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Down By the Riverside
Book Nine of the Dawnwalker Cycle
Wes Boyd
©2015, ©2016

Chapter 18
Thursday, September 19, 2002

It was quiet down in the basement. Nanci was curled up in a chair she had first seen in Jon and Tanisha’s living room back when they’d been living in the townhouse off of Price Road; it was a cheap chair, and had been demoted from the living room of the new house. It was still a comfortable place to sit and do some of the reading she needed for her course work, and that was what she was busy on at the moment.

She glanced up at the clock. She still hadn’t reacquired the habit of wearing a watch and hoped to avoid it, even though once or twice it had made things a little inconvenient. It was getting close to time for Jon and Tanisha to be getting home, so she decided to get started on dinner.

Until she moved down to live with her brother and sister-in-law, somehow she hadn’t been aware of the fact that neither one of them were very good cooks. Oh, they could pull things from the freezer and microwave them, but that had gotten old very quickly, so without comment Nanci had taken over doing dinner, and sometimes other meals. She often cooked breakfast, mostly because she was almost always up well before Tanisha and Jon.

To be honest, Nanci hadn’t been much of a cook when she’d been living at home in Chicago. In those days, she could, if needed, put together a perfectly adequate peanut butter and jelly sandwich, but that started changing rapidly in her first days on the river the year before. She still wasn’t a really good cook, and her menu selection mostly reflected what they had to eat on the river – but that was like ambrosia to Tanisha and Jon. Sometimes her cooking didn’t come out as well as it did on the river, but she reasoned that was because she was in a real kitchen using a real stove, rather than the White Team’s warped griddle over a finicky propane stove in the open air.

She’d already made up her mind to have halibut steaks and dirty rice tonight; it was always the meal they served on the first night out on the river, so she knew how to make it. Assuming her brother and sister-in-law would be home more or less on time, bringing Barbara with them after her day in the Lambdatron Day Care Center, it was time to get started.

She put down the textbook for her Bible and Culture course. It was really interesting; it took her into some areas she wasn’t terribly familiar with. Some areas she knew pretty well; others were almost a blank to her. It was actually a freshman level course that she was taking because she missed her freshman year at Black Mesa, but that was fine with her.

So far, things had gone pretty well for her at the college. Even though it was a new school to her, she had more experience than she wanted at walking onto new college campuses and finding her way around. The religion classes were smaller than she had expected, and Dr. Nelson himself even taught her other religion class of the semester, Christian Social Ethics. She and Dr. Nelson had worked it out that she only had to take one or two religion classes each term for her to have her major requirements covered. She was tempted to take more this year, but some of the classes she was really interested in were upper-level courses she wouldn’t be able to take this year anyway. The rest of her classes either reflected her business minor, or an interest in European history, which Christianity had had a major influence on.

Since she was at a good stopping point, she put the textbook down and padded up the stairs to the kitchen. The house was quiet – it was good for study most of the time, since Jon and Tanisha were pretty studious, even with their jobs. Barbara did make things a little more interesting, and they were having some fun adjusting to her presence.

As she often did, she sang to herself while she was cooking. She still liked to sing her version of Down By the Riverside, but it wasn’t the only thing she sang. After the encounter with the cowboy music enthusiast on that trip the previous summer, she occasionally found herself singing “I’m back on the river again, out where a raft is my friend, where the Canyon walls reach high above us on the stream . . .”

The rafts, the river, and the White Team seemed far away. They were out on the river now, and would be for a while yet. She was looking forward to the day when she could get together with her friends again and find out what had happened during the fall season.

Before long she had everything to the point where she needed to know when Jon and Tanisha were going to be home so she could start grilling the halibut. Maybe something else would be good, she thought, maybe a cake. But, no. Both Jon and Tanisha had been sort of complaining that they were putting on weight from her cooking, and since they both had the kind of bodies that would run to fat if they didn’t keep careful control of their eating and exercise, a cake would probably be overdoing it. Maybe next week . . .

She heard Jon and Tanisha’s car pull into the driveway, but there was a second car following, one with a loud muffler. She couldn’t help but wonder what that was all about, but she wasn’t very curious, so went to get the halibut going. “Hi, Nanci,” she heard Tanisha call after a few seconds. “Is dinner ready?”

“It will be pretty quickly.”

“Nanci, you’re a wonder. Jon isn’t going to be home for a while, there are some results he wants to go over again and a couple of other odds and ends, so I brought home a friend instead.”

