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Finding (the Other) Donald

Finding (the Other) Donald

October 6, 2016

I took some days off work to spend time with visiting family members. I hoped the time away would ignite a writing spark and allow a few hours to fan it. My brother Will was in from Los Angeles, and our oldest daughter Lindy had come from Maui for the week. My sister Gwen joined the three of us, and we headed–literally–for the hills. That is, we piled into my Subaru with the family dog and hit the road for Mom’s small house in rural West Virginia.

Oh, we had fun, all right. All the glorious, obnoxious, jostling sibling interplay you might expect, served with some serious and dear conversation on the side. Lindy more than held her own. It is not for me to judge whether my husband and our other daughters felt more blessed than deprived in having been unavailable to join us.

Lee family gaiety is of the raucous variety, you see. My family is intense and somewhat chaotic. We are more firecracker than briquette. Our words and personalities tumble over one another with an energy which makes the air crackle. After two or three days, we have each either been smothered in the ample family bosom or we are waving sticks of dynamite in one others’ faces and daring each other to light a match.

Even so, we are a loyal clan. Our family dysfunction is such that we can bait one another well beyond the limits of civility but woe, woe, to the unwary outsider who gives offense to one in our ranks.

Theatrics and egos aside, I can count on my sibs to defend and care for me. This certainty among us has been hard won, and it is precious to me. It is from this maddening and glorious cocoon of family togetherness, this place of teeth gnashing and warm embraces, which I will tell you about finding Donald, a man who was not so lucky.

You could say I stumbled over him.

I discovered him last Saturday. He was sitting on the floor just inside the locked double doors of the church where I see my counseling clients. A spectre of the man he had once been, he was peeking at me from beneath an information table. I’d guess his weight at no more than five pounds.

DIW sits in hallway near door.jpg

Donald’s appearance spoke of haste, neglect, and a lack of dignity. Dead over six years, he still inhabited the cheapest of temporary urns–a black plastic cube. An edge of the clear plastic bag holding his charred remains poked out from under the lid. Shrouded in a gray plastic Dollar Tree bag, Donald sat on the cold linoleum and waited.

I waited too. Surely some reasonable explanation existed for my finding him thus.

I popped my head outside the door of my office between clients, hoping to discover he had been claimed.

Once, the church secretary came upstairs to rearrange the letters on the board above the information table. I said nothing and waited to see what would happen. Yolanda slid Donald further under the table. I confess, I cannot testify with certainty that she looked into the open bag at her feet before pushing him out of her way and against the wall. I confess, I cannot testify with certainty that she used her foot.

On Sunday, worshipers came and went, each passing within a few feet of Donald. Did they not wonder about the unexpected deposit in the empty hallway?

Days passed and nobody came for him. On the fourth day, Donald and I headed down to the church office to sort things out. Disaster was narrowly averted when Donald’s heft caused the sharp corners of his box to pierce the flimsy gray bag. I caught him before he fell and exploded in the stairwell.

The pastor and the secretary looked surprised to see Donald. Operating on the assumption that he or a family member had once attended the church, they conducted a little research. This is what they learned: Nothing. Donald had no discernible connection to the church at all. The staff scratched their heads and began researching the proper disposal of human remains.

I had had a cancellation, so I decided to do a little sleuthing of my own.

I was curious about Donald–Donald I. W., to be exact. From the label attached to his little box, I knew when he had come into the world and when he had left it. I even knew the date and location he had been placed in the furnace. I felt somehow embarrassed to know these intimate facts.

D.I.W. Urn Photo

This is what I concluded: Donald had lived with family 1.7 miles from the church. He has surviving family members in the area, including an older brother, now 70, still living in said family home. Either his relations are terribly poor or they don’t give a rat’s ass what becomes of him. Someone had sneaked into the building and abandoned Donald just as one would an unwanted infant.

When I consider Donald’s humiliation, I am overcome with gratitude for the generosity and only slightly deformed goodness which is growing up within and between me and my kin.

Maybe I should not be quite so hard on Donald’s family. They probably deserve some credit for choosing a church over a dumpster.

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Shabby

office

Saturday, July 25, 2015

God and I are having a conversation.

It has no words.

It is summer, and I have four unexpected hours before my next counseling client.

