Big City Preacher : Neighbors – Short Story

Part of a book I’m writing. The stories deal with issues I face as a Christian. The main character Ryan Asher is a burn-out pastor who decides to become a fisherman and there he learns more about his faith than when he was in service to the church. Sometimes we learn more about God in everyday living than in between the walls of a church.


Neighbor

by Maclean Patrick

There was a lull in the fishing, we had spent a good part of the night going round in circles and to make matters worse a storm slammed the shore just as the boat turned to head home that morning. So Skipper Jim decided to keep the boat out at sea to wait out the storm.

The boat bobbed, in time with the passing waves as seagulls encircled the boat; hoping to find a meal among the scraps of fish the nets drew in. I’m always amazed at these birds. They seem to pop out of nowhere, even when land was a mere speck in the horizon, the gulls always seem to find their way out to sea and onto the Sea Parrot. And they came round the time we had gutted the fish and cleaned the deck. A task, which by virtue of the fact I was the youngest member of the crew, fell to me. So I would dance about the deck sweeping fish entrails over the side, avoiding gawking beaks and sea gull droppings, while trying to maintain balance on a tilting boat and look cool while I was at it – Skipper Jim kept his eye on his crew no matter where you were and doing a belly flop on deck would be a tale that would make the rounds among the fishing docks for a good few years. Heck, it may even make you a legend in your own time. A legend of the laughing kind, if you know what I mean.

The nets had been drawn in and neatly folded and bundled together at the stern, I have had my fair share of getting entangled in them when I first started working the Sea Parrot, looking ridiculously like a beached dugong, which always cracked up the other guys on the ship and the tale did make its round on the docks, though it didn’t make me a legend in my own time.

As the ship swayed, a low clanking sound could be heard, nothing out of the ordinary though it scared me the first time I heard them. The slack ropes cause the wooded pulleys to beat against each other every time a slight breeze blew against them, creating the clanking sound. After a while, you learn to tune it out and only hear the sound of the splashing waves against the side of the boat or the passing wind or the low rumble of thunder from a distant storm. They say you only hear what really matters to you and out here in the middle of the ocean you can hear your own breathing, the thumping of your heart and the shouts of your captain telling you to stop day-dreaming.

I cleaned out the deck and store the fish in the storage tanks below-deck. With that done, I only had to occupy my time while we waited for the storm to blow over. There’s not much you can do on a boat during lull time like this. Which in a way is good when you need some time to contemplate or think about the reasons the universe swirl about you or why life can pull your leg almost every time you have a happy moment. Most times the thinking can drive you mad but I’ve learnt to cope with it. Out here, you also become more aware of yourself, of how the sea breeze blows against you skin or how your lips taste salty even if you never (on purpose would) drink sea water. There was this sailor who had the idea that sea water had different levels of saltiness in different parts of the ocean. We had a good laugh over that one. I cannot imagine someone purposely drinking sea water from different locations just to see if the level of saltiness ever changes. Sea water is salty, period. If it was not then it would not be sea water in the first place. Right? Sounds like something I would have preached.

But what happens when someone loses his saltiness? Can he ever come back to being salty? I don’t know. Even if God does bring him back, would those around him accept him back? It would be truly sad when God accepts but man cannot.

Sad…really sad.

Tony was asleep in his hammock which he hung just below the bridge. It was his private space and when Tony snoozed, nothing on earth could wake him up. The ship could be the Titanic and sinking could take two hours and Tony would wake up on the bottom of the ocean wondering if it was time to lower the nets. I heard tale that Tony once slept through a ship fire. They found him in his bed and when they woke him up, the first thing he did was to scold them for smoking in his cabin. Dead-Wood Tony was the other name they gave him besides Squeaky Tony.

Ming was in a foul mood the moment morning broke. He had a habit of cursing and grumbling his way about the ship when things did not go his way. My bad. He was livid about the fact I forgot to stock up on coffee before we left port. I made a mental note to treat him to a cup of coffee when we reach port. Call it “caffeine craving” but Ming was dependent on coffee to get him through the day. He walked by me on the deck and cursed the sun (though I think it was meant for me) and finally made his way below-deck, down into the kitchen compartment.

