Transcript

202:

Faith
Transcript

Originally aired 12.21.2001

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Prologue.

Ira Glass

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International.

When I was 14, I stumbled on this way of looking at the world that seemed to explain everything to me. It was contained in a book called Chariots of the Gods by a guy named Erich von Daniken. He explained this thing that had never really made sense to me about the Bible.

One of my problems with the Bible at that time is that the way it seemed to me was that the Bible showed this world where God was constantly doing stuff, and involved in people's lives, and going around performing miracles, things were happening all the time, and then-- it never made sense to me-- why did he just up and go? If he had such an interest, why did he just suddenly vanish from the scene?

Erich von Daniken explained why with a combination of archaeology, readings from the Bible, readings from myths, from other peoples around the world. And his argument was basically that, thousands of years ago, our planet was being regularly visited by extraterrestrial beings, and they were going around doing all sorts of stuff, healing people, flying. They were making an impression.

In those days, when I was 14, three days a week, two days after school, and then on Sunday, I attended the Baltimore Hebrew College. And when our class would be going over, for example, the story from Genesis about Abraham and Sarah, and how they miraculously had a son even though she was much too old to have a child, I would helpfully point out that that would be possible if there were space aliens around with superior medical technology.

And I talked about these theories so passionately and so persistently that finally it got me kicked out of class. I was sent downstairs to the main office, where I had to talk to the guy who ran the Hebrew College, Rabbi Smoler.

Rabbi Smoler's office I remember as this dimly lit place, lit by lamps, with books everywhere, and these big, comfortable chairs. And he was this man who was just smart and funny, and I have to say, completely bemused by the chance to engage a ninth-grader in a substantive discussion of these issues. And as I remember, I went down there fairly regularly for a while. And by the time he was done with me, I no longer believed the arguments from Chariots of the Gods.

The problem was, I also no longer believed in God. Something had happened where Chariots of the Gods had kind of been like an occupying army in my head that had killed off the army that was God's army. And then when Rabbi Smoler came in and killed off the Chariots of Gods army, there was just basically nothing left. I was basically a blank slate. I was a clean blackboard.

And I have never found again any kind of religious faith. Since the time I was 14, I just don't believe in God.

Every now and then, someone who I'm close to who's Christian tries to tell me about Jesus. Whenever that happens, I've taken it very seriously. And I have heard them out, and I have looked at the Bible. And every time it's happened, it's come down to this, that I find that I don't seem to have a choice over whether or not I believe in God. I simply find that I do not. And trying to force myself to believe, it would be like trying to convince yourself that you're in love with somebody who you're not in love with. Either you have faith or you don't. Either you believe or you don't. Your belief finds you, and then you and it have each other. And once your faith is set, I think only the biggest kind of seismic event in your life can change that, even if you want to change it.

Well, today on our radio program, in this Christmas season, we bring you stories of people who are stuck in one kind of faith or another, for better or worse, and what happens because of their faith, or lack of it. Act One of our show, Adventures In Turning the Other Cheek. In that act, we ask the question, how do Christians and Muslims get along in the place where you would think they would get along worse than anywhere, in modern day Afghanistan? And when they talk about religion together, what do they talk about?

Act Two, Does Size Matter If You're Talking About a Cross? In that story, we visit the largest cross in the Western hemisphere, and we find out that, actually, the answer to that question is, yes, size does matter if you're talking about a cross.

Act Three, The Epiphany Biz, the story of what it means to be a secular person whose job is documenting miracles for Christians.

Act Four, First Be Reconciled To Thy Brother, and Then Come and Offer Thy Gift. In that act, an all-black church gets a white minister who has different ideas than they have about what it means to worship God, whiter ideas, in their view. Why they've kept him for 15 years, despite that. Stay with us.

Act One. Adventures In Turning The Other Cheek.

Ira Glass

Act One, Adventures In Turning the Other Cheek.

Georg Taubmann is uniquely situated to explain how Christians and Muslims get along in a place where you might think that they wouldn't get along at all. For 17 years, he's built houses and done other relief work in Afghanistan as part of a Christian missionary group called Shelter Now. He speaks Pashtun, has got to know hundreds of Afghanis over the years.

A month before the World Trade Center attack, Georg Taubmann was one of eight Westerners imprisoned by the Taliban. They were captives for three months before they were rescued.

He's back now in his home country, Germany. And he says that it was usually easier to talk about god in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan-- a country run by fundamentalist Muslims-- than it usually is in Germany or in the United States.

Georg Taubmann

Contrary to our societies where we come from, it is a very natural thing in Afghanistan to talk about your faith. And we have plenty of opportunities, because people are a religious people, and if you get to know somebody, it doesn't take usually a long time that you speak about this also.

Ira Glass

Most often would you bring it up, or would they bring it up?

Georg Taubmann

In most of the cases, they bring it up. Even while we were in prison with the Taliban, they came and they saw us reading our Bible. They said, oh, what is that? We said, this is the Holy Injil. Oh! And then they wanted to see it, and they talked about it. And you know, immediately they involved us in conversations.

Ira Glass

What would you say? How would you explain Christianity there?

Georg Taubmann

Well, often there's some misconceptions about us Christians. Often when they look at us Christians, like Muslims who have been in the West, they say, you people, we never see you praying. You know, we don't even know whether you're praying. You know? Like you see, their prayers is very much in public, you know?

