my hero. I don't know her name. But I know something about her.
Here's what I know.
while back her mother became the foster mother for a pair of kids
that the Department of Family and Children Services rescued from
horrendous conditions. I won't describe the conditions here, but
imagine being deprived of any social contact for the first half dozen
years of your life. Shortly after the foster mother became the foster
mother she was hospitalized with a serious ailment. Her daughter, my
hero, stepped in.
took the foster children into her care. She's in her mid-twenties,
just starting out in life. She's unmarried. She's extremely
attractive. She obviously above average in intelligence. She had the
world at her feet. She had a future awaiting. But she assumed the
role of foster parent. She sacrificed what was ahead to care for what
her for the first time shortly after she assumed the role of foster
mother. Her life had been altered drastically. Yet, she smiled; she
looked at those deprived wards of her's with obvious affection, even
if they in their broken psyche could not reciprocate. Our meeting
took place when she came to the church to ask if it was possible for
her foster kids to attend the Vacation Bible School. That was last
year she was back. She's still their foster mother. She's still
attending to their needs. She's still attractive, well-dressed,
showing the poise of a professional. Nothing had changed. Well,
that's not entirely true. This year she not only asked if her damaged
wards could take part in the activities but she also asked about her
new concern, an obviously challenged new foster daughter. And this
year she was still smiling along with all three of those precious
lives she so obviously cherishes.
The parson arrived a half hour after the Soup Supper Monday had opened. He supper had started back during the economic crisis and was often filled with folks who couldn't afford the groceries. At the soup kitchen, which often included more than soup, everything was free.
Gradually, as the economy improved, those in desperate need of the meal dwindled in numbers. But Florence was always there. Florence was a complicated person. She couldn't manage the little money she got from Social Security, and, as a consequence, within two weeks of receiving her check she'd be in search of funds. Florence was smooth. She never said she wanted anyone to give her money directly. Rather, “Hey, that mechanic that looked at my van said I needed a new radiator. I've been saving my money. Anyway you guys could give me the thirty I short?” Or, “You know they say there's a cold front moving in. My heat is on the blink. But they have those little space heaters on sale across the street. I could get a good deal over there. I only need twenty-five. It sure would save me from freezing to death.”
Every Monday night it was always the same. One time, however, Florence had become so vocal the parson got distrubed. “Florence, do you see all these people who don't go to church here?” She looked around and acknowledged she did. “Don't be hitting them up for money, Florence. They're guests. Just dont' do it.”
She told the parson okay and added it wasn't a problem because she thought she had enough anyway.
Two days later the parson came upon one of the town's homeless. He was one of the five or six men who lived under the bridge over the railroad track on Highway Forty-One. “Frank,” said the parson, “that's a good looking coat you've got there.”
“Yeah, it is,” said Frank, “Florence went out and hit up some people at some church and bought all of us a new coat for the winter.”
As the parson entered the fellowship hall he immediately looked for Florence to find out how much she was in need of in order to get it over. Florence wasn't there?
“Where's Florence?” the parson asked.
“Haven't seen her tonight,” said one of the ladies who'd prepared the meal.
The parson sat at one of the tables and began to consume his. “Hey, Parson, where's Florence?” asked the next one into the Fellowship Hall. The next person entering asked the same. And the next.
The parson finished his meal, packed up a box of carryout containers, and headed out to deliver meals to the homebound. A little over an hour later he returned. He entered and scanned the Fellowship Hall. “Florence didn't come tonight?” he asked.
“Nope,” nobody has seen her,” replied one of the young people.
Again and again people asked about Florence. Finally, the “head cook” looked at her watch and said, “Okay, that's it. I'm going to go by her place and check on her.”
Twenty minutes later she returned. “She's not there. Her neighbor said she was taking a short vacation.” The parson couldn't help but compare Florence's fundraising abilities with his own and judged himself coming up short.
“Well, thank God she's okay,” said more than one.
The parson smiled to himself. “Funny,” he thought, “how much you can miss the most aggravating people once you've grown to love them.”T
This coming Sunday is Easter. I announce that for the benefit of those who limit the contribution of their presence at church to only once or twice a year. There are a couple of pointers I'd like to give you.