I grabbed the side rail, skipped over and sat on the railing of the boat. I harbored some fear that a shark would spring out of the water and drag me under like what I saw in those sad reruns of “Jaws” they loved showing over at the kopi-tiam. I swear that’s the only DVD they have lying around the place. “Jaws” the ever smiling Great White who seemed to enjoy chasing panicking swimmers to his own music score. Forget Great Whites, there were none in these waters, rather it was the mischievous Tiger Sharks who pose a danger for anyone caught out in open oceans in the shores off Big City. I’ve heard talk on the docks about how those sharks roamed about in packs and would sometimes encircle a boat, much like the seagulls, for scraps of fish or dangling fisherman feet. I counted my toes, yup, still had ten of them and I intend to keep all ten.

I pulled my legs up and tucked them to my chest and rested my chin on my knees. I was now perched on the side of the boat, balancing my weight on the ball of my feet as the boat rode the waves. From the side, I imagine I look like a squatting ostrich minus the bulging belly.

I’ve lost weight in the previous months and it showed. My fingers stuck out like chopsticks, mere skin canvassing bone with little meat in between. I bet the sharks would taste me and spit me out, too bony, no meat. And I felt the age in my cheeks and forehead. The lines were showing. I also noticed a spot of gray in the black of my hair. I was growing older and that happened faster on a boat where the sun beats down on you in the day and the cold of darkness cuts you during night fishing. The long hot days bake your skin, dry you out till you start looking like those Egyptian mummies on National Geographic or Discovery Channel. And the nights were no better, lack of sleep and the cold, pushes your body to the brink of breaking. It was a hard life yet simple enough to endure because it was mostly physical and without much emotional or mental strain. A far cry from my days in the ministry where things were less physical but I was stretched emotionally, mentally and spiritually. Getting old, yes but things were simpler more easier to handle then before.

I like this life…better. Maybe even feel more fulfilled. Full-fillment, we all want that don’t we?

The distant lightning flashed and split the heavens. Snaking and dancing along the black and purple storm clouds jutting like an up-side down mountain range across the horizon. It was a show not to be missed and instead of popcorn, I pulled out an apple from my pocket. I ate my apples in slices, slicing it with my Swiss Army blade into wafer like pieces rather than taking a chunk size bite. It always taste better this way, crunchy like Pringles when fresh, and the apple always last longer than merely biting into the apple.

“Probably last another hour or two.”

“Looks like we’ll be here till after dark, ey Skipper?”

“Ya. Ain’t nothing as exciting as waiting on a storm.”

“It could have been better if we had coffee!” A voice boomed from below-deck. Ming was getting on my nerves. He was getting on everyone’s nerves saved Tony who was still very much in Lullaby-land.

“CAN you quit it with the coffee?” Shouted an irritated Skipper Jim.

There was a clanging of pots and pans and the sound of feet tripping over each other, “Now, I lost my cigarette! Soi ah !”

“You’re ain’t getting any of mine, so shut it with the coffee!” Skipper Jim shouted down the staircase to the lower deck.

Skipper Jim skipped over the side rail and sat next to me. His squinted, his eyes no more than slits as he focused to a point in the distant horizon. He clasped his hands and started rubbing the dry skin across the back of his hand.

“Why did you become a preacher-man?” The question took me by surprise. It was not often he would ask me about my past.

“Why did you become a fisherman?” I countered. Smart aleck, he asked first and I had to reply him with a question of my own? Sharks, here I come!

“It’s the only thing I’m good at,” he replied with a faraway look in his eye. “What about you?”

“To catch men.”

“Any luck?”

“I got my fair share of men. Won them over and set them on the good path.”

Skipper Jim rolled the sleeve of his shirt till it reached a point above his elbow, revealing a tapestry of tattoos that ran all the way up his arms, “Would people like me be accepted?”

“Yes. At least if I’m the preacher in charge.”

Skipper Jim laughed, almost doubling over the side of the boat while doing so, “Yeah right!” he hollered.

He was mocking me, having no qualms in showing his disdained. Somehow he did not believe I would allow him through the parish doors if he ever came calling and I don’t blame him. At first sight, Skipper Jim would be the sort of guy you turn away at the road junction leading to your church. He was not a religious man, at least by my standards, he harbored deep resentment towards anything religious and proclaiming (after a few rounds of beer) religion should be left to preachers and the ‘holy-brigade’ and fishing to fishermen lest the fish had two feet.

“Talked about loving your neighbor and everything but when a ruffian like me comes along, they shut the windows, bar the doors and turn out the lights,” he said and turned to look at me, “That ain’t a place for people like me. I caused too much talk, too much chatter among the church goers. Had my experience. Walked into one of them meetings, had my best shirt on, forgot to shave and I guess my trip to the bar did not help and they told me to sit at back, away from the rest of the people. Heck, I was ready to walk all the way up to the front where all the action was but they didn’t let me. They looked at me funny. Figured out I was not their type and brushed me away. Hypocrites! I dusted my shoes, gave them the finger and walked out of that place. God wouldn’t miss me if I never stepped in that place again.”

