I popped up in my seat, not knowing if we’d landed or gotten shot down.
“I’d like to be the first to welcome you to New York,” the pilot announced.
Some welcome. Sounded more like a warning shot.
I quickly stuffed my New York travel guides in my backpack and capped my highlighter, not believing that I was spending half a summer at the most prestigious high school journalism program in the world. The Columbia University Summer in Journalism program is limited to high school newspaper editors and has an acceptance rate that probably rivals their undergraduate program. As far as I could tell, no kid from Alabama—let alone Tarsus, Alabama (population 7,022)—had ever gone. I still couldn’t believe I got in.
Getting accepted was tough, but the biggest hurdle was winning over The Preacher. I mean, my dad. I first called him “Preacher” when I was five since Momma and everyone else did. At the time, I half expected him to send me to bed early or take away my television privileges, but he smiled real big and halfway nodded, so the name stuck. I tried calling Momma “Anna” around the same time, but that didn’t go over so well.
Anyway, the very day I got my Columbia acceptance letter, Momma and I role-played my conversation with The Preacher so I could perfect my sales pitch. The two major hurdles we had to clear were the price of the program and the fact that it began the very week of our church’s Vacation Bible School. The Preacher thought I was going to be the Vacation Bible School Director this year because, well, I sort of said that I would. But that was before I even knew about the Columbia program.
Sitting at my place at the kitchen table, Momma lowered her voice to play me and I played my dad, even scratching my balls for effect since he’s one of the last great ball scratchers. We continued for a solid hour and put together a winning platform.
To be clear, we didn’t do this all the
time—just for big events, like in third grade when I had a shot at a free German Shepherd puppy and when I recently requested an extension on my eleven o’clock curfew for a school dance. I never got the puppy but I was victorious on the curfew, if you count a one-time thirty-minute curfew extension a victory.
But over dinner that evening, The Preacher cut me off before I even got going good. He said, “Jake, you agreed to lead Vacation Bible School this summer, right? You can’t be at church and Columbia at the same time.”
Momma jumped right in. “But it’s a huge opportunity for him,” she said.
“There’s no more important work than the Lord’s work,” The Preacher said, then turned to me. “And how much would this cost, anyway?”
I shuffled my feet. “Five thousand dollars.”
The Preacher glanced at me then did a double take. “Son, we don’t have that kind of money.”
I casually leaned in just as Momma had when we rehearsed this exact scenario earlier. “But I have a few thousand saved—”
“You are not touching your college fund,” he said with a dismissive wave. “You’re going to need it next year.”
“But this is for classes at a college,” I said, holding The Preacher’s gaze. “One of the best colleges in the world.”
“I said ‘no’ and that’s final. Plus, there’s another youth service in July and you’re preaching.”
My chest tightened at the thought of preaching again—my last sermon had been an epic failure and quite possibly the most humiliating experience of my life. “The Columbia program ends a few days before that, but, Dad, I really don’t want to—”
“Jake, you’ve got to get back in the saddle and preach again.” The Preacher looked down at his plate and continued eating.
I kept at him over the ensuing days since my offer to attend was only good for a couple of weeks, but each time the conversation got shorter and the I-said-no-and-that’s-final got louder. Despite his resistance, I couldn’t let it go; my love for journalism was just too deep, having begun not long after I learned to read. In elementary school, I wrote and bound a series of adventure stories about Papaw’s old birddog, and penned new verses for my favorite gospel songs. But when my essay on a student field trip to the local “Jerusalem in Miniature” made the church newsletter, I was hooked on journalism and signed up for the Tarsus Junior High Journal the first day of seventh grade.
Plus, this was more than just a chance to study at one of the top journalism schools in the world, it was the chance to not be a Preacher’s Kid—or PK for short—for a few precious weeks and for the first time in my life. As a PK, I was held to what I called the “Jesus Standard” by everyone in town on absolutely everything I did. Anytime I came up short, they went running to The Preacher. I wouldn’t wish it on anybody.
A few weeks later, on the very evening that my Columbia acceptance was to expire, I began to panic and decided to go for broke. With no real plan in mind, I tiptoed down the hallway just before dinner and peeked through the partially opened door of The Preacher’s study, walls lined with bookcases jam-packed with Biblical texts. It was like he never had a life outside the church, which was pretty accurate since Papaw had been a preacher too, as had my Great Papaw on Mamaw’s side. Of course, they were both Pentecostal, meaning they put a lot of emphasis on the supernatural aspects of Christianity like speaking in tongues (the ability to speak in a language you’ve never studied). As a One-Way Bible minister, The Preacher was more focused on theology and less on theatrics. In fact, his knowledge of the Bible was absolutely staggering.
