Pastor Doug was laden with basketballs as he brought up the rear of the youth group on their way back to the church from the public court at the end of the street. He was yards behind the slowest kids, but could see all 17 of them as they sauntered back into the small church for Wednesday night devotional. The early autumn sun was setting and there was some time before youth devotional was set to start, so the kids who weren’t really interested in basketball weren’t quite showing up yet.
He put the net bag full of basketballs away in the youth group locker in the side room next to the main sanctuary. When he came out, he saw the group of 8th-grade-girls standing in the corner giggling over a cell phone. This was not an unusual occurrence, and Pastor Doug was sure he’d see something funny from Facebook or Instagram — a kitten riding a robotic vacuum or a pig rolling down a hill. These almost-14-year-olds were just old enough to have accounts on these social media per their terms and conditions, although many parents pushed to keep their young girls off the stuff until high school.
What was unusual was that as Pastor Doug approached, the girls hushed and the girl in the center, Stacie, hid the phone from his view.
This gave Pastor Doug pause.
“Hey, girls,” he said, “new video?”
“No,” they said in unison.
“How about all y’all go ahead into the youth room so we can get devotional started,” Pastor Doug said.
“Yes, Pastor Doug,” a few of them said as the group dispersed in eerie silence toward the youth room where most of the other basketball players were already congregating.
“Stacie,” Pastor Doug said, “you wanna show me what you were all giggling at?”
His heart sank as she hesitated and he knew he was going to see something he wasn’t prepared for. In seminary a decade ago he’d taken a mission trip to work in an orphanage in India, where he’d seen poverty and destitution first-hand, including babies with the worst deformities next to others with perfectly treatable childhood diseases, few of whom could be saved with the resources in their village. He’d helped treat the victims of landmines in another mission trip in Afghanistan. On Thursdays now in their middle-sized city in Ohio, he volunteered at a drug rehabilitation center, leading Narcotics Anonymous groups and individual counseling for many people who got so far down the desperate tunnel of addiction that some overdosed and never came back.
Still he felt nothing prepared him for the horrors that American teenagers wrought on each other over social media or, worse, what adults pretending to have their best interests at heart could do to these young people with as little as a WiFi signal and an account on an app.
Stacie hesitated and Pastor Doug’s heart sank further. He held his hand out. He realized he couldn’t promise that she wouldn’t be in trouble. What could he say to assuage her fears?
“I promise that I will never hurt you,” he said, honestly. “Show me what you girls were giggling at, please.”
The girl trusted him as she had since she moved into the middle school youth group three years ago. He was the “cool” pastor, just middle aged enough to lead the youth ministry without getting too winded, and capable of keeping up with at least some of their trends and memes. Pastor Bob always told him he didn’t envy Pastor Doug the terrors that awaited him in youth group.
“13-year-old girls,” Pastor Bob would say, shaking his head. “I had two of those 20 years ago and all I can say is I praise Jesus every day that they grew out of it.”
Stacie unlocked the phone and re-opened whatever screen she’d had open before and handed the device to Pastor Doug.
It took him a moment to realize what he was looking at.
He felt a wave of disgust settle over him. Pastor Doug averted his eyes as quickly as he realized what it was: a photo of an erect penis with some kind of costume or make up on. It was an Instagram post, which he knew would not stay up long. He held the phone back up to see who had posted it.
The account, which Stacie apparently followed, was purportedly a teenaged boy, but not one of the 10 or so in youth group. Pastor Doug was relieved at that. But then he realized that this could just be a man posing as a teenaged boy.
“Do you know the person who posted this?” Pastor Doug asked.
Stacie nodded, her face as red as a beet.
“Do you go to school with him?”
“Yes,” Stacie said.
“You’re not in trouble,” Pastor Doug assured her. “I know you and your friends think this is funny, but this is very serious.”
He wasn’t quite sure what to do. Screenshotting it would amount to harboring child pornography, even on another child’s device.
“What is this kid’s name?” Pastor Doug asked.
“Harrison,” Stacie said.
“Harrison Cohen,” she said.
“OK,” Pastor Doug said. He clicked on the “report image” button on the screen and then unfollowed the account.
“I’m going to keep your phone through the end of youth devotional,” Pastor Doug said, just to give her some immediate consequences. There was no way she would be brazen enough to look at her phone again for the rest of the night, but this would let her know her actions were in need of serious attention. “I’m also going to need you to tell me how many of the other girls were looking at that picture.”
“It was just me and Emma and Tiana,” she said. “Christy was too scared to look.”
“Ok,” Pastor Doug said. He brought out his own phone to make a note to get in touch with all of these girls’ parents tonight to discuss the issue and what the next steps would be, including getting in touch with the parents of this Harrison boy.
Stacie was crying. “It’s ok,” Pastor Doug said. He put a hand on her shoulder. “The boy may be in some trouble but it wasn’t your fault he posted that, and I can’t really blame you for looking. But you’re very young and the law doesn’t like it when young people are exposed to things like that, ok?”
