At a coffee shop near Rochester, New York...
The last time they had talked, apart from a brief phone conversation a few years ago, was in 1994, on the day of graduation. Oh, there were the young lions and the women of honor, I suppose, that filled most of the seats on stage that day, but there also were a handful of older folks. Several men and a few women who had been around the block, so to speak, in a spiritual sense; they saw the world in black and white; good vs. evil, and few shades of gray. No wiggle room regarding sin and salvation, Jimmy had said. What would he say today to his friend?
Perry looked at the clock over the counter, its quasi-demonic symbol pushing caffeine and marginally delectable steamed dairy products in an attempt to keep the world on edge. The door swung open for the fourth time in three minutes; the man stepped in from the warm afternoon. He hadn’t changed much, apart from the graying temples and the nod to fashion with the ‘frame-less’ glasses. He stepped up to the counter and ordered a coffee; cream and one sugar. Some things never change, Perry thought, as the man tucked his Washington Times Weekly under his arm and walked to the pickup counter to wait for his order.
“Excuse me, Ma’am?” he said a moment later, walking up to where Perry sat.
“I’m meeting a friend here shortly, and there seems to be no other seat besides the one at your table. May I sit here while I wait?”
“Sure…feel free.” Perry smiled.
“I haven’t been in town in years. Things are so different since went since I left. There was only one traffic light when I went to school.” He pointed out the window in the direction of the old building up the hill.
“Really?” Perry smiled.
“The town changed with the times, I suppose. I don’t understand how things could have gotten this bad so fast. Some folks would chalk that up to progress, perhaps. Oh…I’m sorry; my name is James…Jim Parker, I’m here for the reunion.”
She offered her hand, which he shook. She smiled and asked,
“You said you went to school here. Are you in the ministry?”
“Yes…I pastor a church outside of Buffalo…a few hundred folks stop by. I guess I must be doing something right.” Jim smiled and took a sip of his coffee. Perry lifted the cup from the table and sipped her mocha latte.
“You from town?” He smiled; almost as charming as Perry remembered; probably ratcheted it back a few notches to be prudent regarding meeting new people.
“No, well yes, now, but not originally. I hail from the Garden State.”
“Oh…Joisy.” Perry shrugged at the old joke; it never got new, as someone once quipped.
“I have a counseling practice the next town over…Stratford? I’m sure if you went here, you’re familiar with the area.”
“Yes, I actually did my student internship helping out the pastor over in Carterville. It was a nice experience.
“Oh yes…I did mine at the hospital there…chaplain intern, of all things. I wasn’t ready for that at all; it was sobering. I realized I wasn’t nearly ready to help people then.”
“Ah, I see. So you have a Christian counseling practice?” Jim smiled. Perry looked away before returning a smile and saying,
“Actually yes and no. I am a Christian, but my practice isn’t a Christian practice, per se.”
“Oh, I see…get them in and then let them hear the gospel?” Jim smiled.
“Not really. My specialty is in trauma; abuse victims mostly. They come needing healing from a broken past, and not a lecture.” Jim frowned at the response as she continued,
“And even If I felt led, which I don’t, I can’t, since I hold a license with the state; I’m not really permitted ethically to put my faith out there. If they bring up their spiritual concerns, we do talk about it, but the talks aren’t exclusive by any means.”
“Really?” He asked, arching his eyebrow slightly. “Don’t you find that compromises your faith?” He shook his head; almost like Diane Sawyer doing an interview.
“No…it actually strengthens my faith when I allow myself to be exposed to things contrary to which I believe. God is big enough to handle my doubts and keep me safe from any ‘heresy,’ I suppose. Dr. Wallace used to say, “Folks…when it comes to spiritual matters, be discerning. Chew the meat but spit out the bones.”
“You know Dr. Wallace? Ah…a fellow student? You were here when he was president of the school. I see.” Jim half-frowned and shook his head, looking up the hill once again.
“After he left, the incoming president talked about a new ‘era’, which some of us felt de-legitimized our education; like somehow folks thought he was wrong… worse than that…he wasn’t spiritual enough to suit the school.” She said; her disappointment obvious
“I went here at that time as well; it bothered me that he was so…he wasn’t quite…”
“Not cut-and-dried? I actually found him quite…refreshing.” Perry said.
“What? Yes…Say…I don’t recall meeting you back then.”
“I took a lot of counseling courses….and yes, I was in counseling at the same time….I hope that doesn’t make you uncomfortable.” Perry smiled again.
Oh, no...Listen, don’t get me wrong, I really appreciate the work you folks do, but really, when you get right down to it, should you really even be in ministry at all?”
