By Andrew Gerns
There is an old ritual called “beating the bounds” where the members of a parish go out and mark the boundaries of a parish in a city or village. The idea is not just territorial, but pastoral. When the community “beats the bounds” they are saying that they are in some way responsible to God for the people inside those boundaries. Every now and then, God shows us just what that means.
Once I was walking down the alley to Joe’s Deli, which is a block away from the Church office, to buy my sandwich, when a guy leans out the open doorway of the kitchen in another restaurant next door. Holding aside a screen door, he says “Father!” I stop and look up at him. He is a young man. He is wearing a white paper hat, a white t-shirt and an apron. He bends way over towards me and asks me to bless a gold cross that he is wearing around his neck. So I look at his dark eyes and his smile while he holds the cross out away from his neck. There is the hint of a scar on his face and much body art. I say a blessing prayer and our eyes meet for just a moment and he nods a thank you. Every time I walk by that screen door, I wonder about the young man, his scar and his cross. There is a story there. I have no idea what it is. God knows.
There was once a woman who used to come to our church wearing only white clothes. She wore white because she read in the Bible somewhere that people who are close to God wear white raiment. But she never spoke in church because she read somewhere else in the Bible that women are not supposed to talk in church, which worked fine until someone told her that our soup kitchen was in a church so she stopped speaking when she came to eat. There is a story there. I have no idea what it is. God knows.
One day I got a phone call from the Weed’n’Seed cop asking me to come to Easton’s center square. Seems the lady in white raiment was coming up to people carrying a pitcher of water and a big bowl and demanding to wash their feet, which the tourists and locals sitting in the square did not seem to appreciate. Instead of arresting her, the officer thought that I might have a better solution to the disturbance. Not knowing what else to do, I asked her to wash my feet. So she did. She read somewhere in the Bible that Christians are supposed to wash each other’s feet. True enough, I say. But you can’t make people want to have their feet washed. They have to want to. She said I had a point and then suggested that we might want to do this in church sometime instead of on the Square. Good idea, I said.
A single dad comes up to me while his daughter is practicing at our pipe organ after a lesson. He says that someone in church reprimanded him because his son sits through the church service reading books. I look over and watch the boy start to climb a tree to retrieve a plastic bag caught in a branch. I’ve known this family for eons, and I know their stories and I know God does too. I have no idea who’d reprimand a kid for reading in church instead of turning the pews into a jungle gym, but that’s beside the point. Well, I ask, do you talk about what happened in the service afterwards, like on the way home? The dad nods. Sometimes he knows more than I do, he says. Then let him read, I say. God knows he is picking up far more than most of the grown ups.
There is an older fellow who lives around the corner and he has taken on the job of feeding the cats that live in the neighborhood and like to hang around the church. He walked up to me once and began to scold me because we were trapping the cats and taking them away. He told me with some pride and a tone of defiance that he was tripping the Have-a-Heart traps so we would not take away the cats. I explained (as the signs say on the traps in English and Spanish) that we trap the cats to give them shots and spay and neuter them and then release them back into the neighborhood. A vet in the parish does this with the help of some parishioners. We want the cats to be healthy, I tell him. He tells me that they are God’s creatures and that we should not take them away. I thank him for caring for God’s creatures. He eyes me suspiciously. I don’t think he believes me.
During last night’s Vestry meeting, the doorbell rang. Someone went to answer it and then he came back and said “There is a woman at the front door who wants a Bible.” I went to the door and there was a very young woman, with a baby asleep in a stroller and four very energetic children—three girls and a boy—sitting on the stoop and all talking at once. Before I could say anything, the boy looks at me and says “I am Elijah, and I am the oldest.” Now each kid announces their name and their ages, leaving an embarrassed Mom to introduce herself and her baby. So what can you do? I sit down on the stoop and we talked.
Mom talks fast, as if there is much pent up inside of her just waiting to come out. As if she is trying to say what she can before she is interrupted or told to be quiet. It is a clear, warm spring evening, a good time to sit on the stoop and hear her story. She tells me she is new to the neighborhood. That the women’s program housed next door to church helped her get an apartment around the corner, and that she and her family had Christmas dinner with us at the dinner we serve on Christmas Day. That she wonders if it would be okay to bring her kids to church because she would like them to learn about God and how to do right. And that of all the things the women’s program gave her, she did not have a Bible and she lost her Bible when she left the old place. I have no idea where the old place is. There is probably a story there. God knows.
So I fetch a Bible, a business card and a church brochure and I ask Mom for her name and address and as she writes it down I sit on the stoop and talk with the kids while the Vestry meeting goes on without me. Eventually, a vestry-member peeks around the corner wondering if I am okay. I give him a thumbs-up. As Mom gathers her brood, she wonders if I could maybe bless a cross that she is wearing. So I say a blessing prayer for her and her kids and her cross.
When I go back in to the meeting, the members look at me as if to say “well…?” I share what little of their story that I know. I tell them that sometime we should go out and beat the bounds of the parish, not just as a group marking our boundaries, but as a community looking around at the faces and the people that God has given us in this neighborhood. Tonight the procession came to us.