“If you want to take a minute in the bathroom to cry, you can,” Pastor Doug said. The three or four non-sporty kids were wandering into the church now and he didn’t want Stacie to be embarrassed or have rumors spread about Pastor Doug punishing her for something. Stacie nodded again and ran to the ladies’ room down the hall.
Pastor Doug went into the youth group room, which was buzzing with post-sport energy; one kid had plugged their iPhone into the ancient aux cable and was playing the latest top 40 from Christian rock Spotify over the old speakers that Pastor Doug had set up when he started at the church eight years ago.
Quietly, Pastor Doug tapped Christy, Emma, and Tiana on the shoulder and told them to go comfort Stacie in the bathroom and come back in five minutes. “None of you is in trouble,” he told them. “But we’re going to have to talk after devotional.”
The girls nodded obediently and slipped out of the room to comfort their friend.
Pastor Doug composed himself and prepared to lead a room full of hormonal teenagers in a discussion about the book of James, all while trying to clear his head of an image he wished he’d never seen.
That night, after he had called the parents of each of the five girls who’d been involved with the Instagram post and was assured that Tiana’s mother was going to talk to someone at the school about the Harrison boy and online safety, Pastor Doug found that he couldn’t sleep.
He sat up in the living room long after his wife and their two children had gone to bed. Scooby, the scruffy terrier that his oldest daughter, Margie, had named as a puppy, was his only companion. Cable news was blaring on the TV. Pastor Doug couldn’t figure out what to do.
These children were having their innocence stolen too early, he thought. From each other, to make matters worse. Surely that Harrison kid had no idea what he was posting or why it was a dare to do it. He didn’t know he was sharing child pornography of himself.
Or did he? Pastor Doug wondered if the boy had been sexually abused by an older child — maybe a cousin or even an uncle or his father or… There was no way to know if a kid learned sexual things from other kids or from the internet or from strangers or family members these days. The whole thing was so effusive. So evasive.
Pastor Doug was acutely aware of predators on the internet. That oldest daughter who had so gleefully named the dog had been woven into a horrible scam by a predator when she was 13. It wasn’t that long ago. One of her friends had “friended” a man on Snapchat who was posing as a 15-year-old boy. Margie didn’t even have a phone, but her friend would lend her one overnight sometimes so that she could flirt with this supposed boy herself. Pastor Doug had no idea until he caught Margie DMing with her real friend on her laptop about meeting the boy after school the next day.
He’d made Margie tell him everything. Had the “boy” asked her to do anything other than meet him? Yes, she said, he wanted pictures of her. What kind of pictures? She had shrugged. Naked pictures? She half nodded. Had she sent pictures of herself? No, she insisted, but her friend had.
Pastor Doug had called the friend’s parents immediately and they had gotten the police involved. The girls never went to meet this supposed boy, and his account disappeared almost immediately. This predator was still out there, creating new accounts on disappearing social media, doing who knew what to girls or even boys who were too young to know what was happening. The friend was still allowed to have a phone, but Pastor Doug had forbidden Margie from having one until she turned 16.
It made Pastor Doug sick. Absolutely sick.
He wished he could roll a joint and smoke himself into oblivion like he’d done in college, before he’d really found Jesus and decided to become a pastor. But he wouldn’t even drink alcohol now. Milk or Diet Coke were his strongest options, and they certainly wouldn’t get him away from these horrible thoughts about the safety of the children he was tasked with shepherding into adulthood.
Scooby’s head popped up from his bed under the TV. He looked at the kitchen and growled a low, menacing warning.
“What’s up, Scoob?” Pastor Doug asked.
Scooby hopped up on his little legs and growled again, louder this time, and longer. His hackles stood straight up.
“Is it a raccoon?” Pastor Doug asked. One had been trying to get in the dog door at night lately, but they’d been closing it before bed every night to keep that from happening.
Scooby stood stock still, staring at the kitchen with his hackles raised and that low growl emanating from the depths of his little stomach.
“Ok, ok, I’ll look,” Pastor Doug said. He got up from the couch and walked to the kitchen, which was perfectly dark and still. Pastor Doug flipped on the light. He saw nothing at first — just the kitchen. He turned back to the dog, but the dog had run away, probably upstairs to be with Pastor Doug’s wife.
“You old chicken, Scoob,” Pastor Doug said. He went to turn the light off but then noticed the kitchen wasn’t as still as he’d thought.
A dark figure sat alone at the breakfast table. It seemed to blend into the walls, and Pastor Doug only noticed it because it turned towards him, or at least he thought it had.
He felt his skin crawl.
“Pastor Doug,” the figure said and gestured at the chair across from him. “Come, sit.”
Pastor Doug found he could not disobey. He was terrified but unable to say no. He sat down as directed and faced a dark void.
“You have trouble with your flock.” The figure said this matter of factly.
Pastor Doug saw a face emerge from the darkness. Perhaps it had just been too dark in the kitchen before to see it clearly, but it was an extremely handsome man in a very dark suit, his thick jet black hair slicked back over olive skin. He was wearing sunglasses, which he took off and put in a pocket of his suit jacket. His eyes were a glowing red. He was delicious to look at, thrilling and beautiful, but unsettling. Pastor Doug couldn’t look away.
