Season One / Chapter 1 / Sunday Morning

 

Page 1

 

==== “WHERE WILL you spend eternity? Hell is real; the decision is yours. Will you choose heaven today?” Pastor Bill’s voice, robust and impassionate, boomed from the altar. He stood tall, with arms raised and eyes ablaze, embodying the fire-and-brimstone preachers of old. His words, charged with fervor and conviction, reverberated off the stained-glass windows and echoed to the high ceilings of the cavernous church.

All the places I wanted to be, could be, but weren’t. A wave of disappointment crashed over me, leaving a bitter taste in my mouth. “I’ll be damn!” I sighed, realizing I was caught in another altar call. Usually, I had mastered the art of timing my escape to the restroom, conveniently avoiding these soul-saving solicitations. But today, Pastor Bill, with his unorthodox approach, blindsided me, catapulting me into his altar call mid-sermon. “These churches, with their inconsistent rituals and ever-shifting protocols, are exasperating.”

A good salesperson primes their prospective buyer before making the ask, but here, it seemed the pastor – or cult leader, depending on your perspective – was following his own unpredictable playbook. I am forever mused at the tactics employed in these spiritual sales pitches.

My gaze swept over the congregation, observing their varied reactions. Some faces were etched with fervent agreement, others with hopeful curiosity, and a few mirrored my own sentiment of skepticism. My disdain for organized religion prickled beneath my skin like a thorn in my side. “And now, watch him single me out,” a sense of impending doom haunted me as Pastor Bill’s piercing gaze hovered in my direction. “Please, not today, I am not in the mood for this shit.”

 

 Page 2

 

 ==== As my frustration mounted, a silent protest began to echo in my mind. Get your knee off George Floyd’s throat; “I can’t breathe!” These words, a symbol of a struggle far greater than my own, vibrated within me. Attempting to calm the storm raging inside, I took the sharply creased church program and began fanning myself. The paper fluttered in my hands like the wings of a caged bird yearning for freedom. The cool air generated a small yet welcome solace against the heat of my simmering emotions.

 “Panya!” Peter’s voice, laced with concern, sliced through my tumultuous thoughts. He sat next to me, his posture tense, an embodiment of discomfort and empathy. “Are you alright?” he asked, his eyes searching mine for an answer.

 “No, I want to disappear,” my voice a mere wisp of sound, laden with the depth of my wish to vanish from this scene.

In an attempt to infuse some fun into the heavy atmosphere, Peter quipped, “Click your heels and repeat after me, ‘There’s no place like home.’ His quirky smile briefly illuminated his face, and a gentle nudge of his elbow against my ribs was his unique way of offering support – a beacon of friendship in the midst of my sea of discomfort.

Sid, forever the keen observer, leaned in from his seat beside Peter, “Clicking those heels worked for that bitch Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz,” he chimed in, his voice tinged with humor and a knowing smirk playing on his lips.

 

 Page 3

 

==== “Panya, move your purse; I’m heading for the restroom.”

“The restroom, Peter? We did that before that usher led us to these front-row seats. I already had an inkling of his motives.

“I have a hangnail; you know how irritating those can be,” Peter trying to sound casual. “And why would you have your Ferragamo sitting on the floor?”

He was right. This purse cost me $4000, and sitting on the floor was just plain disrespectful to the brand. But placing it there had been a strategic move on my part. I knew Peter too well; he’d often escape during these church altar calls. My Ferragamo, now a luxury barrier, was there to thwart his usual restroom ruse. I wasn’t about to let him smoothly sidestep over me, leaving me exposed to this preacher’s zealous overtures. After all, this wasn’t our first church escapade alongside Jenn.

“Ushers, block the exit doors; no one walking,” commanded Pastor Bill from the pulpit. “God has spoken to me, today is your day for salvation; Jesus paid a debt he did not owe because you have a debt you cannot pay. Will you come?”

“Block the exits?” Peter murmured under his breath, disbelief coloring his tone. “I’m sure that’s a fire hazard.” Realizing his escape plan was foiled, he quietly slid his 6’2” muscular frame back into the pew, resigning himself to being wedged between a visibly annoyed me and Sid, his partner.

Ever observant, Sid caught the attention of an usher and managed to procure a church fan. Handing it over to me, he quipped, “That’s why you should go forward, Panya. You can barely stand this heat. Hell’s going to be a real bitch, boo.”

