The noise filled the hall. It was joyous.
Every voice mingled, fused and rang together. For Simone it was the ultimate method of prayer. She loved to look around her as she sang to watch everyone else with all their feelings on display. Nobody hid. Everyone was vulnerable. It was a perfect snap-shot of humanity.
During the songs Simone always thought back to her formative years at school and church. When she used to sing hymns in these settings it was always restrained and dour. People around her were uncomfortable; either humming along in a wordless dirge or mouthing silently in a pointless attempt at joining in. Everyone seemed embarrassed by what they were doing and where they were. It never made sense to her. Surely everyone was in church for the same reason? Why wouldn’t they throw themselves into the harmonious group activity of singing? No matter what the reasons were it never happened and it was always something that marred her understanding of faith.
People used to look at her strangely when she sang loud and proud to the moaning accompaniment of the church organ. She had a strong, confident singing voice but it was by no means entertaining or impressive. People seemed alarmed that she was willing to be so forthright and open in her expression.
It was something that very nearly derailed her belief.
In the end her father had saved her. She spoke to him about her worries. She asked him why others looked at her strangely? Why her mother asked her to sing quietly? Why he never sang at all? He responded to all of these queries one Sunday by taking her alone to a different church. It was a ramshackle building tucked away in a side street on the fringes of the town centre. It didn’t look like a church at all. It reminded Simone of a village hall she’d been to for the funeral reception of some distant relative. The inside was painted in a pale yellow that seemed especially reserved for low grade public buildings but the walls were covered in hand painted artwork and banners that broke up the monotony of yellow and injected exciting colour and warmth to the space. In place of the traditional pews there were rows of rickety wooden chairs, instead of a pulpit there was a simple lectern and in place of an alter there was a small stage with a band. As they entered the hall music was being played. The congregation were on their feet clapping along to the bouncy beat being rapped out on the drums. It was a friendly, exciting atmosphere that had been completely unexpected. Simone found it hard to believe that it was being contained within such an average building.
That was the moment Simone found and confirmed her faith.
Now she was in a different building, but surrounded by the same community her Dad had introduced her to as a girl. She looked around and saw every person smiling and singing. People from every walk of life, every ethnicity, every social grouping, all joined together for a fleeting few minutes by song and a united desire to thank God. This is what it meant to give praise. To shout up to heaven in a united voice and thank Him for all that was, and is, given. Nobody around her looked embarrassed or ashamed of what they were doing. She didn’t know any of their names, she didn’t need to. The joy in their voices and sparkle in their eyes matched her own and united them in a common purpose. While the music played and the words were sung in unison they were joined as one entity. This was the time Simone felt the presence of God. This was why she believed.
The music came to an abrupt end but the congregation carried on clapping rhythmically for a few more beats before people sat back down and silence fell. There was an air of anticipation as the minister walked back and forth at the front of the hall, preparing to speak. His gait was full of an energy that belied his advanced years. He was a tall black man, dressed in a shimmering grey suit that matched the thin fuzz of grey hair on his head. His face fell easily into a pleasant smile and his eyes shone with an intensity that made him seem younger than he was. Suddenly he stopped, turned to face the congregation and swept his arms out wide as if trying to embrace everyone.
“It’s wonderful to see so many people here today. So many different faces. It fills my heart with joy. Most of you probably don’t know one another. In many respects you are strangers, but as you stand here today you are all neighbours. In fact, we are neighbours with every man woman and child on the planet.” The minister paused, folded his arms then put a hand to his chin thoughtfully before continuing. “Tell me. Do you speak to your neighbours?” The congregation gave a gentle, noncommittal, rumble of noise as a response.
“Now, I understand we live in a cynical world that is full of potential dangers. When we are young we are taught to be cautious of strangers. When we get older it becomes common practice to keep our own council. Fear of the unknown is natural. Maybe, the world would be a better place if we could find the strength to assume the best in people instead of seeing the worst?” This prompted thoughtful mutters from the gathering.
The minister resumed his pacing. “Ipswich has always been known on a national scale for its football team. Whether you enjoy football or not isn’t important, but you must realise that it creates deep and meaningful feelings in the supporters. Some people’s lives ebb and flow with the success and failures of their chosen team. Some people find a sense of community in being a football fan. Going to the stadium to watch a match surrounded by like minded people isn’t all that different to you good people coming here today to give thanks to our Lord. It’s very easy to see the supporters of different teams as separate sects of a religion. Ipswich fans and Norwich fans both have a deep love of football but believe their own particular teams are better than any other.
