CHAPTER V — Ready or Not
It was a long train trip from San Diego to Galveston. Coaches were crowded with draftees, many in uniform, others in motley garb on their way to being in uniform. There was an influenza epidemic, and wooden boxes containing caskets were piled up at railway stations along the way. I had never felt so alone on any of my many long trips before. Moreover, I was developing a fever, and tossed in my bunk during the overnight part of the journey, as I repeated over and over a prayer I had found in a Unity magazine, “God is my health, I can’t be sick, God is my strength, unfailing, quick.” When, after a fitful sleep toward morning, I awakened without fever, I felt I had had my first metaphysical healing, whether the fever was actual or induced by suggestion in response to the sight of all those ominous boxes. Finally the conductor was shouting, “Next stop, Galveston!” We had arrived.
Excuse My Repetition
The president of the church board, his wife and daughter, met me at the station with a cordial welcome. I must be their house guest until I found suitable lodging. They would take me to see the church on our way. It was an ancient structure; red brick, steeply pitched roof, a belfry. The double doors of the main entrance formed a high Gothic arch. My host suggested that I might like to have him show me through the building.
Hesitantly I ventured, “If you don’t mind, I’d like to enter for the first time by myself. Could you pick me up in, say, a half hour?”
Reluctantly he agreed. He gave me the key, some five inches long and folded in the middle. I unfolded it, put it in the lock and turned to thank him as he returned to the car. I opened the right-hand half, and stood facing a wide entry hall. Directly before me, across the entry were more double doors opening into what was evidently an assembly hall with rows of folding chairs facing a stage at the far end. John had told me the building had survived two floods. I could see the water line, about three feet above the floor line where the plaster was crudely patched.
To either side of the entry were gracefully curved stairways leading to an upper landing. I closed the outer doors, ascended the right stairway, and faced more open doors to the sanctuary. Rows of pews faced a chancel. There was a pulpit to the left, a lectern to the right. Two high-backed chairs occupied the center space of the rear wall. There was a simple reed organ off to the right.
I walked down the aisle, the two steps into the chancel and seated myself at the little organ, opened the lid covering the keys, pumped the foot pedals and played a hymn I knew well, “Sun of My Soul.”
I crossed to the pulpit, opened the Bible that reposed there to the 100th Psalm . . . “Know ye that the Lord he is God; it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise; be thankful unto him, and bless his name.”
A flood of deep feeling overwhelmed me. Like Merton of the Movies who knelt by his storeroom cot and asked God to make him a movie star, I knelt at the pulpit of that little church and prayed, “O God, make me a good minister.”
I rose and stood looking out over the rows of empty pews—would I ever see them filled?—to the vaulted ceiling. I felt very small. I had a listening feeling. Had God anything to say to me?
“Are you ready?” a deep voice boomed. It was of course my host.
Ready? Are we ever?
“Yes,” I said. It was an affirmation.
Adjustments, Southern Style
Two years of training as an assistant minister in the San Diego church were a helpful guide in establishing the Galveston ministry. How to meet my personal needs required a lot of adjustments. My monthly salary of sixty dollars did not allow for living in a hotel or even a furnished apartment. I tried a boarding house. The rooms were passable, but the floors were evidently treated with coal oil, and smelled. Outside walks were layered with crushed oyster shell, and dust from this paving clung to shoe soles and left tracks on the oiled floors.
I was unaccustomed to southern food; hominy grits instead of potatoes; coffee fortified with chicory; cornbread in thin layers with an oily undercrust instead of the fluffy “johnny cake” that I was used to. Given time I would adjust; it seemed too much all at once. I sought an alternative.
Maybe I could make out in the church building itself. There was a large square room with several tall narrow windows, obviously intended as the boardroom, unused since the board members now met in the president’s house. I converted it into a bedroom with furniture contributed by church members. A shower stall in the basement was at least more convenient than going to the YMCA. I could prepare most of my meals in the church kitchen.
As you may know, but I hadn’t, Galveston is on an island in the Gulf, reached by a causeway from the mainland. I found that unpredictable but torrential rains were frequent in the area. Shops and sidewalks in the downtown shopping district were built two or three steps above the pavement to prevent flooding. Winds accompanying the rains beat against the windows in my boardroom-bedroom so fiercely it made them clatter, despite my efforts to secure them.
There were swamps on the mainland between Houston and Galveston, and when the winds were from the north, clouds of mosquitoes appeared. I improvised a screen of mosquito netting around my bed and would crawl under it carefully after turning out lights upon retiring. Daytimes, when I sat at my desk I burned mosquito punk or incense to keep these pests off my ankles.
Ants, too, were unwelcome visitors. They explored kitchen and dining tables. Sugar left in open bowls even briefly would soon be stained by their leavings.
