by Lorie Lewis Ham
Lorie has been singing gospel music and writing since childhood. Her first song and poem were published when she was 13 and she has gone on to publish many articles, short stories and poems throughout the years as well as write for a local newspaper. Lorie continues to sing and her mystery novels are set here in the San Joaquin Valley, with five of the six featuring gospel singer Alexandra Walters.
I sat in silence for several minutes after Chief Harmon left. Inside of me was a battle between excitement and anxiety. I was thrilled that I had been given the chance to talk to the chief, yet a little shaken by his warning—not that I intended to let it stop me.
My cell phone shook me from this state. “Hello.”
“Hey, Preacher Boy, Lola called me and was pretty shaken up. What’s going on?”
“A lot. Why don’t we meet for lunch at the Happy Mouth and I’ll fill you in. But in the meantime, I was wondering if you’d had a chance to check further into the All American Club?”
“Not yet, but I’ll put it on my list to do next. It’s not like I actually have paying clients,” he said sarcastically, but I knew he was just giving me a hard time.
I could hear the scratching of his pen on paper in the background. “My dad can’t stand them; they’ve given him a lot of trouble in the past. But I thought this case was sewn up; why are you still pursuing them? Do you think they’re behind the threats and tire slashing?”
“Like I said, I’ll fill you in at lunch. Now get busy, Heathen Boy, my job may depend on it.”
Deciding to take my own advice and get busy, I paid the bill and hopped on my bike, then headed for one of the packing sheds on the other side of town. By the time I reached my destination, there was no doubt that I needed to get in better shape. It had taken me far too long, and I was huffing and puffing like the big bad wolf. I wouldn’t have much time before needing to return to town to meet Stephen.
After pulling into the long concrete driveway of the Reed Packing House, I headed inside. Working in the fields or in a packing shed was something I’d never had a desire to do. It was hard work, and often very hot. Some farmers used illegal aliens for cheap labor, though the government had tried hard to crack down on those practices. And from what Chief Harmon had told me, some labor contractors still managed to use illegals without ever letting the farmers know. But if Chief Harmon was right, the farmers associated with the All American Club knew very well where their workers were from.
A young girl with a smiling face waved at me as I got off my bike and wheeled it up to the shed. Thankfully, many sheds were now enclosed with air conditioning, but not this one. Sweat ran down her cheeks even though it was now fall. “Hi Pastor Mike, what brings you here to the oven?”
Gabby was one of the young people I had worked with at the local youth center until she graduated high school last year. A bright young girl from immigrant parents, she could go a long way if given a chance. I was determined to do what I could to see to it she got all the chances possible and had talked to her about applying for scholarships. Currently she attended the local junior college part time.
“I need to talk to you. Can you get away for a bit?”
She glanced at the conveyer belt that sent luscious-looking Emperor Grapes down the row to be put in boxes. Her workers seemed to have things under control; she was a floor lady even at her young age. Of course, she had been working in the packing sheds for many years already. Work now was slow, with the prime picking and packing time being in the summer when the fruit was plentiful.
“Follow me to the office.”
We went inside the tiny office and shut the door. She sat on the corner of a small desk, folded her arms, and looked at me. “I assume this is important.”
“What do you know about the All American Club?”
Gabby stood up and looked at me with fire blazing in her beautiful brown eyes. “They’re devils. You don’t want anything to do with them.”
“They’re threatening me. I need to know all I can.”
A weariness fell over her young features and her shoulders sagged. She had suffered more than any young girl ever should. Then she looked around like a skittish cat. “They hire illegals from labor contractors knowing full well that they have been brought over here illegally and are being mistreated. They treat them terribly because they know they can get by with it. I’ve heard stories from friends and family—things you would think wouldn’t go on anymore. It’s like stories from our history books. And they don’t treat the rest of us well either.”
“Couldn’t they get in trouble if they were reported? Why doesn’t someone do something?”
