In which the liturgy is wrong, again
The beauty of the midsummer morning light shone through the windows. The ushers were at their posts, bulletins in hand, smiles affixed. The soloist had finished her practice, and the organist was organizing his music at the bench. The pews had yet to be filled, but an energy filled the air. It was Sunday morning.
“Why is the goddamn liturgy wrong again?” Bill Hill muttered.
His wife elbowed him sharply. “Bill, please, we are in church. Everyone can hear you.”
“No one can hear me because no one is here yet because no one cares about being on time anymore and no one cares about dressing appropriately for the Lord anymore and no one cares about the goddamn liturgy being right anymore!”
“Oh, so does no one care about swearing in church anymore?”
Gladys Hill had the last word, at least for the moment.
William Meriwether Hill did not suffer fools gladly, especially the holy fools who tinkered with his beloved Sunday service. He was of the generation who knew there was a way that things were to be done. It helped keep things in order, so that there were time and resources to tend to all that needed tending to. And on Sunday morning, when he had made the effort to put on his suit and tie, and comb his hair, and make sure he had both a check and some cash for the offering plate, he did not suffer mistakes or any kind of sloppiness, especially when it came to the liturgy which, in Bill’s mind, was like a rope that kept people well tethered to God.
“Look at this, Gladys – we’re singing an Advent hymn in the middle of summer. An Advent hymn, for Chrissakes.”
Another elbow followed.
“I certainly hope that when the new pastor arrives this sort of thing stops happening. I have my doubts, but I’m willing to give her a chance. She’ll never be like Pastor Dale. Now there was a great man, a great pastor. She’ll have a hard time filling his shoes.”
“Yes, I especially loved it when he would lose his place in the sermon and just start all over again.”
“You know as well as I that the dementia had started setting in.”
“True. And while he was a great pastor the man did not walk on water. As for filling his shoes, you know Pastor Claire is a petite thing. And I bet she has plenty of her own shoes.”
“Hmph. Oh for Pete’s sake, who’s the minister today? I’ll be glad when that new pastor gets here. These substitute preachers are a little too woo-woo for my taste.”
Fortunately for Bill and Gladys, the prelude had begun and the pews were filling and their conversation came to a merciful end.
The Reverend Doctor Jacqueline – “Jakki” – Smith-Hastings stood as the prelude ended. “Good morning, dearest brothers and sisters in Christ. Fathoms-deep peace be with you this gorgeous morning as we open our yearning hearts and souls to the goodness of our God.”
Bill rolled his eyes. Gladys’ elbow was poised at the ready.
“Dearest little lambs of the fold, as we begin our worship I must point out a few errors in the bulletin this morning, and on behalf of the entire church staff, I offer my apologies. We are not singing “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus” as our opening hymn. Maybe the secretary was having a little fun with you as you anticipate the much-awaited and joyfully-received arrival of your new – and long expected – pastor. This will be my last Sunday with you and I have enjoyed these last four weeks getting to know you, praying with you, singing and dancing with you, exploring the rainbows of grace that God has showered over this sweet little congregation. Now, let us sing the opening hymn which is number four-thirty-three, “Immortal, Invisible God Only Wise.”
Bill smiled the smile of the smug as Gladys reached for the hymnal.
Gladys and both her elbows were busy managing a cup of coffee and a purse when Bill saw the array at coffee hour. “Oh dear God, Alice brought her Prune Drop Cookies again. Where’s the damn coffee? I hope the new pastor will sort Alice and her cookies out. I should probably make an appointment to see her as soon as she arrives.”
Alice Weston’s Prune Drop Cookies were a sight to behold, best kept as a sight and never a taste. They were a non-descript brown, about the size of a half-dollar, and lumpy. They looked like they might have been made out of playdough whose colors had all run together and which had then been shaped by a two-year old. They tasted of cardboard and bad memories.
“Morning, Bill, morning, Gladys! How are you two on this fine day?”
“Good morning, Alice. I’m upright and breathing, so I guess I’m just fine. Say, Alice, might I have a word with you about these cookies?”
“Oh, Bill, I’m afraid I have somewhere else I have to be, and you know I don’t share the recipe with anyone. Bye-bye, dears. See you next week. Have a Prune Drop.”
Alice pecked Gladys on the cheek and flitted off. Gladys looked glumly at the platter of cookies. “I wish someone could keep Alice off the sign-up sheet for coffee hour. Honestly, does she not know that no one ever eats those cookies? At least she makes the coffee right.”
Bill smiled at his wife. There were many reasons why they had stayed married for fifty-seven years, and their mutual dislike of Alice Weston’s Prune Drop Cookies was one of them.
“Gladys, promise me one thing. When I die, and you have my service here at St. Rahab’s, that the bulletin will be perfect, and there will be no Prune Drop Cookies at the reception.”
Gladys smiled back, hooked her arm through Bill’s and said, “Let’s go get lunch and dissect Pastor Jakki’s sermon.”
A few blocks away, the Reverend M. Claire Grayson was relishing her last free Sunday. She was surrounded by boxes and newsprint, and the garbage was overflowing with take-out cartons. Her daughter was still asleep even though it was noon, but Claire felt a deep contentment.
Then again, maybe it was just the calm before the storm.
In which the new pastor has her first Sunday
“Mom. I can’t find my brush.”
“Where did you leave it?”
“If I knew where I left it, then I could find it, couldn’t I. Ugh. Why do I have to go church? I hate the first Sunday. All those people looking at me, trying to decide if I’ll be their kid’s favorite new babysitter or if I’m a Satan-worshiping drug addict who’s secretly pregnant.”
“Emma, I really don’t need this this morning.”
“Oh alright, Morag.”
Emma knew full well that her mother hated her first name and went instead by the lovelier and less Scottish Claire. Emma also knew that her mother never told anyone what the M stood for, and in every church she had ever served, the only one who knew her first name was the person who processed the payroll. Emma secretly hoped that her mother feared she would tell everyone what the M stood for. It was one of her few bargaining chips, but she thought it a pretty good one.
Having her first name disclosed was the last thing on Claire’s mind. She had accepted the call to be pastor of St. Rahab’s six weeks earlier, and the time between had been spent saying good-bye, making apologies, selling a house, buying a house, packing, moving, putting down the eighteen-year-old cat who developed kidney failure two days before the moving van showed up, and crying in her driveway as her best friend drove away after the moving van had left.
Claire and Emma enjoyed their road trip, mostly. Emma kept asking mother if they could rent handguns and do target practice like Thelma and Louise, but Claire told her since they were nowhere near the Grand Canyon, that would not be their story. When Emma got bored or tired or hungry, she would ask her mother why they hadn’t brought the cat with them.
“Honey, the cat died.”
“We couldn’t bring him.”
“Why not? It’s not like he’s going to run out and get hit by a car.”
“Let’s think about this for about five seconds. Dead animal. Hot car. Fifteen hundred miles.”
“Decay. Rot. Purification. Smell. Honda Civic.”
“Jeez, okay, you made your point. You don’t have to get all Night of the Living Dead about it.”
