“The word of the Lord came to me”
In one particular church, The Huguenot Memorial Church of Pelham, New York, I somehow – quite by accident, and unbeknownst to me – managed to attend the Sunday school class consistently for a full year. I discovered this on a confusing morning when all the Sunday school classes were assembled together for a special program. Children were summoned to the front of the room, made to climb the stairs up to the dais, and a man in a dark suit would say their name and announce their accomplishment.
As I sat in the back of the room, I didn’t pay much attention to their accomplishments. These were not my people, not my customs. But I enjoyed observing the unusual proceedings, studying all the different kinds of dresses and shoes, the fascinating hairstyles on the girls (complete with barrettes, ribbons, ponies and braids, headbands and curls), and the pristine shininess of the boys’ hair.
The sound of my own name being announced suddenly jarred me from my reverie. I heard my first name called out, then the usual pause…and struggle with my last name. Glancing down at my own clothes I was relieved that I had chosen my cleaner dress, that I had licked my shoes earlier in the morning and rubbed off the scuff marks, that my socks were clean and white. I had taken my weekly bath the night before, washed and curled my hair, applying generous amounts of Dippity Do to my foam curlers. Plenty of Hairnet hair spray the next morning helped me to achieve what, to me, looked like a perfect brown square roll of hair all around the base of my neck, and an even fringe of bangs set perfectly flat across my forehead.
Slowly I slipped from my folding chair and made my way forward, up the center aisle of seated children. What had I done? Why had I been noticed?
Apparently, I was now graduating! I had successfully completed the third grade and was heading into the fourth. For this momentous achievement, I was being given a Bible. Yes! I was breathless with astonishment as I looked at its black faux leather cover and gilt pages, held almost casually in the man’s hand.
“Go ahead, it’s yours,” he whispered to me. Cautiously, I lifted both hands to receive this stupendous gift. Certainly never would I have ever imagined people would give books away. Books were treasures, kept in libraries, lent out under great care, examined closely upon return for any mark or damage.
Even more outlandish, this book was a Bible. I had no idea Bibles were so plentiful that they could be given away for free to little girls who were only tangentially involved with a church. The only Bibles I had seen were those nave dwellers, those large, ponderous books, resting heavily in ornate cradles of carved wood, or scrolled brass; the ones Reverends, costumed in robes and embroidered scarves, would read from, slowly, in a special sing-song style, from the stage.
I had surmised that Bibles were, in fact, so rare and so incomprehensible, they were never referred to in our Sunday school classes. Our stories came in colorful workbooks, regardless of the church we attended. These stories had been rewritten for children to understand. There seemed to be no continuity to these lessons, they were stand-alone stories, lifted out of the great complexity of the Bible, the few understandable pieces children were allowed to learn. I could hardly believe that I, completely by accident, completely unknowingly, had somehow done something that warranted being trusted with this magnificent gift.
Throughout the rest of the morning I stroked its nubbly black cover, gently passed my fingers over the words on its pages, touching the words as the Jewish men did in synagogue. I marveled at the translucent papers, wondering if this was holy paper, reserved specially for holy words. I breathed in its dusty, inky scent. I brushed my fingers across the whole of the gilt-edged pages, following the contour of its corners, glowing and lustrous.
(This is the story of how God’s words came to me…next, what I began to read)
[Huguenot Cross, also called Pentcost cross – created by the jeweler Gilbert Albert – commemorating the 450th anniversary of Reformation in Geneva. Cathedral St-Peter, Geneva.]