Jesus Freaks II: The Prodigal, Chapter One
Here’s chapter one, folks …
(this is unedited)
My name is Kennedy Sawyer, and I am Roland Abbot’s daughter.
Words I never thought I’d say in front of people I never thought I’d address. Me, a liberal Episcopalian from Connecticut, acknowledging televangelist Roland Abbot as my birth father while standing in front of my classmates at the über-Christian Carter University.
The applause from my fellow students amidst their standing ovation is deafening, drowning out everything else I thought I’d planned to say. Instead, I swallow back my tears and lean into Roland’s side when he reaches the podium and puts his arm around my shoulders. I’m too paralyzed with anxiety, fear, and relief to worry about whether or not he’s going to want to hug me for much longer, or kiss the top of my head, or anything like that.
“Did you want to say anything else?” he whispers into my ear with an uncharacteristic tremble.
All I can do is shake my head. Shake my head and look up into his eyes. The ones that are identical to mine—grey and brimming with tears. His smile is anything but sad. My eyes dart in an instant to where my mother is sitting, clapping politely along with the crowd, her eyes shedding tears by the second.
Is she mad at me?
I didn’t run my plans for this morning by her because I knew her opinions might get in the way of my resolve. After the three days I just endured—trying to clear mine and Roland’s names from rumors of an affair, because no one knew we were related—I needed to take this stand.
My eyes settle on Matt, and the rest of the friends I’ve managed to accumulate so far despite myself. But, mostly I focus on Matt. It was just recently that I learned he is a PK—a preacher’s kid. An identity he seemed unwilling to accept. Until, that is, he admitted he knew who I was all along, and that he would help me in this crazy new life I’ve found myself. And, he asked in urgent return that I help him.
All of the PK’s who don’t feel they have a real voice. A tribute, if you will. Like The Hunger Games. And, honestly, that’s exactly what it feels like I’m stepping into, and CU is the cornucopia. Supposedly safe, but, in practice, surrounded by enemies. Like Joy. If there was one like here, there’s likely more.
The applause dies down and everyone who was standing settles into their seats. I, too, make my way to mine. Moving like a robot on the outside, feeling what it might feel like to be drunk on the inside. Every muscle bends and swirls like Jell-O that’s been left in the sun, but I manage to get to my seat with relative dignity. Taking a deep breath, I look to the front-row once more, and receive smiles and a few thumbs-up from my roommates—Eden and Bridgette—as well as from Jonah, Silas, and even Asher—my boss from Word.
“Let us pray.” The crowd’s murmurs morph into thick silence as Roland takes the podium.
It’s the most formal petition to prayer I’ve heard from his lips. Normally he settles for let’s. But, then again, normally his long-lost daughter doesn’t take the stage and identify herself as such in front of eleventy billion people.
What have I done?
Three days ago I was artfully navigating the dual life as a Carter University student and a “regular person”. I went to class, work, and Bible study just like everyone else, and saw my televangelist father on the side. Okay, so I don’t know how long I planned to keep the second part a secret, but I certainly hadn’t planned on my spiteful floor mate, Joy Martinez, outing my “relationship” with the beloved Pastor Roland.
An affair, of all things. That’s what she printed on the posters she handed out in the dining hall. That Roland and I were having an affair. After all, that was the only reasonable explanation for how much time the charismatic church leader was spending with the girl from Connecticut with a questionable salvation status.
Taking a deep breath, I lift my head in search of Joy. I begged for her to not be suspended or expelled. I need to have a chance to speak with her, to figure out why in the world she would do such a thing. I likely won’t be afforded such a chance if she gets expelled from school and is sent to live the rest of her days in shame.
Regardless, the last seventy-two hours have been a bitch. Yeah, I said it. I haven’t been able to have a conversation lasting more than five minutes with anyone except my mom and Roland, apart from the first night after the “scandal” broke and Matt Wells revealed he is a PK who has followed the legend of my existence for the last several years.
“Dear Lord,” Roland’s fierce, yet soft voice pulls my attention back to him. And God. “Thank you for family. Thank you for forgiveness. Thank—” Roland clears his throat as his voice grows tight. A rare misstep for the professional public speaker. “Thank you for second chances, Lord.”
Mom’s eyes are closed, as are most of the rest of the crowd, but this is different. Hers are squeezed shut like she wishes they were her ears and she could block his words. The second chance he’s speaking of has to be his, since I’m still in the middle of the first chance, and there’s no chance for a second time around from my mom. I think that ship sailed when he signed away his parental rights to me before my birth while they were barely two years older than I am now. Scared as hell twenty year olds.
“Jesus you are the author of forgiveness. Of Love. In First Corinthians you tell us that love is patient, Lord. That it’s kind. But you also tell us it is not self-seeking, nor is it easily angered. Above all else, Lord God, you tell us love keeps no record of wrongs. That it doesn’t delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.”
