Los Angeles: three days earlier
Paul Winston sat on a church step in the morning sun. The step felt warm through the thin material of his suit pants.
“A pastor who’s afraid of speaking? That’s an odd ailment.” The reporter who sat next to Paul wrote in a notebook. He had a modest moustache and wore a bowler hat and bow tie.
“I’m the pastor’s assistant,” Paul said, his face growing hot. He hated being confronted with his fear of public speaking, which often showed as a discomfort in meeting new people. Before, he might have taught this man some respect with his fists. He pounded one fist into a palm—the closest he could come—and turned back to the man, impatient to be done with this. “What would you like to know?”
“I’ve heard about your church. Causing a bit of a stir. Your pastor makes prophecies, I hear?”
The reporter was from the Los Angeles Times, and Reverend Samuel Hargrove was always eager for publicity for the church. Paul had to make this interview count, and he assumed his best behavior. “Yes sir, Reverend Hargrove says the Holy Spirit just comes upon him. He has made several prophecies, and they’ve all come true.”
“Tell me about them,” the reporter said as he jotted in his notebook.
Paul told him how Mrs. O’Brien’s consumption had vanished, leaving the doctors baffled. And how a land title dispute had ended in the church’s favor, giving the church their current building. Samuel’s predictions sometimes extended to the wider community, and he foresaw the current police chief, a dark horse whose appointment surprised everyone. Each issue had resolved as Samuel said it would. And wouldn’t you think that someone favored by God with the gift of prophecy might be arrogant or pompous? But not Samuel—Paul told the reporter that he was the warmest man you could meet.
Paul turned to smile at the people climbing the worn wooden steps. Several women stood in the sun, chatting and comparing outfits. A trolley clanged its bell a block away, and Paul knew to expect a small surge of parishioners. He felt remiss for not greeting them, but this interview was important.
“Tell me more about the church.”
Paul’s anxiety faded as he warmed to the conversation. “The church building was originally a barn. Our members made it useable as a church about fifteen years ago. In fact, we’re rather proud of its simple origins. Good things have been known to come from stables, you know.”
The reporter didn’t acknowledge the subtle reference as he wrote. “Tell me a bit about yourself,” he said. “You’re a fairly young fellow. You weren’t one of the founding members, I take it.”
“Not at all. I’ve been here for just two years. In fact, Reverend Hargrove pulled me off the street. That’s a story in itself, because I was headed for life as a thief. I’d be one now—or in jail or dead—if it weren’t for him. Cleaned me up and straightened me out. I owe everything to him.”
“I must say, you don’t sound like a former thief. I would have guessed you to be a college man.”
Paul shrugged. “I was a well-read thief.” Reading had been his escape from a dark childhood. Before the church, Paul had felt aimless, drifting on the ocean of society, simply marking time. He felt as if he were made for something better, and Samuel had shown him the way.
Paul leaned into the step and looked back at the reporter. “But let me mention another unusual aspect of this church. Making an intellectual defense of Christianity is part of our mission. Reverend Hargrove doesn’t just assume the accuracy of Scripture, he proves it.”
Paul’s head snapped to the side in response to the sound of a faint tap. He was in time to notice the sparkle of a pocket watch fall through the steps onto the dirt below. A man, unaware of his loss, walked up the steps into the church.
The last few people were making their way inside, the men removing their hats as they entered. Paul turned back to the reporter. “It’s time. Come in and see for yourself.” Paul stood and gestured the reporter up the steps ahead of himself. He bent down, slipped his hand under the steps, and snatched the watch. Real gold, he guessed, as he dropped it into his pocket.
The walls were built of dark and unpainted wood, but windows along the sides let in plenty of light. Sunbeams through the east windows behind the pulpit cast patterns on the wooden floor. The stable odor was long gone, but there was the smell of warm wood and God’s flock, which to Paul was welcoming and genuine.
He walked unhurriedly down the aisle, smiling at anyone who looked his way. Close to the front, on the left side, he stopped. He gently put his hand on a man’s shoulder sitting next to the aisle, bent down to the man’s ear, and said, “You dropped something, Mr. McFarlane. Better get that watch chain fixed.” He held out his hand.
