An establishment in London. Photo by Garry Knight.
Salvation and the Grits Eaters
(entry from Two Can Ride a Camel)
by Hudson Phillips
Jentz entered the Los Conquistadores room of the Cities of Gold Steak House. Broderick Comstock, the amiable Pastor of the Church of Good Love, rested his sandwich on a napkin and waved him over. Jentz was glad to oblige. Comstock was a large man with a straw colored pony tail. It was trained to arch upward and outward from the back of the head. The “Bull’s Rump,” as the haircut was known, was designed to irritate parents and authority figures. When viewed directly from behind, the onlooker was made to feel that a full load was about to drop. Perhaps this was why so many of the local religious professionals gave him a wide berth. Jentz took a seat between Comstock and Father Thomas, the priest. The two would prove to be Jentz’s most trusted friends. Unburdened with activity in their parishes, Father Thomas and Broderick had time to play with new ideas, and Jentz’s kiosk ministry was the newest idea in town. They sat on either side of Jentz, ready to ease his entry into the ministerial fellowship.
Two women sat at a booth apart from the others. Sister Mary Mack had been an All-American catcher on the University of Texas softball team. She had been feared by rival teams for her ability to protect home plate and throw people out. In a game against Baylor University, the students had heckled her with the children’s jump rope song: ‘Miss Mary Mack Mack Mack, all dressed in black, black, black’ The sister sat low in her chair, her eyes seeing everything. A smile as broad, as a playing field, highlighted those moments when God could be served. It had been some time since Sister Mary had smiled at the actions of the group. She was casually dressed in jeans, basketball shoes, an Incarnate Word University pullover and a Chicago Bear’s sweatband. Father Thomas would have gladly welcomed her to his table but, rank and gender continued to be sensitive issues. Sister Mary preferred to leave the priest in the same corral with the other male pastors.
Thomas reached over and touched Jentz’s forearm, as if they were fellow conspirators.
“Look at her, head cocked to one side to throw out a fucking runner. All she wants is to talk about is a community center with showers and toilet facilities.”
Jentz responded quickly, “She gets my vote.”
Father Thomas sighed, “Wait and see how much that will cost us.”
The Episcopal vicar, Marcia Blinkee, was power dressed. She had on those Joan Crawford type shoulder pads with a gray jacket and black pants. One of the pads had come loose and had moved above her left breast causing a third bump. She was the only minister in the room with a clerical collar. Blinkee reached for some extra lemons on a tray. “God helps those who help themselves,” she offered nervously.
Jentz thought of his mother’s distinction between Episcopal and Catholic priests: “The Episcopalian guy wears pants and can’t wait to get into a dress. The Catholic guy wears a dress and can’t wait to get into pants.” It was not true in most cases but it was funny. Jentz guessed that Blinkee was closer to the Catholics.
There was much smirking and eyeballing of one another between the other tables. Jentz had no large building to talk about, or point to. That fact was not lost among the ministers. Holding a pastoral post in a large religious ‘plant’ was considered the measure of one’s authority. Many senior pastors thought of themselves as the equivalent of a CEO of a large corporation and demanded the privileges of their status.
When Mother Blinkee was introduced, she proposed that they hold a workshop on the stages of grief as originated by Elizabeth Kubler Ross. The vicar held up an old leather purse that had belonged to Ross. The purse had been handed down to a nun and than passed on to Blinkee. The Reverend reached inside the purse and brought out a Chicklet wrapped in cellophane. She treated it as if if were a holy relic. The nun had told her that the chewing gum was part of the original contents.
Father Thomas whispered with a strong overlay of whiskey, “This is a pure example of “Blinkmanship.” “Blinkee is the queen of cliché’s. She is the last one to learn them and the last one to give them up. The thing about this grief business is that it is much like the Twelve Step program from AA.” Staring at his tobacco stained thumbnail, he added, “and I would know something about that. People getting stuck on stage two and that sort of thing.” The flask was passed around once more.
Jentz remembered his own struggle with the type of cliché’s that young seminary students pick up from their senior pastors during their internships. They are very difficult to get rid of once they are in the pastor’s everyday vernacular. A perfect example was the popular little book, The Practical Pastor’s Golden Book of Religious Cliches by Patrick Cobb. This had been a must for every up and coming minister. During a sabbatical in the Adirondack Mountains, Jenz rid himself of all of his cliches, early in his ministry.
[A flashback is worth inserting at this point:
On the shoreline of a small private lake, the blueberries were plump, plentiful and uneaten. A Loon made its mournful sound. Mist arose off the surface of the water as if coming from thousands of tiny dry-ice pellets. Jentz had had to stand up in his rowboat to see where he was. The resemblance of the crossing of the River Styx, in Greek mythology gave this a sense of drama. Jentz felt like the mythical Charon, ferrying the boat to the underworld. Grimly he poled the boat, using one oar to move around a thick outcropping of moss. He would make his pledge to the river Styx to never use the cliches again. Jentz shouted out “The Lord loves a cheerful giver!” The sound seemed to drop straight into the lake. “The family that prays together stays together!” Then,“Thanksgiving is thanks living!” “The Bible is still the number one best seller.” It was like regurgitation, when the contractions take over. “The hour of power.” “The right hand of fellowship.” One by one, they tumbled forth and dropped to the silt at the lake bottom. A good-sized bass appraised the situation and swam on. Jentz took that as a good sign.]
