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The Pastor

by Jordan Cass

I sat in inept silence next to my co-workers, my eyes moving from the stage, to the lectern, to the blinds masking an impending dusk, to the wooden cross above, to the tow-headed boy projected on two screens, to the flower-strewn coffin, and back to the stage again. I repeated this for what felt like thirty minutes, pain shooting down my neck from a restless sleep the night before, until my co-worker and her family mercifully walked down the center aisle, grasping each other’s hunched shoulders in protective mourning. They took their seats in the front pews and a bearded man with a trendy haircut and sneakers supporting baggy pant cuffs, perhaps in his early forties, strode toward the stage with books and a mobile phone in his hands. He took his place behind the lectern, a broad grin breaking across his face.

            He welcomed the mourners in attendance in an airy voice, the sort where you can hear the smile in darkness and the attempt to convey incessant warmth. He addressed the family and his smile broadened as he spoke with excitement of the “remarkable circumstances” that had led to their meeting that week. He did not mention that those circumstances were the death of a nineteen-year-old boy in an early-morning auto accident.

            As I wondered who in the fuck this man was and why he was leading the service, he told the attendees how he had come to meet Mitch. “You see, I’ve got this thing I call an ‘Alpha Class.’ And what I do is, I drive my van down to the skate park, I grab a bunch of beanbag chairs out of the back along with some bottled waters and two or, heh, sometimes even three orders of a dozen tacos from Taco Bell. And then I call the kids over and we sit down on those big beanbag chairs and we talk about the Lord.” As he spoke, I could not help but hear predatory overtones, the ecclesiastical bribes of fast food a convenient ploy to gather young people together. “Every week,” he continued, “I’d ask everyone in the circle to bow their heads and close their eyes. And while their eyes were closed I’d ask them the same question: who wants to know God? And every week Mitch would raise his hand up, head still bowed.” He pantomimed for the audience. “Mitch said yes.” He paused for effect. “He said yes to Jesus.”

            And what, I wondered, if he had said no? The pastor stepped aside and a slideshow of Mitch played on the screens above. Snapshots of a mischievous child playing by the lake, posing with street performers in New York, a tongue stuck out in tandem with his older brother and sister, a family photo from a trip to a national park, a crooked mortarboard on his head from what must have been a recent high school graduation. A rudimentary picture began to form of a real person, and I thought of his family, whose memories of those days would be forever misshapen, and a lump grew.

            The pastor introduced Mitch’s Uncle Andy next, who spoke of their bond. How he and Mitch had gone to baseball games, how Mitch never had an unkind word to say about anyone, and how he made friends with random people on the street. The uprightness, the barking and direct manner of speaking—this was a military man, to be sure—but his grief and affection for Mitch were tender and clear. The pastor stood off to the side, smiling and waiting.

            Andy finished and the pastor reclaimed the microphone, thanking him. The pastor told us that there would now be time for open sharing, for people to give their thoughts and feelings and memories of Mitch. He asked people to form a line to his right and no one moved. “Okay,” he said. “I’m just going to say a few words and while I’m doing that, people can start to line up. Folks, what I want to do is tell you about the good news. Now let me tell you, Mitch wasn’t perfect. None of us is. How about you raise your hand up if you’re a sinner?” A half dozen reluctant hands went up, reflexive responses unable to entirely resist the obvious inappropriateness of the question. “Yeah, we’ve got a lot of sinners here today. But the good news is that Jesus Christ suffered and died for your sins and all your sins are forgiven! All you have to do is accept him as your Lord and Savior. It’s so simple, even a child can understand it. Mitch did.”

            I hated the pastor more than I think I had hated a person in my life. Though I had not known this boy—I was there for his mother—to watch him be so ill-treated was almost more than I could bear and I clenched my teeth until my jaw clicked in agreement. The pastor could have used his faith as a binding agent, as a vehicle for communal mourning, as a conduit for us to better know and remember Mitch. Instead he disregarded his service to the family in favor of his perceived service to God.

He continued to speak and a woman of about fifty strode up to the mic, a sleeveless black dress and hair pulled back, a stern look on her face and her shoulders tensed. She reached her hand forward as the pastor spoke and took the mic from him before he could finish introducing her.

“First of all,” she said, as she gave the pastor a sideways glance, “I’m here to take the microphone. I need to stop this altar call. This is our day and our time.” I loved her instantly. She told an innocuous and simple story about how she had been Mitch’s neighbor and how he was a sweet boy who loved to visit her, and when she finished there was still no one else waiting to speak. “Listen,” she said, “I know there are people here who want to talk, to let everyone know how wonderful Mitch was. It’s hard, and it takes courage, but come up here and let the family know. They will appreciate you for it.”

Slowly at first, young men and women on the verge of adulthood, with feathery hair, ambitious piercings, and tears in their eyes lined up until they stretched to the end of the aisle, hugging each other as they waited their turn. And beautiful stories were told. Of foolhardy adolescent risks, of dreams of musical stardom, of courage, of Mitch’s encouragement of others, of young girls smitten by a caring young man, and saccharine adolescent poetry about his eyes that nonetheless spoke truth. While they talked, this young man looked down on us, his tousled hair swept across his child-like face, his body nearly grown but his visage holding onto the door frame of playful youth. As the stories were related, the pastor’s face attempted to keep at bay the dawning realization of his loneliness, but it was unmistakable for anyone who cared to look. And it was so painfully clear how the faithful and faithless could appreciate this day equally and how irrelevant that pastor was to the proceedings. I pitied him.

When the last contributor finished, the pastor took the microphone back, muttering some forgotten words, the presumed station of his position revealed as a farce even to the faithful parishioners. Despite his bumbling efforts we had not been driven apart, but brought together. The service ended and as we congregated in the vestibule, I spied the woman in the black dress. I walked up to her and thanked her for doing the right thing, for saving Mitch from a man who used Jesus as a substitute for empathy and connection, whose proselytizing was a salve for his emptiness. And I hoped, with little aspiration, that perhaps her intervention had stirred something in the pastor, not to abandon his faith, but to conceive of it as means rather than ends, that he might bind himself and others in the process.

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