“Because they are powerful people. No one would take our word over theirs.” She slipped her gloves back on and headed for the door. “If you know how to stop them, then may God be with you and bless you. But please be careful.”
I touched her arm. “If you would go to Chief Harmon he would believe you.”
“Nothing could be proven; they would just put it all off on the labor contractors and act innocent. They are important people and no one would question their lies.”
“But don’t you have to at least try?” I urged.
“Who would take care of my family after I was deported, or dead?”
A chill ran down my spine as I watched Gabby slip out the door. How could people like this still exist in our country? The thought that some of them were in my church made me sick.
Could Gabby really be right? Would her life be in danger if she reported these people? I understood why those who were here illegally could do nothing—they feared being deported. But someone had to do something.
It was time to hop on my bike and head back downtown to meet Stephen. When I pulled up to the ice cream shop, which also served sandwiches, Stephen was already sitting at the counter. Before going inside I locked my bike. As I went in and took a seat, I noticed Josh and his pals sitting at a table nearby.
“So are you going to tell me what’s up?” asked Stephen.
Before I could answer, Miguel came up to us, order pad in hand. “What can I get you boys today? Anything you want is on the house. Least we can do after you got my boy out of jail.” His face beamed and I felt good. I hated the need I had to darken that mood by asking about my new friends.
Not wanting to hurt his feelings, I accepted his offer. “I’ll take a roast beef sandwich and a cola. I could also use some information.”
Miguel jotted down my order then looked up at me. “What kind?”
“Do you know anything about the All American Club?”
He reacted just like Gabby. His body stiffened, and anger filled his eyes. “You don’t want anything to do with them, Pastor Mike,” he answered, as he glanced towards Josh.
“I don’t have a choice. People from this club are within my church and they are threatening to kick me out if I don’t stop preaching against bigotry and discrimination. I won’t be bulled, but I can’t fight them if I don’t know more about them.” Stephen was listening intently.
Miguel looked down at his hands. “I’m sorry you have to deal with them because of us.”
“Don’t be sorry, it’s not just because of you. Besides, it would have come to this eventually. People like this need to be stopped.”
“You can’t stop them, not if you want to live here. They are powerful people who control most of this town.” He picked up his pencil and turned to Stephen. “What can I get for you?”
Stephen ordered and I knew I wouldn’t learn anything else from Miguel, but a strong willed young man might still have enough fight in him to give me some info. I slipped off my stool before Stephen could start in on me. “I’ll be right back.”
I headed to the back of the shop and found Eddie working. His hands were covered with ice cream, but when he saw me, he cleaned his hands and offered one to me. “Pastor Mike, thank you for believing in me.”
“I knew you wouldn’t have killed anyone,” I said as I took his offered hand. “Eddie, I need your help now. Some people are trying to kick me out of my church, and they dare call themselves Christians.”
Eddie pulled out a couple of stools and sat down on one of them. “I owe you. You name it.”
I sat on the other stool. “People from the All American Club are trying to kick me out of my church.”
Again, the same reaction. Anger. But it wasn’t replaced by fear this time. “Tell me who, and I’ll take care of them for you.”
I patted Eddie on the back. “No Eddie, you’ve had enough trouble lately, and violence isn’t the way to deal with these people. God will deal with these people in the end, but for here and now, we need to try and stop them from hurting anyone else. Can you tell me anything about them?”
He looked down at his hands, just as his father had done minutes earlier. “They’ve always made life miserable whenever they feel we’re stepping out of our place. Mr. Toews was the worst. He owned almost all of the downtown shops and treated white shop owners better than minorities, although he didn’t treat anyone well. I’ve heard that many are mistreated who work on the farms, but they’re all too afraid to stand up.”
“Maybe we can only beat them one at a time, but if we don’t give up, we’ll win this battle in the end.” I stood up. “Once I take care of this in my own church, I’d love to see you and your family come some Sunday. That is, if I’m still preacher there.”
