I consider myself to be a person with values.
Which is more than I can say for 90% of the people around here. My mama and daddy brought me up in the church, and it’s the only one I’ve ever gone to, the First Pentecostal Church of God and Jesus. I figure I’ve been to church 2,340 consecutive Sundays, which must be some sort of church record. We have strong beliefs – one of them is that Brother Jeremiah, our pastor, gets instructions straight from God and passes them along to us. Sometimes, on weeks when God’s been especially communicative, Brother Jeremiah’s sermons go on for hours. Last week, Sister Lillian passed out before the service was over. People said it was her sugar diabetes at work, with lunch being so delayed and all, but I think it was more likely God was making an example of her, showing us what would happen if we strayed too far from His plan. Was it a coincidence that Sister Lillian was wearing bright red lipstick that day? No! Not if you ask me. As Brother Jeremiah says, God made us in His holy image, and to me that most certainly does not include wearing lipstick. Especially red. And especially at church.
Maybe I got off track; sometimes that happens. I think it is one more way the Lord tests me. If I can stay true to the course of a conversation, it makes it easier to stay true to the Lord’s will. Maybe that doesn’t make sense to you, but if you’d grown up hearing the sermons I did, you’d see what I mean.
Anyway, that day Sister Lillian passed out, Brother Jeremiah was talking about how it is our duty as Christians to witness to those who have not yet found the Lord. The point he was making, when Sister Lillian slipped down to that tile floor (which could use a good coat of wax, if you ask me) was that we have to learn new ways to witness to folks. For so many years, every Saturday we’ve loaded up four or five brothers and sisters and picked a neighborhood that seems like it needs Salvation and just gone door to door. We’ll talk to anyone who’ll listen, or leave tracts where no one answers. In between houses, we’ll sing hymns. Back when we first started, people really would answer the door. That’s all changed now. Brother Jeremiah blames it on divorce. Divorce, he says, is a sign that people don’t have God in their lives, and don’t want Him either.
That may be right, it really might. But I think people are tired of seeing that big old van invading their quiet neighborhoods. It makes me feel so ineffective when we’ll go for weeks without anyone talking to us – not to mention going years without seeing anyone new show up at our church. I know it’s not my role to question God, and if He really does want me ringing all those doorbells every single Saturday, I’ll do it. But I was starting to hear a nagging voice – which I prayed wasn’t Satan – telling me we needed to find a different way.
Brother Jeremiah must have been having those same ideas. (Which is not unusual: Brother Jeremiah and I think a lot alike. And if he ever notices me long enough for me to tell him, I will. I have memorized the entire conversation. By the end of it, he will see that I am the woman for him, that it is my destiny to become Mrs. Brother Jeremiah.) He was saying, when the commotion started, that we needed to find new ways to reach out, different ways to bear witness. He was getting good and wound up, but Sister Lillian’s episode was so disruptive that he never got to finish the sermon.
Right after Sister Lillian fainted, something bumped against my shoe. I looked down and there it was: a silver tube of lipstick next to my left foot; I guess it rolled out of Sister Lillian’s purse when she hit the floor. I ought to have done the right thing and pushed it away, but I didn’t. Satan caught me. I reached down, picked up that lipstick like I was a thief, and I slipped it into the pocket of my good church blazer.
Sister Lillian and her fainting drove Brother Jeremiah’s message right out of people’s heads. Not one word of that sermon was left inside of one brain. Other than mine, I mean. Because what I heard him say set my mind to working. If I could come up with a new way to witness – with the Lord’s guidance – then maybe Brother Jeremiah would finally notice me.
I kept thinking about new ways to get people to come to our church. I am not one to go to bars, even though those people drinking and carrying on and doing Lord only knows what could benefit from hearing God’s word, someone other than me is going to have to tell them. What I mean to say, of course, is that I will go to bars, if that’s what the Lord wants me to do.
Nothing came to my mind on Sunday. I took a nap that afternoon and had a dream about Brother Jeremiah, kissing me, right on the lips. And I was wearing red lipstick. I am too ashamed to tell you how that dream made me feel.
