My friend James and I played basketball every Thursday afternoon when we lived together in Madrid. He was always exceedingly happy to play, although he would bitch, ad nauseum, about the Spaniards’ “bullshit” game.

“They can’t fucking dribble, T. And the fouls, fuck! This isn’t soccer, you hookers…I’m legitimately mad. Aren’t you? They hack you to pieces. You need to stop taking charges if you’re not going to call a foul.“ Hearing these tirades made me relax sometimes. He still had conviction.

On one particular afternoon, there was no Spanish bullshit. On this afternoon, four Americans ran court—a beleaguered cement court in Parque Oeste, a little west of the Arco de la Victoria, Generalissimo Franco’s pretty little door. James and I were engaged in a warm-up game of M-I-E-R-D-A, when we heard the thud of a basketball on the cement behind us. Mormons.

You can spot a Mormon on a mission from a mile away: Athletic, suspiciously Teutonic, clad in white starched, button-down short sleeves and a tie. Mormons especially stick out in Spain, so they’re usually easy to dodge. But sometimes the Latter-Day Saints come marching in from nowhere.

 

“Oh, hell no. It’s the tie guys,” James said, a little too loudly. I couldn’t help but snort. It was curious: James was raised a Baptist, but had for the most part abandoned whatever faith people had pumped through him during his youth. However, and I’ve found this to be the case with most people who have ostensibly forsaken their religion, he had a kind of “Hey, you can’t beat up my asshole little brother—only I can beat up my asshole little brother” mentality about the Church.

The two strapping LDSers came strolling up.

“Soy Moylen,” said Moylen, jamming his hand out. “Muchos gustos a conocerty.”

“I speak English,” said James.

“Hey, how about that!” said Moylen. “Where are you from? “

“Texas.”

“Cool!”

“Hi, I’m Xarek,” said Xarek, pumping his hand into mine.

“Hi, there.”

Proselytizers are like pistachios—intriguing, but seldom worth the trouble after it’s all said and done. I had a perfunctory talk with Xarek about my relationship with Jesus Christ, giving him just enough of a carrot to hunger after, while James practiced layups to avoid talking with Moylen. The two men, boys really, changed out of their “work” gear and into shorts and basketball shoes, but they left their shirts off.

“I guess we’ll be skins,” announced Moylen. Of course they would.

“You can shoot for outs,” said Xarek. I shot for James and me, missing. Xarek drained it. Mormon ball. Aside from being sculpted and in shape, these Mormons were good at basketball, executing passes with surgical accuracy between our legs, around our defending arms, above our overzealous heads. Have you ever seen two members of a religious sect execute a perfect alley-oop? I have.

“Cover him, Smith!” James roared. He called me by my last name when I frustrated him.

“Smith, get big.” James always used that expression when we’d be in line at some hallowed European tourist sight. James hated that nobody had any sense of decorum in the queue. “Getting big” entails swinging your arms out like a marionette on amphetamines and spreading your legs as wide as they’ll go to ensure nobody cuts around you in line. So, when James told me to “get big” against these mammoth lambs of God, I assumed it was a metaphor for defense. The only problem with playing defense at this moment was that Xarek and I were both covered in blood.

“Whoa, whoa. Somebody’s cut,” I said. I had blood smeared all across my shirt. I could taste the acrid syrup. Maybe I’d been hit in the lip. I felt nothing. “Hey, you okay?” I asked Xarek.

“Oh, yes. I’m fine.” Xarek had apparently taken the brunt of this mysterious injury. His face was covered in blood. The crown of thorns. “I feel nothing. Maybe I’m just sweating blood,” he giggled. I’m sure I fouled the shit out of him. I always do.

“Luke 22:43-44. Christ’s agony at Gethsemane,“ said Moylen.

“That’s right, Moylen,” Xarek grinned with smug approval.

“What the fuck?,” James whispered to me in passing. “These dudes aren’t right.” In an effort to reverse the throttling, James ordered me to switch up, so now I’d be covering Moylen who wasn’t covered in blood (yet), and who, James assured me, “wasn’t respecting my outside bombs.” “Tyler,” James went on, “I’m going to mix it up with that bitch-ass gory motherfucker down low and you drain threes on the other hooker. Word?”

