The Raw and the Cooked
“The twenty-first century, my friends, is about debt.”
Alterman says the words to the room of faces that have no idea what he’s talking about. The lights are out, the only illumination provided by the projector and the screen radiating light back on crags in their perplexed features. This is a standard speech he gives his clients - one of the better ones he carries around by his estimation. All for Shiloh Church at the Point, a modern, glass-and-steel temple feeding off three subdivisions of six-figure homes for its congregation.
They wanted his expertise, and if they know him, they understand this is part of the package. They might as well sit back and enjoy it, because he is going to give them their money’s worth.
“Debt,” he continues, his voice provoked by the silence of his audience. “Piles of it. Mounds of it. Mountain ranges and peaks and valleys of gorgeous, fatty, pulsating debt. The twentieth century was about the accumulation of old debts, old vendettas, old hatreds. This one will be about running up new ones that aren’t really new.”
Oh, how they are going to hate him for this one, once they hear it. Not as they are hearing now, but later on, during the drive home, when they’ll finally catch the nub of what he is saying. Alterman knows he has a voice that carries, not into the next room, but into the next hour. They’ll hear him long after he finishes talking, his words pitched at a tone just above the sepulchral.
“What did Our Lord say, during His prayer? ‘Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.’ By this, even the Son of God proclaims that we do not forget debts. We forgive them, as though they are an offense before the Almighty. What do we say when someone leaves prison? That he has paid his debt to society. Debts are meant to be paid.”
Alterman can see their faces darkening, even if he can’t clearly make out anything. The room is darkening, in mood. They did not expect a sermon.
But if they didn’t expect a sermon, Alterman thinks to himself, they shouldn’t have come to a church.
“Even now, this glorious house of worship has a significant amount of debt that must be disposed of if the business of Heaven is to continue. The Lord does not withdraw, my friends. He invests. He saves.”
Alterman pauses here, just to let his next words sink in. As he speaks, he runs through a range of motions and gestures. He brings his left fist down into the open palm of his right hand like a tent revivalist. He rubs his thumb and index finger together as a croupier would at a Las Vegas table, asking one side to kindly pay up. He raises his hands over his head as would any stickup victim. He is all of these characters, but he is more focused on how the words sound, rolling off his tongue with elegant meter and precision.
“I realize that you probably don’t want to think of it this way. You don’t want to …as it were, cheapen…what you feel is a very holy business. And I respect that. But you also hired me to do a job. And part of that job is that occasionally, I have to preach from the Gospel of Plain Truth so that the Truth can set you free. So let me tell you, with all due respect, that to pay this debt off, you’ve got to have bodies coming into this church.”
Alterman sees there are a few here starting to nod their heads. That may surprise his partner, but it doesn’t surprise him. Alterman expects a few of them to agree with what he’s saying.
“Unless these coffers are overflowing with offerings, you’re not going to be able to pay back what you owe.”
This, of course, proves too much for one of the faces he cannot make out. It is a man who speaks, finally, with the challenge Alterman expects.
“I think what you’re saying is shameful!” the voice says. Alterman’s eyes dart into the darkness but cannot pinpoint the source. “You’re saying that we need to draw people into this church in order to get their offerings so that we can pay off our debt! That’s not the mission of this church!”
Ah, they always make it easy for him, don’t they?
“Indeed it is not, my friend!” Alterman’s manner is genial, but he does not smile. Alterman never smiles. “But I didn’t say that you need to bring more bodies in here to soak their hard won dollars.”
“Then what are you saying?”
“I’m saying that I’ve done a full audit of this church for the past three months. Longer, actually. And the problems here are much deeper than I think you realize.”
The pastor, who has been politely silent up to this moment, now has a reason to speak. “I hope you’ll be getting to that part soon.”
That’s not enough for the voice in the back though. It must belong to Chaffey. “Wait a minute. I want to know what all this rigmarole has to do with why you were hired.”
“I was getting to that…” Alterman begins.
“You were hired…at great expense…to come in and observe every aspect of our ministry. The same way somebody scouts a business or a hotel or a resort or whatever, I was told. A ‘mystery worshipper,’ they called you. Now you’ve got us in here listening to you rattle on about our debt. What has this got to do with why you were hired?”
