A Short Story by Melinda Keathley
Back in the day…
The members of Holy Evangelical Trinity Church of Titan, Tennessee, first noticed the shift in Jamison Jefferies during the time of Welcome that Sunday morning. Typically, congregants used this time to exchange pleasantries with those brothers and sisters in Christ sitting nearest to them and to get a better look at any visitors. But, Jamison Jefferies, a twenty-year member, and brother of the late and revered Deacon Jasper Jefferies, firmly shook the hand of every man, woman, and child he encountered, looked them square in the eyes, and said, “This is my least favorite part of the whole damn thing.”
He met their open-mouthed stares with a wide sincere grin and a slap on the back before moving on to the next person. Sister Sevena Leevee would later tell authorities she had smelled liquor on his breath.
Members watched Jamison suspiciously as they went back to their seats for the time of Giving. After an infamously liberal guest pastor spoke on the virtues of inclusion, the Deacons unanimously voted to move Giving to the beginning of service, so tithes were collected before any unintended change of hearts or minds.
As Mrs. Betty Carmichael, one of the oldest founding members, walked on stage to the piano for the instrumental interlude, Jamison ripped the notes section from the bulletin and began scrawling a message. When the plate got to Jamison, he dropped the note inside and made what Brother Rip Bowman, who was waiting on the other end of the pew to collect the plate, would later describe to police as “aggressive eye contact.” Before Mrs. Carmichael made it to the last verse of “Lord Thou Lov’st a Cheerful Giver,” Brother Bowman abandoned his post to show the note to the other elders working collection.
The note read: “Tip: Close that gaping financial wound Holy Grounds!”
Holy Grounds was the recently opened congregational coffee and book shop located off the main lobby. Its stated purpose in the business plan was “to provide a place of fellowship and a new source of revenue.” Although skeptical, the elders approved the investment after Reverend Ricky persuasively argued, “Millennials love their Starbucks, and people need a convenient place to shop for their Christian gifts and reading material.”
Nevertheless, despite intensive barista training by the franchise owner, the Christ themed cappuccinos and mochas failed to bring in those elusive younger members, and people continued to find online shopping a more convenient alternative to brick and mortar retail. It also didn’t help that the Holy Ground’s prices were at least 15% more than Amazon. Despite weekly specials advertised in the bulletin, sales were weak. In the six months since the grand opening, Reverend Ricky Wandsbow had preached three sermons on patience and perseverance framed around brand loyalty.
As tithe collection came to a close, Brother Bowman took the note to Reverend Ricky. Shocked by its contents, Reverend Ricky turned around in the pew to look at Jamison, who met the Reverend’s glare with a two-finger mock salute. Unaccustomed to such blatant and public disrespect from a member of his flock, Reverend Ricky got flustered and nearly missed his queue to lead the opening prayer. His wife, Walinda, had to elbow his ribs to get his attention. On his way to the pulpit, Reverend Ricky whispered to Brother Bowman to put their volunteer Chief of Security, 80-year old Korean War POW, and Purple Heart recipient, Captain Leon Simmons, on high alert.
Reverend Ricky, above all else, enjoyed leading the congregation in prayer. He took pride in what he described to Walinda as his inspiring and poetic orations, but the morning’s excitements caught him off guard, and he forgot at least half of what he had written the night before. What he had hoped would be a rousing call to action to lay aside all impure thoughts and accept the glorious and redeeming word of the Gospel ended up being a wandering and sometimes stuttering request to “keep an open mind,” which Walinda worried might be misinterpreted as a slight leaning toward progressivism. To her relief, there were three “Amens” and one “Hallelujah” called out mid-prayer. Reverend Ricky, relieved to have not heard a peep from Jamison during the prayer, silently thanked Jesus and closed his Bible. On his way back to the pew, he stopped mid-step, as if by the hand of God, when he heard Jamison mock applaud and say, “Amen and praise God, you kept it under five minutes this time, Ricky.”
