The United States of America, 2023-September
Adonai knew what was waiting for him on the other side of the doorway that morning. As he sat at the dining room table, watching the news footage and headlines that had been replaying all morning, his hands shook violently between sips of coffee. He checked his watch. Nine twenty-one. The law had been in effect for all of twenty-one minutes, and already he heard the antsy footsteps and clicking shutters of the paparazzi on his front porch.
"You can't keep them at bay for much longer," Laurencia appeared at his side and rested a hand on his shoulder. Her expression was wrought with pain and exasperation. The newsman was repeating the breaking story for the fifth time in a twenty-one minute period.
So this was it. All of the tension and terror had brought them to this point. Now he was cornered, and hiding in his home was more dangerous than stepping out to face the wolves.
"Well," he rose and stared at the TV for another moment, then absentmindedly straightened his tie. "It won't go uphill from here."
"The civilities won't last," Laurencia eyed the front door nervously.
Adonai started towards the door. "Where are the kids?"
"The principal pulled them from class a few minutes ago. They're secure for now."
Adonai turned and looked at his wife seriously. "Stay here."
Laurencia started to object, but Adonai killed the thought with his expression. Instead she watched as her husband opened the front door, and the hallway was flooded with camera flashes. A wave of voices swelled and roared into an indistinguishable chatter.
Adonai closed the door and turned to face his persecutors. God, this is in Your hands.
"Mr. Arivanti! Mr. Arivanti, over here!"
"Mr. Arivanti, what is your opinion on the new Exodus Bill?"
"How will this affect your church body?"
"Are you prepared to step down from your pulpit in order to fulfill the requirements to stay in the country?"
"Mr. Arivanti, what is the next step for you and your family?"
"I would like it to be known, first and foremost," Adonai began with a strong, commanding tone which hushed the crowd into submission. Now even the passerbies on the street were crowding to hear his comments, and his yard was quickly filling with curious bodies. "that I do not agree with President Thembers' statements as made this morning in the nature of preventative actions. Seven months ago, I went to President Thembers and made my concerns known about the attacks on members of the Christian faith which have been progressively worsening. Mr. Thembers discounted my claims as that of religious paranoia, and laughed off the idea that Christians are being targeted by unknown terrorist groups here in the United States. Yet last night at approximately eight p.m. Eastern Standard time, a group of high school and junior high church members were returning home from a youth camp, en route to Fort Worth, Texas." He paused and noted here that many of the spectators were now recording his speech on cell phones and video cameras. "Their bus was passing through Dallas when the suspects began to fire AK-47 rounds into the sides of the bus. These attackers shot and killed the bus driver, causing the bus to crash into a concrete wall. They then entered the bus and slaughtered every one of the passengers. The death toll was confirmed this morning at 58 victims. No suspects have been apprehended thus far."
"Mr. Arivanti," a reporter interrupted him here, "What is the name of the group responsible for these attacks?"
Adonai hesitated here. After a painful moment of silence, he admitted "We are not sure. But this is not their first kill. The same suspects are thought to be responsible for the abduction and torture of numerous affluent Christian personalities. This group should be considered terroristic in nature and a threat to all American people."
"Mr. Arivanti!" came another voice on his left, "Section two of the Exodus bill states that Christianity is a dangerous religion. How do you respond to this criticism?"
Adonai eyed the man. "I do not deny that Christianity is dangerous. However, it should not be considered dangerous to others, but to the Christian himself. Any who claim to follow Christ should acknowledge that there is an immediate danger in professing their faith. Christ himself says in the book of Mark, 'Whoever claims to follow me must take up his cross daily and die to himself.'"
There was a ribbon of laughter among the spectators. Adonai went rigid in fury, but restrained himself.
"Mr. Arivanti, over here!" cried a young woman in the cloud of reporters, "Section Three of the Exodus bill calls for the immediate removal or conversion of the Christian population in order to secure the safety of the individuals. Will your family be among those who convert to a government-approved religion, or will you evacuate?"
Adonai was especially pained to speak on this issue. "May I have your name, ma'am?"
"Teana Yentz, Channel 4."
"Miss Yentz," Adonai looked at her with laser-like focus, "I will ask you to chew on this. The government claims that they can protect me if I convert to their approved system of beliefs. My God promises to be with me always to the end of the earth. Knowing every time that the government wronged me, and knowing how far my God has carried me through life without ever leaving me, who do you think I am prone to follow?"
"Does this mean your family will be leaving?" said the first reporter, "What about your congregation?"
