[This is a truncated version of a chapter from my unpublished novel Dismissed from the Front and Center, which was inspired by my two years at a Seventh-day Adventist boarding academy. Our protagonist is Arty, a painfully shy, deeply insecure, overweight boy who has taught himself to be funny to fight that shyness, and because he thinks that’s the only way he will ever be accepted. He has taught himself ventriloquism and has brought his dummy Chester to Beautiful River Academy. Chester is an immediate hit and helps Arty get elected vice president of the Class of ‘81. The president is Stanton Pardy -- the "Pardy Animal" -- a pious, arrogant student who, along with his ultra-religious clique, seems to think Arty is also ultra-religious and has become convinced that they are simpatico. This chapter takes place early in Arty’s first year at Beautiful River, while he and his roommate David are trying to settle in.]
Once every semester, Seventh-day Adventist schools have what is a called a Week of Prayer. The week usually has a theme geared toward – who else? – children and teenagers, which is determined by the guest speaker, who comes to the school and speaks at all the religious services and visits all the Bible classes, and both of the dorms at boarding academies.
For our first Week of Prayer at Beautiful River, the guest speaker was an enormously tall black man named Elder James Berens. He was imposingly broad, with close-cropped hair, small eyes, and hands like shovels. He spoke at Monday morning’s chapel service for the first time.
“It’s a pleasure to be here at Beautiful River Academy,” he began, “where I’ve been made to feel very welcome.” He towered over the chapel’s pulpit and dwarfed the large bouquet of autumn colors that sprouted from a cornucopia-shaped vase in front of it.
We sat in the main chapel in the rear of the administration building, all of us missing a class because Week of Prayer always messed up everyone’s schedule. Of course, most of us didn’t mind – anything that got us out of classes was just fine with us.
Elder Berens had a microphone at the pulpit but hardly needed it. He had one of those voices that rumbles in your chest and makes furniture vibrate.
“This week,” Elder Berens said, “we are going to deal with an abomination. What is an abomination?”
Two seats down from me, Beau muttered, “Any food the cafeteria staff has to name themselves.”
“Let’s see what Webster’s dictionary says about an abomination.” He looked at his notes on the pulpit. “‘Anything greatly disliked or abhorred; intense aversion or loathing; detestation, a vile, shameful, or detestable action.’ Let me repeat that: ‘A vile, shameful, or detestable action.’ We’re going to discuss something that the bible calls an abomination. It’s something that is spreading over the world like a plague. And it is something that is alive and well right here at Beautiful River Academy. It’s running unbridled through all of our schools, but this week we are focusing on you. Right here. This school.
“The abomination of which I speak,” he went on, “the vile, shameful, detestable action I’m talking about is ... homo-sek-shoo-ality! It has taken hold right here at Beautiful River Academy. It has grown roots here. I look out over you now, and I can see it. Yes, I can see it. It’s rampant here! This has been my own personal burden --- to root out homo-sek-shoo-ality in our schools and churches. This has become my job, the lord has given me this task, which I take very seriously, and I have come here to do that job at Beautiful River Academy. Homo-sek-shoo-ality is here in this school, in this very building. Right now!”
Several heads turned to look around the chapel suspiciously, as if they might be able to spot it.
Elder Berens held up his bible and said, “Let’s see what the bible says about homo-sek-shoo-ality.” He put the bible on the pulpit and opened it. “Leviticus thirteen, twentieth chapter, from the Living Bible: ‘The penalty for homo-sek-shool acts is death to both parties. They have brought it upon themselves.’ Did you get that?” When he spoke again, he shouted, and his voice rattled the chapel windows: “‘They have brought it upon themselves!’”
He paused a moment, and when he spoke again, his voice was normal again. “Now, when the bible says the penalty for homo-sek-shoo-ality is death, does that mean we should go out and kill homo-sek-shools? No. If that were the case, then I would have no choice but to kill some of you sitting here today. But that’s not what the bible means. It means that death will eventually come to the homo-sek-shool, most likely an early death because the homo-sek-shool lifestyle is an unhealthy one. And what does the bible say? It says ‘they have brought it upon themselves.’
“I have been doing this for a long time,” Elder Berens continued, “and I’ve learned to spot the disease of homo-sek-shoo-ality. I can tell by a young man’s handshake if he has homo-sek-shool tendencies. I have shaken some of your hands here, and I have felt those tendencies in your grip. I know. The lord knows. And we’re going to spend this Week of Prayer dealing with it.