Claire sighed and thought, not for the last time, that single-parenting a fifteen year old was not for the faint of heart. They survived the road trip, Wall Drug, the Corn Palace, Mt. Rushmore, the Badlands, and all of Montana.
Emma thought their new house would be okay. Her room was upstairs, in a renovated attic, and she had the whole top floor to herself. The ceilings sloped with the roofline and the floors sloped toward the center of the room. She had windows on three sides, and a decent closet, and a tiny balcony off the west side window. There was a laundry chute which she thought was cool, and a ceiling fan and wall sconces out of the 1940’s. For the life of her, Claire couldn’t figure out why someone would renovate an attic and put wall sconces in a space that was clearly meant to be a bedroom, but it wasn’t her room and if her kid was happy, she was happy.
Claire liked the house fine. What she most liked was that she had found it, could afford it, and that it was close but not too close to the church. She figured she owed Emma something for uprooting her before tenth grade, so she gave her the cool upstairs room and took the smaller bedroom with only one window for herself. The queen bed, the dresser, and the vanity fit.
It wasn’t as though she needed more space. It wasn’t as though she needed a king size bed. It wasn’t as though there was anyone who’d be sharing it with her any time soon. Because nothing scares off a man like “single mom pastor looking for love.”
Claire gave herself the once-over before heading out. At 5’2″ with dark brown hair in a pixie cut, she looked younger than she was, but she thought that more often than not worked to her advantage. She had chosen her favorite dress for her first Sunday, a linen shift in a purply shade of blue that complimented her dark brown eyes. She stuck to safe earrings, the gold posts. With an assessment of “good enough” she gathered her bag and sermon and set out.
The service began at 10:30, and Claire arrived at church at 9:00. As she made her way from the parking lot to the door, an older man came across to her, a set smile on his face.
“Yes, hello! Please remind me of your name.”
“William Meriwhether Hill, but most people call me Bill.”
“Bill, it is good to see you again.”
“So tell me, Pastor Claire, is it your intention to arrive at church at 9:00 on Sunday mornings, or were you running late today?”
“Well, Bill, I hadn’t really given it much thought.”
“Because Pastor Dale would arrive at 7:30 on Sunday mornings, to make sure there was toilet paper in the bathrooms and to start the coffee and to greet people as they came in.”
“That’s odd, because I thought the church had a sexton on staff.”
“Bill Carr? Sure. He’s around on Sunday morning too. But Pastor Dale always double-checked his work.”
“Thank you, Bill, for letting me know your thoughts on this. I’m going to go get ready for church, if that’s okay with you.”
“Certainly. Good luck this morning. We’re all expecting a lot from you.”
“We don’t believe in luck, you know. We believe in God’s providence.”
Bill could practically feel Gladys’s elbow in his ribs.
Claire took in a deep breath. That did not go well. It was certainly not how she wanted to start. Bill Hill, Bill Hill. She couldn’t remember meeting him as part of the interview process. She’d be on the lookout for him. Ten to one, he calls tomorrow to make an appointment to come talk to me, she thought.
She let herself in the office. Standing by the copier was Bill Carr, the church sexton.
“Good morning. You’re Bill, right?”
“Yes ma’am, Reverend Grayson. Welcome officially to St. Rahab’s.”
“Please call me Claire. And thank you. That’s the warmest welcome I’ve had so far today.”
Bill chuckled. “Saw Bill Hill meet you in the parking lot. Don’t mind him. A lot of bark, but very little bite. He knows a bit about the church here. Not everything, but a lot of stuff that will help out the new pastor.”
“So who does know everything?”
Bill Carr was a rangy guy, and Claire couldn’t place his age. He could be forty, he could be sixty. There was a Denzel Washington twinkle in his eyes, and Claire couldn’t tell if it was a friendly twinkle or a mischievous one. But he was clean-shaven, dressed in clothes ready to unclog a toilet or mop up, so already he was light years ahead of her last church sexton. All the same, she hoped she was done with Bills for the day.
Bill Hill noted that the bulletin was perfect, although he did purse his lips when Alice Weston stood up to speak as the prelude ended.
“Good morning, St. Rahabites! Today is a great day in the life of our church as we welcome our sixteenth pastor, the Reverend M. Claire Grayson, and her daughter Emma. Having chaired the search committee, I can say with all honesty and great gusto that Pastor Claire is just what our church needs. She’s young, energetic, but not fresh off the turnip truck, having served two other congregations in Minneapolis and Des Moines. Let’s give her a big St. Rahab’s welcome!”
Claire smiled at Alice. She had felt an immediate connection with the woman, whom she assumed to be the church matriarch. Claire hadn’t sensed any power-hunger in Alice, only a genuine desire to serve God and church. She was grateful for the introduction, although at forty she wasn’t sure she could still be described as young.
“Friends, thank you for that warm welcome. Emma and I are so glad to be here at last, and we look forward to getting to know you and to serving Christ with you as the years unfold. Now let us worship God, and sing the opening hymn.”
The rest of the service went just fine. As the kids came forward for the children’s time, one saw Emma sitting on the front pew all by herself and promptly sat himself on her lap. Emma gave Claire that look, but then put her arm around him and whispered in his ear. The boy smiled and snuggled in.
Claire stumbled over one of the names in the prayer, but no one walked out on the sermon, the soloist was in fine form, and people remembered to wear their name tags, making the handshake line after worship a little easier.
By the time Claire made it to coffee hour, the cookies were gone. Emma made a beeline to her mom. “I saved you some cookies. Shortbread toffee. Your favorite.”
Maybe things would work out here after all.
In which Bill Hill has a meeting with the new pastor
In fact, Bill Hill did not call Claire the next day or the day after that. Bill waited an entire week before making an appointment, going on the assumption that Claire needed a little St. Rahab experience under her belt before presenting her with his ideas of how she should do her work.
He called the Monday after her second Sunday, and they agreed to meet on Tuesday afternoon at 1:00, as the time interfered neither with Claire’s Tuesday morning staff meeting nor Bill’s 4:00 round of golf.
At 1:00 o’clock on the dot, Trystene, the secretary, stuck her head in Claire’s office. “Reverend Grayson, Bill Hill is here to see you. Should I tell him you’re busy?”
“No, thank you, Trystene. We made this appointment. And please call me Claire.”
“Alright, Pastor Claire. I’ll send him right in.”
Trystene Wood had been the secretary at St. Rahab’s for three years. Like Claire, she was a single mom. Her son Robbie had finished high school although he was still around, trying to find himself but being generally helpful to his mother, or so he thought.
On her first day in the office, Claire asked Trystene about her unusual name. “Oh, I get that all the time,” she answered. “My mother loved the story of Tristan and Isolde, and my father had his heart set on naming his first daughter Kathleen, so they compromised and called me Trystene. No one is every really sure how to pronounce it, but no one ever forgets me either.”
So far Trystene appeared to be quite competent at her work. She showed up five minutes before the office opened and stayed at least five minutes after it closed. She knew what to do when church members called – some needed to talk, some needed to complain, some just needed something copied, and she managed all of that. She and the sexton Bill Carr seemed a little wary of each other, and Claire wasn’t sure just what that was about, but it didn’t appear to be interfering with either’s work.
