Not enough to have belief. That’s what Michael Hill says. Not enough, even, to resist the devil. “You gotta do something,” he says. He’s very animated. He laughs a lot. Strokes his closely trimmed beard. Slips in and out of character. Black talk: “Plenty of people out there,” he says, “all jacked up. We all jacked up. We like. . .all jacked up!” White talk: the pedantic man: his voice and physical demeanor transforming. He sits up straight and straightens his tie. “Well,” he says. Academic voice. “I know I’m correct because it says here that. . .” and he’ll quote something from somewhere. Usually the Bible.
We’re in Sunday school. Every Sunday at nine forty-five in the old sanctuary, a tiny space about twenty by thirty feet with cheap carpet and a hung ceiling, which hides the horribly cracked plaster above it. Two years ago, this was the extent of our church, built a hundred and fifty years ago by black people who found themselves living in Iowa. They built this little place so they could worship together. A little white church. The foundation was added at some point. A furnace at some point. Central air conditioning ten or twelve years ago. I was called in to repair the large window air conditioner that had ceased to operate. It was the first time I’d ever been inside a black church. I condemned the air conditioner. I told them it wasn’t worth fixing. And so, they had central air installed.
The roof leaked. You could tell by the stains on the drop ceiling. The foundation leaked too. You could tell by all the water in the basement after a rain. The mortar was pitting. Returning to dust. Reverend Dial said God was holding it together. And maybe he was. Ever since I became a member of Bethel AME, about ten years ago, Reverend Dial had been beating the drum to expand the church. I wasn’t for it. I liked the tiny little church. I wouldn’t have joined the church if it was large. I liked that there was no adornment other than a wooden cross behind the altar. No stained glass. No vaulting ceiling. No fancy pews. Just little chairs. And a wobbly prayer rail. I thought Jesus would approve. I had recently quit the Catholic Church. Which was, of course, very fancy. And other things. When it came to my resistance to expanding the church, I was in the minority. Which stands to reason. In fact, I was the only one who didn’t want to expand the church. So we sang, “We’ve come this far by faith” when the tray was passed around. We raised money and expanded the church.
Not enough to have belief. Not enough to resist the devil. “You can’t sit back, lean back,” Michael strokes his beard and frowns, “and say, ‘Well, I’m good with God. And God’s good with me. And the rest of you folks are none of my business.’” You need to talk to people. You need to be involved with people. Although everyone is so far from perfect, we must look a bit ridiculous to the Divine Creator. We are so far from perfect, we have no idea what perfection might be.
Before the expansion, we tried to fix the little church up. George, who moved up to Iowa after Katrina, stained the carpet maroon. He thought it would look good. And it did look pretty good. But the stain never seemed to dry. Every time we knelt down, we’d get up with maroon knees. Venise’s mom made little doily-like decorations for the windows with little pictures on them and quotes from Psalms. “Sing unto the Lord a new song.” Michael Hill painted the basement, which was a big job because the foundation was very uneven, made of a hash of boulders and bricks. Michael and his wife, Lena, wanted to start a Sunday school for the kids down there in that dark, wet, fetid basement. And they did. They made a bright place in that dark basement. After every class, they’d make sure everything was off the concrete floor. After every storm, one of us would go down there with the wet vac and suck up what water we could. We had a fridge down there. And a stove. Once in a while, the men would get together and have a Saturday breakfast. Andrew organized a father/son breakfast. After we ate, we went upstairs to the tiny sanctuary and Andrew had us hold our son’s head in our hands and say the words, “You are my son in whom I am well pleased.” It sounds corny. Hell, it is corny. But still, I could hardly say the words because I had a big lump in my throat. I brought both Sam and William so I had to get through it twice.
In order to give something to someone, you need to have something to give. I didn’t think I had anything to give anyone, but I did have something to give my boys that day.
You got to do something, says Michael Hill. And not just for the church. Not just for the people in the church. You got to do something for the world. You got to do something for the world.
When I came back to Iowa from Boston, I was living in Dave Eutzie’s basement. There were no windows, so it was a great place to sleep in. Of course, I couldn’t sleep in much because I had to earn some cash. I’d buy a foot-long sub at Subway at around ten-thirty and eat half of it. I’d eat the other half at around five. That way, a day’s worth of food cost me only five dollars. Deb and the kids were back at the apartment in Massachusetts. They were cutting corners too so we could keep up with the high New England rent. I was working for a startup company at the time and money was tight. One week, I ran completely out on Wednesday. I didn’t eat anything at all on Thursday except for eggs in the morning. On Friday, my buddy, Dave, had a cookout and we ate hamburgers and drank wine. Leftovers on Saturday. After church on Sunday, I was dizzy with hunger. I never said anything to anyone about the money situation because I was embarrassed by it. After church, Speedy pulled me aside and secretly handed me a hundred dollar bill. I objected and tried to give it back, but he insisted. Speedy grew up in East St. Louis. He said he didn’t realize how poor he was. He came to Iowa on a football scholarship in the early sixties. Stayed in Iowa. Raised two kids on his own. Gave me a hundred dollar bill when I didn’t have a dime. After church, I walked down to a barbeque place and ordered a pulled pork sandwich and an order of fries.
I kept having these feelings at that time of being worthless. Like a clod of dirt. Only less. Because if you tossed a seed on me and watered it, it wouldn’t grow. It was comforting to go home to Bethel every week. To go someplace where people believed in God. To hear them say, “I’m a child of God,” and believe it. It’s hard, I imagine, to feel completely worthless if you’re convinced that you’re a child of God.
Everyone at Bethel talks about being a “vessel”. This strikes me as a true thing. Vessels aren’t worth much. Unless you need to hold something and keep it from spilling. Mary was a vessel. And so are we. Mary was a vessel for Jesus. We are vessels for other things.
Days go by like scenery through the side window of a train. They just glide by. I guess my family is lucky because we’re not starving. In the winter, we have a place to go where it’s warm. Not everyone does. Some people don’t have anyone to give them a hundred dollars when they need it. If you’re lucky, time glides by long enough so you get old. And then you can’t do for yourself anymore. Some people save up their money so they’re safe in their old age. Some people don’t. Some people have other people who help them. Make meals for them and help wash them and all that. What a blessing it would be if I were able to help someone like that. That would be something I could be a vessel for.
Speedy’s seventy years old now. Just turned a few months ago. He had a party and invited me and my family. Last Sunday in church, Speedy wasn’t feeling too well. Near the end of the sermon, he lost consciousness. Everyone rushed forward to help. I didn’t know why everyone was rushing all of a sudden. When I saw it was Speedy, stretched out on the pew, I thought he was dead. I moved the Christmas tree in the lobby so the paramedics could get the gurney in and out. I followed the ambulance over to Mercy. Waited in the lobby. It was Christmas time. It had snowed a few nights before. The first snow of the year. The woman at the registration desk, probably a nurse, called out to me. “Are you related to Orville Townsend?”
You need to do something. If you can.
Sometimes you can’t. You just sit and wait. Watch the Christmas card scene out the window. The way time goes. The way everything goes. With that slight remove.
“You scared me, Speedy,” I said to him when I was allowed back.
He smiled wanly. He looked all right. He looked like himself.
“The nurse asked if I was related to you,” I said.
“I wanted to tell her you were my brother,” I said.
“You should have,” he said.