The man patted his vest frantically as if checking for the twin of the watch in Paul’s hand, then took it and shook Paul’s hand with both of his. “It was my grandfather’s,” he said.
The congregation quieted as Paul stood at the front facing the crowd. The turnout was good, and that would please Samuel. Paul marveled at the mix of faces. The First Church of God embraced anyone who wanted a relationship with the Holy Spirit—white, black, Mexican, or Oriental. This was unusual barely four decades after the Civil War, where racial roles were assumed in many areas of life in Los Angeles.
Paul signaled for the prelude on the piano. Music echoed off the wooden walls and, after the first verse, Reverend Samuel Hargrove strode down the aisle with brisk, powerful steps. He was a bear of a man and carried himself with confidence. Samuel always seemed energetic and self-assured, but Paul noticed him even more so this morning.
The old floorboards creaked and his open suit jacket flapped as he approached. His graying hair bounced to reveal a bald spot, and his beard, slightly longer than fashionable, gave him the look of an Old Testament patriarch. His face was eager, like he’d solved a puzzle that had bothered him for a long time.
Samuel took his chair behind the pulpit. A brief pause followed the prelude, and then Paul led the congregation in his favorite hymn, Amazing Grace. An open hymnal lay in his hand, but he didn’t need help with this one. He sang the words, certain that they were written just for him.
“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.”
He had been that wretch, angry and miserable, and he marveled at the transformation God’s grace had made. Coming into the church had been like losing himself in a warm blanket after subsisting for years—no, a lifetime—outside in the cold rain. He glanced over at Samuel, the father he never had, perhaps the father he should have had. Samuel had no reason to select him of all people, a worthless sinner, to salvage off the street, but Paul gave daily thanks that he had.
The first chords of the second hymn had just begun when Samuel stood and motioned for silence. The tune strangled to a stop and the congregation sat. Paul hurried to his seat.
Samuel broke the silence. “Friends, the Bible tells us of great prophecies in the past. Elijah and Ezekiel and Daniel and many others foretold events both great and terrible.”
Paul turned to glance at the reporter, who was taking out his notebook.
Samuel continued, his voice rising like an organ crescendo. “But the Bible is not simply a history book of a time long ago with no resemblance to the present. In fact, miracles happen even today, and prophecies are still told.” He held up a closed Bible, gesturing with it to mark his words. “In Joel we read, ‘I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions.’
“Friends, the Holy Spirit has seen fit to entrust in me His humble servant a prophecy, a vision.” Samuel’s confident voice was nearly a shout. “I see a great mass of people flocking in a mighty stream to catastrophe. I see people by the millions blaspheming and ignoring the word of God. I see a God whose great patience is stretched thin as it was with Sodom and Gomorrah. And I see the awful destruction of a city unless its citizens are brought to a belief in the Faith.”
The rest of the service was joyous and celebratory as usual. Samuel’s sermon returned to the role of prophecy, but it was commonplace compared to Samuel’s opening bombshell.
After the service finished, Paul bypassed his usual duty of saying goodbye to parishioners at the door and trotted to catch up with the reporter. “What did you think?” Paul asked, smiling. “Can I arrange some time with Reverend Hargrove?” Surely this was exactly what the reporter asked for. A prediction—and a big one.
“I’ve got my story,” he said, and then turned to face Paul as if coaching a child in the deceptions of the real world. “But anyone can make a prediction. It’s the coming-true part that’s trickier.”
Paul felt perplexed as he watched the reporter walk away. He wondered how anyone could have seen such a demonstration and remain unimpressed. Sure, predictions were easy to make, but hadn’t Samuel shown that his were real?
Paul forgave the insult two days later when the LA Times had a front-page article about the church, including Samuel’s prediction. Paul picked up a copy on his way from his rooming house to the church and showed Samuel, who murmured appreciatively as he read. For Paul, any day that began with congratulations from Samuel was a good day.
But Paul only realized the significance of the prediction the next day, Wednesday, April 18, 1906. A banner headline covered the front page: “Heart is Torn From Great City.” He read with shock and fascination the account of the San Francisco earthquake and fire.
With a fury Paul hadn’t imagined, Samuel’s prediction had come true.