My background as a radio guy has influenced the kind of writing I do. The two main factors are:
- Much of my writing consists of short pieces that fit into 30-minute format programs.
- I try to use storytelling techniques to convey information as well as to entertain.
I’m developing a collection of short stories built around one central character – Paul Chapman, pastor of a downtown congregation in a fictitious Ontario town. It’s in the first phase of the editorial process at the moment and probably won’t see the light of day for a while yet. However, I’m willing to take a chance on sharing it here. Be sure to let me know what you think by leaving a comment.
The Con Man
by Ron Hughes
Pastor Paul Chapman suddenly became aware of a change in the environment. The tapping had stopped. Hold on! When had the tapping begun? Was someone wanting his attention? He’d been so focussed on his study of early church society, he had lost his sense of time and place.
Paul pushed himself out of his chair and hurried to the door. He swung it into the morning light and looked out. Just the usual activity on the street: mothers chasing toddlers, sauntering teenagers, and a couple of people who appeared to be heading home after a night on the town. Some said this was an odd place for a church. It started out being a perfectly sensible place, but the neighbourhood had changed around it leaving it behind like a whale beached by an outgoing tide. Now it was in an alien environment, like the early church.
The pastor considered his community and smiled wryly at their response to his attempt to shepherd them. They certainly weren’t disposed to coming into the fold, unless there were food available. A few old faithfuls could be counted on to come to any event when “refreshments will be served afterward” was the bottom line on the poster. He was about to return to his office when a man appeared from around the corner. Paul didn’t recognize him, though he had developed a nodding acquaintance with most of the locals.
As the man approached, Paul sized him up. Medium height, somewhat stooped. Rather slight build. Long grey hair. White beard which covered the first button on his unironed shirt. What had been dress pants in a former life. Grey duffle coat hanging open from his shoulders. He might be homeless, but something didn’t fit.
“Good morning,” said Paul. “Can I help you with something.”
“Mornin’,” responded the man. “You the pastor here?”
“Pastor Paul Chapman, at your service,” said Paul and immediately felt he’d overdone it.
“Good. I suppose you take up offerings here,” said the man.
Paul reached into his pocket and began fishing around for some loose change. “Listen, friend, I don’t have access to the church funds. Policy, you know. But I’d be glad to help you with money for a coffee.”
“You think I need a coffee, Pastor?” said the man.
Paul pulled his hand from his pocket and cocked his head to the right. “I guess I assumed you were wanting money for a coffee.”
“This isn’t about coffee money. Why don’t you be hospitable and invite me in?” said the man.
“This probably isn’t a good time. I’m here alone and I’m trying to get some work done.” Paul didn’t want to get involved, though he was a little curious.
“Hmm,” the man grunted. “I don’t recall reading of the Lord being too busy for people.”
That pegged him. A Bible-thumping crackpot, probably mentally ill, maybe delusional, wanting to make a point. “Very good, sir. You’re quite right. I guess you know a lot about the Bible?” It was half question, half statement.
“I read it,” said the man. “You gonna invite me in?”
Paul smiled on the outside and grimaced on the inside. “I can give you a few minutes. Come on in.”
Paul locked the door behind them, then guided the man down the hall to his office. “Was that you tapping on the window?”
“That was me,” said the man. “I wasn’t sure if anybody were here this morning, so I tapped each window along the south side, hoping I’d find somebody.”
Paul noted the man’s use of the subjunctive “were.” Most people would have said “was.” The man was slipping off of Paul’s peg.
“This is my office. We can talk here.” Paul opened the door and pointed to the small couch.
The man pulled off his coat, folded it over his arm, sat down and leaned back.
Paul quickly debated where to sit, himself, and opted for the other end of the couch. He wanted to communicate approachability after the stranger’s earlier jab. He took a closer look at him. Probably around sixty. Obviously educated. With the coat off, Paul noticed his clothes were freshly washed. Who was this guy? “Well, friend, since you’re sitting on my couch, I’d like to know your name.”
“Zoltan Vajda.” He put his weight on his feet, leaned forward and held out his right hand for Paul to shake.
“What’s that?” Paul grasped Zoltan’s hand firmly. “Eastern European?”
“Hungarian,” said Zoltan. “My parents made it out when I was a baby. I grew up here, so I’ve got this exotic name and no accent. For a while, I tried to affect one, but I couldn’t carry it off. People had more questions, so I quit. Now I tell it like it is.”
“Probably best,” said Paul. “So speaking of telling it like it is, how can I help you?”
“What were you working on when I came tapping at your window?” asked Zoltan.
Paul squinted his eyes a little. “I was studying early church society, looking at the way they treated each other with such love and humility. They truly cared for one another without regard for what we’d consider ‘worthiness.’ The rich had nothing to spare and the poor lacked nothing. They shared meals regularly. They were like family, even though they came from different religious, ethnic and economic backgrounds. It must have looked radical to those on the outside looking in.”