Adonai looked into the camera and gave a pained sigh. "As of today at 9:12 a.m., my wife Laurencia and I have decided that we will no longer call ourselves United States citizens. To the members of my congregation, as well as all who claim to be followers of Christ, know that the cost of leaving may be great. But the cost of staying will be even greater."
The United States of America, 2023- October
As Adonai stared at the list of names on his desk, his heart grew heavy. Seven families. Only seven families on his weekly roll of one hundred and twenty three would be leaving in one week. He leaned back in his seat and buried his face in his hands. Seven. Out of one hundred and twenty three. A grand total of twenty people out of a congregation of five hundred. What was going on?
A knock at the door jolted his train of thought. "Come in," he quickly straightened and stuffed the list in his top drawer.
A small, meek and smiling man entered and closed the door. "Good morning, Pastor."
Adonai forced a smile. "Good morning, Liam. How is it outside?"
Liam shrugged and sighed. "The police have them blocked off from the church. Not many of them today. Just a few with signs and bullhorns."
"Praise the Lord," Adonai waved his hand for Liam to come sit. "What can I do for you, Brother? Come to sign up for the boat?"
Suddenly all of the color drained from Liam's face. His entire countenance changed: Suddenly he was looking down at the floor, avoiding all eye contact and twiddling his thumbs. "Actually, Adonai," he began in a small, cowardly tone, "I've been thinking… And… Well, you know… the boat ride is just going to be so pricey…"
"We will pay for you and Sandra and the kids," Adonai said almost desperately, "Please, Liam, don't let the price be a reason. We will work it out once we all get settled in Sebodra."
Liam fell silent for a moment, then returned with another excuse. "Well, it's just… That's such a long boat trip for the kids. And you know, Sandra has that stiffness in her knees, that boat ride will just be killer. And then of course I have my bad back, you know…"
"Liam," Adonai's pastoral demeanor suddenly dropped, "If you just came here to feed me crappy excuses for you to stay in America, then you're wasting my time. Are you really willing to allow financial issues and minor health problems tear you away from a relationship with Jesus Christ?"
Liam's face flushed in embarrassment. "Look, Adonai," he stammered out, "You… You said yourself that the job situation wouldn't be guaranteed. I have a stable living condition here. I have a job and—"
"Liam!" Adonai now rose from his seat, "How 'stable' is your situation going to be in a few months when those protestors can't be contained by the police any longer? What's going to happen when you run out of protection here?" He looked at Liam seriously, his eyes blazing in passion. "You listen to me, and you listen to me well, got it? This country is about to go south very, very fast. There will be death. There will terrorist attacks. And no one will be safe. Not even those with a government-approved religion."
"The… Our whole life is here, Adonai. The kids were born and raised here. This is where all of their friends are. None of them are leaving. Shandra's parents are here. They aren't leaving, and they're nice people. I just… I don't know if it's worth uprooting our lives."
"You seriously need to re-examine your priorities, Liam," Adonai's tone was cold and dismayed, "If you think keeping your family comfortable is more important than maintaining a Biblical lifestyle, then clearly I've failed as your pastor."
Liam fell absolutely silent. Adonai kept waiting for him to come back with another lousy excuse, but Liam simply stared down at his feet like a child caught sneaking candy.
"Well?" Adonai finally pushed, "I'm waiting. The boat is leaving in one week. Are you going to be on it or not? I don't have time to spiritually feed you until you do what I want. That was my biggest mistake as a pastor. I fed all of you too much. I didn't force you to start taking ownership of your faith, and that's why only twenty of you are signed up to come to Sebodra in seven days. That's why you're all flaking out on your God. Is that accurate, Liam?"
Quietly, Liam gathered himself and looked Adonai straight in the eye. "Goodbye, Pastor. I hope that Sebodra is everything you are hoping for."
And just like that, he walked out of Adonai's office. It was the last time Adonai would ever see his brother.
"You're sure that's all of them?"
Mollton scanned over the information on the clipboard. "That's all, sir. This last crew was the last of the last. Only twelve people on it."
"What is our population up to now, Mollton?"
"Population of Sebodra is currently a little over 430,000, sir."
Adonai stared at his desk in disbelief. Four hundred and thirty thousand. Only four hundred and thirty thousand had come. There was an estimated one hundred and six million Christians in America in the year 2020, and only four hundred and thirty thousand had answered the call. Less than half of a percent.
He sighed and stopped himself, rubbing his face in irritation. Running the numbers in his head wouldn't make him feel any better. There was more work to be done.
"What else is on my schedule for this week, Mollton?" Adonai gathered his coat and briefcase, and as they swept down the small, half-constructed hallway, Mollton recited the list.
