They were besieged upon arrival. “Sir, sir,” the touts shouted. “This way, sir! Come with me! I will carry.”
Pastor David Noh scanned the airport, looking for a driver with a sign. Perhaps the man in the orange baseball cap, or the one in aviator sunglasses? Their guide, Justus, had said he would meet them, e-mailing David the final details along with a photo of himself, but he was nowhere to be found.
It was three weeks before Christmas. They had been traveling for twenty-eight hours, on flights departing from San Francisco and connecting through Amsterdam to Dubai. Already they had lost a day, Saturday skipping straight to Monday, before they even started their mission.
The volunteers swept past the touts, lean men in rumpled button-down shirts and narrow ties, who fell upon other deplaning passengers. David felt unsteady, his head foggy from travel. “Get a shot of this.” He swept his hand over the crowd.
Gene panned the video camera over businessmen toting laptops, tourists in khaki safari jackets, matrons in embroidered velvet sweat-suits, and advertisements promoting wildlife tours and beach resort hotels on the Indian Ocean. Clad in rugged boots, lightweight hiking pants, and moisture-wicking shirts, the volunteers would have blended in with the international tribe of backpackers but for their suitcases and duffles piled on the luggage carts. They weren’t traveling lightly. Their guide had promised to take them to a village in East Africa unreached by other missionaries. David and his four volunteers would install water filters, teach English, and introduce the word of God. With stirring footage and photos from the trip, he could convince his flock to pledge their stock options, tithe their salaries—and rescue their church.
Bountiful Abundance had taken root among Korean American lawyers, software engineers, college students and activists, the children of immigrants: strivers, all. The church had a different style of worship, not so serious, not so Korean.
“We’re here!” Lily had applied powder and lipstick just before landing.
Eunhee flung her hand into the air. “Group high five!”
“Sir, sir, what’s the name of your tour company?” A tout jammed his face into David’s. He was wiry, with a scar shaped like a fishhook carved across his right cheek. His pungent scent was overwhelming, and David pushed the man away. The tout fell backward to the ground.
“Hey, hey, hey!” the other touts shouted, and a few lurched forward, fists raised. Someone screamed—Lily maybe. David braced himself, squaring his shoulders and lowering his head, ready to take the nearest one down. He had been an excellent wrestler, with the right build and temperament. A shrill whistle sounded, and the crowd parted for two policemen in sunglasses.
“We have a few questions for you. Come with us.”
The tout David shoved had slipped away, and those who remained glowered, shaking their heads and shouting what sounded like accusations.
“Unless you want to pay the fine here.”
“How much?” David had heard bribes were common here, and he prayed it wouldn’t be much. Their trip money, kept in a heavy pouch around his neck, was barely enough to cover their expenses.
“$20 U.S.” Considerate, as if the policeman did not want to inconvenience David with a visit to the currency exchange counter.
David paid, trying to keep his hands from trembling, and ushered his volunteers to a cafeteria. At the counter, where the tile floor was sticky with spilled drinks, he ordered sodas and sandwiches. “My treat.”
The cashier swiped his credit card. Once, twice, it didn’t go through. He had been financing the trip on that card, and his debts had caught up with him at last.
“Try this one.” He took out his emergency credit card. This one failed too. He imagined his wife, Esther, trying to buy groceries. She would stare at the declined card with her head cocked, biting on her lower lip. So she would pay with cash. Maybe she would have to leave certain items behind. Naomi would fuss, demanding that dried cranberries and apple juice be put back in the cart. “No, Mama, no!” At home, Esther would put Naomi down for a nap, call the credit card company, and discover his secret.
“Sometimes credit card companies block charges in other countries.” Immanuel opened his wallet and slid out two $20 bills. “I can get it.”
One crisis solved. Or at least postponed.
Much bigger problems loomed. Bountiful Abundance had been forced to leave a site David leased in a residential area, after neighbors complained to authorities about the traffic. He hadn’t obtained the proper permits, and as a result, incurred a substantial fine. The church moved into a vacant storefront flanked by liquor stores. After multiple muggings and car break-ins, the congregation relocated to an office park by the Oakland Coliseum. In total, Bountiful Abundance owed more than $100,000 in rent, equipment, renovations, and other expenses. $100,000! A debt that multiplied while collections from the congregation dwindled. The previous two sites sat empty because David was unable to find anyone to sublet. Worse yet, fundraising for the mission trip hadn’t gone well, and he’d financed the shortfall. He told no one, not even Esther.
