14 years ago my husband’s mother had to be put in a nursing home due to the diminished mental capacities brought on by Alzheimer’s. There she suffered mightily until one Friday in November when she took a turn for the worse. We all hurried to her bedside. When a cart of food and beverages was wheeled in for us we got the message loud and clear: she was in her final hours.
I called our church office and told the story to the woman who picked up the phone. I did this automatically, even though our mother was not a member of our church but only an occasional visitor. Chokingly I described what her breathing was like and the way, from time to time, her eyes would open and she would look at us so pleadingly. “I know it’s Skip’s day off but I was hoping someone could help us…” I started to say.
“Oh for heaven’s sake!” the kind woman interrupted me. “Let me call him right now!”
Skip, this senior pastor of ours, was at the lumber yard at the time, elbow-deep in a construction project. Still, less than 30 minute later he walked through the door in workshirt and jeans. He saw right away how frightened we all looked.
He asked if there was anything we would like to say to this small suffering woman so dear to us all but somehow none of us could speak, paralyzed as we were by sorrow and dread.
“Well why don’t we take hands and circle her bed,” he said quietly, and so we did that.
Then he called her by her name and said something about how the love that had brought her here was the love to which she was now returning. I can’t give you the exact words – I still have around those moments a strange sort of amnesia – but in some few hours more she did in fact return to the love that brought her here if that is indeed what we do at life’s end.
So that’s what this church of ours is like that later married our daughter and our brother to their two beloved partners, a full year before same-sex marriage became legal in our state. This church says God is still speaking and so we must not place a period where God has placed a comma. Maybe you’ll take a minute to watch this photo montage and ponder for yourself all the hope contained in a humble punctuation mark.
A heavy news week, from the earthquake in New Zealand to that crazy despot with the bad perm firing on his own people in Libya, but then came word that the government will no longer pursue the fight to ban same-sex marriage. I have to say that made my day.
A full year before equality in marriage became the law in my home state, the church I belong to declared that same-sex couples were more than welcome to their have nuptial ceremonies in our sanctuary. This vote, to be what the United Church of Christ calls “Open and Affirming,” was unanimous and heartfelt, a milestone that had special meaning for David and me especially since not one but two members of our family were to be the first to take our church up on its offer. The place was packed as these four took their vows, two brides exchanging rings with each other and two grooms doing the same.
When, in time, I wrote a column about the day I received almost 100 letters, a good 97% of which were positive. One person wrote, “When people of good will stand up for love and family, oppression will subside and love will flourish.” Another confessed that there were times when he still “found it hard to conquer [his] prejudice. As the discussion on gay marriage went on I was in support of civil unions only. I did not want to ‘demean’ my own traditional marriage. But the more I thought about the gay people I know, including friends and family, I knew that I was not being fair.” I still have the transcription I made of all these letters, pages and pages of them.
The photo above is from the little jewel of a documentary A Family is a Family is a Family. I challenge you to watch this 47-second clip from it and remain unmoved. Talk about “A little child shall lead them”!
At the end of every week when my column begins to appears in papers all over I often wonder if the people reading it would like to hear more of the story than those 600-odd words can convey. For example, the piece up this week is about the double sleepover-retreat held at my church lately, “we” being 15 youth, three of us adult leaders and the Reverend Judith Arnold, Minister of Youth and Parish Life.
Remember how Elizabeth Marshall Thomas said in her great book about dogs that all they wanted was to be with other dogs? Any group of teens is like that too. When they’re together they’re happy. These guys mostly pop and sizzle, joke and nudge, but when it’s time to get serious they can stop on a dime to flip the switch and go earnest. In the open, Quaker-style prayer portion of things they arise spontaneously, each to light a candle and say a word about some person or struggle or issue in their hearts. Sometimes, one will rise and say nothing, but only light a candle. Sometimes, any one of them will choose not to even do that. There is no pressure or expectation.
In regular life, this group meets Sundays nights when we can all feel the new workweek bearing down on us and most Sunday nights for the last four year we have seen the now newly-graduated Steven light his candle and offer the same prayer: “For procrastinators everywhere,” he solemnly intones. And so on that Saturday night a whisker before midnight, with the kids set to buzz and seethe like bees in the hive until sleep at last overtook them Judy would be the one sweating bullets.