I sit in my donated cinder block office, the window unit clunking out an icy gasp as I hunch at my end-table desk and ponder the praying hands, the plastic cross, and the bold needlepoint “JESUS” which share this tiny island. Christian kitsch.

I dare not remove them. Any changes must go through the Queens of this church, too old now to manage the stairs to the Sunday School rooms below. They loan me “my” office any day but Sunday. It took me 5 years of plotting, but I made the dusty rose curtains and the gilded table lamp with the punctured metallic cardboard shade disappear.

The stack of Bibles can stay. They are my friends. I find my business card stuck in Jeremiah. I read a few chapters and sit, pondering.

Visible above the air conditioner and framed by peeling wood, the tired playground sighs for someone to comfort it. The cheap plastic equipment and the flimsy, hand-assembled jungle gym peer back sadly through the dirty panes, and I am glad the oaks clothe them in dignity while they wait. The preschoolers will not return until Monday.

Outside my door, children race up and down my (usually) retiring hallway. I hear Spanish. One congregation is holding its semi-annual yard sale and cooking food in the shopping center parking lot. I’m going to need some pupusas before you know it.

Four congregations share this hulking edifice and struggle against the snowballing demands of a church in decline. The roof leaks, and the sidewalks crumble….The heating system goes up. A signup sheet on the bulletin board solicits mundane assistance: Who is bringing napkins this month? Paper towels? Toilet paper?

I did a few workshops in the lower level once. The Chinese congregation opened its kitchen and its small sanctuary.

The White congregation is old and dwindling. The pastor maintains a calm demeanor and continues his ministry. It was in response to this attrition that he sought partnerships with the other congregations, and they have all become friends.

I see the African American congregants pass my door regularly on their way to and from functions, and we exchange smiles and pleasantries. I’ve been in this room for 6 years and they have never made a referral. Sonya joined me here about 18 months ago and began working a few evenings a week. Soon, I began to get knocks on the door. People always seem surprised to see me. They ask politely for “the regular counselor.” This makes me smile. Sonya is Black. It’s no problem. We all need to feel safe.

I tried to leave once.

I was tired of mopping the ladies room every time it rained. I was tired of the stained gold carpet and the dirty pink and green sofa, which took up too much of the narrow room anyway. I couldn’t stand the smarmy artwork and the gold-painted plastic shelf and mirror set attempting to look like fancy gilded wood. I am an Ikea girl.

I was done when an especially heavy rain caused “my” water-stained ceiling to collapse. The room flooded. The church dried everything out and put it back exactly the same way.

I found an office at a different church near by.

This office had bus service plus metro access. It had clean furnishings in good condition. It had a door which shut and locked properly. It even had a door bell.

But I realized it wasn’t my home, and I wanted to move back.

Our Director scrounged up a little money. Sonya and I ran our ideas by the lead pastor and the Queens. We picked out a few furnishings, assembled them, and did some deep cleaning. Things are far from perfect but I am at peace.

I throw open my door and enter one of America’s most diverse zip codes. A United Nations of food and a Crayola box of beauty. A patchwork quilt. All these dance before me to the music of Acts unfolding.

Content, I return to the office to consider these wonders.

Four congregations share this hulking edifice, the building which houses The Church. Sometimes the groups go about our faith separately. Other times, they join hearts and coalesce into the Greater Oneness. Heads bow. Many-textured voices intertwine and rise as one in prayer, in confession, in song. Incense to The One.

I am tired. I am shabby.

I am home.

Rip Van Winkle: The Upside

Photo credit here.

Photo credit here.

Winter, 2012

Now that my time machine has hurtled forward a few decades, ejected me onto my ass, and gone up in a thick cloud of black smoke; I am stuck at age 48. At least, until I become stuck at age 49. After which I will become stuck at age 50. And so on. Unto death. But things on Planet Middle Age aren’t as bad as I would have thought even two months ago. For example…let me share one puzzling outcome of my crash landing:

I am developing a genuine fondness for Old People.

Old People are endemic to my church, where the median age is about 70, and where, until recently, I have been a bona fide Young Adult. There are no children at my church, or if there are, they are in hiding. We had a nursery once but we closed it because no babies had turned up for the better part of a year. I’m not sure why I’m still attending. Admittedly, my Old People are the best Old People you can find anywhere; however, they are Old. Most of the other Young Adults have long since jumped ship, and the Old People are dying off at the rate of about one per week.