First, don't feel awkward. The point is not that you attend once or twice a year. The point is that you attend once or twice a year. You understand what I mean? Let me clarify. We ordained types are usually paranoid to some degree. I mean, the more empty pews there are the more we wonder if it's us that keeps the crowd away. This leads to an abnormal hunger for acceptance. And the best way to feel accepted is to look out from the pulpit and see multitudes. And the fact of the matter is we don't experience that acceptance except for those one or two times a year you come. Thus, put your awkwardness aside. You're on a mission. You're healing our paranoia.
Second, don't sit in the back. I know you think that because your presence is such a rarity sitting there will make you stand out less. It won't. You see, the back is the preferred pew of the regular attenders. If you plop down on the pew occupied by those regular folks they will notice you're not one of them. You'll stick out.
Third, don't sit in the front. People will think you've elevated yourself to some saintly status. They'll wonder who you think you are seemingly so eager to hear the Word.
My suggestion would be to sit two-thirds the way down and a bit to the outside of center. You'll look like someone who's comfortable being in the sanctuary; you'll not stand out if you sing well, and you'll not stand out if you can't carry a tune. Additionally, that position should put you far enough away from others they will have no idea how much or how little you put into the plate.
The final think I want to talk with you about is that delicate interchange that cannot be avoided. It's the give and take between the pastor and the infrequent pew sitter. It's one thing you have in common with the regulars. Somewhere, before you escape that building, you're probably going to have to encounter and experience, however brief, a dialog with the minister.
Here are some pointers. As you're in that line waiting to shake the pastor's hand on your way out of the building, notice him or her carefully. See how the pastor's eyes keep looking your way while talking to the elderly woman with the blue hair? The pastor's trying to remember if you are someone supposed to be recognized. Here's your chance to seize control of the situation. When you come up grasp the hand firmly, make eye-to-eye contact and say, “Hi, Pastor, (insert your name here), that sermon was a delight. I'm glad I came back today.” That pastor will be eating out of your hand. And on the way home the spouse will be told what you said.
If you want to be revolutionary, you could say this to the pastor: “Please preach that sermon again next week.” The last time that was said is recorded in Acts 13: 42. The worshipers at Antioch said it to the Apostle Paul. I don't think anyone exiting the church have said that since. For sure, certainly not to me.
The parson was surprised when the invitation came, really surprised.
He'd known Greg for many years. Greg lived in the really, really big city, far, far to the north. The parson lived in the country, way down South. Who would have thought that circumstances, family, and several twists of fate would not only create an avenue of acquaintance but a bonding of two totally different persons.
The parson was, well if you've been reading this site for more than a day, you know who the parson is. Greg was an – Hmmm! What's the appropriate word for a male old maid? Greg was that. He was one of those people who are creatures of habit. He arose at the same time each day. He hopped on the train to go to work. He labored faithfully and joyfully for his employer,. He hopped on the train to return home. He cooked dinner. On specific nights he watched specific programs on the television. On other specific nights he read books from the New York Times best seller list.
Greg was one of those fellows who was a friend to all. The lady at the dry cleaners always was delighted when he, on the specific day allotted for this duty, picked up and dropped off his shirts and suits. Greg was a confidant to the server at the diner he visited on Tuesday and Thursday of each week, often giving her advice on how to handle delicate issues that impacted her living. On Wednesday mornings, on the way to catch the train, the lady at the counter already had the doughnut filled with the lemon flavored cream inside, along with the 20 ounce cup of decaf coffee, ready as he entered the door. Greg would inquire about each of her kids by name.
On Sunday, every Sunday, Greg headed for church, the Roman Catholic Church. Greg was Roman Catholic born, and Roman Catholic bred, and when Greg died Greg was Roman Catholic dead. It was Greg's death that prompted the invitation that brought the parson to the really, really big city.
Greg, for some strange, unknown, reason made a specific request in his will. Now Greg and the parson, being separated by a decade in age, being separated by geography with Greg abiding in the really, really big city, and the parson a product and resident of the rural area many, many hundreds of miles south of Greg's residence, had been limited in their contact with each other. Yet, over the years circumstances seemed to bump them up against one another.
