by David Lightfoot
It’s Sunday afternoon in a medium-sized downtown apartment building. In a fourth-floor suite, Melanie is working on a new craft: two floral arrangements consisting of small silk aya ferns, pointy tips on the bottom, sticking them in a vase of foam. She’d found them in a craft store weeks before the pandemic quarantine started. Her husband, Marun, a young pastor, is conducting a virtual chat session called “Intimate and Interactive With Christ,” talking about the sermon he posted online that morning.
“My friends,” he says to a group of twenty participants, “the reason people keep talking about a ‘new normal’ is because we need to redefine that very word in these very times. We need to redefine normal to not include self-indulgence. We need to redefine normal to not include obsession with success. We need to redefine normal to not include putting career before family.
This is what we famously mean when we quote Matthew 6:24: ‘No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.’ And yet, even people of God are equating money with power. They believe that in order to achieve prosperity, a man must have lots of monetary wealth and riches. Yet, if we look at the result of this ‘prosperity’, what do we see? Three enormous mansions, with lots of expensive furniture and accessories. Four private jets, each of them designated to carry them to their ‘missions’ around the world. Large swimming pools with decks that take up an entire backyard.”
Melanie listens to Marun and looks up when he gets to prosperity. She gets a thought and feels compelled to share it. When he finishes speaking, she adds, “You cannot serve God while living a lifestyle that would make Veronica Lodge jealous.” She hopes her voice is loud enough for the participants to hear.
“Exactly,” Marun calls, then turns to her. “Thank you, Melanie.” She resumes her work as he now gets into philanthropy, how the rich give money more to benefit themselves than the charitable cause.
Just as Marun concludes with a final prayer, Melanie finishes her second arrangement. Both are arranged to replicate a rainbow, sixty ferns in each arrangement, ten of six colours. She holds one in each hand and announces, “Marun! Marun, I hate to interrupt, but I’m finally finished.”
He excuses himself and is immediately attracted to the colours and the rainbow-like arrangement, whistling and cooing. “That is lovely, Melanie,” he says. “Wait until I conduct this prayer, then I’ll let you come.”
Melanie waits and when Marun reaches “Amen,” he adds, “Before we adjourn, I’d like to bring my wife on for a few moments. Normally, I do not use this as a platform for Melanie’s artwork, but I think you’ll fall in love with her latest creation.”
Melanie brings her project to the camera, and everyone makes “wow” expressions, wanting one. She tells about the aya. “This makes me think of Marun’s mother who’s still in Nigeria. According to her, it’s a popular Akan symbol in the Adinkra language; a native of Ghana, which isn’t too far away from there. Most of all, they’re a symbol of endurance and resourcefulness. These are great to have in your living room whenever you need a pick-me-up, or something to make it nice. Mother’s Day is coming up, and I’m thinking of sending one to her and the other to my mother.”
Suddenly, there is a knock at their door, and Marun grumbles toward it. “Who’s there?” he wonders aloud. “I thought we were advised against having visitors.”
Melanie puts her crafts on the dining table and dons one of her homemade face masks, tossing another to Marun. When she answers, she groans a little as she sees her neighbour, Karen.
Karen isn’t covered, her frown is competitively gloomy. “Seriously, Melanie, when are you going to get rid of those stupid masks?” she asks. “They symbolize submission and fear that the government expects of you, darling.”
She steps inside before Melanie can tell her to leave. Without removing her shoes, she wanders into their living room and frowns at Melanie’s paintings covering the walls. Patterns of aya ferns in red, green and blue on the wall with the window, a replica of The Last Supper on the wall with their futon and coffee table, and a tropical sunset scene in Hawaii on the opposite wall with the television. “And when are you going to change your walls?” Karen snaps at her. “I know you don’t like just one colour and you hate all-white — it’s virginal and ridiculous — but at least let me pay for some colourful wallpaper. This is an eyesore!”
“What do you want, Karen?” Melanie snaps back.
“We’re planning a protest this coming Friday to get this quarantine lockdown ended and businesses opening up again,” Karen says.
“And you want Marun and me to make signs and take part?” Melanie assumes. “Sorry, but we’re passing.”
“Be reasonable, Melanie,” Karen sighs. “With non-essential businesses like restaurants, clothing stores and hair salons forced to shut down to keep people home, this is eventually going to affect our economy. We need to get people consuming and spending their money before we fall into a depression and lose everything we’ve worked for.”
“Then they can order online.” Melanie shows her a collection of her latest acrylic and pencil crayon pictures. “You know, since the Coronavirus made news, I’ve been painting and drawing and colouring like crazy, posting everything on my website, Facebook and Instagram. I get more online orders than I know what to do with, and Marun arranged his ministry activities so he can work from home. He’s been recording sermons to put on YouTube.”
