The Patty Melt at Roy’s
I caught sight of curious patrons staring through tinted windows at the convoy of beef streaming from all directions toward the two glass doors of the single entrance into one herd. They had to wonder what motivated suits of all shapes and sizes in the middle of a Tuesday afternoon to invade their Roy’s. I smiled at how ridiculous it must look. It couldn’t have been anything on the menu, typical of any number of cafes dotting highway exits throughout the heartland. Two words: Patty Melt. It would take awhile to explain a conference of fundamentalists to these natives. Chit-chat with the locals, however, was not on the agenda today, so they would have plenty of free entertainment without risk of an awkward introduction.
The trail of cars on the short stretch of interstate looked like a funeral procession that then made a wrong turn into a restaurant parking lot. I had ridden shotgun to someone else who was trying to look like he knew what was going on. That morning he was sitting alone on an aisle seat toward the back when I climbed over him to claim the cold, unwanted middle pew, a risky venture that included with it uncomfortable small talk with church members on my other side, who had arrived early enough to claim their inherited location at the end of the row. Jim had served about two hours away for the last five years and his church was not growing. He had taken a congregation in an association to which he had never belonged, and had struggled to get along with all the entrenched personalities and rituals of a long-established institution.
I followed the sway of the pine-tree air freshener dangling from his rear view mirror, wondering all of the incentives for making the original purchase and whether its brown edges should have long ago signaled to Jim the end of its artificial aroma. I checked out the prices on the gas signs to see how they compared to those in my area. As he explained some of his difficulties, I turned and looked at the shape of his longish side-burns, surely a little message to everyone of the truly independent thinking with which he was involved. Jim was not a climber in fundamentalism. His tie looked to be something still in style during his five undistinguished years at a large fundamentalist university. His pilgrimage to this conference maintained an identity to which he was accustomed, giving him a sense of belonging.
Jim mentioned again his small numbers and the lack of success in attracting visitors to attend and especially to stay once they came. I never assumed that unbelievers would want to just come to church. I asked him what he did to evangelize his community.
“I joined a local band,” he answered. “I play trumpet.”
“Hmmmm,” I said with feigned interest, my lips curled with Mona Lisa approval. “I go out and evangelize door-to-door every week. It gives me many opportunities to preach the gospel to people.”
Jim didn’t look comfortable with my comment, but he still replied. “I’ve not seen that type of evangelism to have much success.”
“So how have the evangelism opportunities gone with all the other band members?” I asked.
“It’s been good,” he said. “I haven’t given the plan of salvation per se to anyone yet, but it really does seem like an open door.”
My mind decided right then why his church wasn’t growing, even if door-to-door was as little effective as he had already determined.
This was my first of one of these meetings ever, so I really didn’t know what to expect. I had assumed that this was one of the things that pastors did, come to these—it was a bit of an experiment for me. The roster of speakers were big names in the fellowship that were penciled in to most of the regional line-ups across the country. Nothing to me had ever stood out with their preaching. When I say that, I don’t mean to say that I either got nothing out of it or that I just wasn’t entertained. It was neither entertaining like the revivalist preachers with their amazing stories nor was it substantial like many of the leading evangelicals I sometimes heard on the radio. Their major qualification seemed to be either their proximity to or their good favor with the same large Christian university from which Jim came. It didn’t seem that the host church had anything to do with the program except for the privilege of ranking high enough for the honor of hosting.
Tuesday morning started out strange. I parked my rental car and walked to a row of doors to the church auditorium. I grabbed the handle of one and ignored any happy welcome I thought I might receive as I scanned the lobby in search of the universal symbol for men’s room. Upon finding it, I strode that direction, following the urges of my natural instincts. I was stopped by a booming voice behind me, sending his earnest, authoritative command in my direction. “Son,” this mountain man said. I pivoted just enough to catch his image in my peripheral vision. There was no on else around so I knew he must be talking to me. There he was, his silver and black hair greased back in Memphis style, his body thick and wide, the president of the fellowship. “Son, could you go get me a glass of water?” The man was busy and thirsty. My subtle knowledge of church architecture changed my direction to two swinging wooden doors that led to a hallway. I kept walking until the kitchen appeared, the smell of coffee and the gurgling of its brewing leading my way. I began opening cupboards to find the elusive, available cup, twisted the cold handle, filled it straight from the tap, and then took the path back to deliver it to my solicitor. I remembered on my way a story that Jesse Jackson had told about working in a fast-food restaurant, spitting into some of the food of his customers before serving. Interesting thought. I considered whether Jesus had this in mind when He said, “A cup of cold water given in my name.” No. Maybe. Anyway, I located a duck tail on the back of a huge head, circled until I caught his attention again, and he reached out to accept my delivery, immediately draining its contents and then handing the empty cup back to me. He turned and kept talking, and I made my way back to the kitchen. I poured myself a cup of coffee before I headed back to the bathroom.
