Tommy could smell their anxiety. It moved through the air like food coloring through water. He didn’t know what his roommates were planning, but he was certain they were uncertain and afraid. They prepared for the coming engagement like soldiers preparing for battle, each silently searching the room for gear.
“Hey Ben,” Mark, the leader of the crew, called out from the bathroom, “make sure you grab your guitar. We might need to bust out some praise and worship, bro.”
Mark had a way of saying the word “bro” that drew people to him. He laced it with breathy compassion. It was endearing. He was in his second senior year, four years older than everyone else in the room, which in college was the equivalent of being an elderly guru who took up residence on top of a mountain. Tommy and the others admired Mark so intensely, they’d begun to imitate his tone and speech patterns. None could yet say “bro” as perfectly as Mark could.
Tommy sat on the bed. He had been the only one of the four guys sharing the muggy hotel room not invited to go wherever they were all heading. An hour earlier Mark had gently explained that Tommy, while a great guy, was not a church small group leader yet, and therefore not spiritually mature enough to handle this specific type of “gathering.” The word “gathering” had stuck in Tommy’s head. It felt strange to be told he couldn’t go to a “gathering.” Such a benign word, “gathering.” What could possibly happen at a “gathering” that he couldn’t handle?
When Tommy probed for more information, all Mark would say was that the “gathering” would be taking place in Ashley’s room down stairs, and that they (the team which did not include Tommy) had gotten special permission from the mission trip leaders to break curfew if necessary.
Tommy was torn. His heart stormed, “Screw them. Just because Mark is older, doesn’t make him more holy.” But there was also a hollow pain in his gut. Once again, left behind. Once again, not part of the in crowd. Once again, missing the adventure. At that moment, sitting on the bed, Tommy regretted having changed his major to Pre-Med. If he had stayed a music major, he would have had time to attend the small group leader trainings, and then he could go to the super-secret “gathering” too. Stupid organic chemistry homework.
Tommy got out a book to read, trying to pretend like he didn’t care.
“Hey Tommy,” Mark said sweetly hoping not to offend, “would you mind stepping out for a minute, bro? The guys and I need to pray it up before we go.”
“Sure,” Tommy said. What else could he say? He stepped outside and sat in the hotel hallway, listening, hoping to gain some clue into the evening’s activities. All he could hear was non-descript mumbling.
The door opened and the three exited with quiet determination.
“See ya,” Tommy said to their backs. Ben looked back and threw a half nod with no smile in Tommy’s direction. Tommy and his book reclaimed the bed and began to wait.
Time flew by.
Tommy dozed off.
“Where in the hell are they?”
“I should go after them. Ten more minutes and I’ll go find them.”
“Seriously. Where are they?”
At 1:30 Tommy gathered the courage to crack open the door. He looked down the hall, thinking maybe they would be coming up the stairs. He was nervous about being caught outside after curfew, but surely concern for his roommates’ safety would provide pardon.
The hallway was silent. Nothing.
Tommy put on his shoes and crept outside. He walked quickly to the stairs. He knew where Ashley’s room was. Once in the stairway he moved fasted. Almost jogging now. When he arrived at the bottom door again, he cracked it and peered down the hall. He was surprised to see nothing at all.
“Where in the hell are they?” Tommy thought again as he stepped out into the corridor. He could see Ashley’s door. It was five rooms down, but each room had a large window looking out into the hallway. It was too late to stop now. He crept forward. The first window was closed and a wave of relief washed through him. The second and the third were shut as well. His confidence bloomed. The fourth window was cracked, but all the lights were off. Tommy couldn’t see any movement. He eased by. Now he was in front of Ashley’s door. He strained to hear. There was something going on inside.
The sound came from behind him and made him jump. Tommy spun around, terrified he had been caught. It was only Matt. Matt was a freshman math major with a squirrel like face and wire glasses. He motioned for Tommy to come in and whispered, “You can hear better from in here. I’ve got an adjoining door.”
Even in the room with the door closed, they whispered in fear. “Where are your roommates?” Tommy asked. Matt motioned toward the adjoining door. In unison, they approached, and put their ears against the wall.
Tommy could make out someone crying. A girl. An exhausted girl. There was also mumbled praying. And a guitar. Someone on the far side of the room was strumming a guitar.
“It’s Amanda,” Matt whispered. “I saw her go in.”
“Crying?” Tommy clarified.
“Yeah. My roommates went in first. Then Mark, Steve, and Ben showed up. They were laughing and having fun. Then Ashley came in with Amanda. Then everything got weird.”
Amanda was a freshmen and one of the few people on the team who spoke Spanish. Tommy didn’t know her well, just from the team trainings. Each day the team went out to a crowded park. They would do mime drama’s to music with a loud boom box playing praise music. After three five minute dramas, the Spanish speakers would start working the crowd, asking people if they wanted to talk about God. Tommy couldn’t even manage decent Spanglish, so he had immediately been kicked to the drama crew. The goal was to get a prayer of salvation or a healing. Prayer requests were fine and good, but if you led someone to invite Jesus into their heart, or if you prayed over someone and their pain went away, then you were a rock star. Tommy struggled to remember what Amanda’s score card had been. It seemed important to him in that moment.
Tommy could make out Mark’s voice. “Let’s try again,” he said. “Hey gang, start praying okay?”
The guitar picked up. Tommy could make out five or six people dragging through praise choruses.
Amanda began to cry more intensely. “Please no more,” she wailed. “Please no more.”
“We need to get it out,” Ashley’s compassionate voice soothed. “It needs to come out.”
“Just get the fuck away from me!” Amanda screamed.
“There you are!” Mark said triumphantly. “I command you in the name of Jesus to come out!”
“You can have this girl no more!” Ashley demanded. “In the name of Jesus come out! Now!”
Amanda’s bawls became screams. “Just leave me alone,” she raged.
Tommy felt a need to pray, but he didn’t know what to say. “Just make it stop, Lord,” was all he could muster.
Tommy looked down at Matt whose ear was still pressed to the door. He was crying. “Four hours,” Matt whispered. “Four hours of this.”
The sound of Mark and Ashley’s demands continued to stream through the door.
Amanda’s tears turned to laughter. It was a cold, exhausted, defeated laugh.
The guitar playing got louder. Tommy could hear other voices from some far corner of the room calling out, “In the name of Jesus! In the name of Jesus!”
Finally Amanda fell silent.
“Shhh! Shhh!” Mark said to others in the room.
Tommy pressed closer to the door, straining to hear.
“Do you think it’s gone?” Mark said.
“I think we are done,” Ashley affirmed.
“It’s all done y’all,” Mark called out to the rest of the room. There was clapping and cheering.
Tommy could hear them starting to move. He made eye contact with Matt. Jumping to his feet, he sprinted from the room, up the stairs, to his door. Once in his room, he kicked his shoes off and dove into bed. His heart was pounding, but it would be another half-hour before his roommates returned and crashed.
At breakfast the next morning Tommy sat next to the Mark. “Wow,” Tommy said as he put down his tray. That was some crazy night huh? You guys were out late.”
“Yeah, bro” Mark affirmed.
Tommy pretended to look around, and then asked innocently, “Where’s Amanda?”
“She’s sleeping, bro. We had to cast a demon out of her last night. It took forever. She’s exhausted now. But it’s all good. We got it out.” Mark put his arm around Tommy like a big brother would. “Sorry we couldn’t invite you along, bro, but you just haven’t had the training yet. Maybe next year.”
Tommy was torn. He wanted so badly to be invited next time, but the sound of Amanda’s pain had taken up a permanent residence in the back of his mind.