Gillian and her church are dressed in light.
We drive through the Alabama countryside to church on Sunday morning. While the rest of the country has been in a drought, they’ve had feet of rain in west Alabama. Gillian says that the grass has been growing faster than it has in years.
The church stands in the middle of a field. United Methodist Church, the sign reads, established 1835. Gillian opens the door to the sanctuary, and before she even flips the switch, the sun streams through the windows. It is the original building, a little white wood church with pews divided down the middle. There is no stained glass, no portraits of Jesus. Few decorations, few frills. Only the white wood walls and the green paraments for Ordinary Time and the music and Gillian in her gleaming white robe. And light.
Gillian and I learned Greek two seats down from each other in a basement room with no windows. We learned to pick hymns and design a church service and all the parts of the Communion liturgy. We learned to preach in a different basement classroom, a few rooms down.
Our last few months of seminary, she choreographed a dance routine, and we danced it on the tables of the library, with the video camera rolling.
In seminary, Charles grew his hair out like an Afro. He learned Hebrew a few classrooms down in that basement and preaching in those same basement rooms. On camping trips, he walked into the woods, and a few minutes later, you could hear the axe ringing out against the trees. He coaxed firewood into burning coals, coaxed seeds into tomatoes and basil and garlic. He dreamed of coaxing out possibilities in Alabama, between black and white and Latino.
He proposed to her on the top of Duke Chapel, with the Messiah playing in the background. They’d listened to the songs, and when the Hallelujah Chorus played, he told her that she had to stand up. He stayed down, kneeling, and took out a diamond. They married. They dreamed, him of having a farm, her of being a pastor. There would be a farm, with room for chickens and maybe a goat, for vegetables and herbs in the backyard. A place for hospitality, a place for people and cooking and music.
She is Reverend Gillian, according to the bulletin. Someone different than when I met her. But maybe it has been growing inside her all this time, this identity. As she prays, I can hear the way we were taught to address God with boldness and beauty, the way we were taught to love and pay attention to the people in front of us. When she preaches love your enemies and turn the other cheek, I can hear our seminary lessons all over again, not to sell our people short with a cotton candy Christianity, not to neglect the hard teachings of Jesus.
“And are we yet alive,” we sing. The old Charles Wesley hymn.
The traveling Methodist preachers would always sing the same song when they reunited for their annual conferences. They gathered and raised their voices wherever they were and sang this very one, the one we sing in the white wood church. “And are we yet alive, to see each other’s face? Glory and praise to Jesus give for his almighty grace.”
As we sing, I look at Gillian as she leads the singing. Alive, to see each other’s face. “What troubles have we seen, what mighty conflicts past, fightings without, and fears within, since we assembled last!” The miracle seems to be part in the living and part in the seeing–that we are here to behold these faces, these people, both familiar and new. The ones they always were and the ones they are becoming.
We arrived the night before, and Gillian and Charles ran out to meet us. We hugged in the rain and ran inside, past a peanut barrel and the turquoise Mercury that Charles used to drive in high school. There were big bowlfuls of shrimp and cheese grits for dinner, with homemade ginger ale that Charles made with ginger root and yeast from the air and time.
Gillian and Charles’ house is bursting with books and music and food and creativity, the way I imagined it would be. Charles walks us around, shows us the things that need to be fixed. It is no farm, but there is room enough out back for two chickens and a small garden and flowers and all the fix-it-up cars.
We walk into the “preserving room,” filled with onions and sweet potatoes to store, the homebrewing equipment, jars of sauerkraut still in the works. There is a mandolin and a guitar and a piano. We talk with Gillian and Charles and Charles’ college friend Frank, who nearly got kicked off the college bike patrol with Charles when the two of them used their portable radios to pretend there was an emergency, thinking it was a private channel. The police showed up. We laugh, and we talk, and we play, and the night grows late.
It is possible sometimes, to see what a person will become. To see it inside of them like a seed sprouting. It grows slow, but it grows, all the same. And maybe it’s only when you look away and back again that you realize how much it has grown.
They talk about the lack of light in this house, the crazy seventies colors, the odd lightswitches. It is not ideal. But I can see that farm, that farmhouse of hospitality, inside this little parsonage. A seedling. Not growing fast like the okra, but slow and sure.
“What kind of things are you thinking about growing?” Charles asks me the night before we leave. We discuss possibilities: garlic, tomatoes, pineapple basil, rosemary. Zinnias, which are impossible to kill. He escapes into the preserving room and fills an old tea tin with baggies of seeds, saved from this summer’s crops.
He holds them out to me. “For your new garden.”
Seeds to grow. They will need soil, and they will need light, but light we have in abundance.
For a moment, I can see what they will become. What we will become.