He told me his name was Skip, and he looked like a skipper with his well-trimmed white beard and his lean body. I met him when he interrupted a Sunday School class I had no business teaching. I remember I had a guitar that day and we'd been singing a song when he came to stand in the balcony of the sanctuary where our class met.
"Don't let me interrupt," he said after the song ended. Everyone turned to look at him.
"You're not interrupting," I said. "Join us."
And he did. He lingered after the kids had left to go to the church basement where final announcements were made before the end of Sunday School. After that, I saw him now and then on Sunday mornings when he dropped by my classroom, but mostly I saw Skip on the streets where I eventually understood he lived. I took to calling him Skip the Street Shaman to myself.
I liked to go to church early on Sunday mornings, to sit alone in the cavernous sanctuary while the lights were still dim. I could hear on those mornings Sister Connie in the basement setting up the offering and communion trays. I was glad not to be completely alone, for I had always found an empty church slightly creepy. I had gone to Sister Connie's house once. She kept an old parrot in her living room. We ate fried chicken together on chairs in front of the silent tv. She told me how when she was young she'd been married to a military man and how while they were stationed in France he tried to kill her one night, held a pistol to her head. Afterward she threatened him with a kettle of boiling water. He must have believed she was capable of pouring it on him because he left her then. She was once a beautiful woman. I could see that as she told me her story.
I went to church early to kneel alone at the altar rail where after church services the elders knelt to pray with those who came forward with a problem. I didn't want to talk to anyone about my struggles, but I needed a mercy seat, and on Sunday mornings this was where I found it. I did not pray at those times, for prayer seemed to have left me, but instead practiced a distracted meditation, some attempt to empty my thoughts into the quiet.
One morning Meredith from the group home down the street joined me in the sanctuary. I watched as she slipped into a pew and laid down. Now and then in the quiet I heard her humming to herself. On the wall I faced as I kneeled were the portraits of the church's founder and his wife: Daddy Mac and Mother Margaret. Daddy Mac died before I joined the church. Everyone assured me I would have loved him, that the church was now nothing like it had been when he was its pastor. Now and then they told me he would have liked me - the highest of praise. Daddy Mac had been petite, as was Mother Margaret. I liked to take things to her, pies or fruit, just so I could stop by and sit in her spotless kitchen and hear her talk about when she and Daddy Mac were first married - wild kids. Mother Margaret had a habit of shifting her ill-fitting dentures with her tongue. They clicked as she talked. Back then, Daddy Mac had been a drummer, and when his band wasn't playing they danced like tomorrow wasn't coming. I could picture it easily when I heard her talking, how they would have spun together on the sanded floors to the sounds of big band swing. But, she always told me, those had been "sinful, godless" times; they hadn't known any better then. Later, they experienced a spiritual awakening and were "sanctified," a term I didn't recognize. What it meant, she explained, was that they renounced sin completely, vowed to live a pure life - no tobacco, no alcohol, no dancing, no cards. Nothing unwholesome at all. No matter how I tried, though, I couldn't see how the dancing I had imagined was unwholesome.
Following their conversion, Daddy Mac went to the African Methodist Episcopalian seminary where he studied to be a minister. He hadn't liked the racial politics of the seminary, however. Once he graduated he decided God was color blind and that the church should be too. He wanted a church like a bouquet, a variety of believers to praise Jesus together, which is how Christ Temple Mission was conceived, and how from the beginning one of its purposes was integration.
When Daddy Mac died of a heart attack, I knew without her saying it that Mother Margaret had died too. It was only her shadow that sat at the organ on Sunday mornings, her body so small that Brother Frank had to build a special lift on the pedals so her feet would reach.
As I stood up from the altar that morning, Meredith came to the front of the church toward me. She was holding a hymnal, her thumb marking a page.
"Play this for me," she said and thrust the book at me.
I took the hymnal from her, and noted the song: "Battle Hymn of the Republic." People would be arriving soon, but I decided one verse wouldn't hurt. I went to the piano and softly played an introduction, hating to disrupt the silence. I was unprepared for the bellowing off-key voice that filled the sanctuary. Meredith huffed and shouted the words with no regard to rhythm or tune. By the end of the first verse, even though early comers had arrived, Meredith motioned for me to go on, and unaccountably I complied. I was very embarrassed by the spectacle she was making of us, but I played until the end of the verse anyway. Afterward, I stood up from the piano bench and ignored her impatient gesture that I keep playing.
