My Pastor Lied About His Near-Death Experience
There I was, three in the morning, on the narrow mechanic’s platform at the top of Dragon’s Breath Roller Coaster, screaming at the body dangling below me, thick snow blanketing the entire amusement park.
So how did I end up here? It all started with an idea I had a few weeks earlier at Pastor Leopold’s final sermon.
Pastor Leopold is somewhat of a local legend. He’s a charismatic, charming, and fiery pastor of the largest church in my little town. He’s inspired hundreds. He’s changed so many lives, including my dad’s—who is a recovering alcoholic. I don’t know where I’d be without him. It’s safe to say that Pastor Leopold was the backbone of Morgan County.
But he wasn’t always that way.
In an anecdote I’ve heard at least three dozen times since I was a toddler, Pastor Leopold tells about the turning point in his life.
He was 16 years old and struggling to find his voice as a pastor apprentice under his father—the original Pastor Leopold. In his darkest moment, he and two buddies got drunk out of their minds and went for a drive up the canyon. As they drove the narrow dirt road on the backside of Coalville Reservoir, a moose stepped onto the road—a moose with death in its eyes, he always added. He swerved and plunged off the road into the ice-cold reservoir water.
He remembered failing to get his seatbelt off. He remembered having the drunken thought flash through his mind that wearing seatbelts was a stupid idea. He remembered trying to piece enough words together to form a prayer to Jesus.
Then it all went black.
(Pause for dramatic effect)
Then it all went white.
According to his story, he awoke in a white room ‘above the brightness of the sun.’ He ascended a beautiful white staircase with intricate gold finishes while an angelic choir quietly sang in the background.
When he reached the top of the staircase, he was greeted by his loved ones who had already passed on, all in their prime, all dressed in white—his grandparents, his brother who died in infancy, and others he understood to be ancestors. They embraced him at once and an overwhelming feeling of peace fell over him.
After a few more ‘minutes of bliss,’ the crowd parted, leaving Pastor Leopold alone in the endlessly white room. It was at this moment that he realized he was dead. But it didn’t matter. The pure joy and love he felt in that room made all the suffering of life worth it.
Then someone else appeared.
A man with long hair and a beard, robed in white. He walked carefully toward the pastor apprentice. When he got within arms distance, Pastor Leopold knew exactly who it was. It was Jesus Christ.
Jesus told the pastor that although he looks forward to the day they can be together again, now was not his time. Jesus said that the pastor was more important than he’ll ever know. The pastor wept and held Jesus tight.
Next thing he knew, an intense shock was passing through his body. He jolted—quite literally—awake and found that he was in the back of an ambulance, surrounded by EMTs. When he realized that he was alive, he wept again.
He lost one of his friends that cold November night, but he gained a fire.
He turned his life around, swearing off booze and girls. He became passionate about his pastoral studies. Eighteen months later, his father died, and he took the reins of the church.
Pastor Leopold ran the church for 65 years before having a stroke six months ago.
He survived, but the stroke altered his demeanor significantly. After his return from the hospital, he gave one last, low-energy sermon and announced his retirement.
I was there and I kid you not, the audience bawled their eyes out. It as if he had shot himself at the pulpit.
I mean, I get it. Kind of. He was like a father to me—to most of us there. How would the church, nay, how would Morgan County move on without Pastor Leopold?
But as for me, a budding journalist fresh out of school, I saw an opportunity.
There wasn’t much of a written record of Pastor Leopold or his teachings anywhere. Sure, the locals will recount his sermons till they’re blue in the face, but the memoir market was wide open.
Well, maybe memoir was a bit ambitious, but figured I could sell a series to the local paper or something. For those of you who are rightfully rolling your eyes and calling me selfish or predatory or egocentric, don’t worry—none of these things will happen. In fact, this post right here is the only thing that will come from this little project of mine.
