Sample of Peace Through the Fire
Copyright © 2017 Taretha Jones
All rights reserved. No part of the work may be reproduced without the expression written permission of the author. This book is a work of fiction. All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. All characters, events, and incidents in this book are a product of the author’s imagination.
Juanita Thompson finished placing the last entry into the accounting software that belonged to Zion Grove Christian Center. She hadn't asked to be the treasurer and bookkeeper at her house of worship, she’d been voted into it. Well, actually her church elders had come to her begging her to take over the position. Before Juanita had started keeping books for Zion Grove, Deacon James Sullivan had been doing the job for over twenty-two years. He'd had a stroke five years ago and hadn’t been able to keep contributing time towards the church’s financial record-keeping endeavors. Juanita loved her church, and she loved the Lord. Since her place of worship had needed her, she hadn’t turned them down.
Sitting in the office at the back of the sanctuary after Bible study, Juanita's bestie, Shonda, said, “Well, the new pastor will be rolling up in here tomorrow, Juanita. You ready to meet him at the special session the elders called?”
Their old pastor had been recently forced into retirement by his declining health. Juanita absolutely adored the man who'd led her church for the past ten years, but she was excited to be finally meeting the man who’d be taking over the helm.
Most of the congregants of Zion Grove had already met Joshua Ellerbee. But when the man had been doing his trial preaching session, Juanita had been out of town for the month. She frowned. She’d been out of town because her own father had fallen ill.
“He’s fine as he wanna be, Juanita.” Shonda laughed. “If I didn’t have my Johnathan, girl…”
Juanita turned her frown into a pleasant smile. “That's what I've been hearing from all the young and available sistas here at Zion Grove — some of the not too young ones, too. Sister Kennedy is pushing sixty-five, but she’s still looking for her Mr. Right. She's already put all the ladies here at church on notice that she got first dibs on the new pastor’s dating card. She doesn't care that the man’s thirty years her junior.”
Shonda laughed again. “Sister Kennedy is a mess, boo. But she got a good heart. I hope she eventually finds herself a Mr. Right. She sure does deserve one.” Then she pointed her finger at her bestie. “And you deserve one, too, Juanita.”
“You know I’m just fine with the way things are in my life, Shonda. I have a loving family and friends. And I have a great job working with you and Lexi. I’m not wanting for anything whatsoever...what else could I ask for?”
Shonda pulled her eyebrows together in disbelief. “You’re really not interested in finding a wonderful brotha to tie the knot with, Nita?”
Juanita sighed. Ever since she’d turned thirty — which had been two years ago — she’d been asked that question a lot. She shrugged her shoulders. “If a Mr. Right comes my way, I won’t turn him down. But like I said, I’m perfectly fine with how my life is right now.”
Shonda understood that her girl was living a charmed life already. But she had a hard time believing that she really wasn’t wanting a soulmate. I’ve known her for over five years now. I know better.
Shonda wanted to ask Juanita some more questions, but since it was late in the evening, she decided not to press the issue. We’ll have to go there some other day, she thought to herself. Then she flashed her girl a smile. “Are you almost done with those books, Nita?”
Juanita was glad that Shonda had decided to change the subject. She began shutting down the desktop. “Yep. I’m all done. We can roll on out of here. And thank you for chauffeuring me around today while my car is in the shop. That was mighty nice of you.”
Shonda beamed. “No problem, Nita. That’s what real friends do.”
Two hours later, after Juanita had finally said her prayers for the night and climbed into her cold, empty bed, she frowned. Having a warm, loving body to cuddle with would definitely be nice.
* * *
The Next Day:
When Pastor Joshua Ellerbee walked into the meet and greet session at Zion Grove Christian Center, Juanita had been in the sanctuary with many of other congregants of the church for about ten minutes. Smooth brown skin, full luscious lips, brooding dark eyes, a strong jawline — Pastor’s definitely as fine as all the ladies here been saying he is. That was the first thought to run through Juanita’s mind when she first laid eyes on Pastor Joshua Ellerbee.
The meet and greet session was informal. As their church’s new leader fielded questions from the flock of fifty or so who were gathered there, Juanita decided that Pastor Ellerbee was rather likeable — he had a winning personality and seemed compassionate about people. She knew she definitely wasn’t gonna be amongst the women who were about to be standing in line trying to get their name scribbled on the man’s dating card, but she liked him.
Once the ‘meet and greet’ was over with, Juanita prepared herself for the private meeting that their new pastor had scheduled with the church administrators. She made her way to the conference room. Before she could make it to her destination, Deacon Wilder stopped her.
Middle-aged Deacon Wilder lifted his lips in a smile. Then he allowed his eyes to skim Juanita from head to toe. Deacon Wilder was pleasant enough, but there was something about him that always seemed to give Juanita the chills. But she returned the man’s smile with a tiny one of her own.
“Guess you gonna be one of the sistas ‘round here smiling up into Pastor’s face, aren’t you, Juanita?”
