The secretary’s name was Maybelle. She led him down a maze of corridors and stopped at a closed door. Sam could hear voices on the other side. Maybelle knocked and put her head inside.
Sam could see a tall, bony young man, perhaps thirty, standing and staring back at him, a morose expression on his face. His face was wide with sharp, jutting cheekbones and narrow eyes.
Maybelle opened the door a little further, and Sam could see Brother Joseph Cori, sitting at his desk.
Joe Cori was a big man, maybe fifty, with a big belly and a heavy neck. His hands were broad and muscular, with scars across the fists betraying a violent past. Sam felt as if he were in the presence of royalty.
“Thanks, Maybelle. Come on in, Mister Forestell. This is my son, Ethan.” He stood and gestured towards the young man. “He was just leaving.”
Ethan turned and stared at Joe for a moment. “Yeah. I suppose. There’s not much more I can say here.” He brushed past Sam. He and Maybelle walked loose-limbed down the corridor.
Joe motioned for him to sit down.
Sam sat down across from him.
Joe didn’t seem to notice him. “I wanted to meet you. And all,” he said absently. He lay his hands flat on the desk as if he were about to declare it healed! as he did on his daily television show. He drummed his fingers for a moment.
Suddenly, he looked at Sam. “Have any children?”
Joe nodded. “‘Sharper than a serpent’s tooth’ and all that. It’s true, you know. They are ungrateful. They take your whole life…” His voice faded off for a moment. “My son—my son—said everything I did here was built on lies.” Joe’s voice boomed into the room. “As if anything built on the glorious birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus could be a lie. As if my whole life as a minister has been a lie. As if Jesus himself is a lie. That’s what they’re teaching him in graduate school.”
He shook his head. “My son is smart. He’s smarter than his daddy. He’s studying astrophysics down to Washington University and considers things that are more than my feeble mind can comprehend. But can he comprehend the mind of God? Can he understand that Jesus died for his sins?”
Joe slammed his hand on the desk. “No, sir!” he thundered. “That he cannot.”
Joe took a deep breath and seemed to look around. His hands came back to rest on the top of the desk, wiggling like so many fish in a school. Silence grew in the office.
“My daddy was a preacher,” Joe said in a calm voice.
Sam wouldn’t have changed this conversation for anything. “Really?”
“He worked the Revivalist circuit all across the South. ‘Brother Jimbo Harrison. If he couldn’t save you, the Devil would surely have your soul.’” Joe chuckled. “He changed his name because Cori was Italian and people might think he was Catholic. He needn’t. The Coris were Protestant three hundred years ago—even Italy had to have a few, I suppose. He started in the twenties with Amy Semple MacPherson and split off from her in the thirties to go on his own way. He was over fifty when I was born.”
“You were close to him?”
“Oh, no. I hated the son-of-a-bitch.” He drummed his fingers for a minute. “He wanted me to come into the business, as it were. It was just another way to separate gullible, scared people from their money. I changed my name back to Cori as soon as I could and left town. He didn’t hold it against me. It was probably a relief to him. He was near seventy when I left. He didn’t hate me, then.”
Joe leaned forward on his desk and worried a broken bit of skin on his palm with the other hand. “No. What frosted him was that I got saved. Billy Graham saved, too. In Indianapolis, Indiana. On September the eighteenth. In the Year of Our Lord, nineteen hundred and seventy-two. I figured I had to make peace with the old man. I went home and tried to save his soul. Made him so mad he dropped dead in the living room right in the middle of my sermon on how he had to change his ways.” Joe made a sound in the back of his throat that could have been a cough or a chuckle. Sam couldn’t tell.
“Here, look at this,” Joe opened a drawer and pulled out an envelope. “Daddy used this trick. Bob Tilton used it again. See here? That’s two cents. Next to it you can see it says: ‘Do you need money?’ The idea is the receiver takes the two cents, prays over it, and sends it back. With a check. Daddy took the check and threw out the prayer request.”
“So, you wouldn’t use such things?”
“This was the first thing I sent out when I started my ministry.” Joe leaned forward. “But here is the difference: I take the prayer request and offer it to God.”
Sam was confused. “What difference does that make?”
“It makes all the difference in the world. A person makes a prayer, writes a check, and sends it to me. I take that money, pass on the prayer, and use the money in the furtherance of our holy mission. By passing on the prayer I have completed the transaction. It has become sanctified.”
“I don’t understand.”
Joe sighed. “Ethan didn’t, either. Here, let’s take a different one.” Joe pulled out another envelope containing a plastic glove and a flyer. “In this one, the petitioner has some affliction. He takes the glove and rubs the afflicted part and then mails the glove—and a check—back to me. I take the money, pray over the glove, and use the money to run the station. This has made the signing of the check an act of faith—a prayer, if you will. I accept that prayer in the spirit it was offered and add my own prayers. Now, ask me what Ethan asked me.”
Sam tried to think like a graduate student in physics. “Why is the check necessary?”
Joe smiled widely. “Exactly. In your position, you already know the answer.”
It was like the dawning of a blinding light. “Money is the token of worth,” Sam stammered. “By associating it with the prayer you’ve elevated the worth of the prayer in the mind of the petitioner.” And everything else of worth in the world.
Joe beamed. “I couldn’t have put it better myself. I can see we’re going to get along well.”