Multimedia painting by Janet Bothne
Reverend Roger Rogers had serious reservations about the Faster Pastor Challenge.
On Maundy Thursday, when the WFOP station manager had called to ask for his commitment to a Fourth of July fundraiser, he'd heartily agreed. Roger had recently read about a Faster Pastor event in Colorado that had generated more than $50,000 for malaria prevention programs in Sub-Saharan Africa. He imagined potential synergy with the Mosquito Ministry he'd started on the local Marsh Mellow hiking trail a couple of summers ago—to impede the spread of the West Nile virus in upstate South Carolina. (He'd distributed water bottles, church bulletins, and insect wipes to profusely perspiring walkers, runners, and cyclists every Saturday.) Although he was an avid jogger and could finish a mile in just over five minutes, he'd never entered a competitive race. The Faster Pastor Challenge could show his new congregation at Belladonna Methodist a side of his personality they'd never seen before—and encourage them to accord his Least of These Latin American Relief Fund the fundraising priority it deserved. Churches like his, enshrined in gated communities, had a way of being short sighted. Roger strongly suspected they'd hired him mainly for his youthful appearance and for his eminently memorable name.
But when the posters for the event came out on Mother's Day weekend, he was dismayed to discover that the Faster Pastor Challenge would take place not at the running track of the local college but at the Dark Corner Speedway. The picture he'd emailed to the TV station had been Photoshopped to include a flame retardant racing suit in place of his pulpit robe. His name topped the list of a dozen ministers—and Roger would be driving the Jesus of Malibu 888 car. How did they know he'd been raised on the coast of Southern California and owned a Chevrolet?
After the 11:00 AM Sunday service, while he was accepting smirks and backslaps and heartfelt good wishes from his flock in the narthex, he asked Hilda Willis if he could speak with her in his office. Hilda had been on Church Council at Belladonna Methodist for 35 consecutive years—longer than Reverend Rogers had lived in his earthly body. After he walked behind his desk and invited her to sit down in front of it, he briefly explained his misunderstanding with WFOP. Then he asked for her best wisdom on the matter. He was hoping she knew the station manager—Hilda had done so much work at soup kitchens and flower bulb fundraisers and charity concerts that she knew practically everybody in Greenville County—and he was also hoping she could suggest a graceful way for him to withdraw from the upcoming event.
But Hilda thought the Faster Pastor Challenge was a wonderful idea—even better than the Mosquito Ministry, which had brought at least ten new families into the congregation in less than a year. "It'll reach out to people we've never been able to touch before. Dirt track racing is like a second religion down here. Why, I bet even Noel will come out for the Faster Pastor!" Noel Willis, Hilda's husband, was a retired biology teacher who made only token appearances at Belladonna Methodist on Christmas Eve and Easter Sunday. "He told me this morning he thought you'd look cute in a helmet."
Reverend Rogers winced. He hated to put anything on his head that might disturb his curly blond hair.
"I'll take care of the publicity," Hilda promised. "You won't have to worry about a thing."
As always, Hilda was as good as her word. On Monday she called WFOP and discovered that admission would be twenty dollars—ten for kids accompanied by their parents—and that each congregation would be responsible for selling its own tickets. Half the money would go to the church, and the other half would go to the winner of the Faster Pastor Challenge. Ministers would be driving their own vehicles, she assured him, but the format of the race would remain a secret until Independence Day.
For several weeks Reverend Rogers had been praying for a rain worthy of Noah, but the Fourth of July dawned like an outtake from Genesis 2:5. While he was finishing his chamomile tea, he watched the morning dew resurrect itself from the parsonage lawn and disappear into a cloudless sky. He heard himself sigh deeply. At times like these, he wished he were married—especially to somebody with a valid driver's license and no reservations about making an absolute fool of herself in public. He zipped himself into the flame resistant Nomex racing suit that Hilda's Sunday School class had purchased for him, without his knowledge, and he walked out to his car. At least he'd remembered to remove that rusty roof-mounted surfboard rack the day before.
He arrived at the Dark Corner Speedway at noon, parked his old Chevrolet on the infield, and milled around in the shade with the other ministers—while the teenagers from each congregation decorated the cars with self-adhesive vinyl numbers, fluorescent crosses, and door names like Speed Demon or Fiendcatcher.
