Not Out of Place at All

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Dear Will:

If you had stopped every pedestrian on Broadway you could not have found a single person who would have sized us up and declared that we fit in. We were out of place, out of our element, clearly from out of town. Although we didn’t get lost as often as we did the last time we visited Bryn in New York, we still stood out in all of the ways you don’t want to.

Then on Sunday, it seemed to get worse. Following up on something we had read, we decided to attend church in Harlem. We took the subway from our hotel on the Upper West Side and walked a short distance to the chapel. We had arrived over an hour early, so you can imagine our dismay when we saw the line of visitors stretching down the block and around the corner. And it was raining.

Feeling ill-at-ease and bracing for a drenching, I asked one of the men in charge of crowd-control if this was indeed the line for the Abyssinian Baptist Church. What happened next was astonishing. “Are you from out of town?” he asked, as if it weren’t embarrassingly obvious to everyone in the tri-state area. When I confessed that we were, he led us past the long line of tourists and, without explanation, ushered us to the main entrance reserved for local members. Within a few more minutes, we were inside, huddled in the vestibule with a handful of the faithful, waiting for the 11 a.m. service to begin.

We were dumbfounded. With dozens waiting outside in the rain for the chance to sit with other visitors in the balcony, why had he escorted us to this preferred location? Before long, we were invited to enter the main sanctuary where we took our places among the regular congregants. We sat there admiring the setting while feeling (I admit) the sort of self-consciousness that comes from being an Orange County Mormon sitting in the wrong pew in a Harlem Baptist church.

Even so, the members of that church could not have been more gracious. We heard beautiful, rousing music from an enthusiastic choir. There was an appropriately reverent interlude in which all were invited to partake of bread and wine in remembrance of the sacrifice of Jesus on behalf of sinners everywhere. The pastor gave an outstanding sermon—a passionate reminder of something the choir had sung earlier: that although God does not always come when we ask, He always comes on time. As Abraham learned on the mount, he told us, the Lord will definitely provide. Affirmations of faith and testimony reverberated throughout the sanctuary, and I found myself reflecting on the ways in which God has consistently been there for me when I need Him most.

As expected, the Baptists did things a little differently than we are accustomed to, but we enjoyed the service nonetheless. Near the end of the two-and-a-half hour meeting, the members around us turned and warmly shook our hands—a simple but fitting gesture of welcome. It truly felt as if our common bond of faith in Christ had at last made us “no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19).  We were far from home, in someone else’s church, but in that moment, anyway, we didn’t feel out of place at all.

The following Sunday we were glad to be back in California, sitting at ease in our own Santiago Creek Ward chapel. It felt good to be caught up in the warm embrace of familiarity, surrounded by the finest people we know—people who have made us feel like family since the day we first arrived in Orange over 15 years ago. We were delighted to be home where we truly do belong, worshiping God together with others who share our faith and beliefs. As I sat there enjoying a wonderful service, I was once again reminded of what Jesus Himself had taught: “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20). Which is, of course, why we gather. And why your life would be blessed, as mine has been, should you one day choose to gather with us. I’ll be there to make sure you get a good seat.

PW

My Star Dust Melody

Dear Will:

It just might be that we were the worst tourists in the history of New York City. And if not the worst, then for sure we were somewhere in the Bottom Ten.

We were the ones riding the S51 bus on almost a full loop because we boarded it on the wrong side of the street. We were the ones at 2 a.m. who wandered ourselves into a dead-end and had to escape over a chain-link fence somewhere in a Naval compound on Staten Island. The ones who showed up on Saturday to see Joshua Bell at the Lincoln Center, only to discover that the tickets were for the previous night? That was us too.

The most appropriate symbol of our week in New York would probably include an image of the four of us, standing on a street corner staring dumbly at my cellphone, trying to figure out if we were pointing uptown or down, heading someplace we couldn’t get to without making a connection somewhere else. Our feet ached all the time. We were edgy and cranky, usually disoriented and most always sweaty. When you go to a place like New York, you don’t ever want to be “those people.” Well, we were those people.

Which is why the afternoon we spent on the High Line stands out as a miraculous bit of Divine Intervention, a merciful gift from God to the undeserving. If you’re not familiar with the place, the High Line is a park built on what used to be an elevated train line. It’s mostly a stylized walkway—or maybe a strollway, to be more accurate. And it has a completely different vibe than the city below. It’s calm—calming. For us it offered a soothing break in the action after several days of trying somewhat futilely to get from wherever we were to somewhere else.

And that was even before we heard it, wafting through the air along the platform like a future memory. We had just finished a modest picnic of sandwiches from the Chelsea Market when we heard something beautiful, unmistakable, alluring—familiar and comforting in a way that only a favorite melody in an unexpected place can be. I grabbed my daughter’s arm. “Bryn,” I whispered, “do you hear that?” It was a single soprano saxophone, gently riffing on “Star Dust,” the old Hoagy Carmichael tune that Reader’s Digest once called (with good reason) “the best loved song of the 20th Century.”

The music pulled us down the path toward a lone musician. There was no audience, not so much as a small group of listeners. And yet it was so lovely! Now I’m not ordinarily the sort to do such things, but when we arrived at the place I couldn’t help myself. I reached for Bryn and we started to dance. I’m such a horrible lead and we were in such a public place that I soon lost my nerve, but the impulse was irresistible because the music was so beguiling. We swayed and let the music work its magic as Mitchell Parish’s lyrics slipped easily into mind: “Tho’ I dream in vain, in my heart it will remain: My Star Dust melody, the memory of love’s refrain.”

When the song ended I threw some money in the musician’s hat and thanked him. “That was wonderful,” I told him. “I love that song. Thank you.” He thanked me himself—get this—for blessing his day. Imagine. Remembering it now makes me want to go there again—right now—and simply sit and listen. As I think about it, I definitely should have left more money in that hat.

That experience reminds me of the pledge, learned first as a child but not fully embraced until I became an adult: “If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.” That man and his music were all of those things. Which is as good a reason as I can think of to spend a little time strolling—and listening—and maybe even dancing—seeking something lovely on a Sunday afternoon.

PW