“We’re already in hell,” I snapped back, my frustration reaching a boiling point. Sid tugged at the neckline of his Polo sweater. He shot me his ‘I’m taking the high road’ signature look, a mixture of amusement and resignation playing on his face.

 

 Page 4

 

==== Sid is quite fond of church gatherings. He often jokes, “No sales appointments necessary.” He’s the dynamic founder of a non-profit organization, and he is ardently involved in organizing demonstrations. They champion causes like LGBTQ+ rights, Black Lives Matter, abortion rights, etc. Essentially, if there’s a battle for freedom, you can bet Sid’s organization is in the thick of things.

Together, Peter and Sid form a formidable gay power couple. While Sid’s personality is flamboyant and unapologetic, Peter tends to be more subdued and mild-mannered. That is, of course, until he steps into a courtroom. In this arena, he transforms and is known for his fierce advocacy and undefeated streak. Sid and Peter complement each other flawlessly, not just in their personalities but in their impeccable fashion sense. Sid credits his fashion prowess to the years he spent in the closet, a line that never fails to elicit laughter.

“We’re a complex bunch, a mix of diverse life experiences, religious tolerance, and social practices.”

Our teasing is constant during these church visits. Peter, ever the pragmatist, messaged me: [Can we please get to the grape juice and crackers? I missed breakfast 🍳]

My reply was quick and playful: [Not happening this Sunday. Plus, you have to be without sin to partake 🤣]

Meanwhile, Pastor Bill’s voice thundered across the church, his enthusiasm undiminished. “Don’t miss your opportunity to go to heaven; what a GREAT day it will be!” he shouted, his voice straining against the microphone. His movements were almost frantic, pacing back and forth in front of the church and weaving up and down the aisles. He’s Jenn’s affluent pastor, living in a mansion and known for benefiting from what many would call the slave labor of his congregation.

The irony of religious discrepancies often strikes me. The debate among Christians about whether Jesus owned a house seems to mirror their worldly possessions. Those with extravagant homes claim He had one, while the less fortunate clergy argue the opposite. They can’t even agree on the earthly abode of their deity. Yet, they expect unanimity in the belief of His divinity. “Well, if I’m going to be a lunatic, it will be on my terms.”

 

Page 5

 

==== Speaking of Jenn, known on stage as Jenn B, she stands at the heart of why Peter and I are entangled in this uncomfortable situation. As I steal a glance at her, poised center stage, there’s no denying her charisma. Jenn radiates a Taylor Swift-like allure, her presence magnetic and commanding attention. Her talent is inarguable; with a voice that could effortlessly enchant an audience, she’s a natural-born performer. In the tapestry of our four-legged friendship, she weaves in as a pivotal thread, and today, we find ourselves in her orbit as somewhat reluctant guests.

Jenn is the beloved daughter of Ms. Helen Brewer, a name that resonates with prestige in the local choir circles. Ms. Helen, a woman of considerable influence and financial means, has reportedly contributed a staggering $100,000 to this church’s recent expansion, a project reminiscent of a modern-day Tower of Babel. This grand gesture, though wrapped in the cloak of generosity, served a dual purpose. It carved out a prestigious platform for her to direct the choir with an iron fist and spotlight her daughters, Bree and Jenn, as the church’s star soloists. It’s a blunt reminder of a harsh reality: contrary to idyllic beliefs, it’s money, not love, that makes the world go round. For those who might challenge this viewpoint, my comment section is open.

 

 Page 6

 

==== Today is Evangelism Sunday at the church. Ms. Helen has enlisted her daughter Jenn, or as she’s known on stage, ‘Jenn B,’ to lend her considerable talents to the event. It’s no secret that Jenn possesses an electric charisma, one that effortlessly draws crowds. In a world where attendance often correlates with financial gain, her appeal is a vital asset. This is particularly true now, as many institutions, including this church, are still reeling from the economic impacts of the COVID-19 lockdown. They’re clearly on a mission to replenish their depleted coffers. Adding to this urgency is the recent news of Pastor Bill’s daughter gaining admission to Columbia University. This prestigious accomplishment comes with a hefty price tag of at least $65,000 in tuition fees.

