I was 14 years old and at the mall with my dad on a Friday night. (For you younger readers, this is the equivalent of spending Friday night watching CSI reruns with your parents and not getting a single text, tweet or Facebook update.) I walked a good five to six feet behind my dad, pretending I didn't know him.
As we neared the center of the mall, I noticed a girl my age standing alone. She smiled at me. I smiled back. Her blonde hair was carefully coiffed; she wore jeans and a pink blouse pulled tight over a figure that seemed far more advanced in age than her face.
As I tried hard not to stare, she suddenly held up her hand and stopped me.
“Hi, I'm Sharla! Have you been saved?”
I glanced around. “What? You mean from my dad?” I pointed in his direction then tried to be more suave. “I mean, no, that's not my dad. He's just some guy that cut me off in my Trans Am in the parking lot. Thought I'd come give him a piece of my mind.”
“No, silly. I mean, have you accepted Jesus?”
“Oh. I'm Catholic.”
I now know that usually that at this point she should have turned me over to her recruiter, or she should have at least said, “You're going to hell anyway.” But Sharla didn't blink. Maybe she just liked me?--my 14-year-old self hoped.
“That's okay, Jesus wants to save everyone,” she said, still smiling. “Would you like to pray with me?”
Without waiting for an answer she took me by the hand and led me to a bench. She sat and turned sideways, clasped both my hands in hers, and leaned forward.
“Close your eyes,” she said.
I did as instructed. Then I slowly opened one eye to see if hers were closed. They were, and I realized then that I could see right down the pink blouse. I opened both eyes. Wide.
“Do you want to go to heaven?” she asked, squeezing my hand with her eyes squeezed shut.
“I think I can see it from here.”
“Great! If you accept Jesus as your personal savior right now, your place in heaven is waiting for you.”
“I'm sorry, I didn't hear that. Can you move closer?”
She scrunched her knees next to mine and leaned forward. At this point I lost track of everything she said. Five minutes earlier, I was the biggest loser on earth spending Friday night with my dad and now sweet Sharla had my hands in hers while I enjoyed a heavenly view. I looked around hoping someone from school might see me. I felt her hands tighten around mine.
“Did you hear me?” she said with a frown, eyes open.
“Oh, what? Sorry, it's loud in here.”
She closed her eyes and resumed praying.
I looked around and noticed four or five other pairs of kids holding hands and doing prayers on surrounding benches. A couple of middle-aged men with stylish Moe Howard haircuts walked around keeping an eye on everyone. I couldn't decide if they were ministers or sales managers. One of them made eye contact with me and glowered. I immediately closed my eyes and threw my head back as if in rapture. He left, and I refocused my gaze.
“Repeat after me,” Sharla said.
I hesitated. Now she wanted me to actually pray out loud with her.
“Did you hear me?” she said somewhat annoyed, jiggling just enough that I decided right then and there that I would push virgins into a volcano for her if necessary.
I repeated all her prayers, and she finally asked, “Do you accept the Lord Jesus Christ as your personal savior?”
I sighed, knowing it was all coming to an end soon, so I leaned in and admired the good Lord's handiwork one last time.
“You bet I do.”
She jumped up and hugged me, which answered one of my own prayers. I glanced heavenward, a chill running up my back.
Sharla pulled away and smiled.
“Have a great weekend,” she said.
“Hey, can I have your phone number?”
“What? Oh, no! Gross!”
Newly saved but devastated, I walked in a fog to the record store, wondering if I could come back and get saved again the next Friday. And the one after that. Perhaps if I got saved enough I might be less gross to her.
I walked back into the mall and finally caught up with my dad who asked where I had been. I started to tell him that I met someone then sighed and said, “The Lord works in mysterious ways.”