Pastor Leopold somewhat reluctantly agreed to do the interview the next day, but under one condition: That it take place at the Como Springs Amusement Park—Morgan County’s blockbuster claim to fame that has yet to capture national attention.
The next day, I drove thirty minutes through Morgan Canyon and got to the park about an hour before close.
I met him at The Princess Café, a pink and purple restaurant next to the central carousel. He was gazing out the window watching the decorated horses rotate around, ice cream in hand. He was smiling like a kid.
“Ms. Moko,” he said, struggling to stand.
“Please sit, Pastor Leopold,” I said, shaking his hand.
He looked like he had aged ten years since his last sermon just a few days earlier. An oxygen tank was on his side. His eyes were dark and heavy.
“You know, you’re really starting to look like your mother,” he said.
“I take that as a compliment,” I said.
“Thanks for agreeing to meet with me, Pastor. I’m sure you—” I stopped midsentence because his eyes had wandered to the sky outside. I cleared my throat.
“I’m sorry, Ms. Moko. Go ahead with your questions,” he said, returning his gaze to me.
I pulled my notebook out and turned to the page where I had written down thirty-three carefully rehearsed questions.
“First question, why Como Springs Amusement Park?” I asked.
He smiled and looked at his ice cream.
“You know, have you ever thought about why Morgan County has an amusement park? Way up here? Virtually no traffic. Small population. Stays open during winter for heaven’s sake. A park like this should never be able to work economically, right?”
“Right,” I said.
“Well, it doesn’t. Como Springs has been deep in the red every year since its opening in 1999,” he said.
I nodded slowly.
“But Como Springs was never built to make money. It was a passion project by Scott Lewis. You know him?”
I nodded again.
“Since my stroke, this is the only place that has brought back any semblance of hope into my life,” he said.
I shifted uneasily. “Why is that?” I mustered.
“This place is a reminder that there is joy to be had in this life.” He brought his fist to his mouth and coughed loudly. “You know, when you’re in the religion business, you spend a lot of your time convincing others to make sacrifices in this life so that they can have joy in the next life.”
“Okay,” I said.
“But what if there isn’t a next life?”
I started running through titles of my impending memoir (memoir was back on the table). Doubting Pastor; Pastor in Doubt; Agnostic Preacher: The Story of a Small-Town Pastor’s Final Days.
“Do you not think there’s a next life?” I asked.
He put his oxygen mask over his mouth for a minute and closed his eyes.
What the hell is coming next, I wondered.
“I know there’s not a next life,” he said, his eyes still closed.
Still in shock, I wrote the phrase down in my notebook. I know there’s not a next life.
“You know I’m writing a story on you, right? Are you comfortable with the public knowing all this?”
“It won’t matter. I’m in my final days,” he said.
My mouth must have been gaping open because when he opened his eyes, he quickly apologized.
“I’m sorry, Ms. Moko,” he said, smiling his charming old man smile for half a second before returning the oxygen mask to face. “I’m sure that’s a lot to take in.”
“No, it’s fine, it’s just—this is not how I thought the interview would go.”
He signaled for the waitress and ordered another ice cream cone.
“Let me explain a couple things. And you’re the first person I’ve ever said this to,” he said.
“Sure thing, go ahead.”
“You’ve heard the story of my car crash when I was a teenager, right? The one where I pass into the afterlife for a while and meet the big guy?”
“Of course, it’s only the most cited story in Morgan County.”
“Right, right. Well—oh, excuse me, miss?” he said, signaling for the waitress again.
The waitress hurried over.
“Bring us Tito’s special friend menu, will you?” he said.
She glanced at me then back to him.
“Don’t worry, I’ll vouch for her,” he said, turning to me. “You drink, don’t you? Figure you’re a college girl, right?”
“Oh, I—uh. I do drink, but—”
“Perfect. You know what, forget the menu,” he said. “You like gin?” he asked me.
“We’ll take two Gin & Tonics. Alright, sweetheart?” he said to the flustered waitress.