Again he fixed his gaze on a unknown point on the horizon, recalling some deep repress memory. It was the first time I heard him say he had been to a church or meeting as he called it. I wipe the sweat off my brow and then scratch the itch at the back of my head.

“Look some…churches are like that. They haven’t got much…exposure to people who are…different?” I was not trying to sound apologetic, though I knew how he felt about being different from the ‘holier’ crowd. “Sunday services are filled with good mannered people, but sometimes they fail to see that Sunday services are what people look forward to, it should welcome people rather than turn them away,” I said. I was trying hard to make some sense but that was the best I could offer. Don’t you hate it when your words fail you at an opportune time like this? When finally you could share the faith with someone who suddenly opens up to you and all you can manage is some lame cliche you remember reading in an evangelistic tract?

“It was my father’s funeral…” He had a half smile, the kind that only appeared on the side of your mouth when you wanted to prove you knew something the other guy did not. “It was a funeral. I walked out of my old man’s funeral.”

“Huh?!!”

“They didn’t let me in on…my father’s funeral,” he said it softly. “I was a troubled kid. Messed up my life real bad. Fell into the wrong crowd and did all sorts of things. See this?” He pointed to a tattoo of an eagle grabbing an arrow, “Got that when I was twelve. First tattoo, I ever got. Sent my parents up the wall, calling me all sorts of things. How I was bringing shame to the family and causing the people in the church to talk. I was an embarrassment to them. They called me a troubled child, they didn’t say it loud. Just a whisper here and there or when I passed by them. Just a whisper and they’d tell their kids to stay away from me and worst still, I was an example of everything that could go wrong in a teenager.”

“You went to church?” I had to ask. Duh! The answer was in my face yet I had to ask. Like a kid who needed assurance that Santa Clause really did drop the presents on Christmas or a jilted boy wanting to know if the girl really did not want him anymore. Yes, I needed him to tell me he really did go to church.

Skipper Jim looked up and fixed his gaze onto a point on the horizon and a smile appeared on his face, “We’re not that different, you know. The two of us. You’re a preacher-man and I…well…I was preached to, prayed for and put down. You walked away and I…well, I ran as fast and as far as I could. Took me a long time to realized I messed up big time,” he paused. “Even trash like me come to some form of realization. By that time, it was too late. Heard my father died so I thought I’d pay my respects. It was the least I could do after all the wrong I’ve done when he was alive. Remember the prodigal son? He had a father to run to, mine lay in a casket and I couldn’t even walk to it. I walked in that place and…boy…the neighborly spirit was out the window.”

A short burst of sea air struck the boat and it tilted slightly, sending the sleeping Tony into the wood wall. There was a slight thump, a murmur and followed by snoring. Amazing! The ship would be on fire and sinking and Tony would wake up in heaven.

Skipper Jim took a quick glance in Tony’s direction, shook his head and smiled, “One of these days I’m going to hang him from the nets and tell the other captains, we’ve caught a dugong. He won’t know a thing.”

I chuckled and ate the last of my apple, which had taken on a slight salty taste and then by habit the preacher-man in me had to say something.

“You know Skipper, everyone knows we’re suppose to love our neighbor. We hear it all the time but it seems, no one understands what it means. I guess we love the neighbor we want to love and not the ones we ought to love. We’re no different from the pharisee who asked ‘Who is my neighbor?’ It’s sad but sometimes we all still don’t get it.”

“But the Samaritan did. The other three fellas were more worried about themselves and what people thought of them. But the Samaritan? He was different.”

“You know about the Good Samaritan?”

“Hey! I went to Sunday school too. Some stories stick with you all your life. People should be more like the Samaritan, yet we are more Pharisee then the Pharisees themselves. The Samaritan gave help without asking questions, without thinking, without doubting. He didn’t ask about the fella’s history, what he believed in, where he came from, or even who he was. Here was a fella lying in a ditch, all broken up and dying and the Samaritan picked him up and cared for him. Why can’t we be like that today? Why can’t we treat people with love, care and respect because they were created by the same Creator as you and me?”

He paused and exhaled.

