MONDAY: The Good Elders

BY SUZANNE BURCHELL

Copyright is held by the author.

NANCY STOOD in the old Grace United Church kitchen wondering how many thousands of chowder luncheons had been made in this kitchen since the turn of the century. This luncheon was now the main money maker of a dwindling congregation that was suffering from economic woes. The rows of pews were now empty on Sunday, except for a scattering of maybe 30 people mostly the diehard elders. The enormous Rosetta windows spoke of a more abundant time when all the pews filled each Sunday and the children’s Sunday school was teaming with new little Christians. The leaky roof was a testament to lean offerings in the collection plate on Sundays. This church had once been the show piece of the town.

“Them there days are all gone,” one old timer was heard to say.

This was not a church that dealt well with change. To make money on the chowder luncheon, no more fresh lobster was now used in the recipe; they now used just canned fish, fake crab and less cream, more milk. People at the co op grocery store complained in the aisles as they shopped about the skimpy Grace United chowder. The shoppers added that the biscuits served with the chowder were smaller as well and pie slices skinnier.

The Anglicans had audaciously started their own chowder lunch this year undercutting Grace United by a dollar and using real lobster. Townspeople had begun to switch to the Anglican church for bigger biscuits and more pie and real lobster and the Anglican chowder lunch was a better price to boot.

Times were changing and that was that. Tim, the organist for Grace United, was quite deaf now but no one minded when he fired up the old pipe organ and missed a few notes here and there. No matter the bender he might have been on the night before, he never missed a service in 46 years. Most of the choir could hardly hobble into the choir loft these days let alone carry a tune. The best asset of Grace United was the new minister, who was enthusiastic and caring. He was a home grown “down easter” not “from away,” as the other clergy had been in the past few years. The elders had got rid of the last few ministers in short order when they brought in newfangled changes like moving the altar or letting non-clergy partake of the service. Grace United elders liked things to just stay the same.

As Nancy cut the cooked potatoes for the chowder, she wondered how much longer her church could survive. There was hope in the new young minister, Reverend Michael, who was full of life while knowing his place in this church that resisted change. The previous woman minister had been run out for her new ideas of storytelling and not wearing her vestments. The minister before her was exited when they found out she was gay. So far the new minister had approval for returning the altar to its proper place and using the old ways in the service and he was definitely a straight male. Reverend Michael, also known as Reverend Mike, was their elders’ cup of tea.

While making the chowder, Margaret always reminded Nancy that her potato chunks were too big while Anna said they were too small and would turn to mush. Nancy smiled and cherished these dear old souls who never wavered in their commitment to God and church and tradition. The women remarked, while putting the chowder together, that tonight’s meeting of the elders would be “some” hot, as they would be discussing AA’s request to rent a room for its twice-weekly meetings. The Catholic church had upped the rent for AA so the group was looking for a cheaper accommodations. Just imagine, AA had requested the parlour at Grace United, where the elders had met since the beginning of time. Margaret said the meeting was just a formality — that it was a forgone decision. God did not want Grace United tainted in any way.

Nancy was dreading tonight’s meeting. She had become an elder by default when her father died and she took his place. This meeting would be a hot one all right. God help the AA spokesperson when he meets up with these good Christians elders thought Nancy.

Maybe, Harold, the eldest elder, would sober up after dinner and come. More likely his long suffering wife, Rose, would drive him and dump him off after she told him which way to vote. Harold had lost his licence a year ago after driving round and round in a blueberry field while under the influence of Captain Morgan. He had given the Mounties quite a chase.

Seven o’clock and all were seated exactly where they always sat. All 15 elders had come. Everyone knew Harold was “in his cups” every night. Poor Rose she stood by her man. Nancy leaned to one side to avoid the fumes of Captian Morgan wafting from Harold.

Before the meeting began the AA spokesperson had been asked to move for Bella so she could have her special chair. The plea for a meeting place was brief and to the point. AA would pay for the church whatever they collected at its meetings. Everyone knew half the town needed to come to AA. but only a few dared. The spokesperson had barely left the room before the eruption.

Bella spoke the loudest and grabbed the attention of floor.

“No way that lot is coming in this church. Grace Church will not be associated with those kind who as everyone knows are a sorry bunch. If they are seen coming in here the whole town will think we are all a bunch of alcoholics at this church. We’ll lose out on attendance.”