“Perhaps you could be specific?"
“I don’t understand.” James shook his head once again.
“Well, you just implied I shouldn’t be in ministry. I suppose we should then examine your criteria? Your hermaneutics, if you will?”
“Oh…I think you know what I’m driving at.” Jim smiled.
“Perhaps. Let’s look at it again and ask the question; what exactly excludes me?” Perry smiled and Jim smiled back.
“Am I wrong because I’m a psychologist? Because I got my doctorate at one of ‘those’ schools?” Perry recalled the surprised looks she had received when she announced her intention to attend NYU.“
“Well, I help my patients arrive at solutions that suit their needs. And yes, if they need extra help, I consult or refer to my psychiatrist friends, but I believe much of what they deal with can be treated with little or no medication.”
“Well at least we agree on that…” James began, but Perry cut him off.
“Brain chemistry; deficiencies caused by genetics, trauma, illness, all sorts of reasons why the brain doesn’t work the way it should. You know what old Wallace would say.”
“I know, I know…’Any truth has to be God’s truth.’” Jim said with a disappointed frown. He went to continue, but Perry held out a hand.
“Now my faith does come into play since it’s integrated into my counseling philosophy; it guides me and hence my work, but it doesn’t dictate it.” He frowned at the answer as she continued.
“But that’s only one reason, Rev. Parker. Let’s look at the biggie, shall we? I’m a woman…Paul talked about not permitting a woman to teach? Yet on other occasions in other epistles he talks about the service that some prominent women did; not just cleaning up or passing out food, mind you, but actually teaching and even prophesying and running churches and everything. From where I sit, it makes absolutely no sense to disqualify half the human race from ministry just because of their…equipment.”
“But Eve ate the fruit of the knowledge of Good and Evil first.” Jim argued.
“She was deceived by the serpent, but Adam ate the fruit already knowing it was wrong, if you may recall. Which one offense was worse, then?” Perry smiled and sipped her latte.
Jim shrugged his shoulders and frowned once again.
“But here’s one you probably didn’t even consider, okay?” Perry sighed as she struggled with the next few words; almost like Joseph when he hid who he was from his brothers when he ruled in Egypt.
“I’m not likely to be attending any reunions any time soon, Jim.” She shook her head and blinked out a few tears.
“I’ve changed quite a bit since I graduated. I still believe in the saving grace of God through the sacrifice of Christ. My perspective about what is actually sinful has changed significantly, however. It would seem for all the world that God hates more than he loves; judging by the way folks have been treated. Yes…I know that he has made the demand for us to be holy, but just who decides what holy is? “
“But the Bible is clear…” Jim said with a sigh. He looked frustrated; almost as if he felt he was failing in some way.”
“Jeez, Jimmy…you were always so black and white. You had all the passion without the compassion, like Dr. Helen would tell you. She didn’t mean it that harshly, but you do understand what she was driving at? The gospel is all about people, bro!”
Jim’s face grew red and his eyes widened in shocked recognition at the last expression, something he had heard often from a dear friend.
“No…it can’t be.” He stared at Perry, his eyes almost peering; as if through some spiritual monocle.
“Dr. Perry Antonassio, at your service…I stopped using Joseph for obvious reasons”
“You can’t be…you…”
“You’d be surprised at what changes life brings. I’m the same Perry who used to talk with you about Star Trek and football and Tom Clancy, Jimmy. The same Perry who sat with you and prayed. The same Perry who you and Nan took under your wing in my freshman year."
“I don’t believe it.” Jim insisted even as the expression in his face said otherwise; his frown changed to a smirk in an instant.
“Now I can see now why you don’t get invited.” He motioned with his head toward the school, grinning.
“Oh, I get invited all the time; I just know it would be a very uncomfortable thing for me to attend an alumni meeting.”
“Well, I should say so…it’s not like you’d fit in.” He laughed.
“Jimmy…I don’t attend because it would be disruptive, and even if I do disagree with many of the things I was taught, I care too much for the people there to embarrass them by my presence.”
“If you believe in what you did, why hide?”
“I don’t hide, obviously,” she said as she looked briefly at herself. “I don’t attend for their sake, not mine. There’s a time and place for debate and discussion, and it’s not at a meeting of old friends. I do still keep in touch with some of our classmates.”
“Well, anonymity has its benefits.” He was almost smirking at that point.
“They know who I am, Jimmy. Bobby Davidson and I talk on Facebook all the time. Wally and Cindy McIntyre had me up to their church to speak once last spring.” Perry sighed.