Each Sunday I watch from an emotionally safe distance as the Old People move about in a routine so well choreographed, it would put an NFL coach to shame—they in their Sunday finery and coiffed hair, and I in my skinny jeans and hoodies. I smell Coty face powder and Estee Lauder. I know that if I peek in the men’s closets, I’ll find pairs of white Reeboks reserved for their Saturday romance with the riding mower. Sometimes I think of the Old People as busy bees, cheerfully tending the hive, doing and saying what they always have, pitifully oblivious to their imminent demise. I don’t really want to know them. I especially don’t want to be them.

Things look a little different since the time machine crashed. Where to start?

For one thing, while I was having my protracted adolescence, my Old People finished raising their families, brought their professional lives to a close, and began to enjoy their retirement. This, of course, required significant advance planning. Most adolescents don’t plan too well, and neither did I. My husband tried to talk to me about things like savings and retirement but I didn’t listen very well. Do you know any teens who want to dwell on these topics? Me either.

Now as I watch the Old People take cruises and go south for the winter, I wonder how they do it. I’d love to go on a cruise. I’d like to remodel my kitchen, circa 1961, whose original cupboards boast a large brass medal: “Gold Medallion Home. Live Better Electrically.” At the end of the day, I thank God that I went back to school to become a counselor. As long as I can sit upright and nod my head, I can contribute to our upkeep. I don’t think I can afford to retire.

I realized, at some point, that my Old People were once Young Adults. I also realized some of them were much smarter and educated than I am. It took a few awkward and (unintentionally) patronizing conversations to set me straight. Linda can do just about anything on the computer, and she’d be the first person I’d call if I ever needed to program my VCR. (Is this a good time for me to confess that I do not know how to use my TV and have begun to stuff used tissues up my sleeves?) Despite a possible Reebok habit, Lyle is as sharp as a tack in all things financial. And don’t mess with my boy Sean. He may wear sweater vests, but it takes huevos to be a courier downtown.

My Old People include retired professors, retired accountants, and retired nurses, just to name a few. Even more impressive: many of my Old People have raised children who actually turned out to be very nice Adults. (Can you see how hard I’m working not to put the words “retired” and “Mom” in the same sentence? I think we all know Moms never retire.)

Bottom line: I think I could do a lot worse than joining the Old People. Besides–consider the alternative.

This is the seventh installment of The Story of Hanna (see also tab of the same name). For the sixth installment click here. For the eighth installment click here.

Good Friday Gone Bad

rainy night stadium lights Grant Frederiksen

Image courtesy of Grant Frederiksen

I went to Jesus’ funeral last night. He was the best man I had ever known, and now I’d never see Him again.

Good Friday is the one day in the year when I sit quietly next to His lifeless body and weep. I weep because I miss Him. I weep because He suffered. I cry hot tears because He is dead, dead, dead, and now the unfinished business between us can never be put right.

I know how the story ends but I need to feel the loss of my Lord and reflect upon His pain. Pain I should rightfully have borne were justice served. Feeling the loss of Him prepares me to feel the joy of His resurrection. Not only is He not dead, He still likes me and is glad to see me even though I helped to kill Him.

I went to Jesus’ funeral last night and discovered that someone had scheduled seven other funerals at the same time. One funeral for each of the Last Seven Words of Jesus. Services were held for the victims of ISIS and Ebola; Robin Williams; Brittany Maynard; and Eric Garner. There were others I cannot now recall, and that is a shame because all of those mourned last night deserve to be recognized, grieved, and laid properly to rest. The daily news is full of sadness, injustice and horror, and we are called to hear and act.

But I went to Jesus’ funeral last night.

I could not get to Him to say goodbye. One after another, the funeral processions crowded by, forming a continuous throng of mourners through which I was unable to pass. Here and there, I caught a glimpse of Him before He was eclipsed. Finally the crowds began to dwindle, and I began my trembling approach.

The service ended before I made it to Him. The music stopped. It was time to go. The man in front of me began talking about a movie he had seen. There were bright lights and friendly chatter.

I sobbed it out in the car on the way home. My husband was lovely to me.

The sermon had been thoughtfully crafted and intended for good. I knew that. But it had gone terribly awry, and I felt cheated and bereft.

Now that my tears have dried, I wonder: Maybe I got the point after all.

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