The whole small town would soon, potentially, be in an uproar. Graffiti on the public sign outside the First Presbyterian Church of Wandering Souls, Virginia! Or more specifically; graffiti by omission.
The Pastor had decided to have the sign read “Let it always be, whispered or shouted: And all God’s children said Amen”, for a few weeks after Easter. The sign normally was used to announce service times and provided moveable letters to be formed into quotes from the bible or other wise sayings. This was all locked inside a plexi-glass case till the next change of message.
Now the sign proclaimed: ” L_t it _lways be, _hispered or shouted: _ _ _ all God’s children said Amen”. Pastor McIntyre was perplexed. He realized that the door had most likely been opened with the use of a credit card. This process, sliding a card to depress the mechanism and trip the lock, was known to most people. So, that was not a useful clue. It appeared that those letters were purposefully chosen. Why those letters? Nothing jumped out at him in answer to that question.
Back in the church office the secretary, Talley Palmer, was making a call to the Chairperson of the Property Committee. When he answered she related the recent act of vandalism, listened to him for a moment, then hung up with a shake of her head that indicated disapproval. His response had been, “What’s the big deal? Buy some more letters and replace the ones that were removed”. Said Chairperson obviously did not understand the ramifications of the situation. There was a criminal, or juvenile delinquent, loose in the community. This could not stand!
Pastor McIntyre, with the opposite personal response, had already decided to offer compassion and grace – with hope that the culprit would come forward and everything could be set to rest. He was a creature who craved peace equally with justice. Most of the time
It suddenly occurred to him that it was Wednesday. In a few hours it would be time for the weekly 7:00 p.m. prayer meeting. He wasn’t sure whether to take the whole thing down, or leave it up, as is. There was no time to follow Sir Chairperson’s suggestion before the service, these letters had to be ordered from an office supply store. Then he realized, with a grimace, that he should probably call the Sheriff.
In less than 5 minutes, a deputy arrived. With total seriousness, he confided that the heavy rain last night would probably compromise any fingerprints – not to mention that he doubted that any of the citizens of Wandering Souls would be in the data base. The deputy also solved the Pastor’s dilemma regarding the sign. The whole thing needed to be left as it was, for at least a few days. In full Barney Fife mode, the deputy said, “Crime scene”. With that, he turned, walked with added swagger to the patrol car; and took off.
Pastor McIntyre retired to his study to pray.
At 6:45 the Pastor walked into the narthex to greet the members who would be coming to the Wednesday prayer meeting. Normally, this service had at least half of the congregation attending. At 6:50, he became curious as to why he was still all alone. Two minutes later, whispered “Damn it”; and headed for the front door of the church.
Just as he had feared, a large crowd of the congregants were assembled near the sign, oohing and exclaiming over the yellow crime scene tape. He realized that most of these folks had no idea what the crime was! Poor souls, they were probably imagining someone was murdered or attacked on that spot.
He climbed up on a retaining wall and in his best Pastoral tone requested everyone’s attention. “Dear ones”, he began, “please do not be alarmed by the yellow tape. What has occurred here is simply a removal of a few of the letters in my post”. Shouts arose from the crowd, that was now getting larger, as it was one minute before seven. “Who would do such a thing”? “Does that mean someone jimmied the lock”? “Things like this don’t happen in Wandering Souls”! The Pastor began to despair of gaining control and calling for compassion.
“Friends in Christ, perhaps we should gather in the sanctuary and pray”!
Begrudgingly, the congregants began to shuffle toward the door and into the church. Their comments became whispers and suspicious looks at each other. The good Dr. McIntyre was worried that things were not looking very promising for mercy.
He proceeded to conduct the service as per the normal routine. An opening hymn and a prayer of confession, followed by prayers of the people, silent prayer and prayer requests. A blessing in closing is proclaimed and people leave the sanctuary uplifted and talking. But, not tonight! Oh, things went alright till after the prayer of confession. Then, well, all Hell broke loose.
From the back of the church, Pastor heard someone say, “Speaking of confession….”. There was a rumble of laughter that was replaced by coughing. Before Dr. McIntyre could speak, someone else said “It must be someone from this town, but maybe it isn’t one of us. Maybe it’s one of them”. One of whom? the good Pastor wondered to himself. He then took the opportunity in the lull to say: “Brothers and Sisters, we must not over-react! It could be anyone, and there could also be a very good explanation. Judge not lest ye be judged! Remember, the Lord even uses things, that are not good in our opinion, for good to his purpose”.
“Pastor McIntyre, let me stop you right there before you go telling us: Let he who is without sin cast the first stone”, hollered May Suder, the oldest member of First Presbyterian. “I’ve lived in this town all my life, and nothing like this has every happened. I don’t know who to trust”. The good clergyman replied, “Mrs. Suder, please – all of you -please try to have some perspective. It is six letters worth fifty cents each that have been removed. That is petty larceny at the most. And, maybe they were simply borrowed”.
Several people got up and walked out. Including Mrs. Suder, about half of those attending left. The Pastor watched quietly and moved down from the lectern to the pews. The folks that were left were unsure of what to do. By default, they filed past Dr. McIntyre and either shook his hand, hugged him or patted his shoulder. A few of them offered words of encouragement. “Hang in there, we’ll get through this”, and that sort of thing. He took some comfort in that. Perhaps that indicates some support for a compassionate approach, he told himself.
The next morning, Dr. McIntyre woke up smiling. He had decided to believe that, somehow, this whole episode was a blessing from God. He had his breakfast and walked to the church, after kissing his wife goodbye. She watched him go, and silently wondered what the theme of his sermon would be this Sunday.