“Word,” I said, with feigned confidence.

Down low soon began to look like a hematic sprinkler. A number of Spaniards descended onto the blacktop to watch this peculiar spectacle. In the paint, James and Xarek elbowed, shoved, shin-kicked, crab-blocked and generally banged away at each other like two deities in combat—a modern day Titanomachia. The Mormons continued to dominate and won the first game 21-6. My allegedly devastating three-point shot would not fall. “The fucking ball is covered in blood, James!”

“Don’t you make fucking excuses, T. FIGHT!” he screamed in my face, his teeth covered with a gruesome patina. “Do you understand, T?”

“Best two out of three?” asked Moylen. Any communication from the Mormons was now directed to me, as James refused to acknowledge them as anything but objects to beat the mortal shit out of. James had killing in him today. You don’t want to have killing in you too much of the time. I don’t know if I’ve ever had killing in me.

Game two became increasingly violent. Moylen threw an elbow that splashed into my nose, an extra avenue of blood flow, this time unattributable to divine magic on the Mount of Olives. I recoiled, but managed to drive the slick ball around him, and found James under the basket for a layup. I raced back to the outs line, received the ball back from James, checked and passed it back to him on the perimeter.

James intoned, “But with the precious blood of Christ…you cocksuckers. Bucket.” Ball in. James and Xarek, battling low for a rebound, slipped on the court, making obscene blood angels on the concrete. James roared up from the mess and lay the ball in. “Son of man coming with power and great glory….Bucket.” The Mormons kept silent during the second game, which we won, 21-12, James quoting scripture throughout.

I’ve always been impressed by people who can recite scripture, or poetry, or anything. I can barely remember “Fire and Ice,” the Frost poem that everybody learns in “Reciting Things 101.”

Game three began in heightened reality and ended in gauzy fog. We, the aging camels, the yellow camels, the angry, moving divine camels, started with too much intensity. I shot three errant bloodballs in a row, throwing James into a rage.

“Focus, T. Focus. Focus. Hit me low if it’s not falling. Fuck, Smith.” It wasn’t falling. But how can you stop? It feels right coming out of the hand, but when the shots don’t fall, the shots don’t fall. It would have to be James down low, outmatched, bloodied beyond recognition and snarling like the rat-faced man in the corner of Hieronymus Bosch’s “Christ Carrying the Cross.”

The basketball court was a ghastly sight. The backboard looked like a wall behind which executions took place. Blast radii of mammoth blobs of coagulating bloodsputum littered the court. Xarek and Moylen screamed at each other to play defense, to get open, to focus. They invoked scripture. They seemed rattled. Their ball.

Moylen drove to James’s left. I moved over a little to try and cut off his lane, but was waylaid by Xarek with a crushing pick. As I lay in a heap, Xarek stepped on my head and popped to the outside, behind the two-point line. James made a valiant effort to get a hand on Moylen’s outlet pass, but slipped and collapsed next to me on the wet concrete.

Xarek spoke before he shot: “Behold, I will give you the victory.” Bucket.

Final score:

Latter Day Saints: 21
Heretics: 19

Xarek and Moylen high-fived, their bloodstained bodies glistening in the Madrid sunlight. James began to weep. I’d only seen him cry once, when he talked about his mother. He was just a boy and thought she’d written the note after she’d done it. The poor kid. From that day on, his eyes were too wise for a child. They still were.

The crowd swarmed all over the Mormons, cheering, clapping, and slapping them on the back. Everyone was given a Book of Mormon and Moylen and Xarek went about their mission, their church, their victory.

I did my best to console James. “Let’s get a drink,” I suggested.

“We should have won that game, T,” he said, then went supervoid.

I, along with five other friends served as pallbearers for James. Outside the church, there was a long discussion about carrying the casket. We all naturally thought pallbearers had to carry the thing.

“Don’t worry, it rolls,” said some church official. Then there we were in a line, taking communion. Everything in a line. The priest had to get more wine. We raided the church stash—the blood of Christ was much more appealing than his body. “So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.” Nice try, Revelations. But we’re thirsty.

