[Ed. Note This column marks the last in Joseph Urbaniak s limited-run column. We hope our readers had a chance to read Urbaniak s writings with an open mind and eyes. We thank Joe for the chance to publish his columns.]
I saw the notice on the bulletin board in the dormitory. The annual Love Feast, a celebration of Easter with singing, worship and lots of home-cooked food prepared by several of the local churches.
This was my fourth year at this facility and in all that time I had never gone to the Love Feast. I tend to stay away from evangelical Christian gatherings. For one thing, who wants to go and be ridiculed and looked down on for being in the sin of homosexuality?
But, now it was time again for the Love Feast. Guys who had gone to it in previous years described mountains of food more than anyone could eat. Real food made by people who didn’t work for the prison. So, I decided that this year I was going to crash the party.
But, there was a prerequisite for going to the Love Feat. It was in small print at the bottom of the notice: To participate in the Love Feast, inmates must attend at least three evangelical Christian worship services.
Three services? Were they crazy? This made me angry. It s just like a bunch of evangelical Christians to offer up a party and have torturous conditions to attend. What kind of Christian Love was this? I thought the love of Jesus was for everyone. I don t remember reading in the Bible, when Jesus fed the multitudes with a handful of bread and fish, that the disciples went around asking for professions of faith or telling people they had to sit through six hours of redneck mountain preaching before they could eat. Of course, this could explain the miracle: Gee, Jesus, we ve only got three people left. Everyone else went home.
So, I talked a friend of mine, Sean, into suffering through it with me. Together we decided it might fun. Sean was a short 27-year-old Jew who practiced the Wiccan religion. Between the two of us we figured that, if anyone came up to us to convert us during the meal, we d have no trouble de-verting them:
“Do you boys have Jesus as your personal savior?”
“Well, actually I m a Buddhist and my friend here is a Satanist and we just came for the food. The fried chicken is really good, by the way.”
We went together to our first service. The Great and Honorable Reverend Bellows presided a man who stood six foot four and weighed about 270 pounds. He started out asking the crowd of about 30 inmates for testimony. A young black man who was missing two front teeth stood up and told how God helped him overcome his lust for women; he was now a changed person and praised the Lord. He didn’t mention how he d come to me two days earlier to ask if we could get together so I could give him some relief. I fought off the urge to remind him.
Next, an older black man with gray hair gave a 10-minute monologue about how Jesus saved him and how, when he gets out of prison, he’ll be a changed man. Then a 30-something white guy stood up and started shouting God is good, God is great, and each time he did it, the rest of the guys yelled in unison. It reminded me of being on a turkey farm, where if you make a noise like a turkey, all the turkeys will reply with a gobble of their own.
After that, a six-foot-eight, light-skinned guy who was on fire for the Lord which meant he punctuated each sentence with the words Praise God got up to sing. He must have thought he was auditioning for American Idol, because he not only sang, he performed. He danced and shook across the room, hands waving in the air, with a big toothy smile. He bellowed out the song with such force and feeling that it must have sent shock waves across the space/time continuum all the way back to 1983. When he finished, I was looking for the score from the judges and I knew I would have given him a 10 out of sheer terror.
The preacher asked if anyone needed a prayer and got the standard requests for prayers for sick family members, prayers for strength against attacks by the devil and prayers for hope and peace. Then a strange-looking man with a long, red biker beard streaked with gray and wearing sunglasses asked that we pray for his baby girls and all the other young girls out there who need someone to love and understand them. Sean and I turned to each other with the same look of shock and revulsion eyes wide, mouths hanging open.
Finally, it was time for the preacher. Reverend Bellows screamed and yelled from the pulpit for the next 35 minutes about how sinners would burn in hell if they didn’t change their evil ways and accept the Lord as their savior. He trotted back and forth in front of everyone, spewing about wages of sin, stressing that the only way to heaven was through the Bible s teaching and basically imitating almost every TV evangelist who ever had his own Gospel hour. The only thing the Reverend didn’t do was pass the plate; prisoners don t have any money.
When he finished, he closed his Bible with dramatic flair and called to the front of the room anyone who wanted Jesus to come into his life and fix all the wrongs. Several men made their way to the front, including the toothless guy, the gray-headed one and the biker with affection for lonely young girls. All of them asked Jesus to come fix them. Finally, it was over and Sean and I felt like we d been put through some sort of alien brainwashing session. We both felt slimmed.
The next two services were just as agonizing and basically were carbon copies of the first. The same testimonies, the same prayer requests (including the biker beard s expression of love for young girls), the same thunderous singing that might have been heard as far away as Canada, the same wages of sin preaching and the same guys filing up to the front to ask Jesus to fix them. When we saw the same ones going up for the third time, Sean said to me, The first two times I guess it didn’t take.
At last it was over. We had fulfilled our requirement, suffered and sacrificed through six hours of prison church. Now, we could go to the Love Feast. And what a feast it was! There were tables and tables loaded with food: fried chicken, ham, roast beef, a half dozen different salads, mounds of fresh vegetables, rolls and breads of every shape and size. When I saw all that food in all its splendor, I thought I d cry. I went back three times.
Then there was the dessert table. More kinds of pies, cakes, puddings and sweet delights than I had ever known could exist in one hemisphere. I had a slice of chocolate cake, one of chocolate cream pie, a chocolate brownie, some kind of whipped chocolate pudding that was like eating a cloud. I felt like I had died and gone to chocolate heaven.
When it was over, we all carried ourselves slowly back to our dorms, bellies protruding and the tops of our pants loosened. I had eaten so much that I thought I was going to be sick. When I got back to my room and lay down on my bed, I hurt. No matter how I lay, I couldn’t get comfortable. It felt like a 20-pound bowling ball inside me. I had a new appreciation for pregnant women.
As I lay on my bed trying to get comfortable, I wondered how many of the other guys were just as achingly full. How many of them would pray to Jesus to fix them? After all, gluttony is a sin, isn’t it?
Joe Urbaniak was sentenced in 1995 to 20 years imprisonment for indecent liberties with a child and crime against nature. He hopes to be released in 2010. He was awarded Second Place for Memoir in the 2003 PEN Prison Writing Awards and has recently earned his B.A. in Business Administration.
He has requested that Q-Notes publish his contact information in hopes of finding penpals. Write him at P.O. Box 1569, Lillington, NC 27546. All correspondence should include his inmate number: 0415899.