By Andy Whitman
Note: This will be Andy’s last post for Good Letters, at least for a while. We want to thank him heartily for his wonderful contribution to this blog over the last couple years.
And so December 28th has come again. Thirty-five years ago the forty people who fill this lovely home lived together. They bought houses in the Columbus, Ohio ghetto and crammed into them; spouses, infants, single people, dogs, cats, goats, and assorted homeless persons or drug addicts picked up off the street.
Then it gradually fell apart, or transitioned into normal American life, depending on the person asked. Now we meet once a year, every December 28th, to remember, to catch up on life, and to measure the distance between then and now.
And there appears to be some distance.
The telltale signs are there, of course; less hair and more body fat, some wrinkles, a florid sort of beefiness about the men that suggests the longtime presence of too many prime cuts of meat and single-malt Scotches.
The women, once resplendent in their peasant dresses and hair that cascaded down to their waists, now sport sensible, short cuts designed for easy maintenance.
Looking at this motley group, now slouching well past middle age, it would be impossible to guess that at one time they were Born Again Jesus Freaks, the community of faith who shared all things in common. But here they are, the self-proclaimed incarnation of the New Testament Church, the crusaders who were so determined to finally get it right, snacking on honey-baked ham and sipping mulled cider and looking uncomfortable in too-tight clothing.
And here I am with these ghetto dwellers who have gathered together once more under the high timbered beams of a suburban Great Room.
I love these people. To a large extent they define who I am, still, to this day. And like them, I’m a far different person than I was thirty-five years ago. My friend Craig is here, in town from Wisconsin. He was the best man at my wedding, and now he tells me about the wedding of his daughter, and the health scare he experienced in February. Two coronary blockages, two stents in his heart. This isn’t supposed to happen yet. I find tears improbably welling up in the middle of this holiday celebration. Don’t die, my friend. That’s not part of the script.
“How’s your soul?” This is the question I want to ask Craig, but I don’t ask it. I don’t ask it of anyone. It’s the question that united us in the first place, the big Q Question that drew a bunch of idealistic misfits who couldn’t countenance the thought of stained glass windows and polished pews and Country Club Christianity into an alliance that lasted the better part of a decade.
That motley crew of radical Christians eventually morphed into a mega-church with over 10,000 members, a big, sprawling warehouse-like complex with big-screen projectors over the stage, and the latest and greatest audio/visual equipment, and an in-house bookstore and gym and coffee shop with cozy fireplaces.
A whole phalanx of Christian conveniences arose from the counter-cultural foundation of those who were determined to live an inconvenient, sacrificial life. And the unasked questions are always there, every year at these reunions, as I reconnect with these dear, inexplicable people.
What happened? How did we get this way? Who are you now?
Some of the stories I know. Others remain a deep mystery. On one hand the stories are deceptively simple and entirely understandable. People grew up; that’s all. They married and had kids and decided that little Joshua and Hannah shouldn’t be exposed to crack dealers on the street corner. And they had the education and the cultural capital to make the great escape. They left because they could.
But there are deeper mysteries. What happened to the vision of caring for the poor, the least, and the lost? What happened to that noble calling to share all of life together, to love each other, warts and all, to dig beneath the surface and spur one another on to the most sublime and idealistic kind of life, something that might have looked like godliness? Did it just get too overwhelming?
And so I want to probe the deep mysteries when everybody else just wants to show wedding photos of their kids. I want to ask about all of it, the joys and the heartbreaks, the deadening fog of soul-sucking mundane life that seems to lift only with the sudden shock of coronary bypasses. I want to know the answers before it is too late.
But I don’t ask the questions. I smile politely. I make small talk. It is too much to overcome. We are who we are. And who we are tonight is a group of rapidly aging, corpulent friends who shared our lives together a long time ago. We check in once a year and are gratified to see that most of us are still alive. I’m not entirely sure why that makes me sad, but it does.
They have been through the wars, these friends. Marriages have ended, jobs have been lost, children have wandered into dead-end alleys, and some have never found their way back out again.
Shit happens, whether you live in the ghetto or in a lovely suburban home. And I know the deeply unsatisfying answer to my unasked questions: How could we have changed the world when we couldn’t even change ourselves? I am thankful to know that most of them still identify themselves as Christians, as people in process, saints and jerks who are less jerklike than they used to be.
I said goodbye to Craig. “It’s great to see you,” I told him, because it was.
“It’s great to see you, too,” he said, and I think he meant it. “We really need to make an effort to see each other,” he said.
He lives in Wisconsin. I live in Ohio. God willing, we’ll see each other next December 28th.