“Now imagine that it is the day of the East Anglian derby. Norwich are coming to town to play Ipswich. If you have lived here long enough you will have experienced this phenomenon. The town fills up with people. The police presence is increased. There is a special buzz in the air.
“An Ipswich Town fan, on his way to the game, is accosted by muggers. His money is stolen and he is beaten bloody. The first person that sees him is a successful businessman. He detests football and the inconveniences that it causes on match day. He walks past the man without a second thought. A second man walks past. He is also an Ipswich town supporter. Seeing the man on the floor this man believes him to be drunk and feels that he is giving football fans and in particular Ipswich fans a bad reputation through his behaviour. He walks past. The third man that walks past is a Norwich fan. He sees past the Ipswich colours he is wearing and simply sees a fellow human being in distress. Putting aside the petty differences he goes and helps the man to the hospital, in turn missing the game.”
* * *
Music played as the congregation began to file out of the hall. The minister was standing by the door speaking to each person, shaking their hands and hugging a few. Simone kept her seat. She stood now and again to speak briefly with the few members of the congregation that she knew by sight. She didn’t know anyone by name.
Simone was staying behind to speak with the minister. The previous week as she was leaving the hall Minister Golding chatted with her briefly. “Ms. Saunders, isn’t it?”
“Yes, please call me Simone.”
“Simone. I wonder if you might have a little time next week to sit down with me for a drink and a chat?” The request had blindsided Simone and the confusion had obviously shown on her face. “I’ve been a minister here for a year or so now and I realised there were still a few faces I see every week that I haven’t made the time to get to know properly.”
Simone had agreed and spent all week over thinking it. She had thought up lots of preposterous alternate reasons why the minister might want to talk with her. Each one was crazier than the last but in her mind seemed more realistic.
She didn’t really want to get to know the minister. She felt no need to participate in the church community. Visiting the church once a week to give praise with others was enough.
The minister approached extending his hand. Simone got up and took it, grasping firmly and confidently shaking it. The minister seemed a little surprised at first. “You must be a businesswoman of some kind,” he said, smiling.
“Yes. I’m an insurance broker.”
“It’s surprising what you can tell about someone from a handshake.”
Simone smiled. Yes it is. For example, you moisturise your hands, have regular manicures and act neutrally to any new person you are introduced to. You accommodate their personality before trying to impose your own ideals onto them.
She followed the minister through a door at the back of the hall past the band who were packing up their instruments. The minister stopped to thank each one of them personally.
In the next room was a small table with a cafetiere of coffee, two cups and a small plate of biscuits. The Minister held his hand out to the seats and allowed Simone to settle herself before sitting himself.
“Simone, I expect you’ve been wondering why I wanted to talk with you?” Said the minister as he poured the coffee.
“It had crossed my mind.”
“As I said last week. You are one of the few people I see each week but don’t know very well. I like to get to know the congregation as much as possible. I just want to have a chat, ask what you think of the church, the services? If there is anything more we can do for you or if there’s anything you might be able to help us with?” He picked up the cup and took a noisy slurp and arched his eyebrows expectantly waiting for Simone’s response.
“I love coming to church, and I love your services. This church is the reason I’m still a Christian. I’ve been coming here for nearly twenty years. Well, not here, but to this church, through all its changes of locations and different incarnations.”
“What makes this church so special?”
“The joy the people have in their beliefs. As a girl I used to go to a more orthodox church. A draughty, cold building that was so big the priest’s words never quite got to you. The congregation looked as animated as the depictions in the stained glass windows. Nobody seemed to be having a good time. I started to get the impression that to believe in something bigger and better meant you had to punish yourself in some way.
“When my Dad bought me here I discovered a group of people that wanted to celebrate the one thing they all believed in whilst casting aside all the other things in their lives that separated them.”
“That’s a wonderful answer. It really is.” A tear crept down the ministers cheek. He wiped it away without any hint of embarrassment. “Your words make my job worthwhile.” He put his coffee back on the table and crossed his legs with a languid ease. “I also wanted to speak with you alone so that I could thank you.”
“Thank me? For what?” Simone was confused for a second before she realised what was coming.
“For your generous donations. I’m not overstating when I say that you are a big part of the reason this church still exists.”
Simone felt a flash of annoyance. “Those donations were given anonymously.”