“Sure thing, Pastor Leopold.”
“Are pastors allowed to drink?”
“Depends on who you ask,” he said.
The waitress returned with the drinks and we each took a sip in silence, both watching the fire-red roller coaster—Dragon’s Breath—zoom around outside.
“You know, when we’re done with this thing here, I’m riding that thing,” Pastor Leopold said.
I choked on my drink.
At this rate, he’s gonna ask me to sleep with him.
“I’m sorry, you were saying about the car crash story?” I asked, now second guessing my whole journalism career.
“Alright, here’s what happened,” he said and signaled for another drink. “What really happened.”
I finished my drink and sat up straight.
“I did experience a vision of some sort. I was engulfed in black, then engulfed in white, just like I always said in the story. There wasn’t a decorated staircase though. I woke up in a large—infinitely large white room that was filled with people. People sitting in chairs as far as the eyes could see. God, it was so peculiar. I recognized some people, like my grandparents and others I knew that had already died, but most I didn’t know. The people I knew—they didn’t embrace me. They didn’t interact with me at all. They just stared blankly ahead, completely motionless.”
The waitress set the Gin & Tonic down and shot me a concerned glance. I shrugged my shoulders at her.
“And that whole bit about feeling warm and loved and all that? Total bullshit. I didn’t feel loved, I felt horrified. Could you imagine how weird that would be? Hundreds, thousands of people staring blankly ahead in a room that goes on forever?”
I nodded. I had stopped taking notes.
“I walked slowly down the rows of chairs, trying to see if the room had an end, but I couldn’t find one.” He took a deep breath from his oxygen mask.
“After what felt like about twenty minutes of walking fruitlessly past the rows and rows of blank-faced people, someone approached me. It wasn’t a man; it wasn’t a woman. In fact, I don’t think it was human. It certainly wasn’t Jesus. Bald, pale, relatively tall. It wore nothing but white robes. And its eyes were a little bit off, like it was not looking at me so much as toward me. The thing resembled a human only because it vaguely knew that I would trust talking to a human. Does that make sense?”
“So, that’s why your dead loved ones were there—to win your trust?”
“Yes—it was trying to make me feel like I was in human heaven.”
“Sounds like they didn’t get it quite right, though,” I said.
“Exactly, everything was a little weird—a little off,” he said, and broke into a little coughing fit.
I finished my G&T and called for another one.
At this point in the conversation, I didn’t know what to think about his story. On one hand, he was a trustworthy patriarchal figure to me, so I wanted to believe him. On the other hand, what the hell.
I tried telling myself the wild story was the result of the stroke and his subsequent mental decline, but it didn’t sit quite right. He was so incredibly lucid, so clearly tormented, and there was something about me that allowed him to divulge in a way he never had before.
“The thing spoke to me in a baritone voice with little inflection,” Pastor Leopold continued.
“I didn’t have a way out of the infinity room, so I had no choice but to listen.”
“What did it say?”
“It told me that my mission in life was to bring as many people to Jesus Christ as possible.”
“You’re kidding—I don’t understand,” I said. “Why—I mean, what else did it say?”
He took a drink and swirled the ice around his glass.
“It said that my participation was critical to Four-Two-Two,” he said.
“Four-Two-Two? What the hell is Four-Two-Two?”
He chuckled. “Believe me, I’ve asked myself that question thousands of times over the years.”
I looked over the scribblings in my notebook then put the pen in my mouth for a moment. “The general purpose of the experience follows a very traditional Christian narrative—bringing others unto Christ. But, a room filled with lifeless bodies sitting in chairs? A robot, alien figure dressed in white robes? I don’t know what to make of it.”
“Neither did I. Until about six months ago,” he said.
He nodded slowly, looking between his glass and the snow-covered amusement park outside.
“When I had the stroke, I visited the same place. Same endless white room, same chairs filled with inanimate people stretched back as far as the eye could see. There were many more familiar faces this time, since almost everyone my age is now dead. I wandered the rows—"
He put the oxygen mask on for a moment, trying to catch his breath.