“And I’ve continued my virtual online conversations, having just wrapped up for today,” Marun adds, “plus I do Bible-based counselling on Zoom to help solve family problems, overcome addictions, and provide support in what we’re dealing with. Melanie assists me in couples counselling.”
“And when we’re not doing that, I’m also meeting virtually with customers who tell me what they want in their artwork,” Melanie concludes. “You should’ve gotten an account years ago. Zoom is practically our best friend.”
Karen glares at them and folds her arms tight. “That’s nice that you can work from home, and you have no children to worry about,” she says sarcastically. “Though I wonder about your rent and bills. Randy and I can’t afford to work from home, and while I thank God our landlord froze our rent, our bills won’t pay themselves, and we worry we won’t be able to feed our kids anymore.”
Melanie starts to respond, but Karen won’t let her. “There are people who may lose their homes because they can’t pay their mortgage. Their furniture and belongings will be repossessed. They’ll be thrown out into the streets. And Marun, how are your parishioners going to worship God properly if they don’t have a church to do it in?”
“Perhaps I should send you my YouTube sermon from two weeks ago, on how God is everywhere and you don’t need a church building to worship Him and follow His teachings,” Marun says. “And on the first Sunday of this lockdown, I talked about how God unleashed this plague for the sins we committed these past three years. I’ll also send that to you.”
“You’ll also find today’s sermon on materialism, money worship and false prosperity very interesting,” Melanie says. “I’d like to send that to everyone demanding haircuts and colouring. Maybe if you’d learn to budget your money and focus on needs instead of wants, you wouldn’t be worried about your next pay cheque.”
Karen grumbles fiercely and loudly, then makes a raging ooh sound. She starts to leave, stomping her feet, but glimpses at the aya arrangements on the dining table. She walks towards them and picks one up for a closer look. Melanie sees she’s not impressed.
“Oh, nice art project, Melanie,” Karen says sarcastically. “What inspired this, last year’s Pride Parade?”
Melanie decides not to lower herself to Karen’s level. “Would you like an aya arrangement of your own?” she offers. “I can use fewer colours. Perhaps you can use some empowerment in your own home.”
Karen starts to leave again. She has one foot out the door when she speaks for the last time. “Please think about supporting the protest and lifting the orders. This is not just about the future of our nation, but the future of the family.”
When she’s gone, Melanie searches for some disinfectant wipes. “Bathroom closet,” Marun instructs, and Melanie comes back with the container. She has to wipe the vases of both arrangements, not sure which one Karen touched. Marun rises and takes a wipe, going to work on the door handles.
The next morning, Melanie goes online to look for foam-filled vases. She can’t find any, but she sees a set of twelve trays of floral foam. She orders three sets, planning to make thirty-five arrangements. She searches further, and is surprised to see the same silk aya ferns she used to make the originals. But they’re in four colours: red, yellow, green and blue. Surprisingly, there are fifteen packages of one hundred fifty ferns; she orders ten of them.
Marun awakens and comes to the computer just as she’s about to check-out and pay. When he sees the total price, he goes to get her business credit card.
“Allow me,” he says, then makes the purchase for her. “I’m sure they will be here by Friday.”
They arrive on Friday, Melanie impressed with the timing. When she gets back to her apartment, she sees a group of vehicles heading towards City Hall from the view of the window.
“Thank heavens I now have something to distract myself,” she says as she does some unpacking. All the floral foam is shaped like cubes. She sets one foam tray and bag of aya ferns on her worktable, putting the rest of the set on the coffee table, leaving everything else in the boxes.
Melanie has forty ferns in each arrangement, ten of each colour, in various patterns. Each one will be different, she decides. One has all forty ferns on top; another has half on top, half on all four sides.
She completes five arrangements when she looks out the window. The crowd outside City Hall looks like a large group of miniscule beings, and they seem to be crowded together. It looks like a mayhemic and violent scene, full of unrest. She wonders if the ones closest to the entrance doors are banging on them, breathing and spitting on them, loudly chanting to open up the city and liberate the state.
Marun sees this and joins her at the window, studying the scene. He shakes his head and says, “Don’t mind them. Let Karen and Randy have the consequences. We’ll say nightly prayers for them.”
“Yeah, I should get back to work,” Melanie agrees. “I’d like to see how God will heal them if that happens.”
She completes six more arrangements in another two hours, putting them at the edge of the worktable. She has just started another one when she hears a pounding on the door. Putting on a mask, Marun hands her another and tells her to stay put while he answers the door. When he does, he is horrified to see Karen stomping inside.
She glares back and forth between Marun and Melanie. “Where were you?” she demands. “I told you we were protesting the stay-at-home orders today! Why weren’t you there? We could have used your support!”