Later, before services began, Meredith, who had disappeared into the bathroom after her performance, approached me again where I was seated in a pew. She had painted her mouth a garish red, outlined her eyes in thick black rings. On her open palm she held out to me her cosmetics. A gesture of thanks? Some new affection she felt for me? I shook my head no, and watched as she went to the back of the church where instead of sitting down, she paced through the entire service.
My friend Toni had recently started a new choir in the church. Initially, there had been resistance from the church hierarchy: we already had two choirs, an adult choir and a children's choir. Toni's argument was that the adult choir attracted only the elderly members, and that they sang only hymns, while the children's choir sang only children's songs. There was nothing for those in between. The young adults in the church enthusiastically supported Toni's effort, and from its first meeting the Gospel Workshop Choir was a success. Dr. Dolores played the piano in her own unique boogie woogie style. Darrell played the bass guitar, and Jeffrey the drums. Although Toni was not a musician and admittedly could only "sort of sing," she found recordings of the songs she wanted us to perform. We listened to the recordings, the instrumentalists quickly working out the chord progressions while the vocal harmonies came together section by section. Toni transcribed the lyrics for us. When Nita, the petite woman in the front row whom I barely noticed most Sundays, stepped forward to sing her first solo, I felt a shock. I had never been in the presence of a voice like hers. Out of her small body came a voice so powerful and electric that it filled the cavernous sanctuary not only with sound but with what seemed like light. I, for the first and only time in my life, felt moved to tears by the human voice. Later, I discovered Nita was all but illiterate, her life in constant upheaval, but when she sang, she controlled everyone in the room.
If Toni was able to find sheet music for the song she wanted to do, I would be asked to play the piano. They marveled that I could read music, while I felt like a charlatan for not being able, like the other musicians, to play by ear.
I saw Skip now and then downtown. I liked to buy him a cup of coffee or take a walk with him. I understood that he was mentally ill, but I was intrigued by the quirky lucidity of his insanity. The way he saw the world challenged all of my deepest assumptions; I felt slightly off kilter after talking to him. Not surprisingly, Skip was the most unsettling of all of my acquaintances, and although he scared me a little sometimes, I continued to seek out conversations with him.
One day I invited him to eat with me at a Chinese restaurant downtown. We sat in a booth by the window overlooking 14th street with our Styrofoam plates of garlic chicken and sweet and sour pork.
"Women shouldn't get tied down before they come completely into their own sexuality," he said with a slightly full mouth. He had never said such a thing to me before. I had not told him anything about my family: my conservative, religious husband who preached in another church, the three children he wouldn't allow to go to Christ Temple Mission with me. It was no small thing for a fundamentalist Christian minister's wife to go to a church other than her husband's. I felt as though I was getting away with something to be going to Christ Temple Mission on my own. Skip looked at me intensely that day. I stopped eating, wondering what he was thinking. His look suggested he knew everything, and I had a strong urge to confess, but I didn't. He seemed agitated, irritable. I sensed he was angry with me, though it wasn't clear why. Then he told me his story. He had been a cop, he told me, in Chicago. For thirteen years he had loved a woman. They had met when he was nineteen and she was twenty. She was already married at the time they met. During their thirteen-year affair she promised many times to leave her husband. In the course of those years she gave birth to three children, all of which she claimed were her husband's. One day, and Skip couldn't say what happened on that day, he suddenly understood that she would never leave her husband. On that very day, he said, he left his job, hopped a train for New York and had never had a home in the thirty-five years since. I looked deeply into his blue, blue eyes, something I had not done before, and I believed what he had told me. I was tempted to make him a prophet, to see the story as a warning, but I wasn't certain how to interpret it.
Other people travel. My friends all left town; they moved to the coasts, to D.C. and to Chicago. They sent postcards from vacations in South Africa, Mali, Bali, Caracas, Morocco. I never looked at the atlas or the globe to see where these places were. I was not interested in their specific location. I was interested only in their place in my imagination. I conjured these travels, but even in my daydreams I knew I understood little of the experiences described in the postcards. In spite of that, I pretended that what I saw was enough. I imagined smells that had not been described and conversations that had not been alluded to. What I could not imagine was the freedom to come and go.
Maybe the same desire for dislocation that led others to travel was what compelled me to seek out Christ Temple Mission. I analyzed my motives. Was I exoticizing these people? There could be no doubt of our difference. On my first visit I had sat in the back row of the church. It was the first time in my life I had felt so invisible, and I understood why people of color have so often referred to white people as ghosts. I felt ghostly, insubstantial, insignificant - so liberated. I hadn't realized how spiritually parched I felt, until I heard the singing, and talking, and dancing, and clapping: like sweet oil, like water. Unlike myself, I wanted to lift my hands. I wanted to dance. My eyes were wide, my mouth hung open, and I took everything in.
