Jesus Saves

The Head of Christ by Warner Sallman

The Head of Christ by Warner Sallman

I sit on a wooden bench facing a basketball court, watching ten guys, all black, mid-teens to mid-twenties, playing a pick-up game. They glisten in a pack around the ball. They yell, “Come on, come on, come on” and “hey hey hey” and “what’s that” and “that’s right, that’s right.”

It’s 1993. I’m twenty-two, a new college grad, broke as a junk-yard car, living on a poor block in Richmond, Virginia. I flip through my notebook, which I carry around because I’m going to write a novel about THE SOUTH. That’s how I think of it, this soon-to-be-aborted project: All caps. A book about Flannery O’Connor’s “Christ-haunted” land, or V.S. Naipaul’s cultural space of racial oppression, strife, and coexistence— “black people there, black people there, white people there. Black people, black people, white people, black people…White people, white people, black people, white people”—a place of hard facts and dark history, a place where widely held beliefs are, depending on your perspective, either magical or delusional.

A shadow falls over me. I look up. It’s Jesus.

Startled, I say hello to the dark face, which is backlit by the sun, as Jesus probably should be.

“What’s up?” Jesus says, putting his hands in the pockets of his tattered jeans.

I move over. He sits down beside me on the bench. He hands me a white, self-published paperback book called Street Preacher. It has the heft and sturdiness of a good literary journal. It’s a collection of short, biographical sketches, with only minor grammatical problems, of traveling evangelists—old men in Alabama, a woman in Charleston, a thirteen-year-old prodigy, “strong with the Lord,” who fills school gymnasiums and community centers in central Florida. The last section of the book is about him, written in the third person. He is a man, according to himself, burning with God’s mission to spread the Word.

The cover, the copyright page (he drew the C inside a circle himself), and the final chapter tell me his name is not Jesus. But he looks like our conventional notion of Jesus, which largely comes, I recently learned, from a 1941 painting by Warner Sallman, a painting I used to see every Sunday at my family’s Methodist church in Hampton, seventy-five miles to the southeast.

Jesus—this guy—is handsomely Caucasian—rosy-cheeked, bearded, long-haired, and peaceful in his countenance to the point of beatitude. I quit church as a teen, but I can honestly say I feel comfortable, really comfortable, not threatened in the least, in the presence of this Jesus.

“Are you saved?” he asks.

“Probably not.” I was baptized at five, maybe six. I remember the cold trickle of water on my forehead. I remember thinking, even as an accepting, God-fearing boy—a boy who ached for God’s favor, ached to be “good”—how formal, rote, and empty it felt as I looked out at the families scattered in the dark-wood pews in their Sunday bests.

“You are or you’re not. No probably.”

“Not then. I don’t feel particularly saved from anything.”

“I’ll save you if you want. I’m ordained as a reverend. I did a correspondence course. You’d be maybe my two-hundredth soul saved, something like that, so I’ve got experience. Nothing should go wrong.”

He hands me a card with his name and the word “Reverend” on it.

Jesus tells me he owns a trailer park with his brother-in-law, his dead wife’s brother. Jesus’ wife died of cancer, breast cancer first, but then “all-over-body cancer.” He was religious before, a “strong believer,” but when his wife was dying he met a hospice nurse at the hospital, who was an angel in the flesh, he says, and it was then that he felt the calling to ministry. This woman—he doesn’t say her name—started to come to their trailer during her time off. She wanted to offer assistance. It was free assistance, since Jesus (the maintenance man, not yet the reverend) and his wife didn’t have insurance. One day Jesus, his bed-ridden wife, and the hospice nurse held hands and prayed. They put their heads together. At that moment, through a small window in the trailer above his wife’s bed, a piercing ray of sunlight coated each of them in gold.

“We each felt the presence of God like warmth and strength,” he says, “and we were all crying, and I knew it was okay for my wife to die, and I knew that if I didn’t let her go, let her go in my heart, I mean, go to the next, better place, she would suffer more. My holding on was selfish and against God. God wanted my wife. It was part of His plan.”

That night, he says, he slept on a cot, his wife miserably uncomfortable, sweating through the sheets in the bed. In a dream, he saw her on a wood-and-rope swing under a big tree. He watched her from a distance, and she was young and happy and healthy. “She was only twenty maybe, with her hair long the way it was when we met,” he says. His life had been all worry and sorrow, depression and anxiety. When he woke up, he says, rain was beating on the roof of his trailer, and he knew his wife was dead.

He’s now a street evangelist, ordained and with a certificate, or something like a certificate. I imagine, but do not know, that he grew out his hair and beard after his wife’s death. He walks these streets every day, as a soldier of a sort. Then he goes home to the trailer park, where he mows the grass, collects the monthly rent, fixes faucets and windowsills.

“Right here right here right here,” one of the men on the court shouts just before a stylish under-the-basket lay-up. Rush-hour traffic is starting to pile up on the one-way road behind us.

“So do you want to be saved?” he asks.

I consider. “I don’t see why not,” I say.

“There you go,” he says. “There you go.”

He puts his hand on the back of my head and pushes my face downward, like a barber about to cut my hair. “Dear, Lord,” he says, his other hand in the air, the bounce bounce bounce of the basketball in the background. “I ask in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, that this young man be taken into your flock and looked after all the days of his life, good days and bad days, through love and loss, suffering and joy, until he arrives to be with you, Lord, in the kingdom of Heaven, where all pain is erased and our service is rewarded with paradise. Amen.”

He takes his hand off my neck.

I look at him.

“Alright,” he says. “That ought to be a big help. Do you feel anything? Be honest.”

I think for a moment. “I feel a little awkward about you putting your hand on my neck like that.”

“Sure. Sure,” he says. “You’re on Earth, buddy, to live out your days. Suspicion, mistrust, all normal. And shame, our mortal curse, brought down upon us when Eve ate the apple. It’s not magic, getting saved. It’s more like insurance. I just gave you a kind of insurance policy.”

“Okay,” I say. “Thanks.”

“You’re very welcome,” he says, then walks down the sidewalk in the shouting of the game and the low, hot roar of the traffic, singing some hymn I can’t name but think I recognize.

Greg Bottoms is the author of six books, including the memoir Angelhead (U. of Chicago Press), the recent essay collection Spiritual American Trash: Portraits from the Margins of Art and Faith (Counterpoint Press), and Pitiful Criminals (Counterpoint Press), a graphic collection of memoirs and stories, with drawings by artist W. David Powell. He teaches creative writing at the University of Vermont, where he is Professor of English.