Saying Nothing

The Jamaican horn-player was testifying to a handful of people. He wore a yellow polo shirt. “It’s easier to build someone up than to criticize,” he said.

The church seemed on its last legs. On 57th between 9th and 10th, the church had peeling paint and rotating fans. It was super hot.

I think it was a Brazilian Church because the Brazilian flag was draped over a pew in the back and a sign outside listed a 7 pm Brazilian church service. I wandered in around 7:50.

I had been walking in the city after my writing class. My classmates and teacher liked this new writing project, A Church A Day, especially they liked me mentioning the people I met.

I had reported in class that many of the men who guarded the church doors, the guys who allowed me access to the sanctuaries, seemed just one step away from the soup kitchen themselves. The church caretakers had seen it all but were were still good-hearted and hard-working.

The Jamaican speaker at the Brazilian church last night was no exception. “I play in the subway. That’s my job. When the police come up to me, I move on. Then they’ll say, ‘Weren’t you just here yesterday?’ ‘I have to make a living,’ I say. It’s tough to make a living as a musician. I have 3 students. I pray for 20.”

At one point he asked the congregation, “What does faith mean?” A few people called out, “Jesus’s love.” “Forgiveness.” He waited. I said nothing. He said, “You in the back, say anything.”

That was me — the one in the back. My tongue was tied. I didn’t feel comfortable speaking. I wanted to say something, to help him out. But I wanted to give the right answer. I liked his sermon. But I didn’t know what faith meant.

I smiled. I hoped that I looked European, perhaps slightly non-English speaking. He moved on. I couldn’t help thinking he was disappointed in me.

Then later he asked, “Who is there for you? No matter what? Who will always be there?”

I shouted out, “Your mother!” A few heads turned. He did not acknowledge my answer. I think the question was rhetorical.  The correct answer may have been God and not mother. I’m not sure. I slunk down in the pew in embarrassment, feeling ridiculous — unable to answer when called on, shouting out the wrong answer when I was not called on.

It’s hard to understand the rhythms of worship. There were several Hallelujahs shouted out during the sermon. It seemed okay for everyone else to yell out randomly. Like when he’d ask, “How am I doing? This is my first sermon. But it won’t be my last.” “Hallelujah!” someone yelled.

Even though I felt inept, I dug this guy. I liked, “Knock and the door will be opened. But you have to knock. No one is going to come knocking on your door.” And he said, “For me the ultimate sin is laziness. You need faith, honesty and hard work.” “Hallelujah!” someone called out.

At 8:15 the service was over. I wanted to tell the speaker I liked his message. But I felt shy and didn’t want to engage. Maybe they’d try to get me to come again. I couldn’t commit. I want to visit a lot more churches. I walked back out into the hot summer night.

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