And they don't see people, like in Muslim countries, where you see them reading the Koran. So they often think that we Christians, we don't even have holy books, or we don't read them.

And of course, they see a lot of immorality in our countries. You know, sex films being shown on TV, and young people just living together without being married. And they think, well, that's maybe part of our Christian culture.

Ira Glass

And they think that Christianity sanctions that, because these things are happening in a Christian country.

Georg Taubmann

They see a lot of these things happening, and so they think all Christians are like this.

Ira Glass

Talking to you, I'm reminded of this story that I once heard about-- there's a German Jewish filmmaker named Marcel Ophuls, who in the last part of his career in the 1960s made a number of films, documentaries-- The Sorrow and the Pity, The Memory of Justice-- where he was interviewing the Nazi high command from World War II. And he would make these films, and people would ask him, how did he feel, as a German Jew, interviewing these former members of the Nazi high command, the ones who had survived? Wasn't it uncomfortable for him? And he would say, like, no, it wasn't. He said he found, in fact, that he had more in common with them than he had with most people, because they were both interested in history. They were both interested in the past.

And I was wondering if there's any element of that in your dealings with Muslims in Afghanistan. That, in a certain way, for somebody who has organized his life around religion, that there's some kind of understanding that one would have with anyone else who has completely organized his life or her life around religion in a way that secular people would be outside of?

Georg Taubmann

Yes. Yeah, there are things where we understand them and they understand us, where there are things in common in a lot of areas in our lives. And often, when they see us and get to know us-- and I have seen this amongst a lot of the prisoners, when they watched our lives very closely; you know, they were living with us-- they said, oh, in many ways, you are completely different, you're also like us. And they respected that.

And many times, secular people-- Let me just tell you. Maybe [UNINTELLIGIBLE], but let me tell you. This one time I was going to apply for funds, and these organizations, these were Western. It was a Western organization, donor organization. No, no, we'll never give money to you, because you're a Christian agency and Afghans don't like you.

I said, let me tell you one thing. I said, we are Christians. We believe in one God. And they say they believe in four books, and we believe in three of them. And they know that we pray, and that we have certain moral standards. In fact, Afghans like us very much. They respect us for that. And I said, if you don't believe in God, they will not appreciate that. If you're an atheist, they will say, well, he's a kafir, definitely. You're like the Russians, who had no faith. And so he quickly changed his subject.

And this is what a lot of people do not understand. I mean, if we come as Christians, they know we are believers, that we believe in God, and we believe in our holy books, and we have certain moral values that, in fact, a lot of these people highly appreciate that. And even a lot of the Taliban, they appreciate this about us.

Ira Glass

How do you know that they appreciated it? What are you talking about?

Georg Taubmann

Well, they did tell us. I mean, when I was in prison, so many of the Taliban came and talked with us, and discussed-- they challenged us. They watched us every day, and they said, you're a very godly people.

They said this many times about our ladies. They said, we've watched these ladies, and they're different than others. We have seen many other foreigners, and the way they behaved, and what they have done, and so on and so on. And they said, we're amazed about them.

Ira Glass

When the Taliban would challenge you, what would they say?

Georg Taubmann

Sorry?

Ira Glass

You said the Taliban would challenge you. What would they say? What did they ask?

Georg Taubmann

Usually they said, well, why are you not Muslims? Why don't you become Muslims, and why don't you believe in our books?

Ira Glass

What would you say?

Georg Taubmann

Well, I have in my faith everything that I will desire. The Bible speaks very clearly how I can have forgiveness of my sins. It shows us that when we follow Jesus, that we have eternal life.

Ira Glass

And did that answer satisfy them, or did they still feel that you would be better off Muslim?

Georg Taubmann

It depends. Of course, then the discussions went on and on and on. They said, well, our book also says that if you do this and this and this, you will go to heaven. But still, there is that uncertainty in their faith. And judgment. Maybe they will not. Maybe they had done something. And I said, well, Jesus, what he promised me is, if I repent and ask for forgiveness, that he will forgive my sins. And he has done that, and I know it in my heart. And they say, well, Jesus cannot do that. He cannot just forgive your sins. He cannot do that. Only Allah can do that. And you will see this on Judgment Day, whether he forgives you or not. I said, why should I now follow again another religion where again, I have to follow all the strict commandments and all the strict rules, and at the end, and I'm not even sure whether God will forgive me? I want to stay in my faith. I found really everything that I need.

Ira Glass

Georg Taubmann, talking to us from Germany. He hopes to resume his work with Shelter Now in Afghanistan within the next few months.

Act Two. Does Size Matter If You're Talking About A Cross?

Ira Glass

Act Two, Does Size Matter If You're Talking About a Cross?

This is the story of another man stuck in his faith, acting on his faith, in this case by building a big cross, the biggest in the Western hemisphere, in fact, 45 miles east of Amarillo, Texas. Josh Noel went there with This American Life producer Alex Blumberg. Here's Josh.