For Peter, Sid, and myself, accompanying Jenn to her concerts has become somewhat of a regular occurrence. While her church performances are mainly acts of filial duty to her mother, it is Kada, her official booking agent, who orchestrates her more prominent engagements. However, our presence here today isn’t strictly voluntary. We’ve been drawn into this situation by the sheer force of Jenn’s influence, mirroring the persuasive tactics of her mother. Jenn, in her own right, has adeptly played her cards, employing her charm and talent to serve her mother’s interests. The result? Peter and I find ourselves trapped in a classic catch-22, a testament to Jenn’s savvy maneuvering and the undeniable power she wields.

 

 Page 7

 

==== Today happens to be Sid’s birthday. In our circle, the unwritten rule is clear: the birthday person gets complete control over the day’s itinerary from sunrise until the stroke of midnight. True to this tradition, Sid found himself with an unexpected invitation from Jenn to attend this church event, which is more of a thinly veiled recruitment drive for new members than an actual concert. For Sid, church gatherings have little to do with spirituality; they’re prime opportunities for networking and a perfect stage to flaunt his lavish, post-closet wardrobe.

Knowing Sid’s penchant for such occasions, Jenn dangled a rather enticing carrot in front of him. In exchange for his presence today, she promised a lavish meal at ‘The Loop,’ a chic eatery in downtown Raleigh and one of Sid’s top dining spots. But the allure didn’t end there. Jenn upped the ante by offering an evening of endless margaritas. As if that wasn’t enough, she casually mentioned that Kevin Hart would be performing at a private party in town tonight. Thanks to Kada, Jenn’s well-connected agent, we snagged an exclusive invite.

With such an extravagant lineup, Sid’s response was instantaneous and enthusiastic. “Bitch, what time is church?” he exclaimed, his excitement palpable. His prized Hermès loafers were metaphorically in before we even knew it, invoking his birthday privileges with gusto. And just like that, we found ourselves entangled in this elaborate scheme. Jenn, ever the strategist, knows all too well that money and lavish promises can move mountains. In her world, it seems, the apple – or should I say, the acorn – doesn’t fall far from the tree.

 

 Page 8

 

==== Jenn and I have a history that stretches back to our high school days. Our friendship was forged in the aftermath of a memorable class presidential election. It was there, following her concession speech and my victory address, that our paths truly intertwined. Jenn had taken quite the defeat; it was an electoral rout she’ll never forget. With the racial makeup of our school being predominantly white at a 75/25 split, my victory was something of a coup. I managed to blur the traditional lines, bringing in an unexpected twist on Vote Day – none other than Snoop Dogg, universally beloved and a surefire crowd-puller. And who could resist the combination of Snoop, hotdogs, and Pepsi, our drink sponsor? That’s called leveraging creativity in politics.

But the real twist in our story came when Jenn became my Vice President. Working closely with her gave me invaluable insights into understanding different perspectives, particularly within the white community. After we both graduated, our paths converged again at (HBCU), Howard University, each of us driven there for markedly different reasons. I yearned to step away from being a token in a predominantly white space. In contrast, Jenn seemed to seek the opposite, wanting to immerse herself in a new cultural milieu and share her musical talents.

Jenn, with her Bachelor of Music, eventually found her way to a recording contract with a new record label; this is a testament to her exceptional talent. As for me, I continued my journey at Howard, first completing my BA in Psychology and then pursuing an MBA. Our paths, distinct yet intertwined, reflect the complexity and richness of our long-standing friendship.

 

 Page 9

 

==== After graduating Howard, Jenn somehow convinced me to join her on an Alaskan Cruise, where she was part of the entertainment. It was one of the coldest adventures I had ever taken; I remember shivering and cursing under my breath, wishing for Carolina sunshine. On the first night aboard, fate, or maybe just the cruise’s seating plan, had Peter, Sid, Jenn, and me sharing a dinner table. Peter and Sid were celebrating Peter’s recent graduation from Harvard Law, and the cruise was Sid’s extravagant gift. Jenn and Sid, both with a penchant for the dramatic, hit it off instantly. It’s fascinating how time flies. Pulling out my iPhone, I decided to text Sid amidst the ongoing church drama.

me: [what some people won’t do for a free meal, unlimited margaritas🍹, and Kevin Hart 🤓].

sid: [It’s my b-day. I’m ordering everything on the menu, 🍹🍹🍹🍹, and seeing Kevin Hart, lol]

me: [you cr—]

“Excuse me! Excuse me, Ms.”