Now it’s time for Alterman to go into his wounded routine. The very idea of alleging that he isn’t doing his job now! Why, it’s insulting. And it isn’t that great an expense either. So Alterman takes out the report that he’s prepared. He does this very deliberately. Anyone watching probably thinks that he was planning on handing it out after his little talk, but now it appears he’s ditched that plan. It’s time to defend himself. He hands the pastor one, and then passes copies out among the people in the room. It’s thick - more than 400 pages easily. A lot of people probably didn’t expect anything more than his talk. He’s giving them enough data to occupy them for the rest of their lives.
Then, Alterman eyes his partner in the back, and launches into his defense.
“Did you not, my friends, vote to borrow money to build this worship center? And did you not do it because you felt you were accommodating this community, which at the time was growing more and more every year? Didn’t you think it was an act of faith to borrow all that money and believe that God would find a way to grow you out of debt?”
The room is darkening even more now, because the words are recognized. A few of them probably remember what they said at the meetings, and still others remember what they heard. That was weeks and months ago, many, many offerings ago, and they had moved on to other acts of faith, Alterman figures. A few of them skeptically look at the report in their hands and likely conclude that if what’s inside resembles what they’re hearing, they may never open it.
“Are you not actively engaged in bringing people to this new sanctuary? And they’ve got to believe in the mission of this church. Correct? So why else did you hire me? I’m here to audit everything that you do, in every way that you do it.”
That seems to satisfy a few of them. Okay, so maybe he has a point. He doesn’t have a lot of tact, but he has a point, they’re probably saying to themselves. All but the pastor. He still looks uneasy.
“What about those deep problems you mentioned? What are they?”
Alterman is pleased, because this is what he’s been waiting for. “I didn’t go into this really in the report, because you asked me to audit what is going on right now. But I think it has some bearing on how you’re doing things. As I understand it, you’ve had your present pastor for only about two years, correct?”
The pastor nods, a little unsure of what this means.
“And you…you came on after the building project was already underway, correct?”
The pastor nods again.
“And the man who was here before? Did he leave to pastor another church?”
There is silence. A few people shift in their chairs. A few chairs shift on the floor, sounding like the cries of captured beasts.
“He left,” is the reply, from that voice in the back of the room.
“Left,” Alterman repeats.
They understand that he is dissatisfied with the answer. “He was asked…politely…to leave.”
“There was a problem,” comes another voice, a little warmer, from behind the pastor. “It was all very amicable.”
“I see,” Alterman says. He pauses for a second or two, to wait in vain for another, truer explanation. “He was, in fact, let go, because of a matter of background checks, I believe?”
A head nods near the front, vigorously. “Yes. Business with the music minister.”
“The music minister had a prior criminal record that had gone unreported?” Alterman says, waiting for the heads to nod again. “Yes, and this came about at the time that the building plan was being voted on, correct?”
No one says anything.
“Of course, I’m sure the two had nothing to do with each other,” Alterman says. “Just as I’m sure that your last pastor,” he pauses, as though trying to remember the name, “a Reverend Templeton, was it? He was mistaken when he said that one of the reasons he was let go was because he was overweight.”
“That wasn’t the only reason,” comes a reply, then a head shaking violently. “He deliberately misled us about the music minister. It was the simplest thing in the world. All he had to do was check the man’s background.”
“Did he hire the music minister?”
“No, that was done by committee,” comes another response, this time from someone who hasn’t spoken. This voice sounds as though it sees where Alterman is headed with his line of questioning, and is silently thrilled.
Alterman nods. “Yes, but it’s the pastor’s duty to make sure about such things? Or at least it was?”
Another voice feels the need to clear the air. “Brother Templeton knew about the music minister. The music minister was arrested while he was at seminary for drunk driving. The music minister told the pastor this in confidence. Brother Templeton didn’t mention it to anybody else.”
Now both sides are suddenly at each other’s throats in the darkness, giving each other rehearsed, ancient arguments hardened in place.