Josh Noel

From 20 miles away, the tallest cross in the Western hemisphere doesn't quite look like a cross. It looks more like a mutant telephone pole, just whiter and shinier. But as you speed along Interstate 40, past the wide farms and grassy plains of the Texas panhandle, the cross just keeps growing larger and larger until it's twice the height of a telephone pole, then four times the height, then eight times. And because you can't tell exactly how far away it is, at some point you begin to wonder just how tall it's going to get, standing out there in the middle of the unrelenting flatness under a wide blue sky and thick cotton ball clouds.

The tallest cross in the Western hemisphere is 190 feet tall, the height of a 19-story building. It's 12 feet across at the base. There's one bigger cross on the planet. It's in Madrid, and was built by Francisco Franco, a Fascist dictator.

But here in America, we turn to the private sector for this sort of thing. A 52-year-old man named Steve Thomas decided to build it a few years back while driving past a gigantic strip club.

Steve Thomas

A triple-x establishment was on I-40, east of Amarillo. Three huge silos standing 30, 40 feet, triple x's everywhere, and flashing. I thought, gosh, around the country, everywhere you look, Satan has all the advertising. He's got the jump on the gun there. And I thought, gosh, why can't we outdo that? There's got to be a way we can advertise for Jesus in a much more grand way.

So I prayed to the Lord for about six months thinking I was going to build a billboard. And after six months of trying to do it my way, through a billboard, he gave me a vision of a cross. And I mean, I just knew right then and there that the huge cross was what I was going to do.

Josh Noel

For most of us, such a vision would present logistical problems. But fortunately for the Lord, Steve Thomas is both a structural engineer and a millionaire, having made his fortune in the oil business.

The cross is built out of white corrugated steel, the kind they use for industrial warehouses, and took 250 welders eight months to assemble. The day they poured the foundation, sales of ready-mix concrete came to a stop in the Texas panhandle.

In all, the cross cost Steve half a million dollars, but he says he would have spent more and built even taller if objects higher than 200 feet hadn't been subject to FAA regulation. Steve didn't want the government involved with his cross.

The cross is so big that it can be hard to pray in front of. Because it's built of corrugated steel, you sort of feel like you're worshipping at the side of a grain silo. Instead, most people pray at smaller statues of Jesus that stand in a circle around the base of the cross, or at a life-size rendition of the crucifixion. There's a marble headstone in which a pair of hands cradle a tiny fetus, which is also very popular.

The atmosphere is quiet and surprisingly church-like for something that's next to a highway. We spent two days at the cross to see if Steve's initial plan was working, to see if the cross was tempting people toward God the way a triple-x theater might tempt people into sin. But in two days, we saw no conversions. If Steve's idea was that the cross had the power to call people from the highway to God, it seems to work best with people who have already heard that call, like a bunch of guys covered in tattoos who climb out of a van on their way home to Chicago from a church retreat in California.

Male Visitor

We're all ex-gang members, ex-drug addicts, touched and transformed by the power of Jesus Christ.

Josh Noel

About a dozen church members from Rocky, Oklahoma jump out of their van, huddled for a minute, and then just started singing.

Church Members

[SINGING]

Josh Noel

There aren't many public places where people can just climb out of a car and burst into song, but we saw this happen twice.

Church Members

[SINGING]

Josh Noel

A man from Alpine, Arizona makes a monthly drive to a cancer clinic in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the only place able to treat his rare liver cancer. He usually stops at the cross on the way to Oklahoma, but not on the way back.

Male Visitor 2

Because of the chemotherapy and things that they do there, I'm generally feeling too bad to-- I want to get home as soon as I can. And any little jolt, bump in the road, man, you can feel it. I'll guarantee you.

Josh Noel

Yeah, I'm sure.

Burton Kennedy

My name's Burton Kennedy. I'm from North Carolina. I'm a long haul truck driver.

Greg Talese

My name's Greg Talese, and I'm from Phoenix, Arizona, and I'm a truck driver.

Ricky Martin

My name's Ricky Martin and I drive a truck.

Josh Noel

There are a lot of truck drivers here. Ricky Martin drove by the cross a bunch of times before he finally stopped.

Ricky Martin

I was real upset over everything that was going on with my family. My mother's up in her 80s, and I was real worried that she didn't have no way of taking care of herself up in her golden years. So I was real upset, couldn't drive. And when I left here, I was totally at ease. And I just kind of went, wow, maybe there is something to this place.

Josh Noel

At peak times-- weekends during the summer-- 2,000 people a day visit the cross. A lot of them are just tourists passing through, stopping quickly to take a look. But most use the cross for some sort of quiet moment with God. For some people-- not many-- the cross is an actual destination. They head onto the highway planning to show up here.

Shannon Berry

I'm Shannon Berry from Levelland, Texas. This is my wife, Linda Berry. We're newlyweds. This is our honeymoon trip.

Josh Noel

Considering how Shannon and Linda met, it's no surprise they decided there was no better place for their honeymoon. They first spotted each other at a gospel festival and were later introduced by friends at a Memorial Day cookout.

Shannon Berry

And we went out and had coffee. And what was strange about having coffee after the cookout was that we sat down on the sofa and we started talking, and before long, we were praying. And I mean, we got into prayer so hard that the first time I'd ever had the Holy Spirit in me. I thought I knew Jesus. You know, I thought I knew Jesus. But I didn't. I found Jesus Christ that night.

Linda Berry

Shannon just let go of my hand and got on his hands and knees and started crying. And he knew immediately he had the Holy Spirit.