Juanita shook her head. “I come to church to worship and do God’s work, Deacon. That’s what my objective is. Now if you’ll excuse me, our new pastor has called a meeting for the administrators. I don’t wanna be late.”
Deacon Wilder had been married to his wife, Viola, for the past twenty-three years, but he always appreciated a beautiful woman. And Juanita Thompson is sho’ nuff’ fine, he thought to himself. The deacon checked out Juanita’s backside as she walked away and nodded his head in admiration. Yep, she sho’ nuff fine alright.
Twenty minutes later, Juanita was seated at a round table in the conference room listening to their new leader speak to them.
She'd decided during the meet-and-greet session thirty minutes earlier, that she liked Pastor Ellerbee well enough. The more she heard him talk about the positive direction in which he intended taking Zion Grove, she liked him even more. We sure are blessed that the Lord decided to send Pastor Ellerbee our way, she thought to herself. Those encouraging sentiments changed less than five minutes later.
Juanita couldn't help but pull her eyebrows together in a frown. What did he just say? she asked herself. He said he intends on hiring a professional accountant for Zion Grove?
Juanita had fallen into doing the accounting work for her church by default. Now that she'd been performing the job for so many years, she thoroughly enjoyed it. She couldn't believe what the man was saying. He's just gonna roll up in here and terminate my position...just like that? Replace me with someone simply because they have a degree in accounting and the word ‘certified’ in front of their title?
What stunned her even more was the fact that the man hadn't even tried to consult her before making his announcement. Any fond thoughts she'd been having for Pastor Joshua Ellerbee disappeared instantaneously...disappeared like smoke.
Juanita had been an active participant in the beginning of their little meeting, now she had nothing at all to say. She'd decided to remain speechless, but that didn't mean she didn't intend on talking to the good pastor about everything once the meeting was over with.
Twenty minutes later, Joshua gave the closing prayer to end their little conference. Juanita had had every intention of speaking with the man, but Sister Lisa — who was the head of the deaconess board — stopped her before she could get to him. By the time Juanita had managed to close her conversation with Sister Lisa, their new pastor had left the room.
Juanita looked the minister of music, David, in the eye. “Did Pastor Ellerbee go to his office?”
David shook his head. “Nope. He left the building already. Some members of the young adult choir are taking him out to dinner.”
I bet they are, Juanita said to herself while suppressing the frown that wanted to jump on her face. The young adult choir is mostly women between the ages of eighteen and thirty. Every last one of them is probably hoping for a hook up with the good pastor.
“They're going over to the Golden Corral on Lawndale to eat buffet if you wanna catch up with them,” David offered.
Juanita flashed him a tiny smile of gratitude for trying to be so helpful. She shook her head and said, “I can talk to him later, David. But thanks for the info.”
* * *
The Following Morning at Her Regular 9 to 5:
Juanita boxed up a security system for shipping and taped the cardboard package closed. She loved her job working at Blessed Security — that’s because the company was owned by her two besties who were business partners, Lexianna and Shonda. And it was also because they paid her well.
“What's wrong, Juanita?” her girl, Lexi asked. “You usually bring the sunshine up in this place with you every morning.”
“Girl, it's that new pastor of ours. Do you believe he's talking about firing me as the financial recordkeeper at the church?”
A look of shock came onto Lexi's pretty face. “What? He's talking about firing you?”
Shonda shook her head in disbelief. “But you do such a good job at keeping Zion Grove's books.”
Juanita couldn't stop the look of disgust from taking over her facial features. “Yeah. That's what I’d thought, too. And I don't even ask for any type of payment for my work...even though they do give me a hundred bucks a month for my efforts.”
“But what in the world is his reason why?” Lexi asked.
Juanita shook her head at her girl. “I don't know the reason why. But I suspect it has something to do with me not having a degree in accounting — even though I have a bachelor’s in psychology, and I minored in business and administration. During our meeting yesterday evening, he kept throwing the words 'certified' and 'professional' around.”
“Are you gonna talk to him about it?”
A look of determination came onto Juanita's face. “Yeah, I'm gonna talk to him alright. He's keeping office hours over at Zion Grove today from noon to four. If you and Shonda think you can handle the workload, I intend on cutting out of here at three this afternoon… All so I can have a little talk with our new pastor, of course.”
Shonda and Lexi both nodded their heads. “We can definitely hold it down,” Lexi said. Her eyes met Shonda's. “Can't we, boo?”
* * *
As she made her way along I–40, Juanita couldn't get the audacity of her new pastor's actions off of her mind. By the time she pulled into the parking lot of Zion Grove, she was inwardly fuming. “Get yourself under control, girl,” she whispered under her breath. “It's not gonna do you any good going in there angry…or acting like you have an attitude.”
She took several calming deep breaths, then stepped out of her car to go do battle.
The second she stepped into his office, Joshua flashed the young lady whose face he remembered from the previous evening a warm smile. “It's Juanita, isn't it? What can I do for you this fine afternoon?” Juanita had seemed so mild-mannered and pleasant when he’d met her the other day, that he was surprised by the borderline hostile look on her pretty face.