“Yes,” Pastor Doug said, though the statement had not been a question.
The figure in black now took a packet of cigarettes out of another jacket pocket. He opened the pack and removed a lighter from the top, and offered one to Pastor Doug.
Again Doug felt he could not refuse, his wife’s admonitions against smoking be damned. He took the cigarette into his mouth and the figure lit it for him. Pastor Doug inhaled a long draw of what he found to be clove tobacco.
The figure lit his own cigarette and continued.
“You want to keep your flock safe,” he said after a fragrant exhale. Pastor Doug nodded. “But you don’t know how.” Pastor Doug nodded again as the figure took another drag from the black cigarette.
“What would you do to keep them safe, Pastor Doug?”
“I…” Pastor Doug faltered. What was this figure asking?
“Anything?” the figure asked.
Pastor Doug nodded. “Yes,” he said, “anything.”
The figure smiled and looked into Pastor Doug’s eyes, sending shivers down the pastor’s spine.
“Would you renounce your faith?”
Pastor Doug recoiled. No, he thought, not my faith.
“To save the innocence of the young ones,” the figure continued, “to keep them out of harm’s way. You wouldn’t tie a millstone around your own neck and jump into the sea to keep your little flock from stumbling?”
Luke 17:2, Pastor Doug thought. Or Matthew 18:6. The words of Jesus, coming from the mouth of the devil.
For the first time all night, Pastor Doug felt free to answer of his own accord. “What good would my death or damnation do for these children?” he asked.
“Not your death,” the figure said, pondering. “And perhaps not even your damnation. But your scruples.”
“I think it’s far better for these children if I’m actually there to protect them,” Pastor Doug said firmly. He held the clove cigarette away from him now, hoping the smoke wouldn’t set off the smoke detector.
“Yes, of course,” the figure agreed. “I think so, too. But the way you are cannot protect them. You aren’t capable of protecting them against forces of darkness that you can’t even see.”
Pastor Doug pondered this. It was true. He was helpless against the forces of the internet or social media or even the technical abilities of predators to keep his own children fully safe.
“Then what would you have me do?” Pastor Doug asked.
The figure smiled widely, showing rows of perfectly white teeth. “I’m so glad you asked.” He produced a small vial from yet another jacket pocket and put it on the table between them. He also put his clove cigarette out on the table, something that made Pastor Doug wince.
“When you need to protect your flock,” the figure said, rolling the vial back and forth, “you simply put a drop of this on your wrists. This will give you the strength to defeat the evil doers.”
Pastor Doug scoffed. “I put on perfume and I can defeat child predators?” he said.
“Yes,” the figure said, and Pastor Doug was shut up by his seriousness.
Pastor Doug swallowed. He pinched the end off his clove cigarette and put it on the pile with the figure’s.
“Ok,” he said, slowly. He put his hands on the table top and folded them into each other. “But you want me to renounce my faith to get this special perfume.”
“It’s more of an ointment,” the figure said, still smiling, still rolling the vial back and forth.
“How am I supposed to trust that it works?” Pastor Doug said.
“Do you remember Craig Stillwater?” the figure asked.
The name brought Pastor Doug back to college with a horrifying jolt of recognition. Craig Stillwater had been a frat boy who had raped one of Doug’s best friends. But she would never press charges. And Pastor Doug had felt helpless, knowing his dear friend had to see this horrible boy on campus, succeeding at life while he had taken away her spark. Pastor Doug had never known hatred until he’d known of Craig Stillwater.
“Yes,” Pastor Doug said.
The figure held up a cell phone with a news app on the screen. “This is tomorrow’s New York Times,” he said, and pointed with a perfectly manicured nail to the top line.
“‘Cleveland mogul arrested on insider trading, child pornography charges’,” Pastor Doug read. “That’s Craig?”
The figure nodded, put the phone away and lit another clove cigarette. “Or it can be,” he said. “If you agree.”
“This is nonsense,” Pastor Doug said, folding his arms in front of him. Perhaps he was dreaming. Maybe this was a pot flashback. He’d never heard of those but he supposed it could be possible.
“I assure you it’s very real,” the figure said. “But if you find it so incredible, then it won’t matter for you to just agree to do it.”
“How’s that?” Pastor Doug asked.
“If I’m just a dream or a hallucination, drug induced or stress induced, then renouncing your faith to me will be a dream, too,” he said.
Is he reading my mind? Pastor Doug wondered.
The figure nodded almost imperceptibly.
“And what’s the most you could lose?” the figure continued. “Wouldn’t Jesus spare you your soul if you renounced your faith in him so that you could save dozens, maybe hundreds or thousands of children from having their innocence taken too soon?”
Pastor Doug stared at the figure for a moment.
“So how would I do it?” he asked. “Just say, ‘I renounce my faith’?”
The figure nodded, perceptibly this time, exhaling smoke.
“I just said it, then,” Pastor Doug said, pushing himself back from the table. “That should count.”
To his surprise, the figure clapped his hands and rubbed them together. “The intention counts,” he said. “You can’t fool the devil, Douglas.”
And with that, he disappeared, leaving Doug alone at the table with a vial of “ointment”.