When I was nine, I went to my cousin’s wedding. It was at a church. Not an old church, or one with a spire; it wasn’t made from big stones, and it didn’t have a graveyard or stained-glass windows. There were no hard wooden pews or hymn books. It didn’t smell weird. This place was more like a convention centre with a neon cross on the roof. It was huge. Nothing about it seemed churchy. One of the walls in the foyer had the name Jesus written in giant letters, but even that was done in a graffiti style; it made me focus on the colours and cool wavy lettering rather than anything holy. It was cold too. They had the air-conditioning cranked.
We got there early; Mum had been asked to greet people at the door and give them a program and little origami box of confetti. My sister helped her. Dad and I went for a walk around. The church had a café, a small library and a playroom for toddlers. A guy came up to us and introduced himself. His name was Pastor Josh. He was going to be conducting the wedding ceremony. He wore a skinny black suit and the shiniest shoes I had ever seen. He had a big smile, almost aggressive. It leapt at you from across the room. He held out his hand for Dad to shake. Dad shook it, but it wasn’t one of his real handshakes. Dad and Pastor Josh had a brief conversation, and then Pastor Josh went off to prepare for the ceremony. Dad and I went back to the auditorium and sat down.
“Big building, huh?” said Dad, when he noticed me looking up at the coloured lights on the ceiling.
“Where do you think they get the money to pay for it?” he said.
I looked at him. I thought a moment. “I don’t know.”
He leaned down and whispered. “The people who come to church pay for it. Pastor Josh gets up on stage every Sunday and tells people to give him money.”
“Really?” I said.
“Yep. He tells all the people that if they don’t give him money, God will be angry with them. So they all give him money, even if they haven’t got any money to give.”
I sat there in silence and thought about what Dad was saying. I had never heard about any of this.
“I guarantee you he drives a sports car,” said Dad. “Lives in a mansion too. See, once he spends a bit of money on the church building here, he keeps the rest for himself.”
I had always imagined pastors being almost poor and giving what little money they had to old ladies and homeless people. I looked across the enormous room to where Pastor Josh was helping adjust the floral arch on stage. I suspected perhaps he was not a good person.
“Did you notice the scar on his cheek?” said Dad. I looked up at him and shook my head. Dad gave a knowing nod. “Right here,” he said, tapping just below his eye. “It’s almost healed, but you can still see it. A nice little cut it would have been. Probably from a fight.”
I turned and stared at Pastor Josh in shock.
“That guy works one day a week,” said Dad. “He gives his speech on a Sunday, asks for money—but what do you think he does the rest of the week?”
I looked at Dad. “What does he do?”
Dad looked around, then leaned in and said, “He fights crime.” He took out a handkerchief and cleaned his glasses while he let that secret sink in. “That’s how he got the scar. Fighting bank robbers probably. That’s why he asks for all that money, see? He needs it to buy his costume and his gadgets and detective gear. Superheroes need a lot of money if they want to stay ahead of the criminals.”
I stared at Pastor Josh. Part of me struggled to see how he could really be a superhero, but another part of me knew my dad was right about these sorts of things. Dad knew a lot.
“He really fights bad guys?” I said.
“The Night Dragon, they call him. You know on the news, when there’s been a robbery or something, and they say, ‘Police are making enquiries’?”
“Well, that’s just code. When they say that, it means the police are getting the Night Dragon to help them.”
I looked at Pastor Josh in awe.
I attend church these days. Not like Pastor Josh’s church. Just a little local flock. The Pastor, Fred, is a tiny old man. Wears the same pair of brown shoes every Sunday. Drives an old Honda Civic. Calls bingo at the nursing home on Wednesdays. Every Sunday I put money in the collection basket, and when I do, I imagine Pastor Fred in a crimson combat suit and cape, beating up thugs in the back alleys at night. The Red Owl, I call him.
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