Not smiling, Juanita looked him dead in the eye and said, “You can tell me why you insist on replacing me as the financial records keeper here and whatnot—,” she crossed her arms over her chest, “—when I’ve been doing a perfectly good job at it.”
The second she spoke her piece, he understood the reason for the twenty-four hour change in her countenance.
“Sister Juanita...according to Assistant Minister Billington, you were railroaded into taking on the current duties that you’re performing for Zion Grove...and it’s my understanding that you’re only given a pittance for the job. Because of what Minister Billington told me, I figured you wouldn’t mind at all being relieved of the burden the church had forced on you. He had said he was sure you wouldn’t mind either. We actually hired a certified accountant already. He signed the papers for a year-long contract with us a little over an hour ago.”
He hired somebody to replace me just like that? He didn’t talk to me or nothing? Really?! Really?! I can’t believe this!
Yes, Juanita was upset — very much so. And she honestly couldn’t believe what she was hearing. But she also understood that since a contract had been signed, there was nothing she could do about it. She understood that the fate of the job she’d been lovingly doing for her church had been sealed.
She forced an emotionless look on her face — instead of the one of anger that she really wanted to show. She nodded her head at her new pastor and gave him a tight little smile. “Okay, I understand what's going on here.” With that being said, she turned on her heel and left his office. As she closed his door behind herself, she almost bumped into Angela Billington — a pretty little twentysomething who was a member of their young adult choir and the daughter of one of Zion Grove’s assistant ministers.
Angela gave Juanita a look that was nice/nasty. Then she covered that up with a very pleasant smile. “Were you here talking to Pastor Ellerbee about church business, Juanita?”
Juanita wanted to roll her eyes at Angela, but she had too much class to do that. Noticing that Angela was dressed much too nice — and a little too scandalously — for a simple mid-day counseling session with the new leader of their church, Juanita shook her head and said, “Oh, you don't have to worry about me being up here trying to make moves on Pastor Ellerbee, Angela. The man's all yours. There’s no way I’m interested in being a member of the groupies worshipping at his feet. He's a bit too pompous, and a whole lot too presumptuous for my taste.”
Angela stared at Juanita’s retreating back for a few seconds, then she cupped her hands under her 36C girls — that had a padding under them to make them appear to be 36D’s. She smiled. Less competition for me. I like that.
* * *
Juanita was so upset over what had gone down at church that instead of going straight home, she decided to go back to her job. She wanted to vent with her besties — Shonda and Lexi.
The second Juanita stepped into the workroom section of Blessed Security’s warehouse, Lexi flashed her a smile. “You came back, Juanita? You're so sweet. Shonda and I told you that we could handle the rest of the day by ourselves, but being nice like you are, you decided to drive all the way over here and help us out.” She winked her eye. “I actually figured you would've been still at the church right now making googly eyes at Pastor Ellerbee.”
As Juanita stepped further into the work area, Lexi noticed the look on her girl’s face. “Oh no, sweetie. What's wrong?”
Juanita gritted her teeth. “It shouldn’t be what's wrong, but who's wrong. And that new pastor of ours—,” she shook her head, “— that's who's wrong.”
Shonda frowned at this point and decided to join the conversation. “I take it you weren’t able to work things out with him over the accounting job.”
“No, I wasn't. Especially since he hired someone else behind my back this afternoon. He’s no longer just looking for someone to replace me, he’s already taken them on. I can't believe the audacity of the man!”
Pastor Joshua Ellerbee had seemed so decent to Shonda when she’d met him — so decent that she found it hard to believe that he’d make a move like that. Her grimace deepened. “He hired someone else and didn’t even talk to you about it?”
“Yep. According to our new pastor, he talked to Minister Billington; Minister Billington told him I was railroaded into the position and didn’t want it.”
Shonda could definitely see why Juanita was angry. But in her eyes, it seemed as if her girl’s anger was misplaced. Minister Billington is the one she should really be upset with. However, Shonda knew better than saying anything of the sort to Juanita at this specific time. It’s probably best to allow her to vent a little right now.
Lexi, however, was a whole lot more outspoken than Shonda. Therefore she said, “Seems like to me, Minister Billington is the one you should be gunning for, Juanita. He's the one who put those thoughts into Pastor Ellerbee's head.”
“Yeah,” Juanita responded. “Minister Billington isn't getting a free pass. I’m gonna have a little talk with him, too. I think the both of them are just as much to blame.” Still fuming, she shook her head. “There may be nothing I can do about it...seeing that they’ve already entered into a contract with this new accountant person and I don’t have a contract whatsoever. But the two of them are definitely gonna know how I feel about them going over my head like they did. It just wasn’t right.”
Being true friends, both Shonda and Lexi commiserated with Juanita over what had happened. Therefore, by the time Juanita left work that evening, she felt validated in her feelings about Pastor Ellerbee and Minister Billington.
She hit the interstate and made her way home. “I’ve known for years that Minister Billington has male chauvinistic tendencies, but I think our new Pastor is the same way, too. They may have done me wrong today,” she whispered under her breath. “But God always repays ugly.” Then she smiled. “At least God's blessed me with my girls and they always have my back.”