Nanci glanced up to see Tanisha walking into the kitchen, carrying Barbara in her baby carrier, but behind her was Jennlynn Swift. She still didn’t know the woman sometimes called “Learjet Jenn” very well, but had gotten to talk to her for a few minutes back at the open house, and had come away impressed after that brief encounter. The woman was one of a kind, awesomely intelligent, and with a number of very interesting quirks.

“Oh, hi, Jennlynn,” she said. “It’s good to see you again.”

“I see Tanisha hasn’t been lying to me,” Jennlynn grinned. “It’s something I never thought I would see in this house.”

“What’s that?” Nanci asked, a little confused.

“Someone cooking something that actually smells like it’s going to taste good. Jon and Tanisha have had me over to dinner now and then in the past, and I’m pretty sure when they have they’ve always served me take-out.”

“Not all the time,” Tanisha called as she went to put the sleeping Barbara in her crib. “But I’ll admit to having done it.”

“I’m trying to fix that, but I can see it’s going to take a while.”

“Oh, I’m just teasing,” Jennlynn smiled. “I’m nothing much as a cook, either. About the only thing I can cook well that I’ll actually serve to company is a jambalaya that a friend of mine taught me how to make back when I was working at Bettye’s Ranch.”

“Huh?” Nanci frowned. “You got that one by me, Jennlynn.”

“Oh, you might not know. You’re working your way through college running a raft. I worked my way through college on my back, mostly at a little parlor house way out in the desert.”

Nanci shook her head; she should have known that, and maybe she did, but had forgotten it. Ever since last winter Nanci had known that Jennlynn was, among many other things, probably the nation’s best-known prostitute, although she only worked on a very part-time basis. Nanci wanted to talk to her about that sometime, since it was clear that Jennlynn’s experience as a prostitute had been vastly different from her own – about as different as it could be, in fact, and considerably more positive.

Jon had also told her that as far as he knew, Jennlynn was probably the nation’s richest active prostitute as well. But from all reports, that was secondary to Jennlynn; she was far more interested in her job as an engineer at Lambdatron, and as a charter aircraft operation owner who flew a Learjet and another plane.

While Tanisha was busy tending to Barbara, Nanci and Jennlynn stood out in the kitchen talking, and a little to Nanci’s surprise, it was mostly about the Grand Canyon. It turned out that Jennlynn had taken a trip with Canyon Tours years before, long enough ago that Al’s first wife, Louise, had still been alive. Jennlynn said that she’d like to do it again sometime, but for several reasons it wasn’t going to happen anytime soon.

All that time Nanci was working on dinner, and it was coming along nicely. After Tanisha returned from dealing with her daughter, she set the table while she joined in on the conversation.

It wasn’t until after Nanci had served coffee after dinner that Tanisha changed the subject. “Nanci, I told you some time ago that I had some concerns about your wanting to become a minister.”

“Yes, but you never explained it. I’ve been wondering if it slipped your mind.”

“No, it hasn’t, but there just hasn’t been the right time to talk about it, and I asked Jennlynn to help me out with it when the opportunity came tonight. Jennlynn and I are both pretty good engineers, but we also share something a lot less positive. That is, we both have fathers who were ministers, and we both had to run away from them.”

“I knew that about you,” Nanci replied soberly. “You’ve told me quite a bit about it, both you and Jon. But Jennlynn, I didn’t know that about you.”

“It’s the truth,” Jennlynn replied. “It’s an awkward truth, but there it is. Nanci, you know enough about me to know that I know how to handle awkward. While I know this is kind of a personal thing, I understand why Tanisha wanted me to sit in on this.”

“Tanisha, are you saying that you’re not in favor of my becoming a minister, if that’s what I decide to do?”

“No, Nanci. Not that at all. In fact, if you decide to become a minister, more power to you. The thing I want to say, and I think that Jennlynn wants to say, is that we’re concerned that you’ll be a good minister who serves her flock, rather than the other way around.”

“‘The other way around’ is pretty much about how both our fathers treated their churches,” Jennlynn added. “From what little I know, that’s how my father still treats his. Tanisha and I have talked about this many times before, even before you came on the scene.”

“Nanci, you probably know at least some of this from Jon, or from Crystal or Karin,” Tanisha explained, “But the core of the story is that I was brought up in a very strict black church. My father was the minister, and he wanted it that way. He was the founder of the church, and essentially he was the owner, so he was sure he could have things done his way. The only way anyone could do anything about it was to vote with their feet and walk out. Very few did, because my father was very much a radical on civil rights, so people tended to see that he was on their side in those issues, and he was. He may not always have been right on those issues, but he was loud enough that people could see he was trying to act in their defense. So long as he could keep people on his side, the church was his personal fiefdom. “

“Bread and circuses,” Jennlynn nodded.