Shannon Berry

It's just like going from hot to cold. It's just the cold chill you feel all over your body. It's not like anything you've ever felt before. You can tell.

Linda Berry

He knew immediately he had it. And--

Shannon Berry

We shared it with the whole trailer park that night. We went outside and we asked the Holy Spirit to go into every place we could see. It was--

Linda Berry

Float it right in. Waved it right into each house. And of course I had the Holy Ghost, so I have the tongues. So I started praying in tongues, and then I started giggling, and I couldn't stop giggling. And I mean, it was like 2 o'clock and Shannon kept saying, "Oh! I feel it again. I just feel it again and I feel it again!"

Shannon Berry

It was beautiful. It was beautiful.

Linda Berry

And it was already 2 o'clock, and he had to go all the way to Levelland.

Josh Noel

After a first date like that, it seemed pretty clear they had to get married.

Shannon Berry

I knew it. With the second date, I did. I asked her then.

Linda Berry

Today is nine weeks that we've known each other.

Josh Noel

Shannon and Linda sit in front of one of the statues at the base of the cross and pray that their marriage will be everything it should be, everything God wants it to be.

In two days at the cross, the only person we talked to who didn't already have a heavy-duty kind of faith working for them was a college student named Heather. She was 20 years old, with a pierced navel, and driving a heavily-loaded pickup truck. She was traveling with her cat, a kitten named Tinsel, on her way from San Diego to Oklahoma City.

Heather

Oh, I have school waiting for me, and a job. I work at Hooters. So I've got to go out there and deal with that.

Josh Noel

As fate would have it, Heather happened to be driving by the second-largest cross on the planet just a few days after deciding she needed a big change in her life.

Heather

OK, I was at a bonfire with my friends. And you know, I'm sure it's well-known knowledge that almost everybody in California smokes pot and drinks beer, and like, you know, we're flakes or whatnot. And we're all hanging out and partying.

And it suddenly hit me, when all my friends-- like, none of them have any intentions of growing up. I was telling them, I'm leaving California. I'm going to quit doing the party scene. I was called "Queen of the Bonfires" because I had about four bonfires a week, or sometimes more.

But I know I upset them that night because of the things that I was saying about how you're not going to grow up. I've seen my mom does drugs still to this day. You know what I mean? So that bothers me. I don't like it when parents are doing drugs. Parents should not be doing drugs. And especially if their kids are sitting around, watching. And having their kids get them a beer, what kind of crap is that? If I-- oh, sorry.

Josh Noel

So all this is on her mind as she speeds along Interstate 40 in the middle of nowhere.

Heather

You know, driving along the road, I haven't thought about Jesus much, or God much. I haven't found myself praying or thanking God for anything, until I saw the cross, until I pulled over. And over there, I had to touch his face over there, and I got a really, really good feeling by just touching the statues.

Josh Noel

Heather points at one of the statues of Jesus that circle the cross.

Josh Noel

What did you see in the expression on Jesus's face on the statue? I mean, why did you want to touch it?

Heather

There's not so much as, like, pain in his face, but just kind of disappointment a little bit, or hurt, kind of like-- I don't know. It looks almost like he blames himself. In the statue, what I get is that he was blaming himself at that moment, because he failed or-- or not failed, technically, but there's just something in his face, like he felt really bad at that time. He's human there. He's totally human. And it just kind brings you back that God's not so far away. He's right there.

If the cross had been smaller, I probably wouldn't have stopped. And I mean, not like five feet smaller. I mean, it's still huge. It's 195 feet. But if it was the size of these little ones, I probably wouldn't have taken the time to stop, just because I want to get home, you know? I've been driving. I've been on the road for three days now.

Josh Noel

When Steve first erected the cross, he didn't put in benches or statues or anything. It didn't occur to him that people might want to stop. He only thought of it as a giant billboard. But people did stop. And over time, it became clear that the people who stopped wanted something more. They wanted to pray. They wanted to talk. Often, they wanted help. Steve and his family found themselves staying at the cross, ministering to people in need. There's now a staff of 14 on hand to counsel people and pray with them almost 24 hours a day.

It's our last night at the cross, close to midnight. Floodlights on the huge wood structure surrounded by deep black in all directions. We watch a truck pull in. The driver comes down from his rig and approaches a counselor named Les [? Weatherling. ?]

Counselor

Yes, sir?

Eric

Excuse me. May I borrow your phone?

Josh Noel

The driver, whose name is Eric, says he wants to borrow the phone so he can pray with his wife, who's sick back home in Oklahoma. He doesn't reach her, so Les offers to pray with him.

They walk up to the crucifixion scene. It's set off to the side, at the top of the set of white amphitheater steps. They kneel and hold hands, and when Eric begins to pray, it's in the mix of English and Kiowa. He's a Kiowa Comanche Indian and an Evangelical Christian.

Eric

[SPEAKING KIOWA] Heavenly Father, we come to you. [UNINTELLIGIBLE] burden to my heart. Watch over my wife. [SPEAKING KIOWA] I have no-- whatever I have, please give it to her. Heavenly Father--

Josh Noel

It's dark and lonely, and Eric is the only visitor at the cross. When he's done praying, he tells us that he's stopped here maybe 150 times on his truck route.

