“I asked you a question and it's a yes or no answer. I'll ask you again, Are you going to contribute to the tithe?,” the Pastor demanded as he looked straight into my eyes. His pointed finger motioned at the exit door, impling that I should leave if I couldn't pay up.
There was no prior rough verbal exchange between us that had set off his tone, nor had I come with a disruption in the middle of a service. Within minutes of my arrival, he demanded that I tithe. Then, he coldly entered the small prayer room and said a single aloof ‘hello’ to his humble flock of two. They didn't dare to say a word while he had his way with me, even though their ears perked up in our direction.
The devoted members listened as they knelt at a modest altar preparing for the service. The white cloths laid on the table were so old that they had rips in the center. Dust embedded itself on the grooves of the faded red carpet, and broken light fixtures hung along the side of the walls. The place seemed like it hadn’t seen action in a while.
“We need money to pay our taxes,” he continued in angry desperation. The pastor’s name and church are irrelevant to this story. Lets just note he’s a pastor in Jamaica, Queens on Farmers Boulevard, in a notorious area known for hard crime and hard drugs.
My eyes fixed their gaze on him and, for once in my life, I didn't know what to say. I felt like I was in a movie reel that was playing out of my control. No pause or stop button was in sight. I saw the pastor's lips as he spoke about the need for financial help, the paper-thin skin around his lips moving slowly and his eyes filled with expression. As his words hit my ears like slow-moving waves, I felt the sorrow and pain of his emotions. I struggled with a desire to bolt out the door and not look back. Inside, I shrank back from the pastor. But then he said something that really quickened my heart.
“Why would you understand anyway? I don't know why I'm talking to you... You wouldn't understand us,” he said with sadness in his voice.
Perhaps, he thought I couldn't relate because I am 25 and he is well into his 80s; I am Asian and he is African-American; I am an immigrant and he is native-born; and I am a woman and he is a man.
Even my reason for being at his church, to write about religion in New York City, earned my outsider label as “intellectual.” He surely thought, how could I understand his real world problems. His church was not growing, but dying. In the pastor’s eyes, I did not belong here.
What now occurred was a blunt smack in the face – in my face – of the true reality of economic struggles and their pervasive effects on a person. And he was right to a certain degree. I didn't understand what it's like to struggle as a poor elderly black person and to have a lifelong dream only to realize it was crumbling in front of my very eyes.
Instead of running away from the man whose life seemed to differ drastically from mine, I snapped out of my defensive solitude. I became determined to understand him as best I could with the limited time I had. So I stayed, drew courage from my sympathy, and asked my first questions, “Where are you originally from, and why did you become a pastor?”
I found out that he was born in West Virginia in 1929 and became an ordained pastor at the age of 14. “Have you ever felt the wind blowing, but you didn't know which direction it was blowing in?,” he said. “That's what happened to me. I got called and was sanctified by the Holy Ghost.” As a young man in his 20s and 30s, he preached in the coal mining state. That's what he loved to do, he loved to preach.
In the 1960s, the pastor moved his family from West Virginia to Jamaica, Queens for better opportunities as a preacher. In 1970, he established his church. He and his wife own the building in which the church is housed. They pay property taxes, but their money is running out as their membership dwindles.
The pastor reflected on the causes of their falling membership. He believes that the changes in the population of the neighborhood, caused by immigration, had taken its toll on his church. “There are many churches on Farmers Boulevard. Every church has its own nationalities. That makes a difference because the Jamaicans are not going to come to this church,” he explained.
Perhaps a part of him hoped that I would offer practical help with solutions that I had discovered in my position as a reporter, or that I would know how to connect him to people who could solve his problems. “Why don't you get some of the well-known pastors to preach here?,” he asked me. “They don't want to come here, but they should.” Simultaneously, he was demanding and skeptical of my help.
“Can you tell me why they should? What makes this church special?,” I responded.
“We're workers together in Christ. We believe in one God, one faith, one baptism,” the pastor said with assurance in his voice. The theme of unity among churches resonated strongly in his voice.
The pastor stressed that all upright churches should support one another in their missions. “We believe in what's right, we believe in true holiness,” he said.
True holiness. The words rang deep in my ears. I pondered about what “true holiness” really meant in this day and age. Is it possible for us to be holy to each other? How can I show him that I cared about his story? Could my presence alone convey empathy? Is empathy a kin to holiness? I didn't know what else to do (and frankly, he was getting tired of my questions), so I presented to him my story.
I shared with him about my modest immigrant upbringing and what life was like when my parents and I came to America with two suitcases, a couple of hundred dollar bills, and an Indonesian-English dictionary. My parents assimilated to American culture differently (it was easier for my mother than my father), and it ultimately led to their divorce. I told the pastor that life was tough when I decided to leave home in my late teens because of my broken family. For years after I lived without much guidance. Finally, I told him the truth that I was struggling to find my place in this world.
The two members looked at me with sympathetic eyes, nodding their heads. Pastor had sympathetic eyes too, but didn't say anything – so I continued.
“But I've been lucky,” I said, “I have enough food, clothing, and shelter. I can read and write. I'm educated and determined. I have opportunities and options. I am grateful and comforted by these gifts of life.” As soon as these words came out of my lips, I knew that I would be changed forever.
It was a moment of self-realization that I had come far from my humble beginnings. I felt as if the out of control movie reel that was my memory of my early life was now being replaced with a well-crafted epic of hope.
I felt his hostility quiet down. His shoulders shifted their weight, and he let out a sigh. A moment of silence fell upon all of us. As a reporter, one instinctively knows that silence is an opportunity to insert a question, but I had none (which is very rare). I had done my talking.
I looked around the room. There was evidence of a once thriving church. It could be seen in the worn- down areas of the carpet floor that showed where it had once braced the steady footsteps of more members. It could be seen in the small hand prints on the walls that told me children once worshiped here. It could be seen in the lines of the pastor's face.
I read the plaque that hung on the wall behind him. It was from the great epic of the early Christian church, the Book of Acts 20:35, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” This man of God, who was in his 80s, had spent more than half his life giving to people. His love wasn't received with love from the world.
He had the final word, “So, what are you going to do about our dying membership? You see this place? Service is at 12 o'clock. It's 12:30 and there are 2 people here.”
I looked at him as I took a seat in the pews. There were three now. The pastor had brought me to reflect on my own hopes.