The room was used for secular reasons. Union meetings, pro-dev seminars, documentary screenings, a Women’s Book Club. One day out of the week, however, the room became a sacred space – one of those churches you see packed in with animal hospitals and loans offices in a mall strip beneath the knees of a freeway. This church didn’t have block letters above its door announcing “The Church of the Risen Christ” or “Corner Ridge Pentecostal Assembly” or “All Faiths Ministry – Our Service is Heavenly!” Instead, block letters read “Community Center” and offered a 25% discount on weekends.
The church met Saturdays. Its congregation were Pacific Islanders from Samoa or some other island. Whatever it was, if you confused the family with a neighboring island like Tonga, they would curse you lightheartedly in their language, either Samoan or Tongan. Most of them weighed four hundred pounds; their cells, which had found clever ways to store energy on long journeys at sea, had not adapted well to America’s heart-stroking, hip-expanding eating patterns. Still, they laughed.
We knew about the family since they would come by Depression Alliance (we met on Tuesdays after Bingo Derby). We’d eat their coconut rice and joke about turning our meetings into Overeaters Anonymous, although we were a little unsure about the Pastor, at least until he revealed he was having trouble finding women. Someone said to try the zoo and we laughed – a connection made, some raw commonality.
Years later the Church dwindled to three members: the Pastor and two cousins who were sisters. Some of the family had passed away, some moved, some had found other places to express their devotion – and the children were working or in college. Still, the sisters would bring a boombox and a tape with four songs, all instrumentals, all patterned so generically they could support any lyric – Gospel or not. They would play the tape and sing in the tongue, closing their eyes to the empty room, crying as they, three little candles, trembled for their god. The music was the Pastor’s favorite part of the service and when he wrote the itinerary he would put nine breaks for songs. In-between he would speak to the girls as they sat in the pews – the pastor being to them a creature of immense wisdom and divine revelation. I wonder if in their dreams their Jesus had a bit of a belly.
Then the eldest succumbed to cancer (she was diagnosed and dead in ten weeks) but luckily, smartly, graciously, they recorded her voice before she passed. The idea was the Pastor would play the recording and the youngest would harmonize or fill in the gaps. But the tape only brought pain to the girl, and one day she moved for a job or a man (the Pastor never made it clear) and never came back.
In his advanced years, the pastor would meet his empty church and proselytize and play the tape containing his cousin’s voice. And the songs were the words from his island but they didn’t speak of his island. Sometimes the tape summoned a past where his family gathered together to hear his sermons and sometimes the tape summoned sorrows like bedsores on the brain. Still he met – thinking that if he kept church with an American doggedness something might happen.
All this he shared with us in Alliance. By now we couldn’t tell if he was here to support or for support – not that it mattered. We had grown comfortable to a pastor in our flock despite misapprehensions about religion, and despite many of us using masturbation and pornography and other sins to distract us from the darkness. But the man’s loss and his expiration date, which we sensed somehow – maybe in his bloodshot eyes or in his smell – kept us kind, kept us loving.
He wondered what was the point of a church without any members.
He wondered a lot of things, about God and time and purpose. He spoke ambiguously about death.
One day while he pushed in the tape a young woman came into the room. The woman was meek, brown as leaves, from the Island. She must have seen the flyer in the glass case by the door. The woman sat down on a pew and smiled nervously. The Pastor pushed play on the portable, and when the song came on in the tongue she closed her eyes as if in prayer. She wore black-purple flannel too rich for a room decorated by brown cardboard paper men holding hands with cardboard paper women. When the song was over her eyes opened and he leaned forward and stopped the tape. He prayed and passed the offering to her and she held it and gave it back. There was nothing inside. He set the bowl on the podium and prayed.
He played the tapes again but this time he closed his eyes. In the song there were gaps where one sister waited for the other. The Pastor had dismissed these perforations but now they were abrupt, sabotaging. There was another gap and two lines of silence. The Pastor clenched his fists, sweat pricking through his brown meaty forehead like sewing pins. He could hear his visitor breathing over the track. Her breath was loud and full of liquid, but when he opened his eyes it was him who was breathing deeply.
The Pastor played the entire tape and when it was over he went into the backrooms. After sometime the visitor picked up her purse and left. He came back in the nave, now hushed, now restored – and he picked up a Bible to read in English.
And if it wasn’t to her – he would ask later in Alliance – then to whom did he speak?