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The Living Christ

The Extraordinary Lives of Today's Spiritual Heroes

The Living Christ by Harold Fickett
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Is Jesus’ promise to live on through his believers true? Can we find the living Christ in today’s complicated, uneasy world? Harold Fickett explores these questions in The Living Christ, a journey throughout the world in search of individual Christians whose daily lives reflect different aspects of the resurrected Christ.

Fickett profiles a woman who rescues girls from prostitution in Thailand, a “trucker chaplain” in South Carolina, a visionary living on the California coast, an America priest who conducts a healing ministry in Mexico City, and others who carry out the work of Christ in difficult, sometimes desperate circumstances. Written with narrative flair and offering surprising theological insights, these real-life stories stimulate new and enlightening meditations on Jesus the Liberator, Wayfarer, Contemplative, Healer, and Martyr.

Like the writings of Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, and Philip Yancey, The Living Christ will appeal to all who seek a deeper spirituality.

From the Hardcover edition.
The Crown Publishing Group; April 2002
288 pages; ISBN 9780385505543
Read online, or download in secure EPUB
Title: The Living Christ
Author: Harold Fickett
Chapter 1

In South Carolina

The Wayfarer

Throughout his public ministry, Jesus was a wayfarer, a traveler by foot. Across the Galilean hills to Cana and Nazareth, down through Samaria, and along the banks of the Jordan to the holy mountain of Jerusalem, Jesus and the disciples lived out their picaresque, if tragic, adventure.

So I thought I would look for Jesus first where he was most often to be found--on the road.

I've always wondered about the life of long-haul truckers. I suspect that the romance of the trucking life, expressed in such country-and-western songs as "Six Days on the Road" and "Convoy," draws its inspiration from the obscure depths of our collective memory--all the way down to our nomadic wanderings, the time when the patriarch Abraham departed into a far country. The trucking life, like joining the merchant marine, provides a working-class means of participating in a nearly universal longing: whether by running away to join the circus or hitching up with a rock 'n' roll tour or sailing the seven seas, the vagabond in all of us wants to go. As William Carlos Williams remarked, "Americans believe in the green light."

I started investigating the various Christian ministries that work with truck drivers and eventually found a truckers' chaplain in South Carolina, Ted Keller, who opened up the truckers' world and taught me about the specific character of Jesus' wayfaring.

Chaplain Ted told me the following story about two people he had recently encountered, and then something of his own life.

Troy could hear every cylinder ping in the old rigs before onboard computers, for the sake of fuel economy, put a stop to black exhaust between gearshifts and double-clutching gave way to automatics smoother than a Chevrolet. That was before the DOT (Department of Transportation) came along with its thicker-than-a-Bible operating manual and urine tests, which turned his own rolling twenty-year party into hard labor. No time off for good behavior, much less fun. Oh no! Once he had been king of the road and its pleasures. "Hey, babe, got to keep moving. It's my job." (His CB handle is Poon Dog.) The life kept him free, even with a wife and kids. Now that's all gone, including the wife and kids, who, all grown up, find him embarrassing. Except maybe for Angela.

He is driving one of the new Peterbilts owned by a small company in his hometown, Bellevue, Washington, hauling eighty thousand pounds of machine equipment from Gary down to Columbia, South Carolina, on a short December day, when a squalling storm is coating the overpass approaches with black ice. (A driver can slip and slide on that stuff right into his coffin.) The dormant grasses on the rolling hills outside of Knoxville are stiff with tracings of snow, the bare tree limbs the color of ash, and the evergreens sagging and stunted as the sandier soil of South Carolina draws nearer. Spinouts litter Interstate 75. Everyone on the radio yammers about the oil truck he passed about ten miles back, jackknifed into a culvert. He should have stopped, but he has five clear hours left in his logbook and he doesn't make any money playing the Samaritan.

He is back to being a mileage slave after once owner-operating. Twenty-seven cents a mile to starve; twenty-eight to eat; twenty-nine and above to flourish or something like it. Thirty-five years of haz-mat, tankers, low-boys --name it. All to yearn for twenty-nine cents a mile and a bit more to feed the video poker machines.

Those refrigerated loads of beef had to be about the worst. They swung the box around behind him like he was a gnat the cow meant to switch. He remembers loading up close to the slaughtering yards in bone-dry western Kansas, heading to Denver and across the continental divide on I-80, all the while dreading those one-lane snaking curves before Aspen. He drove those runs in his own Freightliner, smaller and more compact than this rig, but all guts and heart. The Freightliner's big solenoid starter, the size of a seawater fishing plug, always fired her right up, while the Peterbilt is so rocket-scientist wired he never turns it off.

