Michael Karl (Ritchie)

The Churches of Arkansas

The First Heritage Presbyterian Church

I should begin with my own church. There is nothing like returning to the fold after many years absence, especially if new to the area and seeking employment among the faithful. This church, clearly one of the most respected in the city, is constructed of stone and brick, with an adjacent parking lot to handle the large congregation. A second-floor west wing accommodates all the children, who swarm squealing with mischievous delight to the waiting arms of former football coaches and retired elementary school teachers. The church itself has a regimen of polished wooden pews where everybody knows where to sit, with a red carpet that scrolls up the center aisle and down both sides. On the right is the stained-glass window of St. Francis feeding the birds, donated by a local banker in memory of his now departed mother who so loved gardening. On the left is a stained-glass window of Jesus Christ's parable, "Ye without sin, cast the first stone," donated by a local automobile dealership in memory of his now departed wife who so loved fast cars. A choir at the back of the podium surges with respectful bliss, evanescing each psalm into sonorities of pure vowels. The preacher, a squat, hyperactive cherub with hair dyed blond, shines over his Sunday flock. The church organ vibrates through the woodwork, bringing back all those childhood memories I have for so long successfully repressed. In this weakened state of demoralization, I would confess to almost anything. Fortunately one of the elders comes to my rescue, helps me to the restroom, and tacitly waits while I convulsively throw up. He has had a vision that too many of the churches of Arkansas are underinsured, and he needs someone to become the godsend to carry his message out to those many denominations of the body of Christ. We reach an agreement that I will tithe to his church on the gross income of a ten percent commission. His computer print-out of the many churches in Arkansas convinces me that I could spend years in this enterprise and still not exhaust my leads.

St. Matthew's Redeemed Lutheran Church

This church, constructed of stones hewn by Irish immigrants from the local quarry, resembles a narrow but staunch airplane hangar. Strangely, its congregation contains none of those original Irish descendants, excluded probably because their peasant heritage did not meet with approval by the local squires. Instead, an Austrian austerity extends inside, where the pews have the roughness of desolate, splintered wood rewoven into wicker. The pastor is a thin and remarkably handsome young man, tanned as if from summers on the Riviera, about whom the women swarm with their home-made pies and casseroles. Even I find myself attracted to him. The absence of frivolous religious art inside the church is made up for by the many committees this pastor has formed as outreach to the homeless, the AIDS-infected, and the ethnically segregated in the community. Rumor has it that he plans to go on a mission to Africa, and none of the recently converted can dissuade him. I suggest that it would be wise to take out a life-insurance policy before his trip. When he shyly demurs, believing that insurance on his own life would be an insult to God, whose preordained laws should never be reduced to gambling, I shift my concerns to the church building. He shakes his curly locks and smiles at my obstinacy. However, he does agree to form yet another committee, to address the physical weaknesses of the church itself, and collectively they tithe to a new insurance policy.When I find myself tempted to kiss him on the lips, I realize it's time to move on. Judas in the garden I am not.

Christ's Church of the Holy Mother

This Catholic sanctuary lifts its ancient folds in the blighted heart of the city. When first constructed, it was designed to imitate the gothic masterpieces of Europe, but the original gargoyles so resembled certain Protestant politicians that the carvings suffered from vandalism early on, and, ever since, the outside of this ornately sculpted building has invited generations of graffiti artists. Inside, however, the priests have kept the pews, the two confessionals on the right, and the sacred image of Mary on the upper left of the vestry, respectably clean. Believers cluster before the blessed Mother, awaiting her tears as miraculous cures, or rubbing their eyes and searching for stigmata. I find the finger bowl outside the sanctuary a good sign of a desire to maintain requirements of the Health Department in the depths of the slums. In order to guarantee a sale, I have to wait for the insurance to be processed through a church hierarchy more intricate than a set of smart bombs, and, though I genuflect and cross myself repeatedly, though I take the wafer and the grape juice that passes for wine, I suspect that they recognize me for the Protestant scoundrel that I really am. One of the nuns comes at me with a broom, wagging her finger and hissing. A month later I receive a form, in triplicate, expressing regret that my contrition merits no recompense.

The Baptist Primitive Point Fourth Removed

Among the elect of the elect, this elite group believe they alone are predestined for heaven, despite, or perhaps because of, their failure to lead perfect lives. Thanks to their roof catching fire and their wise choice in my insurance policy, they have now turned this refurbished Quonset hut into a sparse but sturdy home of worship that no longer resembles a defrocked four-wheeler. The faithful often can be found, fanning out into the neighborhood, to knock on strangers' doors, proffering their own communal consolation and solace, and taking offerings for their continued good service. In fact, it was due to this care and affection from two such Bible-thumpers that I first learned of their church. Stepping from the scorching heat into the air-conditioned darkness of my apartment, one of these emaciated ladies actually accepted a glass of sweet tea, while the other, pounding her psalmestry against her jaundiced hand, stood aside and scolded, "Sister, sister!" But it was all worth it when that first woman smiled, and sugar crystals glistened along her lips just before she passed out. Because of her, I acquired a small gathering of the faithful all to myself in that room as I pitched my wares. Later, climbing over the electrified wire fence one Sunday during their outdoor picnic, I was expecting to see the inside of their sanctuary, but somehow I was still deemed unworthy. Their children kicked my shins and I managed only one drumstick without ever reaching the Kool-Aid, before their spiritual leader showed up with the monthly insurance payment and personally escorted me off the property.

