Have you ever had an experience, that when over, you look back and wonder if it really happened? My memory is rather selective. I call it Swiss Cheese Memory, because it seems I may remember pieces of a story, while other bits fall through the holes. But there is this one magickal day, though buried beneath twenty years of mundane history, which offers me remarkable clarity when plucked out to be shared. I keep this memory planted in a tiny pocket behind my heart, and am always grateful to be able to return to that very moment… as if to prove time travel a reality.
In college, I took four semesters of American Sign Language. That’s not to say that I ever had the confidence to do anything with it, but I can still spell out the alphabet and offer you my gratitude, my love, and inform you that I have to pee without speaking a word.
My classmates were far more confident than I, not limited by a false belief of not being good enough, my old wound – now healed. So, when a total immersion opportunity in St. Augustine arose, I joined them for the weekend trip, but did not attend the course. As they headed back to the college for the deaf on Sunday for their final class, I got in my car and drove along the waterfront to find a parking spot. My thought was that I would find a tree beneath which I would read a book before meeting up with the ladies for lunch. On this particular day, the sun was shining, the breeze was beautiful, and there was not a single place to park. So, I kept driving.
Soon I found that I was no longer in familiar territory. I ended up in an old neighborhood, and thought I should probably turn around and go back the way I came, so not to be lost (in an era before GPS and cell phones). When I pulled over to get my bearings, I found myself in front of quite a sight. I pulled out my journal to write about what I saw, scribbling imagined emotions to go with the vision before me.
Surrounded by a chain link fence, was a small cinder block structure that was covered in small white crosses, some atop blue hearts. There was no roof, floor, windows or doors on this house, and with all of the crosses, I imagined a whole family having died there (morbid, I know), as it resembled many roadside memorials I’ve seen.
When I looked up from my writing, I noticed a car to my left was inching slowly past, with two women eyeing me with suspicion. As they parked in front of me, and got out of the car, I rolled down my window and they approached, each dressed to the nines, pillbox hats, and all. I told them that I was intrigued by this house and had to stop, and asked them if this was a place of pain for them. One woman replied: “Oh, no honey. This is our church!”
The next thing I knew, I had been invited to worship with two elderly black women somewhere off the beaten path of historic downtown St. Augustine.
Of course I accepted their offer, and I helped them carry items from the car into the curious structure that was sacred to them. Together, we transported a canvas bag with a few hymnals, a battery powered keyboard, and a Christian bible. As we passed through the gate to enter the property, one of my hostesses placed a halfway deflated balloon at the gate, and turned a sign around to show anyone arriving late that church was now “In Service”.
We entered the ‘sanctuary’ through the unhindered doorway that faced the road, stepping onto beautiful green grass. There were randomly placed cinder blocks and a few planks of wood that leaned against the wall. By their guidance, I helped rearrange these items to become a pew and a keyboard stand. Next, I was guided through a side-doorway, and found that there was a small wooden closet with a lock, from which was pulled a small wooden lectern. It looked more like a plant shelf that had been painted blue with a white wooden cross added as a symbol of its importance… to cradle the holy book for reading. There was a porcelain heart-shaped box that sat on the shelf, behind the cross. With this final placement, in the front of the room, facing the single pew, and to the left of the ‘choir’ section, we were ready to begin the service.
One woman took her place at the keyboard, and the other behind the lectern. I took my place with hymnal in hand, respectfully, upon the pew of block and wood. The service proceeded in the usual fashion… a bit of music, followed by words of scripture. At each phase of the service, I was informed of their traditions. “This is where we do the meet and greet.” And the three of us stood, and I introduced myself to Vondelin and Petronella, two sisters, both in their seventies. They called each other Von and Pet, for short. Their mother had taught at the local school for the deaf, and it was a fire in the nearby historic district that sent embers aloft to burn down their family church.
We returned to our assigned places to continue the service. I was invited to read something from the ‘Good Book’, and not having a Christian background, I asked Von to select a piece for me. As she took my previous place on the pew, I looked out over my congregation, and delighted in the sight. When I finished my reading and returned to my seat, Pet asked if there was a song I’d like to sing. I told her that I was not familiar with this hymnal, and the only song I could think of that might be appropriate was one performed in the church scene from the movie, Corrina, Corrina with Whoopie Goldberg.
And so, the three of us moved to the music of the keyboard and we let our little lights shine! Next, it was time to do the offering. Von pulled the heart-shaped box from the lectern shelf and informed me of this part of the service. When I told her that I had left my purse in the car and offered to run out, she handed me two dimes, and said: “No, no, honey… too much money just invites thieves.” And so I placed the two dimes she gave me into the box, and Petronella did the same, then Vondelin returned the box to the safe place beneath the bible.
Again, we all returned to our designated roles, and I listened to the completion of our service. As I sat there, in this simple structure with my feet in the grass, looking up at blue sky and lush green treetops, and then looked back at these two, lovely, authentic, open-hearted women… my heart experienced such bliss. When the service ended, I helped them return the space to the state it was in upon arrival. We locked the lectern and porcelain box in the closet outside the side door, and removed the planks of wood from the cinder blocks and leaned them against the wall. I helped them carry the keyboard and hymnals out to their car, and thanked them for sharing their Sunday Service with me.
As they drove away, I sat in my car, as I had done just an hour before… looking over at this curious structure, and wondering to myself… Did that really happen? I eventually drove away to find my friends, whose voices had been liberated over lunch before our drive back to Orlando.
At work on Monday, still affected by the wonder of it all, I shared my experience with co-workers. One who often prayed for me and my Unitarian-pagan soul, said: “See! I knew you would find your way to the one true path.” And I looked at her and said: “Oh, no! Don’t you see? As much as I was in their church… they were in mine! With words of worship and song, we had our feet upon the earth, and the sun upon our skin, the breeze danced through the trees to caress our faces, and we were all one.”
When I later shared this magickal tale with my Tribe, we all wondered if I had slipped into some kind of faery realm. But it was all confirmed when, several months later, my friends went to St. Augustine to celebrate their wedding anniversary, and they followed my vague instructions to finding my magickal church.
Not only was the structure still there, but it had new windows in the front. They attended the service with my not so faery friends, and learned that they had been raising money to refurbish the church, and were doing so, literally one window at a time. That made me a little sad… that they were working to remove nature from their sanctuary.
Several years passed before I made my way back north to St. Augustine. When I made that drive around the waterfront and into the old neighborhood, I did not find the church. I don’t know if it was torn down or rebuilt to be unrecognizable to me… or if it finally passed through the veil into the faery realm, after all. I do know that I will forever be grateful, for my curiosity to stop, and for the kindness of two sisters to invite me in.
I hope that if you ever find yourself at the doorway of a magickal threshold, that you will accept the invitation… and enter.