Friday, September 26, 2008

Harry and His Friends

"Do you have a seat?” asks the usher.
“Well, actually I was looking for someone who looked all alone to sit next to them,” I reply, feeling virtuous. Also, because for the month or so that I’ve been attending this church, many times I have sat with empty seats beside me feeling conspicuously alone. Previously that would have provoked a complaint that the church is unfriendly, except that a couple of Sundays ago – when I was still trying to get used to the fact that I was once again surrounded by Christians as an unfortunate by-product of having had a real and powerful experience of God in this place – a geeky looking man started to talk to me and I ignored him completely. “I don’t want you,” I said angrily in my head, “I want God. So leave me alone!” When visitors raised their hands, of course, he was one of them. And when the sermon was about being a church that was generous with our smiles as well as our money, the message finally sank in: I am the church. The fact that I’m sitting in these pews means to this man beside me and anyone else who walks in here, I am the church. If I want a friendly church, I have to be friendly. If I want a church that sees the people who are alone and sits next to them, it starts with me.

I am not feeling nearly so virtuous when I find myself placed next to an old lady in a wheelchair sitting alone in the back row. “The usher says you speak English and Spanish,” I try gamely. She answers something in a feeble old lady voice. “Are you Latina?” I ask. She says something and looks to me for a response. Heck, I don’t understand a word she’s saying. “Okay,” I improvise, tucking the blanket closer around her, although for all I know she may have asked me to take it off.
“Do you have any money?” I understood that. Please don’t tell me this sweet old lady it hitting me up for cash!
“Only for the collection,” I say with forced joviality.
“I wish I could help you dear, but I don’t have any money.” The poor old soul is confused. Or perhaps not as confused as I think. I am currently living on a loan from my mother and I really don’t have any money. Maybe she’s perfectly lucid and as frustrated as I am at our inability to communicate. We both resume watching the preparations at the front of the church for a service that is taking WAY too long to start. Groups of attractive young people gather and re-form. There is much greeting and smiling and tossing of long blond hair. Why are so many of the women blond? For that matter, why does the whole church look like they spent last night at the Emmy awards?
I hear the reedy voice: “Where are you from?”
“England.” No recognition. “United Kingdom? Great Britain.” Now she looks confused. Can a person be from three places?
“You speak very good English,” she says, kindly.

A wheelchair is parked on the other side of the old lady. A completely bald man sits hunched over, his head twisted in my direction. He wears thick glasses and has slack, rubbery lips, but somehow this endears me to him. One hand rests on his bald pate, moving slowly back and forth as if asking himself how he came to be in this wheelchair, unable to raise his head.
“Hello,” says the abuela.
“Hello,” he manages through thick lips, appearing to smile. I like it that the old lady has given up on me and is concentrating on welcoming her peers.

Finally, the lights dim and the music starts. Now don’t get me wrong, I think it’s wonderful that there are so many talented musicians in the church, that gifted technicians work to produce lighting and sound worthy of a professional concert. The kids (that is, anyone under forty) love it, and I can’t wait for the day my own son throws off his agnosticism and is blown away by rap music in church. But I have to say I find it hard to worship God when I can’t hear the sound of my own singing, when I don’t know the songs, when, just as I think I’ve got it down, there is a guitar solo and I’m left mouthing words when no one else is. I hate clapping along – it makes me feel like I’m at a children’s party watching a tired entertainer bend balloons, or on a cruise ship listening to an out-of-tune dance band and trying not to notice the people leaning over the side. So there I am, feeling all bristly and superior, when I notice that the guy in the wheelchair has twisted his head some more to see the monitor and is singing along to the rap music and, with just about the only mobility afforded to him, is clapping his hands.

I remember last Sunday when I was going through a similar oh-no-here-comes-the-loud-music moment, watching another old guy grab onto the back of the chair in front of him and pull himself up. The liver spots on his bald head reminded me of my granddad. He turned to me, clapping his bony hands, with a big smile on his face that said, “Come on; let’s worship God!” I bet the old guy in the wheelchair today would love to spring to his feet if he could. I bet the old lady would love to clap her hands if they didn’t tremble ineffectually under her blanket. How can I not stand up and lift my hands to God, if this dear old man makes such effort to follow the words of songs that are as new to him as they are to me? I’m sure we’d both prefer Amazing Grace, but there you are. And when the music veers off into the inevitable solo, the man in the wheelchair continues to clap, undeterred.

A helper comes to retrieve the wheelchairs at the end of service. He squeezes the old guy's shoulders, hard, the bent body jerking into an upright position under the attack. The helper is behind him and can’t see the old guy’s face. To me, it looks as if he’s in pain – the rictus of his mouth certainly doesn’t suggest he’s enjoying it.
“What is this gentleman’s name?” I ask the helper.
“Harry,” I say, bending down beside him, “I just want to tell you how much you ministered to me. Clapping along,” I add, feebly. What I want to say is, How much you ministered to me by praising God when you’re stuck in that body, not able to do anything for yourself. He takes a while to process why his clapping would cause this tearful middle-aged woman to crouch at his side. He grasps my hand more tightly and pulls me closer into the collapse of head and shoulders.
“I was a Baptist,” he’s saying, “but forty years ago when I came to a Pentecostal church I came alive.” Indeed you did, Harry. More alive than me, that’s for sure.
An usher offers the old lady a lollipop. She looks at him suspiciously.
“I don’t have any money.”

Copyright © 2008 Louise Godbold