The sudden interruption startled me. Hesitantly, I lifted my gaze, hoping the speaker wasn’t addressing me. But unfortunately, he was.

 

Page 10

 

==== “Who, me?” I answered reluctantly, glancing around, hopefully wishing he was addressing Sid, who these days identifies as she/her/hers.

“Yes, you, Ms., in the red dress.”

My heart sank a little. Sid wasn’t wearing red; it was definitely me he was calling out.

“Would you stand, please?”

“No way,” I muttered under my breath. Peter nudged me, and reluctantly, I stood up, my foot catching on the strap of my Ferragamo purse – the very purse I had carelessly left on the floor.

Suddenly, I was in the spotlight, face-to-face with a preacher insisting that God was speaking to him and had a message for me. Over the years, I had grown weary of these religious ambushes. I had prepared a few escape strategies for situations like this: (1) hide in the restroom, (2) fake deafness, or (3) let my sharp tongue do the talking. Well, with the exits blocked and a sign language interpreter present, option three was my go-to.

 

 Page 11

 

==== “Will you choose heaven today, Ms.? Today is your day for salvation,” Pastor Bill urged, his voice laden with a persuasive fervor as he extended his hand toward me. For a moment, I stood there, utterly frozen, akin to a display manikin’ in a storefront window. My feet felt rooted to the spot as my heart raced and my thoughts churned. The earnestness in his eyes was disarming, yet it awakened the thorn in my side.

Around me, the church buzzed with an expectant energy, as if the congregation was collectively holding its breath, waiting for my decision. The weight of their gazes bore down on me, adding to the intensity of the moment. But with all conventional escape routes effectively sealed off, my usual strategy of blending into the background and slipping away unnoticed was no longer an option.

In that suspended sliver of time, as Pastor Bill’s hand hovered in the air, a surge of defiance bubbled up within me. My inner rebel, which I had often silenced in favor of conformity and peace, now roared to life, refusing to be overshadowed by the theatricality of the moment. It was as if a dam had broken, releasing a flood of pent-up resistance and a fierce desire to stand my ground.

 

Page 12

 

==== “No. I don’t want to go to heaven; can you propose a more integrated option? I’ve never seen any black people there,” I blurted out louder than intended.

“People of all colors are welcome in heaven,” he replied calmly.

“Well, next time they have picture day, can you ask God to allow some black angels in the studio? The current photos look a tad exclusive,” I retorted, my voice dripping with sarcasm.

The church fell silent, even the pianist pausing her melody. Jenn, from her vantage point on stage, looked horrified, well aware of my stance on religious matters.

The Bible, often touted as a book of unconditional love, seemed more like a collection of conflicts, wars, and embellished and plagiarized stories to me. And to think of the scrutiny Harvard University President Claudine Gay faced over her dissertation citations.

 

Page 13

 

==== Pastor Bill, undeterred, made one final attempt. “This could be your last invitation from God; HELL is real,” he implored, hand outstretched.

“I’m well aware of hell, sir; my ancestors endured the ‘Middle Passage,’” I replied agitatedly.

“And your name?” he pressed.

“Panya.”

“We’ll pray for you, Panya,” he concluded, signaling the end of his effort.

The tension in the air was tangible as I sat down, meeting Pastor Bill’s gaze with a steady one of my own.

Peter patted my hands reassuringly, knowing I had been on my best behavior. Leaning in, I whispered to him, “If I’m going to spend eternity somewhere, it better include some people who look like me. I’m done being a token.”

Soon after, a text from Jenn popped up: [sorry❤️]

I quickly replied: [sid and I are ordering everything on the menu. Hope you brought your black card😜]

 

 Page 14

 

==== The Pastor turned his attention back to the gathered individuals at the altar, his voice authoritative as he guided them through the sinner’s prayer. “Repeat after me,” he instructed, and in unison, they echoed his words, starting with “I am a sinner” and concluding with, “Lord, thank you for saving me.” The congregation erupted in a cacophony of cheers and applause, reminiscent of a Super Bowl victory celebration. Yet, the ceremony was far from over.