Two messages were preached that morning, first something allegorical from an Old Testament narrative. When Elijah promised rain, there appeared a cloud the size of a man’s fist. A man’s fist has five fingers. The number five means this, and so it meant this. He was my water drinker and single syllable words were spoken in two and three syllables, the past tense delivered with an emphatic, hard “-ed.” The second warned against ecumenical evangelism. I wondered how many men who traveled to this conference had been tempted by ecumenism. Zero, I guessed, but there were a lot of Amens. Nothing to bring us together like problems with other people. Amen! But at least we’d have some good Bible discussion at lunch. At Roy’s.
Jim seemed insecure and I felt sorry for him. I hoped that by tagging along the time I did I could make him feel a little better about being in the ministry. However, I had decided on the drive over that my time with him would be over once we scattered to our seats in the restaurant. We wouldn’t be doing lunch together. We did service and drive to Roy’s. As I exited Jim’s vehicle, no one separated me from the host pastor, who walked fifteen feet in front of me and who upon popping a stick of gum into his mouth, quickly wadded the wrapper and threw it into the shrubbery in front of Roy’s restaurant. I thought of that American Indian with the single tear running down his cheek positioned next to a face shot of Pastor Big Shot. I could see the metallic juicy-fruit cover stuck like an asteroid near a restaurant window. I took a deep breath of disgust and kept marching. I still held many strong illusions about the nature of these men that had not yet been shattered.
A big crowd of men stood together next to the “wait-to-be-seated” sign already in some type of pecking order. Even though I was the morning water boy, my knowledge of the authority of my office provided all the confidence I needed to talk to anyone I wanted, so I headed right into the brood of roosters to hear what they had to say. I stood and listened while we waited for an appropriate number of tables to open up for our crowd to be seated. I caught a story a little ways in that recounted a fight at just this type of restaurant in which the two fundamentalist leaders had each other’s hands around the other’s throat until a third had broken it up. I struggled to find the moral of the story, but it was highly entertaining, ending about the time our hostess arrived to lead us to our places.
When the music stopped, I was in a booth alone with two other guys I had met before, well-known in the fellowship who had both hosted one of these conferences. Neither of them knew me. I found that I didn’t know them either. I looked to my left at a bank of tables to see Jim sitting down in an empty seat right next to the fellowship president. Wow. Maybe Jim had more grit than I had imagined, or he was a loser in the contest of restaurant chairs. Alone standing up in back of a seat at the far end of the table was an elite fellowship man. I saw a situation developing. His eyes met the president’s. Then the president looked at Jim, then back at his elite friend, then back to Jim again, and then the fellowship president stood and with that booming voice said, “Jim, have I ever introduced you to a couple of my friends? They’re right over here.” He walks Jim to my table. I knew I wasn’t one of the friends. “This is Roy and Larry and….” “Moe,” I said. “Roy and Larry and Moe.” “I’m actually Bruce.” “Oh, Bruce.” That joke was obviously lost on him, but Jim was now sitting with us, actually right next to me again. I don’t think Roy and Larry were much happier about having such a little man right across from them. The fellowship elite now moved into Jim’s former seat to a giant back slap from the fellowship president and huge laughter.
I looked across the room to the adjacent booths where some of the locals were sitting and all of them were seeing the same drama unfold that I had. It was a little like watching an old television sit com with characters so above life to even be real. But these were real. Really real. Too real actually. Surreal.
As I picked up my own laminated copy of Roy’s food items, it occurred to me that one of the guys across from me was also Roy. Then I read the “Hello, I’m” sticker still stuck on his lapel, so I asked him, gesturing to the menu, “Any relation?” He was not amused. I thought, “Roy meet Roy,” wondering if one might be Leroy or the other Royal. We spent the next few minutes choosing what we wanted to order. A waitress came, we made our selections, me a patty melt, of course, and then handed in the menus. I had a couple of Scriptural discussions that had been percolating, so I brought one of them up. Larry and Roy just looked at me. A dramatic pause. Jim had more experience at conferences. He knew not to bring up Biblical discussions, especially ones that challenged the status quo of the fellowship. We came together especially based upon a few propositions that stated what our group was against. I had asked, “What do we do with churches in the fellowship that take in a member whom our church has disciplined out of the church?” Long silence. “Bruce, you’ve just got to get over it.” “Get over it?” I asked. “Yes, get over it, Bruce. Everybody has that happen to them.” “But isn’t that as much of a fellowship issue as there is?” No answer. Just smiles and looking at each other. Long sighs. Head wagging.
“So how’s their patty melts here, ya think?” Smiles again. Now there’s fellowship.