“Yes they were.” The minister smiled showing a set of perfectly even, white teeth. “But when the congregation is so small and close knit it doesn’t take great powers of deduction to work out where the donations come from, especially when they are as large as yours.”
“I hope you will keep your deductions between us. Money can tend to taint the things we hold dear.”
“Of course, of course. You can count on my discretion.”
“Once people know you have money it can be difficult for them to see the person beyond it. I come here for purely spiritual reasons. I like to keep the other parts of my life separate.”
“That’s an interesting approach. I might put it to you that the other facets of your life might be improved by including your beliefs in them?”
Simone sat quietly for a moment considering the minister’s words. “In my job I have to make hard choices that will affect people’s lives. I’m not allowed to be swayed in these choices by my beliefs. I have to discount sentiment for reason and logic.”
“Does that trouble you?”
“Sometimes. Most of the time I know that the choices I have to make are correct and if, as a result, a person is put in an unfortunate situation that it isn’t, ultimately, my fault but theirs.”
“Can you give me an example?”
Simone looked over at the minister. He was looking down at his lap, it looked as though he was sleeping. Simone could tell that he was, in fact, concentrating on their conversation, trying to take in every word and thinking hard. “As I said, I’m an insurance broker. Sometimes it’s my job to investigate claims. In one particular case we are investigating at the moment we have to decide if we should pay a large sum of money out to the widow of one of our deceased policy holders. He held a policy with us for twenty years and had to renew it quite recently. Within the first two years of his new policy he passed away. He accidentally overdosed on prescription medication. In the first two years of a policy my company is within its rights to cancel the policy and refuse to pay out if there is any suspicion of the death being a suicide.
“I have to decide if this poor woman who has lost her husband should receive the money to look after her three children. I know from professional experience that the claim should be refused. I know from meeting with the widow that the man most likely took his own life in an effort to give his family a large payout. What are your thoughts on a situation like that?”
The minister didn’t move for almost a full minute. Simone thought he might actually have gone to sleep. Suddenly he uncrossed his legs and leaned forward in his chair. “You listened to my sermon today?”
“The parable of the good samaritan. An oldie but a goodie. It teaches us to look beyond the superficial and help others that are in need.”
Simone thoughtfully sipped her coffee, it was cooling and turning bitter. “The man in that parable was in need of help through no fault of his own. The woman I’m talking about most likely knew what her husband was doing. Together they are trying to defraud money that isn’t their’s from my company.”
“That’s your professional answer. You’re not at work now. What do you really feel?”
Simone’s stomach gave a gentle lurch. She shuffled in the chair and suddenly felt uncomfortable. She still felt the glow of the service inside her and the warm feeling of belonging. For a moment those feelings overwhelmed her common sense, her analytical mind was brushed aside. “There’s a part of me that would like to give her the money. I’ll admit that. Her husband paid a policy for twenty years and lived through it. He never got the payout. Maybe in some way he deserves the money so his family are looked after. Perhaps his death was a mistake and we are too quick to assume there are nefarious intentions behind a tragic accident. But cutting through all of that for a moment, deep down, I want to give a grieving woman a little comfort because she has just lost her husband.” Simone was leaning forward in her chair, the release of emotion threatened to bring tears to her eyes, but she fought it. “No matter how much I might want to give the poor lady the money her husband wanted her to have, I know I can’t do it. I’d lose my job and it’s my life. I don’t have the strength to sacrifice myself for a stranger.”
“We are all a lot stronger than we realise.” Said the Minister.
Simone glanced up at him furtively. “I know I’m weak. I present myself with strength and confidence, but I have been morally weak all my life. I have been selfish in my career to make sure I got to where I needed to be. I’ve done things I didn’t feel were right for the sake of my job. I’ve turned a blind eye on many situations that have ultimately benefited my bosses and company. Can inaction be a sin if you know you could have prevented something wrong?
“I have had many sleepless nights thinking about the families that are worse off through my inability to be strong.”
“Now, I don’t know what to do.”
The minister leaned over to take Simone’s hand. “Would you like to pray, Simone? Sometimes the answers are given to us, but most of the time He lets us find them ourselves. Your beliefs don’t have to rule your life, they don’t have to dictate all of your actions but if they can help you in any way it would be a shame to shut them out.
“You’ll find your solution. He’ll put you on the right path.”
Together they began to pray. In that moment Simone didn’t feel alone, she didn’t feel empty. She didn’t know what she was going to do but she wasn’t afraid.
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