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Table of Contents
2 A Home of My Own
3 Additions and Seizures
4 Assets and Liabilities
5 Building Community
7 Unexpected Arrivals
8 The Law of the Land
9 Great Lodge
11 Digging Out
14 Winter Two
16 Cupid’s Arrows
18 Baby Troubles
19 Schemes and Inventions
20 Oath Breakers
28 Power to the People
About the Author
Guilty? Of course I was guilty. How could I not be guilty the way they applied the law? When you get right down to it, how could any Christian who takes his belief seriously not be guilty? Let me tell you what happened so you can decide for yourself.
I was finishing up breakfast at my regular spot at the counter in the Roadside Café. While I chased the last of my usual hash-browns and eggs around the plate, Bessie kept up her lively banter with the customers. Truth be told, Bessie was one of the main attractions at the Roadside Café. The food was nothing to sneeze at—tasty, well cooked, large portions—but it was Bessie who provided the atmosphere. Nobody could ever accuse Bessie of being pretty, or even attractive in a physical way, but she was one of those gals who has plenty of personality—and she gave her customers the full benefit of it. While she hopped around yelling orders to the cook or slapped loaded plates down on tables, she kept up a running conversation with the whole house. She knew all about us regulars and she kept up with what was going on in our lives and families.
She wasn’t one for talking much about herself but over the years we got to know her, too. She was in her mid-fifties. Her husband left for work one day over twenty years back and never made it home. Nobody knows what happened—he just disappeared leaving Bessie to cope alone with their special-needs son. No money. No insurance. They’d just made the down payment on a tiny two-bedroom house. The only job Bessie could get was waitressing and she’d been at it ever since. The son still lived with her, spending countless hours tending the yard and garden.
Bessie never complained but from a few things she let drop I think the strain of everything was starting to get to her. She was getting older and the future didn’t look all that promising. Even after all her years of struggle she still didn’t have much to live on for when she could no longer work. She worried about who would look after her son when she was gone. Her regulars at the Café were the only “family” she had.
Anyhow, I was wiping up my plate with the last of the toast when Bessie turned her attention to me. “You still teaching that class of yours on Thursdays, Carl?”
“Sure am, Bessie. Want to come? Be glad to have you.”
It’s a conversation we’d been having for years. She’d ask about my Bible study. I’d invite her to come. She always found some excuse. Either she was too busy, religion was not for her (though she had nothing against religious people, you understand) or she wouldn’t fit into the group.
I figured that underneath the bluster there really was some hunger or she wouldn’t keep bringing it up. “You really ought to come, Bessie. We’re going to start talking about the book of James. Some really practical stuff in there about how we ought to treat each other. You’d enjoy it. Bring Russell along, too. It’d be good for him to get out and meet some new people.”
“Go on with you, Carl. You know all that Bible talk isn’t for me and my kind.”
“Ah, come on Bessie. You and your kind are exactly who it’s for. Do you really think that we Christians are some sort of different species?
“You really ought to come, Bessie. Much as we all love you, you can’t go on slinging hash forever. You need to start thinking about what comes after. No time like the present to get ready for eternity.”
Bessie was just opening her mouth—probably to tell me she didn’t believe in eternity when I felt the hand on my shoulder. It was a cop. Seeing a policeman at the Roadside Café was nothing unusual. Quite a few were regulars. It was always a treat to hear Bessie twit them about how lousy a job they’d been doing. In fairness, there was no stronger supporter of the police when she felt they’d been maligned or handed the short end of the stick. They loved her the same as the rest of us and enjoyed the banter as much as anybody.
This guy was somebody new. “Give it a rest, buddy. The lady doesn’t want to hear it.”
Who this yahoo thought he was breaking into a conversation between friends, I don’t know. The regulars all knew that this was one of the ways Bessie and I showed we cared about each other. They’d heard it all before and enjoyed the back and forth as much as we did. Even so, I kept my cool. “Don’t you think Bessie is capable of telling me herself if she doesn’t want to listen? Just what business of yours is this anyway?”
“I’ll tell you what business of mine this is,” the guy shot back. “You’re proselytizing. In case nobody explained it to you, proselytizing is against the law. I’m going to have to run you in.”
And before I could say, “Hunh?” he had his cuffs on me.
Bessie stood there with her mouth hanging open. It was the first time I ever saw her at a loss for words. Finally, she managed to croak, “Is this some kind of joke?”
“It’s no joke, Ma’am. I’m doing this for your protection. This man has clearly broken the law. I’m taking him in so that he won’t bother you again.”
The blood rushed into Bessie’s cheeks. I think it was that bit about my arrest being for her protection which did it. She gave that cop a tongue-lashing the likes of which I’d never before been privileged to hear. She told him she would talk to whoever she pleased about whatever she pleased wherever she pleased. Now get those cuffs off of my friend and get the blankety-blank out of my café and go catch some real criminals. To give you an idea of how worked up Bessie was, that was the first time I’d ever heard her swear.
