I thought I had accepted Christ at the end of the Billy Graham sermon in the Charlotte Coliseum, but I had to walk down to the front of the podium to be blessed by a crusade volunteer from a nearby church who placed one hand behind my head and one hand on my forehead and uttered a prayer. He then leaned down to give me a handful of pamphlets and a New Testament and tried to usher me to the next soul-saving station. I startled him when I held onto his handshake. He recoiled back to me like a circus clown miming an attempt to walk away with a suitcase full of rocks. My interrupting his flow of saved souls caused him to scan the length of his line compared with his fellow volunteers, glance at his watch and squint to see the number displayed on his handheld clicker.
“Are you a preacher?” I asked.
“Are you a preacher?” I shouted into his large hairy ear that seemed to envelop my face.
“Yes, I am son. And Jesus will be in your heart for the rest of your life. There’s a pamphlet – the blue one there – that will tell you all about Jesus’ plan for your life,” he said trying to turn to “Next.” I continued to grasp his hand so that he couldn’t get away.
“Before I unlock the door to heaven and everlasting life,” I said, holding up a gold pamphlet in the shape of a key, “I have a couple of questions.” My volunteer minister looked over at his neighbor volunteer and rolled his eyes as if to say, “Don’t wait for me. I’ll find a ride.”
“I go to church at Oakboro Presbyterian with my mother every Sunday, and no one ever talks about what happens to all the babies and children who die before they can say they accept Jesus as their personal savior . . . and how about their moms and dads who are Muslims or Hindus who don’t know Jesus? When they die, do they all go to hell?” My voice rose in disbelief that the ultimate creative genius who could figure out how to make all things – the Rocky River, humans, all the different fish, saber tooth tigers, rows of volunteer cedars, red dirt, watermelons and lightning bugs – would send a village of Muslims or Hindus killed by an earthquake or volcano or flood or plague to hell and roast their souls forever because they didn’t accept Jesus Christ as their savior because they’d never heard of him.
My question was personal. The previous week, I had made my mother furious when I ended a similar conversation by saying, “Mom, if you had been born on the other side of the world, you would have been the most devout Muslim mother in the entire village – volunteering at the mosque all week, making sure we did what all good Muslim kids do.” I had never seen her so angry. She even raised her hand as if to slap me but allowed her hand to float down to tuck a strand of hair behind her ear.
I was making good progress with my volunteer. He was now kneeling on one knee in front of me. He began again. “Well, don’t you worry about those little babies and children in that poor village. God will take care of them. But it is your duty to go tell their Moms and Dads about Jesus. That is why God has put that question in your head. He wants you to worry about your fellow man and make sure they all go to heaven. It is up to people like me and you who have the ability to even think about such questions to come up with the answers. Read your New Testament, boy. It’s all in there.”
The volunteer put his hand on my head again. I could only guess what he was saying to God this time. All I could hear was a mumble similar to the sound my father made when UNC missed their foul shots. Given that he was a preacher, I wanted to think that he was asking God to enrich my faith so that I wouldn’t continue to question and unravel my own salvation.
My silver-streaked volunteer moved on to a girl younger than me. I knelt down on my knees as if I were touched by the Holy Spirit so that I could eavesdrop. Would he say the same things to her and would she ask similar questions? She didn’t say anything. She quickly twirled around in her pink frilly dress and ran up the stairs to the seats where her parents sat, bypassing the next salvation station altogether.
The line to shake Reverend Graham’s hand wasn’t moving. There was nothing about him and his manner that said he had to be somewhere. Like my mother said, he was a magnetic spirit, but my dad was waving for me to come on. We’d missed supper. Howard Johnson’s would close in an hour.
My parents were in deep conversation with some people from Gastonia they’d just met. I shuffled through the pamphlets until I relocated the gold one in the shape of a key. Under the bold letters that read, “Your Key to Everlasting Life,” was a verse in small print:
“That if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.” Romans 10:9-10
I worried that my bold act of accepting Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior had been compromised by asking the volunteer preacher questions that sounded like I wasn’t 100 percent on board. I left the coliseum hoping that I wouldn’t have to use the “Key to Everlasting Life” any time soon – at least until I had more time to learn from Robin, my encyclopedia-reading farming friend who was always exploring and discovering and knew much more than I did about life, the world, the universe and the origin of the spirits that occupied our Rocky River valley as well as the river Ganges.
Wallace McLendon, a retired librarian, lives in Chapel Hill.