While fog wept outside the door, the air hung heavy with regret inside the old church building. Of the dozen people gathered around the table, only one was male. However, not even the virtue of gender could make Thomas Stone a leader. Thomas breathed a sigh of relief when Cora Wilson called the meeting to order. As church clerk, Cora was the last, and highest, vestige of authority left. The pastor had departed in disgrace, leaving a decimated congregation in his wake.
Cora carefully explained the situation. She didn’t miss a miserable detail—which was why she was the church clerk. By the time she was done, it was painfully clear that the options were few.
“So, what do we do now?”
Matilda Manheim was 84. Faded blue eyes shifted slowly from one face to another, challenge written in every glance and punctuated by her terse words. She was a charter member of the congregation, had survived two world wars, the Great Depression, been widowed and left destitute at the age of 40, and still raised three fine sons on her own. Tillie wouldn’t give up without a fight—and she still had plenty of fight left in her despite her age.
“Maybe the denomination could help us out?”
This come from Sadie Waters, a quiet, tremulous voice that caused Matilda to crank up her hearing aid so that she could catch every word. Other voices answered.
“Fat help they’ve been. Wasn’t it them that insisted we pay the pastor a year of severance? Darn near broke the bank.”
“Yah, we got to show Christian love, which was more’n he showed us with all his high jinks.”
Cora could tell that the conversation was headed downhill—and quickly. There was still a lot of healing needing to be done. The wounds were still seeping.
“No use us crying over spilt milk. What’s done is done. We have to move on; to think about our future.”
“They could help us find a new pastor,” insisted Sadie.
Jane Stephens sighed, still smarting from the severance issue and her husband’s resignation some months previously from his position as treasurer and church member.
“Who’s going to come to a church with a dozen members left, most of them women, no money, and a rotten reputation in the community?”
Another nail smashed into place in the church’s coffin. In such a small town, news traveled fast. Months of conflict between pastor and people hadn’t stayed a secret for long, especially as members abandoned the battle to find peace in other places.
“Nothin’ wrong with women,” muttered Matilda.
“Nothing at all, Tillie. It’s just that none of us are wage earners, not even Thomas. Pensioners can’t carry the church.”
With great tact, Cora left out mentioning single mothers like Sadie, and women like Jane, who were financially dependent on their husbands.
Now there were lots of voices, all with problems, not a single one with solutions.
“Most of our best workers are gone. We need people, even one person would be an encouragement.”
“Preferably one who doesn’t know all the gory details.”
“Now you are asking for a miracle.”
This time it was Tillie who brought the group back to order.
“Are we saying that we close the doors of the church?” she demanded. “If one person can make the difference, God’ll deliver him. Did we lose our faith along with our pastor?”
The silence provided the answer to the question Tillie had left twisting in the cold wind of despair.
Suddenly the outer door swung open and a blast of moist air swept in, pushing an older man ahead of it. The stranger was decently dressed, but looking a little disheveled.
“I’m sorry to disturb you. My car broke down at the end of the lane. The fog is so thick that I feared getting lost while I went for help. I’m looking for 57 Birch Street.”
He laughed as he removed his hat.
“Imagine not being able to find your own house, but I just moved here. When I saw the light from the cross on your steeple I knew that God hadn’t abandoned this old retired preacher.”
The people seated around the table looked at each other in awe. For the first time, Thomas Stone spoke up:
“Welcome, Pastor. We’re what’s left of Bethlehem* Church.”
He turned towards Tillie.
“It looks to me like God might have just provided us with our baker’s dozen.**”
*Bethlehem means house of bread.
** A baker’s dozen is 13.
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