“And risk getting sick and infecting others?” Melanie replies. “No, thank you. Who knows how much bile was exchanged at that protest?”
“You’re not funny!” Karen spits. “Don’t you see businesses are losing money when they don’t operate at a normal pace? Restaurants, boutiques, computer stores? You think it’s just grocery stores, fast food, drugstores and pharmacies that are important? When was the last time you saw a movie at the bijou?”
“You know Marun and I don’t go to the movies all that often,” Melanie says. “And we’re willing to wait a few months before they open again.”
“What don’t you understand?” Karen shouts. “When small businesses close down for good, the owners can no longer make money! When money doesn’t come in, people get laid off, and they can’t file for unemployment! When we don’t have money, we can’t provide for our families! And when people can’t live their lives, they start committing suicide!”
“Oh, yeah, because that’s all there is to life, making money and spending it.”
Karen notices the arrangements on Melanie’s worktable. “So, this is what you’ve been doing instead, your stupid arts and crafts!”
Melanie quickly acts as a barricade, trying to protect her project. “Leave these alone, I’m planning to advertise them on my website.”
“This is more important to you than supporting citizens’ rights and the need to work, is it?” Karen picks up one arrangement and holds it high above her head. “I’ll teach you to prioritize properly.”
She throws it down, and when the foam tray doesn’t break, some ferns pop out. Marun runs out and helps Melanie salvage as many of the other arrangements as they can, securing them in their bedroom as Karen rips the ferns out of the first one. When she sees what they’re doing, she finds herself wrestling another arrangement out of Melanie’s hand.
“Karen, stop!” Melanie demands.
“This stupid project is a symbol of your selfishness and refusal to face reality!” Karen insists.
Marun takes a disinfectant wipe and grabs Karen by her hair. The surprising yank causes her to drop the arrangement, a small crash to the floor, ferns popping out like the previous one did. Marun starts dragging her out of the apartment.
“All right, I’ll leave!” she yells. She gives a final statement when she’s outside. “Randy and I are staging another protest at City Hall next Friday. We’re counting on you to be there!”
When Karen is back in her own apartment, Marun cleans up the wrecked arrangements and clears some space in his area. He says to Melanie, “I’ll fix both of these. The colours may not be the same, but I can use the holes as a pattern guide. The others are perfectly safe. You keep going on the one you’re working on.” Melanie nods and retrieves two salvaged arrangements, placing them in front of the one in progress. She can feel endurance emitting from the ferns as she begins to work again.
One week passes, and Marun and Melanie are standing at the City Hall entrance, both of them masked up. They’d arranged it all with them when they tipped them off about the protest. Today, they want to tell the protesters about empowerment. Melanie sets her arrangements onto a large table.
They don’t wait long before they see people parking cars outside the building, people stepping off buses, people arriving on foot. As Melanie has twenty arrangements set out, she notices Karen and Randy arriving with signs such as, “Open Up Downtown,” and “My job is just as essential as a grocery store clerk’s.” Karen also has a megaphone. When she sees Melanie and Marun, she hurries up towards them before Randy can stop her. She starts putting the arrangements back in the box, but Melanie takes them out again, the crafts being put in different spots on the table.
“What are you two doing?” Karen demands. “Randy and I organized this thing. This front space is for people who want their right to work.”
Marun pulls out his own megaphone. “Step away from the display!” he calls through it, making Karen back away. “We’re here to spread a different message.” She glares harshly at them as she moves away six feet.
By the time Melanie has her display ready, several thousand more protesters are crowded around the building, pouring in the adjoining square. Some walk a little closer to the entrance area, close to Karen and Randy, interested in Melanie’s crafts, wondering what they are.
Marun begins speaking to the crowd, and they quickly hush. “Welcome, ladies and gentlemen. I know you are all gathered here to demand that the city get back to business. I am very sure the Good Lord wants you to work for your living. But we are not through this crisis, and God is asking us all to be patient.”
Some protesters look impatient, angry, demanding, while others look at Marun as if he’s crazy. But he keeps speaking. “I’d like to use two verses from the Bible to back up one point. First is Jeremiah 29:11: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ says the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you, not harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” The second is Philippians 4:19: “And my God will supply every need according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” Yes, God wants to protect you from this pandemic, but not in ways that those who want a physical presence in churches want you to believe. He wants to protect you by instructing you to protect yourselves, and not let money issues distract you.”
Like a game show model, Melanie walks back and forth as she shows the crowd one fern arrangement after another, hoping to mesmerize them. But they’re more interested in Marun’s words.
“I know you are all living from one paycheque to another, and you wonder how you will maintain your home and food supply,” he continues. “But believe me, it’s a lot more than just that. Many people are engaging in greed by spending money on unimportant purchases just to impress others. They also engage in vanity by spending hundreds of dollars monthly on their hair, nails and wardrobes just to maintain their images and keep looking important to others.”