"How come you get 888, Jesus of Malibu?" the minister from Evangelical Lutheran pouted at him, playfully. Her name was Angelina, as in Jolie. Mercifully, he'd forgotten her last name. A couple of months after he'd arrived in upstate South Carolina, he'd sat next to her at an interfaith luncheon on social justice. When she raised her salad fork with her ringless left hand, his intestines had done an impromptu backflip. He'd just begun thinking of himself as a bachelor again. After he'd accepted his Belladonna appointment, his longtime girlfriend had decided she'd be better off staying in Claremont, California, pursuing a Ph.D. in Practical Theology. She was no longer returning his calls. So he stammered out a dinner invitation while he was walking Angelina to her car—a pink Ford Mustang, he painfully remembered. She'd patted his shoulder, stretched her full lips into a kindly smile, and told him she was a lesbian.
Dr. Stan Dammers, from Belladonna Primitive Baptist, already had his helmet on. "Well, here's our poster boy!" He looked like an oversized Darth Vader, but his voice was a high, piercing tenor. "Now let's see if he can live up to his billin'."
"What are you driving?" Reverend Rogers asked. Even in the grandstand's shadow, he was starting to sweat inside his ridiculous suit.
"An Alianthus 780 ALI convertible," Dr. Stan squeaked through his Plexiglass visor.
"God is good," Reverend Angelina said. "That car goes for at least 90K."
"Save it for the straightaway, darlin'. I'm out to win this sucker." Dr. Stan swaggered across the track to inspect his car, The Serpent Handler.
"Better stay out of his way," the Presbyterian minister whispered, wiping the wide, wrinkled brow beneath his snowy hair. "He used to do this for a living."
By 2:00 PM the grandstand was overflowing and the weekend anchor from WFOP had descended to the track, where he was belting out the national anthem into a battery powered microphone. Next to him was a moped with 666 stenciled on its side. A black body suit crowned by a helmet sporting fiery twin horns hunched over the handlebars.
"The rules of the Faster Pastor Challenge are simple. Behold!" He gestured toward the moped rider, who obligingly revved up an unmuffled engine while the crowd booed. "Satan will get a 66-yard head start astride The Inferno, which has a top speed of 30 miles per hour. Each one of our Faster Pastors—"
The assembled congregations cheered, and the line of pastors waved to the grandstand.
"—each one of our Faster Pastors, in turn, will be—dare I say it?—in hot pursuit. The ordained driver must pass Satan before proceeding through the Eye of the Needle at the finish line. And yes, our needle is indeed in a haystack!" He pointed to a barrier of big rectangular bales lined up across the track, with a communion-table-sized gap in the middle. "If more than one of our 12 Holy Rollers is successful, then the winner will be the pastor with the fastest lap time. Are there any questions?"
"At least we won't be head to head with Dr. Stan," the Presbyterian minister muttered. "I'd rather take my chances with Satan."
"Men and women of God, please start your engines!"
The crowd roared while Roger and the other ministers walked to their newly customized cars.
"In the beginning was the Ford!" the anchorman shouted into his microphone.
Luther's Angel inched from the infield to the starting line. Angelina high-fived Satan through her Mustang's open window before the moped sputtered off to its 66-yard head start.
"Let the hindmost take the Devil!"
To the grandstand's delight, Angelina broke her tires loose in a cloud of red clay, then straightened her wheels and sped off. The track wasn't sharply banked, and her Mustang nearly spun out rounding the first turn. She caught the moped just before the final corner of the half-mile oval. But Satan kept a few feet in front of her pink bumper, weaving from side to side so she couldn't pass. The moped entered the Eye of the Needle first, and the crowd groaned.
"The race is not always to the swift," the anchorman mournfully pronounced. "Or the battle to the strong."
Angelina drove back to the infield, got out of her car, and kneeled to the disappointed crowd. Women wept and applauded. Most of the men in the grandstand took off their NASCAR caps and held them over their hearts while the anchor from WFOP put his arm fraternally around her shoulder. "Where is Danica Patrick when we need her, Reverend?"
Angelina took off her helmet, then shook down her honey-brown hair. Back on her feet, she traded her headgear for the anchor's microphone. "I don't think Danica made it through divinity school." She smiled in the direction of The Serpent Handler. "At least not in my denomination."
The Presbyterian minister was up next, in The Plymouth Rock. He drove as if he were trying to avoid getting a speeding ticket in a hospital zone. He never got past second gear in his old, steel gray column-shifter, and he didn't even manage to narrow the gap between himself and Satan before the moped triumphantly threaded itself through the Eye of the Needle. Roger couldn't help shaking his head when The Plymouth Rock stalled between the haystacks, sitting there like a deadbeat stuck at a toll booth. Several cameramen from the TV station finally pushed him through to the other side.
