Feature of the Month
"The Faces Of Hate" Challenge
Well, who could resist this challenge?
This story was inspired by a minister friend of my mother's, who received much the same sort of threat the minister in this story does, only his was regarding an interfaith service. It was an eye-opening experience for me, even though it all turned out well in the end.
DISCLAIMER: Alex, Cora, Miriam, and George the caretaker are mine, but Xavier and any other familiar-looking X-Types making cameos belong to Marvel, and are used without permission for entertainment purposes only.
"Surely, you MUST see that the church should not become involved in politics--"
"Politics?" Reverend Alexandra Vansen stopped dead halfway through her office door, turning to regard the woman behind her with amazement. "Since when does a candlelight vigil constitute politics, Miriam?"
Miriam Benard flushed, and gave her church's brand-new -- and indecently youthful -- minister a severe look. "It's what you're holding the vigil FOR, Reverend Vansen--"
"Alexandra, please." For the thousandth time, Alex thought with exasperation, but didn't say.
"Very well, Alexandra." Miriam took a deep breath, obviously striving for a reasonable, persuasive tone. She didn't quite manage it. "Supporting equal rights for mutants is all well and good, but it's a political issue, and NOT something you should be bringing within these walls. This is a house of worship--"
Alex winced. "Miriam," she said, as patiently and kindly as she could. "Don't you see the problem in what you just said? If the church only exists within these four walls, it's not much of a church, is it?" It was NOT acceptable to yell at a well-meaning member of your congregation, no matter how frustrated she was making you. Sweet reason, sweet reason, Alex repeated to herself like a chant. As several of her professors at the theological college had said, she wasn't going to last long in the ministry if she didn't learn how to control her temper.
"There are terrible crimes taking place in this city," Alexandra said more firmly, cutting off the older woman's protest. "People being attacked, even killed, simply because they have a quirk in their DNA that you and I don't. Does that seem like a matter that should only be of interest to politicians?" It finally occurred to Alexandra that she had no idea where Miriam actually stood on the whole 'mutant question'.
Miriam flushed again. "Well, of course not," she said in a much less strident tone. "It's not that I DISAGREE with you, Reverend Vansen--" She blinked rather confusedly at Alex's sigh. "I just-- there are spheres that the church should act in, and others where it shouldn't."
"Spheres," Alex said, smiling sadly. "In other words, an excuse for us to turn a blind eye to what we know is going on out in our community, simply because it isn't any of our 'business.' "
"I didn't say that!"
"I know you didn't." Alex sighed again. "But that's where that particular mind-set leads, Miriam. I'm afraid I can't simply sit back and be comfortable with that--and I must admit, I was delighted to realize that so many people in the congregation feel the same way."
"But discrimination is a matter for the courts, not for us--" Miriam tried one last time.
"It's not discrimination, Miriam. It's hatred," Alex said bluntly. "I'm not a judge, or a police officer--I can't make sure that the people doing these horrible things are taken off the streets. What I can do is hold this vigil, and if bringing humans and mutants together to pray and talk and share their experiences contributes to breaking down that hatred, I think we should all be thankful. I understand your concerns, and I'll be more than willing to talk about them with you at length at another time, but I'm afraid right now I have a sermon to write."
After a few pleasantries--Miriam seemed to acknowledge that she'd lost the argument, at least for the time being--Alex finally made her escape into the quiet haven of her book-lined office. She shut the door behind her with a deep sigh, her nerves still jangling.
"That was quite the inventive excuse, Alex, but it's a good thing she doesn't know that you never write your sermons until Saturday night," an amused voice said.
Alex nearly jumped out of her skin. "Cora!" she said in exasperation. "Are you trying to scare me into a heart attack?"
The slender woman sitting in one of the two comfortable chairs strategically placed over by the window (Alex was totally opposed to the idea of sitting behind her desk in a counseling session; it made the person being counseled feel like they were being called into the principal's office, she firmly believed) laughed, her smile showing sharp, pointed teeth. "I had an appointment, remember?" Cora Hale asked, her yellow, slit-pupiled eyes full of sly humor. "To go over the last few arrangements for tommorow night--"
Alex groaned, and fought the urge to slam her head into the wall a few times. "Oh, Cora, I'm so SORRY--"
"Not to worry," Cora said placidly. "You're not that late. Besides, George was here, and let me in."
"Good old George," Alex said with relief, reminding herself to thank the old caretaker. She came over and half-collapsed into the chair opposite Cora, who frowned at her.
"Have you eaten yet today, Alex?"
"Um---I had a cup of coffee on my way out the door--"
Cora made a disapproving sound, shaking her head. "Not good enough," she declared. "How do you expect to fend off offended matrons if you don't have the energy to debate with them?"
