Life has kicked my rear-end this year. I’m not exactly sure when I stopped noticing, but apparently it happened somewhere along the line. It started the morning that President Trump got elected. “What if he did all the things he said he would? Would my friends be safe?”, I thought. I would go to work and my clients would ask me if they would be. It became apparent that I didn’t have an answer.
Also in transition: my entire family structure. My eldest daughter began applying for school, finishing her senior year, and now prepares to move out. My wife got a job in another state and comes home weekly, which meant I was being more of a full-time parent. My youngest daughter went to China for two weeks. All of these were highlights in some way, but they required adjustments, which I made at some energy cost, I’m sure. Also, as good as all of these things are, they cost money, so there was financial strain this year. In a few years, when our youngest leaves, my wife and I will have to figure out what the future holds.
I started a new interim pastorate part time, nearly finished a book on my last one, continued blogging and generally kept busy. A few weeks ago, I realized that — due to this schedule — I hadn’t a day off to myself for awhile. I had begun to see friends I hadn’t seen in a while to make that happen. It, too, was a good thing, but the drives were long (but worth it). My health was suffering due to my own choices of food, eating out, and not exercising. In addition to everything else, my body was giving out, or at least it felt like it. It occurred to me on my way home that a life-time of things that I believed in was being threatened, lost, or in flux lately. I was depleted in ways I didn’t even know I could be depleted
Then there was death. My uncle Joe died. My aunt ‘Nita died. My friend Gordon had a stroke, an 80th birthday party, and recently died. Oh, and Congress threatened my health care – again and again and again. Jeff Sessions threatens gains that had been made, North Korea threatened to shoot missiles at us, our country officially doesn’t believe in global warming as the weather gets weirder, and is being undone every day. All of these reminders of death and ongoing threat got to me. I was worn out. I needed to both rest and recuperate. I needed hope, young fresh faces, and a lot of time with God. This was going to be difficult in one day, but I had to try. I would go to Bridgeport and catch African-American worship with friends.
When I walked into the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit’s 11am worship, Bee Thompson and her husband Vernon. Conscious of my Whiteness, and the knowledge that people can get used to having their own space, I moved myself back a few rows when the uniformed deacons sat me up front. I wasn’t energetic enough to worship in typical African-American worship style yet and was just wanting to be fed for a while.
Worship began with singing and the choir keeping up with the soloist as the bass-player’s groove got underneath it. Backed by the drummers, the choir made it hard to feel dead in place. Still, I didn’t have the energy to be alive yet. Besides that, I felt tears well up as I thought about Gordon and Cy and Deering and how much loss there was.
At the Passing of the Peace, though, things made sense suddenly. We have a passing of the peace at my church and people are really very friendly. I value the physical contact of handshakes and occasional hugs there, but this morning — with the music pulsing in my veins already, the passing of the peace felt electric as people I didn’t know shook my hand. A young couple two seats over approached and the woman gave me a hug. I was immediately taken back to Deering in my mind. Ashley Montague’s book, Touching speaks about skin and our need for touch. I first heard about it at Deering, when hugs were freely given, and my friend Paula Richards offered back rub workshops. I came to long for hugs, and contact with the world at the time. I had forgotten how little hugging I do in my life now and how important touch is. I look forward to it with my Deering friends at Gordon’s funeral and the next day at Deering (now called “The Wilds”).
Pastor apparently wasn’t there on the Sunday I attended, being at a conference of his denomination, so a man known as “Prophet Darius Nixon” on the Facebook Page strode to the pulpit and his choice of scripture that day spoke to my need. When I’m depressed, or overwhelmed, I often think there’s something wrong with my call or my spirituality. The two verse scripture was repeated over and over: “the anointing of God is upon you”. We were then asked to turn to our neighbor on our left and right and say that to our neighbors. As I write this, I am immediately reminded of my first year at Deering, when Peter Wells had our small group jumping up and down and saying, “I am somebody! You are somebody! Together, we are somebody!” Later I understood that Jesse Jackson had used those words, as well. And now, here it was, 2017, and I was surrounded by people who told me I was anointed by God! I happily shared that message with my brothers and sisters in Christ! My ministry was confirmed.