“We worry so much about how our actions affect our religion, we forget to be human. We’re no different from those three jokers who worried about their religion and walked on, forgetting their duty to help a fellow human being. We walked about with religious fervor, believing we can teach and point people towards the right way but forget to be like the Samaritan, where care came before words. You should know this, you’re a man of the Word. A preacher-man whose words spill out of your mouth almost automatically…you point people to the path, as you said but what about your deeds. I’m a fisherman and fishing is all I know. I know few words but I know what it means to work on a boat and you know on this boat, we all need each other. Tony may sleep his way, Ming angry about coffee and you eating apples all day but when it comes to getting the fish in, we all do it together. We work, we do what we do best and we get the rewards. We have no time to debate why Tony sleeps all day, Ming’s craving for caffeine and your fixation on slicing apples. We do what we can and we do it well. Do we have time to debate about the who and the what? When all we need to do is provide human care towards those who need help.”

“Like you did? When you were a teenager?”

“Ryan, I had my issues but no-one listened. Instead, they drew conclusions and slap a label on me – a big billboard with flashing lights which said ‘Troubled Child’. How do you think I felt? At the end of the day, I really believed I was troubled and troubled people don’t belong in a place where nobody wants trouble. How many people have stop coming to your church all because they felt too bad to walk through your doors. They are treated like people who have a disease which could strike you down a few spiritual levels. But we fail to realize, we have to love people we call troubled.”

He paused and exhaled and turned his gaze towards the sky. Clouds in various shapes, there was a train, a butterfly and what looked like an elephant with tiny ears passed over us, casting their shadows over the boat.

“Who is my neighbor? The guy who is in prison or who is thirsty and hungry or who has no clothes or someone I call an enemy. He’s my neighbor. I was a neighbor that day but I was turned away because I was different. Probably because of my tattoos or my foul breath or maybe the way I look. I turned the good people away. And you know the funny thing…Jesus came for the sick, not the well. Neither did He debate about who to help or not. When there was a need, Jesus met them and He told us to do the same. Better still, He told us to love our neighbor. It’s that simple…haha…I would leave the religious debates to the Pharisees, while I prefer to live the simple common-sense of the Samaritan.”

“Did you ever go back?” I asked.

“Why should I? I get more respect from foul-mouth Ming than those people. I still have some dignity in me and probably that’s all I have left in this life. Everyone has dignity and it’s probably the only thing I took that with me when I walked out of that place.”

“Look, I meant it when I said I would let you in if I was the preacher. We’re all living life to the best we can…and you’re my friend. Friends don’t give up on each other nor would they put each other down and friends accept each other. Friends look out for one another…friends care. You’re right. Jesus wanted us to love one another, love our neighbor because that was how people would know his followers. I’m sad it happened to you the way it did. It’s wrong but it happened. Like you, I wonder if people would accept me back. I walked away from it all. I wonder if people would really understand why I did it. I was angry then and anger makes you do stuff. I’d be the only person who understands why I walk away. No point explaining it ‘cause it’s hard to put into words. I walked away for a long time but I feel I can still walk back, like the prodigal son. Only this time, they’ll be someone waiting for me at the end of the path. It may not be my father but I guess it would be someone who sees me as his neighbor and that’s alright with me. What this world needs are people who would look for their neighbor and see that we all are no different from each other. We’re all just looking for our neighbor.”

The boat swayed to the right and the stern lifted up slightly, almost sending me into the water. The sun was setting and the green hue of the ocean was slowly turning dark blue. Night was coming and the creeping shadow of darkness was moving forward, in time with the dipping western sun.

“You know something? For a preacher-man, you’re not bad. You’re different.”

He pat my shoulder and swung round, his feet landing on the deck with a thud. He walked up the staircase leading to the bridge and made his way to the control room, leaving me alone, sitting on the side of the boat like a squatting ostrich minus the bulge. There was a slight lunge as the engines throttled up and the boat eased its way towards shore. Skipper Jim had seen a break in the storm and by his experience he knew it was time to head home before the storm headed out to see where a boat this size did not stand a chance against.

Who are my neighbors? I ponder as I watch the white surf, kicked up by the unseen propellors, arch and nose dived back into the ocean where it came from.

Well, at this time they were all on this boat. The sleeping-log Tony, caffeine deprived Ming and a prodigal-son turned boat captain, they were my neighbors. They did not share the beliefs I had but yet they deserved the respect, love and care I could offer them because if the time came…I knew they would treat me with respect, love and care…without question.

So why should I ever treat them any less?

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