Since I'm housesitting in Regina, NM, I drove down into Cuba to attend services at the Presbyterian church there. It was communion Sunday, and being in that 100-plus-year-old sanctuary, taking communion once again with 13 others, brought back a powerful memory from the days when I lived in Cuba. The original event is excerpted here from Chapter 20, "Forays," of To Drink from the Silver Cup.
Although I only went twice to the Presbyterian Church in Cuba for services, the first time presented me with a meaningful encounter. A friend had told me that the new interim Presbyterian minister was one half of a lesbian couple. These were lovely women, and despite the Presbyterian Church’s policy at the time, allowing only celibate gays to be active in ministry, Elaine had been open with the local church’s governing body.
One elder had asked another when Elaine used the word lesbian, “What does that mean?” His friend took him outside and explained.
The first man’s response brought tears to my eyes. “God made them that way. We don’t know why. It’s not up to us to decide.”
Thus, Elaine and her partner were accepted for as long as they would be there.
I shared my own story with Elaine and Joan, particularly as it related to the Church. I felt deeply seen and understood by these women—a great gift. One evening, not long before Christmas, we shared a meal, and Elaine mentioned that the church’s ancient pianist was ill. It seemed quite likely that she wouldn’t be able to play at the Christmas Eve service. The congregation had been struggling along without accompaniment for regular Sunday services. “But it would be so nice to have the piano on Christmas Eve,” Elaine said.
I hesitated for a few moments, then offered, “I haven’t played for ages—especially not for a service. I was never very good at accompaniment. But if you choose the songs ahead of time, and I can get into the church to practice, I guess I could do it.” Elaine had no reservations, and together, we chose carols that I could play. More or less.
The Presbyterian Church in Cuba was more than a hundred years old, a white stucco adobe with a blue metal roof. It was a short, wide structure with pine board flooring. The days I practiced, with no one else in there, reminded me of going by myself into the tiny chapel at Teec Nos Pos to practice my piano lessons every afternoon.
A couple of days before the service, Elaine came in while I was practicing to make some preparations. She mentioned that they would celebrate communion at the service. My heart picked up. I told her how much I missed communion and what it had meant to me. “Do you think, knowing what you know about me, knowing what I believe and don’t believe or what I doubt, do you think it would be all right for me to take communion?” I’m sure she heard the longing in my voice. “I mean, I don’t believe Jesus had to die for our sins. You know that. For me, communion has to do with spiritual nurture, with community.”
Elaine smiled and said, “It’s your decision. I think if you want to, you should.” I heard an echo of Miss Hartgerink’s words when I had wondered about taking communion way back then.
I thought about it several times over the next couple of days. Such a big thing had been made of who could and couldn’t take communion in the CRC, and human permission was so important there. I hadn’t rooted all that out. I didn’t believe or even feel that I would eat and drink damnation to myself if I partook unworthily (whatever that meant). But almost as if it were imprinted on my cells, it seemed that certain standards must be met and that human approval from an external source was required. It had been more than twenty years since I’d taken communion. I considered the elder who hadn’t known what a lesbian was but who was so guileless, knowing it was not for him to judge. Who better to share the table with?
Christmas Eve arrived. I practiced one more time before the service, then went home for supper. The night was cold and crisp, the sky filled with shimmering stars but only frost, not snow, on the ground. As we drove into the church parking lot, we could see a single candle shining from each window. Inside, the small sanctuary glowed golden.
We sang, and I played, sometimes with my fingers stumbling over each other. It reminded me of the times I had played for services at Tohlakai when my mother couldn’t make it. At times when I lost my fingering, I would keep up with the congregation by just playing the right hand until I could pick up the tenor and bass chords again. Accompanying the singing never lost its stressfulness, that feeling of having to keep up, of struggling nervously not to let people down. And not to seem foolish for thinking I was up to the task.
Elaine called the worshippers up to the altar to take communion, and that was when I finally decided; I got up from the piano bench to join them. On the table lay a square golden loaf of homemade bread. I happened to know its secret ingredient—beer—which we had chuckled about before the service. A chunk of bread would be dipped into a large ceramic goblet filled with grape juice. As I neared the altar, my heart speeded up again. I could hear Elaine, as people broke off their chunks of bread, saying different things to different people. Sometimes she said, “The body and blood of our Lord.” Other times, “Take, eat, remember, and believe” or “The body of Christ, broken for you.”
When I took my piece of bread, Elaine said softly, “The bread of life.” She could not have found more perfect, meaningful words for my need. What a mix of emotions ran through me. I felt completely seen and heard by her and felt the greatness of the gift of life. I felt the grace that could include me in the family of God, regardless of what I did or did not believe. I walked back to the piano, blinking back tears, and played the introductory notes to “Oh Come, All Ye Faithful.”
After the service, we all went down to the church basement for a traditional northern New Mexico Christmas Eve meal of posole with red chile, tortillas, and bizcochitos, the little cookies sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon. I sat at a long table with people I knew from counseling their children, buying food in their stores, attending community meetings with them. We chatted quietly over the savory and sweet food, laughing now and then, and this was another kind of communion.
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