The Parable of the Good Atheist

“Hey Mom, it’s Delia. … We just finished up at youth group. Is it okay for me to pick up Rachel from work, and we can hit Taco Bell for supper? … Mm-hmm. … Yeah, the one by the mall. … Okay, thanks Mom!”  Delia texted Rachel an OK, set aside her cell phone, and pulled out from the church parking lot.

At Taco Bell, Delia and Rachel chatted and laughed merrily.  Their families lived across the street from each other and had been friends since before the girls were born.  It was only natural for the girls to hang out together at Taco Bell on a Sunday evening, talking about homecoming dresses and winning the trophy for the best float and who was taking whom to the dance.

Rachel laughed so hard at Delia’s impression of their physics teacher that she took a long sip at her Mountain Dew.  Delia glanced around the Taco Bell, looking for someone to lampoon.  It was a quiet evening, with only two other tables in use.  Across the dining room, a young mother tried to coax her toddler into eating “Just one more bite” of his cheese roll while the child’s father stared at ESPN on the television, blithely ignoring the rest of his family.  Closer to them sat a black man.  Well, sat isn’t quite the right word.  He slumped over his folded arms, a tray with two crumpled wrappers and an empty small cup next to his elbow.

“Eww!” Delia stage-whispered to her friend.  “Look at that guy!  He’s, like, totally out!”

Rachel looked over, noticing that the man wasn’t moving.  “Shh!” she exclaimed in horror.  “He’ll hear you!”

“Whatever, I don’t care!  What’s he gonna do, sleep at us?”  Both girls giggled.

They traded barbs and laughter while they finished their meal, noticing his slippers (“Who wears slippers to Taco Bell, anyway?”), his fashion statements (“Really?  Black pants, black shoes – well, slippers – and white socks? Really?!?”), and his complete lack of awareness (“I hope he isn’t dead!”).  Finally, Delia and Rachel stood, taking one last drag on their large Mountain Dews, picked up their trays and headed for the exit.  At the door, Rachel took one last look at the sleeping man, sending a silent prayer to God, Help him! Since she was still walking, while looking the other way, Rachel didn’t see Marc holding the door open.  Not until she walked right into him.

“Oof!  Oh my God, I’m so sorry!” she said, then looked up and blushed when she recognized the young man from their school.

“It’s okay,” Marc laughed.  “You gonna make it to your car okay?”

Rachel nodded quickly and rushed to the car, where Delia showered her with laughter.

***

Delia’s clock awakened her at 5:45 Monday morning, playing a cover of some old song by a hair band from the ’80s.  Delia groaned, slapped the OFF button, and switched on her lamp.  She sat up and grabbed the remote control from her nightstand and clicked on the television so she could watch the weather forecast, still wrapped up inside her warm covers.

“After we come back, we’ll have Luke to tell us if there’s any hope of a warm-up this week.  But first, Marina Fitzpatrick is reporting live from the JCHC, with a touching story about a missing homeless man, a fast food joint, and a Good Samaritan.”

Delia sat up straight, noticing that the picture on the screen was the Taco Bell by the mall, where she and Rachel had supper last night.  She rubbed her eyes, muzzily trying to figure out how to connect the Taco Bell by the mall with the Judeo-Christian Homeless Center down by the beach, about six miles away.  She decided to watch the story before taking her shower, so Delia got up and started gathering her clothes and books.  Finally the commercials for used cars (“I’d give them away, but then I’d run out!”), auto insurance (“Ten minutes could save you big bucks on your car insurance!”), and personal injury attorneys (“You’ve been hurt. Call me, and I’ll drop the BOMB on those insurance companies!  You’ll get the cash, Cash, CASH you deserve!”) ended, and the familiar anchor desk for the local news re-appeared.

“Welcome back to your Channel Eight News.  This morning’s live story is a heartwarming account of a lost man and the teenager who made sure he got back home.  Marina Fitzpatrick, tell us more.  Who was this lost man?”

“Well, Sharon, the man is Jodell Jefferson, a 58-year-old homeless man who lives at the Judeo-Christian Homeless Center near the hotel strip at the beach.  The manager at the JCHC tells me that he hadn’t seen Mr. Jefferson in over eight days, and he was worried.”

“That’s right,” said the voice of the manager.  “It’s not like Jodell to go missing like that.  He’s diabetic, and we help him with his blood tests and medication here.  He doesn’t usually walk far from the Center, not any more than the two blocks to the souvenir store where he words.”

“That’s right, Sharon.  Mr. Jefferson works at the Beach Superstore as a janitor most days, returning to the JCHC each evening for the only hot meal — sometimes the only meal — he’ll get all day.  Here he spends his nights, with the men and women he’s come to know.”

Sharon broke in.  “But what happened, Marina?  He was missing for more than a week?”