Claire didn’t know the details of Trystene’s divorce and that was fine. Claire decided that Trystene’s relationship with Robbie was none of her business, although she hoped the young man wasn’t draining his mother’s few resources. He’d stopped twice the last week, but seemed polite enough. And he was up before noon, which was more than Claire could say about her own kid. It would be good when school started.
There was a cute little flirtation between Trystene and Frank, the copier repair man. Claire would make it a point to jam the machine as often as possible.
Claire stood up as Bill came in. She motioned to one of the chairs by the window. “Have a seat, Bill.”
“Thank you, Claire. How are you today?”
“Just fine. I made it through my first two Sundays without any disasters, so I’m considering that a win.”
“Have you had disasters in your first two Sundays before?”
It was at this point Claire realized that she and Bill Hill had differing opinions about what was funny and lighthearted. Claire wasn’t sure if Bill thought anything was funny or lighthearted. She also realized that her usual tricks of charm and light self-deprecation weren’t going to work on Bill. Best be plainspoken and serious.
“So what can I help you with today, Bill?”
“Claire, I have been a member of this congregation for fifty-seven years. I love this church. It’s where Gladys and I met, back when we both sang in the choir. We got married here. Our daughters were baptized here, and went to Sunday School, and got confirmed here. One of them was married here. Gladys and I have served on just about every committee and have done just about every thing except be the treasurer. St. Rahab’s receives the largest portion of our charitable giving. We both plan to have our memorial services here.”
“It sounds like this place means a great deal to you.”
“Yes, that’s what I’m trying to tell you. And here’s the thing: Glad and I have been here sixty years, and we have lived through seven pastors. We loved Pastor Dale. We liked Pastor Meg. We cried the day Pastor Peter said he was leaving. We barely made it through Pastor George. Pastor John Mark baptized our daughters. Pastor Henry was a friend. Dr. McIntyre married us.”
“You have quite a memory, Bill.”
“Of course I remember all those pastors – and the temporary and interim ones we had in between. I remember all those pastors and I can tell you which ones helped the church and which ones almost killed the church. And if there was a pastor I thought might kill the church, well, I did something about it.”
“Now Claire, I want you to succeed. I want you to be one of the pastors who helps this church, because I think a lot people are excited you’re here. And I want to help you help the church.”
“I’m not done yet. There are certain things that help this church succeed, and I’ve made a list, because no one else has the balls – excuse me – no one else has the guts to say things up front anymore. But I believe in being direct.”
“I can see that.”
“So as I said, I’ve made a list, and I’m not going to go over it now with you. I’ve typed it up, and it’s in this envelope, and you can read it at your leisure. But if I were you I wouldn’t wait too long. And when you’re done reading it, we can meet again and go over it. How does Thursday sound?”
Bill left and Claire sighed. She didn’t know whether to throw Bill out, kiss his ring, or write him off. So she decided to call on a few of the older homebound members. They were always good for a cup of tea and sweet conversation. Bill’s list could wait.
In which Claire reads The List
Emma wasn’t awake yet, but it was only eight o’clock and school hadn’t started yet. It was Claire’s time of tranquility, so why she decided to read Bill Hill’s List before the day had started wasn’t clear to her, although she suspected it might be easier to take while still in her pajamas with a cup of coffee at the ready.
The envelope, sealed shut, was addressed to The Reverend Ms. M. Claire Grayson, Pastor, St. Rahab’s Church. Fair enough. The guy was old school. Probably had Gladys type it for him. She grabbed a knife to slit the envelope open, hoping she wouldn’t want to do the same to her wrists after she read the letter.
Inside was a single sheet of paper – no cover memo, no hand-written note. It read
Procedures for a Successful Pastorate at St. Rahab’s Church
Compiled by William Meriwether Hill
1. The pastor will do the final proofread on all Sunday bulletins to ensure there are no mistakes. The pastor will double check that all hymn numbers are correct.
2. The pastor will follow a standard outline for the order of worship every Sunday. A few times a year the pastor may deviate from this order when there is a special occasion in worship, e.g., the youth lead in worship or the choir sings a cantata in lieu of a sermon.
3. The pastor will not wear Birkenstocks when leading worship (unless a temporary medical condition necessitates this alternative footwear.)
4. The pastor will guide the Fellowship Committee as they oversee the sign up for cookies and other treats at coffee hour.
5. The pastor will supervise the church staff giving input to and receiving input from the Personnel Committee. The pastor will not assume that these people know how to do their jobs and don’t need guidance.
6. The pastor will arrive no later than 1.5 hours before the Sunday worship service begins.
7. The pastor will do a walk-through of the building every other month with the sexton, noting areas of concern with regards to cleanliness, safety, security, and aesthetics.
8. The pastor will make at least ten pastoral calls each month.
9. The pastor will not write opinion pieces in the local paper which might cast St. Rahab’s and/or its members in a bad light.
10. The pastor will use all of her vacation and continuing education time each year, within the twelve-month time period.
Claire poured herself another cup of coffee and grabbed a brownie from the batch Emma made the day before, only to realize there wasn’t enough coffee or chocolate in the world to take on Bill Hill.
Eventually, fully fueled, showered and dressed, she made her way to the office.
“Trystene, I wonder if we might sit down to go over a couple of things.”
“Yes Reverend, I mean Pastor Claire. Did I do something wrong?
“No. I’m just trying to get the lay of the land and I thought ‘who knows more than the church secretary?’”
“Oh, Bill Carr knows way more than me, but I’ll sit down and talk with you.”
“Great. Come on in. So, with our publications – the newsletter and the Sunday bulletin – how do those work?”
“Well, people submit their items, their articles and stuff, or the anthem or announcements for Sunday, and you give me your stuff – prayers and things, and the scripture and the sermon title and the hymns – and I put them all together.”
“And who proofreads?”
“Pastor Dale always trusted me to do the proofreading.”
“If it’s all the same to you, I would like to do the proofreading.”
“Did Bill Hill say something to you? Every so often I get a call from him on a Monday morning and he’s all angry and everything because the bulletin was messed up. I swear, Rev- Pastor Claire, I don’t know what happens between Friday afternoon and Sunday morning. The bulletins that get put out those weeks when Bill Hill calls are not the bulletins I did.”
“So maybe it will help us both if I proofread them.”
“Maybe. You could ask Bill Carr about it too.”
“Yeah. He’s sometimes the only one here on a Saturday. Maybe he can explain it.”
“Thank you. I’ll do that. Now another thing: I’ve only been here for two Sundays but it seems to me we have a high number of visitors with us. Is that normal or are people just checking out the new pastor?”
“Well, I’m not much of a church goer but it seems to me we usually get a big number of visitor types.”
“How do we keep track of them?”
“Well, we ask them to sign the pad things, but half of them don’t, and unless one of our folks asks them, they usually just come up to coffee hour and grab a cookie. Sometimes we see them again, sometimes we don’t.”
“I wonder how they hear about us.”
“Beats me. I wish they’d come back more often, though.”
“I do too. Thanks, Trystene. That should do it for now.”
Bill Carr was next on the list. Claire called his cell phone, since no one ever really knew where in the building Bill might be.
