The Gathering

PART ONE

Chapter 1

Nancy could sense that there was something wrong at work today. The office atmosphere seemed to drip fear like a dark cloud hovering near Mr. Jacobson's office door. Mariah Johnson had been asked to meet with the boss at 10:00 A.M. What in the world could he want with her? Nancy wondered. Mariah had been with U.C.M. for ten years as one of their best administrative assistants.

Nancy's desk was close enough to Jacobson's office to notice their voices growing louder. It sounded like a heated discussion to her. Why would Mariah be in trouble? Without warning, the office door flew open and Mariah Johnson came storming out. Nancy swung her head around to see Mariah, with handkerchief in hand, crying.

"Hey, what happened?" whispered Nancy. Mariah grabbed her purse and practically ran toward the front door.

"I'll call you."

And, in an instant, Mariah was gone. Nancy's thoughts began to race. Was Mariah fired? If so, what in the world could she have done? Was she laid off? Were there problems at U.C.M. that Nancy was unaware of? How could there be? This was a federally funded program.

On the way home, Nancy's mind was still racing. Was she going to lose her job, too? She was a single mom. How would she support her three kids? Even though she didn't like her boss, her job provided a good income for her family. She had worked for the United Christian Movement for over five years now and had become comfortable in her present lifestyle. Was that all going to come to an abrupt end? There's really no sense worrying about that now; I'll just wait till I talk to Mariah to see what happened.

The commute from San Francisco to Concord was sometimes a real pain. The traffic was always bad and today was no exception. The January sun was setting quickly as Nancy began the transition from the 680 Freeway to the 242. Nancy kept a close watch on the digital clock in her car. It was Thursday. She needed to take her daughter, Jessica, to piano lessons, and her son, Jason, to Cub Scouts. It was also her night for home visitation for the cChurch. Her younger boy, Robbie, would be at a friend's home until she was finished with her church work. Hopefully tonight she wouldn't have too many calls to make and would be finished in an hour or so.

As she waited in the stop-and-go traffic, her mind was quickly drawn back to the situation at work. What was she going to do if she was laid off? Raising three kids alone was no easy task, especially since her ex-husband was nowhere to be found out of the picture and had not paid a penny of child support in three years. She took advantage of overtime whenever possible. There had been plenty of that lately with U.C.M.'s involvement in the Presidential campaign. Even though she didn't agree with everything that the United Christian Movement stood for, she had to applaud their success at putting a born again Christian in the White House. That was certainly a monumental achievement! They had even succeeded in uniting all the Christian denominations under one organizational umbrella! This was tremendous, Nancy thought. And it only took five years! What an organization toorganization to work for! Was it all going to end? Was there a problem in the U.C.M.? After gathering the two older kids from their after school care provider, Nancy rushed them through dinner at McDonalds, then off to their respective activities. Moving as quickly as she politely could, she left Jessica with her piano teacher, dropped Jason off at the home of the Cub Scout leader, and then she rushed over to the church. Nancy met Joe Penny at the office door.

"Hi, Nancy. Come on in and I'll give you your visitation cards. There are only two for tonight."

He handed her two 3x5 index cards. "Both of these ladies were here last Sunday," Joe said.

"Do we have any info on them?" asked Nancy.

"Well, a little. One is a young, single woman with a baby living on the south side. The other is an elderly lady living in the senior apartment complex down the street."

"Consider it done. Thanks, Joe."

Nancy got back into her car and set the G.P.S. for the first address. She decided she would go visit the woman with the baby first so that she could work her way back to her house. Mechanically following the instruction of the G.P.S., Nancy was still reflecting on the final departing words of Mariah when she heard the voice say, "You have reached your destination." After finding a place to park on the dimly lit street, she looked around the neighborhood before she got out of her car. This is not a neighborhood for a single woman with a small child, was her first thought. There were broken bottles and trash littering the street and front yards of some of the houses. Broken windows were boarded up haphazardly. Junk cars were parked in front of a few other houses. Everywhere she saw the signs of poverty.

"Lord, protect me," she said out loud as she reached to open the car door. Reluctantly, she approached the house. She rang the doorbell and the door opened to a smiling young woman with infant in arms.

"Hi, can I help you?" asked the woman.

"Um, yes, uh, my name is Nancy Cunningham and I'm from Trinity Baptist Church." Nancy had to quickly recover from her fear. "You filled out a visitor card on Sunday and requested a visit."

"Oh yes, nice to meet you, Nancy. I'm Susan Porter, please come in."