As I expected, The Preacher was sitting at his big oak desk, peering through his reading glasses at a miniature model of the proposed church complex. He ran his finger along the thick molding just below the roofline.
“Oh, um, is that the latest?” I asked as I stepped into the room.
He jerked his finger away from the model and looked up. “Sure is! Including the balcony, the sanctuary will sit eight hundred.”
“Wow! I bet that’s even bigger than First Methodist!”
He glowed with pride. “It’ll be the largest sanctuary between Montgomery and Mobile.”
“That’s great, Preacher.” I meant it too—my poor dad had spent years trying to get this new sanctuary off the ground and it looked like it was finally going to happen.
I stroked the razor sharp part in my hair, thick and black just like his. That’s about the only feature we share other than our height: at six-foot-two inches, I’m actually an inch taller, but have the Clarke side of the family’s blue eyes, fair skin and cleft that rides up the base of my chin like a baby’s booty—my nickname in grade school was “Bootette” (it wasn’t particularly clever, just annoying). People often complimented my “good looks,” but The Preacher was the showstopper in the family with his dark skin, lumberjack build, and rugged features. Some said he looked like a movie star. He was sort of a fortyish Mel Gibson without all the baggage.
He took off his reading glasses and moved the model aside. “What’s up?”
“Oh, um, Preacher, I want—I need to talk about Columbia.”
The look on his face made it clear he had nothing left to say on the matter.
“I’m not discussing this again, Jake.”
We just stared at each other. I’d already told him a million times that this Columbia program was just what I needed as the new editor of the Tarsus High School Tattler. It would teach me all the ins and outs of running a newspaper and could even come in handy for the church’s website and monthly newsletter. Plus, being immersed in journalism 24/7 would help me figure out if that was indeed the path I wanted to take in my life. But every time, he always countered with “there’s no more important work than the Lord’s work” or “choosing God’s way and not our own is tough, but separation from God is even worse.” Deep down, I knew that this Columbia program was a thousand times more important than Vacation Bible School, but how could I argue with his godly line of reasoning?
Suddenly, I realized there was another angle—one that might just get through to him.
“Preacher, please hear me out—the day I submitted that Columbia application, I got down on my knees and prayed God would let me get in if He wanted me to go. So it was really, like, a sign when I was accepted. I was putting out the fleece—like Gideon.”
One-Way Bible people often ask God for signs like this. We call it “putting out the fleece” in reference to the Old Testament story of Gideon, who asked God to make a piece of wool on his doorstep dry and the ground around it wet if he should lead Israel to battle against the Midianites. It was just one way we incorporated our faith into our daily lives, and it wasn’t that wacky when you thought about it—wasn’t everyone going through life looking for signs to guide them?
Momma stuck her grayish auburn head through the doorway. She was about the same age Grandmother Clarke had been when her hair began falling out, so Momma didn’t color or even tease her hair like most women her age since there was too much at risk, I guess. “Private party?” she asked.
“Your son thinks God’s sending him to Columbia. I see your sister’s fingerprints all over this. She just wants to get him up to New York City so she can fill his head with her liberal garbage.” The Preacher looked at me like it was time to ‘fess up.
I held my breath, hoping not to give anything away, but my dad practically had a degree in sizing people up. Aunt Phoebe had been the one who told me about the Columbia program, a fact Momma and I agreed The Preacher didn’t need to know. I swallowed hard.
Momma walked in and grabbed the back of one of the two brown leather chairs facing The Preacher’s desk. “She’s actually changed a lot in the last few years,” she said. “Gone back to being a good Episcopalian.”
“What exactly does that mean anymore, Anna? They’re marrying gays now, you know. What’s next—farm animals?”
“Hey,” she said, digging her fingers into the back of the chair. “I was raised Episcopal.”
This was all pretty weird—my parents never got testy with each other, but I was the one area where my father’s spiritual realm and my mother’s domestic realm overlapped. I sensed The Preacher didn’t care for her gourmet dishes like the Swedish meatballs or seven-layer salad, just like I suspected Momma didn’t agree with everything The Preacher said from the pulpit. Each had their sovereign territory, which the other never challenged, or if so, not in front of me.
