Sunday, November 09, 2008

Peace that passes understanding - Ethel, Frankie, old hymns and paramedics

How often are we given the opportunity to test our faith? To say, "I believe this is so," and the next breath have that statement challenged? To understand what peace that passes understanding really is? In "A New Earth," Eckhart Tolle describes it as accepting the present moment for what it is. How when, in disaster or war, "they lost all ... found themselves with 'nothing.' ... Then suddenly and inexplicably, the anguish or intense fear they initially felt gave way to a sacred sense of Presence, a deep peace and serenity and complete freedom from fear. ... 'the peace of God that which passeth all understanding.'"

It was only moments. After the passing of the peace, which at All People's Church means hug upon hug upon kisses on cheeks, when young and mostly old circle the room checking in on one another, affirming to each other through touch, or words, or both, that we are loved. African American, Asian, Caucasian, Hispanic: All People's is one of the only places I have truly seen that picture.

It was moments after 70-something Frankie stood up during the time of sharing joys and blessings and said how thankful she was for Ethel, who was speaking that day. For Ethel's life and wisdom of 92 years. For her son Lonnie who was in church with her, to sing "Because He Lives" especially for Ethel. It was after Lonnie took the microphone from his mother and thanked the small group of faithful from his home church for their prayers and thoughts while he was sick, and during the operation that put a pacemaker in his heart. It was after Thurston, whose daughter died last year, stood and asked the congregation to check out his pew, where Mandy and I sat with another woman, and Luke took the mic and made a comment about "Charlie and his angels."

It was after Ethel was helped up the steps to the front of the church, and I watched in amazement as she spread out her papers and notes, and leaning against the pulpit, adjusted the microphone to her level and started talking about the historic moment of Barack Obama's election, and the beauty of the mix of people celebrating with him in Grant Park. Ethel just recovered from an operation, 36 days in the hospital and internal bleeding.

After Ethel had written a letter a few weeks ago, telling me that how after the last physical attack on her body, "I felt so sorry for myself until I saw a picture on TV about the people of Haiti trying to live through four fierce tropical storms, and another of a crowded highway of people going back to Galveston -- not to pick up their lives, but to see absolute devastation. I decided I have so much to be thankful for." She quoted Eckhart Tolle, a book she had read in the hospital, "One thing we do know: Life will give you whatever experience is most helpful for the evolution of your consciousness. How do you know this is the experience you need? Because this is the experience you are having at this moment."

After Ethel shared about her 40 years working with the poor in Mexico, and asked if anyone had experienced a miracle, a personal miracle. She described a day in Mexico, working with Futuro del Oro. How the sky was so blue, and the clouds looked like they had been painted by an artist. How she had been just another Gringo working to help in Mexico, but that was the day she no longer saw the dirt and unpaved roads, but recognized people she knew and loved and called friends.

After Frankie helped Ethel back to her seat, and Ethel paused, flashed a toothy grin and said, "Getting old is for the birds."

Frankie's son Lonnie stepped up to sing. He began in a low, powerful baritone, "Because He lives, I can face tomorrow, because he lives, all fear is gone. Because I know He holds the future, and life is worth the living, just because He lives."

As Lonnie moved into the second verse, he knocked the music off the stand, and started to lose his place in the song as it was picked up and put back in front of him.

As his voice regained volume, we collectively breathed easier and relaxed into the song. Moments later he yelped, grabbed his chest and leaped away from the music stand. Everyone sat up at attention, unsure what had happened. Seconds later he screamed, a horrible sound between a shriek and a holler and dropped the microphone. He seemed to be getting shocked.

Everyone took action. A command to turn off the microphone was followed, someone thought it might be setting off his pacemaker. Lonnie moved back toward the stand to sing, but as he started to sing again, he screamed in terror, clutching his chest again. I told Mandy someone needed to call 9-1-1, and then realized I needed to call 9-1-1. As I waited for my mobile to turn on and dialed, I was raising my voice above the din, asking for the church address in a panicked screech, watching in horror as Lonnie jumped and yelled, saying he was seeing sparks every time it happened.

While answering the paramedic's questions over the phone, I tried to be calm and clear above the sound of everyone else. Lonnie sat back in a chair now, his shirt unbuttoned. How old is he? I looked around while people shouted different numbers. I locked eyes with Frankie. 55, she said clearly. Is he clammy? She laid her hand on her son's forehead, and so did Mike, who nodded. Has he changed color? the voice on the phone asked. He's African-American, I said, dark-skinned. I don't know, maybe he's a little red. I started to panic as Lonnie continue to scream out and ask what was happening to him.

I watched other people gather in groups to pray. I went outside to listen for the ambulance sirens. I did not have the peace that passes understanding. I looked at Frankie, a mother listening to her son being attacked from within. She looked terrified and helpless, but not half as panicked as the rest of us.

How many of us were thinking "all fear is gone," at that moment?

After the arrival of five paramedics and a few minutes of working on Lonnie inside, they took him to the ambulance and sped away, assuring Frankie they wouldn't leave until she knew exactly where they were taking him.

The rest of us gathered in a circle, to hold sweaty palms and pray for Lonnie. One of the women led the prayer, thanking God that Lonnie was with loving friends and family when this happened, and asked God to be with the paramedics and doctors who were treating him.

Coming down off the adrenaline, we were all visibly shaking. Mary, a woman in her late 80s who remembered me from the couple of months I had come to church last year, hugged me tight, then whispered in my ear, "Don't be scared away! This doesn't happen every week." God, humor is so necessary in those times.

We continued the end of the service with communion. I watched as many of the church fed each other a bite of wine-soaked bread and hugged. We sang, and then, because everyone agreed Lonnie would want us to, we listened as a woman and her two teen-aged kids played a magnificent song on African drums.

I haven't heard an update on Lonnie or Frankie yet. I don't know Frankie well, but I do know she is a strong woman, who has already survived one of her son's death from AIDS. I know she is surrounded by loving family and church family. And I suspect she really does believe that because He lives, she can face tomorrow.

***UPDATE: I just heard from Mandy that Lonnie is doing well. We're still not sure what exactly happened, if / why the pacemaker was shocking him. She also heard that he was apologizing as he was wheeled out to the ambulance. ***

(Photo: Rebecca and Ethel)


Diane Davis said...

oh my gosh, Becky.... i have no real words. i'll be mindful of Lonnie. i'm glad you were there. i'm moved by the service of ethel, by the humor of the woman who said it doesn't happen every week, and by your ability to act. wow.

The Unlikely Pastor's Wife said...

That was a beauitful moment and a horrible moment all wrapped into one. i love how you remembered the song, "because He lives, we can face tomorrow."
how true that is.....
Hope your body has been able to relax from the fear and stress...and praying for your dear friends at All's church. What a remarkable illustration of community.
love you!