave my J. C. Penney Timex on the shelf for a few weeks.
How good do you have to be to be a good missionary? That was the question I slipped in the discussion box and now that I sat in a circle of folded chairs awaiting the group I wished I had chewed and swallowed the paper and left the answer up to supernatural interpretations. “Judge not that ye be not judged” was written on the whiteboard, but there was no instruction as how to do that with your eyes open in a room full of strangers.
Two weeks in a land of iffy water and the original dust of the earth with a dozen do-gooders who probably never finished an abandoned drink at a party or picked a burning cigarette up off the sidewalk for a quick puff. Judge not. Failing already. Good start, good start. Staring at the eyes of the children in the photographs helped some. I doubted they’d ask about my grade point average or question what The Civil Wars was doing on my play list.
They were all brown and wide. The eyes. And they all had a red streak like a sunset was burned across the cornea. Tears might be something they used up early in their country, every face had the tremor of a smile hiding under the assumption the other shoe was about to drop on their bare feet. I could help these kids. I could pick lice if I was trained. Or carry bricks for their new school. Or fix a chicken fence.
Don’t know where I got that idea. Chicken fences might be pretty much a developed nation concept. I was trusting the experts to be the whole ‘hands and feet of Jesus’ thing, I wasn’t sure what part of the Body of Christ the experts were trusting me to be. Here’s hoping it’s not the tongue. I wouldn’t know what to say to somebody that’s lost more than one generation to AIDS.
I can’t leave the room, I’ve already got my shots. The Pastor is lugging a large cardboard box into the middle of the circle, I’d be more comfortable if he asked someone to crawl inside and offered to cut them in two with a saw. Magic tricks I can explain away, or at least dismiss as sleight of hand, but this is supposed to be real. I wonder if born again girls jump out of cakes in heaven as he undoes the strapping tape. T-shirts. Of course. Branding. Group identity. Team building. I guess we’re selling life insurance after all.
Half are black with white print. The cool ones. The rest are white with black. Neo-conservative. The returning members of our tribe are already making a line to get theirs. I’m going to take a black one, even if that’s expected of me. I can’t make out the lettering. It’s sure to be pithy. Everyone’s pithy these days. I blame the roadside church signs for that. Turn the other tongue in cheek gospel. I’ve made it back to my seat without looking at the shirt because I’m afraid to take my eyes off the Pastor. If he’s smiling at my apprehension we’re going to have a laugh riot as soon as I pith my pants.
We’re all seated now. No one’s taking notes or inventory. We’re listening to silence. I’ve heard about this in Comparative Religion. “What was the sound of many waters?” The Pastor is going to interrupt his grinning with a speech. I don’t know why I uncross my legs.
“You can’t give away what you don’t have, or maybe I should say, everyone in this room has been given a second chance and that’s all anybody wants in this life. These kids are going to see you enter their life, a life they are desperate to escape, and by joining them there, you’re giving them a way out. It’s a simple as that. When you go half way around the world to walk down the street with somebody you change their world. You kids are too young to remember it, but there used to be a TV show with a jingle that said, “When it’s least expected, you’re elected, you’re the star today.”
I don’t have to ask you to shine or be special when we get over there because I know what will shine through you once we step off the plane. So thank you for coming out, we leave at 0:dark thirty, so get some rest, eat something you can only eat at home and enjoy the shirt. I’ll see you in the morning.”
The crowd dismissed themselves in an orderly day at the office milling to the door. George didn’t even wait for me. I saw my reflection in the window of the car before I unlocked it. Dr. Jeckyl with no place to hide. I stretched the front of the shirt I’d been given over the roof of my used Pinto. “Until a real apostle shows up…’ Oh no. it was a back and front message. The girls would know more about that than me but still I shrunk inside a little bit before I turned it over…”I’m it!’
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