The Conversion

blkfrock“Hallelujah, Bothers and Sisters. Salvation – at last – reaches your fine town. Praises be, look, I am here!”

The group at the bar swivel round as one, to stare open-mouthed at the figure in the doorway. One cannot blame them for doing so. The man with the brilliant smile is dressed in a black coat with tails, a white shirt and tie, and a top hat. In his left hand he holds a silver-topped cane, while his right hand clutches a black book of considerable size.

“Well,howdydoody to you, too, Come on in, have a drink.” Boggel recovers first, despite the feeling of unease coursing through his mind. “I’m Boggel,” he says, extending his hand.

“Jeremiah Terblanche. My friends call me Bull. You know, Jeremiah was a bullfrog?  Well, the Bull part stuck. And no, my Brother, I shall not touch alcohol. It’s a sin, didn’t you now? No, not for me! If you have nothing else, I’d just settle down and get on with your conversion. You fine people need worry no more. From now on, this moment, you will be able to pass the threshold of ignorance. Wisdom, my friends…wisdom is at hand!”

“My word….” Gertruida whispers with that voice she uses when she is surprised. Like we all know, that doesn’t happen frequently – but today she is.

“Yes my dear Sister. The Word! I have come with it. No longer will you wonder about salvation! I have come to set you free. Aren’t you the luckiest town in the Kalahari? Wow!” The man bangs his cane on the floor, smile spreading even wider. “Come now, gather around, let me be your path to enlightenment!”

“Er…Mister Terblanche…Jeremiah…what denomination do you represent?” As elder in Oudoom’s church, Servaas feels he has the responsibility to protect the town against false prophets, Despite the man’s obvious zeal for his calling, one must be careful about these things.

“Oh no, Brother, don’t start with that! Why do people insist on denominations? This church, that church! And why? Because of Mammon, my friends. It’s the money! Church buildings cost money. Preachers must be paid. So there! Without a building or a salary, I am free to preach anywhere I like, and nobody has to pay a cent! So call me non-denominational and let’s get on with it.””

“No church? No salary? Then you are going to ask for donations.” Vetfaan doesn’t like the man or his demeanour. “Not from me, thank you. If you feel you must, then deliver your message and get on with it. We have serious issues to discuss. The drought, for instance. And my tractor. It won’t start again. ”

The man takes a deep breath. obviously fighting to keep the smile in place.

“An unbeliever! You see, Brothers and Sisters, that’s why you need me. One bad apple and the whole town is doomed….”

He is about to continue, but Kleinpiet interrupts him.

“Now wait a second, Mister! I’ll have you know that Vetfaan is a loyal supporter of the church. He donates a sheep to the bazaar every year and even helped when we fixed the roof of the vestry last summer. Call him a bad apple again, and I’ll make you eat your silly coat.”

Later, they’ll all agree that something strange happened to the man when Kleinpiet addressed him in such a rude manner. His eyes darted this way and that and for the first time they noticed the trembling lips when he forced his smile even wider. At the time, everyone in the bar thought he or she was mistaken, but when they discussed it afterwards, they all mentioned the phenomenon.

Jeremiah draws himself up to stand ramrod straight, takes a deep breath, and soldiers on. “The problem,” he whispers, “is the blindness that cloaks the world. Giving sheep won’t get you to heaven. Salvation isn’t bought by hammering nails into a rusty roof. No sir! Salvation comes from here.” He taps his chest with the black book. “Without it, you’re lost.”

“…And salvation is in here, as well.” Gertruida brings a finger up to her head. “Salvation, Mister Terblanche, involves the realisation that one must be careful with your thoughts and your words. Salvation isn’t something you give – it’s something you receive. Yes, preachers must preach and the Word is a guide…but in the end it’s a gift we receive, not something you have the power to dish out to people you know nothing about. Salvation, my friend, is the whisper directing our actions; not the shout that leads us astray.”

By now, Jeremiah Terblanche seems a bit deflated. “But,” he tries once more, “I only want to help…”

“You can help by telling us a bit more about yourself, sir.” For some reason, Precilla feels sorry for the man. Why would he barge in like this? What drives him?

“Listen, Jeremiah, come here and sit down. Let’s top the charade. Rolbos is a quiet little town and we love to hear people’s stories.” Gertruida can be extremely persuasive when she sets her mind to it. She pats an empty chair next to her. “Come on, Boggel, give him a lemonade.”

And so – in bits and pieces – they hear the sad tale of Jeremiah ‘Bull’ Terblanche. After losing his job as a clerk in Prieska’s co-op, he found out that able-bodied, middle-aged, white men have just about a zero chance of finding employment is South Africa. He tried everywhere, even to the point of applying for the job as a cleaner at the Oasis Casino. Eventually, broke and disheartened, he made a decision.

“Look, there’s one thing we all worry about: what happens after this life is over? We can fool around with words, but nobody really knows what happens next. So that was my ticket to escape my dilemma. If I could tell people to live right and be saved, I’m not harming anybody, am I?  And yes,” here he hangs his head, “I do ask for donations. The bigger the donation, the more I promise. Who’s to know whether I’m right or wrong? Anyway, it sure beats knocking on doors to ask for work you know you won’t get. In a way, I’m living my faith, see?” He’s almost pleading now.

“No, you’re not.” Gertruida now uses a soothing voice to calm the man down. “Faith isn’t always something you preach, but it’s always something you do. The old saying is true: actions convey a much more convincing message than any sermon ever preached.”

“And humility gets that message across, my friend, not arrogance.” Servaas has to get in his two cent’s worth. “Religion isn’t a fancy coat or a frock. Faith doesn’t wear a white tie and a top hat. Faith’s hands, my friend, are dirty and calloused. Those hands work harder than the mouth. That’s when you know it’s genuine.”

“That means I’m finished. Completely. No work, no faith, no nothing. If I can’t even get simple people in a little village to listen to me, I have nothing left. Might as well die…”

“And then?” Servaas downs his beer. “What awaits you on the other side? And how do you think your reception will be once you get there?”

Jeremiah doesn’t answer. Without his top hat, he seems to be much smaller, almost shrunken, as he sits with his head in his hands.

And now, right at this moment, the rumbling of Kalahari Vervoer’s lorry rattles the windows of Boggel’s Place when it trundles down Voortrekker Weg, A few minutes later, the driver enters the quiet little bar to stare at the group at the counter.

“Jeremiah? Bull? Is it really you? Man, I’ve been looking all over for you!  Fists Fourie, who owns Kalahari Vervoer, has been looking all over for you. He needs somebody to do his bookkeeping after Miss Joubert had to leave so suddenly. You remember her? We used to call her Wigglebottom, because…” He stops in mid-sentence, blushes, and rushes forward to greet his friend. “Anyway, if you’ve got nothing to do, I’ll give you a lift to Upington.”

***

It’s funny to take step back from Life every so often to look and really see the way we are directed to live our faith. Sometimes you have to reach rock bottom to realise what faith means and how precious it is.

Take Jeremiah, for instance. He got the work as a clerk for Mister Fourie and is currently doing a correspondence course in theology. This, of course, doesn’t surprise the patrons in Boggel’s Place. What really impressed them was the rain the day after Jeremiah took that lift to Upington. That, and the way Vetfaan’s tractor started with the first try the next day.

Servaas says they should read something in that.

They’re still talking about it…

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