Eric

Tonight, the reason why I stopped is my wife's liver and kidney's not functioning like it should. And they don't know if they're going to go in tomorrow morning, need surgery or not.

Steve Thomas

You know, if everything's going real smooth, then the last thing you want to thing about's eternity. And when the suffering's coming your way, you stop and think about, well, maybe there's more to it than this world. So it's these suffering events a lot of times that turns us around.

Josh Noel

When you first meet the guy who built the cross, Steve Thomas doesn't seem like the type that would understand suffering, with his picture-perfect family. He's been married to his wife Bobby for 31 years. His son Zach is an All-Pro linebacker for the Miami Dolphins. And his daughter Katina, who recently married one of her brother's teammates, is a former Miss Amarillo who won the Miss Texas swimsuit competition in 1997.

But Steve's current family is very different from the one he grew up in. His parents were both alcoholics, and his dad was sometimes violent. This violence erupted one night when Steve was kid. There had been clues that something was coming.

Steve Thomas

You know, he'd been reading the Bible every night. And my dad didn't go to church. We'd get up about 7:00, he'd been up since 5:00 reading the Bible, so we knew something was going on, but we didn't know what.

Josh Noel

Would you be willing to tell me just what happened the night that your dad--

Steve Thomas

Well, he took a claw hammer after my sisters and my mother, and then came upstairs after us brothers, and by the time we'd heard all the commotion, we were awake. And my mother had to have a plate. Both my sisters had brain surgery, and my mother had brain surgery, and she had to have a plate inserted in her head.

Josh Noel

How old were you?

Steve Thomas

I was 17. I was the oldest of five. So we ranged from 10 to 17.

Josh Noel

None of the kids died?

Steve Thomas

No, nobody died. But my sisters, they really were not the same. They've had some trouble, mainly in their school and schooling and stuff with their grades. They didn't have the grades that us brothers did. And I think it's because of injuries they had from that incident.

Josh Noel

And the incident ended that night how?

Steve Thomas

Well, my dad shot himself, and he lived about 12 more days, and then died.

Josh Noel

Steve Thomas believes he was chosen by God to build the cross. Quite literally, he believes he was selected, perhaps even intentionally molded with the traumas of his childhood, which didn't end with his father's death. 10 years later, his mother killed herself, too.

Steve Thomas

You see all these people driving down the Interstate. The ones that drive by-- you probably have them in every lane-- hunky dory, everything's running real good in their lives. They've probably got plenty of money. Everybody's healthy. And they look at the cross and say, huh! Not bad. And then they think about getting to the beach in California, you know?

But then you get the people coming down the Interstate that are trying to find out where they're going to get their next dollar, and their wife is suffering from cancer, maybe one of their sons is into drugs. And they're driving along, and they just whip in here. They don't know why. Like I say, we ask them why, and they say, I don't know, I just came. And that's because they're searching for something to change that. They want suffering to go away.

Josh Noel

When he first built the cross, Steve thought of it as kind an advertisement for Jesus. He didn't realize that it was really a massive beacon calling out to the suffering and promising relief. He started out wanting a billboard, but what he ended up with was kind of a church.

Ira Glass

Josh Noel, here in Chicago.

[MUSIC - "JESUS WAS A CROSS MAKER" BY CASS ELLIOT]

Coming up, factory workers at the epiphany plant, in a minute, from Public Radio International and Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.

Act Three. The Epiphany Biz.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose some theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, during this Christmas season, Faith, people acting on their faith, people stuck in their faith, for better or for worse.

We've arrived at Act three of our program. Act Three, The Epiphany Biz. Bill Lychak tells this story of faith when it is held by other people.

Bill Lychak

And so the Lord says, go to Peoria. Give away all you possess and go to Peoria. He says, if you desire to do my will, if you truly want to be my servants, go to Peoria. He says, I have a place for you there.

And so, what do you do? I suppose if the Word really comes and comes clear enough, you don't have much of a choice. You have to listen and do what God tells you. You have to divest yourself of every single thing you own, break the news to your friends and your family, your mother-in-law, neighbors, turn off the gas and electric, stop the mail, quit your jobs, pull the kids out of school, pack up a van, and leave everything and everyone you know, and head off to Peoria.

You drive all day and night and reach, at long last, the outskirts of town. You cross the town line and pull off by the side of the highway, the fields lying flat and covered with dirty snow. And you wait and pray, pray and wait.

I spent all morning on the phone with a man who did this, gave away everything and led his family to Peoria, sat at the outskirts of town as the light faded, his wife and kids shivering in the cold, the trucks and cars rushing past. God had only directed him as far as Peoria, which is why they waited for the next directive at the town line.

And yes, it all sounds completely crazy to him, too, he says, which makes me like him. He knows that this is beyond reason. He knows that it's a thing no one could understand, the fact that he and his wife both received word from God like this, and that God would be so specific, and that they would actually do it, give away everything and follow this voice to Illinois.

The story was sent to Guideposts, a religious-minded monthly where my job is to rewrite these true stories of hope and inspiration. It's not sold on newsstands, but the magazine has more than three million subscribers. For more than 50 years, the magazine has been rolling out its brand of Good News to the world, first-person accounts taken from actual events that are testaments to faith of some sort. As the magazine's mission statement says, "Our articles present tested methods for developing courage, strength, and positive attitudes through faith in God."