“Not quite, but pretty close,” Tanisha went on. “It’s been several years since I attended a service there, but they were, uh, I guess you could say pretty enthusiastic.”

“Like enjoying that traditional gospel singing, and really rocking it,” Nanci smiled. “I know you liked that, and you still do.”

“That much of it, yes. My father and the church did a lot of things for the community, like the day care center and other things that helped people out. Of course, he expected his pay for them, not directly in money but in loyalty. The money came along with that. I know I always felt he was more than a little ostentatious about the money he took from the church, and even as a child I wondered if it wasn’t in poor taste. But since I was a child, and a girl at that, my opinion counted for nothing. What I’m trying to say is that he put his personal aggrandizement first, maintaining the support of the church second, and the spiritual needs of his flock third, if that.”

“I can see how you could be troubled by that,” Nanci nodded soberly. “It would bother me, too.”

“It gets worse,” Tanisha went on. “After my father died, my brother took over the church. ‘The king is dead, long live the king.’ I was gone by that time, and I only know what I know secondhand, but it appears that my brother was mostly interested in what he could get out of the church, rather than what he could put into it. He was more interested in his personal pleasure than he was in the needs of his flock. To make a very long story short, it eventually caught up with him, and the church no longer exists.”

“Crystal said you were involved with that.”

“Yes, but only peripherally. I may have speeded things along a little bit indirectly, but the rot was already there.”

“How did that happen?”

“One of the ways my father used to keep control of the church was that if you were a troublemaker, you might get visited by some people you’re really rather not meet, and by that I mean exactly what it sounds like. Nanci, my father kept me under very close control since he didn’t want me to get into a position where I could challenge his authority. It was a miracle when he allowed me to go to Georgia Tech, and that would have come to nothing if your brother hadn’t rescued me. For years we were concerned that my father would send some of his goons after us, which is why we lived a very low-key existence. About the time I discovered I was pregnant, we decided we’d better find out what the threat really was, and we had some detectives look into things. That led to a confrontation with my brother – Jennlynn was there – and as a result, again to make a long story short, my brother did a few things he really shouldn’t have done and got caught at it. The church no longer exists and the power base my father created is gone, mostly thrown away by my brother.”

“That makes more sense than the way Crystal told it,” Nanci replied thoughtfully. “But I don’t see exactly what you’re leading toward.”

“It’s fairly simple, Nanci. I was a pretty serious Christian as a child, but then, I was brought up to be. Most of it was burned out of me by my father, and much of what was left of it by my brother, but the core of it still remains. Back when you gave your life to Jesus at Havasu Creek a year ago last spring, I told you that I know that I’ve been washed with the blood of the Lamb, have been saved and baptized in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost. So, in spite of everything, that makes me a Christian. It’s just that right now I tend to not think much of churches, especially where churches turn into personality cults. My concern is not about your becoming a minister, Nanci. But if you do, if you don’t put the needs of your flock and the service of the Lord well above yourself, I will feel very sorry that I helped you along the way. Does that make sense?”

“Yeah,” Nanci said slowly. “It makes a lot of sense, and when you put it that way, I guess I have to agree with you. That is not how I would want my service to the Lord to be. I can see how that could be an easy trap to fall into, though.”

“It is,” Jennlynn agreed. “I know, because I saw it happen to my father. Oh, it was quite a bit different but in a way it was the same thing. My father runs a Disciples of the Savior church in the town where I grew up. Have you ever heard of that denomination?”

“No, I haven’t.”

“It’s a fairly small one, and it’s rather scattered, so the hierarchy of the denomination doesn’t have a lot of control of the churches. I mean, it’s nothing like what I know of how the Methodists are organized, for example. That means the churches are pretty independent, even if they are part of a denomination.”

“My father’s church wasn’t part of one,” Tanisha added. “Oh, they were pretty much Baptist in doctrine, but they were independent, so there was no denominational hierarchy to control them, which is exactly what my father wanted.”

“That’s more mainline than my father’s,” Jennlynn went on, ignoring Tanisha’s interruption. “The Disciples of the Savior are evangelistic Pentecostal, which means they’re pretty conservative and dogmatic. My father doesn’t need a goon squad to keep his flock in control, because he has his congregation in the palm of his hand using the Bible as his whip. I mean, lots of hellfire and brimstone, lots of threats of damnation in the hereafter if you don’t follow his party line exactly. To use Tanisha’s words, it’s a personality cult, and they’ll have to carry him out of the church feet first since he has the congregation so well cowed by his personality and his preaching.”

