The Reverend David Parst sat in the long, narrow boardroom of the O’Fallon Bible Church and studied a finger-sized tear in the wallpaper at the opposite end of the mahogany table. He would have to get Maintenance on that first thing Monday morning. It made the church’s signature conference room look cheap, like one of those rent-a-meeting hotel spaces.
Just in front of the offending gash, Tom Dickerson waggled a wooden pointer at a chart cluttered with financial details of the Sunday school building project. The members of the Building Committee slumped lower in their seats with each reference to interest-rate triggers and depreciation schedules. Although David was as numb as anyone from Dickerson’s statistical flogging, his lack of focus at the moment resulted from something else. He was thinking about the far more intriguing meeting he was to attend when this one adjourned—the meeting with Erika Balik.
He glanced at his watch. It was already twelve thirty.
“Am I running over, David?” Dickerson was looking right at him.
“No, not at all, Tom.” David straightened up in his chair. “I would like to tell you, though, how impressed I am with your command of this information.” A smile lit his dark, angular features as he spoke. He made eye contact with each of the faces around the table. “I want you all to know that Tom makes a presentation like this seem easy, but it doesn’t just happen overnight. He has put hours and hours into it. Please, go ahead.”
Dickerson hitched his powder-blue polyester pants beneath the fold of his belly and referred the committee to a mimeographed sheet in their color-coded information booklets. David put his hand to his mouth to conceal a yawn and stretched one long leg out under the table. Within a few minutes he had again tuned out the presentation.
Though he recognized the importance of sound business practices, he did not see his job as pulling the handle on an adding machine. His father had often told him that when you’re building something that lasts, you shouldn’t expect it to come cheap. That had certainly proved true in David’s career.
During the first few years after he and his wife, Sarah, arrived in the tiny St. Louis suburb of O’Fallon in 1962, David had sometimes gone a full month without a paycheck. Always a gifted preacher, over the years he had developed an equal talent for marketing. His innovations had taken the religious community by storm. It had been a long struggle, but eventually he had led his fledgling flock from the evangelical backwaters to regional prominence. The Post-Dispatch had recently named him one of the fifty most influential leaders in the metropolitan area—no small achievement for a man of forty-two. Now, despite the moribund economy of the early ’70s, when funds were needed, he always delivered—an emotional sermon here, a few phone calls there.
His church had the finest facilities in the western suburbs and that was not about to change.
David ran a hand through his thick black hair and steered his thoughts back to Erika. “I’m sorry, but I can’t make the Building Committee meeting Saturday morning,” she had said over the telephone.
“My regional managers are coming in for a strategy meeting. I’ll be done around noon. Could you be a doll and brief me over a cup of coffee at around one fifteen?” It had not been so much a request as an instruction. Under the circumstances, though, he could not say that she was being unreasonable. He wondered if it would be awkward but concluded that there was no reason it should be. After all, they were both professionals.
At the front of the room, Dickerson lifted a pastel pie chart to the easel. He removed his aviator glasses and wiped his forehead with a handkerchief. David leaned forward, resting his forearms on the table.
He tried to concentrate. His mind quickly reverted, though, to a mental snapshot of Erika’s sardonic smile flashing out from a frame of shoulder-length blonde hair. He cleared his throat and scattered the image. For heaven’s sake, this is business; that’s all. In her line of work she probably has private meetings with men all the time. Get used to it. This is what community leaders do.
At the breakfast table that morning he had peeked over the sports section and, with a practiced nonchalance, mentioned the upcoming meeting with Erika. Sarah had sipped her tea and frowned but said nothing. With all the arguing they’d done lately, he realized that the timing hadn’t been great. Nevertheless, he commended himself for telling her at all. If he had wanted to keep it a secret, he certainly could have manufactured an excuse. And what is the big deal anyway? Erika is one of the largest contributors to the church. If God gives you access to people with resources, you have to court them. That’s just common sense. He looked at his watch again.
Dickerson set his pointer on the easel and took a deep, rasping breath. All eyes turned hopefully toward him. “So, in conclusion,” he said, “I think the decision to go forward is an obvious one, both spiritually and financially. God willing—and if the unions don’t strike—we should be in the new building by Easter 1975.” He looked triumphantly at David. A relieved sigh of shuffling papers and shifting bodies drifted across the room.
“I don’t know how the rest of you feel, but I couldn’t agree more,” David said. He smiled and once more moved his dark green eyes from face to face. “Thank you again, Tom, for your good work. I know that all of you have many other things to do on a Saturday, and I deeply appreciate your taking the time to meet. Why don’t we all digest this information tonight and get together again for a few minutes after church tomorrow morning? We’ll have a brief question-and-answer session. Then if everyone is ready to vote, we’ll do it. If that’s okay, we’re adjourned.”
“Pastor, do you think we should close with a prayer?” Margie Bolen said.
David gave himself a mental kick. “Oh, of course. Would you close for us, Margie?”
After Margie finished her prayer, David worked his way around the conference table as the committee members gathered their things. He found something to say to each person but was careful not to linger too long with anyone. Occasionally he bent over to whisper in an ear, pat an arm, and chuckle.
When they had all filed out, he stopped in his office and sat in the brown leather chair behind the desk. Swiveling to his right, he rolled a carbon onto the cylinder of the electric typewriter that sat on his credenza.
After tapping out a four-sentence resolution for the committee to approve the next day, he reached across the desk and dropped the finished document into the metal in-box. His elbow bumped a plastic picture frame, knocking it flat.
He picked up the picture and studied it. It was a cartoon that his twelve-year-old son, Jack, had drawn on New Year’s Day when David resolved to lose ten pounds. A Bible-toting preacher sweated guiltily as he stretched his hand toward a plate that held a single slice of chocolate cake. Above one ear, a tiny red devil smiled mischievously and pointed at the cake with his pitchfork. On a pillowy cloud behind the preacher’s head sat a miniature angel surrounded by dozens of cakes of all sizes and types. The caption read: Remember, it’s all about getting to heaven. David smiled and placed the frame back on the desk. He got up and grabbed his sport coat off the hook on the office door.
After leaving the church, he crossed the parking lot to the garage behind the parsonage. As he walked past the living room window, Sarah’s slender figure appeared behind the sheer drapes. She was bending over Jack, her hand resting on his head.
Recently a troubling thought had flickered persistently in David’s mind—the idea that perhaps he had aimed too low in marrying Sarah, that he had settled too young. Despite his efforts to banish the notion, it had persisted. Seeing her now in silhouette, though, reminded him of her gentleness, her grace, the traits that had captivated him from the beginning.
When he reached the garage, he turned and looked again. Sarah raised her hand, then moved it down and tousled Jack’s hair, causing him to bound away from her. David took an involuntary step toward the scene. Then he caught himself, turned, and pulled open the garage door.