The Peterbilt does have a double cab, which he needs now that he is all the way back to living out of the truck. Everywhere to go and nowhere. His married daughter in Bellevue, Angela, still pretends to be glad to see him, although he has to bear her born-again husband, Dan, and his innuendo about how his daughter needs God so much because of her lousy upbringing. Angela is much like her great-grandmother (the one who tried to shove religion down his own throat): the praying, the sitting down to meals, the polite talking, even to their kids, like they are training them for the diplomatic corps. (How he hated all that when he was a kid.) Within minutes he wants to vamoose and start eating concrete again.

He knows the road will have to lead back somewhere--or to the end of driving, at least. At fifty-nine he has only a few years left, ten max. He'll have to save the whole time to put himself in a trailer on a piece of country property, where social security and odd jobs can sustain him. Fat chance of saving anything. His last pipe dream--to live in an aluminum box.

He is in one of those moods today when a skull-cleaving headache is so close it's already fitting itself to his head like Darth Vader's mask. He doesn't want to listen to music or yak on the CB; he doesn't want to care about the lousy weather or the people being stranded. He can't even bring himself to do the isometric exercises that might loosen up the wrenching pain in his lower back.

He hates when he gets this way and can't let go of everything and just drive--feel a little bit of the old road magic. There isn't any of that today. Only the years and what they have led to. What's zero plus zero? his son, Freddie, once asked. Who says education isn't relevant?

He's almost rooting for the black ice. A quick meeting with an overpass stanchion would blow the cab clean apart and turn the machine equipment behind him into shrapnel. Shove the accelerator down and let it ride. What did it matter? There are all kinds of temptations in life, he's found, although he never thought death would look sexy.

Chaplain Ted Keller and Jimmy B. are talking over an early dinner of catfish and hush puppies. The tall cook, Nelson, his chef's hat pinned to his cornrows, busies himself behind the bin-filled serving counter, and there isn't anyone else in the blank, white-walled restaurant side of the truck stop to hear them.

"I need to find that boom box if I can, Jimmy B.," Chaplain Ted says.

"Steve did it. I'm sure he the one. He was talking so loud," Jimmy B. says, "shouting about how you all is racists and that terrible white people music you play. He hate that music. He can't sleep in his truck. Not with that Enoch music."

" 'Enoch'?"

"Sound like."

" 'Eunuch'?"

"Maybe. He mean to get you back. Do something terrible. That's what he say."

"Last week?"

Jimmy B. nods yes.

Chaplain Ted stares across at Jimmy B.'s round, shallow, amber eyes, trying to judge how much the afflicted young man, in his openmouthed excitement, is exaggerating. Most robberies are committed by people close at hand, though. It makes sense.

"But you haven't seen him with the boom box, Jimmy B.?"

"Not that one. He has one, though. A big, big one."

"Don't say anything about this, okay, Jimmy B.?"

"Steve probably sell that other one."

"You won't say anything until I find out?"

"Everyone in here talking about it, Chaplain Ted. They all heard it. Steve standing in the middle of the store, shouting stuff."

"Don't tell Steve you talked to me, Jimmy B. I don't want you to get hurt."

At this, Jimmy B.'s head turtles back into his shoulders, his soft jowls balloon, and his narrow-spaced eyes pinch so close together they look crossed.

"Steve's not violent," Chaplain Ted says, "not really. Just don't get yourself into any trouble you don't need to."

Jimmy B. looks suspiciously toward the door and forms his lips like a goldfish sucking water.

"Are you coming to the service tomorrow?"

"If I be there," Jimmy B. says.

"Can't argue with that. You take care of yourself whatever you do, hear?"

After saying good-bye and paying the tab, Chaplain Ted crosses the parking lot from the United Truck Stop building to the Whispering Hope Chapel, an aluminum trailer permanently set up where the truck stop's property fronts the road. The chapel has a wooden front porch, a red-lettered sign with John 3:16 at one end, and a neon outlined cross, which Chaplain Ted switches on, the late afternoon being so dark. The cross buzzes for a few seconds before snapping into a steady glow. Beside the John 3:16 sign sits Steve's van, his home when he's not driving. To the left of the van, a seasonal fireworks stand flanks the chapel, cracker exploding lettering arcing over its boarded windows.

"It must have been Steve," Chaplain Ted says to his assistant, Harlan, and one of his best volunteers, Libby, as he comes through the door. "I was over there talking to Jimmy B. Steve was shouting about how we're all racists and he hates our music." Ted looks down and his usual tricornered grin shrivels into a sour pucker. "I guess he really meant the part about the music."

