Jesus Land

“They don’t know the first thing about us; they just hate us because we’re black.”

Julia Scheeres | Jesus Land | 2012 | 21 minutes (5,152 words)

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For our Longreads Member Pick, we’re excited to share the opening chapter of Jesus Land, the bestselling 2012 memoir by Julia Scheeres about her strict Christian upbringing in Indiana, her relationship with her adopted brother David, and the stint they did in a Christian reform school together in the Dominican Republic. Our thanks to Scheeres and Counterpoint Press for sharing this story with the Longreads community. 

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It’s just after three o’clock when we hit County Road 50. The temperature has swelled past ninety and the sun scorches our backs as we swerve our bikes around pools of bubbling tar.

A quarter of a mile downwind from Hanke’s Dairy, the stench of cow shit slams up our noses, and we rise in unison, stomping on the pedals and gasping toward the cornfield on the other side.

It’s been two weeks since we moved to the country, and this is our first foray into the wilderness beyond our backyard. Our destination is a cemetery we spotted during a drive last Sunday that Mother insisted on taking after church. While David and I sat in the back of the van glaring out opposite windows, she coasted down dirt lanes, chattering about edible corn fungus, pig manure fertilizer, and other gruesome factoids she’d gleaned from her recent subscription to Country Living magazine.

David nudged me when we drove by the graveyard. It was set back from the road a bit, filled with brambles and surrounded by one of those pointy black fences that circle haunted houses in children’s books, usually with a large KEEP OUT sign on the gate. This fence bore no such sign. We looked at the tombstones jutting sideways from the ground like crooked teeth, and knew we had to return.

We have a thing for bone yards, as we do for all things death-related. It’s part of our religion, the topic of countless sermons: Where will YOU spend ETERNITY? THE AFTERLIFE: Endless BLISS or Endless TORTURE? We are haunted by these questions. If we die tomorrow, will we join the choir of angels or slow roast in Hell? We’re not sure of the answer. So we are drawn to graveyards, where we can be close to the dead and ponder their fate as well as our own.

Once we pass Hanke’s Dairy, we sit back down onto our bike seats. Along the length of the cornfield, a series of plywood squares nailed to stakes bear a hand-scrawled message:

Sinners go to:

HELL

Rightchuss go to:

HEAVEN

The end is neer:

REPENT

This here is:

JESUS LAND

You see such signs posted throughout the countryside: farmers using the extra snippet of land between their property and the road to advertise Jesus Christ. Mother approves. She says the best thing you can do in life is die for Jesus Christ as a missionary martyr, but posting signs by the side of the road can’t hurt either.

“Anything to spread the Good News,” she says.

It was her idea to move to the country. She grew up in rural South Dakota and had been threatening to drag us back to the boonies for years. Dad finally caved in. His drive to Lafayette Surgical Clinic, where he’s a surgeon, is half an hour longer, but now he’s also gotten into the country act, donning his new overalls to drive his new tractor around our fifteen acres.

Our three older siblings escaped this upheaval by leaving for college, so that leaves my parents, my two adopted black brothers, and me.

Jerome, our seventeen-year-old brother, hightailed it out of this 4-H fairground a few nights after we landed. He got into a fight with Dad, stole the keys to the Corolla, and drove off. Hasn’t been seen or heard from since, which is fine by me, since Jerome is nothing but trouble anyhow.

So basically it’s me and David, our ten-speeds, and the open road. And while the country graveyard is puny compared to the one by our old house—Grand View Cemetery, which we visited often in search of fresh graves—it still contains dead people, and that’s what interests us.

It takes us five minutes to pedal past the cornstalks, standing higher than a man’s head, to a cluster of double-wide trailers on the other side. They’re anchored in a half circle, with an assortment of plastic flamingos and gutted vehicles strewn on the bald clay before them. The irritating twang of country music leaks from the trailer nearest the road, and as we sail by, a heap of orange cats lounging in the engine compartment of a rusted station wagon scatters into the dry weeds.

I curse myself for wearing a dark T-shirt in this booming heat. We haven’t seen another human since we walked outside and would have stayed indoors ourselves if boredom hadn’t driven us into the farmland.

“Watch for heatstroke,” Mother, a nurse, warned us before we left. “If you get cramps or diarrhea or start to hallucinate, walk your bikes.”

