Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Aqua Mustang 9 - CHURCHES?

For a decade up here Alice has been a close friend of my Vermont-transplant friend Peter Cooper, who I went to see as the darkness was closing in September of 1985. Now it is July of 1986, which seems like about three decades later. Now I am here for the summer, and I have just brought this aqua Mustang we are riding in.

Alice is the first woman I have ever met who is studying to be a minister. Actually the first person of any sex to make such a move. She is quite pretty, and full bodied and tan and well read and funny. She is about to head down to New York and Union Theological Seminary, but in the meanwhile she has a weekly gig at a tiny church way, way off in obscure dirt-road countryside where there is no regular minister. I go to see her there. One morning she livens up the service with a bag pipe player she brings in to do Amazing Grace. Another time she shows a very rough drawing she has made of a lighthouse and does a sermon about what everything in the rough drawing means. It seems silly, but now that things are changing I will try not reject anything out of hand – not even what this voluptuous woman tells me about how Jesus came to her in a dream. Around the tiny church are gravestones, including many that have the year of birth but not the year of death yet.

One day I take up Alice’s invitation to drive with her through the countryside to a town called Rochester where many ministers are meeting. As we roll through I am marveling at the soft mountains, so different from what I grew up with. And I am marveling at fast shallow rivers where clear water runs and ripples over smooth stones, just like in tender aspects of New Hampshire. We talk and talk about things that are most on my mind these days – getting at the true stories, the family stories, finding out who did what to who, getting at what really happened, getting at what is real, saving ourselves, no matter who gets hurt. She talks of how in happy days her older brother discovered Vermont when he would come up here to load his truck with milk which he sold back in Massachusetts, and she tells about an uncle who molested her and I can see she has hardly every brought this subject up before. She says this explains her sexuality, and I know that the word here is a code word and so the woman she rooms with is more than a close friend, and this is news I do not want to hear, for despite everything I am lonely.

When we arrive at the Rochester church where the ministers are gathering it turns out to be a prayer meeting. This is 1986 and I had lost my faith in 1951, at 16, in what seemed like a moment of revelation – and I had never thought to look for it again. Since boarding school days I have been in churches only a handful of times, and always as a tourist in places like Greece and Haiti and Manila.

In the prayer circle each minister has a few words to say about where they are in their lives.I just say “I am here,” hoping it will sound like something profound. For I am in a familiar old situation now, pretending one thing on the surface that has no connection with what is underneath.

On the next few Sundays I visit a number of different churches, all except Catholic. It is partly Alice and partly because my old friend Peter up here is involved with subversive social action through a Congregational church and his wife plays the piano at a church for Christian Scientists. But I am still one thing on the surface, another in my worlds inside and down below.

I even put the Episcopalians on my list with the Presbyterians and Congregationalists and Methodists. I dread the Episcopalians, for their denomination was so wrapped up with the Anglo upper class pretensions of my nearest and dearest. Here at the Rutland church, on a fragrant summer day in thin mountain air, they hold a coffee gathering outdoors after their service, which is so much how I remembered it was done long ago. There is no way I can get to the aqua mustang without going through them.

Everyone I meet bids me, this stranger, welcome, this stranger they do not know is faking it. Several of them want me to tell them the location of my home church.

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