I went to the closet and pulled the lipstick out of my blazer pocket. I knew I ought to throw the lipstick in the trash. But I was too busy staring at that tube of sin to do what was right. Satan was surely taking advantage of me. I pulled the cap off and twisted the bottom of the tube. A red cylinder rose up, bright against all my gray and black and navy clothes. The sides of the cylinder were smooth and shiny, but on the slanted top, I could see little lines from Sister Lillian’s lips etched into the red. I stared at it a long time before I shook off Satan, who must have been standing right behind me. All I could do was walk around like I was in a trance. I can’t remember putting the tube on my telephone table, but that’s what I did. I am just glad my mama’s gone to Jesus because I couldn’t stand what she’d think about me putting that thing on her good table.
It wasn’t until later that day I noticed the name of the color was “Heartbreak” which ought to have been another warning to me to throw it away. But I ignored it, just like I had all the others.
On Thursday I was at the bookstore. Not the so-called “Christian” one, because I don’t shop there. Those people that run it are Methodists, and if you ask me, folks that follow John Wesley are simply not Christian. Following God – that’s what makes you a Christian, not following a man. The one boyfriend I had was a Methodist so I had to break it off with him. I wasn’t raised to go out with a nonbeliever. After that, he spread it all over school that I did evil things with him. Oh, I got all kinds of phone calls then. Mama and Daddy were so proud that I was popular, but I was ashamed. And confused, too. I didn’t know what those boys meant when they asked for a “blow job.” Listen to me, getting off track again. Heavens, that Satan does not give up.
As I said, I was at the bookstore, wandering around. There were couples on dates, sitting close together in the Starbucks or snuggled on that green sofa in the back corner. (I never had liked that couch – it doesn’t make the place look cozy, it makes it look like a chain bookstore with a couch.) That night, that no matter where I looked, I saw people paired up. Like Noah’s ark, for people. And they all seemed so happy, too.
Being by myself all the time is getting to me, if you really want to know. It seemed like those couples were flaunting their happiness. Was that Satan at work? Or was it just me, getting tired of nothing but church? And getting weary of Brother Jeremiah never noticing me, even though I was in my regular pew every Sunday and Wednesday, and out walking neighborhoods on Saturdays?
I looked at the covers of the romance novels and tried to imagine what it would be like for a real live man to hold me in his arms. It made me ache, it really did. I guess I was having a crisis of faith. I’d been raised my entire life to believe that if I was religious enough, if I loved and trusted God, my faith would be strong. So wanting a man and thinking that I wasn’t getting everything I needed from all my church-going disturbed me. Did God really did want me to be alone? Or maybe those book covers got me flustered and thinking thoughts I didn’t need to be thinking; my stomach was starting to feel all loopy just like it did after the dream about Brother Jeremiah.
I walked toward the back of the store. At the last row of shelves – the reference books – I turned the corner, which put me in line with that green couch. And there I saw something that shook my faith nearly all the way out of me. Brother Jeremiah. Wearing jeans and an untucked shirt. And sandals. He had his arm around a woman who was sitting very close to him. I blinked to try to clear away that sight. It wasn’t just ANY woman. It was Sister Lillian. Wearing a shiny yellow dress that showed off everything. And she was wearing red lipstick. From what I could tell, Brother Jeremiah didn’t seem to think lipstick was all that sinful there in the bookstore.
I gasped right out loud. I wanted to yell at them, to say un-Godly words to them! But I also didn’t want to look pathetic. I saw a hallway and turned down it, into the ladies restroom. The second stall was empty and I went in and sat on the toilet and cried. I think I took the Lord’s name in vain, too. I don’t even know how long I was in there. Five people came and went, is all I know. I prayed to be delivered from the hell I had found myself in. And I prayed to the Lord for guidance. And then I sat there, like that guidance was going to drop down from heaven right into the ladies room. After a time, I started to wonder it there was a way to know if Brother Jeremiah and Sister Lillian were still out there. I sure didn’t feel like having to see either of them.