“Well, what does that make them?” Jim shook his head.
“Friends, Jimmy, just friends. Listen…not everyone I talk to agrees with what I did, but none of them has rejected me. I have an ongoing discussion with Jack Chance…almost like an online chess match. He hasn’t given up his hopes to rehabilitate me, and I haven’t given up on me being who I am, but he and Patty still love me. Sure, I wish they didn’t just love me on their terms, but they’ve never treated me poorly, and they’ve never insisted that I appear as anything but who I am. Things change slowly, but they do change. It makes some folks uncomfortable at times, but it’s not a ‘fellowship’ breaker.”
“I don’t agree.” Jim frowned and Perry turned away, biting her tongue and blinking back tears. She turned and faced him again, smiling.
“That’s okay, Jimmy…you’re not required to. I understand, and it’s okay…really.”
He shook his head once again before saying finally,
“Listen…it’s been good talking to you, Perry…really. Here’s my card…write your number on the back and I’ll give you a call the next time I’m over this way, okay?” He smiled as he stood up and Perry smiled back, wondering if that phone call would ever take place. A moment later a tall man in his late fifties walked up to the table.
“Jimmy Parker, is that you?” The man literally pulled him close and hugged him.
“Danny? It is…Dan Buonafede…Good to see you, guy. It’s been a long time….man oh man.” Jim smiled, but remembered that Perry was still sitting there. He thought about saying something, but looked out the window up the hill once again before turning again to his friend.
“What you been up to these past several years?” He continued to avoid looking at Perry; it almost seemed like minutes, but only seconds had ticked by.
“I used to pastor a church in Chelsea, but most recently I got a chaplain gig over at the county jail, now that I’m retired.”
“Where’s Carmen?” Jimmy said, looking around the shop.
“Oh, gosh…I thought you knew…she passed about nine years ago. Cancer…just like her mom…God love her.” Jim looked at Danny and shook his head.
“But hey, at least you two have met.” He looked over at Perry who sat quietly, a few tears in her eyes. She sighed and smiled at Jim and then at Danny, who leaned close and kissed her.
“You remember Perry, right? Funny thing how things work out.” Jim looked blankly at Danny, who smiled and continued.
“Perry spent every single afternoon with Carmen toward the end. She was a godsend then and a real sweetheart. I can’t believe I was blessed twice in a lifetime, you know?” Jim looked back and forth between the two before staring wide-eyed at Danny, who replied with a laugh,
“Oh Jeez, Jimmy, come on…of course I know.” He faced Perry and smiled before continuing.
“And you know something? It’s funny, but I don’t think it makes a damn bit of difference to God.” He winked and smiled broadly as Jimmy stood there, speechless; likely the first time since he had graduated years ago. A second later a tall man in his late twenties walked up to them.
“Hey Dad…you still on for Sunday night?” He smiled and Danny nodded.
“Jimmy, this is my son, Peter; he’s the head chaplain out at the jail where I volunteer. Pete…this is my friend Jimmy Parker…Rev. James Parker.”
“Please to meet you finally, sir. Dad talks about you all the time…the friendship you and he had; that’s one of the things that taught me all I needed to know…and of course my Mom and Dad’s marriage,” he sighed. Jim looked a bit relieved until he heard Peter speak again.
“Oh…and Perry here has been a huge help in getting me to see the grace of God. I’m so glad Dad found her.” He leaned closer and kissed Perry on the cheek.
“Love you!” He stood up and grabbed Danny by the arm,
“Hey…gotta fly; Lisa’s got dinner going and I want to get back to help before you guys head over, okay.” He smiled and shook Jimmy’s hand.
“Nice to meet you. Hey, catch you two later.” Peter slapped Danny on the back and was out the door. Jimmy stared as Peter departed and then turned back with a confused look on his face. Danny looked at him and tilted his head and raised his eyebrows in an expression that said, “Of course he knows!”
Danny grabbed Jim’s hand and shook it again, saying, “Great to see you, Jim…Give Nan our best, okay?” He turned and nodded at Perry who stood up, offering her hand to Jim.
“Nice to see you again, Jimmy. Really.”
She had planned on kissing him on the cheek in sisterly love, but thought better of it. Jim took her hand and shook it, nodding politely even as a nearly dazed look crossed his face. The two smiled again before turning and walking toward the exit. Danny turned and waved, saying one last time,
“Maybe things have changed…maybe folks are ready.”
“Maybe in another decade or two,” Perry said to herself, laughing softly as Danny offered her his arm.
“Maybe three, sweetie,” He said as he noted the sly grin on her face.
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