It is 1991, the start of my Born Again Jesus is Risen Christian Phase at Skate Church in sunny California. I am meeting MJ for the first time. The church auditorium smells like popcorn; it’s full of half pipes, a live hardcore Christian music band, and skaters. Craig, the only pastor who resembles a pastor and not a skater, is introducing me to MJ. MJ just gave his life to Christ. I shake MJ’s hand. Before I let go, I notice that the veins on MJ’s skeletal arms are pocked with raised brown mounds of flesh. His cheeks are hollow. I can the see the strings of muscle ripple when grinds his teeth. But when I gaze into his eyes, I see a warm and friendly soul.
After a few weeks at rehab, I am watching MJ get baptized in the main auditorium. He is with Hope and Charity, two teenagers who came to Christ the same night as MJ. They are wearing white robes. When each emerges from the holy waters radiant and smiling, I believe. Yes, I believe! Jesus loves! Jesus heals! Jesus saves! Jesus is Lord of All!!!
It is a month after his baptism, our fellowship of Christian skateboarders drives over the hill to Sea Bright Beach in Santa Cruz. We roast hotdogs, drink soda, and talk about Christ. We are seated around a huge pillar of fire that is heating the entire west coast. Everyone around the fire is laughing. I spot MJ, he is away from us, sitting on a rock near the bathrooms. He is starring at the sand, his head bent low. I think I know why he is so depressed. The engine of his beat-up BMW was clanking and sputtering on the drive to the beach. I walk over to MJ. He says he’s worried about his car. I tell him that I will stay right behind him on the drive home in case anything happens.
The steep road curls. We are almost at the summit. A toxic black fog rushes over my windshield. It’s coming from MJ’s car. I flash my lights. MJ pulls over. He lifts the hood of the battered BMW, as soon as the hood click opens, flames jump out. They almost catch MJ’s sleeves on fire. He slams the hood shut and checks for burns. That’s when I notice the fresh needle tracks on MJ’s arms.
I drive MJ home in my dirty green 1970 mercury cougar with the white vinyl top. I should take better care of such a classic car. But I don’t. I talk to MJ about skateboarding. He gives me one word answers. His knees rapidly knock up and down. I try to steer the conversation to the ever loving forgiveness of Jesus Christ. But MJ chides me with silence. After I drop off MJ, I pray for his soul.
The next few weeks, I don’t see MJ at skate church. I am not surprised. Hope tells me that MJ is a “backslidden Christian”. He fell back into drugs. We hold hands and pray for MJ’s soul. Hope even speaks in tongues.
Our Christian fellowship prays for lost souls. Craig says, “There is power in unity.”
About a month later MJ returns to church. He wants to get baptized again. He gets baptized again and again and again.
Gradually the fellowship chips apart. Some move away. Some some attend seminary. Some quit church altogether. One by one, we each shoot off in our own direction. Unity breaks.
It’s well over two decades later. I have just finished a long run. I am stretching. My wife opens the front door. She has something to show me. She has to go upstairs to get it. I sit on the floor. She brings me a picture of MJ. She took it just before his first baptism at skate-church. MJ is wearing a white robe. His smile is warm and friendly. He is radiant. “Remember MJ?” she says. The memories wash over me. Before she finishes speaking, I already know what she will say.
Rest in Peace MJ.