07 October 2004
From Killing the Buddha: A Heretic’s Bible, by Peter Manseau and Jeff Sharlet
Broward County, Florida
Who knows the power of your anger?
“Are you a preacher?” Dawnia DaCosta might have asked that night, the lilt of Jamaica in her voice as much of an enticement as the curves of her hips and her breast. And Lucious Boyd, a preacher of sorts, would have smiled.
“My daughter was a virgin!” Dawnia’s mother told us three years later. It wasn’t an assertion, it was an accusation. How could the Lord take an innocent? How could the Lord take one who’d not yet been blessed by love? God’s will. She spat the words out and ground them into the floor.
We sat silent, staring at them. We’d come to the southern tip of Florida looking for Santeria, the Cuban religion of African gods doubling as Catholic saints, of chicken bones and love candles and goat blood on the streets outside the INS building every morning, prayers to the Virgin Mary and her Yoruba alter-ego, Ochun, to let a brother or a sister, or a daughter, come to the promised land. Instead we’d found Dawnia’s mother. She didn’t need candles, she didn’t need chicken bones; all she wanted was blood.
“A virgin!” Dawnia’s mother said. “Lord, how she felt!” She spoke of the last time she’d seen her daughter alive, before Dawnia left for church one Friday night three years ago.
“Are you a preacher?” Dawnia might have asked. In Lucious Boyd’s reply, she would have noted the erudition of his tone, his long American vowels. “Yes, I am a preacher,” he might have answered; and from what the witnesses tell us about the dark-skinned girl who climbed into a church van with the light-skinned black man, how she wavered before getting in as if on the edge of faith, we know she was excited, and afraid.
Faith is dangerous. Friday night, two a.m.: Dawnia just now coming home from church, Faith Tabernacle Pentecostal United, a church of Caribbean exiles making good in America. She’s a big girl, handsome, known for her bright laughter and her powerful lungs. She loves Jesus, she loves her church. Friday night, nowhere else she’d rather be. She’s twenty-one, going to be a nurse, so God-fearing she won’t even wear slacks; but she loves to party, loves to pray, loves to sing. She’s an alto. She sings solos.
Friday night, her throat is itching. She wants to let it loose; she wants to pray; she wants to sing; she has the solo. “There is power, power, wonder working power, power in the blood of the lamb!” It’s a song, it’s a prayer, it’s a vibration in her bones.
The clock creeps into the morning. The choir decamps to a Denny’s, where they drink coffee and laugh about life back on the islands; then they shift to the parking lot, short bursts of song escaping their lips between goodbyes like hiccups of gospel. Dawnia gets behind the wheel, alone with her solo. She cruises through the warm dark Florida morning, her windows down while she sings. There is power in the blood. Her voice shakes the car so hard she doesn’t notice it sputtering. Then it rolls to a stop. She’s run out of gas.
Faith is dangerous. Dawnia walks down the highway in the dark, cars whiz by, nobody stops, just as well. She keeps company with the Lord. She sings to keep herself safe. “There is power in the blood, power, power, wonder-working power!” She comes to a ramp, exits the highway on foot, walks out of the dark, into the white light of a gas station. She sees a turquoise van. A church van, “Generation of Hope” written on its side. In it is a man with broad shoulders and dark eyes; they spot her wandering and he rolls up beside her. His eyebrows are raised, his lips are set in a careless smile.
“Are you a preacher?” Dawnia might ask. The man would laugh. No, not really; but he does give sermons at the funeral home he runs with his family. He’s a businessman, but solace is his trade. Isn’t that about the same thing? Dawnia gets in the van.
Faith is dangerous. Three a.m. Dawnia’s gone. Her mama’s awake. She wants her daughter. Dawnia, her eldest, Dawnia, her strongest.
“She is physically strong,” her mother told us, sitting in her beauty parlor between a pawnshop and a gun store, making a fist out of her daughter’s strength. “She is always with me,” she said. Three years later, she still saw Dawnia nodding to Lucious Boyd’s pious words; felt her daughter’s shoulders tensing as he drove past her car without slowing down; heard her praying—Oh my God help me!—as his hands pushed her down to the floor of the church van—Jesus help me!—as his face came from above like the maw of an animal—God—as he tore into her like the Beast himself—Please!
“I pray for him to suffer,” Dawnia’s mother said. “May the Lord make that so.”