Alex smiled lamely. "I thought I did rather well--"
"You did," Cora said more quietly, and suddenly seemed to find something very interesting about her hands. Alex watched her, her smile growing slightly despite herself. Most people, had they possessed a genetic mutation that made them look like nothing more than a humanoid cat, might have tried to hide some of the more obvious outward signs, but not Cora. She didn't bother to try and wear clothes that concealed her fur; her fashion preferences were bold, dramatic, and revealing. She smiled often, never wore sunglasses to hide her eyes, and her claw-like fingernails were not filed down, but painted a deep, striking violet.
Maybe it was the profession she was in, Alex thought. Cora worked for the local theatre, writing, directing, and sometimes even acting in various plays. Alex had first met her three months ago, just after she'd first been assigned to this parish. Cora had been playing Lady MacBeth at the time, and she'd been absolutely magnificent. Alex, enthralled, had wangled her way backstage to meet her--and been a little startled when she found out that Cora's feline appearance wasn't some peculiar idea of the director's. It was a good thing Cora had been big-hearted enough to tolerate her initial shock, Alex reflected warmly, or she would right now be lacking a very good friend.
"I am sort of hungry," Alex finally said, breaking the silence. "There's that little diner down the way--"
Cora looked up, grinning. "The one with that cute cook?"
"Cora! You're unbelievable!" Alex said with a laugh as she got up. "Just let me check my messages--" The light on the answering machine was blinking, she saw as she made her way over to the desk.
"Well, he is cute," Cora chuckled. "Maybe I'll complain about my breakfast, see if I can rouse him out of the kitchen."
Alex shook her head, laughing, as she pressed the 'play' button.
"--is the Friends of Humanity. Cancel this obscene vigil of yours, or you won't have a church left to hold it in. If you defile a house of worship with the presence of mutant filth, the only recourse you leave us is to burn it to the ground. This isn't a threat, it's a promise."
Alex stared down at the answering machine. Her knees were strangely weak all of a sudden, and she felt like an iceberg had taken up residence where her heart used to be. It was hard to breathe, suddenly--
"Alex!" Cora was suddenly beside her, easing her down into the chair. "Alex, are you all right?"
Alex stared into her friend's eyes. Mutant filth? she thought dully. Part of her wanted to laugh, part of her wanted to be sick.
"How could they?" she whispered, and Cora's face blurred in her vision. "How is it possible for human beings to hate each other so much?"
Cora's expression crumpled, and Alex found herself suddenly enfolded in a tight embrace. "Oh, it's not hard, Alex," her friend said in a choked voice full of a strange mixture of savagery and sadness. "It's not hard to hate at all."
Alex sat in the front pew of her church, staring dully straight ahead.
Ma'am, our recommendation is that you cancel your service tomorrow night. Just to be on the safe side. That was what one of the police officers had said, before he had taken the tape from the answering machine. For evidence, he'd said. They'd left two officers behind. They were taking this very seriously, he'd said.
She looked around the church, her church. She'd thought it was so beautiful when she'd first arrived, thought she was so privileged to have been sent here. It wasn't particularly staggering, architecture-wise, just a small church built after the Second World War. But the warmly glowing woodwork, the stunningly beautiful stained- glass windows, all the little touches--they made it beautiful.
Beautiful. But empty. It was the people who filled this place, who made it something wonderful, something special. Her loud, boisterous, enthusiastic, often-irritating and always marvelous congregation--the same people who'd approved her idea for the vigil with a resounding majority at the annual meeting last month.
What if she went ahead with the vigil, and someone got hurt?
Little Miss Change-The-World, she'd heard one of the officers mutter rather sneeringly when he'd thought she wasn't listening. Was he right? Was she letting her own beliefs override her better judgement--common sense? She wouldn't be able to bear it if anything happened. She loved them all so much--
"What do I do?" she whispered, as much a plea as a prayer.
After a time, the answer came to her. Not like a bolt from the heavens, but a slow, growing realization that there were many roads defiance could take, and more than one way to make a stand.
The threat had been a blessing in disguise, Alex thought at dusk the next night as she stared in wonder at the crowd. There was no way they'd have fit all these people inside the church.
The church lawn, however, was large enough for them all.
If just barely. Alex smiled as she saw a van from the local television station pull up. She'd called them and the newspaper yesterday, much to the distress of the police department, who would have preferred to have kept the whole issue quiet--an option that was out when the vigil and the FOH threat had been the lead local story in both the newspaper and the morning news show. They'd complained about her 'compromising' the investigation and so on, but she'd done it anyways. If she was going to go ahead, she'd decided, she wanted everyone to know what they might be getting themselves into.
And, after all, silence was the real enemy. Not the Friends of Humanity.
Besides, the Church Board had been unanimous in agreement with her decision. Alex grinned, wondering about the last time THAT had happened--if it ever had.
"Alex!" Cora was waving at her, smiling, and Alex went over to greet her friend. Cora was standing beside a bald man in a wheelchair who Alex didn't know. "This is a friend of mine," Cora said. "Charles Xavier, this is Reverend Alexandra Vansen."
