Monday, August 31, 2009

One Year Forward. (Update 225)

About ten years ago or so I sat in the back of a small, very old church in Toltec, Arizona on a very hard pew. It was actually the only pew in the church, kind of a direct contrast to the image one usually gets when thinking of a church; rows and rows filled with creaky wooden benches causing the more aged of the parishioners to be a bit more at ease than their younger counterparts, who's younger and more supple bodies would silently protest to the wooden apparatus that should never be called a piece of furniture, as that in itself is an insult to the fine craftsmanship of most other pieces.

There were a few of us that sat in the back. A girl I wound up having a deep crush on for many years growing up, Christina to my best friend at that time, Mike Mumme, who wound up dating her at this time. This would be a situation that would repeat itself many times throughout the course of my life, often times seeing my good or close friends falling for the girl I happened to have feelings for. In fact, it's happened as recently as this year. While this has stung each time to varying degrees, it's proved that while I'm not exactly Casanova, I do have good taste. It has caused me, however, to wind up having to settle for girls more my...league. Much to my chagrin, and laughter of said friends.

A few weeks prior the pastor that'd built this small, old church (Mike Mumme's grandfather) James Mumme had decided to step down from his duties to take it easier at the time. He would later build another church in Arizona City, and continue working just as hard. As long as I've know James Mumme, he's always been a short, slightly hunched, very skinny elderly man. In that regard, he's not aged a day since I met him.

While everyone had been sad to see him go, James Mumme had always had an aversion towards speaking into a microphone, which may've been a stroke of genius, or maybe even more likely because of 40+ years of experience in being a preacher, James Mumme would speak softly. Now, there's soft speaking, and then there's the James Mumme way of soft speaking, which would cause everyone in the room to hold their breath for nearly the entire sermon, listening hard just to see if he was actually saying anything.

So while everyone was sorry to see him go, I highly suspect some of the more aged were sighing a bit in relief, because hearing wasn't on their side. Quite often, on any given James Mumme sermon, you could hear numerous hearing aides buzzing and squealing due to being turned up at a decibel so maxed out, that any higher you could hear peoples thoughts.

There we were, sitting in the back of the church. Today was now the second week with new pastor we'd chosen. We'd gone through interim traveling preachers, each applying for the position to tell their own version of the word of God. Eventually, through some process I don't quite recall (though I highly suspect it was that of everyone raising their hands when their choice was named, much like elementary school class elections were.)

What was interesting about this preacher was his way of conducting things. While he was a bit older, (late sixties) he was one of those rare breed of the elderly that seemed to transcend age as a whole. I've been lucky, my step father who wasn't quite as old as he was (but still older nonetheless) has been one of those rare fogies, too. So it wasn't a shock to me like it was the other youth.

But his way of speaking, how he would engage people...he would make it seem like he was locked eyes on only you, despite him speaking to an entire congregation. It's a manner of speaking in which I've emulated heavily, honestly. But his whole demeanor was a direct contrast to the prior pastor. While one was much more somber, monotone and demure...he was much more charismatic, vibrant and engaging. Instead of just reading passages, he would incorporate humor and tell stories as well, that you couldn't honestly help but become involved in.

He was a natural born story teller. Either you have it, or you don't, it's not anything you can ever really learn. The seeds have to be planted instinctually, and the throes of life have to cultivate the crop, and from there it's something that flows naturally.

Leroy Van Verth was his name.

You ever think back to someone, and the most peculiar things surrounding them in their environment, or mannerisms...those ones you're sure that no one else quite remembers, that those things are what will remind you of that person years down the line? Leroy had quite the penchant for Peanuts comics. He had stacks of them, all lined up in a very precise order in this bookshelf next to his front door. He constantly read them, and incorporated them into humorous anecdotes in his messages.

