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Text: “Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’” Mark 2:3-5

Charlie Stevenson moved to town the day after they voted to close the church, although he didn’t hear about it until he went to worship the following Sunday. The church was almost full that day. It was the beginning of a kind of extended wake which was to last three months. That was when pastor Timmerman was scheduled to retire for the second and last time and the church doors were to be closed for good. He had come to be their pastor after his first retirement from a big city church. The part-time arrangement, the low salary and the provision of a parsonage met both his and the church’s needs. Now with his imminent departure, the ministry of the dwindling congregation seemed to be at an end. They had decided to close the church doors rather than go on with what had become a constant struggle to pay the bills and to carry their share of their denomination’s mission work.

Everybody came that first Sunday after the decision to pay their last respects to the old white frame building and to a way of life that had existed in their little community for over a hundred years. It seemed that the church had always been there. It was the only church in the village, the center of community life not only for weddings and funerals but also for Election Day dinners, 4-H club meetings, and numerous other community functions. So everybody came that first Sunday after the vote to mourn the death of their church.

To an outsider that day it would have appeared that the church was full of life. Charlie Stevenson didn’t know quite what to make of it. He had come with the full intention of transferring his membership. The church was within walking distance of his house and it was his denomination. It never occurred to him that he would join anywhere else. Now what was he going to do? Did it make sense to join a dying church?

Charlie decided that he would wait and see. In the meantime he could see no reason for not becoming involved in the things he had always done in in church. He asked about Bible study and choir practice, and yes, he would be interested in playing on the church softball team. He liked to play second base but would be glad to fill in wherever there was a need.

People took to Charlie immediately. People always had. He was a tall man, well over six feet, with broad shoulders, a full head of curly brown hair and a smile that never quit. Charlie seemed to like everyone. And people couldn’t help liking him.

When word got out that Charlie was coming to choir practice the soprano section doubled. Two eligible young women with modest vocal talents who hadn’t been to practice in months suddenly found themselves free of all pressing social engagements. They said they had come for the choir’s last hurrah, but they had a hard time keeping their eyes on the music and off of Charlie. The second week Charlie brought the centerfielder and the shortstop from the softball team. Everybody knew they were wonderful singers but it was Charlie who had said to them, “Why don’t you come sing with us? It is great fun.” So they had come.

It was the same at the Thursday night Bible Study. Six or seven was the usual attendance. Sometimes they would have nine or ten at the beginning of a series or when they met at Mabel Robinson’s house. Mabel was the best dessert maker in town and she had a big Victorian house. People liked to go there just to see her antique furniture and to ogle the crystal chandelier that her grandfather had shipped over from Paris. Mabel was usually ready for anything, but even she wasn’t prepared for the twenty-three people who showed up for Bible Study the second week after Charlie moved to town. There were the seven regulars, a few of the irregulars, the two newly enthused sopranos, the centerfielder, the shortstop, and the catcher from the team, Charlie, and a few guys who worked with him down at the mill. Mabel had to scramble to find enough chairs for everyone. And she had to sneak out to the store to get extra sherbet to go with the lemon chiffon cake.

The amazing thing was that this sudden rise in attendance at choir practice, at Bible Study and in worship was no passing phenomenon. It grew steadily every week. People were getting involved who hadn’t been in church for anything but a dinner or a Christmas program in years. A couple of families who had been attending a larger church over in the county seat came “back home” to worship “for old time’s sake” they said. But everyone could tell they had been caught up in the new spirit too. It was almost enough to make everyone forget the church was about to be closed.

Then near the end of his second month in town Charlie got sick. Word went around that he had a fast spreading cancer. People could hardly believe it. Charlie, who was so full of life, the man who had almost single-handedly brought the church back to life —- dying? It couldn’t be true. Mabel and one of the other older women decided to go over and see how he was after the third Sunday that his chair in the choir section was vacant. It was just a few weeks before the church was scheduled to close.

They found Charlie in bed, too week to respond to their knock on the door. Mabel went right in and when she saw the state he was in she sent her friend to call the doctor. The doctor wanted him to go to the hospital, but Charlie said he had been through all that before and this time he was going to stay at home. “Well, then,” Mabel said, “You will need a nurse. I will go and get my things.”

“Wait just a minute,” Charlie said, “You don’t know what you are getting into. You need to know that I have H.I.V. AIDS and that I am gay.”

Mabel didn’t know what to say. She was clearly taken aback. She had never in her wildest imaginings thought that she would ever have to face anything like this. Finally, after a long pause, she turned to the doctor and said, “Doc, what do I have to do to protect myself?” When the doctor had told her everything she went straight home, got her overnight bag, brought her favorite pillow, made a bed on the couch and then set about caring for Charlie’s needs. She offered to call his family but Charlie said it would be better if she didn’t. He gave her the number though, “just in case,” he said.

Mabel stayed by Charlie’s bedside night and day for the next three weeks. She saw to it that no visitor stayed too long. She even chased the pastor out once when she could see that Charlie was getting tired.

Charlie died on Memorial Day just before sunrise. When Mabel called his family they said they didn’t want anything to do with him. They said, “Charlie made his bed, now let him lie in it.” They told her she could make any arrangements she wanted, said Charlie had plenty of money to pay for everything. They didn’t even want his things, said to give everything away.

When the word got out that Charlie’s family didn’t want him, and weren’t coming to the funeral, the church took it as a challenge. It didn’t matter that Charlie was gay or that he had died of AIDS, he was their Charlie and by God they were going to see that he was buried properly.

Everybody came to the funeral. Pastor Timmerman gave the finest sermon anyone had ever heard him preach. The choir sung like never before and when the men from the softball team carried the casket down the aisle the centerfielder led the congregation in singing, “Blest Be the Tie That Binds.” Tears flowed freely that day. No one who was present had any doubt that “the fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above.”

The next day after the funeral the bishop got a call from Sam Eberly, the church’s Lay Leader. “We’ve changed our minds,” Sam said. “We want to keep the church open.”

I wrote this story in 1990 for “Lectionary Stories,” a series of books I did with CSS Publishing Company. AIDS and homosexuality were viewed quite differently at that time and yet… johnsumwalt@gmail.com

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