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The Good Life
Yarni mingled with the congregation of the Good Life Ministry, which was one of her many obligations as first lady of the church. As she looked around at the lavish décor, her heart started to melt. This church was her husband's vision, and if she hadn't known any better, it was something that God had bestowed upon Des.
The transformation from super grocery store to megachurch was spectacular. Everything about the place was nothing less than first class and Des had spared no expense bringing his vision to life. The stained glass windows were imported from Europe, while the hand- crafted padded pews were adorned with intricately carved arms and backrests. There were at least twenty 80-inch plasma television monitors affixed to the walls throughout the sanctuary to assure everyone the experience of virtual front-row seating. The pulpit was a huge stage fit for a Grammy Award-winning artist. To the lower right of the pulpit is where the church musicians assembled. Yarni was proud of what her husband had built, and she was equally ashamed of the blood money that funded it.
For most of his life, her husband, Des, had been a stone-cold hustler, so it didn't amaze Yarni when, three and a half years ago, he came up with the idea to create the Good Life Ministry as a means to make and launder money. He had realized that the dope game was becoming a game for suckers. Des was sure he had it all figured out: churches didn't have to pay taxes and there was no way to monitor how much money they took in. People were lost and confused and needed answers about why things in the world and their communities were as messed up as they were. Once Des witnessed an ordained, Bible-toting pastor pimp the pulpit at his nephew's funeral, he was convinced that the church game wasn't difficult. All one needed was a fresh pair of gators, a few scriptures under their belt and a hell of a talk game. Well, Des had two of the three on lockdown, and learning the Bible inside and out didn't take him long at all.
In the beginning, Yarni didn't approve and was furious about Des making a mockery of people's faith, but she eventually realized her opinion wasn't going to change his mind. So she repented every day for her husband's sins and made Des promise to do good by the church if he insisted on going through with his unholy plan. As always, he exceeded her expectations. He took the devil's money and shared it with God's people, becoming a blessing to all those in need. He paid bills for those who had gotten behind, bought air conditioners for the elderly in the summer, school supplies for the kids, made Thanksgiving and Christmas jump off for the less fortunate, sponsored summer trips for the kids, donated trucks of food and offered 24-hour child care for working mothers. On top of all that, he even built housing for the homeless. His example of giving was outstanding and his rapidly growing congregation respected and loved him for his contributions to the underdog. He made the Good Life Ministry a necessity, a movement, where they took care of their own and the neighborhood.
The ex-junkies and drug dealers could relate to him. They understood, adored and cheered him on. They weren't fooled into believing he was a reborn saint nor did he ever try to swindle them into thinking that. He had simply shared his past, his testimony, with the people. Just in case anybody tried to dig up unturned dirt on him, he'd practically handed them the shovel. The fewer secrets a man has . . . the less likely a chance of those secrets being revealed.
Des was the first to admit he wasn't an angel who had fallen down from Heaven. But what made him stand out from other preachers was that he was giving at a time when everyone else seemed to be taking. That made him a savior in his sheep's eyes.
A third of the congregation was made up of older members. The elderly people had joined Des's church because it reminded them of the old days when a neighborhood church actually stood for something. Most new churches seemed to start out in the hood, but as soon as the going got good, they started a building fund to move the church as far away as they could. Des had no intentions of uprooting his ministry. The hood was where it was at.
The laid-back, come-as-you-are atmosphere of the largest ministry south of the James River welcomed all races, religions and lifestyles. The message was inclusiveness, and the practice was giving. The leaders and congregation prayed for God to bless them so abundantly that they'd be a blessing to someone else. From housewife to prostitute to professional-all were welcome with open arms, and many accepted the invitation to praise life . . . the Good Life.
"That dress you're wearing is off the chain." Yarni turned to find out where the compliment was coming from and spied a smiling twenty- something year old girl. She was one of the newer members. "I hope I'm not being too intrusive by asking where you got that bad mam-ma-jama."
Yarni thought the girl was attractive in a stripper sort of way with her high heels and tight-fitting skirt. She recalled having spoken to her once or twice before, but for the life of her, she couldn't remember the girl's name. Rebecca? Rosetta? Rhonda? Rosalyn? Robin? She tried to recollect but kept coming up empty.
The girl stood out because every single time Yarni saw her at the church, she was attached to the arm of a different older man. However, on this particular day, the guy she was playing arm candy to was a little younger than the others had been. There was one thing Yarni could give props to when it came to the young woman's suitors: each and every one of them was always as clean as a first-rate operating room. The smug-looking fella she was with this Sunday wore a dark, nicely cut suit, cashmere overcoat and a black fedora angled low over his eyes.
"Thank you very much," Yarni said graciously. "It wouldn't be a bother at all. Actually, a good friend of mine from New York made it. She also designed the one Desi is wearing."
The girl's eyes shot to Yarni's daughter, little Desi, who as if on cue with the cutest snaggle-toothed smile gave a half twirl, side to side, and a curtsey to better model the outfit.
"Oh she's so adorable and such a little lady," the young lady cooed.
"Thank you," Desi said. The child beamed, beating her mother to the punch before Yarni could accept the compliment on her behalf.
Yarni smiled at Desi and then at the nameless promiscuously dressed hootchie and said, "The next time we run into each other, I'll try to have the designer's number for you. And hopefully that'll be next Sunday. You will be back to fellowship with us, won't you?"
"By all means," the young lady assured her.
"For now, though, I'm sure Des has a right-on-time word to give this Sunday. So welcome and thank you and your guest for coming. We're so happy to have you here."
The nameless hootchie thanked Yarni and then worked her four-inch heels across the glass-polished floor of the open foyer to take her seat with the new fella. Yarni continued to share small talk and pleasantries with a few other church members until she saw the musicians taking their places. That was her cue to take her designated seat on the fifth row behind the deacons and deaconess.