Sweat drips into my eyes, warping the landscape, and I lift my T-shirt to wipe my face, flashing my bra at the empty world. Ahead of me, David rides shirtless, his scrawny torso gleaming like melting chocolate. He’s draped his T-shirt over his head and tied it under his chin like a bonnet. Like a girl. As if he didn’t look dorky enough with those black athletic glasses belted to his head with that elastic band. If anyone from Harrison sees us, we’re doomed.

William Henry Harrison is our new school; Hick High, the townspeople call it. There will be 362 people in our class, compared to twelve at Lafayette Christian, our old school, and we don’t know a single one of them. These are farm kids who’ve known each other since they were knee-high to a rooster, kids who’ve probably never seen a real live black person before. Kids who worry us a lot.

I stand up and stomp on my bike pedals, trying to catch up with David and tell him to put his shirt back on, but he’s on his second wind and flying over the crumbling pavement at enormous speeds. I yell at him and he rolls to a stop in the shade of an oak tree, turns and grins as I glide up beside him. I stand over my bike, panting, and point at his head.

“What’s up with that?”

“Keeps the sweat outta my eyes.”

“Looks queer.”

He shrugs and pushes his glasses up his nose.

“Come on, take it off. Someone might see you.”

“So?”

“Do you want people to think you’re some kind of weirdo?”

He shrugs again and stares across the road at a herd of cows trying to cram themselves into the shade of a small crabapple tree. His jaw is set; once David’s brain has clamped onto a notion, there’s no unclamping it.

I shake my head and reach into the grocery sack strapped to his bike frame for a can of strawberry pop. When I yank off the metal tab, warm red froth bubbles over my fingers.

“Gosh darn it!”

I hand the can to David.

“Go on and drink your half.”

We’re saving the other can for the graveyard. I lick the sugar from my fingers and watch a cow, this one with a black body and white face, plod after the shadow of a small cloud that drifts across the pasture. When the shadow slips over the fence, the cow halts, lifts its tail, and spills a brown torrent onto the ground. I wrinkle my nose and turn to David.

“Remember when we used to ride to Kingston pool to swim every day?”

He stops drinking and peers at me sideways. His face is dry while mine drips sweat; maybe there’s something to his bonnet notion after all.

“’Course I remember, dufus. That was just last summer.”

“Point is, we never knew how good we had it, compared to this.” I swipe my arm across the landscape: corn, cows, barns. More corn.

“Could be worse,” David says, giving me the pop can.

“How’s that?”

“We could be dead.”

“Well, yes. But this has gotta be the next best thing.”

He snorts, and I drain the can and drop it back into the sack.

We push off and are just gaining momentum when a long red car with a jacked-up rear end barrels around the corner ahead of us. It races in our direction, the thrum of the motor getting louder and faster. Suddenly, it lurches into our lane.

We swerve down a small embankment into a cornfield, crashing hard into the bony stalks and paper leaves. The car blurs by amid hoots of laughter.

David untangles himself from his bike and offers me a hand up. I charge up the embankment to the road.

“Stupid hicks!” I scream after the car, as it evaporates into the horizon. “Frickin’ hillbillies!”

David walks over to stand beside me.

“They must be bored too,” he says. He shakes his head at the blank horizon and reties his bonnet. He always takes things calmer than I do.

We’ve seen the country kids before as we’ve traveled back and forth to town for church or supplies. We’ve seen them slouched against pickup trucks, sharing round tins of spit tobacco. Lounging on plastic chairs in front yards, watching cars go by. Maneuvering giant machines through the fields, their bodies dwarfed by metal.

They are alien to us, as we must be to them.

So much for the famous “Hoosier hospitality.” When we moved to our new house, no one stopped by with strawberry rhubarb pie or warm wishes. Our neighbors must have taken one look at David and Jerome and locked their doors—and minds—against us.

David and I shove back onto County Road 50, determined not to waste our journey. We clear a small rise and spot the cemetery a quarter mile ahead.

“Race you!” David shouts.

We crouch behind our handlebars, and David gets there first, as always. We lean our bikes against the fence, which is coated with a fine layer of orange rust, and walk around to the gate. It creaks as I push it open. David rushes past me to a gray block of marble just inside the fence that is roped with briars. He tramples down the vines and squats before it.

