Village Idiot #9: On Church in a Port City

eternity

The priest is going on about water. At length. Namely, he’s going on about the presence and abundance, vs. absence and shortage, of it in our lives, in our regions, where we’re from and live, where our souls linger. He’s pretty boring with the words.

You can tell by the variety this congregation attracts that there ain’t any overwhelming pressure for this priest to deliver. Downtown New Orleans, Sunday, 11 a.m. He’s softly going on about water to folks from Des Moines, Birmingham, Chippewa, Cleveland. A mother and a son from Montréal. A family of six khaki-short wearers in front of us. A bunch of Asian folks from down the road across from us.

He, they and we are placeholder for all of our routine Christian brethren. We’ve come to be together and remind ourselves how lucky we are. How much water we have in our lives—how much more we can get. How God is to thank for it. My mother and I are just tourists waiting for lunch. The little, thickly bespectacled priest is going on about drought in California. We listen politely.

But then he starts in about a different kind of water. That deep kind of thirst only God can deliver on. That God nectar for our souls. “Only God can quench that thirst,” he says, and folks seem to believe him.

He has us rise, and he has us sit. He has us rise again. A couple of things are constant, though: the remnants of a speech impediment, and the word “quench.” And whether he’s talking about Arkansas spring water, fire in Colorado, or that all important soul water (though he absolutely does not use any term even remotely as evocative as “soul water”), God’s got the stuff, and has and will provide, as long as we let him and are thankful.

Like, the priest goes on, when all those Jews newly freed of bondage were complaining to Moses about how wretchedly un-quenching the desert is, bemoaning how they’d likely croak of thirst because of the damn freedom they’d newly acquired at his behest. How God talked some nice talk about water that came true, water gushing from rock struck, saving Moses’ flock. And how we, too, listening to this boring, old, swagger-free sermon, should also be reminded of the oldest bit of jive in the book: have faith and God will provide.

Amidst all this—with all the “let us pray” moments, and believer hands firmly forward in abandon, and individual thirsts right ready for the communal quenching, the sermon meandering dangerously close to Gatorade-commercial territory—I start assuming it’s like this every Sunday. Folks in from partying on Bourbon Street, working up to brunch, praying meekly in the one proper shirt they packed. Another Sunday in a big, easy port city. Immaculate Christ as usual.

When collection rolls around its wicker baskets—outstretched by local parishioners holding them out on broomsticks—I tell my mother 2000 years of empire is enough. When the priest has us kneel, I tell her we will not. There’s something admirable about all these folks apart yet here, together, liturgically bound in some form of equality. A classically, ruling-class trained, lovely mezzo-soprano entrances all into one quenched body. But she and I won’t pretend we’re buying in. It’s inevitably heavy stuff, I guess.

But meanwhile, the kids in the flock seem to have the right idea. I’m parsing arguments for fate vs. particularism, confining the great swindle of illusory, sentimental equality, framing the classist irony of liturgical musicianship, of its fine, aristocratic affectations—but the kids have other worries to focus on.

The number of stars in the glasswork, for instance, seems to be on several little guys and gals minds. You can see them gazing up, counting with tiny pointing index fingers, mumbling arithmetic. The number of crosses in the wrought-ironwork decorating the benches, also, attracts the attention of more than a few. And plenty of them are just worried about staying still too long, fidgeting and congregating with, like, the world. All of them chock full of water. These young folks are still on the right track, me thinks.

Finally, a little boy to our left points a sermon program at my mother and blows her away with what I assume is a machine gun. He smirks and breezily moves on to his next victim. The music is still so lovely, gladly, and makes for a nice segue as we subtly avoid communion. We come out onto Baronne Street so hungry. It’s catfish po-boys time, and all is well in the world.

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