The Advocate lived radical welcome: the artist-designer who wore black-watch trousers hallooed me with irreverent swearing; the painfully shy, heavyset woman with a salt-and-pepper wig who spoke in formal sentences; white suburbanites who loved the liberation ministry; and our rector, Ike Miller, who reminded us weekly that God's power working among us could do more than we could "ask for or imagine."
And when he'd say it, in a rumbling deep voice that rolled along the six-story-high ceiling and dropped into my ear, it was as if I could imagine anything. Writing a book about the Underground Railroad, I saw the characters in that church, I heard them making love; I listened from inside her head as a woman calculated whether to leave her master, knowing that they'd kept her baby in Virginia as surety. I knew the story, but it was in that place that I felt it. With my eyes closed and Eleanor Farmer singing, Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, I understood that the baby left behind was her easy baby. She'd call him her "best baby," the one who nursed easiest, the one they were most likely to sell.
In the Advocate, among those people, with those gorgeous, buck-wild murals and hand-carved stone faces around me, the top of my head opened up to allow images and words to pour through me like light. Live in fragments no longer. Thy kingdom come indeed. Thanks be to God.
Teaching Sunday School and Youth Group required that I give up that experience and hang out with the kids and their attitudes in the parish hall. We read the lesson of the day to start. Only a few could read on grade level. A few really couldn't read at all. They could sound out words but not put them together.
"Look up, sugar pie," I'd say after a boy had mouthed the words to a Bible verse. Then I'd read back to him, conversationally, with emphasis, the words that he'd said. A wealthy man threw a banquet, but all his friends made excuses why they couldn't come, so he sent his servant to bring in anybody off the street: "What's it talking about?"
"Ms. Lorene, the boy can't read!"
"You can't read, either. You can't do a lot of things."
"Okay, okay, okay. Tell me what this verse is saying to you. Listen to it again, will you?" I kept eye contact. Stay connected.
"Did they mean anybody?"
"Tol' you he can't read."
"Anybody who'd come," I remember saying. "So, he'd have come here to the soup kitchen and invited everybody who hadn't gotten a ticket yet."
"That's a shame you don't have no friends to come party with you."
"What's it talking about?" I asked again, two or three times, while they laughed at the idea of the wealthy landowner loading up the regulars.
"Listen, hey! What if he came this morning to get us?"
My mind went through our congregation. Two men from the soup kitchen were likely there that day: one, a tall, aloof man who heard voices and collected girls' barrettes off the street to decorate his lapel; the other, a short, grunting character with a bad eye that swoll up and oozed a creamy yellow discharge. He tried to come to Sunday School and get in on the discussion sometimes, but we didn't let him because he frightened the younger ones.
("I'll just sit by the door. 'S all right if I just sit by the door, isn't it?"
"It means," Jason said, "that Jesus tried to get all the regular people, but they were too big and impor'ant, so then he came for e'ybody else."
We Hear You!