* * *
Back at Blessed Security:
Shonda and Lexi finished wrapping up their work for the day. As they began collecting their things to leave, Shonda frowned and said, “I sure do hate that all that mess had to happen to Juanita. She's right…Minister Billington and Pastor Ellerbee did her wrong.”
Lexi nodded her head in agreement. “Yeah, they were in error alright. I certainly would've been upset if something like that had happened to me. But do you think Juanita's anger was a tad bit over-the-top?” Lexi quickly shook her head. “I'm not talking a whoooole lot over-the-top, because like I said, I believe they did her wrong. But you know what I mean, don't you, Shonda?”
Shonda had actually been at church with Juanita the evening Juanita had met Pastor Ellerbee. She lifted her lips in a tiny smile. “Truth be told, I think our girl might just be attracted to Pastor Ellerbee. I think that's why she's having such a strong reaction to what he did. You know how the old saying goes — there's a thin line between love and hate.” Shonda paused for a moment then added, “I think Juanita's case isn't love, but strong like. She's attracted to him and doesn’t want to admit it.”
“You think so, boo?”
Shonda’s frown deepened at that point. “I’ve only known Juanita for five years, but you’ve known her much longer that I have, Lexi. What's up with her never allowing men to get close to her? I know she goes on dates occasionally. But she's never stuck with anybody for more than a couple of weeks...maybe a month tops.”
Lexi sighed. “Yeah. Juanita and I have been tight for well over a decade, and she’s never been willing to open up about all of that. I asked her about it one time and she clammed up on me. Out of respect, I never pressed the issue again after that day.”
Shonda tapped her finger against her cheek, deep in thought. “But she's so good with both of our kids — she's the best honorary auntie in the world. I can tell just by looking at her eyes when she’s babysitting Jonathan and Johnesha, that she'd make an excellent mom. Not only that, I can tell that she really wants to be a mother. And something also tells me that deep down inside, she wants a husband, too. Our girl takes her salvation seriously. She’s not about to have any kids without having that ring on her finger.”
Lexi grimaced. “I've noticed that, as well, Shonda. I just don’t know what’s up with all of that.” She held out her hands. “But we’re women of faith. Let’s say a quick prayer for our girl.”
Lexi and Shonda prayed for Juanita for several minutes. When their impromptu prayer session was over with, Shonda said, “Wherever two or more are gathered in God’s name, there stands the Lord in their midst. God heard our prayer for our girl. He’s gonna make whatever that situation is with her alright.”
Lexi nodded her head in agreement. “Amen to that, boo.”
“Hi, sweetie. I'm just calling to let you know that your father is doing much better today. He had a breakthrough last night and was actually able to move his fingers. The doctors are hopeful that they’ll be releasing him from the hospital within a couple of months.”
Juanita was thankful to hear everything her mother had just said. Her father had had both a stroke and a heart attack eight short weeks ago. He'd been in the hospital ever since.
“Thank you, Jesus! Thank you Jesus,” she whispered softly, but fervently into her cell phone. Then in a slightly louder voice she added, “That sure is a sweet blessing, mama. Since daddy hadn't seemed to be getting any better, I’d made plans to drive back home this weekend to see him.”
Elaine Thompson quickly shook her head. “That's a five-hour drive, baby. And you just finished spending two whole weeks with us last month. I'm sure your job and your church needs you. Your father is doing just fine right now. And besides, we have video chatting on these high-tech cell phones that you bought us. Your daddy is able to see your pretty face and hear your voice whenever you call.”
Hearing her mother mention her church made Juanita frown. It had been a full three weeks since she’d last set foot into her house of worship. Juanita was ashamed to admit it was because she’d been feeling salty over what had gone down involving her bookkeeping job there.
In tune with her daughter from the day she'd been born, Elaine shook her head and asked, “What's the matter, ladybug?”
Juanita sighed. “I can't hide anything from you… Can I, mama?”
“Nope. Go ahead and spill it.”
Juanita told her mother about everything that had happened at her church. She even shared with her that she hadn't been to Zion Grove — or any other house of worship — in three weeks.
Elaine made a tsking sound into the phone. “That's what we call ‘church hurt’, baby. You were indeed done wrong, but that shouldn't stop you from showing up in the house of the Lord every Sunday. Some people get into situations like yourself, and they end up not going back to church for years and years — if ever.”
Juanita didn’t respond, so Elaine sighed and said, “Baby, you have to understand that things like that happen in life sometimes. Sometimes it’s a test from God to see where exactly your priorities are sitting. More often than not, it’s that ol’ slinking devil trying to take you off the right path.” She paused for the briefest of moments then continued speaking. “You’re saved, filled with the Holy Ghost, and doing a good work representing the spirit of Jesus, Juanita. You can’t let Satan have the victory on this here thang.”
Elaine’s frown deepened. “I’ve seen more than my fair share of people whose lives spiraled out of control once they walked away from the house of the Lord.”
