PRAIRIE STAR'S PANDEMIC CHRISTMAS
By Tim Wintermute
Ezra looked out the window from his vantage point behind the desk. The Prairie Star Church was on the highest point for miles around and the window of the Pastor’s Study opened out onto the empty parking lot to the west where he had a clear view of the distant Sangre de Cristo mountains etched in the deep blue sky. Unlike the Christmas before when a blizzard had struck, there wasn’t a flake of snow on the brown prairie. For anyone looking at this scene from the small town of Beulah Junction and its sparsely populated surroundings it was the high spire of the Church that dominated the landscape. Not just during the day but also at night when the powerful light shining from the top of the steeple was the brightest star in the firmament over southeast Colorado’s high plains. Not that there were many people who would be looking. Beulah Junction had lost more than two thirds of its population and the small town had shrunk to the size of a village since Ezra’s arrival as a young pastor right out of seminary almost fifty years ago. During that time the Church’s congregation had declined as well and if it wasn’t for an endowment and Ezra’s own savings the doors would have closed, the light would have been turned off leaving a dark hole where the Prairie Star had once shown.
Well, Ezra thought, with the Covid 19 pandemic there was an excuse for no one attending the Christmas Eve two weeks away. Of course, he had practice preaching to an empty church since the only person who sat in the pews of Prairie Star regularly was Iker “Ike” Elizondo, the owner of a sheep ranch whose first time was last Christmas Eve during the blizzard. Saint Drogos, the Catholic Church Ike was a member of, had been closed by the Diocese and he wasn’t about to drive on the snow covered roads to attend Midnight Mass in Picketwire. He’d come regularly since then, declaring that Prairie Star was now his parish church. More like a perish church, Ezra grunted.
Ike’s pick-up truck had pulled into the parking lot while Ezra was looking out the window so he wasn’t surprised when a few minutes later there was a knock on his door. Ezra put on the mask that he kept in the top right hand drawer and told him to come in. Even with a western bandanna crawn up over his nose, Ezra knew Ike was smiling. “Merry Christmas,” Ike said, cheerily.
“Christmas, yes, but merry I’m not so sure of,” Ezra said, frowning behind his mask.
“You need to get in the spirit, Ezra. Tis the season to be jolly,” Ike said cheerfully as he moseyed over to a chair that was against the wall, six feet from Ezra and sat down.
“What’s so jolly about with a Coronovirus Christmas? Everyone’s isolated so they won’t infect one another and even churches are limited to twenty five percent occupancy.”
“At least they aren’t closed like the bars.”
“I don’t think any of the regulars who would have spent Christmas Eve at the Dead Shot Saloon will show up here, even if we’re the only Church in town,” Ezra’s said, the mask muffling his sigh. “I suppose I shouldn’t be complaining about the limit since we can’t even fill one percent of the sanctuary for Sunday services for years.”
“What about me?”
“The sanctuary seats four hundred so I’m afraid you’re only a quarter percent.”
“Hey, have you heard about that church in La Junta that has been holding services at the drive in theater? People can stay in their cars so there’s no occupancy limit. They even provide popcorn.”
Ezra nodded. “Before the pandemic their services were held at Lucky Strike Lanes and people who attended could stay afterwards and bowl for free.”
“Holy bowlers,” Ike chuckled loudly. “I heard that after their Christmas Eve service they’re going to have a double feature of Christmas movies.”
“Are you going?”
“Me? Drive all the way to LaJunta on Christmas Eve? I’m going to be right here with you. Besides, the only double feature I’d watch is two showings of It’s a Wonderful Life and I’ve got that on a DVD.”
Ezra nodded. His late wife Louise and he used to watch it every year. She said that the star, Jimmy Stewart, reminded her of Ezra. As the congregation dwindled he started feeling less like Jimmy Stewart and more like George Bailey, the character he played, who was going to throw himself off a bridge because all of the members were leaving the building and loan society he ran. At least the people who left Prairie Star when they moved out of the area didn’t ask for their tithes back. He said to Ike, “Then it’s just you and me…again.”
“Just like old times,” Ike said.
“Just like every time.”
“Now Ezra, doesn’t the Bible say something about when two people get together then Jesus is there?”
“In Matthew 18 verse 20 Jesus says where two or three gather in my name there am I with them,” Ezra replied, happy that he could at least remember the verse.