“I think I’m happy to say I’m a Methodist,” Nanci grinned. “I mean, we don’t go into hellfire and brimstone very much.”

“That’s probably true from what I know about the Methodists, which probably isn’t as much as I ought to know. But it can be a way that a minister can turn, and there are people who want to hear that kind of thing. I think it’s safe to say that if a person is interested in that kind of approach to church, they wouldn’t hang around Methodist churches very long.”

“Yes, Dr. Nelson was saying something about like that the other day. If people don’t have a firm family base in a church and want something different, they’ll often drift away to where they can find it. That often means drifting away from the church altogether.”

“I think he was dead right on that,” Jennlynn smiled. “I mean, some people want to feel like they’re part of something bigger than they are, and want to feel like they’re part of a popular movement, or want to follow a leader with fame and a load of charisma, so they may drift away to a megachurch or something. Some people feel as if they want to be controlled, to obey the rules that are set before them, so if they’re inclined that way they’ll wind up at a place like the Disciples of the Savior with someone like my father in the pulpit. To go along with what Tanisha said a little, if people don’t find what they want in a church, they may well vote with their feet.”

“Sometimes it’s hard if people have been involved with a church for many years,” Tanisha agreed, “but it can happen. It happened to my brother.”

“That’s right,” Jennlynn said, “and that’s at least partly because he got away from a principle that had proved to work. Nanci, I saw Tanisha’s brother one time, that time she told you about. I didn’t speak to him, but I overhead enough to know all I needed to know. It seemed to me that he expected respect from the church as a given, because he was his father’s son, rather than earning it for himself. From what I know from Tanisha, that was his downfall.”

“That put it better than I did,” Tanisha smiled. “That is it in a nutshell.”

“We’re getting away from what I wanted to say,” Jennlynn went on. “That is, there are a lot of similarities between Tanisha’s father and my father. I don’t think it’s going too far to say that both of them were power-hungry, autocratic dictators.”

“Yes, that’s a pretty fair statement,” Tanisha agreed. “My brother wasn’t any less of one, but he didn’t have the willpower or the intelligence or the charisma to maintain it.”

“I think that’s what we’re trying to say. I feel it’s important for a minister to be the servant of his flock, not the master of it,” Jennlynn said. “Jesus said, ‘feed my sheep,’ not ‘whip them into line.’ Now, like Tanisha, the experience I had growing up in the church in the way I did has left me pretty burned out by it. Let’s just say that gives me a pretty good reason to resent a pastor who abuses his power with his congregation. I don’t know you very well, Nanci. In a way, I admire you for even considering taking on the burden of being a minister. But I think it’s important that if you do, you don’t let it go to your head.”

“I really don’t want to let it happen to me,” Nanci replied. “That’s why I’m not making any decision about it yet. Thinking about it, and praying about it, yes. I do it often. I can see where you both have valid concerns, and you have every reason to have them. I don’t think I would like myself if I were to find myself falling into that trap, and if the way to avoid falling into it is to not become a minister, then I won’t. It’s as simple as that.”

“I hope you’ll continue to feel that way,” Jennlynn smiled. “Despite what Tanisha and I have just been saying, since people still think they need churches, the world needs good ministers. People who will gently lead their flocks, not dictate to them. As I said, I don’t think very much of most churches I know right now, and that’s not good, but I do know there are good ministers out there, just like I know there are good Christians even though people often make fun of them. Like Tanisha, I was brought up in the church, and no matter who I am and what I’ve become, I still maintain a core of those beliefs. It’s part of me, and I suppose it always will be.”

“That sounds a little strange, coming from you,” Nanci said carefully, not wanting to get too personal. “I mean, considering who you are.”

“You mean, my little hobby at the Redlite Ranch?” Jennlynn grinned. “Nanci, one of those things you never want to forget is that while people put Jesus on a very high pedestal, He was really a self-anointed rabbi who liked to hang around with prostitutes and extortionists. Maybe that makes me a little closer to Him than some people.”

“The Bible says ‘sinners and tax collectors,’ Nanci pointed out.

“Most people would include prostitutes in the first part of that,” Jennlynn laughed. “And if you’re ever unlucky enough to pay as much in taxes as I do, you’ll realize that tax collectors are just legal extortionists.”

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To be continued . . .

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