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There is a stone chapel on the outskirts of Seabreeze City, a small town that is situated between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. This church has no denomination and is not recognized as a religious institution by any but the ninety-six members of the congregation—them, Father Frank, and his personal staff. The church is made from limestone and stands like a white scar on a green hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The weather is mostly fair and still, as if Time had paused there to appreciate a perfect moment of rest.
This nameless house of worship comprises a large room with long, plain, sun-filled windows and eight rows of simple hardwood benches separated by a slender aisle.
That Sunday, Father Frank, wearing all black as usual, stood before ninety-three souls of the ninety-six parishioners. There was no pulpit or even a podium from which his sermon was given, just a round circle of light-colored stones.
“My words here this Sunday morning are a miracle,” the tall, willowy white man said. “You, hearing these words and making some kind of sense from them, are a roomful of miracles. The spider that is dying in a crevice far above our heads is the same as my words and your understanding. Existence itself is mind-blowing, inscrutable, and, in the end, beyond our ability to comprehend. That’s what a miracle is—something beyond comprehension....”
With his hands clenched together and his eyes tightly shut, Xavier Rule lowered his head even further, allowing the words, as much as possible, to become his mind.
“...We have no choice but to exist as miracles among the uncountable wonders of creation, our brothers, ourselves. Every breath and vision, love and fear, and yes, every sin we commit is something extraordinary.”
Upon hearing this pronouncement Rule released his prayer grip and raised his head to look at Frank. The minister’s hair was stark white and coarse. This mane stood up and to the side like a crop of sun-bleached, windblown hay.
Frank had also shifted his attention. He was looking toward the back of the chapel.
Xavier turned around to see a young-seeming caramel-colored woman in a satiny blue dress with a white, dovelike hat perched at the side of her head. The hem of the dress came down to her ankles, hugging her generous form. Her lips were red and her eyes hopeful.
“We are all sinners here,” Father Frank intoned, bringing Xavier’s attention back to him. “All of us. We have dragged ourselves from every gutter, back alley, and addiction this worldhas to offer.”
“Amen!” someone, probably Yin Li, affirmed.
“Many of you,” Father Frank said, “have broken each and every one of the Ten Commandments, and you’ve done more than that. You have been, and I have been, the enemy of the potential of creation. We were the slag after divine creation, the maggots on the flesh of slaughtered innocents. But even our sins, our wayward steps, are part of a greater plan. Each of you has found your way to this sanctuary. And here, inside the shelter of pure faith, you have discovered the hope for forgiveness.
“Man cannot judge you. Woman cannot judge you. Even the victims of your crimes cannot, in the end, demand retribution. Our evil is ours alone to bear....”
The feeling of tears welled up in Xavier Rule’s eyes, and once more he was amazed by the power Father Frank held over him.
“...Do not believe,” Frank continued, “that even you can demand payment for your crimes, that even you can understand what marvels might arise from your actions. Among you there are prostitutes, assassins, gangsters, and worse, much worse....” Frank bowed his pale mane for a moment, quivered, and then looked up again. “But no matter the evil, no matter the disease that festers in our mortal bodies, we must press onward toward the light. None of us can wallow in self-pity, because the greatest sin is giving up.”
“Preach,” Lana Antonio proclaimed.
Frank gazed around the room with empathy. Xavier wondered, not for the first time, at the preacher’s power to move and hold that room of lost souls. He glanced toward the back and saw that the caramel-colored woman had taken a seat in the last row, to the right.
“We have a guest today,” Father Frank said, also looking at the visitor. “We will call her Miss Jones.”
“Welcome, Miss Jones,” ninety-three voices said.
Among the speakers there was represented almost every race and all the continents: men and women who had, against impossible odds, escaped their destinies and sloughed off their disgraces to look inward and out through Frank’s eyes.
“We will break up into our prearranged groups and go down to the cells to perform the Expressions,” Frank said. “After that, supper will be served in the yard.”
Frank turned from the congregation and passed through a doorless doorway behind the Speaker’s Circle. Xavier grimaced and took the lavender-colored envelope from his pocket. On Saturday afternoons the members of the congregation called in to a special number to say whether or not they were coming to service. Once Frank got this information he wrote a note card telling each member which cell to report to and what subject he thought he or she might like to broach. Thrice a year Frank met individually with members of the no-name church, discussing in blunt terms the nature of their sins and hopes for their deliverance.
At their first meeting Xavier had told the self-ordained minister about crimes committed from Harlem to East New York.
“I have beaten, raped, and murdered my brothers and sisters,” he said when he and Frank were introduced at a Skid Row dive in downtown Los Angeles. “When I was fourteen I mutilated a girl for laughing at me.”
He didn’t know why he confessed like that. A woman named Pinky had introduced them. Pinky was dark skinned, not dark chocolate like Xavier, but deep brown like cured mahogany.
“I want you to meet a friend’a mines,” she said after a night of cheap wine and debauchery.
Xavier had already considered killing Pinky, because he didn’t remember what he’d said the night before. And then he met the white-haired white man and his life changed course as if by some preordained plan.
The note cards would have a number between one and sixteen and a short sentence or two. These suggestions were often odd, sometimes on the head, and usually revealing.
What did you use to wash the blood from your hands after beating someone? was once suggested. How did you heal the cuts and bruises on your knuckles?
What is the saddest thing you’ve ever seen? a line one day read.
Have you ever forgiven a sin against you?
List the first names of the people you’ve killed or tried to kill.
Sometimes Xavier found that he could not follow the advice or answer the question, but he always tried. And he listened when his fellow parishioners spoke, hearing them and trying to understand why they would do the things they did. Arsonists and serial killers were the hardest for him to comprehend. Luckily there were only three people who fell under these categories—at least, only three he’d met.
Xavier opened the lavender envelope and unfolded the white greeting card.
See me in the rectory in one hour.