Apr/May 2009 Salon

Twenty Years

by Stanley Jenkins


Next week we will celebrate the twentieth anniversary of my Ordination at my church. We will have a special celebration at coffee hour. (I donated a cake.)

I have invited a number of ghosts.

The lady in New Hudson, New York that gave me her dead husband's fishing rod and then clung to my hand while her heart seized up and the doctors pushed air into her lungs and she needed me to look her in in the eye when she might die and I was her Pastor and twenty-five years old—which I did—look her in the eye—as she chose to either live or die—and she chose to live—and I was holding her hand when I was twenty-five.


And the lady, who I hope is still living, who called me in the middle of the night to tell me that she had swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills and was going to die and would I take care of her children?—and who I knew didn't have the money to pay the ambulance, so I, in perfect panic, walked her up and down the apartment and then finally into my car so I could take her to the emergency room and left her there after having to call her husband who wasn't home yet when the deal went down and tell him—he of sad eyes—where his wife was this time. Again.

I have invited the ghosts.

The man who had the eyes of a pole-axed drunk, married to a mail-order Indonesian bride, who could not hold a job, keep himself from slapping his wife or even keep himself from pulling the trigger. He's invited too. I called the cops to pick him up because he was obviously suicidal. It's the law—my duty. They committed him involuntarily for a few days. On my say so—or at least instigation (there was a psych evaluation, but still...). His wife took him back—but left the church. She was too ashamed.

And Valerie. Elderly Jewish woman who lived in Forest Hills. In a once luxury apartment. Wore hats. Marlo Thomas/"That Girl" outfits. She came to me when it was too late. In her sixties. Already in the process of eviction. I don't even know why she came to the church. She was Jewish. Throwing herself at the feet of mercy of the minister of Jesus.

I was annoyed, it's true. I thought to myself that surely there was a Rabbi out there with responsibility. I was peevish and selfish. But she came to us. And I knew it was going to be bad. I followed her into the shelter system. She descended and descended. I stood by her every step of the way. I watched as she descended. As if chosen to watch her.

There wasn't a damn thing I could do about it. The last time I saw her she clung to my hand and implored me to save her. To make it all better. I looked at her and knew what I knew from the first time she came to me. She didn't want to be saved. She wanted to drown and make someone responsible. Make someone pay.

There had been a husband who had deserted her. There had been a brother who had died and not provided for her. Every contact I set up for her—she rejected. Every city program I came up with—she had a problem with. Every hope she vetoed. I exhausted every avenue I knew. She didn't want to be saved. She wanted to drown and make someone responsible.

Jesus! Ghosts.

All the ghosts are invited. I seem to be just about ready to accept that you can't do this without being touched—without losing something with every touch—something that matters. Jesus plays for keeps. Just about ready to accept what I have always known, always preached and am always learning anew—love heals. We are loved. Love sustains.

There's just a price you pay for knowing that.

It's worth it, though. The price you pay. I think I can say that after twenty years, at least for myself. Even all the fear and self-doubt—and even occasional self-loathing. Hellhound on my trail! It's worth it. All these ghosts. I—a man with a deep coldness at heart—have been allowed to be kind.



And the surprising number of incest cases that came up when I was in Upstate New York. The first was the most startling. She came to me for a school project. She said she wanted to be a Minister. She was supposed to tag along with me on a typical day as a Minister—for her school project. Within twenty minutes she had let me know that she could give me a blow job.

It was her grandfather. He was molesting her. Had been sleeping with her for a couple of years. Raping her.

She never testified. He never went to jail. The grandfather. I moved on and I have no idea what became of her life. She was exceptionally bright. Her mother never seemed to fully grasp it—she spent most of her time trying to encourage her daughter to get me to marry her. As if I could erase it. As if my office could erase it. As if becoming a minister's wife could atone for what had happened to her.

That girl—she really wasn't much younger than me at the time—I'm telling you, she was bright and beautiful and doomed. Her family would not accept the horror. She descended into promiscuity and self-immolation. I don't think she graduated from high school.

She's invited too. That ghost.



I don't even know what I am anymore. I have always experienced my faith as a volcanic eruption—I mean the actual event of cataclysmic eruption—contained and arrested in a stylish, fine leather, handtooled, convenient carrying case—a brief case, if you will—designed for the modern man on the go. If you act now shipping and handling are free. Credit terms available.

That's not true.

Sometimes I have experienced my faith as the return of a longed for gaze—a meeting of eyes—when I have had reason to avert my eyes—avert my eyes in shame—a becoming visible after having erased myself.

Other times I have experienced it as if in a dream, walking on water that should not hold my weight. Standing in the pulpit delivering the Pastoral Prayer, gripping the pulpit like one of those fantastical sculptures that used to jut out the bow of sailing ships, opening my wooden mouth and letting loose, like steam screeching a valve, like water trickling a creek, and feeling the contented sigh of a nestling, the settling in of a congregation....while I am erased and really very ugly and bitter about it—like a thirsty pipe, with what is needed always passing through, but never slaking.

Other times I have experienced it as a kind of frozen explosion. And me walking around the shards, filing away at the sharp edges, alone and frigid; as if the ghosts of windgusts chilled the room. I am amazed at the space between the broken pieces in which I walk. I shouldn't be able to be here in that space.

Other times I have experienced it as a kind of seduction, a slow dance of power, hints of dominance, the aggression of submission; San Juan de la Cruz's suspension on the breast of the Beloved; the ecstasy of Santa Teresa; the animal rutting of the soul behind the gates of Eden.

Other times I have experienced it as a deep calm and a foundation beneath which I trust I cannot fall.

As I get older I suspect that the future of my faith lies less with cataclysms and more with putting my dishes in the dishwasher. I am grateful for the drama though. I have seen further on stage.

I have seen the parade of days. I have been loved.


Previous Piece Next Piece