On my first Sunday as vicar of the small Episcopal church in my neighborhood, about a dozen people turned up, the few survivors of a couple of recent splits in the church. It was 2006. My predecessor had just quit the Episcopal Church over the ordination of Gene Robinson, a partnered gay man, as Bishop of New Hampshire three years earlier. Dozens of parishioners had preceded their priest out the door, tired of arguing with him about sexuality. Others shared his concern and followed him when he left. As pastor to the remnant, my job was straightforward: to lead them in worship and to accompany them as we learned anew what it means to love God and our neighbors.
After the Eucharist, I walked to the back of the church to speak to an elderly man in the last pew. After introducing myself, I remarked, “I noticed you didn’t come up for Communion.” Thinking he might have limited mobility, I asked, “Would you like me to bring it to your seat next time?” “Oh no,” he answered. “I have never”—he emphasized “never”—“taken Communion from the hand of a woman.”
This was not the discussion about gender I had been expecting. The Episcopal Church has been ordaining women since 1977. But some older members still disapproved of that decision, and this man was close to 90. So I offered, “I would be happy to ask one of my brother priests to take Communion to your home once a month or so.” He shook his head. “No, no, that won’t be necessary.” Having extracted a promise to tell me if he changed his mind, I walked to my office to change out of my vestments.
Back in my street clothes, I told a longtime parishioner about my conversation. “He says he’s never taken Communion from the hand of a woman. What do you know about him?”
My friend gave me a pitying look. “He doesn’t take Communion from anybody. Never has.”
“So what’s he doing in church?”
“His wife sings in the choir. She doesn’t drive, so he brings her.”
Bemused, I asked, “He was just yanking my chain?”
“Trying to, apparently. But it doesn’t sound like he succeeded.”
That was true. My parishioner’s prank only made me laugh. Growing up in a family that liked to tease, I learned that life in community offers many opportunities to yank each other’s chains. Those tugs prove we’re connected.
By not rising to my new friend’s bait, I had unwittingly gained his respect. As I got to know him and his wife, I learned the story of his journey to the Episcopal Church. A professional scientist of a deeply rationalist bent, he told me church hadn’t meant much to him growing up in Oklahoma. But when he moved to North Carolina for graduate school after the Second World War, he fell in love with a local girl. His future in-laws stipulated that only a confirmed Episcopalian could marry their daughter, who was a choir member and Sunday school teacher. When I met him, it had been nearly 60 years since he had undergone that rite for the sake of love, and he was still driving his wife to church week after week.
I got used to seeing him in the same back pew, perusing the Bible as the rest of us celebrated the Eucharist. Occasionally he looked like he might be listening to my sermon. I could never quite tell, and I knew better than to ask. I respected the integrity that kept him from taking Communion to fit in, and the faithfulness that kept him coming back.
He was delighted to meet my husband, an agnostic who rarely attends church. When Wayne joined us one Sunday, he and my parishioner bonded over their long experience of exploring North Carolina’s mountains and coastlands. Shortly afterward, the older man called our home. I thought his wife might be ill, but he set me straight: “I’m calling to talk to Wayne.” Eavesdropping on my husband’s end of the conversation, I heard plans being made. “Sure, I’d like that. This Saturday? See you then.”
Hanging up, my husband answered my unspoken question: “We’re going fishing. There’s a bluegill pond he wants to show me.” Off they went, two freethinkers who loved the outdoors and their churchgoing wives; who weren’t sure who Jesus was to them, but who enjoyed sharing an activity Jesus knew a lot about. Over their fishing lines, they enjoyed a fellowship that neither would have called worship, but that looked like it to me. Without saying much, they reminded me that faith is a divine gift and a sacred mystery. It’s given, in its many varieties, not to divide people, but to spur those who receive it to love others as God loves us all.
The old man died a couple of years later. By then, a deep affection had grown between us. He came to expect the kiss I dropped on his cheek whenever we met, and he enjoyed bringing me jars of the jam he made each summer from berries he gathered near his favorite fishing spot. Every winter, when his wife fell into seasonal depression and withdrew from church, he waited at home with her for my Sunday afternoon visits. In spring, when her mood lightened enough to return, there he was again in his back pew, reading the Bible and basking in the sunlight streaming through the stained glass windows.
I think of him when I drive along country roads and spot a pond where fish may play, when I enjoy a slice of bread with jam, and when I re-read stories of Jesus fishing with his friends. My parishioner never did take the sacrament of Communion from my hand. But by delighting in the beauty of creation, he heightened my gratitude for God’s varied gifts. And by steadfastly nurturing the ties of community, he showed me a type of communion that all may share: the holy bond of love that is the surest sign of divine presence.