By now, my dad looked more hurt than angry. This was about more than Vacation Bible School, and we all knew it. To be fair, he had mostly encouraged my journalistic pursuits up until that point, saying that the writing and people skills I developed would come in handy no matter what path I took. Of course, it wasn’t lost on me that writing and people skills are two of the most basic requirements for a preacher.
“I thought you wanted to be a preacher like me and Papaw,” he said. “The church is in your blood, son. I mean, why else would you bother learning Ancient Greek?”
All One-Way Bible ministers study Ancient Greek, the language of the New Testament, at seminary. A few years back, I became obsessed with the language and got The Preacher to tutor me using his old textbooks. Momma was thrilled knowing that it would help me on the SAT since loads of English words have Ancient Greek roots. To be perfectly honest, I studied Ancient Greek so I could personally interpret the more troubling New Testament passages like the ones on sexual immorality, not because I wanted to go into the ministry. But to hear my dad talk, it would be a complete disaster if our family’s long line of preachers ended on his watch. If I’d been born a girl, I’m sure my father would’ve insisted on trying again and again until he had a male heir who could fill the pulpit since women aren’t allowed to be preachers—or deacons for that matter—at One-Way Bible churches.
Sure, I’d thought about becoming a preacher when I was younger—what son doesn’t consider following in his father’s footsteps? But being a preacher meant spending your entire life under a microscope, getting sized up on whether you were living up to the Jesus Standard. It also meant writing a weekly sermon, which was nothing more than an editorial. I love journalism but was recently forced to write my first editorial, just after being elected editor of the Tarsus High School Tattler. When I sat down to write it, my mind just
went blank. In the end, I based my editorial on one of The Preacher’s recent sermons and he helped me put it in my voice. But the fact was that I preferred news. News was truth, and it was time The Preacher heard mine, we’d dodged this issue long enough.
“Preacher, I—I want to be a journalist.”
“What? Journalism’s dead, son. The Tarsus paper went out of business years ago and you saw that story a few months back about all those people getting laid off at TIME Magazine. I tell you there’s no future in journalism.”
“News isn’t going away, Preacher,” Momma said. “It’s just all going online, isn’t that right, Jake?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said and grabbed the back of the other brown leather chair.
Momma and I gazed down at the Preacher in solidarity, but he didn’t miss a beat.
“And did you read about those three teenagers who were kidnapped in Harlem last week?” he asked. “They’ll probably never be seen nor heard from again. You don’t want to become some statistic now, do you?”
“No, sir, but, um, Columbia’s in Morningside Heights, not Harlem.”
The Preacher put on his glasses and turned back to the model. “Τὸ πεπρωμένον φυγεῖν ἀδύνατον.” Translation: “It is impossible to escape from what is destined.”
A big part of learning Ancient Greek is memorizing sayings from Plato, Aristotle, and Homer. It’s completely dorky but my dad and I spout them to each other for fun, but that particular quote (from Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex) at that particular moment was like a punch to the stomach. Since junior high, I’d busted my butt learning
every aspect of journalism, from writing leads to conducting effective interviews. This program could really jump-start my journalistic career and my dad just wanted me to accept what he thought was destined? Was I just supposed to follow orders?
Heat rose in my chest so fast that my face stung and for the first time in ages, I raised my voice at The Preacher. “All my friends have a say in what they’re doing this summer, but, once again, I can do anything I want as long as it’s exactly what you tell me to!”
The Preacher raised a finger at me. “Watch your mouth, young man.”
My jaw was trembling, but I wasn’t scared, I was pissed. “Dad, it’s an important summer. Don’t you remember the summer before your senior year?”
The Preacher looked past me, reflecting on something. “Yes, I went to a Pentecostal Youth Camp. It was…” He sank back in his chair and stared up at the ceiling.
Momma and I glanced at each other then back at The Preacher, who was just looking off into space.
I took a deep breath and calmed myself. “‘It was…’” I prompted.
The Preacher sighed, but I couldn’t tell if he was sad or just tired. “It was probably the reason I went into the ministry,” he said. “At least, that’s when I seriously started considering it.” He clucked his tongue. “Let me think about it.”
“Dad, I have to notify Columbia by midnight tonight! If I don’t go, I’ll be defying God. That really scares me.”
