September 18, 2008

Flip-Flop and the Suit

  The beachside church is filled with happy folks singing in praise of the Lord. The preacher delivers the sermon with a fiery passion. At the close of the sermon he gives his usual "invitation," a time for new believers to come forward.

  At first there's no movement. Then from the back of the church comes a young man who looks to be about 22. He's wearing beat-up jeans, a T-shirt, flip-flops, a full head of uncombed hair and a three-day beard. He walks down the aisle at a casual pace. Not once does he make eye contact with anybody.

  The young man's disheveled appearance has not the slightest effect on the preacher who hugs him and kisses the top of his head—then prays over him. "Amen." Following the prayer, there's a long silence, broken only by a voice from the back of the church. "That young man needs help, and he needs help now," the voice says.

  The congregation turns around to see a tall man in a white Panama suit step out into the center aisle. The man speaks with gentle authority: "I'll give $100 to help put clean clothes on this young man's back and find him a decent place to live." The man puts a stack of bills in a woven basket from the narthex, then starts the basket down one of the aisles.

  Minutes later the congregation begins filing into the fellowship hall next to the sanctuary for the customary coffee-hour social. "Where's the boy—the one that came forward?" an elderly woman asks.

  "Who was the man in the white suit?" asks a deacon. Neither the boy in the flip-flops nor the man in the white suit is anywhere to be found.

  "It was at that point," the pastor says a short time later to the responding cop, "I knew we'd been taken."

  The cop looks a little apologetic. "Afraid you're right, reverend, you've been conned. Near as I can tell by asking around, he took you folks for better than $400. "We call those two 'Flip-flop and the Suit,' " the cop says. "They've been working beachside churches all summer. We'll get them sooner or later. But until we do — watch out — they are slick."

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