March 18, 2019
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Finding religion right outside your front door

I really enjoy religious thriller movies. The ones in which a person, usually a despicable sort who gives joints to children and steals brooches from blind senior citizens, receives divine and tangible evidence of God’s omnipotence. Then theology experts and Vatican investigators descend upon the person to appraise whether their stigmata is sufficiently Old Testament.

I’m drawn to these films likely because the only papal decree I’ve ever witnessed was the one to defrock the Monsignor of the church I attended as a child.

I find the intrigue and the mysticism of religion fascinating. It was stiflingly boring when I was a kid, but I came to view it differently after I saw the Dead Sea scrolls on traveling exhibition when I was in college.

These papers are a sight worth seeing no matter your belief system. Each one is a hammered copper or papyrus, believed to be written by apostles in the forgotten language of Jesus, preserved in chambers devoid of moisture and strong lighting so to prevent decay, much like the epidermis of Michael Jackson.

The scrolls were interesting to marvel at, but the spectacle lay in beholding the effect they had on those who had come to gaze at them. In the middle of a crowded museum, onlookers collapsed to their knees and choked on tears at the sight of these documents. I realized that day how potent faith is, but as humans we still seek empirical evidence that God is orchestrating this existential crisis we are mired in.

The desire to commune with the holy is the reason people always are claiming to see the face of Jesus in the syrup poured on pancakes or the yolk of a cracked egg. It is also the reason I demand dining out for breakfast as often as possible. Every time the syrup cascades from its pitcher, I wait in hopeful suspense. The closest I ever got was a vague outline of Jerry Garcia.

There was also the time that I was convinced it was His likeness emblazoned on the fuselage of an airplane, but my husband assured me that while Alaska Airlines may hub out of God’s country, they only paint the faces of Eskimos on their fleet.

Regardless of my losing streak, I continue to search in simple sugars because I know it will happen in the least likely of places.

Then one day I was folding laundry and placing tidy stacks upon the couch in front of our bay window when a rusted and paint-chipped panel van pulled up in front of our home and parked in the grassy shoulder abutting the sidewalk. I smiled at the rage this would induce in my husband, Greg, given his man’s burden to bemoan his trampled grass. I watched the van, figuring the driver was making a call or deciphering bad directions as most people do when they pull over in front of our house. The door opened, though, and a man stepped out from the van. He had a lanky build covered with tanned, leathery skin. His hair was brown and disheveled and grazed his shoulders. He wore tattered shorts and sandals and, most notably, no shirt.

We live in a section of town where interlopers of the shirtless, van-driving variety tend to draw attention.

I watched with interest as he opened the side of the van and began to unload items onto our sidewalk. One by one he hoisted random and cumbersome pieces out of that van and began to assemble them into a rickety fabrication. As I strained to see what he had fashioned from bricks and planks of wood, he dropped two dumbbells at the base. He had built a makeshift weight bench.

Right there, on the sidewalk in front of my house, he began repetitions of bicep curls and presses.

I yelled for Greg to come to the window so that he could see what I was seeing. He squinted, trying to make sense of the scene, and finally shrugged. I twirled him around and marched him to the front door, demanding he get to the bottom of why our front yard was being used as a Bally’s for the homeless. I resumed my post at the window, concealed by a drape, to witness the exchange. It was brief and perfunctory — a few words, nodded heads, and concluded with a handshake. When Greg returned through the front door, his face held a sheepish expression.

“He’s just … working out. I see no problem with that.”

I studied his face and considered his tone. Then it occurred to me. I had seen this face before. I had seen the glaze that washes over dumbstruck eyes. I’d seen it in the Heard Museum of Chicago.

“You think that’s Jesus, don’t you?”

He met my eyes and his lips turned up a little at the edges.

“I don’t know,” he started cautiously as my eyes narrowed.

I began to regale him with facts to consider, like that I was a woman with small children to protect with a strange man prone to random acts of exercise loitering outside. Would not Jesus care a little more about healing the needy than building the B.C. version of the Bowflex?

I struggled to call forth further religious iconography. I could see that Greg, despite his more pagan upbringing, was not going to ask this modern-day saint to hoist his benchpress upon his back, like a wooden cross, and carry it out of our neighborhood.

When the bearded vagabond was still there two hours later, eating a snack upon his portable YMCA and staring directly at our house, I decided to call the police. I requested that an officer ask our sweating stranger to move from our shoulder, which as a point of interest, is a no-parking zone. The officer agreed to dispatch a squad car to usher the man off our property.

As the shirtless stranger loaded his equipment, Greg shot me a glare reserved for sinners holding a first-class ticket to hell.

Whenever the topic of religion comes up between us, I swear I see that same look cross his face. If I become really quiet, I think I even hear him whisper “Judas” when asking me what I’d like for dinner.

I feel guilt over it from time to time, but then I remind myself that some people think Charles Manson bears a resemblance to Jesus.

I did take away one lesson, though. Whenever I feel really disinterested in going to work out, I remember this man and think: “Don’t go to the gym, my child. God will bring the gym to you.”

And then I pour some extra syrup on my pancakes and hope the Vatican will be calling soon.


Erin Donovan moved with her family to the midcoast, where she constantly is told she says the word “scallops” incorrectly. She performs live and produces Web sketches derived from her popular humor blog I’m Gonna Kill Him. Follow her misadventures on and on Twitter @gonnakillhim.

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