The Preacher looked me dead in the face, but I just stared right back. Implying that he was keeping me from doing the Lord’s will was a big accusation in this house, but I was determined to stand my ground for once.
“And what about the five thousand dollar tuition?” he asked.
I shoved my hands in my pocket. “Well, Aunt Phoebe offered—”
“I’ll pay for it,” Momma said.
I turned to her. “What? How?”
“My Honorarium Fund, of course.”
Dad received honorariums when he preached special weeknight revival services at One-Way Bible churches outside our town. Papaw always gave his honorariums to Mamaw, so The Preacher did the same with Momma. I had no idea how much a kitchen renovation cost, but she had begun looking at appliances and countertops, so she had to be close to having enough saved up. Giving me this money would set her back a few years at least, since The Preacher only got about $100 per revival.
“But Momma, that’s for your new kitchen—”
“I can spend it any way I like,” she said, hands on hips. “Henry, I want him to have this opportunity. I’m not going to stand in his way.”
“But Jake has already committed to leading Vacation Bible School this summer,” The Preacher said. “Everyone is depending on him.”
She scrunched up her face like she was at her wits’ end. “Henry, please!”
Momma rarely confronted The Preacher like that, and I wondered what would happen next.
A stillness fell over the room as my dad stared down at his desk and pinched his nose. Had we gotten through to him? He certainly seemed to be weighing the options. Finally, he looked up at me. “I don’t like this. I don’t like it at all. But if this is truly where you think God is leading you, then who am I to stand in His way? You can go to New York on two—”
I was overwhelmed—Momma had just delayed her kitchen renovation by years so I could spend six weeks in New York. Even in the face of this incredible sacrifice, her eyes sparkled. “Momma, I’ll pay you back one day I promise.”
She pulled me close.
“Hear me out!” The Preacher said. “You can go to New York on two conditions. One. We’ll put out the fleece again to see if God wants you to be a preacher or a journalist.”
Could it really be that simple? Certainly, I wanted to do the Lord’s will above everything else. I had been taught to do that my whole life. The Preacher’s favorite line struck me again: Choosing God’s way and not our own is hard, but separation from God is even worse. “Okay. What sign will we ask for?”
The Preacher thought for a moment. “Columbia must give out awards at the end of this program.”
“Yes, sir. Several.”
“Let’s pray you win one of these awards if you’re meant to be a journalist. Otherwise, God wants you to be a minister.”
“Okay—you’re The Preacher,” I said. I’d just have to work like crazy to be sure I won.
“Two. You’ll pursue the path God reveals to you with all your heart, mind, and spirit.”
“That would mean quitting the school paper your senior year if God points you toward the ministry.”
I froze. Was he serious? I had only just been elected, and the entire staff was now depending on me. “But I made a commitment to be editor—”
He cocked his head at me. “Just like you made a commitment to lead Vacation Bible School.”
Momma frowned and shook her head.
Was I really willing to risk my high school editorship—and my entire journalism career—for a six-week journalism program? But it wasn’t just any journalism program—it was the journalism program, given by the very school that awards the Pulitzer Prizes (the highest journalism awards in the nation). There was no telling what I might learn and the connections I might make. Plus I could see what it was like to not be a PK for once and spend time with Aunt Phoebe, who had a habit of spoiling me rotten.
“Okay,” I said, not having much of a choice.
The Preacher held out his hands for Momma and me to take. The scar on his wrist where he’d fallen on a broken Dr. Pepper bottle as a kid always reminded me of a large translucent spider. His hand swallowed mine whole. People say I have beautiful hands—piano playing hands—but that sounded so fragile and, well, girl-like. I wished I had hands that could palm a basketball or dribble one for that matter.
We bowed our heads in prayer.
“Our Heavenly Father,” The Preacher began, “we come to you this day seeking your guidance for Jake’s life.”
That all happened weeks ago, and I’d been filled with such anticipation ever since that I thought I would burst. Phoebe had overnighted me several New York City guides and, within days, I had dog-eared more pages in them than not. New York was suddenly all I could talk about—I bet everyone in my life was sick of hearing about it except maybe Momma.
But while sitting on the tarmac, waiting for our gate to open up, I was suddenly struck once again by the fact that I had wagered my entire future to get here, including the editorship of The Tattler. I shook my head, trying to erase the memory of my pact with God, but it wouldn’t go away: everything depended on my bringing home a piece of Lucite embossed with the Columbia Crown. Absolutely everything.