My Own Private Portlandia, Part Two

15 May

Portland of Possibilities

The night before my return to First Presbyterian, I settle on the long strip of sand that helps bridge tiny Portland, approximately 15,000 population, to the city more than 20 times its size, Corpus Christi.

For the life of me, I don’t remember these hotels, or the Texas State Aquarium, or the aircraft carrier – or Fajitaville, a three-story brightly colored monstrosity which, I find out the hard way, negates the advantage of surf-side dining by belting out pop music so loud, it becomes distorted beyond recognition.

As places to enjoy music, in fact, Fajitaville ranks a distant second to CVS – where, a half hour before church, I catch a familiar snatch of lyrics.

            Everyone I know

            Everywhere I go

            People need a reason to believe

            I don’t know about anyone but me

Jackson Browne’s “Running on Empty” doesn’t reflect my mood as much as one might think, given that my road trip might be as long be as long as the tour during which he sang it. If anything, I’mfeeling too much – a powerful wash of memories from those formative Portland years in the early ‘80s, undercut by the get-real reminders to self that I might find no one I know there, or, worse, find it impossible to connect with those who do remember me. I might be welcomed with open arms, or observed with detached curiosity – curious odd, as in, “Isn’t it curious he would bother to come back here now?”

It’s the kind of self-consciousness that keeps folks from revisiting their old workplaces. The difference, of course, is that the workplace is a church – where everyone is supposed to be welcome.

In the spirit of Jackson Browne, I’ve chosen to believe, so I cruise to church and park near my old spot, mosey down the catwalk running by the playground – devoid of children – and into the main building. The choir is rehearsing in the sanctuary, so I head to the kitchen and, hopefully, coffee. A few older folks are there, none of whom went here back in my time, but one confirms that Roberta, my pastor’s wife, is one of those voices coming from the sanctuary.

When rehearsal breaks up, people are standing around, but before I can reach Roberta, I’m intercepted by the church’s new interim pastor, Steve Arndt. I wonder how many interims the church has had since Pete, with kids aging their way toward college, left the pulpit to become a stockbroker. Interim pastoring is its own art – interims are barred from contending for the long-term job; their role is to help guide churches in tricky times of transition. It seems particularly tricky here – it’s Mother’s Day, and yet there are perhaps 25 people here, none of them children.

But Roberta Apple is here, and as I observe her talking to parishioners, she exudes the same serene beauty and grace I remember from decades before. bWhen she turns my way, there’s a flicker of recognition – my height gets me that much – and when I say my name, she hugs me. “What a gift!” she declares.

Robert and mei, both part of God's Catch, even if I seem to have misplaced my name tag.

Robert and me, both part of God’s Catch, even if I seem to have misplaced my name tag.

We talk for a bit, and then she walks up to the pulpit – she’s the liturgist this particular Sunday, giving herself to the church on Mother’s Day, even as her family is preparing for the big meal elsewhere.

Fortunately, the time for the congregation to share concerns comes early, which means that my concern — the anxiety over being singled out in front of a group – is over quickly enough. Roberta explains my back story, and that I’m an English prof in Massachusetts, and I say a few words. Mainly, I say how grateful I am to have been accepted here as a “very green” youth director, and how much I learned then from the Apples and others. Later, when someone asks us to pray for family members going on a trip, Roberta quipped, “You, too, Mike.”

But if there were a contest for most unusual thing experienced in church, my materialization would be a distant second. A woman’s father just finished his long-neglected undergraduate degree in history. He’d written his thesis, but never gotten to defend it, because he had to go off to war.

Specifically, World War II.

He’s 99 years old, on the verge of 100, and finally got around to defending his thesis – which was an interview with a famous politician who, in his own youth, had known Calamity Jane. After the service,  the woman will tell me that she’d contacted the history department at her father’s college to ask if it would send a note for her father’s 100th birthday, and the college surprised her by asking for the thesis – which she then typed word for word as he wrote it back in the 1940s.

A remarkable story of thoughtfulness, all the way around.

The set pieces one would expect are there – the prayers, the Bible passages, an elegant sermon focusing on key women from the Bible, effectively delivered by the new interim – but what strikes me is how even during the service, people are easy and friendly. The passing of the peace – in which we greet people around us in the pews – is at my own church done with one eye on the watch, but here you get into actual conversations. The difference is probably only that of two minutes, but you feel that permission to be friendly. To converse. To truly connect with the person sitting next to you.

