Whenever he went out, Rev. Meersinkwore a beret-that was the problem.Oh, it wasn't the beret really, Marlenethought. The beret was merely asymbol of Meersink's inability to outgrowthe sixties: he always had to be different.
When it came to music, for example, Meersink wasn't content with the books in the pews. He kept running off new hymns and handing them out with the bulletin, giving the impression that he'd spent hours treasure-hunting through a hundred flashy books from Texas, looking for some new ditty that would bring on a revival single-handedly.
For months, Meersink's congregation began each service by standing and singing "I am the church1You are the churchn-the whole congregation like giggling preschoolers, pointing their little fingers at each other. Six weeks later that one was gone, and in its place was the tree song, complete with body motions~asa nctuary of people doing deep-knee bends.
"The problem with all those new songs," Marlene told her husband Gilly, "is that you can't sing them. Nobody knows them. They're not really singable, anyway-not like 'Do Lord,' or even the Psalms, for that matter." She unwrapped some sausage from Saran Wrap. "Cut up some of this when you're done with the cheese," she said.
"I still can't sing the Psalms right," Gilly said.
Gilly had been a Methodist, and not a very good one, when they'd married. But Marlene still couldn't believe he meant what he said about the Psalms. She smiled as she watched him cutting the cheddar and Swiss cheeses into triangles with curly edges.
That morning in church Meersink had really misjudged the mood. He'd had them sing the old spiritual "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands." The song itself would have been all right, Marlene remarked to Gilly later, but Meersink wanted clapping. He tried to get that group to clap-a bunch of hard-headed Dutch folk, plus a few strays like Gilly, none of them with a dime's worth of rhythm. It simply didn't work.
"Did you watch Meersink?" Marlene said. "I thought I'd die. He was slapping his hands together from way out heren-she drew her hands wide apart-" as if he were banging cymbals. He looked just plain ridiculous."
Gilly stuck a piece of Swiss in his mouth. "You can't make noodles out of a Rusk bun," he said. Gilly smiled as he recalled what Meersink had said from the pulpit that morning. "A song like this makes you want to clap, so go ahead and let it happen." Gilly was willing 50 bet that no one had just let anything happen in Grace Church worship services during the past sixty years. Meersink could just as easily have told old Ben Smits to throw away his walker and tap dance back to the Pioneer Home. Grace Church wasn't going to boogie that Sunday morning, black music or no black music.
During the singing Marlene had barely touched her hands. She had worn the same wary look one sees on the face of a political hostage, rolling her eyes at her friend Judy when she saw her wince. Some of the old folks didn't even pretend to clap. In fact, the only person Marlene had seen clapping was Sandra Jeanette Van Ommering. Sandra didn't just clap-she went nearly berserk. But that's just what Marlene would have expected of Sandra Jeanette Van Ommering. Rumor had it that she was constantly at Meersink's door, crying about this or that.
"I'm not against that kind of music," Marlene told Gilly. "I'm no racist or anything, but to each his own."
"I always loved Aretha Franklin," Gilly said. He had most of the cheese sliced, but he was having trouble getting it lined up straight on the plate. "I like soul music," he said, "but I can't sing it."
"Did you see the Laotians?" she said. "They've got just about as much swing as we do-and that isn't a whole lot."
"But they like it," Gilly said. "I could tell that they like it. They had these big smi1es-"Hep picked up a triangle of cheddar and set it over his mouth like a grin.
"They don't know any better," Marlene said, wondering to herself exactly what she meant.
Gilly picked up the plate and, like some Paris chef, held it in front of him. "You know," he said, "there's one thing I still don't understand about you people. How is it you can be so dead set against working on Sunday, yet put on this elaborate spread for after-church coffee?"
Marlene shrugged her shoulders. "It's not really work, is it?" she said. "I think this is fun."
Gilly stripped the skin from the sausage and smiled.
* * *
That evening Marlene and Gilly sat in the pew right behind the Laotian family, the Baccams. The family had been in church-standing, praying, and even singing when they could-every single week since they'd arrived in the area ten months earlier.
The Baccams had four kids, two boys and two girls. Their youngest daughter sat backwards in the pew, her dark eyes peeking at Marlene and Gilly, her nose pressed like a button between the ends of her fingers that clutched the pew edge. Gilly reached up during collection and tried to poke at her fingers, but shejerked them away. You could see the size of her smile in her eyes.
Meersink told them to turn in their hymnals to number 124, a rendition of Psalm 68. The organ droned through the old plodding rhythms, and the congregation sang along carefully. Marlene liked the music-even if it wasn't very exciting. It reminded her of her great grandmother and of the old leather-bound Dutch Psalter, an heirloom. If you held the book in both hands and let it fall open, you'd be looking right at the dirtied page of Psalm 68. Marlene was certain it must have been Great- Grandma Haarsma's favorite.
Marlene tried to sing the old familiar words loudly, but it wasn't easy. Even this almost solidly Dutch congregation didn't sing this psalm well. Gilly looked like he was reading a foreign language.
God shall arise and by his might
put all his enemies to flight
with shame and consternation.
His haters, haughty though they be,
shall at his august presence flee
in utter desolation. . . .
But as Marlene looked around, it wasn't Gilly's bewilderment that caught her attention-it was the Baccams'. There they stood, struggling with that monster of a language, English-a family who not a year ago had been in a refugee camp in Thailand. And yet, even though they understood little or nothing of the psalm, they were trying to singjust as hard as she was.
He shall consume, afar and near,
all those that evil cherish.
What struck Marlene most pointedly was that Mr. Baccam stood there with the hymnal up in front of his eyes as if just getting through the words was the most important thing he could do that night. His face reflected an eagerness unlike hers-an eagerness to belong rather than simply to preserve. He studied the words; she merely sang through an old melody, already foreign.
Mr. Baccam's willingness to try, Marlene realized, was really his own humility, a gift of his desire to become, to grow. The way he worked at singing made her own refusal to clap that morning-in her own eyes now-more awkward than she had even imagined it.
Psalm 68 was the tune Marlene took home from the evening service, the melody of an old Dutch Psalm, her great-grandmother's favorite, sung by a new and humble Laotian Christian.
"To each his own," she thought, was one of those sayings everybody knows. But it certainly wasn't one of the teachings of Christ's gospel.