The entire church turned in their seats to stare at Jamison, who crossed his arms and sat back in his pew. Then in unison, like spectators at a tennis match, every head turned back to Reverend Ricky to see his reaction. Reverend Ricky, now completely unnerved, forced a smile and decided, if asked about it later, he would label his frustration and lack of action as a measured and Christ-like response to a brother in need. He signaled to Brother Bowman, who radioed Captain Simmons and ordered, “All eyes on The Eagle.”
The Eagle was the security code word for the Reverend. The security team had originally decided on The Dove, but Reverend Ricky had felt that too feminine and requested they use that for his wife’s code word and find a bird more masculine for him, regardless of its Biblical significance.
Captain Simmons took his post at the back of the church, making sure he had Jamison in a direct line of sight. The other elders sat at the four corners of the fellowship hall on heightened alert. Sensing the growing tension, some of the members used the inclement weather text chain to discuss Jamison’s unusual behavior. In less than five minutes, the news made its way to every single member. Even the teen missions group distributing English version NIV Bibles to village children in San Jose, Guatemala, got word via text. Everyone waited anxiously, wondering what in the world had gotten into Jamison Jefferies and what he would do next. They all found out when Holy Evangelical’s contemporary Christian rock band Crown of Thorns played their first song.
As Crown of Thorns ended their fourth consecutive chorus of “Jesus is My BFF,” and the Minister of Music, Desmond Devean, began his guitar solo, Jamison stood up, marched down the center aisle to the sound equipment, and began to furiously yank cords out of the amplifiers. As the music faded and the crowd began whispering and texting, Jamison pointed to Desmond Devean with the disconnected end of his guitar cable cord and yelled, “If I wanted a concert, I’d go see a real band! Nobody wants to hear this shit so early in the morning!”
His words were first met by violent feedback from the speakers and then by the members’ dismayed silence. When Reverend Ricky attempted to stop Jamison from completely dismantling the sound equipment, his faithful wife Walinda followed behind him. Unintentionally, as Jamison slung his arm back to get Reverend Ricky’s hand off his shoulder, he hit Sister Walinda square in the face, busting her nose and knocking out the dental bonding from an old cheerleading accident. The shock from the blow sent Walinda spinning out toward the first pew — blood spewing from her nose and gums like a lawn sprinkler. Three generations of the McAttrey family, who had faithfully sat on the front pew since the churched doors opened 30 years ago, were covered torso to tophat in blood splatter.
Three of the elders ran at full speed to the front of the fellowship hall and tackled Jamison, taking Reverend Ricky down with them. Michael McAttrey, now angry and covered in blood, jumped in to help. Captain Simmons made his way to the front of the church, unclipped his firearm, and took a crouching stance near the communion table, waiting for a clear shot of Jamison’s shoulder or leg — his intention never to kill, just to wound. To everyone’s surprise, Jamison turned out to be quite the scrapper for his age. Some of the witnesses later attributed Jamison’s wiliness to his wiry build. Others speculated he may have been “hopped up on drugs.”
The three elders, Michael McAttrey and Reverend Ricky could not subdue Jamison Jefferies no matter how they tried. The entire congregation stood up to get a better view of the wiggling and grunting pig pile before them. Every now and then, Captain Simmons caught a glimpse of Jamison’s curly grey hair or kaki Dickies, but he never got a clear shot. Frustrated, Captain Simmons fired three warning shots over his head, hitting a brass chandelier, which came crashing down on top of the communion table. Tiny cups of grape juice and unleavened crackers flew like shrapnel. Jamison, Reverend Ricky, Michael McAttrey, and the elders stopped mid melee–their arms and legs twisted and suspended in midair. Every member stood frozen in disbelief. No one texted or made a sound. The drama, for a moment, seemed over.
“Freeze! Put your hands up!”
Two Trinity police officers, whose typical Sunday morning of coffee and computer solitaire had been interrupted by Sister Sevena’s frantic 911 call and dispatch’s consequent relay of a report of a 10-96, rushed the sanctuary with their guns pointed at the only other person brandishing a firearm.
