By the time I was 6, I had felt it in the woods. I had not yet felt it in church. I remember thinking: "If this is God's house, He sure stays outside a lot." But one day, it happened.
I had just begun to go to "big church." I had already learned the mechanics of the thing from listening to the intercom during my nursery years. There were the long, droning prayers. There was the coughing and rustling in the space of the preacher's pauses. There were songs I didn't know. The only songs we sang in the nursery were "Deep and Wide," and one other: "Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world."
Two men always greeted folks at the
big creaking door. One was a squatty New-York-fireplug-looking man. He was a city policeman. The other was a tall white-haired tree whose wrinkled face always looked beyond us as we climbed up the steps from the beginner's Sunday school class in the basement.
The church was filled with worshipers.
I didn't understand back then that our church sat on the corner of a college campus. I had not yet explored the world behind the church building. It was all I could do to get up the stairs to the big front doors that were too heavy for me to open.
Even if someone had told me that the preacher had been inviting the college students to come to church, I wouldn't have understood.
What I knew was that when my sisters became college students, they moved far away.
IF I HAD heard that the preacher had invited an Indian student to come to services, I would have expected some guy with feathers in his hair and a long ponytail.
So I didn't really notice the clean-cut, neatly dressed, dark-haired man from India. He sat in the front pew of what was called the annex. It wasn't really part of the main sanctuary, but added on to one side. It was the section for teenagers and parents with kids.
The preacher droned the opening prayer. The Fireplug and the Tree leaned over to whisper in the ear of the neatly dressed, dark-haired man. That was when I noticed his skin was the color of the old carved wood of the pew.
Fireplug and the Tree pointed to the big creaking doors. Then they took the visitor by the arms. The entire annex was craning. Men were rising up. Little boys stood in their seats.
The big door banged against its stop. The student was escorted down the steep steps and off the grounds. Behind us, a woman said that man had no business there in the first place. She used an ugly word to describe him.
I had heard that word before. I know exactly who said it the first time I heard it. It was a boy at school. I asked Mom and Dad what it meant. They told me it wasn't a nice thing to say and not to say it.
How come I was hearing it in church?
School and church were the only two places I'd ever been, besides home. I never heard that word at home, except when I said it that time I was asking about it.
Now, this wasn't the time I felt the presence of God.
I was just confused. What did this guy do to get thrown out of church? He hadn't been there long enough to get into any trouble. Besides, he was sitting in the front row of the annex. Even I knew that the people who were going to cut up sat in the back.
Dad tried to explain on the way home. Some people didn't want anyone who wasn't like them in church.
Mine was a child's logic: "But Jesus loves all colors of people. Those two men at the door must not understand Jesus very good."
Fairly soon afterward, everyone was talking about a man who had been to Vietnam. The old folks seemed to pronounce it "ham." I knew what Vietnam was. That was a war, and I was excited about that. This man was the only person from our church who had been over there.
I was sitting in the second row of the annex with Cousin Ray and Aunt Martha. Mr. Vietnam was right in front of us.
After the doxology, the welcome to visitors, and a hymn or two, Mr. Vietnam was asked to say a few words. I was ready for this.
So that's what a soldier walks like. I would practice that when I got home.
HE SAID right off that the only good thing about Vietnam was getting letters from home. He thanked the folks in the church who had written to him. There was a rustling sound as the women in the church group who wrote the letters swapped the way their legs were crossed and had to get resituated. The men put their arms on the backs of the pews. There was a light round of appreciative coughs, then silence again.
Mr. Vietnam said his dad had written him about the college student.
He looked out at the crowd for what seemed like the longest time.
Then he told about lying in a foxhole, and how a mortar shell went off right next to them. Wow! I knew what a mortar shell was; I had read about it in my picture book of World War II.
He looked down at the big Bible on top of the podium.
The man next to him in the foxhole was his best friend. That made sense. Who else would you want to be in a foxhole with?
His friend dove on top of him when the shell landed. When the dust settled from the explosion, his friend didn't move.
Then he said his best friend was black.
I felt like I was out in the woods.
Mr. Vietnam took a step to come down off the podium, then paused, and said: "He gave his life for me."
Mr. Vietnam slowly walked down the aisle toward the big door. Old Fireplug and the Tree still had their hands sticking out to shake when the big door creaked open.
No one even coughed, or anything.