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Salvaged from the pile 

Sometimes losing your religion means saving your life

Grant says it was 20 years ago today that he found Jesus, and I'd believe him if not for the fact that I know Grant believes in Jesus like I believe in magical wish-granting blow monkeys. But that's not to say he didn't find Jesus back then and then lose him again. Twenty years is a long time -- you can find and lose a lot of things in that time, over and over again.

For example, in that time I lost all my family photographs, and I wish I could say it was due to a house fire or something -- like maybe my mother's trailer burned down, because God knows that woman fell asleep every night with a lit cigarette pinched between her fingers. But it was due to another kind of compound stupidity altogether.

First, my sister threw them all in the garbage. That's not to blame her entirely, because my mother was a junk dealer in the end stage of her life, and after she died it was hard to discern what merited tossing and what didn't. When you never throw anything away at all -- ever, which seemed to be my mother's method of housekeeping -- then you risk getting the good thrown out with the bad when someone else does it for you.

So my sister threw the photo albums in the garbage, but it didn't end there. I think I saw them in the garbage, I remember them peeking out from under the real garbage, in the pouring rain, surrounded by bad lettuce and broken bottles of soy sauce, not to mention the dried palm leaves, gilded opium pipes and other remnants of my mother's taste in interior design. I think I saw the photo albums in the pile and walked on by, all because my brain wouldn't wrap itself around the reality that our family history was in the trash. "Surely those aren't our photo albums," I thought, and shook my head and walked on by. So there you have it: Sometimes the reluctance to accept the foolishness of others proves to be your biggest ignorance.

Then, 10 years later around Christmas, I got a manila envelope in the mail from my other sister. Inside were copies of our family photographs, because my other sister hadn't simply walked on by all those years earlier. She'd seen the foolishness for what it was, dove in and rescued what she could before the rain demolished everything. "Thought you might like these," her note read. I have them all safely framed now, testimony that sometimes the moment you think something is lost forever is right when you find it again.

Twenty Christmases ago, the last thing Grant thought was that he was lost. Twenty Christmases ago, Grant Henry had everything -- a Mercedes, a three-piece suit, a mansion in the suburbs, a pocket watch and a perfect wife with the perfect assortment of children. He talks about it all the time, about how in his past life he was a church deacon and the whole community used to foam at the mouth and fall over themselves when he walked into the room because he was so highly regarded, not to mention envied for his ability to pick the perfect drapery fabric and upholstery patterns. To hear Grant talk, he was Jesus himself back then, walking on water with his arms outstretched, his followers at his feet reaching toward him with tears of adoration welling in their eyes.

"I had everything," he says today, brushing the lapel of his secondhand polyester jacket with the contrast stitching that he bought for a buck at St. Vincent de Paul. He smiles his big, wicked, gay-ass smile. "Everything."

Then, one day two things were slated to happen in his life: He was to close on a real-estate deal that would put him $10,000 ahead, and he was to help his church sponsor an impoverished family for the holidays. "These people were living 10 to a room. They had nothing," Grant recalls. "Nothing." So his church decided to offer these disadvantaged indigents everything they needed, including a large, fully furnished home where they could live rent-free until they got back on their feet. They dispatched Grant to give the family the good news, and he could hardly wait. They could begin moving in that day -- really! -- and Grant could help them.

The family's matriarch met Grant outside her dilapidated apartment, listened to his news and then gently took his hand in hers. "Honey," she said, "not that we don't appreciate this, but I've talked it over with my family, and we decided you should give this gift to someone who really needs it. We have what we need. We have each other and we have Jesus," and at that she closed the door and left Grant standing there on her crumbling stoop with the keys to the new house in his hand.

"That was it for me," Grant recalls today. "Here I thought I had everything, and I had nothing. My life was a lie, a hollow lie. I just got into my car and kept on driving. I cried and cried and cried. That family had nothing, yet they had everything. I had everything, yet I had nothing. That was when I stopped living a lie," Grant insists, "and started living the truth."

"What about the $10,000 commission?" I remind him eagerly. "Did you make the $10,000?"

"Oh, that," he remembers, waving his hand dismissively. "Of course I did, I ain't no fool."

Hollis Gillespie is the author of Confessions of a Recovering Slut and Other Love Stories and Bleachy-Haired Honky Bitch: Tales from a Bad Neighborhood. Her commentaries can be heard on NPR's "All Things Considered."

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