I walked around during James’s wake, carrying his basketball for three hours like a goddamned fool. What else do you do? You play basketball. So the pallbearers played a game of three-on-three with James’ basketball at his parent’s house while people looked sad, the way you’re supposed to look at these functions. Strange glances were thrown. It wasn’t the same. We should have won that game.

But if it had to perish twice, I think I know enough of hate…

I loved my high school youth group. Every Wednesday night, no matter how much homework I had, Mom or Dad drove the 30 minutes across town to our church, where my younger sister and I were deposited, no questions asked. Two hours later, we would emerge rosy-faced, talking too loudly, and in need of another layer of deodorant.

For the average Evangelical, this is really where it all starts. Sure, there is Sunday School and no end to Vacation Bible School, Awanas, etc. for the younger ages, but everybody knows that it is the teenage years that are crucial. The stated purpose of this Youth Group, of course, was to turn us into thoughtful and godly young men and women, although as an adult, I suspect ulterior motives. Sure, we would play our silly games like wall ball and how-much-baby-food-can-you-eat-before-you-puke before gathering together in a splatter-painted room called “The Lion’s Den” to talk about God and the pressures of being a teenager in today’s world. But regardless of what we actually did, I am pretty sure that the main reason for the existence of the Youth Group is to take the place of sex.

There’s the foreplay. We would meet in the gym for games. Boys on one side, girls on the other. At first, it was all about the heart rate. We’d run races. We’d see who could skip the fastest, wrap ourselves in toilet paper the quickest, spin in circles for the longest. Slowly, things would progress. The boys would hoist the girls on their shoulders, the girls bearing handfuls of whipped cream. The girls giggling, with only flimsy material separating their important places from the backs of necks, only a matter of rotation, really. So close. No, but there is the matter at hand. Must pummel other girl, also deliriously straddled atop other boy and bearing whipped cream. Must beat her to the smear. If it lands in my face first, then it is all over. No more pressing. Must not be the smearee. Must prolong.

The games move on from there. Wink ‘Em. A Shot in the Dark. And my favorite: Caveman. The boys lock arms altogether in a mosh pit of maleness, while the girls rush in, pulling tickling tugging. If the girls team up together against one guy, the better the chance for release. The already-ejected males, sit defeated and panting by the wall. At the perimeter. And then, just then, at the apex, when there are only two more guys to conquer, the girls do something extraordinary. Focused on one goal, and one goal alone, they cooperate. There is no cattiness; no competition. With half on one side, and half on the other, the tug of war commences. It doesn’t last long, the resistance. It is over before it begins, really. A triumph. A disappointment. It is here that the Youth Group Leader gathers us together.

Our favorite Youth Leader – I’ll call him James – was a tall man, blond, handsome. He has just graduated from college, so he knows what we’re going through. He relates. For him, the struggle is over, having recently married his college sweetheart. And believe me, he tells us, the wait is worth it. We giggle in spite of ourselves. Some of us, jealous as hell, can’t help but perspire a little at the thought. A few of us girls glance over at his wife, Donna, feigning embarrassment at the back of the room.

We are impressed by their candor. We cannot help but be blown away by their realness. They are cool in spite of their years and if they were still in high school, we would totally be friends.

My father one time made the mistake of criticizing the car they drove in front of me as we pulled into the parking lot behind them. “What are they doing in that clunker?” He rhetorically had asked. “It makes them look like smokers.” For my father, “smoker” was about as close to a swear word as he ever came and the effect was staggering. James was our leader and king, and he had just received my father’s lowest blow. From that point on, my younger sister – cute, smart, and a far better person than I – and I were 100% devoted to King James with the fervor of groupies. What a visionary! What a radical! He didn’t care about status or approval – only that we knew The Truth.

James stands at the front of us sweat-drenched and panting teenagers and tells us about a better way. The right way. Together, we have embarked on a journey. It has its ups and its downs. Jesus wants to love us fully. Completely. If only we would let Him! It doesn’t matter what we’ve done in the past. There are tears. We hug. We cuddle. We are invited to take it a step further and pray the prayer of repentance. Many of us do. If any of us want to go for ice cream down the street, we are invited along – a post-youth group activity fittingly called an Afterglow.

