Charles’ Story: A Recipe for Connection

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(Jeremiah 1:4-10 and Isaiah 58)

Dick, the handsome young gentleman here in the front row, he told me that I have the worst job in the world. He said that you couldn’t pay him enough money to do what I do. And its kind of a funny thing for HIM to say, since he’s this super-generous man who SEEMS to really like church and those of us who work here.

But actually, if I’m being honest, Dick spoke these words to me as words of comfort, after I climbed into his car, tear-soaked and exhausted after a particularly intense conversation. We were in West Virginia, and I had just finished speaking with one of the home-owners whose houses we were working on. I had made it through the conversation looking calm, compassionate and collected, but as soon as I made it down the driveway, the tears started flowing. You see, earlier that morning, Dick had told me that there was someone he wanted me to meet, to talk to. Compared to scraping tiles in 100 degree heat, this sounded like EASY work. But, as you know, I am still new to this gig.

The gentleman I spoke with is named Charles, and he is 82 years old. One of our teams was re-roofing his house, where water was seeping in and rendering whole rooms unusable. Everybody told me that he was a really sweet man. Each day he would find something, cans of coke or bowls of ice cream, to bring out and share with the volunteers. One of the youth admitted that she really liked him but couldn’t exactly understand him when he spoke. The combination of his thick southern drawl, mixed with the effects of losing his teeth, made him sound foreign to her ear. But Dick brought me in, and introduced me to Charles…

And here I will pause before continuing with my story to say: this introduction moment got me every time. You see Dick walked into each and every home and charmed the home owners. He struck just the right balance of light hearted, trust worthy and funny. People instantly took to him. I, on the other hand, am young, tattooed, and not quite the picture of religious authority that southern free-will Baptists have in mind when they hear the word “pastor.” So I generally wouldn’t mention that I was clergy up front. Somewhere along the way, Dick would lean in and say, conspiratorially, “Did you know that this is MY pastor?” And the family would, inevitably, look surprised and he would say, “Yup. And she’s dynamite. You should see if you can get her to pray for you.” Each and every time, I felt the way he opened a door for me, and each and every time I had to keep from hugging him right there on the spot. It was a really, really generous introduction.

But back to Charles, who was expecting a pastor to come visit him, and Dick brought ME in, and the three of us sat down around his kitchen table. After some small talk about the heat, Dick excused himself, claiming he had to “get something from the car.” I am not sure what that thing was, but he didn’t return for well over an hour. So there I was with Charles, alone at the kitchen table, as he started telling me about his life.

Charles was born in Kentucky in 1931. His father was in the army and his mother was a military nurse. Not surprisingly, when the time came, Charles joined the army and at the age of 19, he was deployed to Korea. There he ended up living in a cave for 17 months with several other men. The cave, he explained, was pretty big, but if you wanted to smoke, you had to go way to the back, so the enemy wouldn’t see the light from the tip of your cigarette. With no fire in the cave, they ate canned rations, cold. In that time, he didn’t really get to wash properly, he didn’t get to shave, or have a real haircut. I wish I could share better details, but between the TV and power tools in the background and Charles’ charming drawl, I missed a few important points. What I can tell you, is that he never mentioned being scared, but he did talk about his great relief when they came to tell them the war was over… two weeks after it had ended.

After his time in Korea, Charles spent time as a pilot, ferrying American military personnel from a hospital in California to one in Japan. This was before the term PTSD was used, so they just moved folks who needed “extra time” away from the eyes of society. He talked about how haunted some of these folks were. He described these flights he piloted as the worst time in his life.

By the time he was almost 30, Charles had already completed 10 years in the military. He started working in Maryland and there he met a gal named Juanita. He described her as blonde, slight of build, with a personality that everyone wanted to be near. He said she could light up any room. She had been an army nurse, just like his momma, and they hit it off quickly. It wasn’t until after they were married that she let him know that she was older than he was—by three years, something he picked on her for during the whole of their marriage.

Not too long into their romance, Juanita’s dad took ill, and they moved to Man, WV to care for him. After he died, he left the house to Juanita, and she and Charles moved in. This was the house that our team was re-roofing, the house where she had grown up and where they raised their kids. Charles told me about how they decided to have kids, even though neither one of them was really sure about it. He talked about how hard it was when the little ones were young, how tired they both were and how much he missed getting time with her. They had a second child… and then years later, when both boys were getting big, Juanita got pregnant with a third. He said he knew something was up when he got home and she was already there—normally he got home from work first and started dinner, but she was there fixing his favorite meal… and looking a little concerned. They both thought the baby days were over, but he couldn’t help but hug her when he heard the news. He told me that this one, his girl, was the hardest. Boy was she a handful.