“Here lies Mabel Rose Creely,” he reads as I peer over his shoulder. “Born April 18, 1837, dyed November 9, 1870.”

He looks up at me with a smug grin.

“They spelled ‘died’ wrong.”

“Like, duh.”

I pick my way through the brambles and crooked tombstones to a large tablet set off by itself in a corner and tap it with my shoe to flake off the mud plastering its surface.

“Check it out!” I call to David. “Enus Godlove Phelon! He’s got your same birthday, June 2, 1851! Died October something . . . I can’t make it out.”

“What’s that name again?”

“Enus Godlove Phelon.”

“Anus?”

“No, Enus! With an ‘E.’”

“What kinda name is that?”

“A redneck name, for sure!”

We snicker and kick about for more stones. As I crouch to read them, I try to put the car out of my head and focus on the dead people beneath our feet. This is serious business, and I’ve got serious questions.

First, there’s the appearance of the folks in the boxes. Do maggots fester in their eye holes like in horror movies, or do they stay pickled like the frogs in Biology class? David thinks it takes about two hundred years for a person pumped full of formaldehyde to turn into a skeleton, but I’m not so sure . . .

Then there’s the Afterlife question. Where is the soul of the person I’m standing on right now—Heaven or Hell? Were they satisfied with their lives, or did they want more? If they could go back and do it all over again, what would they change? Is Heaven all it’s cracked up to be?

As I’m contemplating all this, I detect a movement out of the corner of my eye and raise my head. The red car. It prowls noiselessly along the cemetery’s edge and rolls to a stop beside our bikes. I look at David, who’s bent over a marble cross, cracking up over some dead woman named “Bessie Lou.”

“David.”

“. . . better name for a cow, don’t you think?”

“David, stop it!”

His head shoots up at the alarm in my voice, and he follows my gaze to the car—four white bodies emerge from its interior—before standing to untie his T-shirt and slip it over his narrow shoulders.

They’re farm boys, our age. Bare-chested and wearing cutoff jeans and baseball caps. You can tell they’re farmers by their sunburns: Their faces, necks, and arms are crimson but their torsos are pasty, as if they’re wearing white T-shirts. If you looked up “redneck” in the dictionary, they’d be there to illustrate, and I’d say as much to David if they weren’t marching toward us with tight faces.

They halt in a row behind the fence. I glance at David. Behind his smudged glasses, his eyes are wide with fear.

“Whatch y’all doing?” the tallest one asks as a cow moos in the distance. He takes off his Caterpillar cap and fans his face with it.

“Just looking!” I say breezily, as if this was Montgomery Ward’s and these boys were salesmen come to check on us.

“This here’s the final resting place of my great-great-grand-daddy!” yells a boy with a Snap-On Tools cap.

The tallest boy tugs a piece of field grass from the ground and sticks the end in his mouth. He chews it slowly and saws his eyes back and forth between David and me.

David’s mouth is gaping. I step between him and the farm boys, still grinning.

“We just moved out here from town and . . .”

“Obviously y’alls ain’t from around here, else you wouldn’t be in there,” says a third boy—this one in an International Harvester cap.

The runt of the litter, an acne-scarred boy in a Budweiser hat, grabs the fence in his fists and shakes it violently, rattling our bikes. Behind the tall iron grate, his stumpy body heaving back and forth in anger, he looks like a caged monkey having a tantrum.

“This here’s an American cemetery!” he shouts. “Only Americans are allowed in there! It’s the law!”

I take a deep breath and look back at David, who’s now gaping at the trampled brambles at his feet. Close your mouth.

“That’s fine,” I say, shrugging. “We’ll just leave, then.”

I move toward the gate, and the human fence behind it, listening for the rustle of David’s footsteps at my back. Move.

“What’s wrong with blacky?” the runt asks. “Cat got his tongue?”

He lifts his Bud cap and orange hair falls to his neck. I ignore him, keeping my eyes on the road beyond him, the road that will lead us to safety. He moves aside at the last moment to let me push open the gate. I’m on a hair trigger. If they so much as breathe on us, I’ll bloody their eardrums with my screams. I stop and wait for David to walk through the gate, then follow him to our bikes.