“I’ll be on the campus the whole week. I’ll be eating with you in the cafeteria, worshiping with you in your dorms. I want to get to know you. I want to discuss your problems. And most of all, I want you to recognize the problem of homo-sek-shoo-ality. If it’s a problem for you, it doesn’t have to be. With god’s help, you can be cured. I am here for you. You know who you are, and you know that what you are doing is wrong. It is a vile and shameful and detestable action and you know this, you feel this in your heart even as you do it. That is the quiet voice of the holy spirit speaking to you, urging you to turn away from this abomination.”
Up to that point, I had been through twenty Weeks of Prayer. Some had been better than others. Some had been downright dull. But this one was different than all the others. This one stood alone, because this guy was clearly monkeyfuck crazy.
It was 1979, before the outbreak of AIDS. Wherever he was when AIDS came on the scene, I’m sure Elder Berens was as happy as a pig in shit. He no doubt saw AIDS as the death penalty the bible had promised homo-sek-shools. I could almost see him doing a little happy dance after hearing about AIDS for the first time and saying, “I told you so, you limp-wristed pillow-biters!”
After that first Week of Prayer meeting, David, Frank and I left the chapel in the ad building a little stunned.
“I heard it, and I still can’t believe it,” Frank said.
“He’s crazy,” David said.
“We have to do something,” I said.
“Yep,” Frank said. “Definitely.”
“You have anything in mind?” David asked me.
“Let me think about it.”
Elder James Berens was just asking for ... something. He was begging for it ... whatever it was. As the bible said of homo-sek-shools, he’d brought it on himself.
We had a few gay students --- at least, David and Frank and Beau and I suspected they were gay, but we didn’t come right out and ask them because it didn’t matter, we didn’t care, and we weren’t boorish cretins. I wanted to go to those guys and tell them Elder Berens spoke for himself alone, but I didn’t know positively that they were gay, so I never did.
I spent that Monday wondering what could be done about Elder Berens. And I got an idea. I talked it over with my roommate David, and he gave his enthusiastic approval. That evening before dinner, David and I went up to Frank’s room and I told them what I had in mind. “What do you think?” I said.
Frank grinned and said, “Brilliant. Let’s do it.”
I said, “We need to get a bunch of guys in here and explain it to them.”
We gathered as many as we could in Frank’s room – guys we could trust and were pretty sure would go along with it. Beau rounded up his group of friends, which included Ted Bowman, Dan Bately, Oscar Rorisch, and some other guys whose names I didn’t know yet. I knew a few seniors from the school’s singing group, the Riveraires – Matt Smith, Aaron Boland, and Mike Finley, and they brought some friends of theirs. Charlie Morano came, too, and brought a couple of his senior friends. The room was packed, standing room only. It felt like we were trying to see how many guys we could pack into a phonebooth.
Without Chester on my arm, I was a little nervous. The dummy was my protection, my buffer. If these guys thought my idea was stupid – or worse, offensive for whatever reason – I wouldn’t be able to blame it on Chester.
“Okay, guys,” I said, putting up a confident front and trying to keep my voice from trembling, “we’ve got to do something about this clown, Elder Berens,” I said.
Rumbles of agreement came from the group.
“I have an idea,” I said, “but it won’t work if just one or two or three people do it. We all have to do it. Berens claims that homosexuality is rampant here at Beautiful River. We know that’s not the case. This guy’s about as obsessed with homosexuality as Dean Billey is with masturbation. But I’d like to see what Berens would do if he really were to encounter rampant homosexuality. He’s going to be wandering all over campus for the next week and he’s going to talk to as many of us as he can. What I want each of you to do is give him your very best impersonation of a stereotypical homosexual.”
“What do you mean?” Ted Bowman said.
“When Berens is around, I want you guys to camp it up. Lisp, flap your limp wrists – just do an impersonation of Mr. Long in the cafeteria kitchen.”
More laughs, and someone said, “Are you serious?”
“Yes, I am. This guy wants rampant homosexuality? We’ll give it to him. If he shakes your hand, give him the limpest grip you possibly can. If you see him at a distance, wave to him like this.” I waggled my fingers in a girlish fashion. “Give him the most effeminate looks and smiles you can. Wink at him.”
“Whoa,” Dan Bately said. “You want us to act gay?”
“Yes,” I said.
“But what if he thinks we’re gay?” Dan said.
“That’s the whole idea!” I said. “Look at it this way --- this guy is going to think you’re gay anyway. He’s said he can tell who has homosexual tendencies from a handshake. That’s somebody who sees homosexuals hiding in his soup. And besides, he’s only going to be here a week, then he’s out of our lives forever.”