Sometimes when the winds were howling, rain falling in torrents, lightning flashing, windows rattling, I would don minimal clothing and seek the companionship of the ocean, which in Southern California had always given me a feeling of communion. Here it was different, though the difference was partly in me. I would stand on the boardwalk of the great seawall and look out through the darkness at the waves that dashed over the parapet, asking God why I was there. It was the only time in my life I ever felt lonely.
On The Bright Side
All this was the darker side of the picture. There were compensations. Attendance at services picked up. Women of the congregation revived a service group. Men volunteered their help in clearing out the clutter that had accumulated through somnolent years. Young adults brought their children to Sunday School. I began thinking of a Christmas program, centered around a little Christmas play, “Christmas in the Land of Make-Believe” that I had written. I bought a quantity of Easter lily bulbs and invited members to plant them in pots in their homes. We would have homegrown flowers for the next spring’s Easter celebration!
John had taught me some things about getting publicity. We had sent the local press news of coming events in the church even before my arrival. I called on the editor soon after I arrived, and each Sunday afternoon I would take an excerpt of the morning’s sermon to his office. Frequently all or part of it would appear in Monday morning’s paper.
All this, grateful though indeed I was, assumed its relative insignificance before a far greater cause of rejoicing: the war came to an end with an armistice signed November 11, 1918.
I wanted to do something very special to celebrate this momentous event. Of course we would have special services, but I thought of the bell up in the church tower which had never been rung, so I was told, since the church was dedicated. Looking up to the belfry I could see the short bell rope hanging down. It could only be reached by climbing ladder-like cleats nailed into the wall. Forgetting my phobia about heights, I climbed the cleats, pulled the rope, rang the bell, and was showered with dust and bat dung as the bell swung. Then I looked down! My toes seemed to turn under to grasp the footholds beneath them. My hands clutched the cleats above. I couldn’t move. It had taken only minutes to climb the wall. It seemed like hours getting down.
People were waiting outside the Gothic doors by the time I reached the ground, and in my shaken and disheveled condition I invited them in, leaving the doors wide open to welcome later arrivals. We had a jubilant and reverent service of prayer and thanksgiving—the first and most emotional of larger ones to follow.
A Pragmatic Approach
However much or little I may have helped the people who came to services and classes during those months of my Galveston ministry, I owe a debt of gratitude for what that congregation did for me. They brought me face to face with the practical issues of everyday living. Counselling became a great part of my ministry, and led me to make every talk I gave an attempt to answer, at least in part, the question I could imagine a listener asking: “What will this do for me?” True, that is not the only reason for attending church. We go to church, or should, I think, not only to find answers to mundane needs, but in response to the need for worship which is inherent in us all; and to make the discovery that God is the ultimate answer—and should be the beginning. (It was to be many years later before I could put this concept into the axiom, “Go first to God and next to man as God directs.”)
The majority of those who counselled with me presented the problems that are part of everybody’s experiences: problems of health, prosperity, human relationships, loneliness, self-doubt, and the underlying mental and emotional attitudes to which these problems are related. A few were different enough for me to remember even now.
One was of a mother, mourning the death of her daughter just coming of age. A metaphysical teacher had given the mother no hope of ever seeing her daughter again. Did I concur in this? While she was speaking I had a vision—the only one I can recall that ever seemed to be objective rather than subjective. I saw as if in an oval-framed portrait on the wall opposite me, the face of a beautiful young woman. But without it my answer would have been the same. “No, for we are always closest of all to those we love who love us in return. Not even death contrives against this.”
An elderly black woman, not too sure of her welcome in what she and maybe everybody at that point in time would call a white man’s church, came to offer me her blessing, and to tell me that there would be, in my time though not in hers, a rising of the blacks—riots, even perhaps a revolution.
I encountered my first case of apparent obsession.
Whether the man who appealed to me for help in prayer was actually obsessed by malevolent entities from another dimension or whether they were figments of his imagination, I could not know. I gave him some prayers to say, said some with him, but somehow I felt I was not reaching him. When another man with a similar problem appealed to me, I felt I must clarify my own thought. I prayed, “Please, God, guide each seeking soul to his right fulfillment. Don’t let anyone come to me whom I can’t help; I’ll try to be the confident channel of your blessing to those who do.” I think the prayer must have been effective, for I have not had another similar occasion since that time.
Most of my energies and resources were centered on group activities. I especially enjoyed working with the children and teenagers, and started rehearsals for the Christmas play I had written. Despite the influenza epidemic that plagued the nation some seventy children responded to my call to take part. We used popular music like “The Missouri Waltz,” with words adapted to the season. My greatest help in this project was Myrtle, the blind organist. She seemed able to play almost anything, even when a tune was simply hummed to her, and her enthusiasm and love for young people were invaluable.
The play was a great success. Two performances were given during the week before Christmas. They set the mood for the adult devotional services that followed.
© 1984, by Ronald and Beverly Potter
All rights reserved.
Reprinted with permission.