In his will, Greg, this stalwart Roman Catholic, this officer in the Knights of Columbus, this good friend but separated in so many ways from the parson, had asked that the parson deliver his eulogy. Greg wanted the country parson to stand in the pulpit of the massive church where Greg worshiped all his life and speak as a Protestant pastor to all Greg's Roman Catholic friends.
Picture, if you will, the parson standing in the pulpit of the really big Catholic church. Picture the congregation wondering why Greg would pick this peculiar Protestant parson to speak. Feel the parson's nervousness being where he was on the occasion that brought him there. Picture that and then realize this story is not about Greg, but Greg's priest.
The parson completed his eulogy. The parson spoke a prayer. The parson stepped from the pulpit and made his way to a pew. He sat down, and then the parson realized what he'd just done. He had placed himself in the exact spot to ensure he would be the first to go forward to receive the Eucharist. The parson chastised himself for not thinking this through. He was not Roman Catholic. He could not receive the Eucharist.
When the appointed time came, the parson rose. He moved forward toward the altar. And, knowing the proper etiquette, he folded his hands across his chest and said, “Bless me, Father.”
The priest hesitated. He seemed to study the parson. Then, instead of speaking the expected words, he said, “You are blessed, my brother.” And with that he placed the wafer upon the parson's tongue.
The parson did not remember much of the remainder of that service. He was totally distracted by the tears of joy running down his cheeks.
The parson slipped into the back pew of the sanctuary where the chosen brothers and sisters were gathered to receive the denominational materials, pleas, announcements and admonitions for which the meeting had been called. It was the parson's intent, his presence having been noticed by the church superior, to slip out as soon as the business portion was ended and head home.
“So, some of you are wondering where the handouts are, I'm sure,” said the church superior to the gathered. “The handouts are in the fellowship hall where I want each of you to fellowship with each other following our adjournment. Since you've got to go back there, you might as well spend some time with each other.”
The parson settled back in the pew. He watched the new church superior with a new appreciation. Obviously, the parson had been out maneuvered.
Astonishingly, the meeting was relatively short. Again, the parson reassessed his previous views of the new church superior. He headed to the fellowship hall with the intent of learning more.
The parson was sampling the refreshments when Greg Jordan came up. Greg was beginning his second year at the Glory Bound Church of the Earthly Linked. “Excuse me, Parson,” said Greg, “can I ask you a question?”
“Sure, Greg,” the parson responded. “Tell me, though, how's Janet?”
“Oh, she's doing really well, Parson. Thanks for asking. She finally found a job as an associate professor at Happy Valley State College.”
“That's good to hear,” the parson said. He'd been impressed with Janet when he first met her and knew her unease over being unemployed. “How about you?”
“Well, Parson, I wanted to ask you about something the church superior said to me.”
Again the parson began reassessing the superior. He was already meeting with the local clergy. “What's that?” the parson asked.
“He told me I needed to get out and be, well, he phrased it as 'among the people.' I don't want to argue with him, but don't you think in this day and age we live in we're a more professional clergy and if the people need us they will come to us?”
The parson motioned for Greg to follow him as he moved to a more private corner of the room. “Let me tell you a story, Greg. I ran into a bishop I once served under the other day. We bumped into each other in the lobby of a hotel in a city I was visiting. Now, for this particular bishop, Greg, I have never had much admiration. I've always thought him to be autocratic to an extreme, that he sometimes made bad decisions because he didn't listen to others or seek more information. He more or less shot from the hip, it seemed to me. I guess you might say as a bishop I didn't particularly like him. But when we bumped into each other I found myself delighted to see him. I was completely taken aback by the obvious affection I felt for him.”
The parson stopped talking. He waited for Greg to make a response. Finally, Greg said, “I'm not sure I get your point, Parson.”
“The reason I felt such affection for this man, this autocrat, this unlikely recipient of my affection, was simply that when I was in Cardiac Critical Care that bishop took the time to minister to me. A year later when I had to have surgery on my carotid artery, that bishop took time from his schedule to be my pastor. And when my wife died that bishop was beside me. Then in the hotel that day he invited me to sit and talk so he could catch up on how I was doing. You see, Greg, while I am acutely aware of that man's shortcomings, I, surprisingly, put that judgment aside. That day in the hotel I didn't encounter the bishop of limited episcopal ability; I encountered my beloved pastor.”