“What about the people who won’t be leaving after a week?” Aaron Bowland said.
“Well, they already know you’re not gay, right?”
He thought about that a moment, nodded slowly, then shrugged and nodded. “Yeah, I guess so.”
“Come on, guys,” I said, “this could be a truly beautiful thing if we pull it off. There are a lot of us here, but if you know of anyone else who might play along and not blow it for us, then tell them about it. Let’s make this guy crazy. Let’s put this asshole up to his neck in rampant homo-sek-shoo-ality. Come on, you fairies, let’s hear those lisps, let’s see some limp wrists!”
With a lot of laughter, everyone started doing their version of a gay cliche. They warmed up to the idea, got into their performances, and cracked each other up. In a few minutes, the room looked like a convention of Liberace impersonators, with a few Paul Lyndes and Charles Nelson Reillys thrown in.
“Great!” I said. “You guys have got it! Now, act that way whenever you see this douchebag around campus. Will you do that?”
They all agreed.
Frank and I exchanged a thumbs-up.
“Okay, guys,” I said, “we’d better break this up before we get the attention of one of the deans. Berens will be somewhere in the caf tonight, so be ready to start Operation Homo-sek-shool.”
I knew all of them wouldn’t go through with it. Some would chicken out, and that was fine. But if half of them would do it --- even a third --- we could have some fun.
* * * *
It began that night at dinner. I went to the caf with David, Natalie and Frank. On our way down the sidewalk, Beau, Ted and Dan called for us to wait up.
“I got an idea,” Beau said. “What if we hold hands with another guy whenever we go by this dinkwad?”
They were getting into the spirit of it. I praised Beau’s idea and told him to do it.
The six of us went into the caf together, got in line, and got our food. We looked for Berens as we went to a table, but he wasn’t there.
I looked around for Stanton Pardy and saw him at a table with his friends. I was relieved to find that he’d already seated himself for dinner. That meant he’d leave me alone. I hoped.
We were halfway through our dinner when Elder Berens entered the caf with a tray of food. He was so big, it was like watching Herman Munster walk through a daycare center. He went over to Stan’s table and sat with them. It figured. He says he wants to get to know us all, spend time with us, but which table does he go to? The table of pious, self-righteous bible-carriers. I wondered if he thought Stan was gay. That would be funny.
When Beau, Ted and Dan finished their dinner and got up to leave, I said, “Go by Elder Berens’s table. Remember what we talked about.” I looked at Beau. “And do that thing you suggested.”
As they walked by Berens, Beau and Ted joined hands. Berens smiled at them as they passed until he saw their hands. Then his smile faltered a little. They gave him a waggle of their fingers with their wrists limp. Berens’s smile dropped off his face as if it had been slapped off. Hard.
David, Frank, and I snorted with laughter.
It had begun.
For the next two days, Elder Berens was waved at, winked at, and was the target of blown kisses. Boys held hands when he walked by and lisped greetings at him. Once, Frank and I clasped hands as we walked up behind him.
“Hello, there, Elder Berens,” I said swishily as we passed. I gave him a girlish wave.
Frank winked at him.
Elder Berens’s small eyes widened a little as he stopped walking and his mouth slowly opened.
Wednesday evening, he gave the worship service in the boys’ dorm chapel. He stood at the pulpit and leaned a hand on each side of it, elbows locked. He surveyed us with his small eyes slightly narrowed.
“I have been to many schools in my time,” he said slowly, his deep, rumbling voice quavering a little. “In fact, I have been to every Adventist boarding academy in this great country of ours. I’ve been to most of the junior academies. And most of the churches. I’ve spoken at these places and gotten to know the people, the students, the teachers. I have been to all these places, and never ... “ He shouted the next word. “Never!” A brief pause, then: “Never have I been anywhere so completely imprisoned in the grip of the iron fist of homo-sek-shoo-ality as this academy!”
Down the pew from me, Beau made a snorting sound and muttered, “Iron fist,” as he jerked his fist up and down.
“Satan is hard at work on you boys,” Elder Berens said. “He has you in his hold. And we are going to work on that tonight. I’ve talked to your dean and it’s okay with him if this worship service goes overtime. We are going to go to the lord tonight, boys. We are going to have ... an altar call.”
Ah, the altar call. The altar call is to the Week of Prayer what the come shot is to porn movies. And it is often just as messy.
