Jan/Feb 2006 Salon

Dispatches 16-17 (Witnesses)

by Stanley Jenkins

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us...
    --Hebrews 12:1


"On my American plains"--and in my concrete canyons and asphalt jungles--where Sam Cooke still wails and Hank Williams is forever not dead yet in the back of a Cadillac on New Years day ("To Sir with Love") in this place that demands to be a home--"where I have felt the struggling of afflictions endured by roots/that writhe their arms into the nether deep"--just like William Blake--("Just As I Am, Without One Plea")... in this place where our dreams are more real than time, I have come to conclude that grief is not enough. No Sir.

I have been in this place now (New York City. Queens. Outer Boroughs) for ten years. Last Sunday we celebrated my tenth anniversary as Pastor at the church. Ten years of preaching and being. Before this I've never lived anywhere longer than four years.

Always moving on. Moving on. Chasing boxcar ghosts across imaginary Americas. But I am here now. And I've been here for a long time now. At my anniversary celebration there was cake and there were prayers. And the ghosts were everywhere.

Gracie Moyer with her bedhead was there. And all the old Scots ladies with their fury and tenderness. And Peter Rasnek, with his walker, coming down the aisle, running a little late, still walking with the maddening deliberation of one who is always in front of you in the grocery store with a cart, moving too slow. Clarence Smith was there too, forever singing "His Eye is on the Sparrow." He'd died thinking he had hemorrhoids, which turned out to be colon cancer. He was there in his Amtrak uniform with hymns and union songs (this machine kills fascists), forever riding the rails, marching on Washington with Dr. King, waving his lifelong pass the railroad gave him at retirement.

And that's just the start. All the dead folks were there. Ghosts. Filled up the pews. All willy nilly with the living. Those who had passed on. Ten years. The ones that I had let go. Done their funerals. Given them permission. Yeah. They came back. Great getting up morning. And they seemed to be telling me that they didn't merely mean to be a reproach. That it just might be OK. That maybe it was true after all. They were at peace. And that maybe I could just get on with the living myself. That maybe it was me that refused to be at rest.

And there was vertigo. And there was the beginnings of shame--but only the beginnings. And a future.

Grief is not enough, it is necessary also to want to be here. And to want to be here more than you need to be ashamed. If there is something to be said after ten years, that's it. It is possible to be glad to be alive. In the valley of dry bones.

In honor of my tenth anniversary the church is going to buy me a new robe.



Today was the fourth Sunday in Advent. The church was all decorated for Christmas. I preached on Zephaniah and afterwards almost tripped on the poinsettias. After the service we had the big party with ham and turkey, whole fish with their eyes open and sharp bones, curry from Guyana, salads and greens, macaroni and cheese, a noodle treat that no one remembered bringing, and about a hundred different rice dishes--with and without beans--each with their own spices that you won't ever find in the Joy of Cooking, all gulped down with scalding cups of coffee and tea brewed fresh in big aluminum urns.

At the party the kids dressed in bathrobes and tin foil crowns for the pageant. They gathered on the stage around the little baby Jesus, which was really a doll with glass eyes. This year's Mary was especially pretty in her white gown.

The kids sang. It was wonderful.

And so it goes. Year in, year out. Every year, it is wonderful. This non-stop Christmas pageant, where God and man are always being born. A man could be found by God again in a place like this. A man could learn to live with ghosts. And just get on with it.


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