Our Man in Church
in Glory 1873 The Vesiga by Burne-Jones
St Mary the Virgin, Speldhurst, Kent, England
Ive answered the phone at work to people who want me to interpret scripture for them. They say "I dont want to disturb the Fathers, maybe you can help me. I was reading Acts, Chapter 9, and I was wondering " I tell them that Im probably not qualified to answer, but if they like I can have a priest call them when one is available. Some people call and assume that I am a priest. They ask for the Mass schedule, I give it to them and they say "Thank you, Father." I say "Sure," and hang up; theres no need to correct them, it would only embarrass them. My favorite calls are the people who say "Can I get directions to your Church?" "Yeah," I tell them politely and then they wait for the directions. Moments pass until Im forced to ask "Where will you be coming from?" This happens more than youd think.
The Parish secretary leaves the office at four-thirty every afternoon, and it is my job to sit in her place afterwards until nine oclock, at which point I lock up the office, the church, and the school. For awhile it was a peculiar, haunting task to secure the school where I spent eight long, uniformed years. It was as if I was locking my memories inside, to stay there after I went home. Since the elaborate renovations, though, I can hardly navigate the place, and Im sure I couldnt locate my memories anymore even if I needed to, which so far I havent.
Between four-thirty and nine oclock there are four and a half hours of answering the phone, taking messages, putting calls through to priests in their rectory, greeting their appointments, and sending the appointments over when the Fathers are ready. Besides that Im a sort of traffic cop, directing people to their various meetings: AA, ACA, RCIA, CYO, Adult Scripture Study, Knights of Columbus, Legion of Mary, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and Brownies. I channel all sorts of minor crises to the appropriate destinations, crises such as leaks in the church roof, lost sets of keys, and insurance claims of buses colliding with other vehicles. On a few occasions Ive had to babysit, briefly, children whose parents were late picking them up from after-school functions. I once babysat a six-year-old boy from Columbia who stood demurely at my side, having declined the chair I offered him. He asked me what I was reading; it was Sartre or Camus, or something equally ridiculous for him or myself to have been interested in. He had a soccerball keychain and I asked him if he played soccer, which excited him. He did play soccer, he said, back in Columbia, but he had come to America with his mama because he had a brain tumor and had to have an operation. He told me with terrifying faith that the doctors at Johns Hopkins were the best doctors in the world.
I wish I could tell you something self-edifying herethat I reassured him, saying, "You know, I read recently that Johns Hopkins are the best, and in fact they specialize in brain surgery." The truth is I couldnt gather the strength to swallow. He must have been used to that sort of reaction; he changed the subject, clearly for my benefit, and asked me cheerfully what grade I was in. When I told him I was in the twelfth, he was astounded.
Other crises blow my way as well. A lot of people come into the office off the street, in dire need of money. "I just got evicted," they tell me, "and I got two kids in the car and no gas in the tank." Or they tell me, "I just left my husband. He beat up our little daughter so I picked her up and left. I have a place to stay come tomorrow night, but tonight I got nowhere to go. Tomorrow I can get to my sisters in Pennsylvania, but I dont know what to do tonight." All of them tell their story to me, unabridged, but all I can do is call a priest. Usually the priests give them something, most often in the form of a check made out to a motel, although on a few occasions Ive seen a Father pull out his wallet and empty the cash into the needy hands. Sometimes there arent any priests around, and the people hang about the office, just waiting for something to happen, reiterating their stories to me. "And with Christmas coming up, Im at the end of my rope." They all look at me with tired faces, waiting for me to exercise some power that I dont have. Im only the receptionist.
As the receptionist, Im constantly receiving dilemmas that are out of my hands. People arrive on time for their appointments to find the priest has been called out of town unexpectedly, without having resolved his prior engagements. "But were supposed to be married Saturday," they complain to me. "We have plans, but we cant do anything until we meet with the priest." Im sorry, I tell them, but what can I do? They dont have any suggestions but something must be done and Im the obvious liaison. Im the one at the office desk with the phone in front of me. The hospital calls: theyve got a parishoner there in the ICU, she wont make it through the night and she wants a priest. When I call over to the rectory, no priests are answering. I tell the nurse I can give her the number of another parish. "But theyre a parishoner there," says the nurse. Im sorry, I say, I dont know what else to do. "Alright," sighs the nurse. She doesnt pursue what is foregone. She knows exactly what its like to be held responsible for matters far beyond her control.
Sometimes I think Im the brunt of tens of thousands of parishioners bad days at work, and their two thousand years of repressiona minimum wage job. But its right across the street from my house and I havent got a car.
Really, though, its not a bad job. Most of the time its very quiet, quiet enough to sleep on the desktop, which I spend a great deal of time doing. Otherwise I can do my homework or read a book or a newspaper. There are even some very nice things. Most of the people who work in the office are amiable, and those who work in the CCD office are genuinely sweet. The CCD director is a quiet, pretty woman who always stops to say hi. Someone told me once that her fiance died a few years ago, while they were out ice skating. It shows in her sad, patient eyes and you can hear it in her polite voice. When she laughs, it fills the office with a warm giddiness. The nicest people in the office, though, are the cleaning crew, a Mexican family who blow through once a day, emptying trash cans and vacuuming the carpets in a frenzy. Madre and Padre dont speak a great deal of English, at least not to me, but they always greet me with an infectious smile and inquire on my well-being. Sometimes they bring little Carmen, who is in the first grade. Shes got a brown, pumpkin-shaped face, enormous brown eyes, and a wreck of new teeth, all tidily framed by her straight black hair. She speaks English and Spanish with equal wonder, and asks me if Id like an M&M; I decline, thanking herbut shes disappointed, and Im forced to accept. She asks if she can have a piece of paper and a pencil, with which she attempts to write out her name. So far she hasnt got past the "r". She asks me the rest, and I tell her to sound it out, but eventually give in and disclose the "m", then the "e", and finally the "n". She surveys the written word skeptically; it doesnt seem to look like she expected.
Its a minimum wage job, to be sureIve been saving up to buy a car for nearly a year nowand sometimes its full of squalor and crises, but I could never rightly tell you that its a job without rewards. Sometimes Im paid in M&Ms, or in giddy laughter, or in the calm, condescending faith of a six-year-old. I saw that little Columbian boy a second time, the next week, but he was only passing through. He waved at me enthusiastically, obviously hoping I remembered him, and I waved back, doing my best to assure him that I did.
Sterling McKennedy can be reached at email@example.com