“Hey Lady”

Excerpt from Chapter 1: Mental Health

Undoubtedly, it was an omen. My first Sunday as Senior Pastor at Cass was a holiday weekend. No one was there. Even the associate pastor had deserted me for the Fourth of July. I stood alone in the impressive sanctuary that was built for over three hundred congregants. The loftiness of the ceilings only made the emptiness more exaggerated. Massive stained glass Tiffany windows and the immense 19th century Johnson tracker pipe organ were my only companions at five minutes to 11.

The choir finally filed in, just five people, including the accompanist/director. They stood around the grand piano and sang a few spirituals soulfully. As they performed, a dozen others began to drip into the sacred space. It was like a Chinese torture test. Each new person scattered into an empty pew, so as not to give the appearance of density. Probably 20 minutes into the service, a small group of adults with developmental disabilities arrived. They, I later learned, had been transported by the church van.

When it came time to deliver the sermon, I decided to pull out all the stops. Truth be told—any religious leader worth his or her salt wants to make a good impression that first time. We want people to leave the sanctuary, temple, mosque or auditorium overwhelmed by both our oratory and our spiritual depth. We want them to return for the next service with all the people they have told about our superior skills. It’s hubris, I know.

Once I stood behind the ornate wooden pulpit in the center of the chancel, the numbers no longer mattered. I preached as if my life depended on it—employing expert exegesis, moving illustrations, memorable quotes and peppering the sermon with cadence and alliteration. We began doing the dance of call and response. Heads were bobbing and hands were clap- ping, in agreement, too. I became Howard Thurman and T.D. Jakes, Joyce Meyers and Bishop Judith Craig, John Wesley and Anna Howard Shaw. Just when I was about to burst into the burning bush, at the very rear of the room, standing directly under the doorway’s thumbtacked exit sign, Harriett thundered at the top of her lungs, “Hey lady!”

I stopped mid-sentence, stunned. This had never happened to me before. In fact, I have since regularly suggested that people try it while they are on vacation to see if they can elicit a similar reaction from the resident clergy person. I lifted my eyes up off my manuscript as Harriett, age 62, developmentally disabled and a regular usher at Cass Church, completed her statement at an earsplitting volume, “We’re out of toilet paper!”

I knew right then that I was in serious trouble. What do you do when all your academic training has left you unprepared for the work to which you have been called? I climbed out of the pulpit, found a roll of Charmin, and walked it back to Harriett. I realized in record time that she wasn’t going to stop yelling until I did and that nothing I had to say would matter if I didn’t.

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