For the first six months no one knew my name. They nodded at me, guardedly as I arrived on Sunday mornings. Though the church was integrated: a handful of Native Americans, a few whites, a couple of Asians, rich, poor, educated, homeless, it was mostly African American. The black ministerial staff set the tone for the church. Even at that time, I did not regard the reticence of the church members as rudeness. Besides, I was tired of the "friendliness" of the suburban white churches. When after six months the church members greeted me by name, their greeting meant something. It didn't mean I was "one of them," I had never kidded myself about that, but it meant they'd taken notice, that they thought maybe I'd stick around awhile.
I didn't plan to stay the five years I did. I remember once standing in the church basement during a potluck - surrounded by the smells of green beans and ham, fried chicken and cornbread - recalling the potlucks held in the basement of the church where I grew up, where I had been surrounded by familiar friendly faces. I remembered the expansive sense of generosity and affection I often felt for the people of my church. That's how I felt that day in the basement of Christ Temple Mission, and even then in the midst of all that warmth and goodwill was the certain sense that I was only passing through. Everything during that five years was painfully self-conscious. Toni's husband Dennis interrupted me that day, handed me an empty plate. "Get in line, Homegirl."
My husband attended church functions with me occasionally. When he was there I noticed a change in the church members. He had a Ph.D.; he was a minister; he had a certain formal polite bearing that made them in turn formal and polite. Around him they were serious and deferential. I wanted to laugh when I saw them act that way. I knew them and they were none of the things they presented to my husband. When he was around they seemed slightly disapproving of me, seemed then to remember that I was married, a mother of three, a minister's wife. And although it appeared my husband approved of my decision to attend a church other than his, they were puzzled as to why I was not behaving as I should. I was happiest when he wasn't around.
It seemed everyone at Christ Temple Mission deferred to my husband except one friend of mine and this man told me once, "There's nothing there. He's empty." Somehow hearing it out loud like that caused me to shudder, my whole life to shudder, and it began the end that I had felt coming but hadn't wanted to acknowledge. "You're going to need a good hard hat," he said then. To my look of confusion, he answered, as though he had read my palm and seen it all laid out clearly before me, "to protect you from all the shit that's going to come down when you go."
I often chose to sit near the back of the church. The sunlight streamed in slanting rays through the stained glass windows. Sometimes one of Toni's girls would come snuggle in my lap, her hair caught in a handful of bright-colored barrettes, her skin smelling musky and sweet. I sang along and clapped and swayed with the congregation; I listened to the sermon, not sure what to expect since Daddy Mac's replacement, his nephew Kendall, was not exactly orthodox in his Christian beliefs. The father of eight children, through the years Kendall and his wife had taken in seventy-seven foster children. He talked to me now and then about what he had been reading. He had a library full of books - not books on Christian theology, but rather books by Edward Casey, Annie Besant, and Carlos Castenada. He believed in the kabbalah, numerology, astral travel, reincarnation, theosophy, anything occult. For the most part, he kept his views out of the pulpit, but now and then he would say something like, "we've had other lives," or "there are worlds beyond this one." If the congregation were given to booing, they would have booed on those occasions. As it was, there was a palpable feeling of disapproval from them.
During Sunday School, if my high school students were late or didn't show up, Kendall would sometimes pull his large body laboriously up the steep narrow stairs to my classroom in the balcony. I heard him as he climbed the stairs, his breathing ragged and heavy, and, like a winded horse, he would have to sit quietly for a minute in a too-small wooden chair to catch his breath. Then he told me stories. He was, I eventually realized, trying to convert me to his occult beliefs. I read some of the books he offered. My curiosity, however, was not belief. Even though I told him this, I sensed that Kendall had chosen to talk to me because he saw that I also no longer believed in any orthodox sense of the word. He saw this in me long before I did. Intellectually I had lost my faith, but emotionally I was still invested in the church.
On a hot summer day I ran into Skip outside the bookstore on campus. We sat together on a bench out front. Now and then I noticed people looking at us skeptically. Skip was obviously a street person, and the intensity of our conversation must have made some people uncomfortable. He was talking about the Christian belief in an apocalyptic time of trouble, and the belief among many conservative Christians that true believers will be raptured, or caught up to heaven, before they have to suffer through the seven years of tribulation that begin the millennium - the thousand year reign of the anti-Christ.
That day Skip's beard was a bit scragglier than it had been when I first met him. His white hair was greasy. The years on the street in this cold Nebraska city had been hard on him. "Everyone believes," he was saying, "that in the rapture it's the good people who will be taken up, but what if being left behind is good? What if the ones left are the ones who get rewarded?"
