ursing a painful back, I eased myself into the hard, metal seat in the academy gymnasium for the Sabbath morning worship service at camp meeting. The new suit I wore that morning had elicited compliments from my wife. I felt refined, burdened neither with the unrealistic idealism and inexperience of youth, nor the unconstructive, rigid nostalgia for the way things used to be. Awareness, relevance, and sophistication were the characteristics I put on with my suit that Sabbath.
With the heat of the place, the constraints of the suit, and the pain in my back, I immediately felt crowded in the too-closely placed chairs. Even more so by the elderly gentleman seated to my right, who prevented me from filling completely the chair’s seat or leaning my aching spine against its back.
Appearances and Perceptions
My elderly seatmate leaned over and jokingly requested a quarter for the privilege of occupying the seat next to him. I managed an obligatory, insincere chuckle. My back was most comfortable, I discovered, when I slouched like an adolescent, my feet on the chair supports in front of me, my arms folded across my chest as if I were irritated. This perspective allowed me to survey the old man beside me.
He was dressed simply in a pair of worn black slacks and a maroon and gray plaid shirt from which emerged two arms with thinned and scaling skin, wrinkled and dry at the elbows. His hands, too, were worn with thick fingers and nails. His hair was gray and thin, though more full than my own. His prominent nose was mapped with age lines decrying years of work and struggle. Creases streaked his cheeks, lips, and sagging eyes, most evident at the smiling corners of his eyes and mouth. From my position below and slightly behind him, I could see through his trifocals. I judged him to be in his 70s at least. And judge him is exactly what I did.
Clumsily he changed positions, dislodging my right foot from its place on the chair support in front of him. I winced as the jolt traveled painfully to my back. In apology he leaned over, clapped his hand several times on my knee, and solicited my ear. “I get nervous when I’m so happy,” he said, grinning. My sophistication recoiled at the words.
Someone called for the offering, asking us to fill out a pledge card for evangelism. I pulled out my wallet and was annoyed to find nothing other than a few $20s I had gotten from the automated teller machine the day before. Why didn’t I have a couple $1s, or a $5? Shaking my head in frustration, I separated a $20 from the stack and placed my wallet back in my coat pocket, feeling smug at my own generosity.
From the corner of my eye I noticed the old man searching his pockets for a pen to fill out the pledge card. Finding none, he whispered to his wife who, with effort, reached down and retrieved her purse from the floor beside her. I reached into my pocket and handed my pen to the man, who took it gratefully. With trembling fingers, he filled out his pledge for evangelism. I noticed a shake of his head as well.
Furtively, I glanced at his pledge card as he waited for the cardboard container to come through our aisle. Fifty dollars! Intuitively I realized that the head shaking I had observed was not at all like mine. It was not frustration that, because of inconvenience, he had to give so much. It was, instead, sadness that he had so little to give.
Ashamed, I reached again for my wallet, retrieving the rest of those $20s just in time to place them in the carton before it was passed by me. I have been so immeasurably blessed. I wouldn’t miss those $20s, however many there were. Before I left for my vacation the next day, I could go to any of a thousand cash machines to replenish my stack of bills. But the pledge of $50, scrawled in that shaky script, represented so much more. It was the parable of the widow’s mite obliviously dramatized right beside me.
He patted my knee again with his gnarled hand as he handed my pen back to me. “Thank you so much,” he said, with genuine earnestness. Thank me?
Aging musicians mounted the stage for a musical number. These people were legends. The Wedgewood Trio had been a favorite of mine when I was a teenager in the seventies. In their time, they had been real rebels; pushing the edges of church tradition with their music and touching deeply the hearts of young people like me. Targeted by many a rigid believer for using instruments of rebellion such as guitars and drums, they had eventually faded from view, but not from memory. Reunited again, they were now performing in sacred venues like this one.
Questions for Reflection
1. When have you had to wrestle with the prejudices in your own life? What triggered it? What did you learn about yourself?
2. What makes prejudices so insidious? What practical steps for dealing with prejudice can you suggest? List at least three.
3. In your experience, are religious people more or less likely to be prone to prejudice? Why is that?
4. What biblical principles put into practice, would eradicate prejudice in your life once and for all?
The effect of their music on me surprised me. The same strains that reverberated in my memory struck some nearly forgotten chord deep within me. It was a chord my cynical heart was no longer accustomed to having strummed. I was also aware that not all in this audience would have the same response to the music. It had been people, many just like those surrounding me, in fact, who had quelled the performance by these very musicians decades ago on grounds of principle. Surely they would be incensed by the music being featured now.
As the rich voices and tight harmonies of the Wedgewood Trio, accompanied by the crisply plucked guitar notes, filled the auditorium, I resumed my slouching posture once again to ease the throbbing of my back. Convinced of the disgusted and judgmental scowl I would find there, I glanced at the old man’s face. He was listening with rapt attention, his face unreadable. But as I continued to watch, almost amused by the frustration I knew would develop, the old man once again stabbed me in my hardened and sophisticated heart. I didn’t expect the weathered creases to soften on his face. I didn’t expect his wizened lips to silently mouth the words of “The Little Brown Church in the Wildwood.” I certainly didn’t expect him to fumble in his shirt pocket for a crumpled tissue to dab at the tears that filled his eyes.
Little did he know that with that same crumpled tissue, he was wiping away layers of my pessimism and cynicism. He had no idea that his simple acts of sincerity had crumbled the crust of my religious monotony. I doubt he planned that day to impact anyone deeply, but he had. As he stood at the end of the sermon responding to the call made by the speaker, I stood slowly and stiffly beside him, responding to the call that his simple and authentic acts of faith had made on my heart.
Bruce R. Coston is a companion animal veterinarian in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. He writes from New Market.