Saturday, December 14, 2013

An Excerpt from SOUTHERN GENTLEMAN, a novel by Bracy Ratcliff

PROLOGUE

Baptist churches in the Deep South, even today in the 21st Century, are often the biggest buildings in town, bigger than City Hall, even bigger than the schools or hospitals, and this one was no exception. Brown’s Valley, like so many others, was built of red brick, with alabaster columns, posts, and trim. The main sanctuary, with a ceiling nearly 70 feet high, seats over 5000. It’s somewhat reminiscent of a giant NBA arena, with sophisticated light and sound systems, big screen TV’s in the hallways branching off the vestibule showing the “action” on the arena floor. The “Media Department” simulcasts the services to other buildings on the “campus” and broadcasts on two radio stations and one popular cable TV channel. The campus encompasses a dozen buildings spread over ten acres. There's a gymnasium to rival a medium sized college, a nursery/daycare/preschool facility, an infirmary, an adult theology building, a women’s study center, a men’s worship center, a family enrichment center, a Senior center, a fitness club, two banquet kitchens, four event rooms, an outdoor sports complex, a media center, computer lab, a theater, two chapels, a Youth Center, a dozen offices, an RV park with all the amenities, and a motor pool facility to house and maintain a fleet of buses. It isn't the physical size that made Brown’s Valley so imposing, so impressive, however. The church’s influence in the community is pervasive and growing; and, those closest to the center, all of the leaders of business and industry, the senior city & county government officials, and the church leaders are the purveyors and the beneficiaries of that influence.

CHAPTER 1

Don Morgan was standing with the rest of the congregation, holding his hymnal low so anyone looking could clearly see his face. He was nodding slightly to the beat of the orchestra, enjoying the choir, but not singing. Instead, he was marveling at the enormity of it all and thinking how much money it took to run the place—and he knew the exact numbers because he was the church’s CPA and financial advisor. What was truly astounding, thought Don, was that so little of the Church’s revenue came from local donations. The collection plate still accounted for a big sum of money but had largely been replaced by the EFT. Thanks to Don’s influence and the church’s connections in banking—the presidents of two local banks and the officers of the large regional bank headquartered downtown were all members of Brown’s Valley—collections grew and became more predictable, more reliable. They automated, modernized tithing; but, that still accounted for only a small fraction of the church’s total revenue. Don had guided Brown’s Valley into commercial real estate investments that made the church one of the largest property owners in the state. He put them into the music and video business—entertainment marketing and publishing on a grand scale. They didn’t just market their own choir and orchestra via an ambitious live performance schedule, they also produced CD’s and DVD’s; but it didn’t stop there—they had under contract more than a dozen other Christian singers, musical groups, authors, and artists. The church book store, typically a meager earner for all but the largest churches, generated millions for Brown’s Valley thanks to Don’s imaginative direction. They didn’t just sell Bibles and Christian art, they bought and sold just about anything they could print the BV logo on—a full line of men’s, women’s, and children’s clothing, sporting goods, even furniture and electronics—and 95% of it sold on the church’s web site or through a network of brokers. The church sponsored Boy Scouts, Cub Scouts, Girl Scouts, Brownies, Little League, Pop Warner, basketball, soccer, and track teams, none of which cost the church much money, but generated loads of good will and free publicity. They recently got involved in a Christian NASCAR team, a minor league baseball team, and a professional soccer league. There was more, much more, and what it all added up to was over a quarter million in annual net income for Don; and, the church wasn’t his largest client.

As the hymn ended, Don thought, “I love church.” But, that wasn’t true, really. What he loved was going to church, “seeing and being seen.” It was the best kind of “networking” in the Deep South. To reach the upper levels of business or society required a church membership—it didn’t have to be Baptist, necessarily. Presbyterian and Methodist were usually acceptable, Catholic not so much except maybe in New Orleans or Mobile. But, the best of the best always belonged to the biggest Baptist church in town.

Don liked what he saw in people’s faces when they looked at him—he knew that they knew that he was successful and important. That was the reason it was so easy for him to smile—he reveled in the admiration. He could tell they were impressed and envious. He nearly laughed at the thought—they coveted his life. An aggressive anti-aging regimen helped him maintain his boyish good looks and charm. They saw his well-fitting, expensive suits—though he reserved his best for really important occasions—his fancy Italian loafers, starched shirts, bright ties, his gold Rolex; and, of course, his cars. Cars were important; or rather “vehicles” were important. You had to have an SUV for the wife and kids, a pick-up for hunting and fishing trips, and a sporty sedan for Dad—and Don’s were top-of-the-line.

Don took his seat with the 5000 and settled in for the sermon. He glanced at his wife and kids—again, top-of-the-line—and smiled smugly. His wife, Beth, had attended UA but never with any intentions of having a career of any sort. She was there for her “MRS” degree, which was still the primary reason a certain type of woman attended college in the Deep South. Beth was that type—from a family clearly in the middle of middle class but with aspirations of moving up. Her looks had propelled her to popularity and success. The family struggled to send her to school, get her in the right sorority, dress her right; and, finally early in her junior year, she met Don. Don was smitten. He remembered thinking, “She’s perfect.” It was love at first sight and for a couple of years into the marriage, Don was sure that he was truly in love. But, he changed. Beth was still perfect, but not in the way you might think. Don was no longer in love, and Beth wasn’t a soul mate, she was an accessory not much more important to him than his CL63 AMG Mercedes—perhaps less important. His two daughters were excellent accessories as well. He was glad he didn’t have a son. In the Deep South the Sons of the important families had to be good athletes, ideally football players, as Don had been. It would be beyond humiliating if a son had turned out not be a stellar athlete. The daughters had only to be pretty for Don to maintain his stature in the community.

Ten years ago, when the church was much smaller, once the sermon was done the Pastor would make his way to the vestibule while the choir entertained the congregation for a few more minutes. After a hymn or two, conducted by the Musical Director, the Choir would wrap it up and the worshipers would make their way toward the door where the Pastor would shake hands until the church was empty. At Brown’s Valley and other Mega-Churches that didn’t work. Instead, the Pastor stepped down from the chancel and shook hands with the people nearest the front; and, those nearest the front always included Don. This was the most important part of the morning—the Pastor would see him, other congregants would see the two men shake hands, and see Don whisper something to the Pastor . . . and envy at the obvious personal nature of the relationship.

But, now Don was ready to go. Sometimes it was exhausting maintaining his image . . . though image wasn’t the correct word, actually. “Image” implies a shallow countenance. Don’s image was so deep that no one had any notion of whom or what he really was—not his Pastor, not his wife, no one. And, Don intended for it to stay that way—until the time was right.