Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Church on Munjoy Hill

For Randy Henry, who died on March 20, 2011

One evening in early fall while I headed towards town, I stopped to look inside the old stone building near the lighthouse on Munjoy Hill. A few men were standing at the door, and one of them was dragging out a sign that read, “Evening Episcopal Service, Six o’clock, All Welcome.” I looked down at my watch. It was 5:55. “Hello there,” the tallest man with white hair said. I would come to know him as Pastor Jim, an Episcopalian minister who traveled from a town twenty miles outside of Portland to lead the candlelit, Sunday evening service. I didn’t come up with an excuse or stop to think about my other plans. I simply slipped inside.

The church had been converted into a theatre company, so the stage where Jim stood to preach rotated with props for whatever show was being performed. At that time of year it was “On Golden Pond,” and while Jim spoke the liturgy and told us of our location on the church calendar, fishing rods and galoshes stood behind him in the shadows.

Every Sunday night I would walk to that church and join the other twelve members in the arena seating. We sang from Episcopalian hymnals, while Tom, a shy man with uneasy musical talents, led on the piano. I met Portlanders, people who I would run into regularly while living in Maine. There was an empty-nested couple who were rooming their daughter’s friend for free while she went to nursing school; a young mother who brought her baby every week, cradling him in her arms; a soft-spoken girl named Sarah who I would regularly see walking by the water in the mornings. For communion, we would arise and join Jim on the stage. Standing in a circle, he would come to us one by one, placing the bread on our tongues, holding the cup of wine to our lips. “Do this in remembrance of me.” Sometimes a woman preached but mostly it was Jim who wove deep, stirring narratives about the world we inhabited, and the people we were supposed to become. When I asked him where he got his stories, he responded simply that he too was a writer.

Later, I attended Jim’s book club and walked in the room to find big bottles of wine set out on folding tables. Along with crumb cake and sugar cookies, they were part of the refreshments, and women with fat fingers stuck corkscrews into their tops and pulled them out with a loud pop. I sat next to two ninety-year-old sisters—who would later become subjects of my first published article—and they informed me that Jim had graduated from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. A few months later, I would attend this same club, this time in Jim’s living room, where he would give us a screening of the movie “Lars and the Real Girl,” about a man who falls in love with a blow-up doll. The same old woman would lean in close to me, holding my arm, “I always like what Jim has to say, but I’m not sure about this one.”