“Bill, it’s Claire. I wonder if you might have a few minutes to go over some things.”
“Sure. Is now a good time?”
“As good a time as any. Why don’t I meet you in the sanctuary.”
“Sounds good. See you there.”
The sanctuary of St. Rahab’s church was one of the prettiest Claire had ever seen. It was built in the early 1920’s, a few years after the congregation was founded.
The nave was in a semi-circle, with dark cherry pews that curved. The chancel was a simple platform with a pulpit on one side, a baptismal font on the other, and the communion table in the middle. Three clergy chairs lined the back wall of the chancel, throne-like things with ornately carved arms and legs. The cushions in the center chair were softer than the others; for decades the church had only one pastor who sat in the same chair week after week.
Behind the chancel, on a higher platform, sat the organ and choir loft, with a special side entrance that went to a hallway that led to a staircase that went down to another hallway that led to the choir practice room. The narthex in the back of the church was big enough to hold visitors but not big enough to have coffee hour. Claire put the renovation of that space on her to-do list in twenty years.
The most striking thing about the sanctuary was the stained glass, ten windows altogether. A large rose window was in the front wall behind the choir loft. On each side of the sanctuary were windows with characters from the Bible – the usual four (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, the Samaritan woman at the well, and then, oddly enough, St. Francis, adorned with flora and fauna.
Even more odd was the window in the back of the church, along the wall of the narthex. It was of Rahab, the woman described in the book of Joshua who helped the Israelite spies plan their invasion of the promised land, the person for whom the church was named.
In the center of the window was Rahab herself, with a beautifully painted face and clothes of the medieval era. Behind her was a window with a red cord hanging inside and out. A stack of wheat lay near her feet. Rather than looking pensively out to the side, Rahab looked directly out, and that Claire had the sense that her eyes were following her.
Claire found the window strange, if not a little disturbing. The eyes unsettled her, and the medieval clothing for a woman who lived a few thousand years before Christ just annoyed her. But the bigger mystery was Rahab herself. She had never been canonized by the Catholic church. She was a prostitute and a Gentile. It never appeared that she converted to the religion of the Israelites. At best, she helped the Israelites conquer the Canaanites; at worst she was saving her own neck.
When Claire interviewed with the church there were so many more pressing things to learn that she never asked about the history of the church’s name. Alice Weston would probably know. Bill Hill would too, but Claire was trying to avoid him as much as possible.
“Bill, I’m hoping you can take me on an insider’s tour of the building – you know, all the nooks and crannies, the boiler room, the closet where the Christmas decorations are kept, the water shut-off – that sort of thing.”
“Yes ma’am, but the boiler room?”
“Yes, the boiler room. People sometimes think that clergywomen shouldn’t be bothered with manly mechanical things like boilers and water shut-offs but if there is a crisis on a Sunday morning, I should at least know where to send people.”
“Yes, ma’am. Well, as you know, the sanctuary is the oldest part of the building, and the room just off the front to the left used to be the pastor’s office, and the bathroom in the back was the only bathroom. Downstairs was one great big room where they’d have coffee after church and wedding receptions and Sunday School and all of it.
“They remodeled all of that back in the ‘60’s and added some more bathrooms; it was about the same time they added the education building where the classrooms and fellowship hall and offices are now.”
“What is the downstairs used for mostly now?”
“Oh, over the years different groups have rented the space for their offices; non-profits and little groups. None of the renters stay too long. There aren’t any windows done there, and it gets pretty cold in the winter, and we used to get a lot of water down there when the rains came.”
“The water situation is much better now. ‘Bout ten years ago Bill Hill headed up a program to take care of a lot of the deferred maintenance.”
“The boiler room?”
“I’ll take you there.”
The boiler room made up for the beauty of the sanctuary. It was dark, lit by flickering fluorescent bulbs, and had that oily metallic smell. As Claire walked in, she saw the behemoth boiler to her right, a hulk of machinery with dials and valves that she knew she would never touch in a million years, or when Jesus returned, whichever came first.
“So this is the boiler.”
“When was it put in?”
“Let’s see. I’ve been here since 1985, and it was about twenty-five years old back then, so I’d say 1960.”
“That makes it fifty years old.”
“More or less, yes.”
“And do you happen to know what the average lifespan of a boiler like this is?”
Bill smiled. “About forty years.”
Great, thought Claire. I’ll add that to my to-do list.
“What’s behind that door in the back?”
“That? That leads to the tunnels.”
“Yeah, the tunnels. When the church was first built it was the only building in town that had heat, and we sold heat to houses around us. The tunnels go under the street.”
“Have you ever been down there?”
“When I first started, but it’s mostly cobwebs now. You interested in having a look?”
“Oh, I’m not really dressed for it. Another time.”
The truth was that Claire was more than a little claustrophobic. She promised herself she would never go into those tunnels, not even if the hounds of hell were chasing her. Satan’s best friend she could take. A small dark webby enclosure would do her in.
Bill’s phone rang. “Claire, I need to take this. Can we finish the tour later?”
Later in the afternoon Claire remembered that she had wanted to ask Bill about the bulletins. Next time.
In which the Hills invite Claire and Emma over for dinner
“Do I have to go?”
“Yes, you have to go.”
“Because the Hills invited both of us. Because I’m trying to find a way to have a more positive relationship with Bill. Because I want to show them you’re not a Satan-worshipping drug addict who’s pregnant.”
“Thanks, honey. Love you.” The last thing Claire felt in that moment was love for her one and only daughter, but she’d gotten through much of life and ministry with the “fake it till you make it” policy.
“Here are the brownies I made. Carmel. Pecans.”
“Oh sweetie, thank you. I know you don’t want to do this, and I promise I will only drag you to the really important ones. Deal?
Like Claire’s, Bill and Gladys’s home was close to church but not too close, and, Claire noted, in a neighborhood more upscale than her own. As they pulled up, Claire immediately fell in love with the house. It was a broad, generous Craftsman bungalow, painted an apple green with mauve and cream trim. Gladys’ idea, Claire thought. A porch wrapped around the front and two sides, with a hanging swing on one side and some wicker chairs and tables on the other.
I would like a house like this some day, Claire thought. Better change professions.
They knocked on the door and Bill greeted them.
“Claire, Emma, welcome! We’re so glad you could join us. Is that the dessert? Emma, why don’t you take that back to Gladys. She’s in the kitchen. Straight down the hallway, on the left at the end. Claire, it’s such a nice evening I thought we’d have a drink outside. Glad’ll be out in just a minute.”
Well this is not the man who presented me with The List, Claire mused. Maybe he’s a happier guy on his own turf.
“Thanks, Bill. I have to tell you I love your house. How long have you lived here?”
“Glad and I were married in 1953, and we were just getting settled. Meri came along in 1960 but we lived in the other house. We were here when Junie was born in ’64, so that makes forty-six years. It’s been a work in progress ever since.”
“I love the Craftsman style. And this green is one of my favorite colors.”
“A few years ago we had the whole thing scraped and repainted. When I first retired I was bored out of my mind, so I did some research about the colors used in this neighborhood on this style house when they were built in the 20’s, and I chose the green and mauve.”