"At nine a.m., you have a meeting with the Sebodran House building Committee. You'll need to sign off on the decided names for the regions of the island." He handed Adonai a blank map of the island, divided into six quadrants of various sizes.
"What are the names?"
"Nothing inventive, sir. West Strip, Central Box, Lesser East Upper, Lesser East Lower, South Strip, and Lower South Strip. Six regions in all."
"Which region will be used for JS training?"
Mollton peered up at Adonai hesitantly. "It's a little early to be thinking about that already, isn't it, sir?"
Adonai returned the look with a heavy addition of distaste. "Someone dies in that country every two and a half seconds. It is never too early to be thinking about that, Mollton." Then he pointed to the farthest Western region. "The training should happen here. It's mountainous and isolated. Perfect conditions. Which one is this?"
"That's West Strip, sir."
"Beautiful," Adonai pulled on his coat and started down the stairs with Mollton in tow. "Easy to remember. What else is on schedule for today?"
"The schools will open on Tuesday. There are seven opening in Central Box. You're expected to make campus visits, so that will take up all of your day, most likely."
"How are the churches coming along?"
"Twelve standing already, sir, although they're not very big."
"Then house churches will return until we can accommodate everyone. Personally, I love a good house church. What does Wednesday look like?"
"You'll be meeting with the tenement farmers to discuss the federal funding for agricultural support. The land is yielding coffee and tea very well, and the economic committee is in the process of setting up trading partners and routes in Western Europe."
"Are the goods exceptional?"
"Very flavorful and superior, sir. The soil in South Strip is perfect for tropical produce. We're planning to experiment with growing bananas, papayas, mangos…"
"I'll be expected to sign off on that as well, I suppose," Adonai tipped his hat to the construction workers in the main lobby as they hauled large planks of wood past the stairwell.
Mollton skimmed through the papers on his clipboard and smiled grimly. "Plenty, sir."
Adonai laughed to himself. "You'd think we were trying to form a new country or something."
Sebodra, 2030- October 12th, 8:45 p.m.
The eyes of Sebodra were on the television set that night. Families without TVs flocked to the homes of their neighbors as the word spread through the island like a virus. Fear gripped the nation as the words flashed across the screen.
SEBODRAN FOUND DISMEMBERED AND MURDERED.
"The body of Theodore Arivanti, son of the Sebodran President Adonai Arivanti, was discovered in a New York apartment today," said the American reporter with a hint of horror etched across her primped and polished face, "The body was found dismembered, with the arms and legs cut off and missing from the scene. The young man was reportedly only 19 years of age, and the greatest mystery surrounding this slaying is the identity of the attackers, but also this: What was a Sebodran teenager doing in a New York apartment?"
"Oh, God," Jennifer Coxley covered her mouth in horror and buried her head in her husband's shoulder. "They know."
"It's not certain yet," Bradley Coxley said gently, "There are a dozen different explanations."
But the reporter continued. "Although theories regarding this murder run rampant, President Thembers proposed his own theory this morning at a press conference held in Queens, New York, outside of the apartment building where the body was discovered."
Now the camera was on Thembers, perfectly pressed and manicured as a hundred camera flashes fired around him. The mask of sorrow on his face was so plastic and artificial that Bradley shook his head in disgust and spat "Unbelievable."
"I would first and foremost like to extend my deepest condolences to the Arivanti family," Thembers began convincingly enough, "as well as to the entire nation of Sebodra. Losing a child is the most painful thing that we as parents can ever experience, and for Mr. Arivanti specifically—" ("Mister! Has he forgotten that Adonai is a President himself? How disrespectful!" Bradley fumed. His wife quickly ordered him to hush) "—I cannot imagine how difficult this time is. But at this moment in time, I cannot lie to the American citizens. As your President, it is my duty to explain to you the details of the late Theodore Arivanti's death, and identify those responsible for it."
All of Sebodra held its breath. Bradley and Jennifer leaned in so close to the television that Jennifer's breath fogged up the screen.
"Please, no," Bradley prayed aloud in desperation, "Please, God, no…"
But Thembers almost seemed excited to let this cat out of the bag. He couldn't contain this secret war any longer.
"Theodore Arivanti, as we discovered last night, was in this country illegally. He was smuggled across the United States border last May, and has been living in this city without proper documentation for the last ten months. Theodore was sent here by his father, as well as the entire nation of Sebodra, to serve as a secret evangelical operator in an attempt to convert Americans into Christians, thus rendering them enemies of the state and requiring them to relocate to Sebodra."
Bradley and Jennifer's hearts sank. Jennifer covered her face again and began to cry. Not only was the truth out, but the truth had been twisted and distorted to defame the name of Sebodra and Christianity.