The farmers are at our heels.

“That darkie your boyfriend?” one of them asks to a burst of snickers. I pull my bike upright and wheel it forward so David can get his.

“No, he’s my brother.”

They crowd around us.

“What, your momma git knocked up by some Detroit nigger?”

There’s a shuffle of dirty laughter and the runt leans forward, his pimpled jaw working up and down. He hawks a glob of chew into the dirt, narrowly missing David’s sneakers. I glare at him and he throws his shoulders back and grins proudly, a string of spittle stretching from his pink face to the dust. David contemplates the lump of brown slime at his feet with knitted eyebrows, as if it were the saddest thing he’d ever seen. Don’t you freeze up on me. Don’t!

“Let’s go,” I order David, elbowing him in the ribs.

“Yeah, you’d best skedaddle,” the tall one says.

As we mount our bikes, they watch with crossed arms and slit eyes. We’ve got enough fear ricocheting through us to propel ourselves all the way home without stopping. We ride in silence, cringing and waiting for the gunning motor, the flash of red behind us.

Only when we bump down the gravel lane to our house do I notice the trembling cottonwoods, the frenzied chirruping of sparrows, the dirt devils churning across the back field. On the horizon, heat lightning dances along a column of towering thunderheads. The air is suddenly sweet and cool, refreshing. It’s perfect weather for a tornado.

Down in the basement, I fling myself belly-down on the cot and stare out the window at the trees pawing the green air. David’s out there somewhere, walking Lecka before supper.

Neither of us uttered a word about what happened. We never do. But I can’t smudge it from my mind. The farm boys’ sneering red faces. The runt shaking the fence. The brown lump of spit tobacco. The anguish in David’s eyes. They don’t know the first thing about us; they just hate us because we’re black.

The first time I felt surrounded by such hate was in 1977, when we were ten. We were driving down to St. Simons Island, Georgia, for vacation and stopped at a roadside diner in Birmingham for supper. David and I were cranky with hunger because we’d stuffed the liverwurst and lettuce sandwiches Mother passed out for lunch under our seat cushions in the van.

Dad led us to a round table at the back of the restaurant that was big enough for the eight of us, then David and I busied ourselves with the game on our placemats as we waited for the waitress to take our order. This was in our dill pickle stage, and while we looked for animals hidden in a jungle on our placemats, we debated whether to share a side of the crunchy sour disks or order a bowl each. We knew Mother’s rule: We had to finish whatever we ordered, or eat it for breakfast the next day. We decided breakfast pickles wouldn’t be half bad and to order a side each.

After a while, we noticed a silence and looked up. Our parents and older siblings—Deb, Dan, Laura, and Jerome—sat like statues, and beyond this familiar circle, the other diners glared at us with disgust stamped on their faces.

I was used to the curious looks and occasional frowns David and I gathered as we walked down the streets of Lafayette—I assumed people were as perplexed by my brother’s skin color as I was when I first saw him—but I’d never seen anything akin to the contempt reflected in the eyes of those Alabama folks.

Mother gazed down at her place setting with a clenched jaw, and my father’s cheeks burned red as he watched the waitress refill the coffee cups of the patrons at surrounding tables. David and I put down our crayons and focused on our parents, waiting for them to show us what to do.

After several minutes of this silence, Father pushed back his chair and stood up. He nodded curtly at Mother, who swept her arms upward like the choir director signaling us to stand, then bustled us out the door.

As we drove from the parking lot, I looked back at the diner. Through the window, I saw the waitress scrubbing our unused table with a rag and a spray bottle. No one mentioned what happened—not that night as we sat in the van, silent and hungry and searching for a drive-through—or ever afterward.

“Learn to leave things be,” Mother likes to say when bad things happen. “Turn the other cheek.”

And that’s what we try to do. Pretend these things don’t happen. But they do, again and again.

Outside, the sky has dimmed to olive, and I hear Lecka bark playfully. David’s home safe again.

I wonder what would have happened that night in Alabama, if, instead of walking out in defeat, our father had stood up and rebuked those people for treating a God-fearing family in such a shameful fashion. Our family was hungry just like they were. Didn’t we have a right to eat? Weren’t we all equal in the eyes of Jesus Christ? How dare they deny small children food? This was America after all, a country founded on the principles of Christian love and harmony!