“I had assumed Gladys picked the colors.”
“Don’t get me wrong, they were approved by Gladys, as is most everything I do. But I picked them. I’m glad you like them. Now what can I get you to drink?”
Claire wasn’t sure if this was a test. Should she be a rebel and ask for a shot of tequila? Should she play it safe and ask for water or lemonade? Should she say nothing, she was fine?
“What have you got?
“I just got a case of a crisp little Sauvignon Blanc that I’ve been waiting to share. How does that sound?”
Meanwhile in the kitchen, Emma and Gladys were bonding over dessert. The one thing Emma would do without complaining was bake, and she had dreams of being a pastry chef one day. She had yet to master a decent pate brisee, but her chocolate chip cookies, brownies, and lemon tarts were the hit of every church potluck she and her mother had ever attended. Claire hadn’t told Gladys this, and whether Gladys was intuitive or herself loved baking, she and Emma found themselves in deep conversation about the relative merits of light brown sugar versus dark brown sugar right away.
“Mrs. Hill, this is a really nice kitchen. You have so much counter space! And the window looking out on your back yard is great. Our kitchen window looks out on our neighbor’s bedroom and their garbage cans.”
“Please call me Gladys, Emma. You’re on the west coast now. Thank you. When Bill retired a few years ago he was driving me bonkers, so I suggested he plan a renovation of the kitchen. He researched the original plans and tried to keep some of the historical elements while making it useful for the modern world. This drawer is a bread tin, and these things that look like drawers are actually bins for the flour and sugar. Over here is a laundry chute that goes down to the basement. No one ever thinks about having the laundry chute stop in the kitchen, but with all the dish towels I go through, we thought that would be a nice little detail.”
“I have a laundry chute in my room. I love it.”
“Tell me about your room.”
Claire and Bill were well into the first glass of the Sauvignon Blanc when Bill yelled back toward the kitchen.
“Glad? What are you two doing in there? Come out and join us. Get yourself a drink and bring something for Emma too. While you’re at it, grab those Ruffles.”
He turned to Claire. “I know I should serve something a little more elegant than Ruffles with this wine, but they are my favorite and Gladys only lets me have them on special occasions.”
Claire smiled. “So this is a special occasion?”
Bill turned to her with a warmth in his eyes she hadn’t seen prior to this evening. “Claire, I know I came on pretty strong in our meeting. I accept that. But I don’t want to apologize because it’s all fueled by my love for this church. It’s a special place. I’m not always good at expressing things that I feel deeply, and it was a lot easier for me to type that list than to talk about it face to face with a stranger.
“Having heard your last few sermons, and watching you at coffee hour and whatnot, I’ve come to realize that you are exactly the pastor that St. Rahab’s has needed for a good long while. Pastor Dale was a wonderful, godly man, and he helped people in ways we’ll never know. But he stayed too long, in part because we all saw his dementia and didn’t have the heart to cut him off from something he loved.
“Before the girls join us, I want to tell you something as my pastor. I’ve had a little cough lately, but it hasn’t gone away and my doc did some x-rays. There’s a shadow he’s not really sure about. Glad is my rock, as usual, and I go between being scared as hell and confident that we’ll deal with whatever comes our way. I’d just as soon you not tell anyone about this just yet. Alice Weston would probably show up with a platter of her Prune Drop Cookies, and that might kill me then and there. Oh, there you two are! Emma, pull up a chair and tell me about your drive out west.”
A good time was had by all, much to Claire and Emma’s surprise. Bill and Gladys had an easy rapport between them, and they were gracious hosts, and the meal was delicious. The dining room was surrounded by a collection of china plates and family photographs and made the space feel cozy. On the way home Emma decided it would be okay if Bill and Gladys made her an honorary grandchild. Claire decided maybe she could survive Bill after all. But she would keep the coffee and chocolate on hand all the same.
In which Claire has lunch with Alice Weston
“Dear, what’s your schedule like next week? You’ve been here almost two months, and as the chair of your search committee, it is my obligation and my desire to find out how you are.”
“Alice, that is kind of you. Shall we say Wednesday?”
“Yes. I’ll pick you up. See you Sunday, and then on Wednesday!”
Alice Weston was the quintessential church lady. Like the Hills, Alice had been around a long time and had served everywhere in the church. As she had just finished chairing the search committee that found Claire, she was between duties at the moment, but Claire had no doubt there would be something on the horizon. Maybe the congregation’s hundredth anniversary. Add that to the to-do list.
Alice was tiny, just squeaking past five feet in heels. She still sported a perm and went to the beauty parlor every Friday for a wash and set. Her hair was a beautiful white with a few streaks of gray left, and the kids loved to sit behind her in church and watch her scrunch the back of her hair into a little flip. She never wore pants, not even to clean the house or work in the garden. She was married to Garrett, a gem of a guy, a retired lawyer who forever referred to Alice as his first wife. (She was also his only wife.) They had five children who showed up at church on Christmas Eve, Easter, and Mother’s Day.
Alice drove a beige Buick Regal with a little booster cushion to help her see over the dashboard. To say she drove it was not quite accurate; she steered it like Captain Ahab, on the lookout for errant dogs, balls, and children. She tended to tailgate, which made Claire a little nervous, but she figured there was enough hood between them and the next car that were there a rear-ender, they would make it out alive.
Of all the places Claire imagined Alice would take her to lunch, the Steel Horse Diner didn’t even make the list.The restaurant was in the industrial part of town which would probably see some gentrification in a few years, but in 2010, it seemed a little dicey. Alice managed to parallel park her boat and the two walked in.
“Alice! Where have you been? Off on another one of your cruises?”
“Hello, Sandy dear. How are you? Missed me, did you?”
“It’s been, what two months? Yes, I missed you. Who’s your friend?”
“Sandy, I’d like to introduce you to our new pastor, Claire Grayson. Claire, this is Sandy, the best waitress this side of the Rockies.”
“Now Alice, you know we like to be called servers.”
“Whatever, dear. Where shall we sit?”
Claire had to admit that she was served one good greasy hamburger, and the fries were the best she’d had since she’d moved – small, crispy, salty; they probably used oil full of trans fat. Alice ordered a burger and fries too, though both said no to the milkshake and yes to iced tea.
“Now dear, tell me truthfully. How is it going?”
To her embarrassment, Claire got a lump in her throat. Her eyes started to water, and she looked away, out the window. She saw a dog peeing on a fire hydrant. Thank you, God. I needed that.
She took a deep breath. “Sorry about that, Alice. I think I’m at the point where the wonderment has worn off and I’m realizing everything I left behind. I mean, things are going fine, but I’m just starting to grieve.”
Alice reached across the table and laid her hand on top of Claire’s. She looked straight into Claire’s eyes and dropped the sweetness, which was replaced by a kindness that was balm to the soul.
“Claire, I do not doubt for one moment that taking this call was a huge risk for you and Emma, and a sacrifice too. You had a life back in Minneapolis. You had friends. You had a church that loved you and trusted your leadership. You had a hairdresser and a dry cleaner and a grocery store you knew your way around in.
