Phyllis Tickle’s The Graces We Remember is a real beauty. As a neophyte student of the liturgical year, I was hoping for a nice theology of Ordinary Time, or a historical survey of the development of Ordinary Time. What I got instead was a collection of stories: of trash day, of life on the farm, of dead cows, sick calves, and harvesting hay. Stories of a ghost, and barns full of junk, and Phyllis’ hairdresser, who runs a brothel upstairs at the salon. And only at the very end of the book does she tuck in a couple of pages about Ordinary Time. Point taken.
So as a tribute/response to this fine book, and with a great awareness of my comparably poor quality of expression, I wrote this: (names have been changed to protect the guilty and the innocent)
It was an ordinary day at our church. Not Easter or Christmas, or one of those invented holidays like Friend Day, Kid Day, Marriage Day, or whatever was the fashion at the time. The woman who walked through the door wasn’t coming in response to any of our advertising or publicity or targeted marketing in that small town. Somehow we knew, though I can’t remember how, that she was from the trailer court.
Now all of us in the church knew about the trailer court. We knew that it was literally blocks from our building, though we didn’t seem to know what to think about it. We knew that people lived there, though we didn’t know what to think about them. We knew we needed to reach out or at least distribute some fliers over there, but we just hadn’t gotten around to it yet. So the trailer court and our church kept a strange kind of peace. From my office window, I could see the lone taxi in town going up and down the street, the only means of transportation to the grocery store and back. From my warm office, I wondered how cold it would be in a rented trailer in the middle of a near-Canadian winter.
So maybe it was proximity that brought Suzanne to us: if her husband was using the car, or if the car wasn’t working, she could just walk a few blocks with her little girls and join us for worship. Her stated purpose for joining us was obvious enough: “to come to church!”. And we considered ourselves to be welcoming and eager to grow, so our options about just what to do were quite limited. We’d make space for her, even if we were secretly hoping she’d find another place.
Not that it was easy. On that very first day, her kids ran around the nursery and hallways and foyer, noisier than the current array of teen-aged kids who were little ones when the church was started a few years before. And Suzanne was louder than we were accustomed. Blunt, too. “Oh, she’s got a shitty diaper!,” she exclaimed as her toddler was running in circles. Someone blurted out a “What?”, probably a reflexive response to the unfamiliar terminology. So the comment was made more slowly this time, with greater inflection, and a slower movement of the lips: “My daugh-ter has a shit-ty dia-per.”
Sure enough. We knew we needed to forgive the spicy language, though I’d later reflect as a few folks armed with rags followed the dribbles of diarrhea around the carpeted foyer that it was a pretty appropriate word. In any event, Suzanne was here to stay. Determined, you could say. If she felt the discomfort, she must have also known that we were duty-bound to make room for her and her family.
I remember one fall morning, when Daylight Savings Time meant that she and her posse arrived at church a whole hour earlier than necessary. I remember, because I was there early as always, getting on my game face and going over my sermon notes so that I could communicate The Word of God with clarity, precision, and panache. I greeted the trio, and gave them the good news that they were early (they had been wondering why there were no cars in the parking lot) and that they could go back home for a whole extra hour! “Oh, that’s okay,” mom pronounced, intending to relieve my worries, “we’ll just stay here.” And they did, two tiny hurricanes swirling through the building, disturbing my peace.
But in time, we noticed something else: the lack of perfect politeness and social reserve meant that these three were more loving, more sincere, more kind. Quicker to hug, and to compliment, and eager to share. Happy to grab you a donut during the social hour, or to ask you about your life, or to pay a compliment, or to relay some bit of good news. None of which was reserved for our programed times of informal fellowship, either. Our ‘Prayers of the People’ was a rather house-churchy practice that had somehow survived the move to a real building, whose echoey meeting room made hearing the often extended utterances all but impossible. One saving grace was that we all pretty much prayed the same things every week, anyway. But Suzanne was immune to our staid habits, and uniquely able to overcome our poor acoustics. She would stand to offer full-voice thankfulness from the bottom of her heart: for jobs, and school, for a God of love, and a car that worked, her voice booming through the room. She would pray that her friends and family would come, too, so that they could learn more about God and be welcomed into the church. Gulp.