“Now, you cannot depart without receiving the POWER of GOD,” Pastor Bill proclaimed. “He is the Holy Spirit, a divine gift. As He was with Jesus, He shall be with you. Do you wish to receive Him?” They all nodded in submission, his zealous words filling their eager hearts.

Receive the Holy Spirit!” He yelled; his arms outstretched towards the congregation in a dramatic gesture akin to televangelist Benny Hinn. Several attendees crumbled to the floor, overcome with emotion, while ushers, armed with boxes of Kleenex, hastily attended to them. Others, robed in white and seemingly vested with special authority, wandered the altar, laying hands on those still standing. One by one, they, too, succumbed, either falling of their own accord or being gently pushed for effect.

 

 Page 15

 

==== Glancing over at Peter, I then looked for Sid. His seat was empty. Where could he be? I whispered to Peter.

“Where’s Sid?”

“He went forward,” his tone tinged with concern.

Scanning the altar, I spotted Sid amidst the crowd, surrounded by church members intent on ‘curing’ him of his homosexuality. I couldn’t help but chuckle internally; Sid was never one to shy away from the spotlight. But I knew better than to think he would succumb to their efforts, not when he was wearing his prized designer clothes.

The service finally concluded after Jenn B’s soul-stirring rendition of gospel melodies, three prolonged offerings, and what seemed to be a prolonged benediction. Many of us made our way towards the lobby and exits. While Sid was busy networking and flaunting his Wharton Business School credentials. At the same time, Jenn B was swarmed by adoring fans seeking selfies and autographs.

 

Page 16

 

==== Still reeling from my encounter with Pastor Bill, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of pride. I had stood my ground, a departure from my usual compliance. Throughout my life, I had been ‘saved’ countless times, dragged to the altar by my grandmother. But no more. This was the end of my compliance with this system of social control. As we exited the sanctuary, their members gave me a wide berth, avoiding me as if I were a contagion. It was just as well; I had no intention of returning anytime soon. Peter and I were here only because of a birthday catch-22. But come December, for Peter’s 30th, we’d be escaping to the warmth of the south like migrating birds.

 

 Page 17

 

==== Suddenly, Peter’s movements were swift and decisive, reminiscent of a linebacker making a crucial tackle in a high-stakes game. With a surprising burst of strength, he shoved me into a small, dimly lit closet just off the foyer.

“You’re ruining my dress!” I protested, my voice a mix of shock and indignation. I struggled against his firm grip, taken back by the unexpected show of force. He pushed me further into the cramped space, my back hitting the cool, hard floor, along with my expensive Ferragamo purse. His hands frantically skimmed over the door, searching for a lock that didn’t exist, his actions tinged with a palpable sense of urgency.

“What the hell are you doing? Are you out of your mind?” I screamed, my voice reverberating against the closet walls, amplifying the panic in my tone. My heart pounded furiously in my chest, each beat echoing the fear coursing through me.

His hand clamped down over my mouth to stifle the screams. Near my ear, he whispered, “I saw a man... with a gun,” his breath was ragged, his eyes wide with alarm.

The gravity of his words struck me like a physical blow, sending a jolt of ice through my veins. Instinctively, I pushed his hand away, my mind a whirlwind of terror and disbelief. We were trapped in this dark, confined space, vulnerable and exposed, with no means of securing our makeshift refuge. The thought sent a chill down my spine.

From outside the closet, the muffled sounds of distant screams and ensuing chaos penetrated the thin walls; each cry was a stark reminder of the nightmare unfolding just beyond our hideaway. The air in the closet felt heavy, charged with fear and uncertainty, as we huddled together in the shadows.

 

 Page 18

 

==== “He’s got a gun,” the panicked whispers seeped through the closet walls, each word dripping with terror, infiltrating the cramped space where Peter and I hid. The air felt thick, charged with an overt fear that clung to every breath we took.

In response, Peter’s actions were rapid and pivotal. He deftly pulled out his iPhone, his fingers moving with a practiced urgency that belied our precarious situation. As he tapped the emergency button, I could almost feel the silent waves of our distress call emanating from the phone, an invisible signal of our desperate plea for help. The device, usually so mundane and innocuous, had become our lifeline, connecting us to a world beyond the chaos.