“He had a responsibility to tell anything he knew!”
“It was a confession! He told Brother Templeton something he was ashamed of.”
“With good reason!”
“What has this got to do with the state of our church now? Brother Templeton didn’t want the new sanctuary. There were several reasons why he was let go. Some people felt he misled us. His weight was embarrassing, but beside the point. None of that has anything to do with us now!”
Alterman smiles. “But it does. You see, you still have the same problem. You’re not doing proper background checks on your staff.”
“What?” the pastor says.
“There’s a man here right now about whom I doubt any of you know the truth. And his presence perfectly illustrates the reason why this church can’t pay its debts, can’t fulfill its mission, can’t see why it has any problem at all!”
As Alterman says the words, there are a few people on staff who begin looking around to see if they can pick up any guilt in the darkness. Anyone with a wounded expression. Nothing. Just a sheepish smile on the face of the children’s director.
“If there’s a problem, let me know about it,” the pastor says. “But we should be discreet about any issue like this.”
“Don’t worry, brother,” Alterman says. “This isn’t about you. It’s about your children’s director.” He points at the man with a finger that brings down guilt just as the lights go up. “Your children’s director has only been here for three months. Potentially the most sensitive position in the whole church. The future of the faith right there, under his guilty fingers, and you weren’t even aware that everything he put on his resume was a fraud!”
All the eyes in the room now turn to the children’s director, the man everyone calls B.D. All of the staff pick up on it instantly. There’s something about him that looks cool, as though he expected Alterman to bring this up, but he’s got a foolproof defense.
“Mr. Satva, is it? That’s your real name? That’s what you’d have these fine people believe?” Alterman demands.
Satva doesn’t move a muscle.
“Listen to me,” Alterman says. “I don’t care what you think about this man, but everything I’m telling you about yourselves is laid out in my report. If you really are serious about what you want to do, and I think some of you are, then you’d better pay attention to everything in there. I can assure you the conclusions in it were arrived at through lots of hard work and very careful prayer. But brothers and sisters, our friend here with the false name is indicative of what’s wrong with this church. You allowed him to sneak in here and do whatever it is he’s been doing, unaware of who he really is and what he might be up to. You’ve got a serious problem here.”
“What has he done?” the pastor asks, genuine horror in his voice.
Alterman puts both hands on the pastor’s shoulders. “Brother, you’re not the one to blame. You had no idea what you were walking into here. I think that if this church is to grow, you’re the man to do it.”
“What is it that happened?” the voice in the back demands.
Alterman looks at Mr. Satva. “You want to tell them, or should I?”
Satva gestures with his hands, as if to say, it’s all yours.
“Very well. You see, for me to do this job adequately, I’ve got to be able to gather lots of information and do it when people don’t realize they’re being watched.”
“Which means that we’ve been spying on you for the past three months. Mr. Satva is one of my operatives. He hasn’t been doing anything to the lovely children of this church. He’s merely been one of my spies. That’s all. But the fact that you didn’t pick up on it shows how bad this problem still is.”
The darkness in the room suddenly dissipates, like a bank of fog evaporating in the open sunlight. A few men laugh. A few breathe heavy sighs. As Satva stands up, his grin is now even broader. A few of the people clap, as if to say well done.
“You’ll find inside my recommendations on how this could have been avoided,” Alterman says. “This kind of thing is potentially more harmful than unpaid debt. But…there’s something else you should know about Mr. Satva.”
At this, Satva begins unbuttoning his shirt. Satva is a man that is easily 50 pounds overweight, but he has all this time insisted on wearing an undersized shirt that seems to accentuate his girth. The buttons bulge from the too-tight front even as he removes it, to reveal padding beneath. He discards the padding to show a very fit and remarkably chiseled chest. He buttons the shirt. Then he reaches up to pull both of his eyebrows off, with much cleaner, thinner ones underneath. There is a gasp of recognition from the room just before Satva pulls off the thick glasses he wears, the false teeth that gave his voice a lisp, the wig he has worn for the last three months. In the space of less than two minutes, B.D. Satva has revealed himself to be Steve Templeton, the deposed former pastor, now remarkably thin and back to pay a visit.