Dawnia’s church prayed with her: “Let him suffer,” they prayed, a chorus of hate so deep it didn’t so much stain their faith as transform it. Even before they knew his name, the day they found Dawnia’s body, naked, raped, stabbed, run over, and oddly, tenderly, wrapped in a shroud of bed sheets, they prayed for him. The day the police caught him, they prayed for him, every day of his trial they sat in the back of the courtroom and prayed for him, the day the jury said guilty they prayed for him, and now, the Sunday after the verdict, a new holiday they called “Victory Day,” they prayed for him. Let him suffer, thank you Jesus; give him the chair, thank you Jesus; make him bleed, thank you Jesus. They were a prayer in a red dress, a red suit, red suspenders. “It’s the color of Jesus’ blood,” said the reverend of Faith Tabernacle, as if that explained why he and his church had chosen it as the special color of their celebration. “Today we’re celebrating Jesus,” a congregant said. “Today we’re wearing red for justice.”
Red is the color of their prayer. Red is the color of blood. And there is power in the blood, that’s what they sang. A choir forty-five strong at the front of the church, the band bursting out of its corner, the women in the pews sizzling in their seats until like popcorn they hopped into the air. Thank you Jesus! That’s an S like a Z, Jee-zus! That’s a red bloody Jesus; say it again! A boy in a black suit over a red shirt put his hands in the air and let his fingers flutter like butterflies until the spirit filled them and they turned into talons. There is power in the blood! The soloist wore a red skirt suit and a red hat shaped like that of a pilgrim. “There is power!” she sang. “Power! Power! Power!”
From somewhere in the choir loft tambourines rose up and rippled across the singers like a school of silver fish. The drummer banged his way past the plexiglass shield designed to contain him; the piano player, a teenage boy, splashed across the keys as if skipping stones on water. Two rows ahead a tall man with the heavy jaw and thin frame of an undertaker rocked back and forth, his arms glued to his sides, his hands like paddles.
Then the bass simmered. The choir quieted. The reverend preached. “She has been justified!” He was the biggest man in the church, his legs alone taller than the full height of a boy, his head as wide and thick as the dark mouth of a cannon, his words shaped like an Englishman’s “My God,” he said. “We can rejoice!”
Later, we’d sit with him in his office, lost in deep leather chairs, straining to see him behind the bronze eagle that swooped from a pedestal over his neatly piled sermons. His god, he said, was a loving one, and His love was like a lion, like a fighter plane. The reverend loved fighter planes, he loved his new country’s F-16s. “Do you understand,” he asked us, one hand in a fist pressed against the black marble of his desk, the other stroking its sheen, “what this nation, under God, can do to God’s enemies?” If we hadn’t before, we did then, under the anger of the reverend’s glare.
In the pulpit, the reverend roared his adopted American creed: “You can run, but you can’t—”
“HIDE!” his congregation shouted.
“Let us sing!” the reverend commanded.
The soloist shook her head hard and her red pilgrim hat punched the air. In her hand there was suddenly a red handkerchief like a splash of blood. “We won!” she sang. Red scarves burst into the air around the church like so many gunshots. “We won! We won! We won!”
In the front row, a half a dozen white men, detectives and a prosecutor, special guests for Victory Day, nodded their heads; they knew this song. The lead singer pumped her hands: “We won the war! We won the war! We won the war!”
“Yes,” said the reverend. “Yes!” The choir subsided, folded up into twitching quiet like wings behind his shoulders. “Did we not know it would be so?” The guitar player twanged, warned, played a blues. “The wise man Solomon says in Ecclesiastes, ‘But it shall not be well with the wicked, neither shall he prolong his days!’”
“Yes!” The congregation shouted with joy.
“St. Paul tells us in Romans, chapter twelve”—“Tell us!” screamed a woman in the back pew. “St. Paul tells us in Romans chapter twelve, verse nineteen, ‘It is written, Vengeance is mine, I will repay, sayeth the Lord!’”
The congregation roared. “Jesus!”
“And does it not say, in Galatians chapter six, verse seven”—Oh yes, the congregation said, women crying and men dancing. “‘God is not mocked! For whatsoever a man soweth! For whatsoever a man soweth, that he shall also reap!’” A flurry of keyboard and a burst of rumbling bass followed the words. The reverend waited. He looked at the pews, his congregation of exiles and immigrants, Jamaicans and Antiguans, their skin so dark, their souls so white. The reverend did not know what it meant to be “black” until he came to this country. He wished not to know. He was not black, he was a man. Just like, he’d told us—especially like—the white men who filled the first pew. The detectives. The prosecutor. These powerful men, who had listened to the power of the Lord, heard the power of Faith Tabernacle. The reverend stared at the white men. “I am well pleased,” he said, “with what God has done. With what God is about to do.”
“Isaiah!” a man in the back shouted his prophet’s name.