Maybe he felt the same way we did this afternoon—outnumbered and out-hated. Maybe it is better to turn the other cheek in certain situations.

Reverend Dykstra often tells us that this world is not our home.

“This place is merely a proving ground,” he says. “Our suffering shall be rewarded in Heaven.”

But sometimes I think that I’d rather have less suffering now, even if it meant less glory in Heaven.

The basement door opens and the brass bell clangs. Supper. I drag myself off the cot and climb the dark stairway. Mother’s in the galley kitchen, stirring a large pot on the stove as Rejoice Radio plays Christian pop music over the intercom. At her back, the long windows cast a murky light over the hardwood floor of the great room. The new, L-shaped sectional lurks in semidarkness in one corner of the large room, the television and card table in another. A couple of boxes listing next to the stairwell—marked “winter gear”—wait to be carried downstairs and unpacked.

As I walk behind Mother toward the dining table—where David sits with his back to me—I inhale the sour steam billowing off the pot on the stove and grimace. Garbage Soup, again. I slide into the chair across from David, silently grabbing my neck as if I were choking. He smirks his agreement.

Garbage Soup is Mother’s name for it, not ours. She makes it from old vegetables and plate-scrapings—flaccid celery and carrot sticks, chicken bones, potato skins, cheese rinds—that she collects in a mayonnaise jar and freezes. When the jar is full, she stews the contents in salted water for two hours, strains the broth, adds hamburger, and le voilà, Garbage Soup! She says it’s loaded with vitamins, one of the most nutritious meals ever. But it tastes just like its name, sour and dirty and old. It’s summertime, the air con is off to save energy, and I’m damp with sweat, but the mayo jar was full, so it’s Garbage Soup for supper. Waste not, want not.

Mother grew up poor and takes pride in her penny-pinching talents, which include an apple pie made entirely from saltine crackers that costs only three cents a serving. We eat this stuff despite our sprawling ranch house and the Porsche Dad drives to work every day.

“You forgot the beverage,” Mother says wearily to David as she sets the rust-colored soup on the table. She stoops her shoulders as she ladles the broth into our bowls, making herself look more frail than she already is. Steam billows onto her glasses and into the tight light brown curls of her hair. I wait for her to raise her head and look at me, but she doesn’t.

David returns with a pitcher of Carnation instant milk, which he pours into the glasses. As it swirls watery gray into mine, he smirks at me again.

After Mother blesses the food, we eat in silence as she leafs through Christianity Today magazine at her end of the table. She’s in one of her moods; we knew it as soon as we returned from our bike ride. She was in the kitchen, ripping coupons from the newspaper, her lips smashed into a hard little line. She didn’t say hello and neither did we. We took one look at her and went downstairs; it’s best to fall under her radar when she gets like this.

The wind moans against the side of the house woo woo! and rushes through the open windows, fluttering the napkins in their stand. Outside, the trees dance at the edge of the back field as Sandi Patti sings “Yes, God Is Real” on Rejoice Radio. Mother lifts her spoon and blows across it without taking her eyes from the magazine. I stare at her and wonder what set her off this time. Maybe she got news of Jerome. Or she’s peeved that Dad’s late for the third night in a row. She glances up to see me staring and draws the magazine closer to her face, blocking me out completely. I look at David, and he shrugswhadda ya gonna do about it? Sometimes it seems the smallest signs of our existence— our laughter bubbling up from the basement, a book left on the couch—irritate her. She often tells us that she looks forward to the day we all leave home.

“God will be my family then,” she’ll say.

God and her missionaries. She’s got missionaries around the globe. Sends them letters and packages, birthday cards, chewing gum, $10 bills. Pins their photos to the bulletin board over her desk. White couples, posing with mud huts and dark children, their locations jotted on the back of each picture: “Loving the Lord in Laos.” “Coming to Christ in Colombia.” “Giving God to Ghana.” It all sounds vaguely pornographic to me, although I know they’re working hard to save souls.

She and Dad go on medical mission trips from which she returns giddy with enthusiasm. They make us sit through slide shows that document their god squad adventures. Look at this football-sized tumor. Here’s a gangrenous spear wound. We brought these loin-clothed pagans to Jesus, healing bodies and souls at the same time.