“I pray for you and Emma every night because I really believe you were meant to be here. The sadness is just a part of it, and unfortunately you have to go through it because there is no way around it. But there are people pulling for you – you have no idea. I’m just sorry for the sad part. Is there an old friend, someone not from here, that you can talk to?”
Claire teared up again at the thought of her best friend Martha, whom she hadn’t talked to in weeks. She nodded.
“You ladies need some more iced tea? ‘Cause things are looking pretty serious over here. Did you see that dog peeing on the fire hydrant? Next stop is our door, hoping for scraps.”
At that moment Claire knew that she was in the hands of two decent and kind women. “Yes, more tea would be great. Thanks.”
Sandy went back to the counter, sashaying her hips and sassing her customers on the way. Sure enough, the dog did make its way to the door, looking plaintively through the glass, the triumph of hope over reality.
“Alice, your words mean more to me than I can say. Really. I know there’s not much you can do about our sadness. Like you said, it’s just something Emma and I have to deal with ourselves. But you can help me with one thing.”
“Well, it’s a who’s that. Bill Hill. I don’t know what to make of him. One minute he is the picture of kindness and the next he’s a fire breathing dragon certain I will drive St. Rahab’s into the ground if I don’t proofread the bulletin every week.”
“Bill. William Meriwether Hill. The thing you have to remember about Bill is that he always has the best for St. Rahab’s at heart. I’ve known him and Glad a long time. They are good people. I was there when Glad went through two miscarriages before Meri was born and another before Junie was born. I was there for them when Junie told them she was gay. I was there when Bill got depressed when he retired. I will be there when the cancer diagnosis comes.”
“You know about that?”
“Gladys has to have someone to turn to. Give him time. His bark is much worse than his bite. And I don’t know what this cancer will do to him. Don’t let him scare you off, but don’t write off what he says either.”
“Glad told me that Emma is quite the baker! I’d love to have her over sometime.”
“Oh. To make Prune Drop Cookies? I hear they’re your specialty.”
“I don’t share that recipe with anyone, dear. But I’d love to share my lemon meringue pie recipe. The secret is letting the sugar and water and cornstarch sit covered in the double boiler for ten minutes before adding the lemon juice .”
The burger and fries left Claire a little drowsy that afternoon. She looked over at her couch, asked Trystene to hold her calls, set her timer for twenty-five minutes, and laid down. She fell asleep almost immediately.
She woke up suddenly to the sound of her alarm. What a strange dream she had been having. A tall, dark, and handsome man was at the Steel Horse Diner with Alice, and Sandy was bringing them a covered silver platter. The man was dressed like Sherlock Holmes, and Alice was dressed like a pirate, and Sandy was wearing a dress just like the dress Claire wore for funerals, but with striped knee socks. The three were speaking in a language Claire couldn’t understand. Sandy suddenly took the lid off the platter, and there were Prune Drop Cookies, steam rising off them. The peeing dog came in, sat next to Alice, and promptly ate a cookie.
Claire decided next time she had lunch with Alice, she’d stick with the soup.
In which Claire catches up with her best friend
Claire’s best friend, Martha Goode, was the life of every party and the cheerleader of all. She couldn’t be called pretty but there was a vivacity to her that made head turns and people smile. She and Claire met when Claire moved to Minneapolis. They were both first-timers at a yoga class that acquaintances of each had raved about. When they walked in, the instructor was a stringy guy with Weird Al Yankovic hair tied in a ponytail wearing something that looked like a cross between a Speedo and a diaper. Claire and Martha rolled out their mats next to each other, simultaneously stifled a laugh the first time Weird Al Diaper Man farted, and promised to go out for coffee instead of yoga the next week. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Martha worked for the State Department. When Claire asked her what she did, Martha was vague.
“Would you have to kill me if you told me?”
“Something like that.”
Martha had never married, and had made peace with that. She would be gone for stretches at a time every few months, but Claire knew better than to ask where she had been or what she had been doing. Once when she was over at Martha’s, she saw her passport lying on the kitchen table. She thought about sneaking a peek, but decided her desire for friendship outweighed her curiosity, and let it be.
One of the things Claire most appreciated about Martha was that she was not a member of the congregation. Pastors need people in their lives who don’t hear their sermons, don’t get prayed over, and aren’t really interested in the sometimes Byzantine machinations of working in a church.
“I do believe in God. I’m spiritual and a little religious. I pray. I read holy scriptures. I go to church on Christmas and Easter, and temple on Yom Kippur. I meditate. But church – no thanks, sweetie. I’ll leave that in your capable hands.”
When the moving van left with everything they owned but the Civic, Claire, Emma and Martha stood in the doorway, trying to delay the inevitable. Finally Martha said, “I guess it’s time. I love you both. Travel safely. Don’t take any wooden nickels. Don’t forget who you’re representing. Make sure you have a clean handkerchief. Don’t pick up any hitchhikers. And for God’s sake, call me every night.”
Martha hugged them, got in her car, drove off, and Claire promptly dissolved in sinkhole of tears.
Two days after Claire and Alice had lunch, Claire texted Martha.
Is this a good time?
I’m in the loo. Give me five minutes.
“Oh my God, Martha, it is so good to hear your voice. Do you want to Skype?”
“No, because that way you can’t see me multitasking although of course you are my number one priority, next to my parents’ visit tomorrow that is necessitating that I actually recycle my collection of newspapers and run a dust rag over the horizontal surfaces. So how are you? How is Emma? Has St. Claire slain the dragon Bill Hill?”
“I don’t even know where to begin. Let’s see. Emma is doing fine in school and has made two friends who do not appear to be heroin addicts with Hepatitis C. One has blue hair and the other lives in a house with six cats, but I can manage that. She seems to have settled in fine; the circle she hung out with in Minneapolis dropped her last spring and she floundered a little. I think the move is a good new start, but it’s had its ups and downs.”
“Has she threatened to tell people what the M stands for?”
“Of course. But she hasn’t. Not that I know of, anyway.”
“I love your kid but I really want to know about you.”
“So… it’s going fine. The church has money and volunteers and they seem to be accepting me. I’ve found a grocery store and dry cleaner but my hair is way overdue for a cut and color.”
“Everything’s unpacked and I got rid of a couch that didn’t fit. I’ve taken care of all the change of address stuff, registered my car, got a new driver’s license. I’m fine.”
“Mm-hmm. That is very interesting,” Martha said flatly.
Claire knew exactly what her friend was getting at.
“Okay, every night after Emma goes upstairs I bawl my eyes out. I miss Minneapolis. I miss you. I miss my house. I miss my old congregation. I miss the market and the hairdresser and my morning walk. I am so sad so often. I worry that I made a mistake in moving. I worry that I’m going to fail. I have days when I am so bored with ministry and days when I don’t think I can take one more freaking committee meeting and days when I never want to retire. I fantasize about a Monday to Friday 9 to 5 job. I’m just keeping my head above water, not letting people and especially not letting Emma see how miserable I am.”
“What should I do?”
“How the hell would I know? All I know is this: you have moved before, with Emma; you are a loving and talented pastor. The church would not have offered you the job if they didn’t think you could do it. Finding a hairdresser and friends and a walking trail is easy. Figuring out who you are in the midst of everything around you being new is the hard part. But you have to do it. And accepting and loving Sad Claire is a part of it.”
