An atheist meets God... "What a Character" contest entry
|Carla Georgina Willis stood on the corner, watching the cars drive by as she considered which way to walk. She had a photography assignment due that evening, and had done none of the work she had originally intended to do. The assignment was a ten image photo essay centred around “opposites attract”, and she had chosen the homeless population and religion as her opposites. She had never understood how someone who was in such a destitute position could believe that there was a god – it made no sense. She thought that, if there was a god, he would at least help the poor and needy! |
The light turned red and she was signalled to walk, so she made her way across the street to the park. There were a few homeless camps hidden within the trees and brush, and Carla was sure to find enough material to photograph for her assignment somewhere in the park.
She spent the better part of her day trying to find the supposed ‘camps’. The homeless of her city seemed to have hidden their sites rather well, but as afternoon waned into early evening, Carla came across a group of men sitting around a metal rubbish bin. There was a small fire burning, and they held their hands over the opening.
“Excuse me,” she began, raising her hand in a peaceful greeting, “I am a photography student and I wanted to know if you all would agree to be apart of my photo essay?”
The men turned and looked at her, hunger in their eyes. “Look, I’ll pay you for your troubles, I just really need to get this assignment done.”
“What’s the topic?” The younger man, who appeared to be no older than his early twenties, stood from his seat.
“I am looking for homeless people with a deep religious belief.”
The man laughed. “First of all, we aren’t homeless, we are houseless. Second of all, it seems you have come to the right rubbish bin.” He pulled out an ornate, but plastic, cross and let it lay on his chest. The other men did the same.
“Awesome. Thanks.” She flipped the switch on her camera and took a step forward. “Just go about your business, then, and I’ll snap away.”
The young man sat back on his makeshift chair and reached his hands out to his fellows. In silence, the other men took each others hands and bowed their heads.
“Righteous Father,” the young man spoke. Carla took up her camera and began clicking the shutter button, first taking a few shots of the group as a whole, then moving closer to photograph the details – their hands, lined with wrinkles and creased with dirt; their closed eyes and their faces, which appeared serene; and finally, the crosses that hung around their necks, immaculate against their soiled clothes. “We thank You for being a God of grace and mercy. Thank You for knowing each houseless person and family intimately. Thank You for being our protection, shelter, hope and help. The heavens proclaim Your Glory, Lord. In Jesus name, Amen.”
“Amen,” the others said in unison. They opened their eyes and gave each other a smile and a pat on the shoulder.
“You see, young lady,” one of the older men said, turning to face her, “God gifts us with challenges each and every day, and each challenge is different. We come from backgrounds that would shock you.”
“I was a business man, with a degree in technology,” another said. “God called to me and told me to leave the corrupt industry I was working in and go to Venezuela as a missionary of His word. When I came back, I didn’t have any money to my name. I wasn’t able to get my job back, and I had sold everything in order to travel.”
Carla was shocked by his story. This was one of the many reasons why she could not bring herself to believe in god, any god. How could a being that was supposed to protect his believers treat them this way?
“I am a veteran – most of us here are,” the young man said. “I served in Iraq, three tours. I joined when I was eighteen, had this amazing vision of fighting for my country, meeting a lovely girl, retiring after twenty years – obviously, none of that happened. I watched my buddies die, and I was shot in the leg. Permanently disabled. Medically discharged. Left with nowhere to go.” He shrugged and offered a wary smile, but Carla could see the pain of his country’s betrayal written on his face.
“How did you come to believe in god?” Carla stepped forward into the glow of the small fire, and two of the men moved aside to give her a place to sit. She thanked them and lowered herself to the board, propped up on two plastic milk crates. “I mean, it seems like you all have reason not to believe – what gives you hope?”
“We aren’t dead, yet,” a man, who had a scar on his face that ran from his temple to his neck, laughed. “We have food, we have shelter, and some of us have even found the very things we were missing in our lives.”
