Pastor John is not here today. He is directing Vacation Bible School at a mission church. A man, and a woman with the man, arrive, new to City Light. The man is large, tattooed, boisterous-loud, smiling, carrying an empty liter drink bottle with dried flowers in the mouth of the bottle, mostly falling out on the table. He has other items, I think a backpack. He is dressed in a sort of motley. I am focused on how wide his face and grin are, how open he is, nothing guarded. The woman seems Latina, sad, youngish, together with the man but seeming apart.
I am helping the Culinary School students, mostly doing my usual task going table to table, refilling cups of tea for the people, mostly the regulars I know by name. Already, a man whom I know but not his name has quietly pressed his fist against his chest. He seems struggling to breathe. People gather concerned at his table. He says he has just been released from the hospital. He was being treated for a blood clot. He has prescription medicine in a box. I don’t know if he has taken any. Jersey is calling 911. Three first-responders arrive quickly, along with the required fire truck. They ask all the necessary questions, then secure him on the gurney and take him to the Emergency Room. He seems stable.
I return to the new couple’s table. The man has opened his sack lunch provided, along with a cup of soup, on Wednesdays, and removed the slip of paper, a printed bible verse. He is the only person I have seen excited about having this verse with the meal. He is reading the scripture to the woman. He is trying to pronounce “inexpressible” and understand what it means. He attempts various strange definitions then asks me. I tell him it means something that cannot be fully expressed, comprehended, in this case–God’s love and mercy. The woman quietly says Yes, that is true. God is true to us.
I go on refilling tea. When I return, the woman is looking down at her hands in her lap. She speaks so softly I cannot understand what she is saying. She looks up and asks, “Do you pray hard?” I am taken aback. Pastor John is the one with a direct line to God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit. He will lay his hands on those asking for prayer and speak tenderly and with assurance that God is listening and will bring comfort, healing. I don’t know what to say, so I answer, Yes. The woman almost whispers her need for me to pray for her pregnant daughter with two unborn babies, only the woman having seen in the sonogram the second boy behind the first. And she has seen something else–an evil force, demon spirit, in the womb, a danger to the babies and to the woman’s daughter.
I cautiously place my hand on the woman’s back and try to come close to the genuine prayer of Pastor John. It is hard for me to pray out loud. My “hard” prayers are constant and silent. They sound false out loud. I ask the woman’s name. She tells me. I ask the names of the babies. The woman looks at me as if she has made a poor choice of a person to pray. “They are unborn babies,” she says, and I almost laugh out loud at how ridiculous a question I have asked. I want to confess I’m uneasy, afraid I will sound hollow, falling far short assuring the woman of God’s protection, the love Pastor John would easily convey–his as well as that of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. I stumble through, sincere even though I know my words are not remotely close to Pastor John’s. Amen, and the woman looks at me hoping she has not made a mistake.
Wilbur, Mr. Battles, volunteered to say the blessing today over the meal. I want to ask the woman if I may bring Mr. Battles over to pray for her, her daughter, the unborn babies. I look for him, but he has left early. I take my pitcher of iced-tea to another table.
I am almost afraid to return to the couple’s table. When I do, the man is standing, holding three bottles of prescription medicine. He asks if I can pronounce the long, medical name of the pills. I do my best. I ask if he knows how many he should take and how often. Yes. One in the morning, one in the evening. Does he know what they are for? Yes. Bi-Polar. But he can’t tell any difference in how he feels. He is, I think, maybe in his manic phase but under control. He seems joyful. The woman is still sad but maybe a little hopeful.
They will be the last two to leave when we stop serving lunch. I have a strange feeling they were sent here as a test I’m certain I failed, but William, whose tremors force him to drink his tea through a straw, tea I refill at least a dozen times, tells me as he is leaving, “Bob, you’re doing a good job.” I’ll take it.