The reverend ignored him. “I will say now that we have the blessing of dignitaries among us.” The white men shifted in their seats. “These men,” said the reverend, “who have done”—he paused—“so much. I have not seen one flaw in these men. If it exists, I am not looking. I have not seen one such flaw—such as racism.” The prosecutor nodded.
The man in the back again shouted his prophet’s name, like a bullet fired at the altar. What did he mean? Nobody cared. Why did people say the sheriffs shot black people as if they were dogs? Nobody knew. Why didn’t they put Lucious Boyd away when they thought he’d killed a black whore? That didn’t matter. What mattered was power. The power of prayer, the power in the blood, the power of Faith Tabernacle to make white men do their will.
The guitar thrummed and the red handkerchiefs waved. At the reverend’s invitation, the prosecutor stepped up to the pulpit. He was nearly as big as the reverend, with dark hair going silver, boyish cheeks, narrow-set eyes that beamed concern. And teeth. Bright white teeth.
“I’m seeing a whole lotta red out there!” he shouted. The guitar leapt up behind him. “Can you hear me?” he called. YES! Can you hear me? YES!
He reminded them he’d been there before, campaigning. Two years ago, didn’t even know what church he was in, when the reverend had pointed a finger at him and demanded, “What are you going to do?”
“Only then did I realize that I was in Dawnia DaCosta’s church. And when I knew that I came up—you remember?—I came up to the pulpit and I said ‘I will do everything in my power to make sure justice is done!’”
“Thank you Jesus!”
“Yes! And in return, I asked for one thing—what was that?”
“Oh Lord! Justice!”
The prosecutor, who would not comment on his plans to run for higher office, who was a lector in his Catholic church, the racial mix of which he told us he had never noticed, who loved hockey and his two children and his wife, none of whom he had brought that morning to Faith Tabernacle, who said there were no bad parts of his town, the prosecutor had asked for one thing.
Votes? No, no.
“Your thoughts and your prayers!”
“Power in the Blood” resumed, the red-hatted woman belting, “We got it! We got it! We got it!” A woman in the second row of the choir let her long hair fly as she slammed her torso backwards and forwards like a wet rag snapping. The detectives danced, hips and shoulders this way, then that. Despite ourselves, we did too, even though it made us feel like accomplices, two more lightning rods for the power Faith Tabernacle meant to draw down from the sky and up from the grave. We got it whether we wanted it or not, though what it was we couldn’t say. They’d already had deliverance, that’s how they’d come to America. And they were certain each and every one of them was saved. What did they want? Not chicken bones, not candles, and not a creamy white Christ bleating “Forgive!” They wanted blood. To get it they needed power. “We got it! We got it!” They needed the D.A. who stacked their young men up in jails like piles of sugarcane. “We got it!” They had it, and now the D.A. felt it, the power they had. We could see it in the way his bones seemed to shake free of their joints and the way his bright white teeth sparked electric, as Faith Tabernacle anointed him—old women running to him, young men seizing him, the choir singing for him, the pastor smiling at him. He gave his smile back to the pastor. It was as though, both would later claim, there was no more black and white between them. Just red. A wave of it that could take Lucious Boyd to the chair, the prosecutor to the judge’s bench, and the reverend to a brand new marble pulpit.
* * *
Lucious Boyd didn’t say a word at his sentencing hearing a few days later. “Nice to see you, Mr. Boyd,” the judge said; Lucious Boyd simply nodded. We sat in the visitor’s gallery, ten feet away. He had sleepy eyes and a broad jaw, a face that spread out like an alluvial plain, handsome but tired; his skin was as gray as it was brown. Every day of the trial he’d worn a new suit, but now he wore a prison-issue coverall, beige. It rounded his shoulders and made his chest look hollow, but still he smiled, even for the prosecutor, just as he had smiled at the reverend when the reverend had sat in the gallery, praying for justice and power and blood. Why not? They’d won the war, to them went the spoils. Lucious was a preacher himself. He knew the cost of a covenant. He knew a deal had been struck on the foundation of his body. Over his bones the reverend and the prosecutor would not just shake hands but bind themselves together in order to build a bright red temple.
Sentenced to death, Lucious Boyd would never hear its choir. Nor would Dawnia’s mother. “I don’t need that church no more,” she told us when we went to her beauty parlor and sat in an empty room behind the styling chairs, lit by cold blue fluorescent bulbs. She had hated Victory Day. As far as she was concerned, “Power in the Blood” belonged to Dawnia. And she had hated the things people had said to her there. “People say God use Dawnia as a sacrifice. People say God use her to kill Lucious.” She paused, for a moment too angry to speak. “But people use God in a wrong way.”