My job is to make sure that the story becomes a Guideposts story, make sure that it conforms to the expectations of our readers. The story needs to have its all-walks-of-life beginning, its crisis or test of faith, its dark night of the soul, and its triumph of spirit, its turnaround. God's goodness, whatever that means, must shine through somewhere, some way, somehow.

In-house, we call this God factor in the story its cello, like the instrument. And when line edits come back to us, we get directives like "more cello," or "less cello," or "where's the cello?" Everything is in the service of the cello, and the cello sets up the story's payoff. Everything works out. They find their home in Peoria. Or even better, they find their home wherever God wants them to be.

The stories run the gamut. A guy rescues manatees in Florida. A crop duster, or beekeeper, or fisherman survives some great accident, or addiction, or loss. Someone finds an unopened letter from World War II and forwards it to the widow. A man goes to Peoria. The variations are endless for us line workers at the epiphany plant.

In the epiphany business, each epiphanic moment is called the takeaway, and takeaways need to be short, sweet, and positive. Variations of the "I trusted in God, and that has made all the difference" theme. Amen.

Most of my days at work are filled with people who talk to God. Help this, rescue these, give us that, thank you for those. What made the Peoria story so fascinating was that God not only spoke back to these people, but that he got back to them in such a specific, puckish way.

I love the image of them on the side of that highway, wondering what to do next. They're all cold and hungry and scared and disheartened and dispirited. And in the dark, they drive to that first cheap motel they see. The five of them stay until they're down to their last $12. Again, their prayers are answered, and they find a church. They place their last dollar in the collection plate and find a home that same day. And so on.

It's a crazy, miracle-laden story which barely makes sense, really. Yet talking to this man, he isn't the unquestioning fanatic that I had imagined. In fact, by the middle of our conversation, I'm convinced that something extraordinary has happened to him. I'm convinced that, in his own way, he heard the voice of God. And I'm convinced he made a cold sweat leap of faith, and that he had doubts, and that he has a deeper faith now because of this test.

I punch out that night with a glimmer of what it's like when what you believe and what you do are actually one and the same thing. And when I get the story back for revision the next morning, my editor has written over my cello-filled takeaway in big, block letters, "Preach it, Brother Billy. Preach it!"

I feel like a whistleblower telling you this, these inner workings of the ghostwriter, the anonymous content provider, the humble commodifier of insight and faith. The sad truth is that I spend a couple of days on the Peoria story, and it's gone, and the next thing is on my desk, roughly one story per week. Next week is Wedding Lady. The week after is Iwo Jima guy.

Yet still, there are worse ways to make a living. In fact, it's a surprisingly pleasant kind of work, even for the more secular clock-punchers among us.

The fact is, I hear commands as well, vague and small-voiced. And I believe everyone I know hears them. What, really, is the difference between "go to Peoria" and "make the film" or "write the book" or "marry the girl" or any of the countless passions that guide our days? These are all things my friends expend great amounts of energy working for and dreaming about. And they're all acts of faith in one way or another, all the urges that carry us through our lives and give us meaning and help us make sense of the accidents that befall us.

And here comes the cello, when I think of it this way, when I think how we have to admit that the best in us is utterly mad, or starts out utterly mad. A dim voice urging us on to our own kinds of Peoria.

Ira Glass

Bill Lychak lives in New York. His story first appeared on the website openletters.net.

[MUSIC - "THE BIBLE TELLS ME SO" BY THE JOHN MATTHEWS FAMILY]

Act Four. First Be Reconciled To Thy Brother, And Then Come And Offer Thy Gift.

Ira Glass

Act Four, First Be Reconciled To Thy Brother, and Then Come and Offer Thy Gift.

The problem with faith is that often the faithful do not necessarily agree with each other about how to worship God. Susie Putz-Drury tells the story of some people in that situation at a church in Tennessee.

Susie Putz

When Bethel Presbyterian Church got a white minister, they started to worship differently.

Lucy Cox has been going to Bethel her entire life, ever since she was an orphan and the church took her in. When she was younger, Bethel was a place where you went to hear the gospel, to sing and rejoice and be moved by the Lord, moved almost physically, not just in your head.

Lucy Cox

I used to sing top of my voice, because when that spirit really hits, I'm not Lucy. But now I do it my pastor's way, nice and quiet, when I'm here. But when I'm not here, I do it God's way.

Susie Putz

On some Sundays after services at Bethel, about half of the people from the congregation get in their cars and drive to another church, where they can sing the way Lucy Cox likes. They've been doing this for 15 years.

A little background. In 1985, the Presbyterian church in Tennessee hired a young preacher to serve several churches in Dandridge, Tennessee. The minister they hired, Ralph Hutchison, is a slight, earnest, red-headed guy. Of the four churches Ralph was called to serve, three of them had entirely white congregations. The other church was Lucy's church, Bethel, whose congregation is entirely black.

And for about five years, this arrangement with the four churches worked out pretty well, with Ralph dividing his time among the four churches, preaching at each twice a month. Ralph was also getting to be sort of an activist during this time. He preached about the evils of racism and other social justice issues, and he got involved with a group in Knoxville that was protesting some of the US government's policies in Central America. The group was trying to show that the US government was causing the deaths of innocent people in the region, and Ralph ended up with a leading role.