Captain Simmons did not hear the officer’s orders. Captain Simmons, who had been hard of hearing since his time in the military, had removed his prescribed hearing aid and replaced it with the church’s security walkie-talkie earpiece, as he did every Sunday he was on duty. Captain Simmons kept his eyes on the ball of squirming and wrestling bodies until he noticed the ball had stopped squirming and wrestling and had shifted its attention to the back of the church. In his confusion, Captain Simmons turned towards the police officers with the barrel of his semi-automatic pistol leading the way.
“Put the gun down!” both officers yelled.
The entire congregation took cover on the floor between the pews. Captain Simmons, finally appreciative of his situation’s precariousness, took his finger off the trigger and slowly raised his left hand in the air. Bending down as low as his decades-old double-knee replacement would allow him to go, he laid his pistol on the ground. As the gun left Captain Simmons’s hand, the officers rushed him, handcuffed him face down on the church floor, and informed him he was under arrest for assault with a deadly weapon and false imprisonment of hostages.
Reverend Ricky canceled the rest of service. Paramedics arrived to treat Walinda’s face and the McAttreys for shock. Brother Bowman left to accompany Captain Simmons to the police station. For two hours, officers took the statements of each member in attendance, except Jamison Jefferies.
Jamison Jefferies was the only person not questioned by the police at the church. In the confusion of the standoff, Jamison had rolled behind the podium, crawled to the baptismal dressing room, walked out the backdoor of the church to the parking lot, got into his car, and drove home. He later told police the first thing he did after leaving the church was to compose his formal letter of member withdrawal from Holy Evangelical Trinity Church of Titan Tennessee. Jamison fully cooperated with authorities and agreed to come down to the station for formal questioning. Although Trinity Police and the County Prosecutor considered Jamison’s actions extremely blasphemous, they could find no actual laws broken. No formal charges were ever brought against Jamison.
After police verified Captain Simmons’s license to carry a concealed weapon and the registration for his pistol, and witnesses made statements attesting to Captain Simmons’s heroism and official role as volunteer Chief Security Officer, they dropped the charges and released him. Brother Bowman drove Captain Simmons home to his gated senior living community. He was later given a spaghetti banquet in his honor and awarded a medal of bravery by the homeowners association.
After Jamison agreed to pay for the busted amplifier and three porcelain veneers for Walinda, Reverend Ricky dropped the Wandsbows’s civil suit. The following Sunday, a swollen and bruised Walinda Wandsbow proudly and piously stood before a packed house with a gleaming white smile and gave her testimony of forgiveness and Christian strength in the face of adversity. As a show of support and solidarity, the church took up a love offering for the Wandsbows, inspiring Reverend Ricky to publically declare, “The Lord works in mysterious ways.”
Jamison Jefferies never returned to Holy Evangelical, but his memory remained. Reverend Ricky preached at least one sermon a quarter that seemed directly inspired by the incident. All the Sunday school teachers coordinated lessons on the dangers of secularism and the war on Christianity. Members occasionally reported seeing Jamison at the grocery store, local food bank dropping off a donation, or at the park where he now took daily meditation walks. He seemed to be in good spirits and always spoke kindly to his former Holy Evangelical members. The church never conclusively determined what triggered Jamison’s behavior that morning, but members speculated. He was one of the few open drinkers at Trinity, so drugs alcohol was blamed by many. It was also rumored for weeks and finally confirmed by a member who had a friend who had a friend in the neighboring town that Jamison had joined the Unitarian Church. Upon hearing the news, Sister Sevena Levee remarked during a potluck, “That figures. Bless his heart.”
Melinda Keathley is a native Mid-Southerner, born in Arkansas and later drawn to the bright lights on the bluff of Memphis, TN. She earned a BA in History and an MA in English Literature from the University of Memphis, and now makes her living in a human resources department of a Fortune 100 company. In October, she won the Memphis Magazine Very Short Story Contest, and her poetry can be found on Instagram @MKMKPoetry.