The parson turned to toss his now empty cup into a trash container. Turning back to Greg, he said, “I think, Greg, while I do want my pastor to be professional, I'm much more partial to my professional being my pastor.”
The parson had just popped the trunk of his hybrid and begun placing the groceries he'd just purchased inside.
“Hello, Parson, how are things with you?”
The parson turned to behold a young man whom he did not recognize.
“Things are well with me,” he said. “I'm sorry; do we know each other?”
“Ah, no, no we don't know each other. But I've heard of you. And I've heard of that church where you're the pastor. Friend of mine told me you folks have what you call an “inclusive” church.”
“We try to be inclusive,” said the parson.
“Inclusive. Well, what's that mean. Does that mean you let foreigners worship there?”
“Yeah, foreigners. Them illegals. Are they welcome to worship there?”
“We don't ask for documentation at the door,” said the parson.
“Bet you don't. And I heard that homos are welcome there. That true, too?”
“The doors are open to everyone.”
“Yeah, well you realize you're only encouraging illegals and you're condoning a sin that is an abomination in the eyes of the Lord.”
“The doors are open to everyone.”
“I bet. So, you're telling me it's okay if I come to your church and worship with the low life?”
The parson stared at the man a moment. “The door is open to everyone,” he said.
“Right,” said the man. “Tell you what, I'll see you next Sunday.”
The parson finished placing his groceries in the trunk. He closed the lid and then slid in behind the wheel. He cranked the car, but before taking the car out of park he looked up and the cloudless sky and said, “This is a pop test, right?”
At exactly that point where afternoon ends and evening begins the parson began his trek across North Georgia. He steered the hybrid along the winding secondary highways that no doubt had begun as Indian hunting paths through the mountains. About fifteen miles east of the Amicolala Falls, the highest east of the Mississippi River, he saw him.
He was walking westward along the highway. The parson came upon him from the back as he was walking along the left side of the highway facing the oncoming traffic. His attire first caught attention. It was almost like a Civil War officers frock coat, if but a little shorter. Dark green in color, the coat flapped at the bottom in rhythm with the walker cadence. Just as the parson drew near, he turned and in a half-hearted gesture held up his hand in the traditional hitchhiker's thumb up pose. The parson thought to himself: Not this time. I don't have time.
The parson looked at the man's face as he passed him by. Fifty yards down the road the parson slowed his car. Did he look like him, really? The parson stopped. He looked in the rear view mirror, but the momentum of the car had carried him out of sight. He stopped on the shoulder. He thought.
No one the parson's age, whose great grandmother, as a child, had seen her farm burned during what she called the War of Northern Aggression, would fail to recognize the likeness of William Tecumseh Sherman. The parson realized he's just passed him. He contemplated what he thought he'd just seen for a moment. The parson, then, made a U-turn.
Approaching the hitchhiker, the parson slowed again. He squinted. Sure enough, the man looked like Sherman returned, frock coat and all. Pulling alongside the man, the parson asked, “Where you headed.”
“A. J.'s” said the man.
“A. J.'s?” the parson repeated. “How far is it?”
“Don't rightly know. Them folks back there said it was up this highway a piece. They said I might be able to get a ride to Chattanooga there.”
“Hop in,” said the parson. “I'll take you.”
The likeness of Sherman seated himself in the passenger seat, buckled himself in, and patted his frock coat pocket. “This here's my water jug,” he said. “I don't carry no weapons.” He then pulled a plastic bottle complete with straw from the pocket. “Want a sip?”
“Thanks, but I'm fine.”
“So, I don't remember a store along this road called A. J.'s.”
“Ain't no store,” he said. “It's a town.”
The parson thought a moment. “Ah, Elijah. You want to get to Elijah.”
“That's what I said, 'A. J.”
“You live around here?” asked the parson.
“I'm from Texas.”
“How'd you get into the mountains?”
“You walked from where.”
“Some place called Gainesville.”
The parson used to live in Gainesville. He knew all the possible routes. “How long have you been walking?”
“Don't know. Left the Salvation Army there this morning.”
The parson did some calculations. The man must have been walking for a minimum of nine hours.
“What got you to the Salvation Army?”
“Just stopped there on my journey.” He looked toward the parson. “Hey, yesterday this lady let me rake some leaves. I got money. I got nine dollars. I can help you with the gas.”