Ralph Hutchison

We held a mock funeral designed to get publicity, and it did. The TV cameras were there. We carried a casket down Market Square. And I was in the front of the procession in my clergy robe. And so it was on TV.

And a couple weeks later, I get a visit from the patriarch of the church, came in and sat down in the office. And basically what he told me was that he completely supported me politically. He thought what I was doing was right, the policies of the government were wrong, no problem there. So I was kind of nodding. And he said, but people in the congregation are really uncomfortable when their neighbors ask them why they saw their preacher on TV.

Ralph and his co-pastor found themselves being cast out of three white churches they had been called to serve. In the end, the only church Ralph had left was the black church, Bethel.

Roberta Robinson

We were crushed!

Susie Putz

This is Roberta Robinson, who's been a member of Bethel since she was an infant, and is a church elder, like a deacon. She says the congregation couldn't believe what the white churches did.

Roberta Robinson

And it was was one of their own. That's one thing we just couldn't imagine in a human, one human being treating another like that, especially Christian believers. I really felt for both Ralph and Dale. They were really just getting a little taste of what we as a people went through. It was in a different form, but really it was the same thing. That's how we got stuck with him.

Susie Putz

It did take some time, though, for both Ralph and the members of his congregation to get used to each other. Ralph is more liberal than they are, certainly on social issues. His regular full-time job is as an activist against nuclear weapons. And the first time I went to one of his services, it was years ago, but I still remember being shocked to hear him refer to God, in passing, as a she. Ralph also preaches about things like gay rights, and he says when he does preach on God's blessing of gay people and their love for one another, some in the congregation, the men in particular, just sit in the pews and sort of shake their heads. Here's Roberta again.

Roberta Robinson

Well, I can remember I went to his-- well, I'll call it a trial sermon. And he was preaching, and I thought, What on earth is he talking about?

Susie Putz

Here's Ralph.

Ralph Hutchison

The congregation was responsive. During preaching, they talk back to you. That was not an experience that I'd had before.

Susie Putz

This is Sue Pruitt, who stayed a member of Bethel even after she moved 30 miles away.

Sue Pruitt

It was real funny when he first came here. You know, we do a lot of singing. And he sung good, but I guess kind of like a white person. He sings so hard now, you can see the veins in his neck. Puts a little movement to it, and a little beat to it. So now he hangs in there.

Susie Putz

Gradually, though, they began to settle into one another. Ralph got married and had kids, and the congregation was thrilled about that. They had potlucks and Sunday services and Martin Luther King dinners. They even worked together to start an anti-discrimination organization in the county.

But even though they're getting along great, there's still one thing that sort of separates them. Ralph has changed the way they practice their own faith in their own church. And it's here that the members of Bethel Church, and Ralph too, see race playing a role. This is Calvin Ballinger, the church patriarch.

Calvin Ballinger

The black preaching style has a charisma, you would say. There's times I like to get, all you say, the emotion of the gospel of the black churches. If it is emotion, he's hiding it. That's why I say, [UNINTELLIGIBLE PHRASE] emotion, I don't know if he ever will have emotion or not. Emotion is good. That's good for the soul, you know? It means he's been touched.

Susie Putz

Lucy Cox likes Ralph. She's close to him, gets a lot from him. But she says he doesn't bring her the main things she wants from her minister.

Lucy Cox

I think, for me, his role as a minister heat me hot with the Word of God, bring me the Word. If I can't stand it, then pull my shoes off.

Susie Putz

Ralph's sermons aren't designed to heat anyone hot with the Word of God. He's not a big shouter. He's cerebral. He writes out his sermons beforehand and then recites them word-for-word at Sunday service. He sounds a lot like Garrison Keillor at the pulpit, without the jokes. He makes up stories about fictional characters to raise whatever issue he's trying to get people to think about.

Ralph Hutchison

Last Tuesday, Marty Bryson made his way down the hallway to the fourth door on the left. He knocked softly and he heard Evelyn Morrison's voice say, "Come in." When she saw a Marty, she smiled. "My most faithful visitor," she said.

Susie Putz

I'm sure a quick excerpt on the radio just sounds corny. It's hard to express, really, why this sermon was so riveting, but it really was, and not just for me. He had us all. It was kind of like a spell being broken when he said "amen," signaling the end of the sermon. People came back from the world he had sent us to, finding the page for the next hymn, shifting in their seats, getting ready for the offering.

Everyone tells me this is something they like about Ralph. They like that he's smart, and they like to hear how he interprets the Bible. And the stuff they don't like, they kind of shrug off, except when it comes to heating them hot with the Word of God.

When Ralph first started at Bethel, one of the elders took him aside and tried to show him how to preach in a more dynamic way. Ralph says it just felt wrong.

Ralph Hutchison

I mean, I can mimic an Evangelical preacher, whether they're white or black. So I know what sort of the rhetorical patterns are of that kind of preaching. They're not particularly authentic to me, and wouldn't it seem weird to them if I stood up and preached a sermon using the cadences and the rhetorical devices of Martin Luther King Jr., except I'm this little white guy, right? And so they would think, what's with that? You know?

For a lot of people, the emotional side of spirituality is the safe and the easy side, and they like to go there because it feels good. So you go there week after week. You go on Sunday. You get that pick-me-up. And it might last until Wednesday. And I think, more so now than I used to, I think that there is great value in having your life enriched by emotional spirituality and those experiences.