“Such gratitude for Christ, such a hankering for The Word!” Mother will gasp, shaking her head at the wonder of it.

Sometimes they show movies about missionary martyrs after Vespers, projecting the film onto the back of the church while we sit in folding chairs in the parking lot, drinking Kool-Aid. Mother holds these people in high esteem. Says she would have been a missionary herself if it weren’t for meeting our father.

I used to wish she’d show the same enthusiasm for us, pin our family photographs to her bulletin board. When I was in third grade, I poked all her missionaries’ eyes out with a thumbtack in a fit of jealousy. She paddled me for it.

I excuse myself to fetch the salt shaker from the kitchen and glance down at her magazine as I walk behind her chair. “God Is Everything” is the title of the article she’s reading. When I sit down again, David crosses his eyes and bares his teeth at me. I roll mine. Dweeb. He hooks his front teeth over his bottom lip and slits the corners of his eyes like a Chinaman. I shake my head and trace figure eights in the pool of fat skimming my soup, ignoring him. He knows I’m in a foul mood after the run-in with the farmers and is trying to cheer me up.

He wriggles his fingers in front of his bowl, insistently, and I lift my head. He flares his nostrils and pokes out his lips like those Africans you see in Cartoon Classics, the ones with the bones in their noses who dance around boiling cauldrons of white tourists. I snort despite myself—I don’t like it when he pokes fun of his features, but he’s trying so hard to distract me—and Mother lowers her magazine. Her bifocals flash as we quickly spoon soup into our mouths. When she lifts her magazine again, David flips up his eyelids, exposing the pink undersides, and rolls his pupils skyward so it looks like he’s got white marbles for eyes. He taps his fingers along the edge of the table, a blind man, finds his spoon and jabs it at his soup bowl. Ting! It collides with his milk glass instead.

“What in Heaven’s name?!” Mother exclaims.

David slowly turns his marble eyes in her direction as I tug on my milk, trying not to laugh.

“That’s ridiculous!” she sputters. “David! Put your eyes back, now!” Milk sprays out of my mouth and across the table.

“Julia!”

And then David’s doubled over and I’m doubled over and we’re both convulsing in our high-backed chairs. And we can’t stop no matter how much Mother shouts for us to stop or threatens to tell Father or bangs the table.

For a few moments, there’s nothing but us and our laughter, the soaring joy of our laughter, our laughter crashing through us like tidal waves and raining down our cheeks as tears.

* * *

My parents didn’t set out to adopt two black boys.

They wanted the white kid on my sister’s pediatric ward. Laura was born with spina bifida, and she spent much of her childhood in hospitals, being repaired and recuperating from repairs. During one month-long stay, she met an orphaned white boy, and they became fast friends. In the desperate manner of lonesome, suffering children, they clung to each other like family. My parents inquired after adopting him, only to learn he was taken.

But the adoption agency persisted. There were scads of other children who needed homes, they said: black children.

It was 1970, and America was scarred by racial violence. Civil rights leaders had been gunned down in the streets, and communities across the nation were smarting from race riots. My parents’ own state, Indiana, had once been a stronghold of the Ku Klux Klan, and was still a haven for backwater bigots.

To reject a black baby would have been un-Christian, a sin. God was testing them. This was a chance to bear witness for Jesus Christ, to show the world that their God was not prejudiced and neither were they. Red and yellow, black and white, they’re all precious in His sight, Jesus loves the little children of the world. They would take a black baby home and call him son.

Such was the theory.

Years later, I learned that the first time my mother touched David, she feared “the black would rub off on her hands.”

Later still, I learned the miracle of my brother’s beginnings. That David was born to a thirteen-year-old girl, three months premature and weighing two pounds—less than a bottle of Jack Daniels. That machines and heat lamps kept him breathing during his first crucial months. That he was placed with a succession of foster families that gave him different names and collected their government checks and shut doors so they wouldn’t hear him cry. They weren’t paid to love the fragile baby with the liquid brown eyes, they were paid to keep him alive.

My parents would keep him alive and save his soul.

* * *

From Jesus Land, courtesy Julia Scheeres and Counterpoint. Purchase the book here.