You Say Hellelujah?
Jaston Phillips could smell the sweat in the tent; it stank of tobacco, cheap beer, engine oil, dime-store perfume, and the green-pea-soup stench of neglected diapers. The humidity hovered near one-hundred percent under the canvas, never mind that the weather outside was cool and crisp, the perfect autumn in this perfectly ordinary little Midwest town. He heard the snake hiss of five-hundred-and-some-odd asses shifting restlessly on the seats of worn metal folding-chairs, and the ungodly cacophony of five-hundred-and-some-odd thoughtful folk trying to talk in whispers, as if the tent might fall on the worshipper with the loudest voice.
Microphone in hand, he spoke from off-stage:
“Are you ready…”
…and the third word thundered over the audience, snapping them to attention…
“…to BELIEVE?” and Jaston strode out from the darkest corner of the tent, leaving behind the sound techs and the lighting boys. The crowd started screaming as one, a chorus of amens and hallelujahs blending together in deafening approval. Jaston took his place behind his plexiglass podium, his arms raised to Heaven, his eyes zealously fixed on the congregation.
“What do you believe?” The choral voice fragmented into individuals again, and he heard the expected lone cries, “I believe in God”, or “I believe in Jesus”, and off in the shadowy regions of the back row, “We believe in you, Jaston!”
He paused a beat after that last comment, letting it soak in, and continued. “Do you believe that there is evil amongst us?”
Yes, the mob-voice cried.
“Do you believe that we are all sinners?”
Yes, oh, yes!
“Do you believe,” and he paused again, a hiccup of time, “that these are the End Times?”
Yes, Lord hallelujah, yes!
Jaston swelled out his chest; his voice exploded from him as if it might tear through the canvas walls of the tent and echo throughout the state, the region, the whole country. “Then you are wrong!”
The listeners gasped, as they always did, ever since he’d first played this game with them, years ago.
“These are not the end times, my friends! These are the first times! This is the beginning, folks, the Genesis, the Alpha! We only just started!”
The tent seemed to puff up with the cheers and exaltations of the crowd.
Showtime. Jaston, his face covered in a fine sheen of sweat, finished his sermon and stepped into the front rows of the audience. The tent lights dimmed as a small spotlight came on, haloing Jaston’s face. The crowd grew still; they knew the routine almost as well as Jaston did.
Here came Miracle Time.
“Is there anyone out there tonight who needs help?” The crowd bellowed the positive.
“I mean, special help, my children! I mean the help that the doctors can’t give you, the lawyers can’t give you, the gov’ment can’t give you. You know what kind of help I’m talking about here! I mean the kind of help that only a ‘touch me Jesus’ can cure!”
The voices joined in harmonious cacophony -- Yes, we hear you, Jaston!
Jaston smiled his patented benevolent smile. He reached casually across the seats next to him and touched a hugely obese woman. “Come to me, Sister! Tell us why you’re hurting, my precious little lamb of God!”
The woman, shocked by the attention, did an amazing job of thrusting herself up on the canes she used to walk. Her four-hundred-plus pounds surged forward, threatening to upset the occupied seats in front of her. “Oh Lord, oh blessed Jesus!” she repeated over and over, her girth shaking with delirious excitement.
Jaston went on as if she’d answered him. His voice lowered, although not so much that the microphone couldn’t catch his words. “The Devil has found a way to seduce you, hasn’t he, darlin’?” The word ‘seduce’ rolled out from his mouth, slow and dirty. “He’s found a way to make a strong woman weak!” This he addressed to the audience. They shouted at the injustice of it all.
“Olordoblessedjesusolord,” she repeated, mantra-like.
Jaston raised his hand high; a subtle, tiny spot illuminated it. “Oh, Lord, our precious Redeemer, we have a woman who is under Satan’s spell! We call on you, our Father, our deliverer, to drive out the demon! Give this woman the strength to turn away from the devils that control her!” He brought his hand down on her forehead.
One of his assistants, ready for the move, flicked a switch, channeling a very small electric current to the modified joy-buzzer Jaston had taped to his hand. When Jaston slapped the woman’s brow, a tiny charge left the device and gave a noticeable sting at contact.
The woman screamed, shook, and fainted. As she fell, Jaston turned and skipped away, trusting her seat-mates to catch her. Several people surged up behind her and struggled to control her fall, all of them praising the Lord as they nearly collapsed beneath her weight.
“Who’s next!” he shouted.
The game was on.
Washed, scented, and secure in his motel room, Jaston Phillips poured himself a healthy shot of Jack Daniels and cursed silently. He had three more days in this crappy little room in this crappy little town in this, yes, crappy little state. The money they were taking in each night was pitiful, barely enough to pay expenses, much less feed Jaston’s various appetites. And, to top it all off, the scout from the PRAISE network hadn’t shown up.