Zoltan interrupted, “It still looks radical to those on the outside looking in. How weird do you think it would look to people out there (he waved his arm in the general direction of the street outside) to see a man like you interrupting his day to invite a man like me into his office to chat? Would anybody who didn’t take Jesus seriously do that?”
“I don’t know,” said Paul. “I don’t suppose so,” he paused to think, “unless he were a con man.”
“Right,” said Zoltan. Sarcasm tinged his tone. “I hope you’re not disappointed when you try to con me. The fact is, most people won’t give me the time of day, let alone change for a coffee, and much less a few minutes of their precious time. I don’t attract con men and I didn’t figure you for one when you invited me in here. The only other option seems to be that you’re a follower of Jesus.”
Paul was unsettled by the man’s frankness. Maybe he was setting him up. He had the lingo down pat. He obviously had done his homework. Paul was beginning to regret he had brought the man into his office. “You turned down my offer of money for a coffee,” said Paul. He tried to sound warm and approachable. “What is it you were wanting? Money for a bus ride back home, wherever that might be? A small loan until your next cheque comes in?”
Zoltan laughed and put on his fake Hungarian accent. “You and me, vee gunna be partners, no?”
Paul had about had enough. He didn’t like being toyed with. He didn’t want to be rude to Zoltan, but sometimes getting rid of people brought on the urge. “I’m trying to help here. I’m trying to be a follower of Jesus, like you said. I want to do what I can for you, but I’m not getting much encouragement from you.” He was speaking somewhat forcefully now. “Let me ask you plainly, what do you want?”
Zoltan smiled. When he spoke, his voice was warm. “I’m sorry, Pastor. You’ve already given me what I want. I mean, for the most part. I confess, I’ve been the con man here. I hope you’ll forgive me. Truth is, I wanted to know what kind of man you are. Not everyone who has the title, ‘Pastor,’ is the real thing. So hold onto your nerves and give me a chance to explain.
“I’ll give you a couple of snapshots of my life to put things into perspective. My parents raised my two sisters and me to follow Jesus, but like so many I spent a lot of years wandering around in the wilderness. Don’t get excited. I wasn’t a drug dealer, a pedofile or a serial killer. I just lived for myself. Everything I did was for my own benefit, the career, the money, the stuff, even the family. All for me. To enjoy. To make me look good.
“I’d go to church, because it was the thing to do. I’d sing the songs, because I was a joiner. I’d even pray the prayers, because there was an image to project. I was always good with words and I sounded pretty fine. I’d tell the Lord how He was everything to me and how fleeting the passing benefits of this life were and how grateful I was for the hope of eternity with Him. It was enough to bring you to tears, Pastor. You would have about killed to have me in your congregation. I would have been one of your stalwarts, a supporter.
“Then, the Lord took me at my word. My kids grew up and left. My wife got breast cancer and died. Finally, my employer was bought out and our operation was downsized and I was out of a job. What now? From having everything to having nothing. Me and my big mouth! I started to think about all those things I’d said to the Lord. I started to think about what my life would look like if I meant them. It was a little late, but perhaps not too late.
“So here’s the deal. I sold everything. Got rid of the whole lot, the house, the car, the TV, the books. I ended up with a few changes of clothes, my Bible, and a stack of cash. I haven’t given away all of that yet, but I’m working on it, little by little. So far, I find it handy to be independent and to not have to scrounge and beg. I live in a tiny apartment, but mostly you’ll find me on the street. I spend time with anyone who’ll let me share a bit of his life. I don’t pretend I’m one of them, but when they see me every day they begin to think of me as one of their own. I reach out to them. I try to be Jesus in their world. When I’ve done what I can in one place, I move on. Now I’m here.
“So what does this have to do with you?” Zoltan put words to Paul’s thoughts, then answered the question. “Your church is in a great place. Right here in the gritty, nasty everyday world. I needed to know this was a safe place, a good place, to help my new friends plug into the Christian community. All I look for is the compassion of Jesus. I found it here. So, as I said (the fake Hungarian accent was back), You and me, vee gunna be partners, no? When I find people who are ready to connect, I’ll bring them here. You OK with that?
Paul was flabbergasted. “More than OK.”
“Don’t get your hopes up,” continued Zoltan. “The fishing is hard. But every once in a while, the Lord brings one to me that’s ready to land.”
It was quiet for a moment or two. Both men were processing. Zoltan broke the silence. “Remember the first thing I said to you?”
Paul laughed, “You asked if we take offerings here.”
Zoltan stood, pulled on his coat, reached into his pocket and pulled out a thick envelope. “I’d like to give one to the church.” He handed it to Paul. “Now, if you’ll let me out of here, I have some work to do.”
© Ron Hughes 201o