Several days later, Juanita was still thinking about everything her mother had told her. When Wednesday evening rolled around — which was the day that Bible study was held at Zion Grove — she hit the interstate and made her way to the building she hadn’t laid eyes on in almost a whole month.
“I feel slighted, Lord,” she whispered under her breath as she sped down the highway. “But I’m not gonna let those feelings keep me away from worshipping you and studying your word.”
Then her thoughts landed on Pastor Ellerbee. “He should’ve talked to me before letting me go like he did. Despite that, I'm not gonna let what happened stop my praise.” A look of determination popped up on her face. “I don't like the man — he’s pompous, arrogant, and male chauvinistic — but I'm not gonna let not liking him run me away from my church home. That ain't happening. My mama was a hundred percent right.”
* * *
Juanita thoroughly enjoyed Bible Study that evening. It was being led by Pastor Ellerbee, but she overlooked that fact. It was the word of God that was getting into her spirit that was making her happy. And that overrides everything I feel about Joshua Ellerbee. It ain’t about the person who’s delivering the message, it’s about the message itself.
As soon as Bible Study was over with, a group of female congregants gathered around Pastor Ellerbee.
Juanita shook her head and grimaced. I guess it only takes a few weeks for him to grow himself a throng of groupies. I’m never gonna be adding myself to that little club.
She picked up her purse from the seat beside herself and prepared to leave. Before she could swing her Minku designer bag over her shoulder, she was stopped in her tracks by Pastor Ellerbee saying, “Sister Juanita. If you have the time, I need to talk to you for a minute.”
She wanted to tell the man that she didn't have the time to give — that she had someplace to be. But that would've been a bald-faced lie, and she hated lying.
She looked him in the eye. “I'm all ears.”
“I was hoping I could talk to you in my office. It's a semi-private type of matter.” He flashed her a charming smile.
Juanita was sure that everybody in the sanctuary at that specific moment was aware of why she hadn't been coming to church lately — or at least they suspect it, she thought to herself. Since she didn't feel like making a scene, she nodded her head and said, “Alright. I have a few minutes to spare for having a word with you in your office.”
His smile broadened. “Good.”
Exactly three minutes later, Juanita was looking at the man in disbelief. “You want me to give the new person you hired to do the books some pointers? That's what you're saying?”
Frowning, Joshua nodded his head. “Yes. That's exactly what I'm asking of you.”
“But the person you hired to replace me is a certified public accountant… He even has a degree in the accounting discipline. You told me so yourself.” She shook her head. “I don't have a bachelor's degree in accounting — mine is in psychology. Why would you possibly need me to give pointers to someone who's so qualified.”
The pastor sighed. “Brother Woods does indeed hold a bachelor’s in accounting. But he's having a hard time getting the books to reconcile just right. You were handling eight different accounts for the church. You were doing the books for the usher board all the way through to the pastor’s master account.” He finally smiled again. “And according to Brother Woods, you’ve implemented the latest version of one of the best accounting software solutions out there — which was a good thing, but he isn't familiar with it.”
She really couldn’t believe the audacity of the man sitting in front of her. He fired me from the position and now he’s asking me to help the person he replaced me with. Un-freaking-believable!
“You’ll help us out, won’t you, Sister Juanita?”
It was on the tip of her tongue to tell him no. However, right before she could get the negative response past her lips, the conversation she'd had with her mother the previous day popped back up into her head. I have to be gracious about this situation. If I respond to this audacious request of his in the way I really want to, then I'd be setting myself back spiritually. And I can't have that happening.
She gave the man sitting in front of her a tight little head nod — there would be no smiles coming from her for him on this particular day. “I have time tomorrow evening to talk to your new accountant. He'll have to meet me here at 5:30.” With that being said, she turned on her heel and left.
Joshua hadn't as of yet heard the rumors surrounding Juanita not coming to church lately. Therefore, he wasn't privy to what was going on. However, he could tell that the very beautiful Sister Juanita Thompson had some type of problem with him. It doesn't seem like she likes me very much, Lord. I haven't done anything to offend her. I wonder what's up with that?
His subconscious mind wanted him to rush over to his door, call Juanita back and ask her what the nature of the problem was. After all, he wanted to have a decent relationship with each and every member of his new congregation. His spiritual mind told him to leave it alone for now. He sighed. “You’ll make everything clear eventually, won’t you, Lord?”
* * *
The Following Morning at Blessed Security:
“He did what?”
Juanita nodded her head. Then in a voice dripping with sarcasm she replied, “Yep. Our wonderful, thoughtful new pastor asked me to help the new accountant with doing my old job.”
Lexi's pretty face clouded up. “I can't believe he asked you to do that, boo.”
“Me neither,” Shonda added. “Pastor Ellerbee seems so nice and congenial on the surface. I was really surprised that he got rid of you like he did in the first place. Now I'm even more shocked at him asking you to come back and help out the person he replaced you with.”