At the table, Immanuel pulled apart the gummy pieces of white bread and tore out the pale lunch meat. “Airport food is terrible in any country.” At thirty-five, the doctor was the old man of the volunteers— five years younger than David—and he spoke with a gravitas that made people listen closely.
“You can have mine.” Lily pushed her sandwich at David and ripped open the gold wrapper of an energy bar. “My dad gave me a box.”
David tried not to fume. The sandwiches were each $5, the bribe $20: wasted money they could have spent on supplies.
“I can’t wait to try local dishes.” Eunhee flipped to a list in her guidebook. She was worldly in a way that Lily was not, although they’d had an almost identical upbringing, blocks apart in Oakland. The difference was that Eunhee had graduated from Cal with a streak of social justice—and purple hair. She had a radical’s self-assurance that David often envied.
After lunch, David changed $30, enough for the taxi ride and tip. He’d read that the money counters at the airport were a rip-off, and he would ask their guide where to exchange the rest. He looked around one last time, but did not see Justus. Maybe the guide had had a last-minute emergency, or suffered an accident? Or had David misunderstood the instructions? No. He’d memorized the e-mail during the flight, not wanting to fumble with the printouts like a tourist upon arrival. Justus had been the only guide available on short notice, and at a bargain price, after the original one cancelled.
At the taxi kiosk, they piled into a battered Peugeot station wagon. David sat in the front with the driver. “The Jacaranda Fairview,” he said. “Downtown.”
“Closed for renovations,” the driver said. “But I can take you to a better hotel, even cheaper. The Parklands. Very nice.”
“Fine, fine.” David’s head throbbed, his eyes sticky. He might have been more upset at the guide if Justus hadn’t already failed to meet the group at the airport. “Take us there.”
The Peugeot inched through traffic, crawling beside lime-green buses and trucks packed with goods and people, and whole families aboard puttering motorbikes. The dashboard held pictures of a small boy in a red bow tie, maybe five years old, and a baby girl, her hair knotted in pink ribbons. He wondered if the driver sent his wages to a distant village to feed his family, or if he was able to tuck these children in each night. A laminated portrait of the Virgin Mary in a blue mantle hung from the rearview mirror. Her peaceful expression, lowered eyes and beatific smile, calmed David. He exhaled, allowing himself to sink into his exhaustion.
“You’re Catholic?” David asked.
“My grandfather converted.”
They introduced each other. The driver’s name was Amos. David asked him if the children in the pictures were his.
“My sister’s. I have no time to have children right now. No time to find a wife.” Amos chuckled, the lilt to his words soothing.
David couldn’t tell how old Amos was. With their unwrinkled skin and bright eyes, many Africans and Asians shared an ageless quality. Amos squeezed the car behind a truck loaded with sheets of tin and concrete blocks. “You Korean?”
“We’re from America,” David said. “My parents are from Korea.”
“Lots of Koreans come here. Good people. I can take you to a Korean barbecue right now, if you want. Misono.”
“Maybe later. Thanks for the offer.” After the shakedown at the airport, David was relieved to find someone friendly in this country.
Then he noticed they were passing the Jacaranda Fairview, the hotel where their guide had made reservations. A bellman in a tan uniform stood in front beside a pile of luggage. The hotel wasn’t closed for renovations. If anything, the Fairview needed them still, with its cracked cement walls, dirty windows, and namesake trees shedding wilted purple flowers.
“Stop!” David shouted.
“We’re almost to the Parklands,” Amos said.
“Stop the car. We just drove by the Fairview—it’s open.”
Soon the whole car was shouting. “Stop, stop, stop!”
Amos did a U-turn, buzzing through oncoming traffic, and screeched to a stop in front of the Fairview. They grabbed their luggage, while Amos glowered in the front seat. David threw the bills, scattering them on the driver’s lap and on the floorboard. No tip. That was what cheaters deserved. He stumbled over the broken asphalt, the smell of smoke and rotting garbage making him dizzy. Eunhee and Immanuel hung a few paces back, and David slowed to eavesdrop.
“I wasn’t down with that,” Eunhee said.
He glanced over his shoulder to see Immanuel give the driver a handful of dollar bills. David didn’t like being questioned. He strode into the lobby where Justus was reading a newspaper.
“Welcome!” Justus rose to his feet. He was dark as an espresso bean, with a diamond-shaped face, close-cropped curly hair, and slanted eyes.