However, if that's all your religion is to you, then your religion is failing you in a great way.

[FIERY SERMON]

It's a Sunday afternoon, about an hour after the Bethel service ended, and many of the congregants are at the all-black AME Zion Church, a few miles outside of town. When I get there, I see Roberta and Sue and Calvin and others who regularly go to Bethel. It's hard to believe that some of these folks are the same people. At Bethel, they sit pretty quietly during the service. Here they're bursting out with joy, so happy, completely happy, and unrestrained.

The big difference between Ralph and his congregation is over more than style. What several members patiently explained to me more than a few times is that the style means something. It gets to basic differences in how you feel God, how present and alive He is for you in church, in music, in your daily life.

And this leads to different answers to the question of what people want to get out of church, or out of any worship experience.

[GOSPEL SINGING]

Roberta Robinson

We as a black people, our religion, or their religion-- I'm referring to my great-grandparents and all-- that was really all they had to rely on, was their faith. And they would get so emotional just thinking about, well, I'm being mistreated here on earth, but I know that I've got something to look forward to. And they would really, really get emotional about it. And you have to be black, I'm telling you, just have to be black, to understand that.

You'll hear him say, well, just hold on. No matter how life is here, there's a better life. Just hold on. Now, you will hear that elsewhere. Other churches, yes. But you're not going to hear that spoke and mentioned in the Presbyterian church. So yes, there's a lot of difference, I feel.

Susie Putz

Instead of talking about the afterlife, Ralph focuses on other things.

Roberta Robinson

Oh, he encourages this, you know-- He knows that there's injustice, and that we should, as a people, although we've suffered injustice, that we should work toward justice. Now, he stresses that an awful lot. Try to straighten out the world we're in. But I don't hear him-- I can't remember hearing him speak of the next world, not that much, not that much.

Ralph Hutchison

It's not my job to save souls. Sometimes people think that should be my job, too, in my congregation. That's OK. But I think the Bible's very clear that salvation is a this-world promise.

Susie Putz

It's not that Ralph doesn't understand what Roberta is talking about. Ralph actually grew up in a Pentecostal church in rural Pennsylvania, a church that was all about the afterlife and stirring up emotions to a fever pitch, on schedule, every Sunday.

Ralph Hutchison

And many times, in our case, that emotional pitch was one in which the primary emotion was fear. You were to be afraid of God, who was angry with you because you sinned. You knew you sinned, didn't you? Well, yeah. We knew we did. And God was going to get you. And so there's hellfire, there's brimstone, there's eternal damnation.

I think as far as they were aware, the sum total of what they were driving for was to save people's souls, so that people wouldn't burn in hell, so that people would go to heaven. It was all about that. There wasn't anything about, necessarily, making your life better.

Susie Putz

This is Ralph's beef with a purely emotional service. Religion, he says, should give you real help with your everyday problems.

Ralph Hutchison

It's not that we wait and it all gets sorted out before the judgment seat on some great day in the future. It's here and now, this stuff is supposed to work.

I mean, where I grew up, we were in a lower middle class situation, people living really difficult lives. If somebody had a difficult life that-- you know, a woman whose husband was running around on her, that wasn't addressed in church at all, except we might pray for his soul that he would get saved, he would get right. The whole deal was, get your soul right with God.

Susie Putz

The question I kept asking the congregants over and over at Bethel was, since he wasn't exactly their ideal type of minister, had they ever thought of getting rid of Ralph, like the white churches did? But everyone I asked gave me sort of a curious look, like I was asking a really strange question. Before Ralph, Bethel hadn't really had a preacher in 30 years. And once they got Ralph Hutchison, they weren't going to let him go. It hadn't even occurred to them to get rid of him. He was theirs.

Roberta Robinson

We really don't have much choice, meaning in the Presbyterian field, the Presbyterian church field, there's not that many black ministers. So we take what we can get, and it just happened to be a white minister.

Susie Putz

For his part, Ralph agrees that Bethel might be better off with a black minister.

Ralph Hutchison

Well, I think there's a number of reasons why it would be nice if they were able to have an African-American minister. It's still something the Presbytery should talk about. They shouldn't assume that Bethel has nobody or they get a bleeding heart liberal white preacher to work part-time. There ought to be more possibilities than that. They should have him, and I should get out of the way so they can.

Susie Putz

Laying it all out like this, I think it might sound gloomier than it really is. The congregants at Bethel are getting everything they want from church. They get the Word of God from Ralph, the Spirit of God from other churches, and a feeling of congregation from each other.

Ira Glass

Susie Putz-Drury in Campbellsville, Tennessee.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Wendy Dorr and myself with Alex Blumberg, Jonathan Goldstein, Starlee Kine, and Diane Cook. Senior producer Julie Snyder. Music help from Mr. John Connors.

[ACKNOWLEDGMENTS]

If you'd like to buy a cassette of this or any of our programs, call us here at WBEZ in Chicago, 312-832-3380, or visit our website. Or you can do that, or you can listen to our programs for free, www.thisamericanlife.org, right there.

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia. His ways are mysterious. None can know them. He keeps commanding us--

Bill Lychak

Go to Peoria. Give away all you possess and go to Peoria.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.