Of course, at age 14, I was impressively ignorant of the real purpose of the Youth Group – to keep us from breeding like rabbits. And yet, I knew there was something tugging at my hormones. Inertia existed before Newton gave it a name, if you know what I mean. But the reason my good friend, Gina, would often disappear during Youth Group with her boyfriend, only to reemerge half an hour later with a fresh layer of make-up, truly eluded me. Blond, beautiful, funny and charismatic – just about anyone who ever meets Gina likes her immediately. She has a dry wit about her that sends me rolling to the floor time after time. She’s a hard act to follow – especially when she’s on a roll. But even more impressive than her sense of humor is the fact that she doesn’t seem to care what anybody else thinks about her. Anyway, she told me that they had been praying together – and I believed her. I even remember feeling a twinge of jealousy. How come none of the boys wanted to go pray with me?

I suspected I knew the answer. Clearly, I wasn’t spiritual enough. I wasn’t living up to the potential that God had given me. I knew then in my heart that I would have to try harder. Clearly, there was a higher plane of spirituality out there – just waiting for me. I began to pray fervently to this end.

So when King James announced one night at Youth Group that we would be sponsoring a city-wide roller night, I could hardly contain my excitement.

James had apparently made friends with the manager of a failing roller rink while doing some unexplained fieldwork, and had immediately seen the possibilities. He not only had a heart for the community, but he also just so happened to have roller-skating in his soul. Who knew?

It was given a mission and a name: Rollin’ with Jesus. The idea was to let anybody in from the community who wanted to skate for free, as long as they stayed to listen to a talk about Jesus sometime during the night. It was Evangelism at its coolest.

Now, it is important to understand before I proceed that our church was vehemently opposed to dancing. Later, in my college years, we would actually be fined in the amount of $50 if some killjoy named Martha from the fourth floor of the dorm ratted us out for shaking our booty on a dance floor on the opposite end of town at a club called Thumper’s. (Oh yes, I knew it was you, Martha.) And if anyone cared to object, all he or she needed to do was to look it up in the church Handbook and see for themselves how it was a sin and all that.

And not only dancing. The Handbook was very clear on a variety of issues including, but not limited to, movies, alcohol, smoking, premarital and extramarital relations, and swearing. Certainly, not all Evangelical churches have such documents. Under the umbrella of “Evangelicals,” there are many flavors and varieties. At my Christian high school alone, we represented more than 60 denominations, but there are literally thousands of denominations and sub-denominations under the heading of “Evangelical.” But in our church, the Handbook ruled the day, coming in just below the Bible in authority. If the Handbook said that attending movies was ungodly behavior, then that was that.

Not that there weren’t loopholes. We may not have been allowed to dance at our church, but there was nothing in the Handbook against roller-skating. There is music; there is movement; there is no mandate. Consequently, there were simply no grounds on which the church board could object – although it did put forth its best effort with a stalemate lasting over 18 hours on the subject of sweaty knees.

The objection was put on the boardroom table by one of our church’s oldest, most stalwart members. Beatrice Belch may have been pushing 80, but you couldn’t put anything past her. Already famous within the church for saving its youth from the clutches of evil in the late 70s by putting a ban on all articles of clothing that bore the color red, she demanded the board’s respectful attention. As the only woman on the board, she was forced to remind them that she, too, had been young once and had been confronted with the issue of sweaty knees in her own life. No, she conceded, there was no sin in having glistening joints. But when two young people of the opposite sex allow slick body parts to come together, it can only lead elsewhere. It is a pathway. A gateway drug, if you will.

The young people will only be roller-skating, argued the proponents of Rollin’ with Jesus. The chances of full-body perspiration were slim to nil. Not good enough, said Beatrice. Although a widow, she still remembered the predisposition of her own husband, Donald – God rest his soul – to perspiration. All he had to do was think about yard work, and his underarms would be wetter than a dishtowel after Thanksgiving Dinner cleanup. Do we want to enable our young people to fall into the Devil’s Plan? Or do we want to stop sin before it happens. Be a kind of spiritual antiperspirant, as it were.