"We suspect that the nation of Sebodra had done this in an attempt to increase their work force for the sake of economic gain" ("THAT IS A LIE!" Bradley bellowed at the screen. Jennifer was too upset to quiet him this time) "But at any rate, last night an unknown assassin or assassins followed Theodore back to his hideout in Queens and slayed him instantly." Here Thembers' eyes shifted slightly: a clear indicator that a lie was coming to all Sebodrans who had been trained to read faces. "The identity of this attacker or attackers is not known. However, all signs of this murder point to a hate crime, and the hate seems to be directed to those of the Christian faith."
Now he looked directly into the camera with a gleam of menace in his blue eyes, "Now, I would like to remind all Sebodrans that the Exodus Bill was passed specifically to PROTECT members of your faith. By returning to America, which you recognize is a hostile environment for those belonging to the Christian faith, you are knowingly stepping into a potentially deadly situation." Now he straightened his tie and looked back down at the podium. "That being said, I cannot, with a clear conscience, continue to look the other way as Sebodrans place themselves in potentially deadly situations. As of today at 12:30 p.m. Eastern Standard time, the Stone Boulder Bill was passed, stating that any Sebodran citizens attempting to return to the United States may be sentenced to incarceration or life imprisonment." Then he looked around at the crowd with a strange look of bemusement on his face. "That is, if the protestors don't discover you first. The late Theodore Arivanti should serve as this example."
"That worm!" Bradley exploded in absolute fury, "How dare he! Using Theo's death as an intimidation tactic! Jennifer, you mark my words, he's in on this somehow! I don't know what it is, but he's in on it!"
"Bradley, the kids," Jennifer hushed him and looked towards the boys' bedroom in distress, "You'll wake up Timothy and Paul."
Now the newscaster was back, looking ever-disturbed by the words of her country's leader. "Sebodran President Adonai Arivanti has declined commenting on this tragedy, or on the newly-enacted Stone Boulder Bill. More on this developing story in the next hour, Reyna Slepton, Channel 7 News, New York, New York."
Jennifer sighed and rose from the couch. "Of course."
As his wife went to console Timothy in the next room, Bradley was left staring at the floor, shaking in anger. His heart was a soupy mess of emotions. Outrage. Fear. Depression. Disappointment. Sorrow. He wanted to scream at the top of his lungs. He wanted to punch a wall. How many other JS's were in America right this moment? How many of them would wind up on the news like Theo, victims of mindless hate crimes? And who were these people? Why this pushing for the complete eradication and removal of Christian ideas and thoughts?
He instinctively reached for the small brown book on the coffee table and began to flip through the pages. God, give me something. Please. Just something to remind me that You're here. That You're at the center of all of this.
As it turned out, his fingers brought him to the book of Isaiah. His eyes fell on that old familiar passage, dog-eared and underlined and marked up, he had visited this verse so many times.
'Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.'
And brief as those four lines were, they were enough to remind Bradley that this fight was not over yet.
Sebodra, 2030- October 12th, 10:00 p.m.
Adonai jerked his head out of his hands and turned in the direction of the voice.
"We're ready for you now, Mister President."
Adonai merely stared at the stage hand for a moment, his thoughts too scattered to process the statement, then he gave himself a shake and hurriedly followed the man out of the door. Down the hallway, up the stairs… The lights and cameras would be on him at any moment… And still he had no idea of what to say.
All he could think about was Theo. About that picture that kept swirling around the news stations in America. Had they really fallen so far that they considered a picture so graphic to be appropriate to flash across the news? Nineteen years ago he had held a perfect, doe-eyed baby boy in his arms. Absolutely perfect in every way. That baby had grown into a handsome young man, full of youthful idealism and vigor and— yes, recklessness. But a man also full of the light of Christ. He even remembered the day his son had come to him and said he wanted to be a JS.
"Theo, do you realize how dangerous it is?" he had said with a father's hesitation.
"Of course, Dad," Theo had smiled wryly, "I've heard you talking about it all my life. I know that I could potentially lose my life. But if there's anything you've taught me, it's that Christ is worth losing your life for. He's more than worth it, Dad. And I'm willing to take that risk if it means others may hear and live."
He should have said no. He should have played the overprotective father. How could he have allowed this? Theo had excelled in Genesis Training, though… He was at the top of his class. He had the passion and the drive, as well as the skill. How could Adonai expect the people of Sebodra to make the sacrifice of being a JS if he was too afraid to send his own son on mission? He didn't have a choice, really… Did he?