“That’s right.  Mr. Jefferson went to work on Saturday, the seventh, but he did not return to the Center that night.  It wasn’t until a local teenaged hero gave him help that Jodell Jefferson made it back here — and in the nick of time, too, because his blood sugar was dangerously low.”

The television showed a montage of images as Marina Fitzpatrick told the story.  Jefferson had gotten onto a bus outside the Beach Superstore, but it had taken him much further than he’d expected.  He had arrived at the town center (Towne Centre, Delia thought sardonically, if you had a business down there) that Saturday afternoon, and he’d begged food from the back doors of the swanky restaurants and slept in doorways every night since.

Until last night.  When Delia and Rachel had laughed at him, sleeping at the Taco Bell.

Delia learned that the manager of the fancy store for men’s suits had given Jodell Jefferson his slippers and a new pair of black pants; two belt loops had been ripped off, one of them leaving a little hole, but Jefferson had been glad to have them.  She learned that his quick smile and polite disposition had quickly made him a favorite among the merchants at the town center, the same salespeople who would sneer at Delia and Rachel when they walked into a store.  And then Delia learned what had happened after they’d left the Taco Bell last night.

Delia jumped as her cell phone buzzed, and she saw the text from Rachel.  “R U watching this?”  Delia hit the CALL button so she could share her amazement with her best friend.  Rachel had to be very quiet, because her mother the rabbi wasn’t sleeping well lately; Rachel’s mom had gotten sick after the High Holy Days, and she still wasn’t back in full form yet.

“Can you believe this?” Rachel whispered.

“What’s going on?” Delia asked.

“Oh, you haven’t seen yet?  Keep watching.  You won’t believe it!”

Marina Fitzpatrick’s face filled Delia’s screen again.  “Then last night, Jodell Jefferson spent the very last of his money on two tacos and a cup of water.  He didn’t have enough cash to take a bus back to the beach, back to his bed at the JCHC.  He didn’t have his medications. He didn’t even have ID on him, just a crumpled business card from the Center.  But local high school student Marc Hudgins helped him anyway.”

Delia gasped as she heard Marc speaking from her television.  “Aw, it’s just what anyone would’ve done.  I saw him slumped over the table, laying his head on his arms, and I knew he just didn’t look… right.  He didn’t look well to me.  So I went over and asked if he was okay.”

“And what did Mr. Jefferson say?”

“Well, it was kinda hard to wake him up.  When he looked at me, he was crying, and he asked me to take him home, please to take him home.”

“So what did you do?”

“I asked him where he lived, and he pulled out that business card.  It was pretty hard to read.  All the ink had gotten blurry, but I could tell it was someplace down at the beach.  So I told him I’d take him home.”

“And you did.”

“I did.  I helped him into my car, and we drove down to the beach.  I didn’t know where to go, so I figured I’d just drive up and down the hotel strip until he pointed someplace out to me.”

“And did Mr. Jefferson point out a place to you?”

“He did.  It was the JCHC.  I always knew they do great work to help our homeless.  I let Jodell – Mr. Jefferson – sit in the car while I knocked on the door.  Then the manager came out, saw Mr. Jefferson, and rushed him inside for his medicines and food.  I felt kinda left out until he came back to shake my hand and tell me thank you.”

“Did you know he was going to call the Channel Eight News Team to tell us you’re a hero?”

“No, I didn’t!  I would’ve told him not to.  It’s what anyone would do, really.”

Delia whispered into her cell phone, “Oh. My. God.”

“I know,” Rachel whispered, as Marina and Sharon wrapped up the story.  “That’s the guy we… saw.”

“Oh man, we are such assholes!”

“Yeah.”

“But Marc — I don’t get it.  He’s an atheist!  Why would he go… there?”

Rachel thought about this for a moment.  “I dunno,” she said.  “I guess ’cause the guy made him stop there.”

“Why would an atheist help someone like that?  It just doesn’t make sense!”

“I guess we should’ve done something.”

“Yeah,” Delia said.  “I feel like shit.”

The girls hung up to get ready for school.

Delia couldn’t stop thinking about it while she showered and dressed and packed for school.  Here she was, president of the youth group at her church.  And here was Rachel, the rabbi’s daughter.  And they made fun of this sick homeless guy.  This man who had just spent all of his money on dinner, and had fallen asleep in the Taco Bell.  And the one who helped him?  Marc.  Marc, the atheist, who thought they were both stupid for believing in the fairy tale of God.

She realized, Marc was the Good Samaritan.  Delia and Rachel, they were the priest and the rabbi who ignored the guy at the side of the road.  It took an atheist to help him get home.

Delia looked at herself in the mirror.  Hair: brushed.  Clothes: straight.  Jacket: snappy.  But she wasn’t happy with what she saw there.  It didn’t feel so good to be the priest in the Parable of the Good Atheist.  Not good at all.

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