Father Thomas pulled the flask out of his pocket. “Have some fire water. It was so entirely unexpected. Comstock chuckled at Jentz’s reaction-such a look of surprise, delight and welcome.
“It’s Jim Beam,” the Father coaxed.
“Thank you Jesus,” Jentz beamed back. Swigs were taken all the way around. This activity, of course, drew scorn from those who could see what was taking place and they pretended that it was not happening.
Skip Homier, the hospital chaplain announced the the title of a Braille publication of his book of prayers, “Your Journey on the Lord’s Gurney.”
At this point, nobody at the table seemed to be listening. Broderick was humming a hymn. Father Thomas was laughing at his own jokes. Watching the ministers at other tables, Jentz was reminded of the painting, The Grits Eaters.
[Another flashback is in order:
The painting had been on display at the State House in Austin. Inspired by the Van Gogh painting, The Potato Eaters, Kelsey sought to evoke the nostalgia of the southern farm breakfast. Family members were seated around a table consuming bowls of grits. The way that they cradled the grits in their lower jaws while they continued to talk gave their faces a characteristic paunch. This seemed to be something they incorporated into their pastoral style much like the way that they pronounce Jesus, “Jee ZUHS.”]
Whatever the reason, this was one table where three ministers were getting shit faced.
Jentz signaled that he had a story to share with everyone-a sure sign that he had had too much to drink. The clinking of spoons on glasses brought a reluctant silence. Jentz began laughing before he told his story. He had to stop and wait to catch his breath and towel off his tears. He told of how his older brother Luigi, as Mall chaplain, had been angered by the Mall Easter bunny and had chased him down the escalator.
The noise level increased, as eyes rolled. Father Thomas equated Jentz’s innocent, bumbling manner to the kind of thing that Stan Laurel used to do in the Laurel and Hardy movies, when he would pull the steering wheel off of its shaft when the car was moving and hand it to Hardy. Father Thomas and Brodrick Crawford had to flip their ties to the audience in a reassuring manner to cover their friend from further embarrassment.
When the ‘the grits eaters,’ got to their portion of the meeting, Jentz noticed that side comments had ceased and an expectant hush fell on the room. Lash Bixby, the televangelist and Superintendent of World Pulpit Supply, Inc. introduced the speaker, The Rev. Dr. T. Melton Gumlety director of Amarillo-to-Zion (A-to-Z) Enterprises. Last year Gumlety had hatched the plan of sending disadvantaged teenagers to third world countries. It had succeeded in reducing the crime rate in most of the local communities by getting the children out of the country. The children had raised most of the money for the airfare themselves by selling Gumlety products. They were then trained to make presentations in nearby villages to recruit workers to produce products at a much cheaper rate. If the story ended here it would be difficult enough, but it seemed as if there was no moral net, no bottom to follow. Gumlety unveiled some of the new A-to-Z products to the ministers at the luncheon. The much-heralded Evaginal-Probe kit was designed to promote Christian values and ideas to the fetus, while it is still in the womb!
‘Sounds of Salvation’ would be communicated via the probe, courtesy of Patti Parmalee and the Massada Messengers. This would include sounds of the Sea of Galillee lapping at the shoreline, the gurgling of the Jordan River, rain over Mount Ararat-the same wind that the disciples heard at Pentecost-and the baaing of sheep from the fields near Bethlehem. The Evaginal Visitor would be sent to the couple each month to provide information and appropriate resources for the growing fetus. A special light and sound program is available for use in the delivery room at the exciting moment of birth. This includes a video of the four hundred member choir of the Tanganyika Faith Seraphim Chapel making a presentation of the Hallelujah Chorus from the Messiah.
Jentz looked to his new mentors for some explanation of what he had just experienced. Comstock shook his pony tail in embarrassment—“Go ye into all the the world” has its limits. Surely it does not mean feeling up pregnant woman to spread the gospel.” The good Father said he was hardly in a position to criticize what they had just experienced because the Roman Catholic Church can be just as intrusive about women’s birthing matters.
When Jentz returned to the lodge and recounted what had happened, Marshall, the New England moralist put it matter-of-factually. The folds of loose skin along her neck, rose and fell like turkey wattles. The prominent mole under her lower lip was a distraction. When she talked it was like following the bouncing ball with each word appearing to role over the mount of the mole as she spoke.
“Rev. you are ALL accountable. You got yourself into that lobster trap along with the others. You need to get it going!”
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