Growing up as a pastor’s kid, most church events were mandatory and Vacation Bible School, (VBS in church lingo), was unavoidably one of them. If the pastor’s kid failed to show up for Vacation Bible School, most kids would use my absence as their excuse to pitch a wailing fit.
At the time, I remember thinking the best thing about Vacation Bible School was the “summer missionaries.” Summer missionaries were usually very pretty, soft-spoken college girls who had been sent by our Southern-based denomination to save the West.
The missionaries usually stayed with our family and, if I was lucky, they would teach my fifth-grade boys’ class. Each year I became so hooked on the charm of their Southern accents, that I annually gave God my solemn vow to become a minister. What a great debt I owe to them.
VBS brought out the entire community. Our school was filled with kids — girls who wanted to give their hearts to Jesus and boys who wanted to give their hearts to our summer missionaries. We called those kids “prospects,” and for each prospect I recruited, I’d get a candy bar.
One day, a neighborhood prospect named Steve was playing at my house when my dad suggested he come to Vacation Bible School. With visions of candy bars dancing in my head, I enthusiastically endorsed the idea.
Stevie was almost my friend, but not really. We lacked the solid connection to make us mutual friends. Stevie lived on 56th Street and was almost my neighbor. His back yard was only a few parcels short of bordering my back yard.
My family was almost as big as his. His had six and mine had five. He was almost my age. I was 10 and he was 9. I could swim and Stevie could almost swim. My parents loved me and his parents almost loved him. There were so many “almosts” with Stevie and me.
On the first day of VBS, Stevie showed up — with his brothers! I was countin’ candy bars. My dad was pleased, too. In the Baptist church, VBS is a church growth tool. At week’s end, pastors sift through registration cards looking for church prospects. A well-timed pastoral visit could mean new families by Sunday next.
Stevie and his brothers came Tuesday, too, but at that point, I was targeting new candy bars. Stevie’s regular attendance got me nothing.
When they failed to show up Wednesday, my callousness would have continued but for the fact my dad seemed to be wearing a particularly grim expression.
A disquieting mumble was infecting the VBS teachers. Horrifying glances were exchanged.
“Did you hear what happened?” went the staff litany.
Steve, his siblings, and their mom were dead. Never allowed close enough to hear details, I only heard “car” and “dead,” so I assumed I knew the details. But, I didn’t. That is, not until lunch, when I saw the newspaper my dad must have dropped in nauseating horror during breakfast.
The front page featured four school pictures of Steve and his siblings. The paper had momentarily shifted its coverage from the Vietnam War to the War on 56th Street.
The story told of a family that shared the abusing marks of a drunken husband. When dad abandoned them and left them destitute, they felt a hurt that far exceeded the maker’s specification for the human soul.
The paper described how mom drugged the children and carried them to the inviting warmth of their running car. In a closed garage, betraying the soothing noise of a running engine, mom strung a garden hose from the tailpipe to car’s cabin, and ushered her children into a final sleep.
I put the paper down without finishing my lunch. The candy bars lost their appeal.
In the years that followed, my father continued to penitently retell the story. Never one for shedding preacher tears, I heard his voice crack in each new congregation as he relived his regret of having almost gone to see the family that very night.
Each time, he would confess to having noticed suspicious marks on the boy and tell of hearing neighborhood gossip about the abusing husband. He challenged his listeners at each new congregation to find the pain that existed in the shadow of every church.
I didn’t really know the family. Steve wasn’t the boy’s real name. I can almost remember his real name, but not quite. If my dad were alive, I’m sure he could tell you. I’m sure he never forgot, because there was one final “almost” of the evening.
He almost went to see them that night. He was going to stop after leaving his second job, but he was just too tired. My dad came to know the family well — posthumously.
This past week, the cover story in the Sunday Parade magazine was about abandoned dogs in need of loving homes. Buried deep in the national section of the same paper is the story of a mobile home fire last Saturday morning, in Tchula, Miss., that killed six children. The fire started at 1:43 a.m. in a home lighted with candles, but without water, electricity, or adult supervision for the children ages from four months to 12 years.
How close were we to almost helping?