Lexi's scowl deepened. Doing one of her besties wrong, was just like doing her wrong. “Being a police detective, y'all know my Alonzo is an excellent judge of character. But this new pastor of ours even got the wool pulled over my husband’s eyes. Alonzo doesn't have anything but good to say about Joshua Ellerbee. He thinks the man’s a decent individual — even though I told him otherwise.”
Shonda shook her head. “You told Pastor Ellerbee no...right, Nita?”
Juanita sighed. “Actually, I told him yes.” She then began telling her girls about the conversation she’d just had with her mother. Lexi and Shonda both listened attentively. When Juanita was finished speaking, Lexi said, “I suppose that is the best way of approaching the situation. Lord knows I’ve seen my share of folks taken out by ‘church hurt’. It’s probably best for your soul to just gone ahead and help, and then let God take care of everything else.” Her eyes met her girl’s. “Shonda and I were intending on giving you another week of not showing up for Sunday service, and then we were gonna say something…’bout like your mama did.”
Shonda nodded her head in agreement. “That’s the sho’ nuff truth, boo. Lexi and I settled on taking that particular course of action last week.”
Lexi suddenly gave her girl’s hand a heartfelt squeeze. “No bad deed goes unpunished against a child of God, Juanita. If the Lord sees what Joshua Ellerbee did as wrong, he’ll levy retribution on him...whether he’s a man of the cloth or not.”
* * *
Juanita completed her workday at Blessed Security and made her way over to Zion Grove Christian Center. The second she set foot into the sanctuary, she was greeted by Angela Billington. She gave the twentysomething a friendly smile. “Afternoon, Angela. The young adult choir having a special rehearsal session today? That’s why you’re here?”
Angela didn't necessarily consider Juanita to be one of her friends, so she didn’t return Juanita's smile with one of her own. She simply shook her head instead and said, “No, we don't have rehearsal today. I noticed last Sunday that the sanctuary was getting a little dusty, so I volunteered to come in and tidy it up a little bit.”
Juanita didn't know who did house cleaning in 4-inch heels and mini dresses, but that's exactly what Angela was wearing. Those are man catching clothes, Juanita thought to herself. I guess Pastor Ellerbee is probably somewhere around this afternoon, and Angela’s ready to get her hooks into him.
Almost as if on cue, Pastor Ellerbee opened the side door to the sanctuary and came into view. He flashed Juanita a warm smile. “Good afternoon, Sister Juanita. That's a very lovely blouse you have on.”
Juanita liked to sew in her spare time. The turquoise colored blouse that she was rocking was one of her custom creations. The man's compliment had caught her off guard, but she'd be lying if she said his words hadn’t pleased her. She may not have liked him, but she could tell that his comment had been sincere.
Angela, on the other hand, wasn't feeling the same way about Pastor Ellerbee's kind words. I went through all the trouble of wearing this skintight minidress and these uncomfortable stilettos, and he hasn't said a word about my appearance. I been in here half the afternoon and he’s walked right past me — not one time, but several.
The pastor continued speaking. “Brother Woods called a few minutes ago. He’s running a little late. He said he’d be here shortly.”
At least this Brother Woods could’ve shown up on time. I had to leave work ten minutes early to keep my word and make it here when I said I’d be here.
Pastor Ellerbee didn't let his smile falter. He winked his eye at Juanita. “Hold on a minute, Sister Juanita. I'll be right back. I have something for you.”
It wasn’t any of her business, but Angela was fuming on the inside all the same. I want to see what he got for this trick.
Less than a minute later, Pastor Ellerbee came back into the sanctuary bearing one of Juanita's favorite things in his hands. “A little birdie told me how much you enjoy these. This is a little token of my appreciation for the sacrifice that you're making to help Zion Grove, Brother Woods, and myself out of this pickle we seem to be in.”
Juanita absolutely adored bouquets from Edible Arrangements. And Pastor Ellerbee had gotten her favorite one — the Berry Chocolate Bouquet.
She was definitely still feeling salty over him firing her like he’d done — and I still don’t trust him or like him too much. But this was a nice gesture.
She finally allowed her lips to curl up into the tiniest hint of a smile. “Thank you.”
He grinned, too. Seeing the beautiful little smile on his lovely congregant’s face pleased Pastor Ellerbee. But it didn't please Angela.
Angela noisily cleared her throat. “Pastor Ellerbee, you got all that height on you…” She batted her lashes. “Can I get you to take that vase down from that high shelf so I can dust it?”
“Sure thing, Sister Angela.” He turned right back to Juanita and grinned again. “Everything’s set up for you and Brother Woods in the conference room, Sister Juanita.”
“Alright. I’ll make my way on back there.”
* * *
Two hours later, Juanita had made real progress on helping Brother Woods figure out how her accounting system worked.
Brother Woods — who Juanita figured was about her own age of thirty-two or so – gave the pretty woman in front of him a smile full of gratitude. “It sure was nice of you to agree to help me out like you did, Juanita. I appreciate you for it...probably more than you could ever know. I could’ve figured the system out eventually, but it would’ve taken me several more weeks.” He shook his head then continued speaking. “Zion Grove doesn’t have time for me slacking. For a second there, I thought Minister Billington was gonna fire me — and Deacon Wilder sure was encouraging him to do so. But Pastor Ellerbee suggested that we call you in to help me out, so that I could keep this job. My wife is expecting twins and we need the money in a bad way.”