"Alexandra," Xavier said, taking her hand. His eyes were bright and penetrating, his gaze so intent that Alex would have been uncomfortable if she hadn't seen such unqualified approval of herself in it. "It's good to meet you. Cora's told me a great deal about you."
"I'm glad you could come," Alex said, mentally resolving to ask Cora about her friend at a later date. There was something very interesting about him--he reminded her, oddly enough, of one of her professors, a older man, approaching retirement and afflicted with a number of severe health problems, who had, nonetheless, never flinched from standing up for his convictions, for what he thought was right. He had made quite an impression on her--and there was something of that same sort of strength about Xavier, she thought. "I don't like to sound trite, but the more, the merrier."
"You don't sound trite," Xavier said warmly. "You needn't worry about that."
Alex smiled, and hid her shaking hands in her pockets as she looked around. "I wasn't expecting quite so many people," she murmured. "I really pray there won't be any trouble--" Her voice wavered on that last word, and Cora reached out and put a comforting hand on her shoulder.
It was Xavier who spoke, however. "There will not be," he said firmly.
Alex blinked at him. "Thinking positive," she said with a shaky smile. "I like that."
"Perhaps I should just tell you to 'have faith,' then?" Xavier said with a sudden smile that had absolutely nothing mocking about it.
Alex laughed ruefully. "Part of the job description, Mr. Xavier--"
"Charles. I have to admit, though, some days are easier than others."
"Quite true," Xavier said softly. "But I think you've already found your faith today, Alexandra, or you wouldn't be here. And if you weren't, none of us would be, either." He reached out and took her hand again, squeezing it gently. "Hatred doesn't do well, when it's brought out into the light." Alex raised an eyebrow and glanced at the setting sun, and Xavier laughed, releasing her hand. "Even if the light in question is only candlelight."
"Alex," Cora said, "I managed to convince a number of my-- mutant friends to come. Would you like to meet some of them before the service starts?" Alex nodded, and Cora smiled at Xavier. "I'll be back in a few minutes, Charles."
Like a force of nature, Cora swept Alex along in her wake. She was introduced to person after person, some of them obviously mutants, others who looked like anyone you might have run into on the street. All of them greeted her warmly, a few with tears in their eyes as they told her how much it meant to them to be here tonight. She saw members of her congregation handing out coffee to everyone, family, friends and strangers alike. A few enterprising souls made an Arrowroot run to the church nursery, and started to pass out cookies to the numberless children that seemed to be running around. Part of Alex reflected rather amusedly that her church's reputation for being liberal to the point of insanity was only going to become further entrenched after tonight.
There were a few strangers she didn't meet, who lingered at the edges of the crowd, almost watchfully. A man wearing curious red sunglasses; an auburn-haired woman with a white stripe in her hair; a towering black man who wore an expression as stony as that of the police officers keeping watch from the street; a beautiful woman with long, fire-red hair who gave Alex a brilliant smile when their eyes met; and a short, very hairy man who stood in a circle of solitude that was probably a reaction to the smell of the cigar he was smoking. She noticed each of them, but every time she started to head in their direction, Cora would pull her on to meet someone else.
By the time Cora's introductions were done, Alex was wondering if her hand was going to work again. This is worse than being the greeter at the door on Christmas Eve, she thought, grinning helplessly. She looked at her watch, and gasped. "Cora! We should be five minutes into the service by now--" Waving frantically at her friend, she dashed off to the makeshift podium George had spent the entire day putting together.
Getting up, she checked frantically to make sure her cue-cards were in the pocket of her coat. She'd slaved over her words for tonight as if she was composing a masterpiece--but she couldn't shake the feeling that this would be far more important than any Sunday sermon she had ever, or would ever give.
Maybe that was why she felt so nervous. Standing up there, staring out at the crowd, she felt like she was six years old and pathologically shy once more, as if all the years of hard work to overcome that and actually enjoy public speaking had never happened.
"G-Good evening," she said, hoping she was loud enough. George hadn't quite been able to figure out a sound system that would work outside, and she hadn't wanted him to electrocute himself tinkering. "I--I'm thrilled to see all of you here tonight--" She pulled out her cue-cards, laying them on the podium and wishing her hands weren't shaking quite so much. Smiling around at the crowd, to gain herself a moment to restore her composure, she saw something that very nearly brought tears of joy to her eyes.
There, at the front of the crowd on a blanket, playing happily with a doll, were two little girls, one dark-haired and fair- complexioned, the other with greenish, scaled skin and the brightest blue eyes Alex had ever seen. Both were as beautiful as angels. Behind them sat two women--their mothers, to judge by the resemblance to the girls. One of them lit the other's candle, smiling, and then they both looked up at Alex, expectantly.
Alex straightened, put her cue-cards back in her pocket, and spoke from her heart.
©David D. Amaya
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