In my case, it’s Mrs. Tunnell, daughter of one of my favorite youth, one who seemed more knowing than most. The kind of kid every teacher knows and likes – the one who’s never at the center of things, but who seems often seems like the most observant person in the room. The kind with whom, during lessons gone awry,  you exchange glances that could be translated as “this one isn’t going that well, is it?” and “I know.” When she ultimately decided youth fellowship was not for her, I not only had we failed her somehow, but also that she was smart enough to know it.

Yet when I came back several years later, that same kid, by then a thriving adult, practically tackled me in her parents’ living room. It was an early lesson, one I seem to need to learn over and over, in the fact that sometimes just being there for someone is enough.

They have to figure out the rest on their own.

After the service the Tunnells tell me I should stop by the Corpus Christi seafood restaurant where Amy, now married, is working. First I linger with Roberta – who is gracious enough to show me my old office. More memories flood back.

“It smells the same,” I say, “kind of a sweet smell.”

“That’s the mold,” she jokes.

By her car I ask her to convey to her husband how much I learned from that time, from preaching and teaching to using programs to give folks the opportunity to play their own part. At the time, I had no idea then I’d help build a Habitat for Humanity chapter, let alone become a teacher or a service program director. In our materialistic world, it’s easy to dismiss lessons that don’t directly translate to making a buck – to view periods like my two years in Portland as a detour. I make it clear to Roberta that my two years here ultimately helped me with both vocation and avocation. Meanwhile, she shared that Peter himself felt he did some of his best pastoring after he became a stockbroker, in all of those one-on-one sessions helping clients chart a course through life.

Driving toward Corpus Christi, I remember what another Presbyterian pastor down here once told me. “I try to view my own ministry,” Angus McGregor said one day, “as being no more important than the ministry of the guy selling shirts at J.C. Penney.”

What matters, Angus seemed to be suggesting, was the degree to which we connect and care for the people who show up in our lives.

Right now, I’m about to show up in Amy’s. The restaurant – Water Street Oyster Bar – is clearly upscale, located in a surprisingly chic part of Corpus. I walk past a Surfers Museum and an interesting coffee shop; I can’t help feeling I have somehow leapt a month forward in the road trip, wound up strolling the streets of Santa Barbara. But these Gulf Coast cities are like that – they seem to exist in their own world, apart from the state in which they are located.

It’s Mother’s Day at a nice restaurant, and yet I’ve been so audacious as to ask for a table in a particular server’s designated area. Knowing I’ve resigned myself to a wait of at least an hour, I open my laptop at the bar, try to collect my thoughts. It hits me that this community service road trip – itself a journey of faith in so many ways – started one month ago today.

It feels right that I spent it with First Presbyterian, which embraced me and entrusted me with a role serving their young people, giving a shy, insecure young man the outrageous notion that maybe he had something to give others, something that might actually matter. It was a gift that, to this day, helps keep the cynicism at bay – even now as I wait, knowing she’s in work mode, knowing I must be careful not to get her out of her waitress rhythm. Even 28 years later, I recognize her as she zips from table to table; unlike me, she’s clearly recognizable. Like my marathoner friend Gene I saw the the day before, I’ve always figured Amy for the type to take good care of herself.

She also seems very much in the zone. Like any excellent server, she balances efficiency and friendliness, motion and engagement. Yet the veneer of professionalism drops when she realizes who I am. She gives me a hug; I tell her not to slow down on my account. We catch up over three courses she helps pick, all superb choices, right down to the thickest slice of key lime pie I’ve ever beheld – one I can’t even finish, a first in my personal key lime pie history.

When I tell her about the road trip, her eyes widen.

“That kicks butt,” she says.

I highly recommend Water Street Oyster Bar. (Ask for Amy!)

A meal well worth the tab, for more reasons than one.

A half hour later, heading south toward the border on Highway 77, I find myself wondering about the lives of Amy, and Amy’s family, and the Apples, and, even other youth group members and their families, people I didn’t even see this time around. Normal enough, but what surprises me is how I’m feeling– celebrative and concerned, proud and protective. In short, connected.

Which is part of what First Presbyterian of Portland gave me – an invitation to feel for others, and to act on those feelings, and to learn that now and then, those actions might matter. Leading to lessons I would fall back on every time I moved to a new community, from Montgomery, Alabama, to Worcester, Massachusetts; the only times my life suffered was when I forgot them. The fact I got back so much more than I gave — well, that was just a bonus.

Port/land of possibilities, indeed.



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