Friday, March 20, 2009

Back to the Past

Vernal Equinox (at 6:43 AM CDT)

Today's Word:
Hosea 14:2-10 (Come back to Me with all your heart...)
Psalm 81:6-17 (Hear My voice)
Mark 12:28-34 (Sh'ema, O Israel!; the two greatest commandments; the scribe understands; "You are not far from the Kingdom of God")

Hosanna Hey Sanna Sanna Sanna Hosanna
Hey Sanna Hosanna
Hey JC, JC won't you smile at me?
Sanna Hosanna Hey Superstar

Tell the rabble to be quiet, we anticipate a riot.
This common crowd, is much too loud.
Tell the mob who sing your song that they are fools and they are wrong.
They are a curse. They should disperse.

Hosanna Hey Sanna Sanna Sanna Hosanna
Hey Sanna Hosanna
Hey JC, JC you're alright by me
Sanna Hosanna Hey Superstar

Why waste your breath moaning at the crowd?
Nothing can be done to stop the shouting.
If every tongue were still the noise would still continue.
The rocks and stones themselves would start to sing:

Hosanna Hey Sanna Sanna Sanna Hosanna
Hey Sanna Hosanna
Hey JC, JC won't you fight for me?
Sanna Hosanna Hey Superstar

--Hosanna (excerpt) from Jesus Christ Superstar (1970)
Andrew Lloyd Webber & Tim Rice

I last left my story some 26 years ago, when I began to work with Brother Jesse. His last name begins with C, so at appropriate times Mike and I and others who worked with him referred to him as 'JC.'

I actually wrote a post in his honor in a journal two years ago. I'm going to use much of the stuff I wrote at the time and add to it here. Jesse entered eternal life about twelve years or so ago, the exact date escapes me. This coming April 5 would have been his 71st birthday. Brother Jesse played more than just a small part in my role as a wandering minstrel, and it is only fitting that I offer him some small tribute from wherever in the Great Beyond he is looking at me.

Making the decision to change parishes proved beneficial. As I posted last week, there were new faces; some younger faces, people who for the most part enjoyed being there. Yes, the folks I'd left behind liked doing what they did, too; but there was no sign of any new blood - I was one of the more recent additions, and I'd been there thirteen years! Working with Jesse opened up opportunities as this parish utilized leaders of song (known in Catholic lingo as cantors, a throwback to a similar liturgical role in Jewish synagogues). Jesse promoted getting his cantors liturgically trained; he managed to convince Fr. B. (the pastor at the time) to have the parish pay the cost of attending workshops, as many as three times year. He also managed to wriggle out a stipend for the cantors (while it was a small token, it represented something virtually unheard of in Catholic circles).

Jesse was a 3rd Order (lay) Dominican. He had taken vows with the order and was allowed to wear a habit, which he did on high occasions. He intrigued me. For that matter, it was apparent that I interested him also. It didn't take long for me to move up to roles besides singing. I soon learned that Jesse was legally blind, suffering from glaucoma due to a childhood accident. He needed assistance reading correspondence, filing, typing schedules, and so forth, all of which I was willing to do. He also recommended that I serve on the parish liturgy commission. I was interested in that as it also fed into my long-term goal of serving the Church in as high a capacity as I could.

As he was legally blind, he couldn't drive; and as he was living on a small disability pension plus whatever he made as a musician (I also learned he provided entertainment at the local VFW hall), I was occasionally pressed into service driving him to church from home (and vice-versa) and running minor errands for him. I don't think he necessarily leaned on any one person exclusively for any length of time. Jesse liked to spread himself around. It seemed there were many people who had heard of him. In fact, over the years I would learn more than perhaps I wanted to about how much and how well he was known.

Jesse was a showman. He was a minister. Somehow he managed to combine the two. He was a minister in the showplace and a showman in a place of ministry. But people didn't mind. Only Jesse could get away with playing "Pennies From Heaven" during a special collection in the church, and a triumphal rendition of the Chicago Bears' fight song as a postlude during their winning 1984-85 season. People ate it up. You either really liked him or really disliked him. Sometimes you went both ways.

As the years progressed, Jesse and I learned more about each other. He got to know my wife and introduced us to the Holy Hill shrine in Wisconsin, just beyond Milwaukee. He would make a pilgrimage there occasionally. Whenever he could get us to take him, he would pay for lunch and throw in a little extra for gas.

Through working with Jesse, I also developed a working relationship with Fr. B. My wife and I had actually met him during the planning stages for our wedding in 1981; at the time he was facilitating the marriage preparation seminars (pre-Cana conferences) in the area. My wife reminded me recently that Fr. B was an excellent theologian. That he was. I think he would have had a more fulfilling vocation as a priest had he not got caught up in administrative mumbo-jumbo. That's another story.

Back to Jesse. There is an underside to just about everybody, and Jesse had his. He practiced Santeria - what some call 'Catholic voodoo' - an out-of-the mainstream set of practices which seem to follow older Hispanic folks. These are a blend of Christian and Pagan devotions/spells/rituals, whatever you might choose to call them. That was one thing. It had strange ways of manifesting itself.

I think I'd known Jesse about five years before I understood he was gay. He knew I was married and I don't recall him ever trying to come on to me. I'm not sure if he ever had a partner. In some ways I think this was one reason he professed himself into the Dominican order. I learned through the aftermath of the clergy scandal in the Catholic Church that quite a number of gay men got themselves into the priesthood in an attempt to either shun or glamorize their lifestyle. Jesse was president of a local GLBT organization. By the time I learned this, it didn't change how I felt about him or who he was. To my best knowledge, Jesse never had any relationship at all of the kind that got trumped up in the news. He died before any news of the big scandal broke.

I also learned over time that Jesse had been director of at least two other Catholic parishes, and had subsequently left them, for who knows what reasons. Could be he pushed his envelope in any direction just a little too far. He certainly had the ability to do that. Such was the case that he abruptly left the parish to which he had brought me. The parish went through four directors after he left over a 6-7 year period. The first one, Greg, was another showman with no clue as to the real solemnity behind Catholic ritual. The second one was my friend Mike, who had worked with Jesse. He had the seemingly impossible task of cleaning up the mess Jesse had gotten away with and that Greg had gone too far in exploting. By this time, Fr.B had become more of an obsessive-compulsive administrator, and Mike couldn't deal with that and the multitude of egos that were running rampant in the music program as a result of Greg's theatrics.

Between working with Jesse and Fr. B, there was steady progress for me, and a growing sense of a calling (well, that's what I thought it was back then). I felt I could offer more; that I was supposed to do more. I discussed this at length in my own mind; with my dear wife; with Jesse; and finally, with Fr. B. I felt that, due to the dwindling number of priests, due to my desire to serve, and to my overall abilities, as well as my life situation, that I was called to become something more.

There were processes to go through, a period of formation and training that was a prerequisite for the big step, which was candidacy for ordination to the diaconate. There was a cost (not substantial) involved; surprisingly, the parish picked up half and my parents picked up the other half. And so, with high hopes, I moved into ministry formation.

I had reached a place where I could survey the landscape, as it were. God had indeed been good to me, to us. And the climb from there was not insurmountable.

When I broke the news to my wife that Jesse had died, I remember saying that only God would know what to do with him. He was certainly a rogue, a person who had to live with taking risks; and had to rely on so many. But he was also feisty and independent where he felt he could be. He was a showman, a shyster, and a minister, all wrapped in one. It was hard not to like him, even when he was manipulative. There has not been another person like him in my life, before or since. Whenever I think of him, it is with thanks and the hope that God is caring for him in the afterlife.

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