“Ms. Moko,” he said. “Understand that I had spent decades trying to forget my first visit to that awful place. I had largely tricked myself into believing the embellished version of the story, mind you, so coming back to this horrible scene, the horrible people and chairs, the horrible bright light, I wanted to die—die for real.”
I nodded sympathetically. “What happened?”
“After I wandered for a while, the same figure appeared—nongendered, tall, pale white skin, bald, robed. This time, it was much more direct. It introduced itself as Thirty-Nine.”
“Like, its name was the number Thirty-Nine?”
“I guess so. It said it was there on behalf of Four-Two-Two,” he said.
“Okay,” I said.
“It said that Four-Two-Two had essentially lost interest in 9398.22—or some random number like that—and that Four-Two-Two would not intervene to extend my life.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
A tear formed in the corner of Pastor Leopold’s eye. “I’m sorry,” he whispered.
I handed him my unused napkin. “It’s okay, it’s okay.”
He wiped his eyes.
“Ms. Moko,” he said.
“Please, call me Marie.”
“The thing—Thirty-Nine—explained to me that I was the central test subject in an experiment run by something called Four-Two-Two. Essentially, everything you see, people, things, nature, planets. It’s all put in place for me.”
I was flustered. This was not how I saw my first interview going.
“Marie, I know it sounds crazy, and you don’t have to believe me, but Thirty-Nine told me that when I die, the experiment ends.”
“Meaning?” I asked, somehow knowing the answer already.
“Meaning that all this,” he said, waving his hands in the air, “disappears when I die.”
My first instinct was to laugh, which, thank God, I did not. But as we sat there, as I watched this weeping old man—this patriarch of the community, this man that I have trusted and looked up to my entire life—an unsettling horror sank in.
I believed him.
We ordered another round then went our separate ways.
He stayed in the park to ride his precious Dragon’s Breath and I left.
When I got home, I went straight to my room. You’d think I would’ve hugged my parents or something (yes, I still live at home) given that life as we know it could be over at any time, but I didn’t. I fell asleep in my bed about ten minutes later.
At around two in the morning, I jolted awake with the unshakeable feeling that someone was in my room. I sat up in my bed abruptly.
Someone was sitting at my desk.
“Hello?” I said.
The person rotated around slowly.
As the light found their face, I realized that not only did I not recognize them, I couldn’t even tell if they were a man or a woman. It was bald and wearing white robes. Its facial features were a little bit off. Before it opened its mouth, it clicked.
“Thirty-Nine,” I whispered.
It looked toward me for a second before opening its mouth. “Go to Como—” it started in its monotone, mid-range voice, before being interrupted by my bedroom door slamming open.
It was my dad.
Thirty-Nine disappeared—vanished into thin air the second my dad stepped through the door.
“Marie,” my dad said and sat down on my bed. “My dear, Pastor Leopold has gone missing.”
My heart started pounding.
“I know you were with him this evening. Was anything off? Did he say anything strange?” my dad asked.
“No—not other than, you know, getting emotional talking about his experiences as Pastor,” I said. “He had an oxygen mask. Wait—did he never make it home from the park?”
“Supposedly he made it back from the park a little while after your meeting, then slipped out after dinner. No word to Janice or anyone,” my dad said.
“I’m so sorry. Gosh, that’s sad,” I said. “Can I help?”
My dad smiled. “No, sweetheart. Just go back to sleep. I’m sure he’ll turn up.”
He left my room and I pretended to go back to sleep.
Go to Como Springs. That’s what Thirty-Nine was trying to tell me. I mean, it was probably a dream—an incredibly vivid dream—but still.
If what Pastor Leopold told me was true, he’s got the weight of the world on his shoulders. I didn’t know if I could do anything to help the situation, but I believed that I was the only person that truly understood what he was going through.