As he pocketed the phone, Peter turned to me, his arms encircling me in a protective embrace. His body was tense, coiled with readiness, yet there was a tenderness in his hold that belied his fear. At that moment, he was more than just a friend; he was a barrier between me and the unknown horrors lurking just beyond the thin veneer of our sheetrock sanctuary.

Tears welled in my eyes, a mix of fear and an acute sense of vulnerability overwhelming me. My mind raced with thoughts of Sid and Jenn – our friends, our confidants. The uncertainty of their safety gnawed at me, adding to the maelstrom of emotions. Were they, too, hiding somewhere, hearts pounding in terror? Or were they out there, unwittingly caught in the direct path of danger? The thought of them facing this nightmare, possibly alone and unprotected, sent a fresh wave of dread coursing through me.

In the suffocating darkness of the closet, with only the faintest sliver of light sneaking under the door, the reality of our situation settled heavily upon us. We were trapped, tangled in a scenario that seemed more like a horrific scene from a movie than reality. The distant sounds of chaos and fear continued to filter through the walls, a haunting reminder of the peril just inches away.

 

 Page 19

 

===== “Hey, Pastor Bill, you ready to go to heaven?” The chilling question, delivered in a menacing tone, sliced through the tense silence like a knife. Its implied threat hung heavily in the air, ominous and unsettling.

Huddled together in the cramped confines of this closet, Peter and I became mere spectators to the unfolding horror outside. The cacophony of fear and chaos just beyond our hideaway was almost flagrant. The sounds of people scrambling for safety collided with their terrified cries, painting a vivid tapestry of panic and desperation. Each frantic footstep and each whimper of fear reverberated through the thin walls of our sanctuary, keeping us painfully aware of the terror that loomed just inches away.

Without warning, the closet door quivered and rattled under a violent impact, as if the horror had come knocking directly on our flimsy barrier. The suddenness of it sent shockwaves of fear coursing through my body, my heart racing wildly in response. I clung to Peter, seeking some semblance of comfort in the midst of this nightmare.

The air around us was pierced by desperate, agonizing screams of “Nooooooo.” A solitary gunshot rang out, its sharp report cutting through the disharmony and sending a bone-chilling shiver down my spine. The reverberation of the shot lingered ominously, a haunting reminder of the life-and-death stakes just beyond our hiding place.

In the distance, barely audible over the chaos, the faint sound of approaching sirens trickled into our ears. It was a beacon of hope, yet it seemed torturously distant. The reality of our potential rescue was tantalizing yet frustratingly remote.

Amidst the terror, a voice outside – strained but unmistakably tinged with a note of relief and urgency – announced, “The Police are here.” The statement should have been a comfort, a sign that help was imminent. Yet, in the cramped darkness of the closet, with danger lurking so close, it did little to ease the knot of dread that had tightened in my stomach.

 

 Page 20

 

==== Frozen in place, Peter and I clung to each other, an island of human contact in a sea of fear. The familiar scent of his cologne was a comforting presence amidst the enveloping terror. It was a strange juxtaposition – the mundane mingling with the extraordinary – as if even in our darkest moment, the normalcy of life insisted on making itself known. Our minds were tormented with worry for Sid and Jenn, Ms. Helen, Bree, her husband Jarrod, and their son Ivy. Were they safe? Or had they, too, been swept up in this terrifying maelstrom of chaos?

As these thoughts swirled through my mind, a more profound question nagged at me, tugging at the very edges of my consciousness. In these moments of sheer despair, where was the divine intervention we so desperately needed? The silence on this matter was deafening, leaving me with a hollow feeling of abandonment.

Suddenly, without warning, the closet door flung open, an explosion of blinding light invading our dark sanctuary. My heart catapulted into my throat. Every muscle tensed in anticipation of the unknown. My eyes instinctively clenched shut against the harsh glare, as if by refusing to see, I could somehow ward off the impending threat.

In that heart-stopping, breath-holding moment, a chilling and unbidden thought wormed its way into my mind, casting a shadow over my racing heart: what if this was the end? What awaited us on the other side of this abruptly opened door? The uncertainty of it was paralyzing, and for a fleeting second, time itself seemed to stand still, suspended on the edge of an unknowable precipice.

Would you have handled any of these situations differently? We would love to hear your thoughts. Comment and Share!

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