As soon as she was seated, the choir began to take their places around the church in preparation for a grand entrance. The mass choir had been putting it down since Des formed the Good Life Ministry. Everyone expected them to set the atmosphere with their anointed gift to sing praises unto the Lord. In fact, a lot of the devoted congregation mostly came to hear them perform.
When the musicians cued up, all movement and talking ceased, and the choir started to enter. They wore beautiful green and gold robes with the letters GLM embossed along the left side.
Yarni thought about the conversation she and Des had had that morning.
"Just remember, Des, you are playing a dangerous game, not just with the people of the church, but with God. And know, God can be your best friend or your worst enemy!"
Yarni could see in Des's face that her words tore at him like daggers. For a single instant she thought they just might be the words to give him the change of heart she so much desired for him to have. But her hope was short-lived when Des replied, "All your prayers are accepted and appreciated. So pray for me."
"I always do."
"A'ight, look," he took a deep breath as if he was trying to cleanse all of the uncertainty he may have felt, "I'm going to fall back off the church until I can figure out what's really going on and how I'm going to deal with it."
"And you have to promise me that you are going to do some soul searching about this church. I know it might sound crazy, Des, but maybe God used the streets to get you into the church. I mean, honey, there's no denying that you're good at leading," she encouraged him. "When you are in that pulpit giving the word, it's like you're in your element-your true element."
Des cracked a smile as Yarni continued. "And I believe that God has really been working on you, but I honestly don't want you to get back in that pulpit until you figure out if you are going to be real with God or not."
Des wished she'd just let sleeping dogs lie, because know he wasn't feeling where Yarni was going with this whole thing. Him, a man of the cloth? For real? Wasn't gon happen. That very thought showed on his face and it wasn't hard for Yarni to detect.
"Look, all I'm saying is God has been with you all this time, watching over you and keeping you clean of all the dirt. His patience is going to run out. He's blessing you now but if you don't get it right, He can curse you too."
"The book says God watches out for fools and babies . . . and I'm neither," Des continued.
The lead vocalist brought Yarni back to the present. She had the kind of voice that reached out, grabbed everyone by the collar and demanded their attention. Yarni started rocking her head as the choir backed the vocalist by singing, "God will work it out," in perfect harmony. The moment was bittersweet for Yarni. Her eyes glistened behind salty tears.
The church musicians switched gears to an instrumental. The man performing on the keyboard and the drummer were both banging their hearts out while the lead guitar and bass players battled for supremacy in their own private competition. But when the sax player added his harmonic flavor, he nearly stole the show.
Now it was time.
Des entered the sanctuary as if he had his very own theme music.
The musicians and choir may have been the reason many of the seats were filled, but make no mistake about it: Des was the superstar and the stage belonged to him.
He came gliding down the middle aisle bopping his freshly cut head full of wavyhair to the uplifting beat. So smooth, he could've been walking on water. He wore a dark green four-button custom-made suit, a tailored French-cuff gold shirt and string-up gators so fresh that if he slipped them off they might've tried to take refuge in the nearest marsh. In the pulpit, he took his seat in a huge high-back gold and money green velvet chair, fit for a king.
As the soloist broke down the tempo, the music heightened. Once the song ran its course, having brought the congregation to a state of complete worship, the lead soloist handed the mic over to Des. With the mic in the shepherd's hands, the volume of the music was lowered. Des descended from his throne and stepped up to the podium. Everyone looked at him like he was E. F. Hutton: when he spoke, people listened.
Looking out into the sea of faces, he spoke into an invisible mic, "It looks like everybody made it safely from the clubs last night, huh?" Half the crowd laughed because there was quite a bit truth buried in the humor. That was the half who liked the afternoon service most; they could party all night, sleep the buzz off and still get their praise on without the liquor odor seeping out of their pores. Morning services didn't accommodate such a lifestyle.
"Yeah, some of y'all looking like, 'Not me!' Yes, you. It's all good, though. No offense intended." He looked upon the congregation with a serious face. "But that's between you and God. I'm not here to judge you, embarrass you, or call you out. I'm just here to tell you what saith the Lord." Des could see he was getting a reaction; as usual it fueled him to press on. "Y'all know how I do it. I'ma speak it like I see it, and if it don't apply to you, then let it fly. Ya feel me? In other words, let the church say, 'Amen.' "
Amens rang throughout the sanctuary.
Yarni marveled at how Des lit up the already bright room with his trademark smile. After all, this was the same youthful smile and quick wit that Yarni had fallen in love with so many years ago. She blew him a kiss. No one noticed. Every single eye was glued to the preacher man. Des tossed a look back to his wife that said, "I love you."
When she caught it, they both smiled. Des continued to mesmerize the congregation, while Yarni sat in awe of her man's finesse. But not long into the service, something didn't feel right to her. She scanned the church, but nothing or no one looked out of place. Unable to put her finger on why she suddenly felt that way, she tried to put her focus back on Des's words, but as hard as she tried, she could not ignore the bad feeling churning in the pit of her stomach.
She tried to maintain eye contact with Des while he gave a phenomenally inspirational message on why financial literacy and spiritual literacy were equally necessary in the community. The room was pin-drop silent as the people took in every word he said. If Des knew anything, it was that folks always paid attention when it came to talking about money. Finance was one of Des's favorite subjects, and with the economy struggling the way it was, his followers loved hearing about how to get their hands on the almighty dollar now more than ever. Des had everyone's attention, with some even taking notes. Most of the deacons were even intrigued, but not Slim; he was too busy on his job as the main lookout, making sure nothing around him looked or got out of order.