And things went this way for many months, before Suzanne was upset: her husband, a warm man who had joined us for a couple of Sundays, had been arrested. The details were murky, hidden behind what seemed like shame, or anger at the authorities, or both. Rather than pressing her, it seemed easier to go see Rick, since he was biding his time up at the jail, two blocks in the other direction. He certainly wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon. I talked to him through thick plexiglass, on a black phone with a silver cable. He seemed scared, and shocked. The charge was sexual molestation of a minor. He was innocent! Completely. They said he had done something with his step-daughter, but he hadn’t. He hadn’t.
I took him at face value, trusting the DA and the state-assigned defense attorney to work out the details of his fate. I visited regularly, trying to offer hope and comfort and prayer. But slowly, inexorably, I started to pick at the truth, if only in my own mind: something had or hadn’t happened. Some punishment would or wouldn’t be delivered. I pulled back, though, worried about a conflict of interest with his family, with whom I had had more contact, and would in all likelihood have much more. I pulled back, because I didn’t want to be any more engaged than I already was. Still, the internal conflict was enough to push me out of my comfortable office and away from my ever-present sermon preparation to visit the only attorney’s office in town to seek some pro-bono advice, asking thinly veiled questions about the possible application of clergy confidentiality to an unlicensed minister like me. It was a silly tack to make in such a tiny town, where everyone knew who was in jail, and why. The advice I received was earnest, though as convoluted as the dilemma. But my talking about it aloud had at least made me aware that the truth is what was needed, for everyone.
But this mental space was torture. I felt betrayed by the mere possibility that he had been dishonest with me, and I seemed to be drowning in a jumble of emotion that ranged from inexplicable compassion to burning anger. How could he do this? Had he done this? Had he been playing me, in all of my
intentional innocence and acceptance? How should I love him, and help him?
Our next few plexiglass talks were more direct from my side, and more evasive from his. There was more looking at the floor, and slow shaking of the head, and scratching of his ever-present beard stubble. He talked more about God and the Bible, but such mentions seemed more intent on eliciting something from me than on appealing to any higher power. He seemed to be squirming. He talked about his own childhood, and his own abuse at the hand of an uncle. I kept on with my gentle nudges toward truth, and with my overt expressions of concern for his family. I told him that I wasn’t important, but that his family was, and that he needed to at least tell himself the truth.
In the midst of that, he started to ask me about my getting permission from the Sheriff to come into the back for a face-to-face meeting. I was way past the point of disengagement, of even thinking of telling him ‘no’. So I went through the motions of talking to the Deputy, and thought to myself that Rick was probably looking to confess. And as the permission came in the next few visits, I realized something deeper: I didn’t want to be in the same room with him. I’m not a violent person, but felt something like that stirring deep within me. Indignance. Righteousness. Anger, and a kind of rage on behalf of his step-daughter and her childhood innocence. I realized then that the plexiglass protected both of us.
But the word came, and the Deputy ushered me into some kind of disheveled conference room, replete with table and chairs, books and chalkboards and a TV and VCR on a rolling cart. Rick was there, sitting in a chair and staring at the floor tiles. He stood up and hugged me, for a long time. I smelled his smell and felt his breath and his beard, and knew deep in my bones that we were just people, human and flawed and desperate. Broken. He, awash in unrighteousness, and me, drowning in my own self-righteousness. We talked about nothing in particular; it seemed that the necessary transaction had happened in our embrace. He said nothing about the case, and I left my fat Bible sitting on the long table. He asked me if I was going to attend the trial, and I said I would. We hugged again, I went home, and he went to his cell.
In that church, Thanksgiving was a holiday when this extended family, far from their own families, would set up tables in the foyer of the church to gorge on great food and deep friendship before retiring to naps in our respective homes. And on that one particular Thanksgiving, it seemed only natural for most of us to make that windy, wintry walk up the street to the jail, to take turns talking through the plexiglass to Rick, who was then awaiting sentencing and being delivered to the large prison several miles up the highway after having stood to look the judge in the eye and confess, “Guilty”. I don’t remember who even suggested the visit, and there were certainly those who graciously and silently declined the opportunity, but a whole bunch of us stepped away from our comforts, bundled up against the cold, and went to visit our brother.
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