"God is gracious and merciful," the anchor declaimed.
"We want Bo!" somebody yelled from the top of the grandstand. "We want Bo Pritchard!" Bo had crashed his Camaro into a telephone pole years ago.
"And slow to anger!"
Psalm 145. Roger wondered whether the anchor from WFOP had cribbed a bunch of one-liners with the help of an Internet concordance, or whether he actually read the Bible in his spare time.
The cars from Brushy Creek Bible, Connection Fellowship, Higher Calling Ministries, Trinity Anglican, Pentecostal Holiness, Carpenter's Tabernacle, Mount Carmel AME, and Church of the Redeemer all ended up pretty much like Luther's Angel. They spun their tires with spirit, they managed to catch Satan before the finish line, but they couldn't pass to get through the Eye of the Needle first.
Now only two Faster Pastors remained: Reverend Roger Rogers and Dr. Stan Dammers.
"Brothers and Sisters, I give you The Serpent Handler!"
"Good luck, Stan," Roger said through the open window of his Chevrolet.
"Luck has nothin' to do with it. Faith, hope, and horsepower. And the greatest of these—" Stan revved his engine until the crowd gave him a standing ovation. Once at the starting line, he never broke his tires loose or lost traction, and he maneuvered himself six inches behind the moped's taillight before they were halfway around the dirt track. Satan glanced back and gave him a gloved middle finger. From the Alianthus convertible, Stan Dammers returned the gesture, to the grandstand's delight.
The Alianthus drifted inside, then outside, then inside again, but the moped mirrored its every move as they went through the final corner.
Now the Alianthus accelerated into the moped's rear wheel and turned Satan fully sideways. The Inferno skidded into the stacked hay bales, raising a halo of loose straw, while Dr. Stan raced through the Eye of the Needle. On the far side, he bolted out of his car, tore off his helmet and shouted, "Get thee behind me, Satan!"
The crowd was cheering wildly, stamping their feet, waving their caps at the simmering midsummer sun. Dr. Stan belted himself back into his Alianthus convertible for a victory lap.
But by then, Roger had already flung open the door of the Jesus of Malibu and had started sprinting toward the finish line. Satan was lying on the red clay, motionless, arms and legs akimbo, perhaps ten feet from The Inferno. The slender figure in Roger's arms seemed weightless as he carried it around the hay bales to the first aid station. But the only ones on duty were Hilda and her husband, Noel, with nothing but water bottles for dehydrated spectators.
"Oh my Lord," she said, covering her mouth with her left hand. "Is Satan okay?"
"Don't look at me," Noel insisted. "I'm calling 911."
Praying he wouldn't have to administer CPR, Roger gently removed Satan's helmet. Long, glossy hair fell to the ground like the petals from an enormous black pansy. The young woman seemed to be mumbling something in another language, then lost consciousness. Two thin trickles of mascara snaked past her perfect nose.
He heard Hilda say, "Didn't she used to do the weather?"
Satan opened her eyes just as Roger was getting ready to do his first compression. "Perdóname!" Somehow her ragged whisper was coming through the sound system, too. Her eyes seemed focused on something well beyond his face. She took his head in her hands, and she pressed her lips against his astonished mouth.
Wolf whistles and rebel yells crashed down from the grandstand like a tsunami. Now all Roger could see were cameras and Litepanels and WFOP logos.
"He shall bruise her head," the anchorman pronounced. "And she shall bruise his heel." He sounded relieved. "Ladies and gentlemen, it is finished. Please join me in congratulating The Serpent Handler on his well-earned victory. And have a safe drive home."
"I can't see any scriptural justification for this," Hilda said, wiping the corner of her eye with a wadded tissue. "But I'm happy for both of them."
"Hell, yes." Noel pointed to the cameramen surrounding the first aid station, all of them facing the other way now, panning the grandstands for background footage. "This is gonna make the network news!"
"I never got to first base with Jésus before," Satan whispered, risen to her knees now, so close that Roger could feel her hot breath on his ear. "You can save me." He wondered whether it was only her concussion speaking, or whether he was hearing the gospel truth from her battered, beautiful heart. While they were waiting for the ambulance to arrive, he figured it couldn't hurt to borrow a Magic Marker and write his cellphone number on the side of her scarlet helmet.