Recently published in the South Carolina Advocate, this story was edited from a longer, earlier work in progress on this very blog. Thank you for being here and for reading this.
Rev. Darlene Kelley The Langley UMC September 8, 2018 A Call Story
A compact park occupies the corner of Thirty-third and Third, a curve in the concrete, etched out for basketball and handball and a few caged trees. From one of those trees, tucked back off the street in a private corner of that public place, Michael Patrick Donovan tossed one end of a bed sheet up and over a branch until it dangled down to meet the other end, which circled his neck. He knotted the bed sheet and stepped off the edge of the park’s built-in bleachers. Minutes later, he was dead. But right before he made his exit, he wrote my name and phone number on a scrap of paper and pinned it to his chest.
A detective left a message on my answering machine asking me to come down to the local precinct. Michael hanged himself on the most New York of all New York streets, an inside-joke and final statement from a blighted city tree in the dark of early winter, and all I could think about was where he got the bed sheet. I spent sleepless nights wondering if he found it in a dumpster or took it from my apartment. I even got up once in the middle of the night to check the linen closet, but I’ve never paid that much attention to my sheets, so I couldn’t be sure one was missing.
I had other questions too. Everybody’s full of questions when there’s a suicide. Death carries uncertainty, but suicide hangs on to questions and keeps them circling in a loop like birds of prey. Some folks give answers, but the answers rarely satisfy. With suicide there’s little consolation, but there can be alterations in the view of reality that incite cosmic shift; after Michael hanged himself in that park, everything changed. It’s hard to describe, but I felt life take a turn, as though I’d passed a test or paid a debt, and earned the right to cross a portal.
I told my therapist I needed to do more with my life. “Why don’t you go back to school?” she responded, and I heard myself saying I wouldn’t go back to school unless I could be a Methodist minister, but within seconds I was laughing at the thought, “A wretched, old sinner like me!?”
And my therapist asked the one question that made all things possible and started the ball rolling: “If not you, Darlene, then who?”
Besides my therapist, Rev. Adams was the only human being on the planet who wasn’t shocked by my decision. I met Michael while I was tending bar in Greenwich Village, and I was working there when he committed suicide. I was still there when I was accepted into seminary.
Bartending may be the best pastoral care training a soul could ask for, but I will admit a few people laughed out loud when they learned of my aspirations. Several seemed disappointed there wasn’t a punch line, and a few were too confused to ask any questions. But almost everybody voiced an opinion, and more people than I would have guessed seemed to take it personally.
On the bright side, tips got better and the regulars stopped cussing as much. Their manners improved; they made less noise and voiced fewer complaints. As though they suddenly imagined me both their bartender and their Sunday School teacher, they one by one took advantage of quiet moments when finding themselves mostly alone at the bar, they were ready after a few beers, to confess their doubts and explain their views about God, organized religion, and why they hadn’t been to church in twenty years. There’s a good chance that in the first few months after mentioning seminary, I heard more stories about the traumas of being dragged to church as a child than any other person in the history of the world.
Before I left bartending for the pulpit, a few of the regulars bought me presents to remember them by, including Trailway’s Jack, who drove a bus for Trailway’s and bought me a cigarette case—an indication that the idea of seminary wasn’t really getting through. Of course, Crazy Fred backed him up and bought me a bottle of Irish whiskey. Besides the gifts, a few of the regulars swore that if I left, they’d be looking for a new place to hang out. They might even start going to church. Half the bar asked for my phone number, and two Italian tourists that I’d never seen before became terribly upset when they got it into their heads that I was going to a nunnery. I’m still not sure if they were for it or against it.
Much prayer, and a bus trip to Baltimore found me on the steps of my childhood church. Rev. Adams beamed down at me from the concrete landing. Retired for over a decade, he still seemed full of life and laughter, and for a moment or two, I felt like a child again, comforted by the thought that my pastor was still there.
He looked like the comic relief and the merciful shepherd rolled into one. A sober Falstaff, a pious Friar Tuck, he loved God and his people with courage and compassion and an inexhaustible joy that billowed out in fits of laughter and brought light back to dark corners, but he could be fierce in the cause of righteousness and wise like the serpent when protecting his flock or setting one of his lambs on the straight and narrow. In a way, my adventure began because Rev. Adams made me think of God in new ways.
“We are created in God’s image, so like our Creator—we can create and love and dance and play.” Rev. Adams searched the faces of our small confirmation class. You could tell by his expression that he wanted to give just the right answer, and his answer must have been good because it surely made an impact.
Whatever long ago images his words inspired, in that moment, a door opened in my mind, and there was a new room full of Divine possibility, and my image of God grew bigger; it stretched out to an endless horizon of God-mystery, and it filled me with excitement and hope and longing; and in the stillness, I heard God calling my name, and my adolescent soul knew that God had always been there, and it was good.
The year I turned twelve, I stood on the front steps of the church and listened while a smiling Rev. Adams patted my hand and told me I’d make a good minister one day. The idea took root in my heart and my brain and my soul, and it grew while I grew, even while I made martinis and poured beer. And then Michael hanged himself with a bed sheet of unknown origin in a park on Thirty-third and Third, and the Universe shifted. And a path was revealed that lead back home.
Rev. Adams paused on the church steps and smiled again. He looked smaller and brighter with the marks of age; less hair formed a white halo around his head, and an arched back pushed him slightly forward. “I’ve been expecting you.” He chuckled as he navigated the last step, and off we went for a cup of tea.
Darlene Kelley firstname.lastname@example.org 11/24/18