On a Wednesday evening three weeks after the quake, Samuel was the main attraction in an event that would have been unusual, even extraordinary, in most churches. In his church, however, Samuel had made it as important and regular as the Easter service.
The event began as Mr. Paisley, one of the church elders, stepped to the lectern. “Thank you for coming to the First Church of God’s annual apologetics debate for the year of our Lord nineteen hundred and six. We’ve had this debate for eleven years now, exploring the fundamentals of Christianity, exploring the reasons we believe. I’m sure you will be as enlightened as I will be by the views expressed by our two speakers.”
Sitting behind a table to his left were Samuel and a thin man with glasses. The church was full, and latecomers found standing room against the walls as the crowd quieted. Paul looked around and was surprised at how packed the sanctuary was—another consequence of the church’s new popularity.
Mr. Paisley continued. “Representing the Christian viewpoint is our own Reverend Samuel Hargrove, and representing the atheist viewpoint is Mr. Henry Putnam, a professor of Physics at the University of Southern California. We want to thank Mr. Putnam for filling in after we had a last-minute cancellation.” He turned with a smile and a nod toward the thin man. The professor’s tan hair was parted in the middle and lay tightly against his head, leaving his prominent ears to fend for themselves. That and eyes enlarged by the glasses brought to Paul’s mind the image of a rodent.
“My role is that of moderator. As such, I will try to be neither seen nor heard but will keep our speakers on track. I give you now our host and first speaker, Reverend Hargrove.”
Samuel stood and beamed as applause filled the church. He was clearly playing to a home crowd. Paul clapped and couldn’t resist smiling, just a bit. Beginning months ago, he had eagerly helped prepare for this event. The work had become a meaningless chore after Thena’s death, but he had to admit that staying busy helped him get through each day.
As Samuel took the podium, Paul felt a little of the old excitement return, but a new anxiety ate at his gut. For Samuel to win or lose in front of a small crowd was one thing, but the stakes were far bigger now. He had wanted a higher profile and now he had it. Reporters from every local paper were here this evening, plus reporters from papers in San Francisco, Sacramento, Chicago, and possibly more. The old days of anonymity were gone, and the nation watched. Samuel was well prepared, but in Paul’s mind there was still too much chance for failure, for humiliation. Samuel was putting all his chips in as he stepped to the podium.
Samuel’s new reputation would be either enhanced or shattered with the next day’s papers.