The group looked pointedly at the young man, who gave an embarrassed chuckle. “Most days, we feel blessed to have what we have, though to most it would seem meagre. We are happy to just be here, even though it can be a hard life.”
She was dumbstruck by their optimism and the joy on their faces. She remained, in silence, listening to the men speak of their troubles and hardships, but all the while she felt a sense of peace from the group. They were not starving, they were not envious of those that lived in the houses and high-rises that surrounded them – no, they were, in fact, hopeful that others would see their position not as something to be fixed, but as something to be pondered. They lived with much less than the vast majority of others, but their lives were filled with much more than even she had.
Tired and wary of the walk home, Carla waved goodbye to the group with a promise to return, and headed away from the park with a strange feeling in the pit of her stomach.
It wasn’t too far to her apartment, which she was grateful for, but as she unlocked her door and stepped into the darkness, she felt the weight of the day baring down on her. But, she had work to do before she could fall into bed, and Carla set about importing the photos from her memory card into her editing program.
The first few pictures were ones she had taken before heading into the park – images of the homeless on the streets, panhandling and sitting with signs and a few young children with their families peering into windows at cakes and sweets. She hadn’t asked if they were homeless, but their dirty clothes and faces gave them away. She deleted those photos, choosing instead to focus all of her project on the men around the rubbish bin.
The first set of photos were of the group, their hands clasped in prayer. The fire gave their faces a glow and, around each of their heads, rested a strange halo of light – probably just a trick of the light. She chose two, taken from opposing angles, to edit. The rest, which were the macro shots of their hands and faces and crosses, she went through and chose the eight that showed her theme the best.
Finally, after four hours of editing and tweaking levels, Carla sat back and looked through her project – her professor wanted digital files emailed to him that evening, and the prints would be revealed at a gallery showing that weekend.
As she looked through the photos, she noticed a strange figure just beyond the group of men. It was tall, masculine looking though vague enough to be anything – even a tree. It seemed to watch over the men, whatever it was, and the glow around its edges was surreal. It wasn’t easily noticed, but as she studied it she felt that it gave each photo a sense of the Other than she assumed god would give any situation.
Carla sat in her photography class, listening to the professor discuss the projects that had made the deadline, and chastising the students that had failed the assignment. She was glad to have made the cut, and she was proud that her professor had made a pointed comment about the subject matter and execution of her theme. Maybe, just maybe, this would get her noticed and she could intern with National Geographic, or a similar publication.
As she watched her professor move around the front of the room, she saw something – a ray of light coming through the windows, a trick of physics that made the light appear as a figure, obviously. She turned her attention back to the front, but out of the corner of her eye, the light figure moved. Shaking her head at herself, she looked back and saw that it was part way up the isle. It was very light, not something you could see without focusing on it, but it was there.
Carla, you have a talent.
Had her teacher said that? She turned back and realised that, no, he had not. He was still going on about responsibility and tax dollars funding grants and scholarships for students that didn’t care about their majors.
I need you, Carla. I need you to share my message.
The figure was at the beginning of her row, moving toward her. Her chest tightened and the same feeling from the previous night filled her stomach. She tried to ignore the strange apparition, but found herself incapable of keeping her eyes forward. It was beside her, hand on her shoulder, and she felt the warmth, the caring, the love that flowed through that hand.
Please, tell me that you will listen to my call, tell me that you will carry my words in your heart and spread this message of love and light to those around you.
How could she decline such a request? How could she say no to this being, whatever it was? She felt such a deep love and sense of compassion from the words that were pushed into her mind. She knew that it was impossible, that she was likely having some sort of psychotic break with reality, but there was that little feeling of peace, that little voice within her head that told her she was experiencing God in all of His glory.
Sure. She would give it a chance. She would try, and if it worked, she would continue. She would meet with the men at the metal rubbish bin and hear their stories, again, and from there she would try to believe and spread the message of love and light to the world.
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