The Sounds of Silence

Juan Ildefonso Rodriguez is a fine man—kind, soft-spoken, considerate—but more than a bit exotic at Windmark Community Church.

His is one of the church’s few Latino faces; but what members don’t see, nor ask about, is a past that would make him even more distinguishable than his race or national background. To Windmark, Juan is as good a cleaner-upper as any of the European types with whom he shares the job. They have no idea how odd it is for him to wash sinks and vacuum rugs, because there’s more to him than meets the eye.

Juan Rodriguez is patrician by blood, the son of a wealthy businessman in Salvador da Bahia, a city of more than two million in Brazil’s historic northeast region, an area deeply influenced by the African heritage of many of its people. Many at Windmark think Juan is Mexican, but his melodious accent is created by his native Portuguese, not Spanish. Windmark knows he once was Roman Catholic—not as devout as his mother but Catholic nonetheless. But they know nothing of Candombii, the Afro-Brazilian cult whose name means “dance with the gods,” a form of spiritism commonplace in the Salvador of his birth. Windmark Community doesn’t know about Candombii partially because they never ask, but also because, should they do so, Juan Ildefonso Rodriguez likely would not tell them. He’s come to love Windmark’s people in the years he’s worshiped there, and he understands that if he told them what went on in Candombii, they wouldn’t look at him in quite the same way. The people from Windmark are good Christians, but not good anthropologists.

Windmark does know that he was married once. Francy Sanborn was her name, a young American who’d come to Brazil with a group akin to the Peace Corps. He met her on a beach. Theirs was a stormy and passionate affair, the stuff of romance novels. But Juan would rather that Windmark not know everything. He says Windmark taught him forgiveness. What Windmark doesn’t teach or know particularly well, he says, is sin.

Which is not to say that Francy and Juan were any greater sinners than the rest of the world, or the rest of Windmark. It’s just that he’s come to understand that some sins remain, well, beyond the ken of Christians like those at Windmark. It’s an odd thing, he says (and something of his old Catholicism comes back occasionally when he thinks of it), how, as a kid, he knew so much of sin and so little of forgiveness, and how now he is surrounded by wonderful people who know so much about forgiveness and seemingly little about sin. Perhaps that explains what happened.

Francy asked everything of Juan, including his birthright. She’d gone to Brazil for adventure, found everything she’d ever dreamed of; then, married and pregnant, she wanted home—Chicago. At twenty-three, Juan thought little of his father’s business, had never wanted to tote a briefcase, and loved the endless sands of Brazil’s coastal beaches. His father said he would do what he could to help the young couple get along in America, which wasn’t inconsiderable. But he also warned his son, in Portuguese, that leaving his home meant turning his back on a life that would have lacked nothing.

It wasn’t love so much as adventure that drew Juan to America. He and Francy were two of a kind. Once they’d arrived, once the baby had been born—a boy—neither settled down. It was not a marriage made in heaven. They divorced a month or two after their eighth year. Francy kept their son and moved, for some new adventure, to Orlando.

Alone, fancy-free, and not penniless, Juan lived on Chicago’s Gold Coast. He worked hard, played harder. He did well, made more money, in part, because he had money.

Ten years ago or so on a Saturday morning, he was alone and unhappy, not getting any younger. He’d gone out to play golf, been stood up by a client, then decided to play anyway rather than go home to a townhouse full of empty space. So he played just nine holes with a man who introduced himself as Byron Spaulding.

There’s drama galore in Juan’s unknown story, but his conversion to Christianity isn’t all that exciting. I’m sorry. I wish there were a pigsty or a cocaine bash or a razor blade, but there isn’t. Let’s be straight about this: the Holy Spirit did the work.

At the golf course, Byron Spaulding purposely did not introduce himself as a preacher, but he had a role here, even though his son may well have played the greater part. Bobby, ten years ago, was just about the age of the son Juan never got to know. That ghost was part of it, I’m sure. Juan played nine holes of golf with Byron and Bobby that Saturday morning, and what he saw in his playing partners was a reality that he’d never known. In a word, it was love.

On the way to the clubhouse, Juan Ildefonso Rodriguez, who’d beaten Byron by a dozen strokes or more, simply said, “What is it with you?”

“What do you mean?” Byron said.

“I mean, you got something with him,” Juan said, pointing at the boy, who was cleaning the dirt from his spikes. “You got something good, man,” he said.

Byron hadn’t come to the golf course to witness, but in those nine holes he’d come to admire this soft-spoken Brazilian fellow, so he let out an answer that had no spin. “I think,” he said, “whatever it is we’ve got, it’s there because of the Lord.”