Nothing she said made any difference. The cop merely repeated that I was a danger to society for proselytizing and he had to run me in. His partner had the grace to look embarrassed but did nothing to stop my arrest. The rest of the regulars looked as shocked as Bessie but clearly didn’t know what to do. Bessie said some choice things about the two cops’ characters and told them to never come back to the café again. The last glimpse I had of her as the cops shoved me into the patrol car, tears streamed down her face as she kept whispering, “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry!”
At my hearing the judge explained to me that the anti-proselytizing law basically meant that you couldn’t even mention, let alone talk about, your faith to anyone except a co-religionist unless it was in reply to a direct question. It was fine for me to answer Bessie’s question about whether I still taught my class on Thursdays. I had pushed right up to the line by inviting her to it. That could still be construed as permissible since Bessie expressed interest.
Was it my desire, the judge wanted to know, for Bessie to become a Christian? Well, duh, I thought to myself. Of course it was. How could it be otherwise for any Christian who took his faith seriously?
If so, the judge continued, my comments about getting ready for eternity were a blatant attempt to pressure Bessie against her will. They violated both the letter and spirit of the law.
After the judge put it that way the only choice I had was to either lie about my hopes for Bessie or plead guilty. “Yes, but!” wasn’t an option.
The judge fixed a date two weeks in the future for sentencing.
What the judge very carefully did not say was that, in practice, the anti-proselytizing law only applied to Christians. Under the guise of tolerance it was perfectly acceptable for people of other faiths to proclaim their ideologies to all and sundry. I knew, of course, that anti-Christian sentiment had been on the rise for a long time. Part of it, frankly, came from the very activity the anti-proselytizing law was theoretically intended to prevent—the kind of aggressive evangelism some Christians specialized in. People got tired of being accosted by strangers pushing tracts at them. Another reason for the hostility was the hypocrisy of people who claimed the name of Christ yet whose lifestyles were hardly Christ-like. But by far the biggest cause for the hate was moral. Society wanted to practice a whole range of things which Christians say are not only misguided, but sinful. Society decided that the way to stop the condemnation was to silence it. There were active calls to declare Christians and Christianity pernicious and have them and it banned altogether. The problem with that idea is that little clause in the Constitution which guarantees freedom of religion. The compromise the politicians came up with was the anti-proselytizing law. Christians would remain free to practice their religion however they pleased—as long as they kept their opinions to themselves. As deplorable as the law was, I never dreamed it applied to conversations among friends. Obviously, I thought wrong. For a little innocent byplay I found myself guilty of a federal offense.
A week before I was due in court again my public defender and a lawyer from the Justice Department paid me a visit. Unlike my home-town guy whose main job, as far as I could tell, was to see that I didn’t sneeze wrong in court, this was a high-powered type direct from Washington, D.C..
“Mr. Thompson,” he said, “may I call you Carl? What sentence do you expect to get?”
“Oh, I suppose the judge will give me a talking to, tell me to watch what I say in the future and let me go for time served.”
“Well Carl, in most other circumstances that would be a pretty reasonable expectation but this case is quite a bit more complicated. There’s no way to say this gently, so let me give it to you straight. Unfortunately for you, the anti-proselytizing law carries a life sentence with no parole.”
“Could you repeat that?” I stammered. “Surely I didn’t hear right what you just said.”
“Life with no parole. The judge has no discretion in sentencing.”
“You mean a murderer can get twenty-five years with the option to walk in ten if he keeps his nose clean while I get put away for good for chatting with my friends?”
“I’m sorry, but that’s about the size of it. Senator Murphy stuck the sentencing language into the bill hoping it would be a poison pill which killed the whole thing. His attempt backfired. The people pushing the bill liked the language just fine. The language actually increased support for the bill.”
“Murphy strikes again,” I mumbled. Yeah, I know it was a lousy joke but it was the best I could do with everything coming at me cold. Before I could go into total shock he held up a hand. “There is one other option.”
“You mean change my plea?”
“You could do that, but it’s not what I had in mind.” He turned to my defender. “What would you say Carl’s chances of being acquitted are, Counselor, if this goes to trial?”
“Not too good. He’d have a better chance if he hadn’t already pleaded guilty. And, if he loses, he’ll be right back in the same situation he is now with a lot more time wasted. Better listen to what the man has to offer, Carl.”
“I’m listening. What’s the other option?”
“The Department of Justice started looking at what this bill is going to cost us in hard dollars and cents.”
I should have known. With bureaucrats it always seems to come down to money in the end.
“We realized,” he went on, “that there are probably thousands of people who are going to get swept up by this thing, just like you. We don’t have the space to put all of you. To construct the new prisons we’d need would cost billions, not to mention years of construction time. In addition, it costs roughly $30,000 a year to keep someone in prison. Frankly, we don’t have that kind of money and there’s absolutely no chance of passing that much of a budget increase. To house you all means that we’d have to turn loose an awful lot of murderers and rapists. Fortunately, we have an historical precedent for a different solution.”
“You mean round us all up and stick us in concentration camps like what happened to the Nisei during World War II,” I interjected.