Then I started to read the things that people had written on the walls of the toilet stall, even though I figured a lady of the Lord didn’t have any business reading that kind of trash.
There were drawings of what I can only assume were men’s private parts – of course, being an unmarried lady, I didn’t have any firsthand knowledge of such, so this is only my guess. There was a message that LK wanted to (forgive my language) fuck BL. There was another message that LK wanted to fuck everyone. (Did Sister Lillian’s last name start with a K, was what I wondered for a second until I remembered that it didn’t.) There were phone numbers. Some things had been scribbled out. And there was one message that said PSALMS 14. I know my Bible, and I knew that was the chapter that began, “The fool hath said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” Well, that hit me like a bolt. There was my guidance. Had those words been there when I first sat down in the stall? Or had they’d appeared mysteriously, after I prayed?
I didn’t want to be the fool in the verse. I had to do something to redeem myself in the eyes of the Lord. And He placed on my heart what I needed to do. He told me this: I needed to start the Bathroom Wall Ministry. I was going to call those numbers and witness to who ever answered the phone. I was sure the Lord had started giving me the idea that day Sister Lillian (who I was really trying not to think of as a whore) had fainted. That explained the dream and why I’d kept the lipstick. Satan and the Lord were arguing over me, making my mind all discombobulated.
I still had the Wednesday night church bulletin in my purse and I pulled it out and copied all the phone numbers down, right on the front cover. Then I went into the other two stalls and wrote down those numbers too.
Full of new purpose and empty of doubts, I marched right out of the restroom.
Brother Jeremiah and Sister Lillian were so busy making goofy eyes at each other the People magazine they’d been looking at had slid onto the floor. With my new resolve, I walked right up to them, cleared my throat, and said, “Good evening, Brother. Good evening, Sister.” And walked away before they could speak.
I drove straight home, in such a rush to start my new ministry that I left my Bible in the car.
I sat down at my mama’s telephone table, pulled out the bulletin and dialed the first number. My hands were shaking so hard that I might not have even called the number I meant to. I was praying, asking the Lord to lay on my heart the right words to say.
The phone rang and rang. Finally, an answering machine picked up. A girl’s voice sounded plenty bored with the idea of recording a message. But my ear caught something that made me sure she was going to listen, really and truly listen, to whatever I said.
I knew what to say, too. I’d spent all those Saturdays walking neighborhoods and ringing doorbells. There was the “Have you been saved?” opening. Or the “Have you accepted Jesus as your Lord and Savior?” pitch. And “Do you worry about spending Eternity in Hell?” Oh, yes, I knew them all.
So, when there was that little beep that gave me permission to talk, I opened my mouth, but Satan jumped right in, so I said to that machine, “Sister Lillian is a big fat whore with red lipstick. And she doesn’t even have sugar diabetes.”
I just could not believe what I heard myself say. I coughed and hung up.
I was ashamed. At first.
Then I started laughing until I couldn’t even breathe.
All that laughing and not enough oxygen made me think that I was on the right track. Before I lost my nerve, I called the other numbers, seven in all. One time, a real person answered and I froze for a second and then I said, “Is Lillian there?” Of course, she wasn’t, and I said, “Sorry – wrong number.” The last three I got answering machines again, so I left the message about Sister Lillian.
My heart was beating real fast but I felt better than I’d felt in long time.
The next day, I went to another bookstore, two grocery stores, and the big restroom at the mall to collect more numbers. I stayed up late, making sixteen more calls. I did what I’d done the night before – if I got a person, I’d ask for Lillian. If I got a machine, I’d leave that message. On Saturday, I worked up my courage and went to a bar and got twenty-one numbers. Who would have thought that there’d be so much written in bar restrooms? It took a long time to get through that list, but I did. I even started adding bits to the message about Lillian, and if I’d had two or three more numbers, I think I might have gotten up enough courage to say she was fucking Brother Jeremiah – I’d never said that word before, but by this time, I’d stopped praying and stopped worrying that Satan had taken over. I was just doing what needed to be done.
Sunday morning, I skipped church for the first time in my entire life.