"He parks his van there because of us!" Harlan exclaims, a grandfatherly croak in his voice.

"Are you going to contact the police?" Libby asks.

"No, I think we're going to take him out to breakfast. You know what I mean, Harlan?"

The two men look at each other and nod. Ted's eyes glint, catching the chapel's hard fluorescent light.

"Out to breakfast?" Libby asks, her dark-haired head forward, her eyes popping.

Chaplain Ted gets a look on his face like a bullfrog that's already snapped up its next meal without having swallowed yet. "Sure. We'll take him to breakfast. Tell him a story about our boom box getting stolen. Ask him if he knows anything about it."

"Let him know that we know," Harlan says, his voice thumping the bass line.

"And what we could do if we wanted," Ted says. "He'll probably bring it back that way."

"I'm not sure I like the idea of someone that close who is messing with us," Libby says.

"The man's under spiritual conviction," Chaplain Ted says. "You don't park your home right next to a chapel and start stealing stuff unless the Lord and the devil are fighting over you big time. Let's give the Lord a chance to work."

Libby still looks like a reproving mother.

"In the meantime, Harlan, we'd better go buy another boom box. You want to come with me?"

Harlan nods.

"You know what he called our music?" Chaplain Ted asks. " 'Enoch music'--that's what Jimmy reported. I think he meant 'eunuch.' Why would he call it that?"

"Enoch walked with God," Harlan says.

"And the Lord took him," Libby finishes.

After dropping the machine parts at a dock outside Columbia, Troy huddles in a driver's booth at the Columbia 20 Truck Stop's restaurant. He has calls in to a dozen dispatchers. It's Friday night. He'll probably be here for the weekend. But with the weather, there's an outside chance a hot load will need to be rescued. Anyway, he wants to make sure he's gone first thing Monday morning.

After half an hour, the phone rings. "I've got a great run for you," the dispatcher says. "You'll be going to Cincinnati. You know how easy the turnarounds are in that area."

"How much?"

"A dime. Ten K."

"Okay, I'll run the numbers and call you back."

"I've got another driver . . ."

"Yeah, I know, there's always another driver. Just give me five minutes, okay?"

Troy takes out his calculator. So much for fuel costs, state fees, road taxes, the owner's share--all straight off the top. His take works out to twenty-four cents per mile. There's no way he can do that.

He calls back the dispatcher and tells him he'll need substantially more. "With this weather, I'm one of the few drivers . . ."

"Sorry, can't negotiate on this one." The dispatcher hangs up before Troy can get another word out.

He's had this happen before, of course, many times. Sometimes the dispatchers can negotiate, as often not. It's always like romancing a hooker, coy eagerness followed by purse-snapping departures. Wham, bam. There's a hot load for you, but who's doing the delivering?

The waitress appears with her coffeepot. "You lose your best friend, hon?" she asks.

"A load that's leaving without me," he says.

"Same-old same old, huh?" She's almost a blonde and has terrific legs. The truck stop Bettys often have decks and look appealingly snug, if a little ample, in their jeans--but they are the kind who are attracted to beefy guys and usually have a complementary heft, especially south of the equator. Legs like hers, tapered ankles, teardrop-toned calves with an elegant bevel along the shin leading into strong, narrow thighs, that's rare. She fills his coffee cup again.

"Yeah, it's always the same," he says. "I was just thinking how dispatchers are like hookers."

She gives him a look and starts to turn away.

"I mean, they're not really interested in your problems."

"There's a lot of that," she says. She doesn't walk off.

"I guess I'll be here all weekend. You're going to get sick of me."

"You look like you've learned how to spend your time. How long have you been driving?"

"Oh, I'm a youngster," he says.

"As old as you feel, Mister Buddy?"

"Depends on what you're feeling."

"Yeah," she says slowly, and pushes out her cheek. "Stay out of trouble, then." She begins walking away.

"Hey, Miss . . . Diane," he says, making use of her name tag.

She looks back, up from under her eyebrows, warning him.

"I might want a piece of pie later," he said.

"I'll check back with you. Make your other calls. You'll feel better."

Troy places a few more calls. He watches his fellow truckers come in. After driving so long, he'll often see people he's met. No one this evening, though.

Soon enough he wants that pie, if only to stave off the boredom, and he watches Diane walk to the pick-up station for an order, deliver it, write out a check, turn to another customer. When she looks up from taking the new order, he waves at her. She goes back to the pick-up station to put in the order first, as if she hasn't seen him. When she turns back to the U-shaped counter from the station, he waves and mouths "Diane," the name projecting as a whisper.

From the Hardcover edition.