“You’re lying!” Karen screams into her megaphone, then quickly turns to the crowd. “There are people who can’t do their own hair; they follow the DIY videos on YouTube and the results are frightening! That’s one reason why we need our hair and nail salons, we must depend on the professionals.”
Marun tries to speak and override Karen. “There are people who say they don’t respect celebrities, yet they try to live that same type of lifestyle, a lifestyle of wealth and false prosperity. They secretly envy the very people they despise, desiring the same things they have, wanting to go to the same places they go.”
Karen ignores this and speaks louder over him. “And besides, we need to consume and spend our money to help the very people who help us! They need to buy food and pay their bills and mortgage, too! This is something we must all do ourselves! This man standing here is not a real man of God! God would tell us to provide for our own families, not keep sponging off the government and other people’s taxes!” She turns back to Marun. “Marun, when will you wake up and get into reality?!”
“Will someone please quiet this woman down?” Marun calls, then Randy comes to get her. Moments later, he speaks again. “God has approached the people in charge, the politicians, and instructed them to work quickly on plans to re-open this city and state safely. This is happening all over the world. God is also instructing our scientists and researchers to work diligently on vaccines to protect people from getting tragically sick. Yes, He wants His sons and daughters to have faith and hope, but He knows we also need good physical health. What God wants is for us to be resilient and empowered.”
He motions to the table as Melanie keeps showing off her project. “I want you all to look at these beautiful artistic crafts that my wife, Melanie, has worked on. These crafts are based upon the aya fern. In my native West Africa, the aya is a symbol of endurance and resourcefulness. It is a symbol of empowerment and hope that comes along with faith in challenging times such as this. There are not enough for everyone here, but if you put these arrangements in your living room, in your bedroom, in your office, on your dining table as a centrepiece, wherever you enjoy spending your time; they will fill your space with vibes of empowerment and endurance. They will serve as a reminder to have patience and hope to be safe. They will give you assurance that God will hand you the necessary provisions if you heed His instruction to stay home to protect your families, protect the innocent people around you, and most importantly, protect the people you love.”
Melanie takes the megaphone and adds, “Yes, they come at a price of twenty dollars, but this will be the best and most important money you’ll ever spend, we promise.”
Marun keeps speaking as Melanie returns to the display, concluding his speech—again—with Matthew 6:24. He looks around the crowd to see some are mesmerized, inspired, entranced, while others are thinking about his message. He looks over at Karen, who looks dejected for some and hopeful for others, but Marun can feel she’s being defeated. When his sermon is over, a small crowd of people line up six feet apart from each other, their wallets and cheque books out. Melanie is wiping and handling the display with disinfectant sheets, exchanging the arrangements into customers’ hands for their money. When they’re all given away, about three hundred more protesters also line up, approaching Melanie to order an aya fern arrangement for themselves. Melanie gets busy taking down their mailing addresses.
“Is anyone else interested in an arrangement?” she calls to the crowd when all orders are taken, the former protesters having left. Nobody else raises their hand, calls out their name, or approaches her.
Karen hurries up to Marun and Melanie and speaks into her megaphone, shooting a vicious look at them. “If these two fantasyland dreamers are done wasting our time,” she blasts, “it’s time for us to get to some real business of the day!” The protesters still there start chanting loudly, chasing Marun and Melanie away. As they drive away, Melanie watches them march in front of the building in the rear-view mirror.
“Don’t worry, darling,” Marun says. “Some people have been impacted by our words. If they desire aya fern arrangements, it’s a start.”
Two days pass, and Marun is uploading his latest sermon while Melanie packs the original arrangements into medium-sized boxes, ready to be shipped to their mothers. She looks at the money she earned from giving away all the others and before she can make a decision, Marun advises, “Put that money into your business account and save up for more material.”
She nods and replies, “Sure, when the bank opens on Monday. In the meantime, it’s back to paint and pencil crayons.” She giggles. “I’m going to stick with it until I earn enough money. I just hope everyone who ordered one will be patient enough to wait awhile.” She clicks onto Microsoft Word and starts writing a blog post.
When she finishes, she looks at the last remaining floral foam tray and leftover ferns. She immediately goes to her table to put together a final arrangement: red border, yellow X, green and blue patterns surrounding it, with extra green and blue on the sides. It takes her forty minutes, and she puts it on the windowsill when she’s done. Suddenly, a light wind blows into the apartment, the ferns swaying in Melanie’s direction.
She smiles and looks up at the ceiling. It’s blowing endurance onto me, she thinks. It’s telling me to have strength and patience, their arrangements will arrive very soon, and I can do this. And that it’s time to earn my materials. Motivated, she takes a pencil and a blank sheet of paper and begins drawing.