The altar call was the climax of every Week of Prayer, the ultimate weapon of the week’s speaker. He would save all his emotional, tear-jerking material for that last day of the week, and then he would let loose, pour it on. There usually was a lot of sniffling and sobbing among the girls, but if a speaker was really good, he could squeeze some tears out of a few guys, too, as he called them up to the front of the chapel to rededicate their lives to Jesus. Altar calls were shamelessly mawkish and emotionally manipulative in the extreme.
But the altar call always came at the end of the week. This was only Wednesday. It was like the porn starlet getting splashed in the face with semen at the beginning of the movie. It just didn't feel right.
Elder Berens was pulling out the big guns early.
He stepped out from behind the pulpit and began to pace in front of it like a caged lion that hadn’t eaten in a while. His booming voice rose on certain words and slammed into the walls of the chapel. “We are going to go to our heavenly father tonight, boys, and we are going to plead with him to bathe this school in his healing love. We are going to plead with him to pluck you from Satan’s grasping claws by curbing your homo-sek-shool desires if we have to STAY UP ALL NIGHT TO DO IT!”
“Pluck you,” Beau whispered.
Ted said, “No, pluck you.”
Dorm worship service usually lasted about half an hour, forty-five minutes tops. Elder Berens kept us in there for two and a half hours. He paced the stage and rattled the beams of the chapel with his roaring voice as he warned of the doom that awaited us. He talked about the damage we were doing to our bodies by committing sodomy. He discussed anal warts and anal and oral gonorrhea. He said there would come a time when we would no longer be able to control our bowels because of our damaged anuses. He pleaded with us, shouted at us, roared at us to please, if nothing else, think of our anuses! And his voice loosened the fillings in our teeth. At one point, he even said, “What would your dear mothers think?”
My mother would have fainted five minutes into his talk.
There were beads of sweat on his forehead and upper lip by the time he ended with an altar call. His big mitt-like hands trembled as he implored us to come up to the front of the chapel and kneel down before god and devote ourselves, our lives, our bodies (and our anuses!) to Jesus. By the time he was done, we were all kneeling in a big crowd up front, and he was the one near tears as he begged god to turn us away from our evil, perverse, anus-damaging ways and to snuff out our homo-sek-shool tendencies.
When it was all over, our ears were ringing and our knees were aching. I figured that was the end of Operation Homo-sek-shool. I figured we’d shot our wad – an appropriate turn of phrase considering a giant black man had just tried to save a room full of teenage boys from homosexuality by having them get on their knees in front of him and dedicate their lives to an ancient Jew who had never married and spent all his time with twelve other guys.
But then something happened that made me happy to be alive.
Beau and Ted joined hands as they walked out of the chapel. So did Matt Smith and Aaron Boland, and Dan Bately and Oscar Rorisch. I took David’s hand as we walked out. More, and still more guys joined hands as they left. I glanced over my shoulder.
Elder Berens stood in front of the pulpit staring open-mouthed at us. He lowered himself clumsily to sit on the top step leading up to the stage.
I waggled my fingers at him and winked.
“God is not mocked!” Elder Berens roared, pointing a long finger at us. Spittle flew from his mouth as he shouted, “You have just lied to god, I’ll have you know, and you will be punished for your perversions! You are an abomination before god and the penalty is death!”
As we left the chapel, I heard Elder Berens say, “Dean Billey, in the name of god, you need to take these boys in hand!”
Given his obsession with catching boys masturbating in the dorm, I suspected Elder Berens’s words gave Dean Billey an erection.
It was ten o’clock, fifteen minutes past lights out, but the lights were still on and would probably remain on long enough for us to get into bed. We had time to duck into Frank’s and Beau’s room. We high-fived each other as we laughed hysterically. There were a couple of days left in the week of prayer, but this was the peak for us. This was our altar call.
The next day, Elder Berens was on fire in morning chapel. The guys kept it up for the rest of the week – they swished, lisped, held hands, winked, waved, and blew kisses. Elder Berens gave the sermon in church that sabbath, his final appearance at Beautiful River. By then, he seemed deflated, defeated, almost morose. His big shoulders sagged and his head drooped. His sermon, about Sodom and Gomorrah and the rampant homo-sek-shoo-ality that brought about their divine destruction, was short.
“I am very discouraged, my friends,” he said at the end of his sermon. “Homo-sek-shoo-ality has taken root in this school, and those roots are deep. I have done my best, but now I can only leave it in god’s hands. That, after all is said and done, is what we must all do in the end – leave it in god’s hands. I will pray for this school and its students. I will pray long and hard. But before sin can be forgiven, it must first be confessed. And I’m not sure everyone here is prepared to confess their sins.”