After the scripture, the very first thing he said went right to my heart. When he began speaking about anointing by God, he said, “Most people in this room are culturally conditioned to dance when they feel the anointing of God. There are other people who respond differently, through hymns and praise and prayer. They are not less spiritual or less anointed. They are just culturally conditioned to respond differently.” Having just sat through a committee meeting where someone was appalled that I thought Jesse Jackson was a great man, and shut me out after that, I just wanted to say “You think these people (whom you’ve never met) hate you and here they are being culturally sensitive to your worship!” In addition to that, in our broken and divisive world bent on keeping us apart, here was a man talking about racial unity – being together under God!
The next thing he said was that all of the things we’d been going through were the beginning of something new, that our plans were anointed and that, when we are totally helpless and feeling of no use to God, that is when God works. He pointed out that Moses was a murderer when called to confront Pharaoh by God. If even a murderer (which I’m not) could be used by God, anyone could. Knowing my clients, I already believe that, but even in the depths of depression, with whatever faults I might have, it was nice to hear that I still have some purpose in life. Yes, once again Gordon popped into my head. This message that when you’re strung out with stress and feel like your career/life choice is a big mistake, Gordon (led by the Spirit) would show up. It occurred to me that Gordon was here in Bridgeport even after his death. This was indeed, heaven I was witnessing. I remembered the wider Deering community, and my colleagues, and I knew that — if God was still here on earth, we would be showing up for each other for the rest of our days! David Hauser’s co-ordination of a reunion at Deering was already a symbol of that. The worship at Cathedral of the Holy Spirit reminded me that God was still here — and so was my community.
[On a more professional note: I’m also preaching about Moses and journeying all summer, so it was great to hear someone else talk about the text.]
The prophet followed this with the thought that “it was the year of the underdog” and that God was going to strengthen our (my?) business ventures if they are anointed by God. As my daughter goes off to college and I worry about what decisions to make for her financial health and my own financial well-being, I thought to myself, “See, this guy gets it! What do poor people need to hear? That they’ll have money, that they can pay their bills. A simple, direct solution that politicians don’t seem to get. Money allows you to feel like you have some control of your life. It doesn’t take a lot of money to do it, but it does take some. When poor folks pay their bills, they feel worthy, that they are contributing to society, viable and all kinds of things. When you can’t do that, you feel horrible. When the man on the news, or in the White House, tells you that you’re lazy because you don’t have a job, he’s saying things you already think. Here, the preacher gave folks hope. From a cynics view, I can hear people saying, “He’s just telling people what they want to hear!”, as though that were the problem. Like all prophecy, it may or not come true, and we’ll see in time, but giving people hope and a sense of security in a religious context does wonders for the poor person’s soul. As someone who grew up poor, I will probably always be that inside, and I was once again inspired.
After that , the church moved to doing communion. They used plastic cups with wafers on them, sealed in plastic which was very, very foreign to me, but they used the Words of Institution, same as my church, and the universality of God’s presence connected with me.
Finally, my diabetes does much better when I exercise, and given the amount of physicality and movement during the service, I even felt a bit of my health come back.
So… in one service I felt better physically, emotionally, spiritually, and politically. Check, check, check, and check. My belief that unity in Christ is possible was confirmed.
After worship, my soul was restored even further by lunch. Bee and Vernon, a newlywed couple (a year or two?) suggested Joe’s American Bar and Grill in Fairfield. The food was fine, but the company was better. Vernon works with Special Needs kids (which I did during my internship in Grad School) and Bee is working to become a school counselor, though she now works with the severely needy population at an agency (which I also did in Grad School). In their 30’s, they are the kind of leaders the civil rights movement believed we could all be. I know both of their parents, and I know that their parents instilled in them a real need for education to become good people. I believe they both also grew up in the Bridgeport Public Schools — public schools being another thing we’re losing in this country under the Betsy Devos and her ilk. I don’t think either of them want to be leaders in a community. They just want to be good people. That makes them part of the world I want to live in, and a generation of “millenials” or “Gen X” who aren’t self-centered does my heart good.