“Looks like you’ve got a visitor,” Ike said pointing toward the window.
“You mean Jesus?” Ezra surprised himself with a laugh.
“Only if Jesus drives an RV,” Ike replied. Ezra swiveled his chair around to face the window, where a large RV, towing a small car had just parked.
“They must be senior citizen tourists who want to look at the Church.” Ezra said getting out of his chair. A minute later Ezra opened the door to greet the visitors. Standing there were three people, two men and a woman, who were less than half the ages of the silver haired couple he’d expected.
“Do you need directions?” Ezra asked, assuming that was the only reason they would have stopped.
“We’re looking for Reverend Beeman. We were told that he’s the minister for this church.” The woman said, her blue eyes sparkling above the colorful cotton mask she wore.
“And I’m Ike Elizondo,” Ike said, reaching out his arm and then jerking it back when he remembered that the pandemic had nixed handshakes.
“I’m Melinda Bright and this is Bhas Gupta and Cass Cohen ,” she answered. “I hope we’re not interrupting you but if you have a few minutes we have something we’d like to discuss with you.”
Minutes, I’ve got all the time in the world Ezra could have said, but instead he answered, “As it so happens, I’m free at the moment.”
Since there wasn’t room in his Study for all of them to sit six feet apart, Ezra led them into the fellowship hall. After being seated in folding chairs that Ezra and Ike hastily arranged in a wide circle that observed the required social distances, Melinda explained that all three of them were friends who met while working for hi-tech companies in Silicon Valley.”
“We made an insane amount of money, but it didn’t make us happier,” Bhas said.
“We were depressed, in fact.” Cass added.
Melinda continued. “The companies we worked for made billions using the Internet to make it easier for people to waste their time and buy things they don’t need. Meanwhile people who could really benefit from the Internet didn’t even have access. So we started talking about doing something that would make a real difference in people’s lives and found out that there are parts of the country, mainly rural, where there’s no Internet access at all…”
“Then the pandemic happened,” Cass said.
Melinda nodded and said. “And that has made this digital divide even worse. Now it’s the Digital Grand Canyon. People who need medical care aren’t able to get it in person so telemedicine is really important and that requires access to the Internet.”
“And kids need the Internet because the schools are closed and everything has switched to remote learning,” Bhas interjected .
“Anyway, you get the picture,” Melinda said. “We started looking for a way to use our knowledge to bridge the digital divide to benefit others rather than ourselves and the billionaire owners of the companies we worked for.”
“And we discovered,” Bhas said. “Fixed wireless that uses towers to beam wireless waves to where people live providing Internet access in sparsely populated rural areas. Cable and phone companies don’t want to provide service in rural areas because laying cable for broadband Internet service, which is what people need, isn’t profitable.”
“That’s when we decided to quit our jobs,” Cass said. “And help bring fixed wireless to rural communities that needed it. We bought that RV to travel and live in and we bought the equipment that would be needed, which is what’s in the trailer that we tow.”
“We had everything we needed except a place in need,” Melinda said. “So we researched places where we could offer our service. Since fixed wireless waves are beamed in a straight line to the dishes that receive them it doesn’t travel very far in areas where there are obstacles in its path, like mountains. We looked for rural areas that were pretty flat in order to reach as many people as possible. Southeastern Colorado and western Kansas are pretty flat and there’s no Internet service. Even the cell service is spotty.”
“Spotty,” Ike blurted. “Heck, this is a cell cemetery with all the dead spots we have,” Ike said.
“When we looked more closely at this area we found out that a high speed fiber optic cable had been installed from Picketwire to Beulah Junction just before the Pandemic. It was installed to provide high speed Internet access for the medical clinic and the school.”
“This seemed like a good place to start,” Bhas said. “Because we can connect the antenna we install on the tower to the fiber optic cable. That will provide plenty of bandwidth.”
“The problem is we need a tower,” Melinda said.
“A really tall tower,” Cass said. “That can send out a beam for miles in every direction. After we drove here from California we spent a day looking for a tall tower in this area and couldn’t find anything.”
“When it got dark we decided to give up and move on to Kansas. Then we saw a light that was brighter than any star and when we got closer we saw that it was on top of your steeple…”
“Your steeple is a very tall tower,” Bhas added.