I snuck out the back door and got in my car.
The canyon highway was even snowier than it was a few hours before, the snowplows catching up on sleep, no doubt.
I arrived at Como Springs Amusement Park thirty minutes later, welcomed by an empty parking lot blanketed in fresh snow. I parked as close as I could get to the entrance and made my way to the front gate. Without a second thought, I went around the stone columns and climbed the fence.
The amusement park was horribly dark and cold. The only thing lighting my way was moonlight muted through snowy skies and my phone light.
“Pastor Leopold!” I yelled aimlessly.
I walked around the central courtyard past The Princess Café, the stretch of carnival games, the carousel, the hot dog stand, then finally to Dragon’s Breath. I yelled his name a few more times to no avail. As I rotated my light around, something reflected in the snow outside the queue line. I approached cautiously, checking my surroundings.
I crouched down and pulled it out of the snow.
It was Pastor Leopold’s oxygen tank.
“Pastor!” I yelled. “Where are you? It’s Marie Moko. Please come out.”
I dialed 911 and told them Pastor Leopold was at Como Springs.
As I rotated the tank in my hand, I realized it was dinged badly on one side, scuffed with fire-red paint—the same paint from Dragon’s Breath.
I ran around to the other side of the ride entrance and flashed my light up.
That’s when I saw him.
He was standing on the little platform outside of the checkpoint station at the highest point of the roller coaster, motionless.
“Pastor Leopold, I’m coming!” I yelled, although I don’t think he heard me above the howling blizzard wind.
I hopped the gate and weaved through the queue line. I crossed the loading platform, climbed over the tracks, and made it to the narrow staircase leading to the checkpoint station. I ascended the stairs, repeatedly calling out the Pastor’s name. He didn’t seem fazed.
While I climbed, I had a bit of an existential crisis. What exactly was I trying to achieve? If the Pastor was right, and we were all pawns in a world built for him, then it’s going to be over soon. Like he said, the world would just click off. Nothing I could do about it.
On the other hand, I thought a lot about what he said about Como Springs when I was with him—that life is worth living for the little joys, something like that. For him, it was the amusement park. For me, it was—well, what was it?
I continued climbing in the snow, the wind howling louder the higher I got.
I thought about childhood memories of going to Disneyland. I thought about going to the beach with my friends. I thought about the time I went skiing with Abby and we saw a bald eagle. I thought about drinking an Oreo shake. I thought about hugging my mom. Singing along to the White Album. These were the moments to live for. These were the moments worth fighting for. That’s what I told myself, anyway.
In that moment of clarity, I knew what I was doing. I wasn’t fighting to get to Pastor Leopold simply because that’s what my evolutionary biology wanted me to do, I was fighting because I wanted to keep living. Even if that meant just one more day.
Once I got within about twenty feet, Pastor Leopold came alive.
“Don’t come any closer,” he yelled.
“Pastor, it’s me, Marie. From the Princess Café earlier.”
I stopped about ten feet away from him. He was standing, clinging to the railing of the platform. He turned his head slowly and looked at me. His nose and cheeks were purple. He had probably been up there for hours.
He chuckled. “You have more questions for me?”
“God, no. Listen, Pastor, I believe you. Everything you told me down there. I believe you.”
“Doesn’t matter to me,” he said and resumed looking at the snow-covered ground far below.
“What are you doing?” I asked amidst my heavy breathing.
“I can’t do it anymore, Marie.”
“I know,” I said.
“You don’t know what it’s like. Knowing that life is a complete sham. Knowing that everyone around me is fake. Literally fake. You, my wife, my kids.”
“When I had my accident as a teenager and met that god awful Thirty-Nine, a part of me thought I could’ve been dreaming. God, I wish I was dreaming.”
