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In a black cassock, hemmed with duct tape

September 13, 2004 | Category: Nearer, My God, to thee

I have always felt God near. I have always thought the message of Jesus Christ was that of love. I've always, as far back as my memory reaches, been involved with my church and faith (Episcopalian, for those keeping score).

And I've always wanted to be part of the solution. So when I moved into the city (Chicago) when I was 25, I took myself over to the Episcopal Cathedral office building and said "OK, what needs doing?"

I was immediately tackled to the ground by a horde of understaffed employees.

After the dust settled, it was decided that I could start by interpreting, into sign language, the Bishop's next sermon. (Me and sign language is another story.)

A few Sundays later, I showed up early for services and was outfitted, rather crudely, into a spare cassock hemmed with duct tape and told to stand next to the lectern.

They had me start out there, so I just interpreted the whole service rather than look like a human statue. The place was full as you can imagine - a real turnout because Frank, the bishop, was presiding for the first time in months.

I felt obvious, and a little embarrassed. Was I was interpreting for the sake of the Church seeming "inclusive"? I would have bet there wasn't a deaf person in a 5-mile radius. But I grimly pressed on.

Finally, Frank stepped up and began to speak.

His sermon that day was about his recent trip to Israel and the Middle East.

I was struck by his warm, compelling voice. Frank, it was immediately clear, was incredibly sincere. As he talked, he revealed a deep sense of humor and a profound aura of faith.

He talked about his trip. About meeting people of many religions and beliefs. Of being gutted with the tragic reality of the region - the clashing, bomb-ridden screams of incompatible righteousness. Frank talked about wearing a pilgrim's ring and a pilgrim's eyes and seeking for the concrete symbols of his inner spirituality.

As he talked, and I was woven into his spell, my hands grew more and more eloquent and pure. Sign language lends itself to picture-stories.

Finally, Frank reached a moment in his journey where he decided he could no longer be a pilgrim. He removed his ring, and laid it as an offering beneath an underground fissure said to be a Holy place.

As Frank said the words, my hands drew the pictures. I slipped an unseen ring from my hand and gently placed at the base of Frank's pulpit.

We both grew still.

I could not interpret words that had not been said.

And he was so caught up in my interpreting that he stopped speaking.

We looked at each other, in a full church, and the moment swelled. The congregation didn't know if they should chuckle or cry.

Finally he reached out and touched my hands with his. Letting go, he said "like that. Exactly".

And he was done.

I was shivering. I don't remember the rest of the service.

Later, Frank called me into his office overlooking Chicago in the twilight afternoon. We had the first of what would become a series of conversations about faith and fundamentalism; about journey and calling.

We signed some papers, and a few weeks later I had a job description and a locker at the cathedral and a cassock to put in it - one that was tailored for me by one of the volunteers. This was involvement on a whole new level, and it consumed a great part of my life.

It was many years later that I surrendered the cassock willingly and left for another path and another destination. Frank had been promoted away from the bishopric and with him went my desire to work for the diocese.

I became a civilian, and had to relearn living. It was a long, painful change that took years. But I must have succeeded because people now never guess at my life before.

That suits me fine, most days.

But I'm not "undercover" pretending to be something I'm not. I changed careers and lifestyles, but I didn't change my fundamental belief system. I neither hide nor shout my faith - I live in it.

But sometimes, sometimes I remember when.

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Tagged: Episcopal, chaplin, volunteer, faith, Christian, Interpreter, Corporate, Mommy, Life