After lunch, I went back to church, but this time I went to Holy City Church of God in Christ to see my friends Patricia Holden-Ginyard and Rev. Kevin Ginyard, Sr. This was a very different experience than the last one, but just as valid, just as freeing, and just as much what I needed. When I arrived, a young lady approached me and said, “You must be John Madsen-Bibeau. I understand you were a good friend of my grandfather”. Realizing that this was a Ginyard daughter and Bishop Ivory Holden’s grand-daughter, I was pleased to say “Yes, indeed, I am”. She explained that her parents weren’t there yet, but were excited to see me.
A few minutes later, Kevin came in and said, “Good to see you. It may be just you and us today, but we’re glad to see you. He said, “I see you’ve met Noel, our Psalmist”. Lady Pat came out later gave me a big hug. Both she and Kevin looked tired or like they had been sick or something, but when Pat got to praying, she came alive. Maybe they were depressed about the size of the congregation, but as one who has tried to start a small church, I know how much work it is. Further, as someone who pastored in the city, I am aware of how hard it is getting people to come to church. I felt watching worship like I did watching Joan Osbourne in a half-filled club: what a waste! Talent and Spirit like this with few people to witness it.
Apparently, Noel cared about as much as Joan Osbourne did, because she was singing and praying with all the joy in the world. Just her and the organist/pianist Adam made the place come alive — praying and playing off each other in the name of God. She was pure joy! Kevin prayed, Pat read scripture, and once again — for the second time that day — I felt at home. Kevin preached on not making excuses when God knows what we’re doing anyway. I thought of KellyAnne Conway and Donald Trump and that whole crew, and I felt sane again with Kevin’s words. Reality was reality. There is a truth, even if you pretend there’s not. Leaders take responsibility and deal in the Truth of what they have created, according to Rev. Ginyard. Oh, that his words could echo in the halls of the White House! Yes, he mentioned Trump by name, which also thrilled me — not because it was Trump — but because he talked about politics in church — something anathema in many White churches. Again, it was reality, and the church’s connection to it that was allowed to be spoken. Kevin was the Communications Director for a Truthful God, unlike the crazy-making of this administration. It was great to be real!
In addition, Pastor Ginyard was like older preachers I knew — literate. He spoke about things written in Greek, and spoke with a vocabulary that let you know he wasn’t a simple man. The bulletin had creeds in it to be read aloud.The church had it’s own slogan, and there were fancy bulletins to keep track of worship. In that sense, it was no different than my own church. It was a joy to watch him preach in what felt like a home, among friends, as though the service had been at his house. I don’t know how he felt about the crowd, but the Spirit was flowing and I, for one, enjoyed it.
People had straggled in during worship and once again, I did communion — now at this church. Holy City used unleavened bread, and the Words of Institution, just as the other church had, and my church does. Because the Spirit was flowing everywhere that day, I felt the Church Universal as I thought about my church, their church, the other church, and Deering.
Though he acknowledged I was just there to be fed, the Pastor asked me to come up and say something. Feeling better now, I did. I prayed and talked about the unity I felt. I look forward to preaching at Holy City one day, having now been asked.
At the end of the day, after nearly 5 hours of worship, and a great lunch, it was time to go home, and so I did. My Spirit was healed. My body felt good. I felt surrounded by a community of love in all parts of my life. My faith in humanity had been restored. I could find my faith in God once again.
I saw heaven in Bridgeport.
Resisting in Peace,
P.S. Here are pictures of the good people I mentioned…
Bee Thompson and Vernon Thompson
Noel Ginyard, Holy City