Friday, May 27, 2016

The Farm

I was told to bring the brown manila folder with me when I reported to the lobby for my assignment, but first there was morning worship at 6:45 a.m. in the main dining hall.

I stepped out of my door at 5:30 into the dark and onto the wooden steps covered in two inches of fresh, crystalline snow. I had been in the cold and snow before, but this was different. The air was frigid and dry. My eyebrows and eyelashes hardened as I walked the nearly quarter mile along the northern perimeter path around the newly constructed residential buildings.

The new facilities would be reserved mainly for married couples, with the young bachelors aged nineteen and up staying in the older "E-res" and "A-res" buildings. Those with more seniority graduated into the nicer, newer rooms with their own bathrooms and kitchenettes, while the A-res and E-res provided dormitory-style lodgings. I was lucky, being assigned at least temporarily to one of the handful of detached modulars on the edge of the compound, almost exclusively reserved for married couples with more than a decade of seniority. 

My breath wafted up into the crisp morning air. I could hardly believe it, so enthralled was I with finally being at Bethel that I couldn't feel the crunch of the snow beneath my feet. I saw a heavy door that opened into one of the low corridors that connected the buildings together.

All of the newer residential complexes were built with three, triple-story buildings sticking out from a central hub with common areas such as libraries, laundromats, offices, utility rooms, and cargo bays. Each residential complex had a male "home overseer," with his wife more than likely assigned to the housekeeping detail for one of the complexes wings.

The home overseers' job centered around maintaining the impeccably high standards of maintenance and cleaning of the building, assignment of shared duties, outside congregation assignments, carpool group coordination, and monitoring the activities of the residents, particularly any single brothers. The overseers were among the most loyal Bethelites, and had to be elders for at least five to ten years or more, with a spotless background. 

After entering through the door, I walked down the long carpeted hallway, my fingers lightly brushing the wall as I went. My pace quickened as I approached the main dining hall.

Pushing open the double doors, I entered an immense room, filled wall-to-wall with over a hundred large, light-blue Formica tables, each with twelve chairs. The room, although large enough to accommodate several hockey rinks, was warm and inviting. Wood-paneled wainscoting skirted the walls, with white-oak posts and beams holding up the ceiling.

Along the far wall, near the gleaming ten-kettle copper coffee machine, was a sprawling mural in progress, partially concealed by curtains. It was of paradise, full of golden sunrises and green pastures and big-eyed children playing with elephants and tigers, painted by the recently-converted Margaret Keane.

Each post had at least two televisions mounted to it, angled down so that every table in the hall had a clear view. The screens were all in sync, with a black background and a large digital clock face with white digits counting down to when morning worship would begin. 

I poured myself coffee and carried the cup and saucer to my seat, consulting the map provided to me in my packet; a neat diagram with a line drawn directly to a seat which was second from the foot of the table, two rows down from the post closest to the kitchen doors.

Every table was identical, with twelve settings of silverware, plates, and cloth napkins. Each table had a pitcher of ice water in the center with a white cloth wrapped around the handle. I sat down on my cushioned seat.

On the far side of the room, there were fifteen-foot floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out onto the pond, gazebo, and wooden arched bridges that were in the large inner courtyard of the compound. Ice crystals whirled outside in the dim, plum-colored dawn. The cold face of the Shawangunk Ridge was becoming barely visible beyond. 

I closed my eyes and bowed my head. I said my own prayer over an empty plate, clutching the bible I had brought with me to the dining hall. I had nothing but thanks to give. It was my first prayer where I didn't feel the need to ask him for all of this to come true anymore, or to ask him to help me in my struggle, to stay focused, to stay strong, and not let anything get in my way or drag me back into what I tried so hard to escape. 

For four years I worked at my ministry fruitlessly, with what I felt was nothing to show for it. I enjoyed my privileges in the congregation and loved teaching from the podium--never had I felt more alive than in those moments, in fact. But serving in the small rural congregation where I grew up, spending day after day going door to door, eventually knocking on every door in the valley that wasn't listed as a "do-not-call," and even then, calling on those homes once a year to see if they had a change of heart... doing all of this as a sixteen year old boy until I was nineteen, eschewing the more typical activities of a teen, avoiding any friendship that could distract me from my purpose, all of this made my end goal an imperative, a culmination of not just my fight but of my faith, as well. 

Wide-eyed, heart throbbing, I thumbed through my favorite scriptures, indulging myself for a few quiet moments as a few other early risers silently came in and meandered toward the copper coffee machine and went to their respective seats. I wavered in and out of prayer, meditating between the edges of sleep and a growing sense of God's love. But eventually I was brought back into my external space with the arrival of my table mates. I introduced myself and soon was in eager, ebullient conversation with my new brothers and sisters and the bleak anxious thoughts of my recent past faded quickly from my mind. 

The red light was blinking when I got out of the shower. I could tell by the number listed that it was the doctor from Miami leaving his third message. He sounded nice in the earlier ones. I continued brushing my teeth. 

Jesse had invited me to work with him painting condos down in Naples. That day would be over ninety degrees and humid enough to soak our Sherwin-Williams "Paint the World" t-shirts through by nine o'clock in the morning. 

I spent about ten minutes in the port-o-potty bleeding into the gaping plastic hole of shit and piss before I could join him and start rolling the exteriors with a twenty-foot pole. 

He introduced me to the crews we would be working with, consisting of two dozen Russian, Hispanic, and Romanian immigrants, each independent nationality and ethnicity with a team leader who was in charge of his crew only by virtue of speaking marginal English. Because we came alone--and because we were white, most likely--we were treated as our own crew and were ordered by the twenty-five year old superintendent to paint the garages of each condo in the sprawling hallow subdivision. 

Later, we found out that a few of the Russians spoke good English, although for reasons unknown to us they chose not to position themselves for a better job. A friendly man who introduced himself as Alex complained of a wife who kept him up all night begging for sex. He crawled up into an unfinished cupboard and napped for an hour or so as we rolled paint downstairs in the garage. Jesse and I laughed and joked deliriously as our sweat showered the fresh dusty concrete beneath our feet.

That night, Jesse dared me to drink the rest of the vodka in the bottle. I asked him to lock the front door and take my keys. I was excited when even the most energetic vomiting didn't trigger any bleeding.