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Thursday, September 29, 2022

Camino Thoughts from Heathrow

“Hey Rev,” said the note. “I hope you get this. I lost your phone number. I wanted you to know that Mom passed on Monday. She loved you. She always said, “Rev. was the priest who loved us.” And, you did. You really loved us. So, I wanted you to know that she passed. Here’s my phone number. Please call when you get this.”

That was the message hidden in my Messenger. I usually don’t bother with Messenger- especially with those with whom I’m not friends on FB. Too much junk mail.

Something told me to check this one. I’m glad I did. What a great way to start The Camino.

I called her on my way to the airport. Lord, she sounded just the way I remember her about 30 years ago.

I had been called to the St Barnabas AIDS Resource Center. Well, +Jack Spong asked me to take the position of ED of that agency. And, he said, "You’ll also be the Vicar of St. Barnabas Church. It’s a little congregation that you’ll help have a good death, and you’ll write a grant to keep the Resource Center going."

This was Newark, NJ. It was around 1991.

AIDS had landed in Newark and it was hitting the Black community. Hard. Women and children mostly.

The wives and kids of “recreational drug users,” and/or guys “on the down low” but also some hardcore addicts. Some of the women were Ladies of the Night. They also doubled as Ladies of Afternoon Delight in the front seat of the BMW and Porches that came up from Broad Street where the “suits” – the bankers and Million Dollar Round Table men – worked before going home to their wives and families in the wealthy “bedroom communities” in the suburban towns of Summit and Morristown, Bedminster and Chatham.

I’ve got stories to tell about my work with those ladies and what they taught me but they are going to have to wait while I give props to Ms. Louise. They won’t mind. They loved her, too.

Ms. Louise was affectionately known as The Matriarch of the church. Texts in Congregational Development title that position “The Gatekeeper”. She was all that and more.

From her porch on 11th Street, she pretty much ran the church and the neighborhood. She knew who needed help and who was running a scam. She knew which husband was running around on which wife and vice versa.

It was Ms. Louise who first brought me to the Saturday morning neighborhood hair parlor - held in the living room of someone’s home - where you could get your hair straightened, colored or a “weave” while your friend got a bootlegged copy of the latest movie on VCR.

You could also get a dress or shoes that “fell off the back of the truck” along with cosmetics “brought in from NYC” which were specially made to help black skin when it got “ashy”.

But you also got “kitchen table socio-political analysis”. Let me give you an example.

I remember a conversation about Bill Clinton and how “he was actin’ the fool”. It was 1993 or ’94, I think. Example after example was given about his behavior which was met with concerned tut-tuts, groans, occasional rueful laughter, and some serious eye-rolling.

After the women had expended themselves, a hushed silence fell over the room while the women waited for one of the wise, older women to render her socio-political analysis.

“The man’s been into the hooch,” came a high, thin voice from the corner. It was Ms. Louise, whose comment was greeted with a chorus of “Uh-huh,” and “Amen,” and “You know it,” and “Tell it, sister.”

I was amazed. Now, they loved Bill Clinton. And, Hillary. But, all these rumors around him being “a lady’s man” were starting to be a distraction. I don’t know if Bill had a problem with alcohol. He sure had a problem with women.

But, those women knew. They knew the same way they knew when their husbands had been unfaithful or one of the kids had snuck out of the house after midnight or come in at 3 AM, but never said a mumblin’ word.

I have so many memories of Ms. Louise, but the one I’ll never forget is the Easter Vigil we had my first year at the church. I had convinced them that it was a beautiful liturgy and worth the effort.

When I got there in June, the year before, there were 15-20 or so people in the pew. In a little less than a year, there were between 45-50 in church every Sunday.

That Easter Vigil there were 90 people in the pew and I baptized 12. I had only planned to baptize 8 but four people I had never seen before felt moved to be baptized and presented themselves at the baptismal font.

As a fairly newly ordained priest I could hear my seminary professors and field education supervisors warning me about “proper preparation for the Two Great Sacraments of the Church,” but, you know, as Ms. Louise used to say, “When the Spirit say, do, you gotta do.”

And so, I did. It was glorious and exhilarating and it was well with my soul.

Which reminds me of sitting on Mr. Louise’s porch with her husband, Frank, on a Sunday afternoon, having had a wonderful lunch of fried chicken wings and greens and cornbread, just talking about this and that and greeting neighbors as they walked by who told the story of their day. Sometimes – well, often – as my visit would be drawing to a close, we’d sing some hymns.

Ms. Louise loved “It is well with my soul.” Frank would join in, singing the low part and sometimes the neighbors would come in with some of the sweetest harmonies that were enough to make the angels weep.

I was delighted and not at all surprised when her daughter assured me that they would be singing that hymn at her funeral. She said she sang it to her on her deathbed, which made me weep right there in the car on the way to the airport in Salisbury, Maryland.

I’m not going to be able to be there in person for the funeral, the date for which has not yet been set, but it will probably be while I'm on Camino. I will be there in spirit.

I’m writing this in the airport lounge at Heathrow. I got maybe a 3-hour catnap on the plane. I have absolutely no idea what time it is in my body, but it’s a little after noon here in London. I have a 9-hour layover so I’ll be here for a while. I wanted to get down these thoughts before I take a wee bit of a nap. Or, at least close my eyes.

Everyone who has ever done The Camino will remind you that the pilgrimage really begins when you leave your door. I think The Camino begins when you begin to think about walking The Camino. At that point, the universe begins to send you messages, loud and clear, about the stuff that is deep in your soul that is yearning to be seen and acknowledged and appreciated.

I have slowly been reaching the decision that this is my last stint as a parish priest. Oh, I will still help out here and there. I will cover for my colleagues when they are ill or on vacation. I am sooOOoo looking forward to being a member of a healthy, stable congregation where I can help when and if needed.

But, interim ministry? “Part-time pastor”? “Regular supply” or, as some call it here “Supply plus” (sounds like a box of laundry detergent, right? Grrr . . . )? No. No thank you. I’ll pass. Or, at least, the time for doing that for me is passed.

As I settle into the reality of that decision, it is well with my soul to have this reminder that a family to whom I served as pastor (Vicar) over 30 years ago, still remembers me. And, they remember me as “The priest who loved them.”

I would like to think every congregation I’ve served would remember me that way. Maybe some do. Probably some don’t.

But the truth is that I have truly loved every congregation I’ve served. Even the difficult ones. Loved ‘em with tough love.

Even the ones with sheep that attacked. Even the ones that needed their organizational infrastructure rebuilt from the ground up and had no idea what that required and were like “sheep without a shepherd”.

And yes, even the ones I had taken as far as I could and had to leave like Moses, never to see the Promised Land.

I was the priest who loved them, even if they don’t remember me in that way.

Well, one does. And, you know, that’s more than I expected.

One is enough for a lifetime.

It’s certainly the best way I know to start The Camino.

It is well with my soul.

Buen Camino!

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