“Why don’t you move here? Leave the State Department. I’d hire you in a second.”
“As if. Now how is the man scene there?”
That night, for the first time in a long time, Claire did not cry herself to sleep. She sat in the chair by the window, and looked out on the street for a long time. She thought about Emma’s dad, just for a minute. She thought about Emma, who brought a new depth of love to her heart, and vowed to be a little easier on her, remembering what she was like when she was fifteen. She thought about the weird dream she’d had after lunch with Alice. All of a sudden it hit her: they needed a dog.
On Saturday Emma woke up at an early 11:00.
“Morning, sweetheart. Can I make you some breakfast?”
“How about I make some scones instead?”
“Twist my arm.”
As they sat at the table eating scones, Claire opened the paper to the want ads.
“What are looking for?”
“I’ve decided we need a dog.”
“Really? Oh my gosh, that would be so great. I would totally take care of him, take him for walks and give him baths and trim his toenails and everything. Oh, Mom, thank you! Can we get one today?”
“Let’s look at the ads.”
That evening Rex Maximus came to live with Claire and Emma. He was the runt of a litter produced by a Yorkshire Terrier and a Poodle. He was, Claire and Emma decided, the cutest thing either of him had ever seen. Big brown eyes, brown with a few white and gray markings, ears meant for a larger dog, and sharp puppy toenails. He peed in the house just twice, and Claire left Emma alone with Rex while she ran to the store for puppy pee pads.
It was movie night, and after they ate their pizza and began “The Princess Bride” for the thousandth time, little Rex stood on Emma’s lap, turned three times, and curled up till the movie ended.
“Can he sleep in my room? Please, please, please?”
“Sure honey. Now go upstairs. I have to get some sleep before tomorrow.”
“Love you, Mom.”
“I love you too.”
In which a visitor comes to church and Claire is flustered
Claire noticed him right away. It wasn’t as though he didn’t stand out, sitting in the front pew. No one ever sat in the front pew, unless they were a visitor who loved Jesus very very much and wanted to be as close as possible to the preacher so as to hang on every word, or unless it was a communion Sunday and the servers (reluctantly) sat up front so as to be ready at a moment’s notice to pass out the bread and juice.
Plus, Claire noted, he was good looking. Very good looking. Like the entire cast of Oceans Eleven was sitting on the front row. Like the young Ricardo Montalban and the young Omar Sharif had a love child. Tall, dark, and handsome, not unlike the man in her post-hamburger nap dream. He was well dressed – gray flannel slacks, white button-down shirt, navy/light blue/gray houndstooth jacket, shoes that looked like they did not come from Kohl’s. No tie. The first two buttons were undone, and there was no t-shirt underneath, and Claire thought she could detect a hint of chest hair. Not that she was looking. The guy was definitely not American. How on earth had he found his way to St. Rahab’s?
Claire noticed that everyone was looking at her expectantly, and she realized the prelude had ended. “Good morning! This is the day that the Lord has made.”
“Let us rejoice and be glad in it,” the congregation responded. Except for Ricardo Sharif TallDarkandHandsome. Hmmm. Maybe English was not his first language.
“If this is your first time to worship with us, a special St. Rahab’s welcome to you. And whether this is your first or five-hundredth time with us, we ask that you find the friendship pad in the pew rack in front of you, sign your name, and pass it along. We want to know who is here!”
Shit. The front pew did not have a pew rack. Mr. Handsome smiled at her.
(Please don’t let me blush. Please don’t let me blush.)
Fortunately, Margaret White always sat in the second pew and knew exactly what to do with visitors who made the bold choice of the first pew. Claire saw her tap Handsome on the shoulder and share her friendship pad. Thank God for Margaret.
“Now let us stand and sing the opening hymn, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing.”
To her horror, all Claire could think of was the old game she played in high school where they would add the words “between the sheets” after the name of the hymn title.
(Get it together, Claire. You are here to worship God, not flirt with a visitor.)
Claire did manage to get it together when she saw Gladys elbow Bill Hill in the ribs. She avoided looking at the first pew as she preached, and prayed that Mr. Handsome would exit at the door near the front, not shake her hand at the back door.
No such luck. The only person after Mr. Handsome was Alice. Claire tried not to imagine the love story unfolding in Alice’s imagination.
“Good morning. Thank you for worshipping with us today.”
“The pleasure was all mine. The mellifluicity of your words stirred me.”
(Oh dear God, the man sounds like Inigo Montoya with a bad cold.) The balloon of unrequited love deflated, quickly.
“Claire, dear, this is Toledo Vader. He is in town for business.”
“It is pronounded To-LAY-do, like the city in my beautiful Spain.”
“I do beg your pardon, dear.”
“It is good to meet you, Toledo. Perhaps Alice would take you up to coffee hour? Maybe she brought some of her famous Prune Drop Cookies.”
That would take care of him. No one who ever ate one of Alice’s cookies ever showed up again. (Thank God for Alice.)
As Claire took off her microphone and robe in her office, she sang to herself, “You say To-LEE-do, I say To-LAY-do.” She took her sweet time getting to coffee hour, and was happy to see that Mr. Vader was no longer there. Neither was Alice. Nor were there Prune Drop Cookies.
Still, he was a nice little eye candy, if only for a while.
“Mom, who was that guy?”
“The guy that every woman in the sanctuary stared at. The guy on the front row. The guy who made you blush.”
“I was warm, probably a hot flash. He was a visitor who is from Spain and his name is To-LAY-do Vader.”
“Was he nice?”
“He was polite, I guess. I didn’t really talk to him. Alice scooped him up to coffee hour and I didn’t see him after that.”
“Well, he was kind of hot.”
“Pretty is is not necessarily as pretty does, love.”
“Yeah, but you have to admit he was hot.”
“I try not to think of parishioners as hot, Emma.”
“Maybe you should start.”
“Enough. What did you make me for lunch?”
Curiosity got the best of Claire, and she finally googled Toledo Vader. Nothing. Bet it’s an alias, Claire thought. Bet he’s a spy or something, or an encyclopedia salesman, and the accent is phony, and his name is really Bert Steinberg and he’s from Paramus. She felt a little less guilty about googling him. She hoped he would not return. Mostly.
In which Claire leaves a candle burning at church
Shit, Claire thought. Shit shit shit shit shit. It was just after midnight on Saturday night and she was on the verge of falling asleep when suddenly she remembered she hadn’t blown out the candle in the prayer chapel.
-It will be fine. Bill Carr would have taken care of it.
-But Bill wasn’t scheduled to work. She would burn down the church.
-It will be fine.
-I can hear the sirens already.
Claire knew there was no use in trying to go back to sleep. She got up, threw on her yoga pants and a jacket, slipped into her clogs, and went upstairs. “Emma?” she said softly.
Emma’s light was still on, and Rex was curled up against her as she read. “Yeah, Mom?”
“Honey, I have to run back to church and blow out a candle. Will you be okay here?”
“Yes, Morag, I’ll be fine.”
Claire made her way downstairs. “Hey Mom – do you want to take Rex with you? His bark is pretty ferocious!”