Eddie laughed, sounding a lot like his father. “You’re a fighter, Pastor Mike. I think you’ll be around for a long time. I’ve been reading that Bible you gave me. I think I’d like to come to church and learn more. Doesn’t mean I’ve changed my thinking; I just want to get a little more info.”
“That would be great. Any time you want to talk, just let me know.” We shook hands again, then I headed back into the front of the shop. Stephen was already munching on his sandwich. When he saw me, he swallowed, and I knew I was in for an earful.
“You’re not going to let those creeps kick you out of your church are you? You know I could have my dad talk to them,” Stephen said loudly enough for Josh and his friends to hear.
Stephen was the best friend I had ever had. I knew what a sacrifice it would be for him to ask his father for anything and appreciated the offer.
I put my hand up. “I don’t think so. Like I just told Eddie, violence isn’t the answer. Good people need to stand up together and not let these few creeps get away with this anymore. I could write an article for the paper, preach more sermons. I don’t care if it costs me my job, just as long as I can get the word out.”
“I could buy the church,” offered Stephen, and I almost laughed. He didn’t understand how churches worked. He could buy the building perhaps, if he offered them enough, but he couldn’t really buy the church.
I picked up my sandwich and ate several bites in silence. “Thanks for the offer, but we’ll work this out. Did you learn anything important?”
“These guys are smart—never get their own hands dirty with anything illegal. They mistreat people, but it’s always people they have some sort of power over, so they know no one will report them. You’re not going to be able to stop them with legal action.” Stephen picked up a napkin and wiped mustard from his face.
I sighed. “If only there was some way I could get Gabby to gather up some of the people who’ve been mistreated. She’s in a position of authority, and I think they might trust her if she said they’d be safe.”
“But how could you make such a guarantee?”
“I have a feeling Harmon would find a way if we could get proof of any of them breaking the law. I think I’ll talk to Gabby again tomorrow, see if I can convince her.” I took a sip of my soda, then pushed my empty plate away. “Somehow we have to stop them.”
“I found someone else who is a member.”
This made me sit up straight. I swallowed my last mouthful without completely chewing it. “Who?”
“Interesting. I guess things won’t be getting any better at the station then. I think I’ll pull my program.”
Stephen laughed. “That’s no way to put up a fight, Preacher Boy. Start talking on the air about their favorite subject and make them force you off the air.”
My spirits brightened at the thought. “That’s a good idea, as long as it doesn’t get me killed.”
Suddenly Stephen was serious and spoke in a low whisper. “Be careful. These people really could be dangerous. Anyone who can harbor so much unjustified racial hate is unstable and irrational.”
I didn’t intend to get hurt, but I did intend to cause as much trouble as I possibly could. I was determined to make certain anyone who wanted to come to my church would be welcome. Including Eddie.
Stephen’s cell rang, and I listened to his side of the conversation, which consisted of nothing more than a bunch of okays. He disconnected and stood up.
“Gotta go. Business. Don’t forget to be careful.”
With his departure, I decided to be bold and have dessert. I needed the extra sustenance before heading out to fight my battles. As I sat there, Josh strode up to the counter and took the seat Stephen had vacated.
“Hello, preacher. How are things going with you?”
Determined not to let this boy rattle me, I just looked at him and smiled. After all, I had God on my side. “I’m fine. What about you, Josh?”
His pals hung back just a bit, but were close enough to hear. “I’m glad you’re doing fine, and if you do what you’re supposed to you’ll get to stay that way.”
At that moment, Glenda walked up, and he turned his attention to her. He probably hoped she hadn’t heard him, but he was mistaken.
“Josh Matthews, shame on you for threatening a preacher! Get out of here and don’t you ever come back,” she shouted, holding a big frying pan over his head with a look that said she’d use it. I was fairly certain that she would too.
He stood up and scurried for the door without another word, but I knew it wouldn’t be the end of the problems that brat would cause. A frying pan might slow him down, but it wasn’t going to stop him.
Originally published by PublishAmerica, © Lorie Ham 2003