OK, said the Rollin’ side. Worst-case scenario. A guy and a girl sit next to each other during the sermon and accidentally touch sweaty knees together. Then what? They are just going to run toward the backseat of the nearest car and get it on? Hasn’t it occurred to anyone that sweaty knees are considered gross by teenagers? (Read: Has it been that long, Beatrice?) The likelier scenario is that the 15-year-old girl who has just unwittingly exchanged fetid body fluids with her male counterpart is going to feign a gag reflex and spend the next week telling all of her friends about how she totally almost vomited all over her new, white Keds.

It was no use. Neither side would budge. For Beatrice and her posse, it was a battle of the encroaching culture versus morality, plain and simple. For the Rollers for Jesus, it was a bunch of out-dated ideology standing in the way of progressive Evangelism. Elders from the church were called in. The prayer chain lit up faster than PTL on pledge night. The wives of some of the board members brought in casseroles. But no matter how logical the arguments, the church was pretty much split right down the middle. It wasn’t until Donna, wife of James, opened her mouth that a compromise was reached.

“Why don’t we just require everyone to wear pants?” she asked. The board leaned in; considered. It was pushing it, said the Rollers, but it was a way. It could work. Beatrice’s side shifted, cleared their throats. Nodded with approval. The matter was settled. Rollin’ with Jesus was a go.

A Special Witness Team was rapidly formed for the purpose of getting the word out. Due to my leadership skills, or perhaps simply to my unparalleled enthusiasm, I was unanimously voted in as the team leader. What better way to jumpstart my spiritual life than to throw myself into mission work? I knew there was a lot riding on the success of Rollin’ with Jesus, and, consequently, I took my job very seriously. If we were going to make this event a go, we were going to need the help of a professional. We were going to need Travis.

Travis was one of the kids from the Junior High division of the Youth Group and was well-known for his artistic talents. He was short, scrawny, and had a shock of red hair on the top of his head that had the strange property of always looking as if it had recently been towel dried. He looked to be about 9 instead of 13. But there was no denying his gift. There was nary a soul in the church who had not seen his amazing portfolio of pencil drawings depicting the Apocalypse and all of its horrors. He was the Hieronymous Bosch of Holiness. He was gruesome in his imaginativeness. Brilliant in his scope. He may have dealt with some difficult and, well, graphic subjects – but it was from the Bible, after all. If God didn’t want us thinking about such horrific things, then He shouldn’t have written them into His book! And anyway, it was all in black and white, so it wasn’t as if there was red blood spurting everywhere. It was black.

He took a little convincing at first…something about artistic license and a brochure for roller-skating not exactly being his genre and all. After numerous phone calls and a promise to buy him a box of Hot Tamales and a Coke on the big night, though, I had him. I agreed to let him come up with the design completely on his own. Granted, I did make the suggestion that it should have something to do with roller-skating. He did not let me down. The very next day, he was at my doorstep with the finished product.

“Can I look at it now?” I asked stupidly, as if he had just passed me a personal note that would be awkward to read in front of him. We were still standing on my front doorstep. I hadn’t exactly been expecting him and was wearing one of the more embarrassing pairs of sweat pants from my immense collection of loser lounging attire. He shrugged.

“Whatever,” he said. I pulled my over-sized T-shirt down in the back to cover the giant hole in the seam of the butt and invited him inside for orange juice. As we did not drink soda in my house, I could not offer him anything more sophisticated. I could, however, at least offer my guest orange juice at full strength as my mother had not yet diluted the latest can from the freezer, as was her habit, leaving me to at least a shred of dignity. I mentally prepared myself for the task at hand and tried to remember where the pitcher was kept.

“No, thanks.” I followed his glance out to the street where there was a Mazda with the motor still running. Somehow, I had managed to overlook this when I opened the door. His father nodded at me when we made eye contact through the windshield.

“Oh. OK.” I looked down at the picture in my hands. It took a moment to understand what I was seeing – evidence of his genius, I believe – and then it all became clear. I blinked hard to hold back the tears. It was an emotional moment. Travis had not only come through for me, but he had so far surpassed expectations that I could barely speak. In the background, true to his theme – his heart’s passion – were the four horsemen from the book of Revelation. They were running hard. Striving. You could see that they were in pursuit, but you could also see by the strain in their eyes that they were losing. For there in the lead, blazing on ahead of them, was the object of their chase. I recognized him immediately. It was Jesus. On roller skates.