“It’s the tallest between here and Picketwire,” Ike said. “Folks can see the light for miles. It shines like a prairie lighthouse. That’s why it’s called Prairie Star.”
Ezra, who had been listening quietly, suddenly stirred in his chair and asked. “Are you saying that you want to use our steeple as an antenna?”
All three nodded their heads in response. Melinda said. “I need to add that the Internet service needs to be affordable so that everyone can have access regardless of how low their income is.”
“Incomes are pretty low in these parts,” Ike said.
“So it will need to cost next to nothing,” Cass said.
“Make that nothing for a lot folks around here.”
“In other words you want to use the steeple for free,” Ezra said.
“It would sure help,” Melinda answered. “We can donate our time and the equipment, but…”
“When do you need to know?” Ezra asked, cutting her off.
“If you agree we can begin installation right away. It turns out that the fiber optic line we mentioned runs right past the Church.”
“I know, they dug a trench and I signed an easement.”
Bhas said. “Then all we need to do is connect a line to it and run it up to the antennas that we will attach to the top of your steeple.”
“At the same time we’re doing that we’ll start distributing and helping install the receiver dishes to anyone who wants Internet,” Cass said.
“How long will all that take?” Ike asked.
“If we start right away we could be finished by Christmas.”
Ike turned to Ezra and said. “Now wouldn’t that be a nice Christmas present for everyone, Ezra.”
“Of course,” Melinda said. “ That timeline assumes that you could sign the agreement today and you probably need to have your lawyer look it over and your board and, maybe even the congregation approve it.”
Ezra answered quickly, “We don’t have a Board of Trustees anymore and the congregation is me and Ike and he’s a Catholic and as Pastor I can only vote when there’s a tie.”
“So neither of us can vote?”
Ezra turned to Ike. “Fortunately I have the authority to make decisions on my own when there aren’t enough members for a quorum and there hasn’t been a quorum for years. Even if you can’t vote what do you think?”
“I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you it would be great for me to be able to Zoom with Louise and the kids and grandkids on Christmas. I’m not just thinking about myself, though, lots of other folks would be able to be with their families and friends.”
Except me, Ezra thought, closing his eyes and bending his head. The only person he could share Christmas with was Ike and he didn’t need the Internet to reach the first pew where he’d be seated in an otherwise empty sanctuary on Christmas Eve. He looked up and was surprised to see that everyone’s head was bowed. Ezra said, a smile gracing his lips, “Where do I sign?”
When Ezra walked up to the pulpit two weeks later on Christmas eve he was surprised to see a wrapped present on it.
“You didn’t have to get me a present, Ike.”
“I didn’t. It’s from the three Silicon Valley Santa’s. That’s what I call them. They asked me to put it there and said you should open it before you started the service.”
Ezra carefully removed the wrapping revealing a laptop computer. On top of it was a note instructing him to lift the lid. As soon as he lifted it the computer screen lit up and there was a large button with a message to click it with the cursor. When he did the screen dissolved and he was looking at himself on the screen. Behind him was a full choir in gowns. He quickly turned around and looked. There was nothing but the cross. When he looked at the computer faces filled the screen. Many were people he recognized that lived in the area but others he’d never seen before. “What is this, Ike?”
“That’s your choir and congregation thanks to the Internet coming from the Prairie Star steeple up there.” Ike looked up at the vaulted ceiling. “Actually, there’s no Zoom choir, it’s just a background. Can’t have real people standing next to each other and singing with this Pandemic going on. But those people you’re looking at are real. As soon as people got connected to the Internet for the first time a Zoom invitation to this service popped up.”
Ezra peered closely at the faces on the screen. “I don’t recognize all of these people.”
“That’s because folks sent the invitation to other people who don’t even live around here and those people passed it on to others and…, well, at least five hundred people signed up and some of them are from other countries. That’s more people than you can fit in these pews, even if they were all as skinny as a rail. In fact it’s more than can fit on the screen all at once so you need to scroll to see everyone. They can all see you, though.”
“This is unbelievable,” Ezra said, scrolling through the faces.
“It’s not unbelievable, Ezra, it’s Christmas,” Ike answered with a jolly laugh. “Now when you’re ready just unmute the audio and video and start preaching.”
Ezra looked down at what he had written, turned the top sheet face down, unmuted the audio and video, looked at the screen and said, “Three Magi came from the west coast bearing gifts…”