Editor's Note: The following is an original short story written and submitted to Eagan Patch by local reader Steve McKinley. McKinley has lived in Eagan since 1994, and currently serves part-time on the internship staff at Luther Seminary. He was a Lutheran parish pastor for 38 years, serving congregations in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Minnesota.
"An Ordinary Christmas Pageant"
The New York Jets were playing the New England Patriots in a battle for playoff positioning, and to David Maxwell that sounded like the perfect accompaniment to his traditional Sunday afternoon nap, but it was not to be and he knew it. This was the second Sunday in December, the traditional date for the annual Grace Community Church Sunday School Christmas Pageant, a command appearance for the pastor if there ever was one.
After the three morning services that day he hustled home to join the rest of the family for a bowl of tomato soup and a tuna salad sandwich, then allowed himself a few minutes to sit down with the Sunday paper and the football game. When drowsiness set in David knew he was in the danger zone, so he pushed himself out of the chair, leaving Robbie to watch the game with one eye and explore wander the iPad world with the other.
“Have fun, Dad,” his son teased as David left the room, a remark echoed by Gail and Heather, who were going Christmas shopping. Heather, the younger of their two children, had graduated out of Sunday School the previous year. Now Gail made it clear that she had seen enough Christmas pageants to last until grandchildren came along, and that while attendance at the Christmas pageant was definitely part of the pastor’s job description, no such imperative existed for the pastor’s wife, even though some of the old sticks-in-the-mud assumed that it was in the small print somewhere. She kissed David on the cheek and sent him out the door with a one word command: “Smile.”
Grace Community Church had started in the city of Riverton, but in the late 1960’s the congregation, troubled by the decline of the neighborhood around the church, voted to relocate to an undeveloped area past the edge of town. For many years the church sat by itself surrounded by farm fields. Then in the late 90’s new home construction took over the neighborhood and all of a sudden there was an influx of families with children. As a result, the Christmas pageant was no small undertaking, insofar as Sunday School was one of the congregation’s main cash crops. There were so many children enrolled that Grace Church held Sunday School in two sessions, one at 9 a.m. and the other at 10:30. When registration for the next year opened on June 1, parents were lined up outside the church office like geeks waiting for the latest Apple product, hoping for a place in the coveted 9 a.m. hour. Invariably enough were turned away to give the 10:30 session a solid base, and newcomers would swell it to capacity.
This meant, of course, two different Christmas pageants, requiring careful calibration of the church facilities and a precise schedule. The 9 a.m. Sunday School would present their pageant at 2 p.m. with the 10:30 a.m. Sunday School scheduled for a 4 p.m. curtain. Just to add to the merriment and the confusion, each pageant would be followed by a pot-luck, the first beginning at 3 p.m and the second at 5 p.m. David knew that in the course of the afternoon he would see a few hangers-on from the congregation and community without blood relatives in either pageant, but with a great fondness for church potlucks. Richard Dellbrugge and his lovely wife Wanda did not have children in Sunday School and never had, but they usually came to one or both of the potlucks. Gail, on the other hand, felt about potlucks the way rats are said to feel about sinking ships, another reason that she preferred Christmas shopping on this day.
There were already cars in the lot when David arrived back at church. He parked on the street a block away from the church, as he always did on Sundays. There had been some grumbling when he arrived at Grace and immediately removed the “staff parking” signs in the lot and replaced them with “visitor parking” signs, instructing his colleagues to park on the street during worship and congregational events, but eventually they adjusted. Inside the building he was greeted by predictable chaos. Like a commanding general he made rounds through the building. In the sanctuary David greeted the grandparents who were already claiming the front pews and setting up their cameras, even though the performance was still nearly an hour away. He calmed some of the sixth graders who would read the Christmas story and were practicing by making raspberries into the microphone and tried to cheer up others who were content to stand and look sullen, soldiers drafted then sent to the front lines. In the classrooms he quieted boys in bathrobes who were jousting with each other using their cardboard shepherds’ crooks, only occasionally uniting as a single tribe to assault the girls in white choir robes meant to make them look angelic. In the hall David met a crying three-year-old dressed as a sheep. Apparently the youngster had gotten separated from the flock and was now wandering hopelessly through the building. David turned her over to a frustrated teacher’s aide doing sheep dog duty. This was how Grace Church always looked before the pageant.