“It’s one thing to speculate, it’s another thing to know. Could you imagine what would happen in the world if everyone knew the lights could be turned off any day? No, everyone sticks around because we don’t know, not in spite of it. It’s why people go to church, it’s why they fear God, because they don’t know. We don’t know shit, so we choose to believe something—something to get us through life. Believe me, I’d much rather have casual faith in a god rather than know the truth.”
“Why don’t we climb down? We can continue this conversation where it’s a little bit warmer,” I said.
Sirens rang in the distance.
“You don’t know what it’s like, Marie. They’ve been haunting me. These awful purple beings,” he said again, raising his voice. “Look at me. I’m dying. The whole thing is coming to a close, Marie.”
He directed his gaze to the sky. “How’s this for an experiment, Four-Two-Two? Huh? What do you think, Thirty-Nine? You stupid robot. Didn’t see this coming in your precious experiment, did you?”
“Pastor, stop!” I said, running up the remaining stairs.
He inched closer to the edge of the platform.
As I got to him, I looked up, matching his gaze into the sky. And for a moment—a sickening, horrifying moment—the sky changed.
The stars were gone, the cloudy darkness was gone. All I could see were three colossal—unfathomably massive—beings staring down at us, as if they were casual admirers looking into a snow globe.
They didn’t look like anything I had ever seen before. They didn’t resemble any sort of human, animal, or even fictitious monster I knew of. They wore black robes with hoods pulled over their heads. In the places where their faces should have been were randomly jumbled purple orbs.
I don’t know how to describe it, but for that split second when I could see them looking down on me, I felt sick, like I had witnessed a live beheading or something. I felt dirty, immoral, wrong.
Flashlight beams shined through the tangled tracks of Dragon’s Breath, briefly disorienting me. When I looked up again, the purple beings were gone and the sky had returned to its normal state.
Before I could get my bearings straight, Pastor Leopold looked back to me. “You saw them, didn’t you?”
I nodded. “I saw them,” I said.
Pastor Leopold laughed maniacally.
“Sir, please stay still, we’re coming for you,” a firefighter said from behind me.
Pastor Leopold looked at him, then at me. “Experiment over,” he said and jumped over the edge.
“Dammit!” I yelled, lunging for him.
I looked down, trying to spot his body through the snowy air. I was sobbing, tears streaming down my face. I became extremely lightheaded. It’s over. Pastor Leopold was right, we’re a measly experiment by some master race and this is it. Any second now…
While the firefighter tried to stabilize me on the rickety platform, I heard a moaning below me.
The firefighter went to the other side of the platform and looked down. I heard him buzz into his radio. “Come in, we have Pastor Leopold alive, stuck about fifteen feet below the platform of the roller coaster. We need a ladder and repelling gear stat.”
I followed the firefighter to the other side of the platform and looked down. Pastor Leopold was dangling on the roller coaster track by his jacket, swaying back and forth in the wind.
“Oh my God, Pastor. Are you okay?” I yelled.
He ignored me, continuing moaning and sobbing.
The firefighter assured me they’d get to him and directed me down.
The place was flooded with police cars, fire trucks, and ambulances within minutes. I watched from the back of an ambulance in the parking lot as a firefighter repelled from Dragon Breath’s top platform and brought Pastor Leopold back to safety.
Pastor Leopold was put in the back of an ambulance and driven into town. I gave my testimony to an officer, telling him that I met Pastor Leopold earlier that day and he seemed off. I told him that as soon as I heard he was missing, I came here. I left out the details.
“You saved his life,” the officer said before walking away.
I may have saved your life too, I thought. For now, anyway.
Sure, you could say that Pastor Leopold was delusional after his stroke. You could also say that my vision of Thirty-Nine in my bedroom was a dream. But I can’t deny what I saw with my own eyes in the sky above the roller coaster that night. Those three horrible entities with black hoods and purple orbs for faces. I swear to you, they were there. I don’t doubt they are still there, watching, waiting for Pastor Leopold to finally expire so they can move on, and leave us behind in the ether.
As for me, as soon as I publish this post, I’m heading to the hospital.