"Where have you been?" a woman's accusing voice greeted me on the other end of the line. "I've been trying to get you all week!" It was Emmagene, a neighbor down the street who usually calls when there is some kind of trouble. For reasons I do not understand I suddenly felt apologetic for going out of town without letting her know. She interrupted my explanation: "Darrell is getting married today. Can you and Peggy come? We want you to be there." It was not the way I had planned to spend my Saturday but it would be difficult to say no to this persistent mother. Eighteen-year-old Darrell, along with his three other brothers, had grown up in the neighborhood and his marriage, though a sudden surprise, was certainly one of those value-choices we would want to reinforce. "Of course we'll be there," I responded. "Four o'clock, you say?" The wedding was in the community room of our Atlanta Youth Academy, space that Emmagene had somehow secured on short notice. Peggy and I pulled into the parking lot right at four, resigned to likelihood that the event would be delayed by a host of last minute loose ends and straggling relatives. As we walked toward the entrance where some of the men were catching a last minute smoke, Peggy and I shot knowing side-glances at each other - which immediately cued our need for an attitude check. It was important for us to be here, we reminded ourselves. Inside, we saw immediately that we were conspicuously overdressed. The bride and groom were the only other attendees wearing "dress-up" clothes. Everyone else wore regular Saturday shorts, jeans and t-shirts. A serious-faced woman in the rear of the room swatted kids away from a table spread with chips and dip and plastic bottles of soft drink. There was no place to put gifts or cards, we noticed. It was obvious that this was not going to be much of a celebration.
Then we noticed Terry. What was he doing here? Why would they invite their middle-aged, gay, next-door neighbor with whom they had had unending conflicts? The boys were always doing something to upset persnickety Terry and his partner - parking over their property line, playing window-rattling music all hours of the day and night, screeching their tires, leaving junk and trash strewn all over the yard. How many times Terry had complained to the neighborhood association about the disturbing annoyances this family inflicted on him I could not recount. Now here he was, helping to situate a delightful little wedding cake in just the right spot on a table adorned with a large spray of roses.
"From your rose bushes?" I inquired, trying to conceal my shock. Peggy pointed to several other bouquets of fresh cut flowers that were placed throughout the room. "Did you bring those, too?" she asked admiringly. Terry smiled, reddening a bit from the recognition. Terry's bouquets - the only decorations in the room - were stunningly beautiful, the result of obvious care and creativity.
Emmagene shooed the minglers toward rows of chairs that had been set up for the occasion and shushed the crowd to a low mumble. The ceremony was about to begin. A minister acquaintance stepped to the front, positioned the groom on her left, motioned to the bride at the back of the room to get ready to walk down the aisle, then signaled for the music to begin. The clear tones of "Here Comes the Bride" filled the room as the musician stroked the keys of a well-worn piano. It was Terry at the keys! Someone had once told me that he could play but I had never heard him before. He was great! He played the classic wedding anthems with power and feeling, just as if he were performing in a concert hall before a black-tie audience. He was making this event a real celebration!
I am not ashamed to cry at weddings. Sometimes the beauty of young love or the purity of this special sacrament moves something down deep in my spirit, releasing a swell of emotions. But I did not cry at Darrell's wedding. I was touched, but not in the way weddings typically affect me. It was seeing the graciousness of an eccentric neighbor, his thoughtful, selfless offerings of beauty to an otherwise drab setting, his willingness to forget past offenses and enter genuinely into the celebration of another - this is what touched me. And it did not leave me alone when we returned home. It has not left me yet.
Darrell's wedding has disturbed my balance. Guarding my schedule, protecting myself from too many involvements, keeping my equilibrium while navigating on a sea of need - these are necessary survival tactics that one must master who has adopted urban ministry as a lifestyle. I teach this to our new staff and to young ministers in cities throughout the nation. I discover, however, that such self-protection can condition an automatic defense mechanism against any intrusion into a well-planned day. It can cause me to be short with people, to avoid conversations that might entangle me or burn up too much of my time. It can even trigger a negative attitude toward the wedding celebration of a neighbor. But He who has begun a good work within us can be trusted to complete that work, even though His correctives may come in unexpected and unlikely ways. His voice, through Terry, speaks on in my spirit.