“Thanks, honey, but I’ll be fine.”
Claire hated going into church at night by herself. She started thinking about zombies coming through the tunnels beyond the boiler room. Get a grip. This is God’s house. Zombies wouldn’t step near this place. But she was happy to see there were no flames shooting out the roof.
She let herself in and headed toward the prayer room. Still no flames or even smoke. She did notice the office lights were on, and took a detour. She must have forgotten to turn those off, too.
As she unlocked the door, she heard a familiar voice call out, “Is that you, Bill? I just recycled the bulletins. Do you have the new ones?”
Claire came around the corner and their stood Alice Weston.
“What are you doing here?”
“Why are you wearing pants?”
The two stood there, dumbfounded. Claire’s heart started to race and her head started to swim.
“Alice? Where are you? I’ve got the bulletins.” Bill Carr came into the office. “Oh no,” he said.
“Oh no, indeed,” Claire said. “Would one of you like to tell me what is going on?”
“Claire, it’s not what it looks like.”
“What it looks like is that the sexton and the church lady are in cahoots to mess up Sunday morning. Tell me I’m wrong.”
“Partly,” Alice said. “Let’s go sit down somewhere and talk. How about the prayer room.”
“I think this situation calls for more than prayer, Alice. Except, Bill, could you blow out the candle I left burning there?”
He smiled. “Already did.”
The three went to Claire’s office. She sat behind the desk, wanting to appear as authoritative as possible while wearing yoga pants and no bra.
“Where should we begin?” Alice asked.
“I do not even know. How about with the bulletins.”
“Every so often we redo the bulletins.”
“And why do you redo the bulletins?”
“Because we need to send a message.”
“A message, a code.”
“Alice, I think we need to start a little earlier. You’re awfully quiet over there, Bill, and yes, your job is in jeopardy. I have a mind to call an emergency meeting of the personnel committee right after worship tomorrow.”
“Hear Alice out, Claire, and then decide. Okay?”
And so Alice began.
“In 1905 the Word Exposition came to town.”
“Excuse me, Alice, but we need to go all the way back to 1905 to understand why you two are sabotaging the bulletins?”
“Dear, this is a long story that will only get longer if you keep interrupting.”
“Fine. But let me tell Emma I’ll be later than I thought.” She shot Emma a quick text saying that there was a little leak she needed to take care of and she was fine and to turn off the light by 1.
“The city population was only about 120,000 in the early 1900’s, but in the course of the four-month fair, over a million visitors came, some from all over the world. At that time, our founding pastor, Dr. Horatio Francis Bouvier, was the assistant minister over at First Church. During the expo, a visitor to church asked to meet with him the next week.
“The tale the visitor told was incredible, and at the heart of the story I am telling you. The world was between upheavals – our own Civil War was two generations past, Japan and Russia were just beginning tensions, we were practicing the last dregs of Manifest Destiny. Advances in science were exciting and threatening. But during the last century, a group of people saw the terrible toll that war and famine and poverty had taken, not only in our own nation but throughout the world. They decided to do something about it.
“These people weren’t soldiers or politicians; they weren’t robber barons or royals. They were ordinary folk – farmers, teachers, bank tellers, store owners, nurses, parents, pastors. They started a network; you might call it a network of angels. Each of them vowed to seek out places where hatred, injury, doubt, despair, darkness, or sadness seemed to be taking over.”
Those words rang a bell with Claire, but her mind was so muddled she couldn’t think of why.
“The visitor asked Dr. Bouvier if he would like to be a part of this network. Being a man of God committed to the welfare of his people, he said yes. The first few years he was an apprentice of sorts, staying in the city, going to neighborhoods where the outcasts lived. In 1909 he was called to start a new church, and was given free rein in its creation.
“Among the founding fathers of the church were two other members of the network, and together they got their way in naming the place St. Rahab’s, after the prostitute in the book of Joshua who helps the Israelite spies. The church would become a hub for the angel spies. When Dr. Bouvier worked with architect on the building, he insisted they build tunnels. Dr. Bouvier said it was to supply heat to the neighbors, but the tunnels were never actually used for that. Really, the tunnels were there so that the angel spies could get in and out of church without being noticed. Many of them came from other countries, and simply the color of their skin, their dress, and their accents would make them stand out.”
“So you are trying to tell me that St. Rahab’s is a spy church? Am I to believe this?”
Bill Carr spoke up. “’Spy church’ lacks nuance, Claire.”
“Forgive me, Bill, but having just found out that my sexton is James Bond and the church matriarch is Emma Peel has prevented me from finding the right vocabulary to describe a church that is a clandestine meeting place for angels of mercy.”
“Fair enough. Keep going, Alice.”
“Yes, by all means, keep going, Alice. But just a thought. It’s now 12:45 and if I’m not back here in eight hours Bill Hill will have my head. Maybe I could just tell him that I discovered that the church is a cover-up for an angel spy network. That would help explain the bulletins.” She turned to Bill Carr. “That’s why you and Trystene are so wary of each other. She thinks you sabotage her bulletins. And you do. And you’re worried she’ll find out why.”
“Something like that, yes.”
“Claire dear, I know this is a lot to take in and I do appreciate that it’s late. Could we call a truce? We have a meeting after church tomorrow. You can join us.”
Claire didn’t know what to say. She wanted to hear the story, but she really wanted to be home in her pajamas with her kid and her dog. She knew she probably wouldn’t sleep but she was also sure she couldn’t take one more thing tonight.
“Okay. But Bill, don’t think for one moment that I might not fire you on Monday.”
“So when and where is this meeting?”
“Well, the first hymn on the new bulletin is 101, so we will meet at 1:01 pm. And we have special room where we meet.”
“And in what hidden hallway would I find that room – oh no, wait. I know. The tunnels.”
“Yes dear. Just go into the boiler and open the door to the tunnels. You’ll see.”
“I suppose I can leave you two to lock up and turn off the lights?”
“We always do.”
“Good night, Claire. I promise it will all make more sense tomorrow.”
Claire doubted that.
As soon as Rex heard her open the door he came bounding downstairs. “Oh, Rex, I really do wish that happiness were a warm puppy. Good boy. Now go back upstairs to Emma.”
Claire went upstairs. “It’s time for lights out, honey. It’s Sunday tomorrow.”
“I know. I just wanted to wait till you got home. Are you okay? You look a little weird.”
“I’m fine. Just a little tired, that’s all. Sweet dreams, love.”
“Sweet dreams. Morag.”
That night Claire’s dreams were not sweet; they were non-existent. She got in her pajamas and under the covers and turned out the light, but her racing mind would not let sleep. At one point she turned the light on and made a list. That usually made her feel better. But this was a problem she had never before imagined or encountered. A spy church? Alice in pants? The sexton at the center of it all? And it existed at the church for almost a hundred years and only a few knew about it?
And those words – hatred, injury, doubt, despair, darkness, sadness. They weren’t random words but she wasn’t going to figure out how she knew them.
But the big question was the most troubling: could she stay at St. Rahab’s and keep the secret? That felt wrong, somehow. But she and Emma had nowhere else to go.