Once he sat at his desk, he said a quick prayer and then picked up the phone. He had forgotten to ask the Deputy if he could lock the sign back up. No sense inviting copy- cat alphabet thieves, or making it easy for them.
With the permission of the Sheriff’s office, he took the key from his desk drawer and wandered up to the front of the church yard. As he locked up the sign, he surveyed his surroundings. Nothing nefarious in sight. Two blocks to the right was First Baptist. Across the street was a section of older buildings that had been refurbished as a coffee house, an ice cream parlor, a vegetarian diner, and a nail salon. Even these were viewed by some longtime residents as an affront. However, most people understood that Wandering Souls had to start somewhere to get up to speed with the times, and have something for the younger crowd. In the absence of that; the Pastor was afraid that after the children became adults, they would leave in droves. There was already some sign of that. Personally, he had been pleased to see the Hebrew Congregation building that was completed last year, a quarter mile from First Presbyterian. That was followed quickly by a Muslim Center being established, temporarily, in a vacant office building. He thought this was good for everyone! It would provide a more welcoming environment that might attract a variety of people from the surrounding region. God knows that the souls in Wandering Souls needed shaking up from the complacency and insulated position that they had been able to maintain for the last 90-plus years.
Change was not easy for everyone in the town. However, he was gratified to have observed that most of the identified Christian folks, were indeed behaving in a Christ- like manner; despite the pressure and disapproval of the less open-minded. He just wished he knew what it would take to get those people turned around, at least a bit.
He glanced across the street and noticed with satisfaction that he could see into the new shops. There appeared to be young people of various backgrounds gathered together in those places of business, particularly at 4 C’s Java Coffee Shoppe.
Time to start work on the sermon for this Sunday, he told himself. So many choices – but not: “Let he who is without Sin…”. May Suder might end her streak of longevity right there in the pew, if he used that.
The Pastor locked himself in his office and took his phone off the hook. Talley would just have to deal with any calls. He was going to continue to believe that this latest incident was a blessing. “Something from the Beatitudes….” he said out loud.
Friday was pretty much the same as Thursday. Talley complained about fielding all the inquiries about the “crime”. The sign remained in the same shape. The deputy returned with a fingerprint kit and tried to find something meaningful. Later in the afternoon, he reported his failure to the Pastor. Dr. McIntyre continued work on his sermon.
Saturday, the Pastor ate a leisurely brunch with his wife. She wisely didn’t ask him about the status of the investigation. Mrs. McIntyre had taken it upon herself to field the negative calls from home. She knew he had put his Do Not Disturb setting on his cell. So, she felt she had to answer the home phone, just in case there was a pastoral need. Fortunately, it had been a quiet couple of days. She suspected that the congregants, on both sides of the issue, didn’t really know what to say, and were laying low to see how he would address the saints on Sunday before further action. She was also sure that the cell phones were burning up between the members debating the various positions.
She noticed that her husband was restless, he took several walks, pulled weeds, tried to nap – then started those activities all over again. He decided he would drive up to the church before dinner. He got out of his car and walked up to the sign. L_t it _lways be, _hispered or shouted: _ _ _all God’s children said Amen. He had always been good at word puzzles, but this skill didn’t provide him with any insight. He walked over to the retaining wall and sat down. The sun was going down. He looked up to the sky. “Lord, I am believing you for this being a blessing! “.
On Sunday, the Pastor woke up before the sun was up. He tossed and turned and tried to go back to sleep. That not working, he walked to the kitchen and made coffee. After three cups, he decided to shower and get dressed and head to the church to put the finishing touches on his sermon. He was not at all confident that the Beatitude reference about peacemaking was going to fly with the members who were up in arms about the CRIME.
Suit and tie on, hair in place; he got in his car and drove slowly to the church. Driving past the sign to get to his parking spot, he noticed that the door on the sign was open again and swaying in the morning breeze. “Damn it”, he said again – out loud this time, as he was alone in his car. What now? Throwing his car in park, he jumped out and ran up to the front of the church to behold the troublesome sign. He did a bit of a double take; and had to read it three times to believe it. The good Pastor laughed out loud, looked up at the bright blue sky, and said: “Thank you Lord”!
At 9:50 a.m., Pastor McIntyre had a nervous feeling of deja-vu from Wednesday night. No one was in the church getting seated for the 10:00 service. The ushers were not even in the narthex ready to hand out bulletins. He walked out of the sanctuary to the front of the church. The churchyard was full of smiling, laughing and hugging people. Upon beholding the sign with a new statement, formed partially from the old statement, and using the missing letters; the congregation appeared uplifted (even May Suder).
Across the street, the coffee shop was basically empty, except for two young ladies. Finishing their coffee, they smiled at each other conspiratorially. Lucy Newman lovingly touched the Star of David that was around her neck. Her friend, Dalia Magid, pulled the pre-paid debit card her mother had given her last month from where she stashed it between uses (behind her ear, under her hijab). She paid the bill for their coffee
As they stepped outside the shop, they heard the Pastor of First Presbyterian of Wandering Souls loudly pronounce in the churchyard: “The theme for the sermon is Blessed are the Peacemakers; the liturgy will be changed to reflect what is now on the sign”.
Letters from the original statement, plus those formerly missing, had had been re-arranged. L_t it _lways be ,_hispered or shouted, _ _ _All God’s children said Amen, had been transformed to: WE ARE ALL GOD’S CHILDREN, AMEN.
“At least all the letters are back”, said the Property Chairperson.