Eric Woods had snatched her position from under her nose, but Juanita still liked the man. He had a pleasant personality and she doubted he even knew the circumstances under which he'd gotten her job. She gave him a warm smile. “It was my pleasure helping you, Eric.”
He smiled right back. “I got my accounting degree from UNCG… Where did you get yours?”
She shook her head. “I don’t hold any type of certification in accounting. I was a psychology major. But I’ve always been good with numbers. I volunteered to do the work when our old accountant fell ill.”
He was surprised. “You were doing all of this as a volunteer?”
“Well, they paid me a hundred bucks every month for my efforts, but I love my church so I didn’t mind helping out.”
“No wonder you quit. The job you were doing should’ve been bringing you in a lot more than a hundred dollars.”
Juanita smiled again. “Like I said...I wasn’t doing it for the money. I have a day job that pays me well. I was doing it ‘cause God put it on my heart to do it. The church needed me, and I loved the work.”
“So why did you quit?”
Juanita sighed. “I didn’t quit...not exactly. You could say that I was fired. The higher ups here figured that someone with more training than myself could do a better job.”
Pastor Ellerbee hadn't been eavesdropping, but the door to the conference room had been left open. As he approached the room to let Eric and Juanita know that he was leaving for the day, he caught the tail-end of their conversation. So that's why she doesn't like me, he thought to himself. Mr. Billington reassured me that she was only volunteering and that she'd be happy for us to replace her in that position. Evidently that wasn't the case. If our roles were reversed, I’d be feeling the same way she’s probably feeling — double crossed and disrespected by the new pastor.
Pastor Ellerbee didn't know what he was going to do to make the situation right. But he knew he had to figure out something. I want to see more of that beautiful smile on her gorgeous face.
He took a few seconds to get himself together, then he stuck his head around the door jamb and into the room. “Hey, you two. I just wanted to let y’all know that I'm leaving now.” His eyes met Juanita's. “Angela’s already split. You have the lockdown codes for the church don’t you, Sister Juanita?”
Juanita nodded her head. “I do.”
“Do you two mind being responsible for everything being locked up for the night? Deacon Wilder is the only other person here besides you guys. He said he’ll be leaving in about ten minutes.”
Eric smiled at Juanita. “Locking up is okay with me, if it’s okay with you, Juanita.”
“Yep. I’m okay with that. I suspect we only have a half hour or so left. Then we’re gonna wrap things up.” She glanced over at her partner in crime. “Sound about right, Eric?”
“Yep. Sure does.”
When Eric's cell phone began ringing, Pastor Ellerbee had only been gone for about ten minutes. Eric looked down at the face of his phone and smiled. “It's my wife. I'm gonna have to get this. Can you excuse me for a minute or two, Juanita?”
It took less than a minute for Juanita to figure out that the phone call had been about something really serious. “Is everything okay?” she asked, wearing a look of concern on her face.
Eric rushed back over to the table and haphazardly began putting papers back into his briefcase. “The babies are on their way. My twins are coming. I have to rush my wife to the hospital.”
Based on the look of excitement mixed with uncertainty in Eric’s eyes, Juanita could tell where his thoughts were going. She quickly began nodding her head. “I got this. I'm okay with shutting everything down and locking up by myself. Go! Go!” She smiled as she verbally shooed him out of the room. “Your wife and your kids need you.”
Less than a minute later, Juanita began powering down the computer and tidying up. She’d never been completely alone in the church before. The quietness felt somewhat surreal. She smiled and whispered under her breath, “Lord, I wonder if this is how quiet it was when Jesus whispered to the sea: ‘Peace be still’.”
When someone chuckled from the doorway and said, “You not scared of being by yourself are you?”, she frowned and spun around on her heel.
“Deacon Wilder. I thought you left a half hour ago.”
The middle aged, but physically-fit deacon leaned against the door jamb and slowly eyed Juanita from head to toe. “I had some extra business to handle. You sure know how to make a skirt look sexy, Juanita. Some women don’t have the type of body to pull dresses and skirts off.” He licked his lips. “But you a brickhouse...you got curves exactly where they need to be.”
The way that Deacon Wilder was looking at her was literally making Juanita’s skin crawl. She narrowed her eyes at the man in a frown. “Talking to me like that is inappropriate, deacon.”
“Inappropriate my ass,” he scoffed. “I got eyes. I can look at you any way I feel like doing.”
Juanita’s frown deepened exponentially. “You need to leave right now, deacon. I’m locking up.”
The man chuckled. “Oh, I know why you mad. You mad ‘cause me and Minister Billington told the new pastor to fire you.” He walked over to Juanita and quickly grabbed a handful of her right buttock. “I can get your job back if you give me what I want.”
Juanita was incensed now. She didn’t believe the man was putting his hands on her. “Get your freaking hand off of me before I slap it off!” she hissed through tightly clenched teeth.