His wife Nina was always playing piano. She played piano for the congregation, but even at home they chose more often to read books and play music, rather than submit to the woes of the daily news. That always impressed me about them. And I don't mean to sound like they were oblivious to the outside world, far from it actually. More often than not, they would be reading newspapers. And while I never asked, I do highly suspect it was because news aims to desenthiesize and numb, where papers were tend to be more factual.

So here we are, sitting in this church still trying to get a feel for this new preacher. And while I never have really truly been able to believe in God, there's something to be said for just listening to that side of the story.

And then he regales us with this tale about how he was embarrassed to drive his car to church. That one kind of caught me off guard, because he was a very faithful customer of the Infinity brand. A very luxurious, nice car. But in a more humble way, if that makes sense. He then went into the tale...

"Nina and I received our tags the other day. When we opened them up, I noticed that my license plate," he says as he pulls out the envelope containing the license plate, "Had something a bit unnerving on it. Especially being a preacher and all." He removes the license plate. On the plate, it had the numbers 666, eliciting a very large plume of laughter from his new herd.

And that's how he was. I know that might not seem much. But it's that memory of him, the way he treated the youth in the congregation...I can't remember one time he didn't great me with a firm hand shake, and say, "What's the good news today, old sport?"

Adults always talk down to those younger than them. He leveled the playing field, and chose to treat children and youth as intelligent beings. It was that show of respect that endured him to me.

I'll always remember, above it all, how he was with his wife. How after so many years, they still seemed to have that 'Honeymooner' aura about them. Every evening, before it was dark, they'd walk their dog Amber, and hold hands.

I've always felt that holding hands is the most intimate thing you can honestly do with a loved one.

One year forward, today on this day he was stabbed to death over the same brand of car he was always faithful too.

And it's been hard, too. Real hard. Because I've never had something like that happen to someone who was close to me. I've known people, friends who've passed away. But never their lives taken from them. And I'm not saying that that makes their passing any less tragic, because it doesn't. It's just that ripple effect that winds up hitting you so much harder than you'd ever expect.

To this day, his murderer hasn't been caught. I doubt he ever will.

Though I wasn't there, I still see it vividly in my head for some reason. He and his wife had just returned home from Portland, Oregon from a vacation. He heard noises outside, and went to inspect it.

Stabbed to death in his own churches parking lot.

But I think, above everything in this world....all the things that can be so ugly and vile, even at their most ugly and vile moments such as bleeding to death, there can be one triumph above all. I truly believe that that in itself is in fact love.

There can be a lot of hits or misses. For Leroy and Nina, they were High School Sweethearts, something virtually unheard of now.

But she got to say goodbye. He got to hold her one last time. And while his killer may never come to justice, to me...that's the most important moment you could ever have. Love could conquer all, in any context.

So I sit here now, one year older but the feeling still pretty fresh. I still wish I could be angry about the whole thing, but I just can't. I keep expecting to forget what his voice sounded like, but I haven't.

I was lucky enough to be able to call him a friend. I'd go further to even say that while it'd been a while since we'd last spoke, he was so close to my family that we'd consider him a part of out family.

But to consider him a seems to awkward, I guess, given the large difference in our ages. There wasn't a single time though where it was hard for us to find something to talk about.

It's greedy to say I wish he was still here. He had 81 amazing years of life, 60+ married to his wife, and if anyone lived a life...I'd consider it to be him. We never know how this story is going to end. But when it does just can't stall it.

And those left standing have a hole left. To mourn and remember.

But one year forward, I choose not to mourn, but to remember and celebrate and express a wealth of joy and utter gratitude. Some people are meant for better things, and sometimes those things aren't within this life. Sometimes it's to cause reflection and remind those left behind how amazing and great life could be, despite the ugly and vile cracks and crevices along the sidewalk that can twist your leg and break your ankles.

"Did you hear the gospel choir when they came to carry you over? Did you hear your favorite song one last time?"

Thank you Leroy Van Verth. You meant more to me than I could ever express.