Monday, February 14, 2011

Departures Department

Every Sunday is Resurrection Sunday, and a good day to write about death.  It's remarkable to realize that no one in our little parish has died, though our parents, cousins, siblings and spouses have. The funny quality of an all-convert parish is that so many loved ones can be remembered in prayers, but no funeral has ever  been held within our four walls.

It goes without saying, but I need use the device anyway, that this is not funny in a ha-ha sense. I need to point out that death and joy create a conflict for me. I've been three great funerals/wakes in my life and all of them have had elements of joy. Okay, there is maybe a fourth, but that's another story.  One of those was this week. I was called back to my childhood church, which is so hard to name that the pastor, Martin Turner, just called it "The Church in Fort Wayne", or TCIFW. Only recently did he have to add "Christ" to the end. I can't recall what explanation I received for the addition.

It was non-denominational and at times bordered on charismatic, almost pentecostal. At its founding, I think it had an element of communalism, aided by the fact that Poppa T housed the church in a former nunnery he bought from the Catholic church door. It had space for the misfits and lost young adults he rescued from time to time. It had a school in the basement and, oft-times, a feeding program of one sort or another.  In my teen years, it felt haunted by an element of cultishness, but time and circumstance unthreaded that tangle.  Not before I left and not before I left with some baggage, that in my mind, I molded into monstrous proportions, as I realized this past week.

It was Poppa T himself who died. I didn't call him that. He was always Pastor Turner for me. Mom and Dad wouldn't have such informal reference for a person so many generations removed from their children. Nevertheless, most adults knew him as such, so that it was written on the memorial cards at the wake.

I went hoping and fearing that I'd see all those old faces of the past. I left fearing I'd turned a man's wake into a reunion. I left having seen almost all the people I could long to see. One or two missed me. One girl said she saw me across the room. "[I] looked good." Of course I did. I run like a banshee from the stress in my life. I needed those moments, to make life less about work and more about people. It's my tireless struggle. To think I dreaded getting out of my car, and repeated "Lord Jesus Christ, Have mercy on me a sinner" several times before thumbing my prayer knots, locking my car and going inside.

Little had changed in there. Outside the houses in surrounding blocks were boarded up.  The streets were as impassable coming and going as the worst in any Pennsylvania mountain town- and this is flat Indiana. Inside it was older, more stained. The ceiling tiles sagged. The carpet is fading to green-grey. Sheets divide rooms now. The same plywood doors. The sidewalk which led the way to two and three hours Saturday night and Sunday morning services was shorter than I recalled. The mobile classroom next door was caving.  The snow still blocked the door to the basement worship center; it had been sealed years ago when the neighborhood crime skyrocketed.  The same flowers were tucked into the soap holders in the bathrooms. The same tiles were unpolished in the hall leading past bathrooms. The ancient wall hangings, betraying their felt 1970's doves and gilded painted canvases graced the walls. I forgot to see if the edition of The Late Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsey was still on the shelf.

There was no sign of the body of Pastor T at first. I'd just finished watching the Japanese "Departures" that morning, while jogging on my treadmill. In this film, a body is carefully laid out in a spiritual and communal manner before the family altar. Caretakers lead a ritual to wipe and prepare the body for casketing, inviting the family to wipe the face and participate in solemnity. It's nothing like the Irish wake with liquor, raucous family chatter and the body, propped in the corner. Both of these strike me as very visceral ways to approach death, which I've come to embrace since my conversion to Orthodox Christianity. Both of these traditions do not shrink or hide from body, not divorcing or making dualism of body and soul. I'm struck at the way American ceremony, with its consumeristic funeral element, tends us towards a dualistic understanding of body and soul. We dress the body, but it doesn't matter who does it. The soul is gone already. The body doesn't really matter as much anymore.  In ancient Christianity, creation is redeemed. The corporeal is redeemed. We maintain a long connection between the physical manifestations of our ancestors and saints because those are saved and will be part of the final Resurrection.

This body was in the corner, solemn in its casket, except for the alligator his foster daughter tucked under his arm. Around the room we were yucking it up like a high school reunion without liquor, in a church, with some sad emotion niggling in the back of our minds. I can't decide if it was joyful sorrow. Some of what we talked about included what would happen to the church, school and grounds. What I really clung to was the story his kids told. He was delivering bread with the Salvation Army on eight days before he died. He had the cancer, but he didn't stop delivering food. That was why it didn't feel egregious to enjoy seeing all those people.

I didn't get to chat long enough with anyone and still ran out of words when it came time to talk to his daughter who is the mother to my elementary best friend.  I didn't know what to say because I'd had a very bruising conversation and I was skulking behind a guilty conscience. I'd been hurt that the ways in which I've grown apart theologically and sociologically in the past seventeen years has fomented a facade. A facebook farce. Facebook is the only place we see each other now and on that, a person can know half a soul and make a 100% judgment. In this case I was upset that I'd been judged for defending Palestinian Christians, but I was harboring just as cheeky a misjudgment about another person's character.  His daughter looked me in the face and said, "We miss you Reynolds. We used to laugh so much with you." What words of healing. I think it was the other way around. We laughed with them. They are people of joy. I have tons of good intentions and deep convictions, but little joy. You can hear their laughter in the grins on their facebook pages. I see it in the crooked finger one uses to gesture at a sibling or the giggle in the smile on another's face.

I left sated. I couldn't find words. There still aren't many. I said earlier this was one of three great funerals I've attend. The first was my grandfathers. He laughed a lot too. He served to the end. He was a minister and friend and mentor to hundreds of people with not distinction in their usefulness or social class. The other was my father-in-law. Same kind of man. Not a minister formally, but janitors and pastors, police men and kids from all over came to his funeral. Papaw made them laugh. Papaw listened. He cared.

In retrospect, I'm sad my siblings couldn't come to Pastor T's funeral. They would have loved it. I wish I could have shared that moment with more people. It's a testimony to a life well-lived, regardless of whatever false baggage I've built in my head. This is not to say things were rosy, just that real ministers and people are so complex that its unfair to play judge or jury, even after the moments of death.

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