David reached the far end of the building and arrived at the kitchen where Beverly Sanborn, the commandant of the church kitchen committee, was looking stern. A woman as wide as she was tall, Beverly had ruled supreme over the kitchen for as long as anyone could remember. Wise people knew better than to trifle with her. Christmas pageant Sunday gave Beverly heartburn, for today she was not working with her usual trusted kitchen army, but with volunteer parents from the Sunday School. It was bad enough she had to put up with the women, but in the last few years men, fathers, had started volunteering too, and Beverly knew better than to trust a man in the kitchen. She was also unhappy because David had given Harold Carlson, the church custodian, the afternoon off to attend his grandchildren’s Christmas pageant in another church. David reassured her that everything would be just fine and that everyone appreciated the work she did all year. In one corner of the kitchen Rosemary Dowling was putting her brownies on a serving plate, and when she offered one to David, he could not resist.
The pastor made his way back to the area just outside the sanctuary and greeted people as they arrived. The building hummed with conversation and activity and Sunday School children practicing their songs. The ushers were bringing in more chairs for the latecomers. Judy Haugen rushed up with the report that six-year-old Sammy Kroeger, who was supposed to sing a solo on the second verse of “Away in the Manger”, seemed to have come down with the stomach flu and had thrown up in the classroom, and she did not know who else could sing his part if he couldn’t go on. Mel Keller told him that people were now parking on the streets around the church, and some probably wouldn’t be able to make it inside if the pageant started on time. Then Beverly Sanborn was there at his elbow.
“Pastor, pastor” she said in an “I-knew-something-terrible-would-happen” voice. “Water is backing up in the kitchen sink and coming up through the drain tile in the floor.”
About that time a concerned father reported that when you flushed the toilets water came up rather than going down, and that the recent deposit made in the men’s room by little Sammy Kroeger was now floating around the floor. A gaggle of giggly sixth grade girls reported that the same thing was true in the ladies room. Instantly David knew what was wrong and kicked himself for giving Harold the afternoon off.
Grace Church was one of the first buildings in its neighborhood, built before Riverton had extended the sewers. As a result, the church had its own septic system. When the sewers had come through a few years before David arrived, the board had considered it frivolously expensive to hook up to the city when the septic system was working perfectly well. The problem was that there were lots of healthy trees around the church building, and their roots had a tendency to grow through the line headed toward the septic tank, at which time everything plugged up until the Super Rooter man could do his reaming magic.
Of course it would work out this way. The line would block up on Pageant Sunday, with hundreds of people passing through Grace Church, most of them eating, many of them with a fervent desire to use the facilities. Sunday, when Super Rooter fees went through the roof. But there was no doubt about what had to be done. David went for the telephone.
Fortunately Super Rooter was in the emergency business. When you needed them, you needed them now, not a week from next Thursday. Super Rooter promised to dispatch a technician immediately. David’s next call was to Harry Broberg, chairperson of the property committee. Harry, a quiet rock of dependability, promised to leave the football game and come to the church post haste.
It was almost time for the pageant to start. On the way into the sanctuary he saw Terry Simonson in an aisle seat near the back and knelt down for a quick conversation. Terry had “motorcycle gang” written all over him. He was tall and broad and balding, save for a scraggly pony tail. Terry sported a couple of mysterious scars on his perpetually-angry looking face, souvenirs of his younger years when he was, in fact, part of a motorcycle gang. The younger people in the congregation admired his tattoos. Terry didn’t grow up a church-going person, but his wife’s family had belonged to Grace for many years and after the wedding, he became a member. It wasn’t always easy for him. Around his wife and children Terry was a softy, but to the rest of the world he could seem belligerent. He and David had a good relationship based on the fact that now and then Terry would call David when he had the urge to do violence to someone, and David would calm him down. Terry was the kind of guy who loved to be called on in a pinch, and this was a pinch. David told him what the problem was and suggested it would be best if people refrained from using the rest rooms until the crisis was resolved.
“All over it, chief,” Terry said and stormed out of the sanctuary.
David went to his assigned place in the front of the church, welcomed the audience, and lifted the opening prayer. In addition to the audible prayers he included a silent petition that the line to the septic tank get cleaned out quickly, though he was not convinced that the Lord involved himself much in matters of sewage.
While the organ played “O Come All Ye Faithful” the children marched in and took their places in the front of the church. The youngest classes, the ones dressed as sheep, led off, singing a little song about faithful animals. As always a few of them panicked at the sight of all those faces looking up at them and burst into tears until they were rescued by embarrassed parents. Then the older classes made their gradual entry, a motley band of shepherds and angels, followed by five kings and five boys dressed as camels. At his first Christmas pageant at Grace Church David had raised a question about why there were five kings. The simple answer was that for some reason Grace had costumes for five kings, so, since St. Matthew never does stipulate that there were three kings, the powers that be in the Sunday School decided that there could be five as easily as three.
