(continued…) And one week later, when I went back to church, I was so hungover that I couldn’t stand up for the songs, and this time I stayed for the sermon. And I thought it was so ridiculous, like someone trying to convince me of the existence of extraterrestrials. But the last song was so deep and raw and pure that I could not escape. It was as if the people were singing in between the notes, weeping and joyful at the same time, and I felt like their voices or something was rocking me in its bosom, holding me like a scared kid, and I opened up to that feeling—and it washed over me.
I began to cry and left before the benediction, and I raced home and felt the little cat running along at my heels, and I walked down the dock past dozens of potted flowers, under a sky as blue as one of God’s own dreams, and I opened the door to my houseboat, and I stood there a minute, and then I hung my head and said, “Okay, I quit.” I took a long deep breath and said out loud, “All right. You can come in.”
So this was my beautiful moment of conversion.
And here in dust and dirt, O here,
The lilies of his love appear.
I started to find these lines of George Herbert’s everywhere I turned—in Simone Weil, in Malcolm Muggeridge, and in books of English poetry.
I was sitting through the sermon now every week and finding that I could not only bear the Jesus talk, but was interested, searching for clues. I was more and more comfortable with the radical message of peace and equality, with the God in whom Dr. King believed. I had no big theological thoughts but had discovered that if I said, ‘Hello?’, to God, I could feel God say ‘Hello’ back.
Finally, one morning in July of 1986, I woke up so sick and in such despair for the umpteenth day in a row that I knew that I was either going to die or have to quit drinking. I poured a bottle of pinot noir down the sink, and dumped a Nike box full of assorted pills off the side of my houseboat, and entered into recovery with fear and trembling. I was not sure that I could or even wanted to go one day without drinking or pills or cocaine. But it turned out that I could and that a whole lot of people were going to help me, with kind eyes and hot cups of bad coffee.
I was baptized one year after I got sober. I called Reverend Noel at eight that morning and told him that I really didn’t think I was ready because I wasn’t good enough yet. Also, I was insane. My heart was good, but my insides had gone bad. And he said, “You’re putting the cart before the horse.” My family and all my closest friends came to church that day to watch as James dipped his hand into the font, bathed my forehead with cool water, and spoke the words.
Two years later I was pregnant by a man I was dating, but he really didn’t want to be a father at the time. I was still poor, but friends and the people at my church convinced me that if I decided to have a child, we would be provided for every step of the way.
In August of 1989 my son was born. I named him Sam. He had huge eyes and his father’s straight hair. Three months later he was baptized at St. Andrew… Sam grew tall and thin and sweet, with huge brown eyes.
Sam and me were always at St. Andrew. I think we have missed church only ten times in twelve years. There would be different pastors along the way, none of them exactly right for us until a few years ago when a tall African-American woman named Veronica came to lead us. She sings to us sometimes from the pulpit and tells us stories of when she was a child.
She told us this story just the other day: When she was about seven, her best friend got lost one day. The little girl ran up and down the streets of the big town where they lived, but she couldn’t find a single landmark. She was very frightened. Finally a policeman, stopped to help her. He put her in the passenger seat of his car, and they drove around until she finally saw her church. She pointed it out to the policeman, and then she told him firmly, “You could let me out now. This is my church, and I can always find my way home from here.”
And that is why I have stayed so close to mine—because no matter how bad I am feeling, how lost or lonely or frightened, when I see the faces of the people at my church, and hear their voices, I can always find my way home.
Psalm 73:21-26 — When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered,
I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you.
Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory.
Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
Revelation 3:20 — (Jesus said), “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.”