I breathe deeply through my nose. That section of scripture is familiar to me from the handful of weddings I’ve attended. Always used as a way to highlight a couples’ commitment to one another. I’ve not told Roland that I love him. Because I’m not sure if I do. I don’t even know if he’s talking about him and me in this prayer. Or about him toward me. Have I done wrong by him? Honestly, I’m too tired and dizzy from the last few days to tease out the motivations behind this public prayer.
Zoning out while Roland finishes his opening petition, I’m somewhat relieved that I don’t see Joy—not wanting to face her while I’m directly in the middle of all of this. Instead, my eyes rest again on Matt, who hasn’t moved his gaze from me since I stepped away from the podium.
In the span of a few days, he’s gone from someone I needed on my side to attend a Bible study without looking like a complete failure, to my closest ally at Carter University. The largest, most politically embroiled Christian college in the United States. One that just got a heck of a lot more popular with the revelation that the local pastor’s daughter—whose identity was secret—has been a student here for the last two and a half months. Completely under the radar.
Matt certainly put all the pieces in place in short order. His dad, a former pastor, is a friend of Roland’s and currently a victim of pastoral burnout. A subject on which I’m ill-equipped. Oh, and somehow, Mom knows who he is. I need to remember to get to the bottom of that.
All I know is Matt knew Roland’s “kid” was going to school at Carter. Once the rest of the school found out, thanks to Joy, Matt rescued me. Literally carried me to his dorm and then drove me to Roland’s house as the curious and enthusiastic masses descended on the dorms.
I haven’t seen him in the day-and-a-half since my mom got to town, though. And for a moment I’m desperate for the naiveté I embodied three days ago. When I was the “only one” who knew Roland was my birth father. When I was just the liberal valedictorian from New England with muddled motives for attending CU.
Alas, as I look through the crowd once more and the prayer draws to a close, as many eyes are on me as are on. My anonymity is long gone, and I have to accept that. I’m Roland Abbot’s daughter. A preacher’s kid trying to get to know her father after an entire lifetime away from him. In front of the entire nation.
Roland Abbot isn’t just a wildly popular pastor inside the borders of Asheville. He’s an internationally regarded televangelist. Raising money for hospitals and aid centers in Central Africa, Southeast Asia, and remote places in Western Asia seems to be what he does in his free time since he doesn’t have a wife or other children. He’ been vague as to the reasons behind his currently-single status, but I can’t help but wonder if he’s somehow punishing himself for the way things went with my mother. There’s little time to consider that can of worms as Roland begins his address.
“Thank you all for being here. Thank you, also, for your patience during the last few days as Kennedy and I, and our families, have had quite a bit on our plates.” He smiles through the words, and a chuckle sprinkles the crowd.
“Now,” he continues with a deep breath, taking a step away from the podium, “I’m not here to discuss the details behind what happened to bring Kennedy’s identity to light. This is a House of God, and I think it should be used to praise Him!”
I jump as his voice echoes off the walls and through my head. The crowd claps and interjects with choruses of“Amen” and “Hallelujah.” Just like that he’s Pastor Roland. Did I expect him to continue the somber—honestly depressing—rhetoric of my absence from his life? After all, I am right here. By all accounts he should be rejoicing. I’m here, with him.
Thinking back to the sermons I’ve heard about the life he missed with me, I don’t know if I can recall a single time that he ever stated he wanted me back in his life. It seems he just accepted the living consequence that I would never be.
“Yes!” Roland claps his hands once and silence sweeps the crowd. “Yes, Lord. Thank you Jesus for seeing us through the darkest hours. No matter how long those hours might be. No matter if those hours turn to days, weeks, months, or many years. God will see you through to the finish line.”
Shifting in my seat, I beg the swirling nausea to stay in my stomach and not all over the carpet of New Life Church. Hand-dyed, no doubt. People are expecting a lot out of me, according to Matt and the PK bloggers that have long coveted my existence. They’re expecting more than I think I can give. I don’t want to be the poster child for anything, let alone Evangelical children.
People will dig. And when they dig they’ll find the work I’ve done at Planned Parenthood, and anti-war rallies I’ve attended. And, never mind the gay rights protests I helped my mom organize. I squeeze my eyes shut. They’ll dig and they’ll throw my own dirt at me. Work I view as important, they’ll call dirt. Matt says the PK’s are anticipating that I’ll speak for them, somehow, but how many of them know what my words will be? Can they still stand behind me when they know of the liberal skeletons in my closet? When they realize I’ll never work for Focus on the Family?
There are so many theological questions I don’t have answers to, either. Evolution. Where does life begin? What happens when it ends? I just don’t know, and what opinions I do have have absolutely zero basis in scripture.
I fear that once everything is brought to the surface, I’ll not only be demonized by the ultra-conservative people around me, but left behind by the PK’s who have pledged their allegiance to me.
Offering Matt a small smile, I return my attention to Roland, who is fervently praising God with his charming grin. He catches my stare and offers a quick wink before launching into verses from the Bible that talk about God “coming through” for all of us.
The nausea is getting harder to hold back.
Has Roland’s victory become my darkest hour?
Photo Credit: yonius