Charles talked about the kids growing up and moving out. About the emptiness of the house… and then the falling back into the sweetness of him and Juanita getting so much time together. He said that they didn’t know she was ill. That they didn’t know that the cancer was all the way through her. But one night she just didn’t feel like eating at dinner. Charles asked her if he could fix her anything and she said she thought maybe she could hold down a bowl of oats. So he fixed it for her, but after a bite she said she needed to go lay down. He called their neighbor who was also a nurse, and when she got there she told him to call the ambulance. He loaded his wife in but they wouldn’t let him ride with her, so he drove behind. At the hospital he was waiting in the waiting room, when a Doctor came out and called his name. The Doctor told him that Juanita was in there… and Charles read the sign on the door, the sign that said “morgue.” It didn’t make any sense, why would she be in there. Then the doctor told him that she had died in the ambulance. That she came into the hospital already dead. Charles said that his knees stopped working, that he fell on the hospital floor and couldn’t move.

After Juanita’s death life felt really hard for Charles, and to compound his loss, two of his adult children also passed away, leaving just his oldest son alive. This son, he said, lives out west in a big city. He and his wife have invited Charles to come and live with him, but he said that he just couldn’t bear to. Confused, I asked him to clarify. After all, why would he want to stay in this rattle-trap house that was coming down around him, in a town that he wasn’t born in, where he no longer had family?

At this point, Charles looked down at my left hand and then up to my face. He asked, real gently, “Are you married?” To which I replied, “Yes sir, I just got married this past month. We are still waiting for the rings to arrive!” And then he asked me, if I had married “a good man”– to which I blushed and replied, “I sure did, the very best kind for me”– ’cause it wasn’t really the time or place to get into details about my wife. And he nodded, looking far away and said, “Good. Well then you better hold on tight. It all goes much quicker than you can imagine.” And then he told me something else, something that nearly broke my heart. Charles told me that most afternoons he tries to get out of the house: go down to the grocery store or the post office, just to check in with folks and see the day. But his favorite part is when he comes home. Because sometimes, when the light is just right in the way it falls across the porch, as he walks up the driveway he can see her. He can see Juanita standing there, waiting for him. On those afternoons, he walks into the house and swears that he can feel her presence right there, at the very kitchen table where we were sitting. So, “you see”, he said “I can’t leave the house.”

After that we talked for a few more minutes, this wise old southern gentleman and me, the young tattooed newlywed minister. And then I thanked him, and kissed his leathery cheek and let myself out, leaving Charles there in his white undershirt sipping coffee at the table where some of the best parts of his life had unfolded. And at that moment I wasn’t quite sure why, but the tears started to rise up in my chest and it was all I could do to make it casually out to the van, where I waited for Dick to return and pick me up. And when he did, he took one look at my tear-streaked face and told me what a terrible job I have… though I think we both knew he was full of it.

Today our readings talk about tearing down old hierarchies to make room for something new. In Isaiah it says that those who spend themselves on behalf of the hungry, those who satisfy the needs of the oppressed, those who do away with the pointing fingers and malicious talk will be guided by God. It says that they will be like a well-watered garden.

And that of course, is why Dick had me sit at that table with Charles. In fact it is why he has encouraged groups from this church to go to Appalachia for the last 12 years; because he knows that despite the illusion of separateness between “us” and “them”, there is more common ground than we could ever imagine. And I felt that first hand. Part of the wild beauty of the experience is that, while I may not be on the same political page as many of the folks we met, while I have enjoyed innumerable privileges from education to economic stability, while we might stand on opposite sides of the picket line… and while some of them might even cringe if they knew who I was married to, in the end we share this vulnerable predicament of our humanity. My views on immigration, or taxes, or healthcare or global politics don’t actually matter much when I sit face to face with another precious child of God.

In the Call of Jeremiah that we heard, there is this intimacy in the relationship between the prophet and God. God talks about this knowing of Jeremiah since before he was born. God throws out Jeremiah’s excuses about being to young, or unable. God would throw out ALL of our excuses regarding the ways that we see ourselves as unfit. IN the text we are left with this beautiful image: of God literally reaching down and touching Jeremiah’s mouth. God says, “today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow… to build and to plant.” And hearing this text again, I wonder if what is meant is that God appoints us to over-look or look beyond national identity or political affiliation. What if we are being appointed to tear down these superficial differentiations in order to see one another more clearly. Sitting at the table with Charles, I felt the soil of my heart being turned over– and in that fresh new earth, that space that arises when we truly receive one another, I felt something new being planted.

At the end of the Isaiah text, we are left with a promise, that if we do this HARD but SACRED work, we will be called, “Repairer of Broken Walls,
Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.” This year in West Virginia, along with 22 other beautiful people from this congregation, I feel like I was privileged, to do just that.  

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