It was the first time I went to New Orleans. It was before the time we sat in horror, shock, and shame as we watched our favorite magical, mysterious, and musical city drown in filthy water and rage set free.
I visited a New Orleans that was full of raw oysters, famous brass bands in Donna’s where you had to walk through the band to reach the bathroom, and dancing that felt deliciously naughty and sweet.
New Orleans was a place of life, hope, family, full also with suffering poverty and heartache. But it was a place where people stayed and took care of one another and welcomed one another all the while knowing the talents and the sins each one held.
City and state governance aside, New Orleans seemed a picture of God’s table. All you wanted to see and all you wish you could pretend wasn’t real in this world was there for you to behold. They lived side by side so there was no pretending otherwise.
I had a day all to myself. I explored the neighborhoods. I’d already explored the French Quarter, so I wandered around Faubourg Marigny, came back and strolled around Treme, and then caught a trolley to the Garden District.
People had exchanged the regular pleasantries that those in New Orleans do….”hellos” said with an accent that sounded part Brooklyn, part French, part Deep South, and part mouth full of marbles.
I sat on the trolley looking like the most touristy of tourists with big purse, hat and a map. A young man behind me asked if it was my first time in New Orleans. “Oh yes. And today I have a free day and I’ve been to Marigny, Treme and now I’m going to the Garden District”. A woman in front of me turned and corrected how I said Marigny, but I can’t recall how it is pronounced in New Orleans.
The locals, proud of their city, began telling me where to eat, where to hear music, and what to see in the rest of my day strolling neighborhoods. It was a veritable trolley party.
When my stop arrived, I stood to go. So did the young man behind me. He said this was his stop too, but that he had plenty of time and that he could show me some nice streets to stroll. I assured him I was fine, that I could manage on my own, and not to be rude but that I was enjoying my solitary observations of his city. He understood and would walk with me until he reached a certain destination.
We strolled a wide tree lined avenue admiring the mansions and lawns. My guide suggested I turn on one street then another then another. I tried to keep track of our position on the map, but he assured me he’d point me in the right direction before he left me. Nonetheless I stole glances at my map but found I’d lost my trail. The jazzy ease of the city was replaced with an unwelcomed dissonance.
I checked my watch and exclaimed that I need to get back to the trolley. Had to meet my friend and all. Clean up for dinner. Needed to call home. My guide kept walking. He didn’t seem to know me anymore.
I now noticed he was tall. I also noticed he was big. He stood almost a foot taller than I and was muscular. I noticed there was no one in site anywhere. There were no cars, no yard workers, no one enjoying their lawns, no children playing. There was I a gullible tourist and a young strong man taking me where I was lost.
His face lost his sparkly eyed smile. He pointed to a silver tea set in the bay window of one of the mansions. It gleamed out the window, over the lawn and through the big iron fence surrounding the palace. “Beautiful isn’t it?” “yes it is, but can you point me to the trolley?” “You’ve got one like that don’t you?” “ No, I don’t have anything like that. Do you know which way to the trolley?” “Look at those” he pointed to the iron fences separating the lawns like moats around a smattering of tiny castles. “They act like it will ruin their grass if somebody steps on it. They don’t even step on it. They get somebody to mow it. They don’t even touch their clothes. They get people to wash them to iron them. Some of em don’t even touch their children. They get somebody else to raise em. They don’t even care if she has kids of her own to feed. They keep em at their houses until they get back from their concerts and restaurants and ballets.”
I kept looking for some way to run, but I was terrified if I ran that he’d chase me. I was terrified that I was wrong about this man, that he was just conversing with me and that I’d display some sort of loony female projection. So I walked.
His face softened and he said “let’s walk this way it will get you to a trolley” I was relieved to know my fears were for naught. I followed him off the sidewalk on to a path in a wooded overgrown no man’s land. He paused. I kept walking. “you’re just like those people. You’ve got people working for you right now. You’ve got people in your home and you’re not even there. You have people making sure you get a vacation so you can come home and watch them work.”
Instead of scared I got mad.
I stopped. “I do not. Stop talking to me this way and show me where the trolley is damn it. You got me out here to spout off about how mad you are at rich people. Fine be mad, but I’m not rich so stop it and leave me alone.”
He smiled. “how many you got working at your house? How many? You don’t even work do you? You’ve got a rich husband or maybe even a rich daddy who gives you what you want.”
“Where’s the trolley? I do not have people working for me and I do too work.”
“You work in a fancy little shop. Some place that sells dresses that your friends buy. That’s not work, that’s visiting.”
“I am a minister, I work, I do not have people work for me, now, show me how to get out of here or I’m going to start screaming.”
He didn’t believe me, but he asked, “you’re a minister?”
Yes, I preach on the weekends at small churches that don’t have pastors and I work in the week as a chaplain for a hospice where we take care of the dying.
“Tell me your favorite verse.”
My mind was empty
“do unto others as you would do unto yourselves and love your god with all your heart soul and mind.” I hoped that sounded good enough. My head felt light, I was afraid I was about to pass out.
“Yeah…..my grandma was a preacher. She took me and my baby sister to church every Sunday. She had a heart attack when my mamma died. Her no good boyfriend got her all strung out on all kinds of trash. They still got Meema’s church. They say the preacher is full of spirit.
“Why don’t you go back?”
“I got in trouble and locked up. They don’t want me.”
“Yes they do. You still belong to them.”
I thought I was cruising right along with all kinds of tidy evangelism.
He straightened up and snarled at me that he didn’t belong to no one and that I sounded just like all the do-gooders who didn’t know jack. No body was going to tell him who he was.
“That’s not what I meant. They hold a place for you. People always think going to church is about the people that are there. But people go to church and pray together for all those people that they might have a hard time praying for all by themselves. Like, I go to church and pray for the governor. I don’t like the governor of Texas one bit, if I were all by myself, even though I know I should, I probably wouldn’t pray for him. In my congregation though, we pray for him and his work. I can do more in that congregation that I can by myself. And we hold places for all the people we love and all the people we don’t like and all the people who can’t be there until they can on their own. They’re praying for you. “
He looked at me and a cold chill went down my spine. No one was anywhere, and I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt something bad was going to happen. I didn’t have anything else to say, so I said, “May I pray for you?”
“You’d do that?”
“I don’t know.” I knew immediately that was a wrong answer but it came out anyway.
We prayed, and I cried.
“Will you pray for me?”
“You want that?”, he asked suspiciously
“Lord Jesus, this is a woman of God. Bless her ministry. Bless her work. Take her home and keep her safe until you need her. “
We stood there for a second, and too loudly and quickly I blurted, “where’s the trolley?”
“This way” and he took off walking, this time with a determined pace, in front of me. We walked deeper into a wooded area and terror filled my throat.
The trees parted and there was a coffee kiosk on Tulane’s campus.
“Want a cup of coffee?” He wanted hot tea. I gave it to him and turned to pay. When I looked back he was gone.
In our congregation, we when we have time for petitions we hold a place for him…although I never learned his name.