Story by Irene Budd
Slam! The front doors of the church shook with the impact of brass meeting brass, the sound invading my reverie. Intently listening to the priest’s sermon, my concentration was broken-again. This promised to be another Sunday just like all the others.
Skipping up the center aisle in his electric blue sneakers, knee high black socks, plaid shorts, mismatched tee shirt, and dirty baseball cap jammed backwards on his head, Bobby sounded his entrance.
He stopped at various pews along the way, stage whispering loud ‘hellos’ & waving madly, doing little tap dances when he recognized a face. All eyes were on him as he crowded into an already full pew, right smack in front of the priest.
How bold! Didn’t he have any courtesy for others? Why couldn’t he be like everyone else & get to church on time? I was getting tired of this routine and was ready to walk out of church-permanently. How could I worship with his noisy interruptions?
Then there was the collection. Towards the end of the homily (as if anyone was still listening) Bobby would bolt upright, shove his hands into his pockets & look for change. If he had not brought any money with him, he’d turn to each & every person around him & panhandle for quarters for the collection basket. He’d thrust his palm in front of an unsuspecting worshiper until it was filled with a coin. The way he counted out his coins & flung them into the basket, one would think he was giving his life savings.
When Bobby prayed, his voice boomed as if he was trying to break the sound barrier, a high pitched whistling noise from his hearing aid accompanying his resounding praises. He held the missal an inch in front of his face, clueless as to page number, finger sliding along the inked lines of the text as if he knew exactly what he was reading. He had a contented grin on his face when he sat down. Rocking back & forth in the pew, he’d chant, “Very nice, very nice.”
The Sign of Peace was the ultimate low point. I had watched him wipe his nose on his hands & slick back his greasy shoulder length hair from the time of his arrival. Who could pray after he appeared? He stepped out of the pew & went down the aisle, insisting on shaking every single hand he could reach & extending the greeting of peace.
How dare he!
I couldn’t do it. I could not shake the hand of this grown man with the mind of a child. My past trick of pretending to drop something on the floor had worked for a while. I could bend down & stay hunched over, and when he realized that I was not going to stretch out my hand,
Bobby had always moved on. He never remembered from week to week that I wasn’t about to do more than grunt a halfhearted “Peace” from where I crouched. He was persistent. That’s for sure!
Today I had a problem: there was no room for me to squat down to the floor. I couldn’t even sit and busy my hands by rummaging through my purse. My face felt like it was on fire. Fight or Flight kicked in, and I panicked. What was I going to do?
Agonizing over what I could do to avoid an embarrassing scene, I was struck with a paralyzing awareness of my hypocrisy. My lungs felt as if all the air had been sucked out of them. My heart pumped so hard I was sure everyone could hear it.
What had I done? The realization of my arrogance was followed by instant shame. The truth was that I was the disabled one, the one who needed God’s mercy.
“Lord, what am I doing?” I prayed. I called myself a Christian, but I couldn’t shake the hand of this innocent man? Did the commandment “Love your neighbor” only mean to love those who were healthy, clean, well dressed, intelligent, and prompt?
“Forgive me, please. What have I done?” The shameful awareness of my mean spiritedness poured over me. Immediately I knew I needed a divine power to raise up my leaden arm & allow me to grasp the fingers of Bobby, genuinely wishing him the peace that I had not allowed myself to feel.
Head down, I heard Bobby’s lisp before I saw him. “Peace of Christ be with you,” he called out in his singsong voice. After what seemed like hours, I slowly lifted my tear-stained face and looked into his childlike brown eyes. It was then that I felt an undercurrent of peace and love pulsate through me. Hesitatingly, then assuredly, I replied, “And also with you.” I took his hand in both of mine & started pumping it up & down, oblivious to time & place. “Yes, Bobby, peace be with you, too.”
Bobby sits with us now. He skips up the aisle until he finds me, interrupting the congregation with his joyous greeting, stepping over laps so he can sit next to me. I hold the songbook for us and we sing, my arm around Bobby-God’s messenger who taught me the meaning of the words, “Make me a channel of your peace” May I never forget.