When a lustful, hostile glint came into the man’s eyes, Juanita’s caution radar pinged. When he grabbed her arm and pushed her against the wall, she knew she was in trouble — the man may have been in his mid-fifties, but he worked out and had an athlete’s strength. “I been watching you for years, Juanita,” he sneered into her ear as he thrusted his hand between her thighs. “We’re here all alone now. It’s past time for you to let me sample the goods.”
She tried to knee him in the groin and fight him off of her, but the man was much stronger than she was. She was finally able to claw at the side of his face with her nails. For that tiny victory, the deacon growled and pimp-slapped her across her cheek.
“Get off of me, Satan! Get off of me!” she shouted as she continued to struggle against him. She honestly didn't know how all of this was going to end, but she refused to go down without a fight.
Seconds later, she knew the Lord was indeed merciful, because she felt the man being pulled off of her body.
It had only taken Pastor Ellerbee a fraction of a second to realize what was going on. He didn’t ask any questions. He sucker punched Deacon Wilder in the jaw and grounded him in one blow. Then with concern and anger in his eyes he asked, “Are you alright, Juanita?”
Her breath was coming in shaky bursts and she was trembling, but she managed to nod her head and say, “He tried to rape me...he tried to rape me. Please call the authorities.”
Pastor Ellerbee scowled at Deacon Wilder and turned on his cell phone. “I'm already on it.”
* * *
Sitting downtown in a tiny room at the Greensboro Police Department, Juanita gave her official assault statement to Officer Larry Reed. It had been a little over an hour since Pastor Ellerbee had stepped in and turned the tides on what Deacon Wilder had been planning to do to Juanita, but she still felt a tremble in her soul. Seeing that the man had ripped open her beautiful blouse, she had Pastor Ellerbee's suit jacket draped around her shoulders. Consequently, she also had her hero sitting right by her side as she talked to the blonde-haired officer.
Officer Reed gave the pretty woman in front of him a sympathetic look. Then he said, “Those are all the questions I have for you, Ms. Thompson. Like I told you when you first walked into this room, I'm very sorry you had to experience all of this.”
Juanita was still shaken up. She simply nodded her head at what the officer had just told her.
Pastor Ellerbee had more questions for the lawman, but since he figured Juanita had been through enough, he decided to hold off on his questions until later. He looked the man in the eye. “Thank you for giving me your cell phone number, Officer Reed. I’d like to talk to you some more about this case, but I feel like it's time for me to get Ms. Thompson home. She's been through enough already.”
Officer Reed nodded his head. “Of course. Call me anytime. If I’m not able to answer, leave a message in my voicemail box. I’ll call you back ASAP.”
The two men shook on it. Then Pastor Ellerbee stood and placed his his hands gently on Juanita’s shoulders. “Come on, Sister Juanita. I'll drive you home.”
Juanita allowed her pastor to help her up from the chair she'd been sitting in. She thanked Officer Reed, as well. As soon as the pair were descending the steps that led out of the police department, Juanita turned to her rescuer and said, “If you don't mind, I'd like you to drive me back over to the church so that I can collect my car, Pastor Ellerbee.”
He had no problems with taking the woman standing beside him over to the church to collect her vehicle. But at the same time, he had every intention of making sure that she was safely inside her own home. He nodded his head in agreement and pulled open the passenger-side door of his BMW. “I understand...we’re on our way back to Zion Grove, so that you can get your car.”
Their church was a good fifteen-minute drive away from the police precinct. Since he figured that the woman sitting beside him needed peace, Pastor Ellerbee stayed quiet as he pulled out of the police department's parking lot and hit the city street.
“I can't thank you enough for rescuing me like you did, Pastor Ellerbee. You're a hero.”
Joshua didn't necessarily feel like a hero. In his eyes, any man who called himself a man would've done the same thing in that particular situation. Although he had to admit that an overprotective spot deep within himself had been activated when he’d initially seen Deacon Wilder taking advantage of Juanita Thompson like he'd been doing. I would’ve literally moved heaven and Earth to keep her safe.
He shook his head. “I was more than halfway home...then God put it on my heart to turn around and go back to the church. I didn’t know why the Lord had put that message in my spirit, but I obeyed.”
Juanita was more than glad that he had. She didn’t even want to imagine what would’ve happened to her if the man sitting beside her hadn’t listened to their heavenly Father’s command.
“You didn’t have to listen to God, Pastor Ellerbee. And you didn’t have to do what you did for me. So, you’re still a hero in my eyes.”
He realized that she'd chosen to take an adamant stance on her position. Therefore, he refused to argue the point any further. They were almost back at Zion Grove, so he decided to change subjects by saying, “I'm gonna tail you home, Sister Juanita. No arguments about it. For my own peace of mind, I need to make sure you make it safely through your front door tonight.”
Juanita didn't have a problem with that at all. She was still shaken by what had happened. She lived in her ranch-style home all alone. Having an escort would give her a certain measure of relief.
She nodded her head. “That's fine by me.”