At last the fifth graders assigned to the starring roles came to center stage. David had concluded that it wasn’t worth the fight to point out that the kings should be the last people to come in. Mary and Joseph got that privilege, sitting over the makeshift manger crafted by Harry Broberg, looking down at a Cabbage Patch doll. The sixth graders reading the narrative had done well to this point, but Robby Bogner broke down with a case of the giggles when he had to read the word “virgin.” The tableau completed, it was time for the big closing number, “Away in the Manger.” Embracing the classic “the show must go on” attitude, Sammy Kroeger did an estimable job on his solo. And then it was over. Children were to be reunited with their parents and grandparents who were oohing and ahing over the dramatic power of the whole thing and taking pictures of their offspring in costume.
David slipped out the back door of the sanctuary. Passing the first set of restrooms he saw that duct tape now criss-crossed the doors, and a crudely printed sign said “Hold It.” When he arrived in the kitchen Harry Broberg was mopping the floor and Beverly Sanborn and a crew of mothers, grateful for their stylish knee high boots, were sloshing across the floor, passing the hot dishes through the window into the Fellowship Hall. The Super Rooter man was coming out of the boiler room. “Just about got it,” he said. “Give me another five minutes.” Terry Simonson was standing between the doors to the other two restrooms, his arms crossed in front of his chest. If someone tried to enter, Terry inquired of them whether this was a necessary visit, or merely a desirable visit, and encouraged them to show a little self-restraint. When Terry suggested this, most people agreed.
3 p.m. to 4 p.m. was the pivotal hour of the whole afternoon. The early pageant was over and the families were headed to the potluck, while the children and families for the later pageant were arriving. In anticipation of a traffic crush, David had arranged for the use of the middle school parking lot six blocks away. Bill Widerberg was ferrying people from the parking lot in the church bus. Afraid that one bus would not be enough to handle all the passengers, David had called Father O’Leary at St. Gertrude’s the previous Monday and asked if Grace might be able to rent one of the busses from their parochial school on Sunday afternoon.
“Rent?” Father O’Leary laughed. “Come on, this is me. I know you’re not rolling in money over there, and besides I’ll win it off you on the golf course next summer. Call it a loan. Just don’t tell the Pope.”
Sure enough, Father O’Leary himself was driving the second bus. Some of the members of Grace Church were a little startled to see a man in clerical garb and a Santa hat at the wheel, afraid that rather than taking them to their own church he would shanghai them over to St. Gertrude’s and baptize them Catholic at gunpoint, but the priest’s easy laugh and gracious manner won them over.
Inside Grace Church David blessed the food, then took the ceremonial first plate expected of him, but just enough to qualify as having eaten. He sat down at a table, inhaled what was on his plate, put the plate in the dirty dish container, and walked through the crowd, praising the children on their good work and complimenting the parents for their wonderful offspring. In the classrooms the costumes discarded by one group of children were being donned by the next shift. When David stuck his head into the boiler room, the Super Rooter man was putting away his tools. “All clear, pastor,” he reported. Back out into the hall David told Terry he could abandon his guard post in front of the restrooms, and asked that he get the duct tape off the doors of the other set. In the kitchen Harry mopped water into the floor drain. Some dishes, their food at least partially consumed, were passed back into the kitchen, while the fresh hot dishes for the next potluck were delivered. David figured that the people who said they didn’t like organized religion would feel very much at home at Grace Church this afternoon, because they were anything but organized.
“Pastor, come quick. We need you.” Evelyn Child was an earnest, gentle single woman of no certain age who taught the 5th grade class at the 10:30 a.m. hour. “Linda and Sarah are at it again.”
Linda Hanson was superintendent of the 9 a.m. Sunday School, while Sarah Killian held the same post at 10:30. Linda believed that Sarah and her 10:30 a.m. teachers always messed up their neat classrooms, while Sarah and the 10:30 crew accused Linda and the 9:00 a.m. teachers of hoarding the best supplies. Both domineering and determined long time Sunday School teachers, they lived in perpetual tension with each other, so it was not surprising that Pageant Sunday brought them into open warfare.
Evelyn led David to the 5th grade classroom where the two were standing staring at each other, each of them holding one arm of the Cabbage Patch doll which had played the part of Jesus at the first pageant.
“What’s the trouble, ladies?” David asked.