Nancy could not understand how this young woman could be so positive when she lived in such a sorry neighborhood. Lord, am I so caught up in my own busyness that I can't grasp that there may be joy outside of my own comfortable life? But, those thoughts quickly vanished as Nancy began her recital about the activities and all the different programs the church had to offer. She was on a time crunch and didn't have time for reflecting on her own life right now. The conversation with Susan was very pleasant and as she said her good-byes, Nancy knew that Susan, with her positive attitude and ready smile, would make an excellent addition to the Trinity Baptist family. Nancy drove away with a good feeling of success and fulfillment because she had helped the church once more.

The next stop was at the Parkwood Senior Apartments. As she parked the car near the complex, she was full of confidence and anticipation for the next challenge.

The door to apartment number twelve opened to a white-haired, frail looking woman with a peaceful smile.

"Hello," she said as her smiled enlarged.

"Good evening ma'am. My name is Nancy Cunningham and I'm from the Trinity Baptist Church."

"Yes?" interrupted the woman as her smile started to fade. Lowering her eyebrows the older woman asked, "What is it?"

"Well, ma'am, I'm here because you filled out a visitor card on Sunday and asked for a visit."

"I never asked anyone to visit me."

Nancy's mouth moved as she swiftly dropped her eyes to the card in her hand which had the visitation box checked. Flipping the card around to hold it at the woman's eye level she said, "See, here, you checked the box requesting a visit," Nancy assured her.

"Oh my, I guess I checked it by mistake."

"So, you don't really want a visit? I'm sorry to disturb you ma'am." Nancy turned to leave.

"No, no, since you're here, please come in and tell me about your church. My name is Abigail McAndrews, but most of my friends call me Abby."

Nancy stepped into a room filled with delicate antiques, China cabinets, hutches filled with knick-knacks, and walls hung with glorious paintings that reminded Nancy of her grandmother.

"Would you like a cup of tea?" inquired the petite Abby.

"Yes, that sounds nice, thank you."

Nancy had never felt so comfortable in any one place in her thirty-seven years. There was something strangely alluring about this older woman and her home. Whatever it was, Nancy felt compelled to stay and get better acquainted.

"So, dear, tell me about your church."

This was the door that Nancy needed. It was like pushing the play button on an audio player. Nancy rattled on and on about the Pastor, the worship services, the youth program, the Sunday school curriculum, the missions agenda, and of course, the home visitation and evangelism program. Nancy took a deep breath and then went on to mention the fundraising program for the new building project, the deacon elections coming up, and the new member classes.

Abby just kept smiling with a nod of the head and raised eyebrows at regular intervals. Nancy finally ended her recital and asked Abby, "What did you think of the service on Sunday?"

There was a long pause as the graceful old lady continued to smile. "Not very much," she replied, still smiling.

"I beg your pardon?" Nancy was shocked.

"I didn't think much of the service at all."

Nancy was confused; the comfortable feeling she had just felt left her in a flash. Suddenly she felt strangely immature. It was like she was a little girl again. She felt upset and embarrassed at the same time. Why would this woman want to hurt her? Her face was getting flushed and she could feel an anger rising up within her. "Well, if you didn't like the service, then why did you fill out a visitor's card?" Nancy was getting more upset by the second. "Why did you even come?"

"I wanted to see if maybe, just maybe, things had changed. You see, I haven't gone to church for over thirty-five years."

Nancy softened a moment as her anger turned into confusion.

"I don't understand."

Nancy looked up into Abigail's bright blue eyes, which were now beginning to well up with tears of compassion. She was awed as she witnessed such depth of love and yet sadness in the old woman's eyes. She felt something pulling her into those eyes as if her very spirit was about to touch something in this old woman. Feeling her own eyes beginning to well up like rain puddles, she knew that something was being communicated to her beyond words. Nancy was losing all sense of herself when suddenly the silence was broken.

"I wanted to see if men were still running the church without Him."

The words stung Nancy's soul like salt poured on an open wound. She could no longer contain it; she began to weep with an uncontrollable fervor. However, her mind got the better of her. Instincts jumped into action. She began to reason. Nancy, what are you doing? You're making a fool of yourself. Pull yourself together. Stop it now. Wiping her eyes and smearing her makeup, she gathered her wits about her. There was an awkward silence for what seemed like a lifetime. Suddenly, without a word, Nancy grabbed her purse and rushed out the door.

Nancy was shaken to her very foundation. She determined to erase that strange old woman from her memory. But, try as she may, she kept revisiting the conversation. As she drove to pick up each of her children, Nancy again remembered some of the unusual things the white haired lady had said. At each stop, she had to calm herself before getting out of the car to retrieve her child. Forget it, she thought. Forget it! After putting the kids to bed, Nancy checked her answering machine. There was one message. Pushing the play button, Nancy heard the frightened, frantic voice.

"Nancy, it's Mariah. I need to talk to you right away. It's really important. I gotta get outta here! I'll call you back as soon as I can."

"Wow!" whispered Nancy. "She sounds scared to death."