Why? Because it wasn’t enough that she was the one who’d called the whole thing into being, produced all the food, kick-started all the discussions and led most of the prayers; she was also the one who would preach to the hundreds of regular church-goers set to show up in the morning. Thus, as we gathered in that reverent candle-lighting circle it was Judy, loved unreservedly by teens and toddlers, by the ill and the well, by the young and the not-so-young and the very dogs who see her stoop to pick up her morning paper – Judy who rose, lit her candle and borrowed Steven’s prayer. “For procrastinators everywhere,” she said referring to herself, then blessed us all a final time and withdrew to start on that sermon.
I got panhandled, if that’s what it was, during my very last minutes in Manhattan yesterday.
I was waiting to take my four-and-half-hour bus ride home, standing outside the Hilton when a frail woman came up to me with a look of woe on her face. She was pushing a stroller with a baby in it and walking beside a girl of about 14, who she said was the baby’s mother.
“We need money. We have no thing to eat all this day,” she said in heavily accented English.
“Have you come far?” I asked, putting one hand on her shoulder and one on her arm. I couldn’t help it. She just looked so lost and woeful.
“Yes,” she said, nodding sadly. “Today we have come all the way from the Bronx looking for the food.”
That stopped me for a second. The Bronx? “But another country? You’re not from another country?” I asked, because she did have a serious accent.
“No, she said. “No other country.”
I gave her a ten because that’s the bill my hand folded around first when I felt in my pocket.
She thanked me, the three of them moved on down the sidewalk and I returned to my place in line just in time to hear the man standing next to me in a pair of soft wool slacks. “Con artists!” he muttered, with an angry look on his face.
“Hey what can I do? It’s my church’s teaching!” I said, trying to keep it light.
But I couldn’t just leave it at that. “Con artists?” I asked in a tentative voice. Because to me they just seemed like three uncomfortable-looking people fighting a wind so harsh the little green sword-blades of the Hilton’s daffodils were leaning dangerously over in their boxy concrete planters.
“Gypsies. Thieves.” he said. What had we, wandered into that old Cher song from the early 1970s? “Roma,” he added, as if that explained everything.
“Oh the ROMA! You mean the people who were shot on sight by Nazi soldiers and maybe those were the lucky ones because all the others were stripped of their citizenship, brought to concentration camps and gassed, even the old men and the pregnant women and the little children? I‘ve heard it said that Hitler caused between 200,000 and 800,000 Roma to be killed in the name of the ‘racial purity’ he saw as being so central to his plan for world domination.”
But I didn’t say any of that really.
I just said “What does that MEAN though? Where are the Roma FROM? I mean is it a country or just a region in Europe?’”
“Romania. Parts of Bulgaria. Other places,” he said. “They’re gypsies,” he said again. “Con artists,” he repeated. “And you are the worse sort of sap,” he all but added.
“You’re lucky you didn’t just get your pocket picked” he said. But how that frail woman was going to pick my pocket when I had one hand on her shoulder and the other on her arm I don’t know. Her 14-year-old stood dejectedly on the other side of the stroller with her hands down at her sides the whole time and the baby – well the baby was a baby.
Then the man looked at me full in the face for the first time. “What church do you belong to?” he asked, going back a couple of sentences.
“Oh I’m just a Congregationalist. Just the United Church of Christ,” I said.
“Ah the Congregational Church, that rock-ribbed New England institution!” he said.
“Yup,” I said, leaving out about six other things I could have told him about all the ways we’re about as far from ‘rock-ribbed’ as a denomination can be. I love my church. Love, love, love it for all the ways it has helped me to join any day’s ‘party’ with an open heart, leaving all judgment and suspiciousness at the door. But that’s not the church I meant, really.
I think the church I really meant is the one I ‘joined’ the very first time I read Walt Whitman’s first Preface to The Leaves of Grass, which he wrote in 1855 and which I read the winter I turned 19:
“This is what you shall do,” it goes. “Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and the crazy, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and the mothers of families, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, AND YOUR VERY FLESH SHALL BE A GREAT POEM AND HAVE THE RICHEST FLUENCY, NOT ONLY IN WORDS BUT IN THE SILENT LINES OF ITS LIPS AND FACE AND BETWEEN THE LASHES OF YOUR EYES AND IN EVERY LAST JOINT AND MOTION OF YOUR BODY.”
The caps here are my doing but you tell me, all you have ever waited for a bus in a stinging wind in a city of many strangers: Are these ideas not every bit as moving and revolutionary as those expressed in the Sermon on the Mount? To me they are.
Anyway the bus came eventually and I found a great seat for myself in Row Four just in front of the man with the beautiful pants. I put all my stuff down, then on an impulse as sudden as it was sure, picked it all up again, went to the back of the bus and rode my four and a half hours home from there.