The parson looked back at him carefully. He was. He was the spitting image of Sherman as he appeared in those Civil War pictures.
“Where's your journey going?” the parson asked.
“Don't know. When I got out of jail in Texas two years ago I decided to take a journey until I figured out what to do with myself.”
There wasn't any conversation between the two for a while. That didn't mean there was no conversation. Sherman talked to himself. Lots of curves on this road. Pause a few minutes. My feet are hot. Pause a few more minutes. This ride will help a bit.
The two approached a convenience store.
“I got nine dollars. If you want to stop I'll but you a cup of coffee.”
“You want to stop for something?” asked the parson.
“Nope. I'm happy riding around these mountain roads. Just wanted you to know I can buy you that coffee.”
“I'm fine,” said the parson. “Tell me your name.”
“Terry,” he said. “My name is Terry.”
The parson breathed a sigh of relief. If he'd said Bill, or William, it would have been too much.
“Why do you want to get to Elijah?” asked the parson.
“Somebody told me I could catch the bus there to get to Chattanooga. You know I can buy my ticked. I've got nine dollars.”
“Terry, I'm not sure the bus runs through Elijah.”
There was silence for a long while as the car twisted and turned through the mountain roads.
“You know where the seventy-five road is?”
“You mean Interstate Seventy-five?”
“Oh, no, it's interstate. That's bad. Can't walk on the interstate. They'll put you in jail.”
It got quiet again. It was quiet a long time. Finally the parson pulled his cellphone out and called a church member. “You know where the closest bus station is for someone to catch a bus to Chattanooga?”
“I'll call you back,” said the member. And he did shortly. He gave the parson the street address of where to catch the bus in a town twenty miles north of where the parson lived. The parson thanked him, pulled over to the shoulder of the road and programmed his Garmin to take him there. The parson pulled out and informed Terry of their destination.
It got quiet again, quiet as regards conversation. But Terry mumbled. Catch the bus. Long pause. My feet are hot. Pause. Legs sore. Pause. Maybe get there tomorrow.
The parson broke in. “Terry, why are you going to Chattanooga?”
“Well, my brother lives there. I think he lives there. I haven't talked to him since I was ten. But that's where we used to live. He could still live there. I've got this nine dollars to help out.”
“Don't worry about it, Terry.”
They rode on in silence. Eventually the Garmin announced, “Arriving at destination.” The parson pulled into the parking area.
Terry got out of the car and pointed toward a truck stop next door. “Look, I've got nine dollars. I could buy you something to eat.”
The parson smiled. He held out his hand and said, “Tell you what, Terry, if you'll keep that nine dollars for yourself, I'll give you this twenty.”
Terry scratched his head. He looked at the parson. “That's a good deal, ain't it.”
“It is a good deal, Terry. You should take it.”
Terry reached for the bill. He stepped back from the car, walked in front and waved to the parson. As he passed near the parson's side he was mumbling. “I've got twenty-nine dollars.”
The parson pulled out and headed home, back in the direction he'd come. As he did he said to himself, “If my great-grandmother knew I'd just driven Sherman's look-alike back through the Atlanta campaign she'd kill me.”
It wasn't raining. It was, however, damp. The rain had falled the night before and clouds now obscured the sun's drying effort. It wasn't cold. It was, however, chilly. The parson wondered if he'd miscalculated in wearing only the sweater. Dawn had broken a few hours before. It was, however, still morning.
The church looked lonely in the morning damp. The parson pulled into the parking lot determined to get an early start on the day. A pickup camper was parked near the side yard. The parson noted the Ohio tags as he eased into his parking place. Exiting the car he opened the back passenger door to let Charlie Brown, his faithful canine companion, out; he pulled his cellphone from his pocket to answer a call. Talking to a pastor from a nearby church about a meeting in the afternoon he entered his study through its outside door.
The parson was in the room no more than half a minute when there was a timid knock on the door. He simaltaneously pulled the door open as he said goodbye to his friend. A man in his forties with a three day growth of beard on his face stood looking in.
“Ah, sir,” said the man, “we didn't mean no harm. We just got so tired we pulled in to sleep. We'll be on our way right now. There's no need to call the police. We apologize.”
