I drove onto a packed parking lot for the monthly writer’s meeting. The Guild has never filled up the parking lot. I assumed a special event was in full swing at the public park behind City Hall. Wrong. Something more interesting was afoot. Veleka Gray was filming a courtroom scene. We were invited to be extras – spectators in a court room drama. We signed the necessary paperwork and returned to the conference room to continue our meeting. My grand debut in film never happened. I had another appointment after the writer’s meeting and could not remain for the filming. I wasn’t too disappointed. I prefer being behind the camera.
Veleka returned to fill in for a canceled speaker at a subsequent meeting. I wasn’t thrilled when Marlaine informed me of the change for the Guild newsletter. How could a professional actress and film maker benefit a group of writers? I was pleasantly surprised. She was charming and a gifted teacher who expressed genuine concern for everyone in the room. On occasion, I still find myself pondering her presentation about building tension in a story.
During the meeting Veleka mentioned her Baptist background. Her comments about a scripture leading her to work with prisoners were intriguing. Veleka was a good candidate for the faith blog. She accepted my invitation to write her story.
Weeks later, I was floating in a friend’s pool discussing her latest manuscript when my phone rang. Veleka was on her way to a hair dresser in Lakeside Mall with two of the actors in her upcoming film. She didn’t think she would be back in time for our meeting. Fortunately, that wasn’t a problem. The Mall was on my route home, so I met her in the food court.
“My whole family was Baptist,” said Veleka. “Church was my whole life, and I loved it. The only day we didn’t have a function at church was Saturday. I found that extremely annoying, because I wanted to be there every day.” Veleka’s family attended First Baptist New Orleans located at 4301 St. Charles Avenue during the tenure of Pastor J.D. Grey.
From a young age, Veleka was keenly aware of the presence of God. Jesus was her hero, until her father developed a life threatening illness. She pleaded with God. “I will do anything you want, just keep my father alive. Don’t let him die.” Her father died during her junior year in High School. Veleka had loved God all her life. She felt betrayed and questioned God’s love for her.
Distressed by her father’s death and the unanswered prayer, she turned to her pastor for consolation. “The pastor’s not in the office today,” said the church secretary, “but you can talk to the assistant pastor.” The young, handsome and married pastor escorted Veleka to the senior pastor’s office. She became emotional as she explained her disillusionment with God over her father’s death. The Assistant Pastor gently pushed her down on the couch, lay on top of her and whispered sweet nothings in her ear. Veleka was horrified. She had saved herself for marriage and that was the closest any man had been to her. She pushed him off and hurried home to tell her mother about his inappropriate behavior. Her mother slapped her, “The assistant pastor would never do that.”
The trauma of her father’s death, God’s apparent indifference to her prayer, the attempted rape, and her mother’s harsh response to the truth shook Veleka’s faith in the Baptist God. She took a course in Comparative Religion in college searching for a new identity. None of the religions satisfied her. Either God had abandoned her or he did not exist. Believing he did not exist was easier to swallow than the bitterness of being abandoned when she needed him most. Atheist became her new identity.
When her mother remarried and planned a trip to Europe with Veleka’s aunt and uncle, Veleka felt an urgency to go with them. “Sometimes I feel drawn to do a thing and I don’t know why. If there is an urgency to do it, I listen. In this case it was my salvation,” said Veleka. While they were in England, they visited Chester Cathedral founded in 660 by King Wulfhere. The churches long history made it a popular tourist attraction. The moment Veleka stepped over the threshold into the church she encountered an undeniable presence of God.
“I immediately thought God’s here,” said Veleka. “I stepped outside, no God. I stepped inside, God. I stepped outside, no God. I stepped inside, God. In that moment I knew God exists.”
Veleka’s mother was puzzled by her daughter’s strange behavior. “What are you doing?”
“God’s here,” exclaimed Veleka.
“Of course he is. It’s a church.”
Veleka wandered about the ancient church admiring the mixture of Roman, Gothic and modern architecture pondering her experience. The reunion with God left her with a quandary. She could not in good conscience ignore the existence of God. She was not comfortable returning to the hell and damnation she often heard preached in the Baptist Church. Her study in comparative religion had not left her with a suitable substitute. An acting teacher had introduced her to the teachings of George Gurdjieff, a Christian Mystic who believed the principles and ideas constituting true Christianity were known many thousands of years before the birth of Christ. Gurdjieff said whatever religion you enter the world in you should stay with it because that is your path to God.