”I’m sure most of you will recognize my partner, the Rev. Templeton. He and I have been in business together for almost the whole time since he left your church. I would have expected at any time that you would have caught on. Oh, but I forgot. After all, he is thinner than he was before. But that didn’t stop you from hiring him for this job when you thought he was heavier. Hiring him a second time, as it turns out?”
There is an outraged silence in the room, the silence of people who realize they are being judged - most mercilessly, by themselves.
“And I doubt your present pastor need feel his job is in any jeopardy because he didn’t know your committee had hired his predecessor as the children’s minister.”
Templeton, now revealed, walks to the door behind Alterman. He has a feeling they may need to leave immediately, but he is having too much fun watching all this. The tension of the last three months has proved worthwhile, if just for this moment. He couldn’t believe it when Alterman told him they had been hired by his old church. Surely they knew where Templeton was these days? But they didn’t. The idea that they didn’t care offended him, and Alterman had seen that. In the space of about 10 seconds, that was all the time Alterman needed to hatch this latest and greatest audit of his career.
“You see, my friends, this is all about unpaid debts. When someone does you wrong, what do you say? You say, I owe you. It’s a debt. You got rid of my partner here and didn’t even pay him what you agreed to in his original contract. Why? Because you could. You wanted to borrow money, and he didn’t. I have to congratulate you too. This kind of incompetence would have rated you a bonus on Wall Street. I mean, you didn’t even research the names on my staff!”
Alterman gives Templeton an eye, pauses, and forges on.
“Did it ever occur to you that maybe he had a point that things might not always grow around here? Maybe it isn’t because of his lack of faith? Maybe it’s leadership when a man says things which aren’t what the rest of you want to hear? Did you ever stop to think that maybe the Lord was trying to tell you something through your pastor, something you needed to listen to?”
Alterman’s voice now is low and threatening, and Templeton has given enough sermons to know this is the tone a pastor adopts when he is about to issue the invitation to salvation. This is the business voice, not the one designed to wake up the deacon in the back who stayed up too late the night before watching football. This is the pin-drop voice.
“Well, listen to this. Your church can’t grow, and it won’t grow, as long as you are careless with what you have. How did you construct a building this big, and yet leave no room for the presence of the Living God? This church isn’t yours, any more than it was Brother Templeton’s or your present pastor’s. It’s His. You can’t just sack people you don’t like any more than you can borrow money and expect everything to pay for itself. When the devil tempted Our Lord, Satan challenged Him to throw Himself from the Temple and dare the angels to rescue Him. He tempted Him with carelessness. You’re careless people. You can’t be careless with this. You can’t.”
Alterman is finished. He nods as if to thank the stunned people in the room, and turns to leave. He gives Templeton a loving pat on the shoulder as they move toward the door. A few of Alterman’s thick reports have dropped to the floor from incredulous hands.
“Look here!” says the voice in the back, stirring. Alterman thinks, this is the guy who did Templeton in. Chaffey probably. It’s always the ones who don’t show themselves. “What you’re doing is deceitful! You’ve probably destroyed this church on a whim! Just to prove a point that’s already settled?”
Alterman turns to the voice, with a smile on his face.
“Yes, it’s deceitful,” he says. “You think we’re bad? You don’t think the devil worries about something like that, do you?”
As Alterman shuts the door, he hears someone who hasn’t spoken for the whole meeting demand, “Whose idea was it to bring them in?”
As the two of them are walking out of the church, Alterman says, without looking at Templeton, “You know, I’ve got something. Something big. We may need to get everybody together again for this one.”
“That’s good. Once word gets out about this, we may not be able to ever get another…”
“Are you kidding? We’ll have to fight them off with sticks after this.”
“Are you talking about clients or mobs?”
“This is big,” he said, ignoring Templeton and reassuring him at the same time. Alterman makes a mental note – he must send out the bill for this job tomorrow. He wonders if it will be paid.
“You had this in mind all along, didn’t you?” Templeton asks. “You were waiting on this particular job to open up, weren’t you?”
© 2015 William Thornton