In which Claire meets with Alice and Bill
“How are you doing, dear?”
“How do you expect me to be doing, Alice? I just left my whole world and dragged my child through a huge change only to find out that the congregation I thought I would love and serve for a long time is not at all what it appeared to be.”
“I understand that, Claire. I really do. Hear us out. Give us a chance.”
“We have about an hour, so you should probably get started.”
Alice began. “My mother was widowed when I was in grade school and life was tough growing up. But Mother was rather extraordinary about some things, and she insisted all six of her children finish high school. I had hoped to go to college and study nursing, but there was no money and there weren’t the kind of scholarships back then that there are now. I had always liked medical things, so I went to work as an orderly at the hospital. And that’s what changed my life.
“At 18 I was the low man on the totem pole, so I got the night shift. My partner those first few months was an older African American gentleman named Sam. Sam had worked for years as an orderly, but given the color of his skin and the prejudice that ran rampant back then, the best he could do was the night shift.
“Sam was amazing. He had a heart of gold and the patience of a saint. In the three months we worked together, I never once heard him raise his voice to a patient or a staff member. There was something about him that let people trust him right away.
“I asked him how he was able to be so kind, because people were anything but kind to him. Some refused to let a black man touch them. Some called him awful names. One morning as he was leaving work he saw that someone had let the air out of his tires. But he never retaliated, he never called anyone a name they deserved; he was always, always kind.
“He told me that his kindness came in part from his faith. He had been raised going to church and believing in God; he knew his Bible back and forth. More than that, though, he once received help during a crisis and that changed him. He had been fifteen and all alone, and in desperation he went to the biggest, most intimidating church he could find. A mighty fortress, he called it.
“It was St. Rahab’s. He met Reverend Bouvier who took him in and patched him up and helped him find the job. Reverend Bouvier, they say, was an extraordinary judge of character and when he felt Sam was ready, he told him about the Saints of Francis – that’s our formal name, by the way, the Saints of Francis.
“Reverend Bouvier asked Sam to step in when someone was in trouble – to offer what he could which most often was kindness. You’d be amazed how far simple kindness can go to tend the wounds of the world. As Sam grew into his role, he realized he didn’t need to go far in his secret work. Desperate, terrifying, destitute, angry people came through those hospital doors every day, and especially every night. And Sam was there.
“Sam saw potential in my eighteen-year-old self. Maybe it was my own hardships that made him think I could be trained to offer light in the darkness. Reverend Bouvier was long gone by the time I went to St. Rahab’s, and later pastors were not told about the Saints. Back in the early 60’s, African Americans were still not welcomed at our church; Sam never attended, but came in through the tunnels. I, being a young white woman, was welcomed with open arms. It was a terrible segregation.
“So I started attending church in the morning and Saints meetings at night. I got promoted to the day shift at the hospital, and eventually was given a scholarship to study nursing. It was at the hospital that I met Garrett; he was my patient and the rules weren’t as strict back then as they are now. He said once he got well and left the hospital, he was going to give me a call. He did, and forty-eight years later, here we are, this old married couple.
“I’ve been with the Saints of Francis for forty-nine years. My role has grown as I have – I worked locally when my children were younger and once they were out of the house, I began travelling around the country and a few times internationally. Garrett doesn’t know – he thinks I am the consummate church maven going to ladies’ meetings, and I haven’t seen fit to tell him the truth.”
Claire sat in silence for a few moments. It was a compelling story and Claire sensed that Alice was telling the truth. Claire felt torn now – she was this woman’s pastor, and in that regard wanted to honor her story. At the same time, she hated the fact that Alice and the others had lied to her and so many.
“Thank you for that, Alice. Bill, I suppose it’s your turn.”
“I’m not a man of many words, Claire, but I figure we all owe you some kind of explanation. Sam was my uncle, and when I was a kid he saw me making some choices and hanging out with some people that weren’t going to do me any good. So he told me about the Saints and I started doing their work. When the sexton job at St. Rahab’s opened up I applied and got it. This place is everything to me – my work and my avocation.
“I think we are doing good, Claire. I know we are helping people. Half the time they have no idea what we’ve done. We intervene in subtle ways, and offer hope and help. All of us – Alice, me, Frank, Sandy, Toledo – all of us know what it’s like to have a second chance because of the Saints. We do this work to give back, to make the world a little more hopeful.”
Claire again sat in silence after Bill finished. She could not argue with the truth that these people were doing good, and making sacrifices to help others. But she also could not argue with the truth that they were all engaged in a deep subterfuge that hurt others.
“I appreciate the time you have both given me, as I hope you appreciate the time I have given you. I need to sit with this. For the time being, Bill, you still have a job. And now I’m sure we all have other things we need to tend to.”
“Thank you, dear.”
“Thank you, Claire.”
After they left Claire closed the door and stared out her window. She was entirely confounded about what to do and what to think. Then Trystene buzzed on the intercom.
“Pastor Claire? I just saw Alice leave. Do you have a minute?”
“Sure, Trystene; come in. Actually, I’ll come out to you.”
Claire studied Trystene’s desk; it was a marvel of organization and cleanliness. Everything was in a pile; there were no dust bunnies procreating under the keyboard. Things that tended to walk off, like the church directory, were clearly labeled “OFFICE COPY: DO NOT REMOVE 🙂”. It was the illusion of order in a world full of chaos. Claire felt better immediately.
“So Robbie and I were talking this weekend and we would really love to have you and Emma over for dinner sometime soon. I don’t know if that’s weird, having the boss over and everything, but I’d like Robbie to get to know Emma and I thought we might enjoy a meal, us two single moms. I totally understand if you need to say no.”
“We would love to; thank you, Trystene. When were you thinking?”
“Is a week from Friday possible?”
“It’s a date. Let me know what we can bring.”
“I hear Emma’s been taking baking lessons from Gladys Hill. Why don’t you bring dessert?”
When Claire went home that night and told Emma about their Friday night dinner date, Emma rolled her eyes. Claire assured her that neither she nor Trystene were trying to set them up; Emma could probably eat Robbie for breakfast.
“Alright. I guess. But we will have a signal if I want to leave if he’s too creepy. Deal?”