“You were supposed to meet us at the airport.” David had to keep himself from grabbing Justus by the shoulders and shaking him.
“The driver wasn’t there?” Justus asked.
“I’ll call him,” Justus said. “Something must have happened. He’s usually very reliable.”
“He’s not taking us to the village, is he? We can’t have someone like that, who would leave us stranded at the airport,” David said.
“Everything will be fine,” Justus said. “Let me help with your bags.”
They registered at the front desk. David had his own room, Gene and Immanuel were sharing a room, and the women were in another, all on the fourth floor.
“Enjoy your stay.” The clerk handed them keys on plastic fobs. “I put you in the renovated rooms.”
David halted. “What do you mean?”
“A pipe broke and flooded the rooms. We were closed for a week.”
Toting his bags, David took the punishing walk alone up the stairs, leaving everyone else to the elevator.
A decade ago, just before his conversion, he had been a history teacher and wrestling coach at a prep school in Providence. From across the country, his parents nagged him in weekly phone calls, insisting that he obtain his doctorate, although they knew that it was too late for David to become a rising star in academia. Those who won tenure at prestigious universities had to proceed directly to graduate school, publish papers in top journals, and present at conferences. But to his parents, attending graduate school was superior to David’s teaching position, even if at the end of the program he would have no better job prospects than what he currently held.
His parents were professors at a top-ranked science and engineering college in the foothills of the San Gabriels, in a leafy, prosperous enclave less than an hour’s drive from the largest Korean community outside of Seoul. However, the Professors Noh had no use for other Koreans, nor for Christ, despite their own Protestant upbringing.
Instead of studying for graduate exams and writing essays, David was lured by another calling: professional poker. He’d come across a televised tournament featuring players stoic and solid as totem poles. They never betrayed their doubts – never had doubts at all. Nobodies emerged to win by their wits. Why not him?
In pursuit of poker, David drove an hour to southern Connecticut, to the Foxwoods Casino, a sprawling labyrinth in the forest, on the weekends and eventually, every night. Surrounded by the elderly clientele – who were hooked to oxygen tanks and to slot machines – he never felt more alive, young and perfect. Powerful and possible.
At first he won. He felt blessed by a preternatural understanding, as if he could see through the cards, through everyone at the table. His losses were momentary and quickly reversed. He loved the crack and riffle of the shuffling deck. The click of the chips, heavy and hypnotic. An accretion of risk, luminous and great. One night, a crowd gathered, pointing at him and whispering, “Hot hands.” David knew better—he owed his success to his skills, not luck. When he returned home, he fanned the $100 bills and tossed them into the air, giddy with the scent of all who had lost to him. He made plans for Vegas.
Then he lost. His fingers became clumsy, thick as cigars. Always a minute behind what was happening, realizing too late the way the cards had fallen. When he won, it was by chance. By accident. He drained his savings and maxed out three credit cards, fell behind on his rent, called in sick at work. He wrote none of the college recommendations he’d promised his seniors, played documentaries from the History Channel rather than teaching, and by the end of May, the school had fired him. His wallowing worsened in the summer. He rarely left his stuffy apartment, rarely left his bed, and lived on saltines, tuna straight from the can, and cheap whisky. His portable fan cranked at full blast in a numbing buzz. With sticky red plastic cups piled on every surface, his apartment resembled a carnival game: win a goldfish, if you can land a ping pong ball inside the rim.
After months of doubts, he woke early one morning with the overwhelming urge to pray. He knelt on his bed, wobbling and sinking into the mattress, before he climbed onto the dusty hardwood floor. Was this how? He didn’t know how long he could hold himself up. Head bowed, he began. “How much longer? Tomorrow? Next month, next year? Why not now?” he had whispered, his eyes wet with unspilled tears.
A shaft of sunlight expanded, filling the room, and David felt light enough to levitate. He no longer had to worry: he was in the Lord’s hands. On his shelf, he found the Bible – from his college days, a reference book – and read it as if for the first time. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved. In search of God and a community, he joined an immigrant Korean church, the Holy Redeemer in Boston, where he met Esther and to the continued disappointment of his parents, devoted his life to spreading the Good Word. Guiding others, he kept his own life under control.
He never confided in Esther about his gambling, telling her only that God had filled a void in his heart. He had his reasons. She would despise him, and he had to admit, keeping the secret allowed him to cherish certain memories, jewels he could admire in private rather than submit for public reckoning. God already knew.
Leave A Comment