He was yanked out of the cloud of his own thoughts and back to the stage. The flashes were going off from every direction as he made his way to the pulpit, still a little inattentive and stunned. The Sebodran news reporters didn't make a sound. There were no demands to have questions answers. There was only the occasional click of a camera shutter going off. As he gathered his papers, the entire nation held its breath.
Father, guide me. Give me discernment and wisdom. Let me be a mouthpiece for You.
"My brothers and sisters," he began, though not with his usual commanding, authoritative diction, "Today the Arivanti family, as well as the nation of Sebodra, lost a beloved young man, who was martyred in the name of Jesus Christ in America. As you know by now, that young man was my oldest son, Theo Arivanti." His voice broke a little here; he paused and took a deep breath. Then he continued. "Theo was working undercover as a JS in New York City, which I can now tell you over Sebodran airwaves, because as of today, the United States will no longer be able to receive information from Sebodra. A trace lock has been placed over all Sebodran signals, including telephone conversations, radio stations, television channels and internet outsourcing. The United States government will no longer be able to eavesdrop, intervene or spy on our lives."
Now his voice shook again. Here it comes. There is only one reason for these measures, and they know it.
"As of today, October 12th, 2030, Sebodra is hereby declaring war on the United States."
Immediate gasps and murmurs of disbelief broke out over the crowd. Move quickly. Explain yourself, before you lose them.
"But this war," he said loudly to quiet them, "Will not be one of violence. There will be no guns, no aircrafts and no militia. No weapons. There will be soldiers, but there will be no violence coming from our side. This war is not of anger and hatred. This is a war of love."
Now the crowd fell silent. The camera shutters began to click madly again.
"I'm sure that all of you had the opportunity to hear President Thembers' speech this evening," Adonai went on with a bitter remembrance, "as well as his implication that we, as a nation and the body of Christ, may be frightened into submission and hiding. And perhaps for some of you, his indirect threats worked. But I would like to ask each and every Sebodran citizen to take into account the church of Acts. Consider for a moment how Paul and Sylas, and Stephen and countless others were beaten, imprisoned and stoned time and time again as they attempted to spread the Gospel to all corners of the earth. And, yes, as most of you know, those who devoted their lives to the spreading of the gospel often lost those very lives in the process. But if I may, for just a moment" –he now opened his Bible and began to thumb through its pages, "The Apostle Paul put it much more poignantly than I ever could… Yes, here we are." He cleared his throat and began to read, "'But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.'"
He closed the Bible and looked directly into the crowd. "That verse is found in Acts 20:24. It was written shortly before Paul was arrested once again. And the fact of the matter, my brothers and sisters, is that Paul was not a madman. He was not a criminal, a fraud, or a liar. On the contrary, Paul should serve as our living example of what we are to do. What each and every one of us is called to do in the name of Christ."
"Amen!" erupted a voice from the crowd. All at once the energy of the place had shifted. There was clapping; Jubilant cries of "Ad Dei gloriam! Dei gloriam! Dei gloriam!" pierced the night. From the front row, the teenage Jacob Arivanti looked at his father, punched the air with a fist and triumphantly cried "So others may hear!"
"AND LIVE!" chorused the crowd.
Adonai was stunned. He blinked out at the sea of faces for a moment, then couldn't suppress a slight inward smile.
He cleared his throat and straightened his papers once again. "I'm sure that the American President believes that right now I am speaking all of you into submission, telling you that our secret missions have failed and that we are all to continue living out our lives on this island, peaceful and isolated and uncaring towards the internal affairs of the United States." Now he looked directly into the TV cameras, and his blue eyes blazed in defiant passion. "And knowing now that the United States can in no way eavesdrop on this broadcast, it is with greatest pleasure that I now tell you that we will never back down."
The crowd roared in approval, stomping and clapping and whistling.
"The name of Christ cannot be defeated."
"And we, as a Christian nation, will fulfill the call the spread the Gospel, no matter the cost," he was now energetically motioning, further rousing the crowd's fervor, "Brothers and sisters, the dedication that will be required to live out this promise cannot be manufactured in the heat of the moment. Today, you must decide for yourselves if you will take part in this last attempt to save the greatest country on earth from an eternity separated from its awesome and Almighty Creator and Savior."
He looked down at his family in the front. Laurencia, distressed and eyes still red from the last several hours of sobbing, was nonetheless standing tall and proud, nodding in agreement. Jacob held her arm, watching his father with the same countenance, serious and strong.
"It is my privilege to serve as your President," Adonai's voice boomed over the loudspeakers, "And it is a privilege to serve with you as one unified body of Christ." He punched the air with his fist, "So others may hear!"
The responding cry rang out across the nation that night.