The parson looked over the man's shoulder. A Sheriff's Deputy car was pulling into the parking lot. The parson looked down at the cellphone in his hand.
“Oh, no, no,” he said. “I didn't call the sheriff. It's okay for you to sleep here. Hold on just a minute.”
The parson stepped out of the door and walked past the man to his car. Charlie Brown followed him. The parson opened the trunk to the car and retrieved a package from it. He then handed the deputy the package.
“Thanks, Parson,” the deputy said. “We appreciate it.”
“No problem, Roger,” said the parson. “Give the Sheriff my regards.”
The deputy drove away. The parson turned back toward the study door and his visitor.
“Sorry about that,” said the man as Charlie Brown stepped forward sniffing to determine his denomination. “When we saw you get out of the car and then make a phone call and then saw the police car we just thought you'd called them.”
“Any reason you're worried about the police?” the parson asked.
“Ah, well, not really,” the man said. “I mean we ain't done nothing wrong, but we stopped at a church up north a piece and they called the police and threatened to charge us with trespassing.”
“You're welcome to stop here,” said the parson. He looked over the man's shoulder to the pickup camper. Two faces were peering through the window, a woman and a young girl. On impules the parson asked, “You had anything to eat lately?”
The man seemed to hesitate the said, “Well, we had a burger for lunch yesterday. We'll be okay.”
“Where are you headed?” the parson asked.
“Houston,” the man replied. “I got a cousin there who said I could get a job with his company.”
“That your wife and child?” the parson asked nodding toward the camper.
“Well, we ain't actually married, but we been living together for bout ten years.”
“How old is the girl?”
“Get your wife and come in. We'll whip up something for breakfast.”
“That's not necessary, sir,” said the man.
“Actually, you have no idea how necessary it is,” said the parson. “Bring them in. It's got to be a little chilly in that camper.”
The parson turned and headed to the church fellowship hall. Peering into the frig he found some sausage and eggs and in the cabinets some pancake batter. He went to work. At the first sizzle of the sausage Charlie Brown sat himself down at the door in anticipation.
The man and woman came in. The parson offered the two some coffee and the young girl some orange juice. “Take a seat,” said the parson. “This will only take a few minutes.”
The parson was flipping the pancakes when the little girl asked, “Can I pet your dog?”
“You sure can,” said the parson. In a few minutes he heard the child say to her father, “I think he likes me.” The parson would never divulge Charlie Brown liked anybody who would pet him.
It was an hour-and-a-half later when the family left with full bellies, a Quik Trip gift card in their pocket and a map with directions to a church in Louisana that would let them sleep in their parking lot.
A little while later the parson and Charlie Brown prepared to exit the church theselves. The cellphone rang. It was the parson's best friend.
“Hello, Gary,” said the parson. He listened and then replied. “I'm doing really good, Gary, really good. I'm just now leaving the church. Ms. Parson's Soup Kitchen was open for breakfast today.”
The playground behind the church was a magnet when various church and community activities were happening. Such was the case on the day of the community yard sale, where the congregation allowed anyone to utilize their facilities for the selling of their stuff.
The youth group hosted a car wash in the front parking lot. The women's group were selling baked goods, the men were leading competitions in horse shoes, badminton, and the senior citizens were sitting about under the funeral home tents sharing stories of how it used to be.
The parson was one the playground building relationships with the future members of the Staff-Pastor-Parish relations committee. Among those were three Hispanic kids who were romping about in a game of Follow the Leader. At the current moment the game involved rooting up the slide tube on the stomach in a manner resembling an inch worm. At the top the parson then proceeded dance across the top of the apparatus to the slide on the other side where he then slid down with a laugh. The children followed, with the exception on one child of perhaps four years.
“Come on, honey,” the parson called from the bottom. “You can do it.”
Steve Dexter, one of the more gruff members of the community, watched the parson and his frivolity. Steve was not a member of the parson's church. He belonged to an independent congregation that was two clicks right of radical right.
“Don't know why the hell you're talking to them illegals, Parson,” he offered. “Not a one of them speaks English. Every damn one of them is oblivious to every word you say.”
“Oh, that's really nuts, Steve,” said the parson. “We understand each other completely. A smile and a laugh, Steve, is always mufti-lingual.”
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