“No. The public would never stand for that. The images are too evocative. I know, I know, the public won’t let us build camps to stick you in but they will let us put you behind bars for good. Inconsiderate of them, but out of sight, out of mind and all that. As I say there’s another precedent.
“You Christians claim that your real citizenship is elsewhere, don’t you?”
The abrupt change in direction caught me off guard. “Well, yes,” I stammered. “Our true citizenship is in heaven.”
“Your Apostle Peter also refers to you as aliens, does he not?”
“Yes, he does.”
“Well then, that provides us with the solution we all need. We can treat you people as belonging to an independent nation within the federal structure. We’ve cut a deal with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. We’ll create reservations for you out of National Forest lands. You may govern yourselves however you like. We don’t have to bother with incarcerating you.
“Here’s the deal. Each new reservation will receive a one-time grant of half a million dollars for infrastructure, plus another 5,000 for each new resident coming in from the prison system. We give each member of the Tribe a box to live in, a starter kit of tools and supplies and $20,000 the first year. The second year they receive another 10,000. The third year they receive five. After that, they’re on their own.”
All this was coming at me so fast I could hardly take it in. “Let me make sure I have this straight. In return for getting us out of your hair and reducing your budget problems you’re willing to give us a place of our own and a grubstake. Do I have that right?”
“That’s essentially correct.”
“You mentioned, and I quote, “a box to live in.” What’s that mean? You’re talking about a FEMA trailer aren’t you?”
“No. Those things are too expense and fall apart after a year or three. What we actually have in mind is a twenty-foot shipping container. With the trade imbalance, the country is awash with the things and we can buy them for much less than you’d think. They’re practically indestructible and we’ll replace the doors with a window-door combination so it makes a cozy little home. It’s even a little bigger than the cell you’d have otherwise.”
“Are these reservations supposed to be self-sustaining?”
“Yes they are. You will have to grow your own food and start your own cottage industries to meet your needs.”
“You said something about setting up these reservations in National Forest lands. Those aren’t the best agricultural spots. What happens if it’s not possible to grow enough? What are we supposed to do when the subsidies run out?”
“That is the risk you take. If you agree to this proposal you are totally on your own once the grants are gone. Sink or swim, live or die, it’s up to you.”
“What’s to keep somebody from just walking off the reservation and going back to normal life in society?”
“Oh, I forgot to mention. You’ll have a nice, unique little tattoo on your right cheek. If anybody with that tattoo is ever found outside the reservation, they can be shot on sight—no questions asked.”
“You said we’d be an independent nation. Does that mean we can make our own laws? Does it mean that laws of the United States don’t apply within our borders?”
“You have jurisdiction over your own affairs. Your turf, your rules. Anybody who comes on the reservation will be treated the same as a Tribe member.”
His answer seemed a bit incomplete but I couldn’t think how to clarify so I turned to something else that was bothering me. “You said that we could be shot on sight if we ever left the reservation. But you also said that we have grants for infrastructure and subsidies for each person for the first three years. How are we supposed to spend the money and buy the goods we need if we’re stuck in the middle of a forest and are forbidden to set foot out of it?”
“There is one exception to the prohibition on leaving the reservation. You will be permitted safe conduct to the nearest town to do business and purchase supplies. In fact, we’re trying to select locations for the reservations where a town already abuts the National Forest. The town will be notified of your status. You’re fine as long as you keep within the town boundaries. If you choose to go further, all bets are off.”
My mind was still a-whirl but the more I thought about it the more I liked the idea. However, I was feeling grumpy so said, “I really don’t have a choice, do I?”
“Of course you have choice, Carl! You can pick the reservation or spend the rest of your natural life in a Federal pen. It’s entirely your decision.”
Yes, I suppose it was my decision. On the other hand there really wasn’t much choice. I couldn’t imagine spending the rest of my days locked behind bars with a bunch of hardened criminals. The last couple of weeks had been rough enough. On the other hand, the thought of becoming a pioneer had a certain appeal.
“I’ll take the reservation,” I said. “Where do I sign?”
Mr. bureaucrat lawyer beamed. “Excellent!”
He shoved a form at me and I signed.
The grin remained on his face as he rose to leave. “One more thing, Carl. You’re the first person convicted under this law. That also means you’re the first person to opt for the reservation. That makes you the Chief of the Dove Tribe. You’d better start thinking about how you’re going to govern and how you’re going to use the infrastructure money we’re giving you. You have a lot to do to prepare for the other Tribe members who’ll be coming your way in a few months.
“Also, here’s a list of tools and supplies we’ve worked up for the starter kits. Go over it and see what you think. The Counselor here will fax any suggestions you have to me. You have one week to do so.”
With that, he left me gaping at the sheaf of papers in my hands. If my hands hadn’t already been full of paper, I could have strangled him.
That’s how I found myself climbing out of a paddy wagon a couple of weeks later in the middle of a forest, a fresh tattoo of a stylized dove on my cheek. They picked the symbol as a parody of the doctrine of being sealed by the Holy Spirit. Just as with the original connotations of the name “Christian” itself, you could either be insulted by it or wear it with pride. I decided I was proud of what the mark stood for.