In Chicago, Ill., the Virgin Mary appeared on the underbelly of a pet turtle. In Sacramento, Cal., there is a statue of Madonna that weeps blood like a horned lizard right before it is eaten by a predator. And in Houston, Tex., a woman found Jesus in a Cheeto.
They are all miracles. Everyone is saying so.
Jesus always loved fish, especially the stick kind.
I have been skipping from state to state with a bus-full of the meek, running the miracle circuit of America. We stop in diners, hospitals, houses and gas stations, kneeling silently before stains and mold to get the best shots with our digital cameras. Then, when the blotches don't fix us, we drive away. As I look around the bus at all the hopeful faces I only see our similarities, save the old people and the minorities; with them it's easy to see the difference. We have come together through hope -- and through a shared, unrelenting belief that faith is for suckers. We want some goddamn proof.
The results are inconclusive. All I have learned so far is that Mary loves rust stains and Jesus loves burnt food. They stay pretty consistent in their means of return to Earth, rarely crossing over into one another's territory. Mary lives in sinks and basements, always revealing her full self -- whereas Jesus, who has a little better face recognition, only comes back as a head on bananas, sandwiches and frying pans.
At most stops, as people cry and pray, I stand in the back and privately acknowledge that I'm not good at this yet. Everyone else seems to pick the images out of pancakes and tree knots immediately; they see faces everywhere, in everything. Their lives must be horrifying.
At least 14 things are watching you, right now.
And in some cases, they truly are horrifying. During a stop at an underpass in Chicago to see Mary in a salt stain, a woman from Memphis with short hair and a low center of gravity stands behind me in line and tells me she had two husbands who were both lying cheaters. "I had two husbands who were both lying cheaters," she says. "I pray each day to be cured of trusting too much." Without another word, she closes here eyes and bows her head. I do the same, because it looks like she wants to combine efforts on this one. When I open my eyes again, she has stolen my spot in line.
Once we are close enough to see the stain, she turns to me again, her abbreviated version of the Bible already out of her fanny pack. "What do you think?" she whispers.
"I think it looks like an upsetting vagina," I tell her. We don't speak again the whole trip.
We pass the time between miracles and state lines discussing which items containing the image of Mother and/or Son we've spotted on ebay recently, and how much we think they are worth. Everyone has decided $430 is reasonable for a tortilla featuring both Jesus and Mary, but anything more than that is absurd. The non-perishable items are worth more, we agree, because when you buy God, you want him to last a little while. A man with magenta shorts and a body best suited for stationary pursuits tells us he bought a piece of corrugated tin with the face of Jesus on it for $1,500. He keeps it locked up in his shed where no one else can see it. When we tell him that he could charge money to visitors and recoup some of his costs he just shakes his head. "I don't know how much magic it's got in it," he tells us. "I don't want to waste that on other people's prayers."
The coup de grace of our trip is a painting of the crucifixion in King City, Cal., that will bleed oil from stigmata wounds. What's more notable, however, is that it only bleeds when people huddle around ... and clap. While there remains no reasonable method on Earth to trap God, throw him on a stage and order him to sing, this is the closest humanity has come. We are all very excited.
The painter discovered his supernatural power over paint during an art show when his work started to hemorrhage after an ovation for an unrelated performance piece about unprotected sex. He just happened to notice it at the right time. He also claims to be a direct descendant of Jesus himself, so in a way it all kind of figures. When we meet him, everyone acknowledges the family resemblance; the body structure, eyes and facial features are off, but the beard, long hair and sandals he wears are all clear indications of his lineage.
"I'd love to paint you."
We all pay our admission and huddle into a room as he pulls back a curtain to reveal the crudely painted body of God. We start a slow clap. As soon as we find unison, sure enough, the painting starts to drip oil. We watch it seep down the canvas and tell each other what it means.
A middle-aged woman on our trip who refuses to comb her hair or wear leather tells us it is a sign that Jesus wants us to stop our oil dependence. A man from Idaho insists that the miracle is a sign that we need to escape our corporate lives in exchange for a tax-free, art-centric society where no one uses money, especially to pay taxes. An old couple from Colorado say it's there to wash us all clean of our sins, regardless of how horrific they may have been. "Even murder," they say, hypothetically.
As everyone argues quietly over its true meaning, one woman speaks above the rest. "I need it on me!" she shouts. Within seconds, everyone is crowded around the painting, touching it and wiping their fingers across their foreheads.
"Everybody, try to be cool," the painter says. But no one is interested in being cool, they are interested in being healed. He panics briefly before throwing his hands in the air and shouting out a new idea, "Hey, who wants to go the beach with me!?"
Everyone stops clamoring and looks to modern Jesus. We all do. We all want to go to the beach with him.
Seeing these pilgrims in their bathing suits, it's suddenly clear why most of our tour group is pleading with God for rationality. Entire swaths of fabric hide in the shady rolls of human desperation as the group huddles around modern Jesus asking questions and baking in the sand at edge of the Earth.
What if this is all there is?
I am in the water because I have deliberately separated myself from the group so that he'll acknowledge that I am different from everyone else. I am special. I swim a few yards, doing the most impressive stroke I remember from the middle school swim team. I do it to demonstrate my superior strength, and my nonchalant ease in the terrifying vastness of the ocean. I want him to gaze out at the water and say, "There. Yes, he among you knows how to be content with the world. He does not project rationality while never perceiving it. He gets it. That guy swimming the butterfly, he gets it."
Before long I can no longer touch the sand and I feel myself drifting from shore. I'm tired from all the swimming and each effort I make to paddle back sends me further out. Panic. Far off, I can see modern Jesus watching calmly from his beach blanket. I know at once that this is a test of some sort, to prove something, maybe. I accept.
For a furious 15 minutes, I splash and dive and rage against the undertow. I inadvertently swallow pints of seawater and consider giving up while God's descendant watches. Finally, my toes find a grip in the sand and I can pull myself to shore, exhausted. I win, surely he owes me something now. Maybe not money but surely something equally great, like a dinner somewhere.
When I can finally stand I walk toward the group. Most of them have collected their towels and are headed back to the bus, but modern Jesus is there, waiting. Sort of. He didn't see any of it because he fell asleep.
"I beat the ocean," I tell him. "I fought it and beat it."
"Cool," he says.
"I swam against the undertow. I didn't ask for help, I only asked for the strength to bear my lot in life."
He sits up and looks me in the eye. "You shouldn't have done that. You're supposed to swim parallel to the beach and then swim in. Everybody knows that."
"Oh," I tell him, and water floods from my nose.
He shakes his head and hits his sandals together before putting them on. "That was stupid," he says but I can't tell if it's directed at me.
After saying goodbye, we settle in on this bus for a long drive to Seattle. Someone there has found an angel in a piece of garlic naan and hundreds of people are making the pilgrimage. While everyone sleeps I stay awake because I know that I have work to do. I know that sometimes you are given a gift in life, whether through a stain or a piece of food or through an experience at the beach that could be mistaken for idiocy. But it is up to you what you do with it, how you shape it, how you retell it, and how you turn it into something you can convince other people is a miracle.
And maybe make a little money in the process.
Check out more from Soren in Infiltrating the Green Movement: Undercover on the Bandwagon and Exploring the Internet in 11 Days: An Epic Online Odyssey.