Following Bella’s outburst her friend Myrtle added, a few choice words.

“Those drunks just like to get on the dole and go back and forth to rehab at the taxpayers’ expense. They don’t really have any money to pay us rent.They are down and out freeloaders, that’s why the Catholics kicked them out.”

Murmurs of agreement filled the air. Ethel Maude just nodded her head. Everyone knew she had taken out her squealing hearing aid. Ethel Maude liked to be in her own world by herself.

Young Reverend Michael looked nervously around the room at his congregation’s most potent members. He thought no one else would speak but he was wrong. Mary Lou leapt to her feet.

“Our son has just returned from out west where he got himself clean and sober by the grace of God,” were the words Mary Lou uttered. “Who of you does not know the story of Jesus and the woman at the well? Who of you has any right to cast the first stone? AA has saved my son’s life and all of you know someone who could use these meetings.”

Her husband Ken stood beside her and looked around at all of the gathered elders who he had known his entire life. Some could not look back at him while others glared. Ken spoke soflty: “My boy is doing fine now after he almost died a few months ago. He has a new life off the booze and I am some grateful to AA.”

Mary Lou continued, saying: “If you do not allow this AA group to meet in this parlour then Ken and I will take our family and you know we fill two rows and put plenty in the collection plate of this church. We will go over to the Anglicans if you don’t let the AA meet here.”

There was stunned silence. Only Ethel Maude’s squealing hearing aid broke the silence. It was time to vote. Ethel Maude’s hearing aid squealed again. Pieces of paper were passed around the circle. No one made a sound except the pencil scratching of a yea or nay.

Reverend Michael collected the ballots and asked Nancy to help him count. Nancy helped him count in the musty kitchen. The result was not good. They counted three times to be sure.

The outcome was seven for and seven against, one spoiled ballot no doubt scribbled on by Harold who could barely sit up straight let alone vote properly. Only one person could break the tie. It was up to Reverend Michael.

Nancy and Reverend Michael returned to the parlour.

Nancy watched Reverend Michael finger his white collar. She recalled the minister who was run out because of her progressive ways. She recalled the gay minister before who was got rid of. She knew Michael was thinking the same thoughts. Michael had not only returned the altar but made it known he was straight. He returned to the old ways of traditional hymns and sermons because he wanted to stay. This all gained him much approval. He had come to love the congregation just as they were and they loved him in return. He did not want to be run out. His future at Grace United depended on his vote.

Reverend Michael stood up and looked at each elder. He cleared his throat to announce the tie breaking vote. Before he spoke it was evident that he was asking God for the right words. He wanted to stay with all of his heart. Before he spoke there was a moment when Nancy saw clearly Reverend Michael smiled. He was resolved in his decision as to which way he would vote. He had heard God’s advice.

Slowly and deliberately Reverend Michael fulfilled his responsibility to break the tie as he spoke the words that would determine whether AA would be welcomed at Grace United.

“Hello, everyone, my name is Reverend Michael, and I am a recovering alcoholic.”

4 comments

  1. Michael joll

    This is not a story in an unseemly rush to tumble to its conclusion, and rightly so, IMHO. I loved the leisurely pace and attention to small details that brought the narrative alive. Realistic dialogue drove the story forward at the right speed. I deliberately refused to allow my eyes to drift to the bottom of the page before I reached the punch line. And in spite of everything, I still had no idea which way the Reverend Michael would vote. Thanks for the lovely story of small town Maritimes church culture and the lovely twist at the end.

  2. Suzanne Burchell

    Thank you for the kind comments. Much of this story is true, 🙂 names are changed.

  3. Gloria Jean Hansen

    Oh Boy, Suzanne, you sure know how to haul a reader in hook, punch line and sinker. I loved the story, reminds me of the old Kipling Baptist Church where I grew up, similar personalities, different sandbox. So much covering up and glossing over of their own frailties. I especially liked the simplicity of the story, you told it like it was. Good stuff, right up this country girl’s alley!

  4. Suzanne Burchell

    Thank you for the positive feedback sure makes a writer feel good to have such a response — I wrote this story form my heart and lived experience……..I love my hometown and all the people in the story but see some of the hypocrisy…..I love the people nonetheless 🙂

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