“She wants to take Jesus home, but we’re supposed to have Jesus for ourselves,” Sarah answered.
“It’s my daughter’s doll. I’m taking it home. I told you weeks ago you should get your own Jesus,” countered Linda. “Tell her to let go of Jesus, pastor.”
The fifth graders stood by watching. For them it was wonderful entertainment to watch two grown-ups fighting, and the fact that these were two Christian ladies, denizens of the Sunday School, made it all the better. They would have stories to tell about this for years, and when some of them got alienated from the church, they would hark back to this day as the moment that convinced them the whole thing was poppycock. Evelyn, however, did not consider this the sort of thing she wanted her students watching.
David’s pastoral patience was wearing thin.
“Linda, your youngest daughter is eighteen. Does she play with the Cabbage Patch doll much?”
“Well, no, I guess not.”
“Are you going to the potluck?”
“Yes, I was going to.”
“Well, you go to the potluck and leave the doll here. Sarah, when the pageant is over I want you to take the doll to Linda at the potluck right away. Can we do this?”
Both women grudgingly agreed.
David grinned at the 5th graders. “There you go, kids. Peace on earth, good will to all.”
He looped around to the church entry and, sure enough, the sanctuary was almost filled and another bus load was bursting through the doors. By now some of the crowd from the first pageant was ready to leave, so other folks were shoving out the doors. Just to get away from it all, David went to the front of the church and sat in his seat behind the pulpit.
His parents had never wanted him to go into the ministry, preferring that he use his intelligence as a lawyer or something like that, and there were moments when he wondered if they might have been right. The chaos of an afternoon like this tried his sense of call. There must be a better way to earn a living. Maybe it wasn’t too late. He had seen an advertisement in the newspaper the previous day from an auto dealer, looking for sales people. He didn’t know much about cars, but maybe he could do that.
He was stirred back to alertness by the strains of “O Come All Ye Faithful,” and the second pageant began. Except for the fact that it was different children, it was virtually the same as the first, virtually the same as every Christmas pageant he had lived through ever since he entered the ministry, virtually the same as the Christmas pageants taking place in thousands of churches that very afternoon. He looked out and there were all these faces looking up, parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles, bursting with pride in their children, and maybe, just maybe, hearing the story in a new and different way, hearing it with the innocence and the open ears of their children. And he saw the children, the little ones especially, who took all of this so seriously and believed it without question. It was a magical day for them, and when they were fully grown, they would tell their own children about how wonderful it was to be in the Grace Church Christmas pageant. In the back of the church, there was his pal Father O’Leary, grinning and giving him a big thumbs up.
After the second pageant was over and Sarah had delivered the baby Jesus to Linda, David said the prayer over the second potluck, then just walked around for a while, talking to parents and children. The toilets were working just fine now. The kitchen drains were emptying. All of the crises had been averted. He waited until everyone else had gone through the line, then picked up a plate and filled it with some of the hot dish dregs left over. Over at a table in the corner he saw Terry Simonson, still hanging around, sitting with his wife and their three children, one sheep, one angel and one camel, and two fourth grade classmates of Terry’s son, whose parents had dropped them off and had not yet come back for them. Until the parents got there, Terry had adopted them as part of his family. It seemed like a good place to sit down, and David did.
“Thanks for your help this afternoon”, Terry.
The big man gave two big sinus clearing sniffs, then stammered, stopped, began again. “No, thank you, pastor. Thanks for trusting me enough to ask. Means a lot for you to trust me, ask for my help. Makes me feel like I’ve got a place here.” He straightened and grinned. “Right now I gotta see to it these two birds don’t give you any trouble.” He traded fist punches with the boys. David could see by the look in his eyes that the forgetful parents of the two youngsters would have Terry Simonson to deal with when they got there. The pastoral ministry was not a TV thriller, but now and then it was helpful to have someone who played the part of bad cop as well as Terry did naturally.
About the time David finished off his lemon square Harold Carlson, the church custodian, arrived and apologized for not being there to help. With him there to watch over things David felt free to leave, and he was quite ready to go home. There were only a few people left in the building now. As David walked toward the door, he saw Jesus, or at least the Cabbage Patch doll who had played the part of Jesus, the one who started the uncivil war between Sarah and Linda, lying forgotten on a shelf over a coat rack.
When David got home that night Robbie and Heather were finishing their homework, Gail was wrapping gifts, and the Christmas music of John Denver and the Muppets filled the house.
“How was the pageant, dear?” Gail smiled.
“Just fine. Just fine.”