I stood on the second row of the choir, third from the end in the alto section. Toni had assigned our places, and I questioned why she had put me next to Sister B. who had no sense of rhythm. She clapped out of sequence, swayed in a precarious random way so that she frequently bumped me with her bony hip, and she was given to ecstatic reveries in which she threw her hands up and prayed in a fevered whisper "Thank you, Jesus," then brought her hands down, clasped them together and leaned forward into a bow, her head shaking as though saying no to something. I liked Sister B., but I had enough trouble remembering the words to the songs and keeping the right rhythm without her going off beside me. I joked now and then about it with Toni, even teased Sister B., but beside Sister B. I remained.
When young Raeffe Woods died, his parents Dr. and Mrs. Edgar Woods asked the Gospel Workshop Choir to sing. The funeral was on a Saturday afternoon, a sweet April day. The doors to the church were left open and the usually dim sanctuary was lit with a rich sepia light: The women in their hats, the men in their suits, the church interior with its oak floors slanting toward the front, and its oak pews, unchanged since it was built in the late '20s, all made me feel like a time traveler. The five preachers who had come from out of town, and three of the ministers from Christ Temple Mission sat on the stage in front of the choir. All of them were assured their chance behind the pulpit, the "bull pit" they called it. I shortly realized this was a competition, an oral performance before an appreciative audience. By the end of the very long afternoon, the congregation had been worked into a frenzy. The women fanned themselves with the paper fans tucked behind each pew in the hymnal racks. The men loosened their ties slightly. Sister B. was perhaps happiest and most exhausted of all. She had shouted and danced and twisted and raised her hands and amened until I was tired for her. We were all spent but sated too.
Then Sister Karen began to sing. The congregation joined her. Dr. D. found the key on the piano, Jeffrey the rhythm on the drums, and then Darrell came in on the bass guitar. The choir sang until the last member of the congregation was out of the building and into the bright sun.
Sister Karen was a grade school teacher. She had decided a long time ago she didn't want a man in her life, but she wanted to be a mother. She had adopted her son from the Black Children's Home in Omaha. That adoption had been such a success that she later adopted a little girl from the same institution. She told me afterward how when she first heard the news of her daughter's arrival she had imagined a face familiar to her. How could she have been prepared for the biological offspring of a blonde, blue-eyed woman and a light-skinned black man, a baby as fair and blonde as my children?
Sister Karen told me she had driven home from Omaha that day with terror in her heart. Each time she looked through the rearview mirror at the infant in the backseat she feared she would never be able to love the stranger she saw there. She told me this months later with a laugh, obviously having found herself able to love the baby nestled against her in sleep.
At Christ Temple Mission I had a distance from church ritual and church rhetoric that I had lacked all of my life. I was neither the minister's daughter, nor the minister's wife. I could simply be me. In the midst of that distance, I realized this: I genuinely liked these people; I didn't care who they were or what they'd done; I simply liked them. Over the course of those years, sitting in the back row at Christ Temple Mission, deliberately disengaged, I saw the rituals and the rhetoric finally as only that. I get it, I thought, we're just people trying to make sense of our lives, trying to make sense of a world too big to ever understand. We're just people needing something to get us through from one day to the next. And I forgave myself and my past, and I forgave my future as I felt it shift before me.
The last time I saw Skip was in a thrift store downtown. He smiled at me when our eyes met across the store. His blue eyes weren't angry, and I wanted to think that he was prescient somehow and knew that since we had last met, I had left my husband and had fought to keep my children and won in a long court battle. He told me that day he knew he was sick with cancer, and I saw that he was thinner, his dry skin slightly yellowed like old parchment. "Have you been to a doctor, Skip?"
"A doctor?" He was impatient with me. "What will they do? I'll tell you what they'll do, they'll lock me in the hospital, cut me to pieces, poke me, make me miserable, and then I'll die anyway." He shook his head still frowning. Then, as if to change the subject, he smiled at me again. "I didn't see you last time I went to the church down there."
"I don't go there anymore."
I smiled back. "I thought, and I thought, until I thought my way right out of the church," I told him.
He laughed. "Is that so?" Before he left, he said, "I'll still be seeing you around town then."
"We'll get a cup of coffee next time," I said. "Really talk." Maybe I was thinking as I said it, that I would tell him everything, confess my lost faith, my broken marriage.
Only a few weeks later a friend, who worked with a local agency on aging, asked me if I knew Skip had died. I hadn't heard. "They put him in Lancaster Manor," she said. "Someone found him collapsed on the street. He died the very next day."