And so began a friendship, and the friendship led to Windmark, where Byron was on staff. Juan called the preacher one night and said he thought maybe he wanted to join. Because there was something there in the church, some togetherness, he said, a community of love he’d never had.

There’s more to the story.

Three years ago, just before they dedicated a new wing devoted to community outreach, Windmark met to decide what to do about maintenance. If this new building was going to bring in the multitudes, they said, it would have to be kept clean. Share the job, someone suggested. Establish a price—say $25—and pass the job around. At Windmark, it’s difficult to fight with such a righteous idea, so the motion passed.

Juan Ildefonso Rodriguez raised his hand to volunteer. He thought it was a way he might contribute to a place that had played no insignificant role in his life.

He’s been at it for a year.

Now to explain what happened.

The new addition, big as an assembly hall, has been home to concerts, jamborees, all-night sleep-ins, even community athletic leagues. The church is still learning about community outreach. Windmark gets people in its doors, but some members wonder whether, once they’ve been here, they know they’ve been to Windmark Community. In business terms, people say Windmark has great cash flow, but they wonder about its financial base.

All those warm bodies in Windmark’s facility produce waste. Where two or three are gathered, it seems, there’s always crumpled napkins, programs, Coke cans, candy wrappers. Phantom stains appear out of nowhere, chairs get mangled, and tables lose legs. So two nights a month, Thursdays, Juan Rodriguez takes his turn cleaning up after whatever has gone on. He makes $50, which no one knows he simply puts back in the offering plate.

But neither does anyone know that he wasn’t reared doing that kind of work, his father’s mansion well-stocked with servants from a nearby slum. Before Windmark, he’d never held a broom or wet a sponge, and learning some of those skills was nearly as difficult as the language, he says. No matter, today Juan smilingly scrubs off scuff marks where junior high kids pull themselves up on pegs as if the wall were a sheer cliff. He vacuums like a pro and chisels gum off table bottoms.

One night, a grungy bunch of mumblers, dressed in coal-black choir robes as if to offset their shiny hair, led something of a concert inside. It was Christian, or so it was touted, attended by two hundred kids, maybe more, none of them old enough to drive. Anyway, he came in for the last few minutes—show stops at twelve, church rules—and started in on a mammoth task he thought might take till morning.

The raucous echoes of heavy metal finally disappeared with the titanic speakers it took to generate the noise, and the place emptied.

Then a solitary “choir boy” appeared, silver rings and posts in just about every conceivable bit of visible flesh. He’d forgotten a small box of picks. “Great place,” he said to Juan. Juan smiled.

“We’ll come back anytime,” he said, looking around, pointing at the basketball hoops. “You know,” he told Juan, “you can’t hardly tell this place is a church.” And then he left.

That comment may explain something of the real story. You see, Juan Ildefonso Rodriguez really likes Windmark. It’s been good to him. Three years ago some virus had him down. And for three weeks food was brought into him—Midwestern casseroles, of course, but food nonetheless. Windmark people care.

But there are moments on his way home from work when the heat of another business day has just about done him in. There are times when, driving home, he knows that once again he’s about to enter an apartment that is deftly decorated but totally bereft of human companionship. And there are times when, arriving, he remembers that it’s his Thursday to clean up at Windmark. There are times when the ex-Catholic tells himself that even he can hardly tell the place is a church.

What he’s begun to do, as if it were custom or ritual, is to stop at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, which is on his way to Windmark’s new facility—they call it a “worship center.” He stops at St. Joseph’s, not because he’s desirous of returning to his Roman Catholic roots, not because he’s trying to be a bit of everything. He stops—well, because of the silence. He stops because, in a frenetic world, St. Joseph’s offers peace. He stops to listen and pray.

Last Thursday, right on cue, he opened the huge wooden doors at the front of the cathedral, passed the holy water without dipping his fingers, then walked into the regal splendor of the old cathedral to the back benches, as has been his custom.

There, not twenty feet from him, hands folded in front of him, sat Pastor Byron Spaulding, who looked up and saw him. Both men were shocked, but only Pastor Spaulding looked guilty.

Neither is disenchanted with Windmark Community. Neither is looking to change the outreach. But both of them have discovered a need for silence. In the flickering light of the votive candles and the vast expanse of stony silence, neither said anything. They sat on the same bench and together they prayed.

That night, the two of them packed up tables and stacked chairs in the worship center, the two of them together, the two of them, in community.

James Calvin Schaap (jschaap@dordt.edu) is a writer and professor of English at Dordt College, Sioux Center, Iowa.