For the entire week leading up to the big night, we posted ourselves all over town. There were only three of us on the Special Witness Team (code name: “SWAT”), requiring us to be extremely strategic if we were going to invite the entire city of Colorado Springs. Since school had recently been let out, we took turns spending our days handing out our smokin’ fliers – at the malls, sticking them under windshield wipers at the grocery stores, taping them to telephone poles, etc. I tried to get more people on the team so that we could cover more ground, but most everyone I called already had plans.

In the end, though, it didn’t matter. Not only did we have Travis, our lead graphic artist extraordinaire, but we also had Tammy, our premier quizzer from the Bible Quiz Team. If anyone on the street tried to stump us on a spiritual point, she was sure to set them straight with God’s Word. By the last count at the time the SWAT team had been dispatched, she could produce on demand no fewer than 320 Bible verses from memory.

For the most part, people were receptive. Several of them actually looked at the flier before tossing it into the nearest receptacle, once they had clearly consumed and memorized the specifics of time and venue. When all was accounted for at the end of the week, we had distributed over 1,000 fliers – all created using the church secretary’s photocopier, which, incidentally, caused a bit of a disruption that week in the creation of the Sunday bulletin. But it didn’t matter. What was a little lost time and toner when we were doing the Lord’s work? Based on our observation of public reaction, we were going to have a full house. By our calculations, we were proud to report to James that no less than 700 people could be counted on to show up from our efforts. Conservatively.

The night of the big event nearly blew my mind. With the help of a branch of the SWAT team, the decrepit rink was changed into something awesome. There were flashing colored lights, a sound system, a disco ball – and even a limbo pole. There were even a few faces that I didn’t recognize that had come in response to the fliers. And while we didn’t have the predicted 700, we did have at least, I don’t know, 23 people who I had never seen before.

We skated round and round the rink to DC Talk, Carmen and Rick Cua. Never had doing the Lord’s work been so fun. The music spoke to something deep within my soul and I even felt my hips begin to loosen a little with the rhythm. In a godly way, of course. Much like David must have felt in his famous Psalms dance – although unlike David, we were required to wear pants.

When James raised the lights halfway through and called us over to a more intimate circle in the snack bar where we could talk about how cool God was, I learned that several of the people I didn’t recognize had come together from one of our sister churches – from all the way across town! There were even two people from the community who said they wanted to accept Christ in their hearts for the first time.

“I want you guys to watch for people who might need a friend,” James had briefed us earlier in the evening. “Pray with them. Show them Christ’s love and acceptance. Be His hands.”

Well, when the people from the community began to pray, we were ready with our hands, piling them onto their shoulders to show them how much Jesus loved them. It was a moving time and there were many tears. I ended up with my hands on a plump young woman with long black hair. She didn’t appear to speak English, but it didn’t matter. I could see that she had been touched by the Spirit.

Because there were so many of Christ’s hands and so few people on which to lay them, we were wedged in quite tightly. We kept our eyes shut for some time as James led us all through a prayer of repentance. And when it was all over, I was stunned at how many people there were in our prayer circle.

“Amen,” said a male voice still in transition from behind me. I turned and looked up, recognizing the speaker immediately. His liquid green eyes were focused on me.

“Praise God,” he expounded.

“Isn’t it amazing?” I smiled at Scott.

“God’s just so…cool,” he shot a look around the roller rink in an attempt to incorporate the breadth of his feelings.

“Yeah.”

In the background, Amy Grant’s “Heart in Motion” began to blare.

“Wanna skate?” he asked me. My stomach dropped through my intestines and my face flushed red. Fortunately, the lights had once again been dimmed at this point. He had stayed late for swim practice, so he had been late. We skated for the next hour round and round the gym, neither of us brave enough to call for a break. Finally, when the lights went up and James told us that we all had to go home to our parents, we skated over to the side and took off our skates.

There was an uncomfortable pause.

“This was really cool,” he said.

I nodded.

And that’s when he said it.

“I don’t know – I just feel so happy right now. I feel like thanking God. Do you want to go somewhere…to pray with me?”

Score.

**********

Erika Rae is a struggling novelist living in the mountains west of Boulder, CO.  The excerpt above is from her book “In a Handbasket: Confessions of a Recovering Evangelical.”