public and private sides of Brother Stephen.
Brother Stephen has taken his family and me to a campus Indian buffet. He goes back and forth with the kids to the buffet. Three-year-old Philip spills rice on the black carpet and cries. Stephen brings back more food, holds one-year-old Wesley, comforts Philip. Wesley is mumbling first words: Bible, Daddy, Hallelujah. Brother Stephen, his arm around wife Lauries chair, chatters excitedly about a political convention. Laurie is telling me about being a social worker. Theres something comforting about sitting with their lively family, eating spicy Indian food and breathing the warm buzz of college students on a Friday night.
As we walk out, a girl almost shouts, Oh my God, is that Brother Stephen? Necks swivel. Conversation stops.
God only wants those who love him up there in heaven, shouts Brother Stephen from College Green. Not drunkards, liars, rapists, thieves, potheads, homos, lesbians, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, or unconverted Cath-olics! The Lord Jesus Christ wants everyone with him, but most of you dont want him.
A student shoots back, No, we dont want you.
Because you hate God.
No, because I hate you.
I know you do, because I represent the holiness of God.
You represent the devil!
All my friends had something to say about my first interview with Brother Stephen. Ask him if a born-again Christian has two belly-buttons. His son will never, ever be comfortable with his sexuality. Tell him to stop polluting our planet with his kids. I spent an hour getting ready, hoping he wouldnt say I was damned. I put on mascara to compensate for my short hair and wore loose jeans and a plain button-down shirt, aiming for the thin line between dyke and whore. I had never spoken with Brother Stephen; Id stood at the crowds edge, angry enough to be shaking, but doubting I could out-argue, or rather out-shout him. I didnt want to give him an audience, but I couldnt help watching. I hated him too much.
At our first meeting, he offers me a bag of Skittles that his kids started on, makes small talk about the Internet seach engine, Google, and says the doves I raised as a kid were neater than his pigeons. He laughs nervously, elbows me, tries to joke. He is gracious and patient with my questions. Its only when I try to get my atheist mind to understand how he knew he was called to preach that he dares query me: Are you a Christian? I tell him I was raised Catholic, and he says politely, Well, thatd be different. Wed see things differently.
Pink in itself is not homosexual.
But you are, says the student.
How do you know?
Cause we were together last night!
But Brother Stephen doesnt fornicate. Except the year he was 20when, in the Navy and influenced by non-Christian friends, he became a fornicator and a drinkerhe says hes abstained from illicit sex, smoking, alcohol, and swearing. He admits to his lapse but wont elaborate. After all, hes a saint now. Hes been one since a fiery woman preacher converted him from Baptist to zealous Pentacostalist his freshman year at the University of Arkansas.
This is my wife. She is developing a child in her matrix, says Stephen to the crowd. A student groans, In her matrix? Pregnant Laurie wrinkles her nose and smiles shyly.
In 1994, Brother Stephen decided that like all men of God, he needed a wife. When things got serious with Laurie, he tested her. Would she follow his car if he took a wrong turn? Did her pastor approve of her? Did she study the Bible by herself? Was she a good cook? A college graduate? The answers were Yes. Laurie passed. Gesturing to his son, Stephen says, This is my firstborn son, Philip. Hes legitimate.
Three-year-old Philip can boast more than legitimacyhe preaches. Recently he stood on College Green, thrusting his childrens Bible into the air, and saying in a clear, high voice, The Bible says the word of God is eternal! Hitting the book, This is the word of God. The Bible says there is only one true God that will take away all your sins. One-year-old Wesley joins in, brandishing his Bible, growling, shaking his head. Students eyes are wide. One whispers, Its a goddamn conspiracy. Philips preaching concludes with Fornicators! When Brother Stephen asks him what the word means, he covers his face with his Bible, apparently embarrassed not to know.
Brother Stephen has offered to pick me up, even though they havent packed. The next morning, theyre driving to Arkansas for the 20th anniversary of Stephens calling. When we reach their narrow, one-way street near the Art Museum, Stephen blurts, Youre not allergic to cats, are you? Inside, he asks me to take off my shoes. The carpet, like the living room, stairs, and even the kids room, is impeccably clean. Framed Biblical quotations are everywhere, as are family photos. Gaudy sprigs of plastic grape vines hang above one large painting and a doorway.
Philip is hanging
upside down on the stairs and licking the blue banister when
Yet Stephen is impressively tolerant with Philip and Wesleyeven when they interrupt his preaching. The last thing he wanted me to know, which he said softly, gazing out the window, is that he hopes hes a good father. I almost believe him when he shouts on Locust Walk, I think I love Penn students more than most people. Im out here preaching for you. And if you need a nickel, or you need a dime to call someone, Ill give it to you.
Greta Pane C02 adapted this essay from a piece she wrote for a non-fiction writing class last spring. She graduated after three years at Penn with a major in English, and now lives in Berkeley, California.
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