An Unnamed Jewish Synagogue

If you kick the ashes of the last burned cross, famished rats will scuttle out. Weeds grow everywhere. One whole wall has been torn down and soon the swasticas and Jew-baiting slogans will be bulldozed into a parking lot for the adjacent Christian churches. An ugly, looping magnolia droopes through the star of David. Nobody here is going to buy anything. This is a good example of what happens when you have the wrong kind of insurance in the deep South.

The Holiest of the Holy Pentecostal Church

A large, orange neon arrow flashes outside this storefront, whose door and central picture window have folk art depictions from the life of Christ in festively loud road paint. Inside, there are numerous folding chairs, and a three-dimensional velcro Last Supper hanging on the back wall. A church member plays a very soulful version of a psalm on the piano, the electric guitar picks up the melody, and the choir swings sideways, clapping their hands and singing. People next to me rise and begin speaking in tongues. Someone starts passing a snake around the room. The pastor, an emaciated carnival barker in a black hat, rasps out his sermon, repeating key passages three times in increasing shouts, until his voice growls like rough gravel. Surely the holy spirit has passed among us and we all shake like polka-dotted underwear on a clothesline. I love this church, not merely because I sold the most insurance policies here, but because I have never been in the presence of such a joyous and unpretentious embrace of God.

The Church of the Vicious Rooster

Drawing from the parable of Paul denying Christ three times before the cock crowed, this rural congregation celebrates the doxology of man's innate capacity for betrayal and guilt. Its site of worship travels from one farm corral to another, the sacred nave drawn in a circle in the dirt, around which the men gather, jeering and betting on a pair of roosters that are thrown into its center. In this form of worship, the moneylenders are not only in the temple, they run it; no apology is made for the depravity of the human condition. I myself could easily have lost more than my shirt, were it not for the timely arrival of the local constabulary that put an end to the proceedings, causing these degenerate proselytes to flee into the hills. Those who could not escape informed me later, in our jail cell, that when no rooster was to be found, pigs or wild boars have been substituted, such was their need to-in the words of Pascal-cast their bet upon God. Few escaped the judgment of the high court, sentenced for 30 days hard labor, but fortunately for me they took a personal check.

St. Rosita's Palmistry

Inside this trailer home, located near the spill-off of a Kerr-McGhee Nuclear Power Plant, the room smells of incense and bad pot. An electrical wire, frayed, dangles its solitary 40-Watt light bulb beneath a plastic Japanese hat of many colors. The humidity from last summer has spent the winter hibernating in this room. Sister Rosita waddles in and invites me to sit at the rickety table beneath the only source of light. She looks into the palm of my hand, shudders, and spits, missing the spittoon near the back right wall, where apparently other streaks of inaccurate shots have left the daffodil wallpaper bleached of any color. Sister Rosita flicks open her switchblade and informs me that I had better come up with some money, or the insurance policy on my own life won't be worth jack shit. I am so amazed that she knows I am an insurance salesman that I nearly hug her, but her Romeo from the back room-the one with the Christ tattoo on his left shoulder and the Marine eagle on his right shoulder-barges in and knocks my lights out. I wake up in a ditch on the south side of town, the front seat to my car ripped up as if some panther has been hunting for diamonds in the cushions. My future, however, looks considerably rosier after surviving this prophetic religious epiphany.

The Newly Sanctified & Thrice-Reformed Mormon Church

Hidden away in the suburbs, this nondescript temple looks like a respectable ranch house. Whatever goes on inside I am prevented from knowing. I meet with one of the elders at the local Taco Bell, but he can hardly fit in any of the swivel seats. He orders extra hot sauce, and rolls upon the table top like a bloated Easter egg. We have a long discussion, during which I learn that polygamy has been outlawed from this denomination, although in all other respects the faithful follow devoutly the teachings of Captain John Smith (I may have got that name wrong, but it was some famous Western explorer). I love the idea of an American pioneer so dissatisfied with Scripture that he wrote a completely different Bible, inspired doubtless by living off peyote buttons in arid lands. Apparently my enthusiasm strikes this plump elder the wrong way, and his haggling on prices accelerates so ruthlessly that I can make no commission. Instead, my abdomen bursts into a swollen rattlesnake of pain, and I collapse on the floor, having to be transported by ambulance to the nearest hospital.

The Chapel at the Baptist Medical Center

Bleached and disinfected in every way, this room hosts a modest wooden cross from its whitewashed back wall, in front of which a podium laps its dull purple sash forward, the Christ-as-Fish emblem sewn in gold. Two wood benches face this generic and multi-purpose tabernacle, with handicapped access and plenty of folding chairs in reserve for the bereaved. The air, purified from some oxygen tank, hums along with the almost imperceptibly recycled Artist-Formerly-Known-As-Prince tunes. After several doses of chemotherapy, my mind clears considerably, and hope replaces doubt. I fall upon my knees, casting the metal crutches to my sides, but two burly interns prevent me from inflicting any further damage upon myself. They carry me, swathed in white linen, to my room, where they hook me back up to the interferon. I look at an orange, resting on a silver tray next to the bed. It has not yet been cut open. Sunlight warms it from an adjacent window. I have a beautiful view.


Mandi Clark 1.jpg (103887 bytes)

(photo by Mandi Clark)