He performed another altar call in church, and he got a good turn-out. David, Frank, and I were not among them. We were all altar-called out.
After Elder Berens was gone, everything went back to normal. Guys stopped holding hands and talking with lisps.
Except, of course, for Mr. Long in the cafeteria – and I don’t think any of us would have had it any other way.
* * * *
On Monday morning as I walked through the center of the ad building on my way to Mr. Stefano’s English class, Elder Gash stepped out of his office and said, “Arty, could you step in here a moment.”
Uh-oh, I thought. He knows about Operation Homo-sek-shool.
He led me through the outer office and into his inner sanctum.
“Have a seat, Arty,” he said.
I sat before his desk and he took his seat behind it. I did my best to hide my nervousness.
“Although this is your first year here, Arty,” he said, “you seem to have your finger on the pulse of this school. I’ve been watching you closely. You have quite a gift, you know – your ventriloquism, and your singing. God has blessed you. You have your own circle of friends, but I’ve noticed that you’re comfortable talking to people in other groups. I suppose all high schools are filled with cliques, we’re no exception. But you seem to be on speaking terms with people in several. I admire that. The other students seem to like you. They certainly admire Chester a great deal.”
“Thank you,” I said. This was turning out a lot better than I had anticipated.
“So I thought I would ask you this: What did you think of the Week of Prayer, Arty?”
I considered my words before responding. I decided to be honest. “You want my honest opinion?”
“He seemed like a nice enough man, but I think Elder Berens was way off base.”
“Homosexuality is not rampant here at Beautiful River.”
“How can you be sure of that? Elder Berens was ... well, quite shaken up by what he perceived as a nest of homosexuality. That was his word, a nest.” His usual frown grew deeper as he slowly shook his head. “I’ve never heard anyone refer to Beautiful River as a nest of anything.”
“Look, I’m not saying we don’t have some gay students, we probably do. But no more than any other group this size. Homosexuality has not taken root here at Beautiful River. We have problems here that are a lot more important than homosexuality that need to be dealt with.”
“Problems? What kind of problems?”
“Drugs. Alcohol. Loneliness. That’s probably the biggest one, loneliness. There are a lot of homesick, lonely students here, far away from home, who may not have a lot of friends. There are some who have no friends. They just don’t fit in and aren’t accepted. Some because they can’t afford to dress as well as others, or because they’re overweight, or socially awkward, or they think they’re not attractive or interesting enough to fit in. Those are the real problems here, Elder Gash.”
He leaned forward, interlocked his hands on his desk and cocked a brow. “You say there are people doing drugs and alcohol on campus?”
I lowered my head a moment and sighed. “I don’t know of any specifically, but drugs and alcohol are problems everywhere, right? And drugs and alcohol are nothing more than symptoms of the underlying problems – loneliness and ... pain. There are some kids here who feel all alone in the world, even though they’re surrounded by people.”
“So ... you don’t know of anyone specifically who’s using drugs and alcohol on campus? Because if you did, and you were to tell me, your name would never come up.”
I stared at him for a long time, my head tilted to one side. I wanted to lunge across the desk, grab his lapels and shake him as I screamed, Will you wake up and look around you! But I did not. “No. I don’t.”
Gash’s lips pursed even more than usual as he thought about that a moment. Then he nodded once and said, “I’ll keep that in mind, Arty. Thank you for your honesty.”
“I’m flattered that you would ask me, Elder Gash,” I said. I wasn’t flattered. The man was a pious, paranoid, close-minded, mean-faced putz.
He stood, and I stood with him. “I want you to know that if you ever have anything on your mind --- something about the school, something you’d like to tell me, anything at all --- my office is always open to you.”
“Thank you. I appreciate it.”
I couldn’t get out of that office fast enough. His office smelled like soy milk.
* * * *
A few years ago, I reconnected with Mr. Stefano online. He remained my favorite teacher and had been the only person on the faculty at Beautiful River who treated his students like human beings – with respect and dignity and warmth. We exchanged a few emails, caught up with each other’s lives, and joked about our days back at the academy in Healdsburg. During our exchange, he mentioned a number of people I’d known and told me what they were up to. One of them was Elder James Berens.
He had died in 1986. Of AIDS.
("The Placenta of the Christ," another chapter from Dismissed from the Front and Center)