By June Darling
A frequent attendee of our church, Jose, aged 68, died Tuesday. The coroner says his death was from natural causes. Jose’s body was found in his old gray van which served as his home.
Jose will be missed — not only because he filled a bench in our small, mostly conservative, aging Methodist congregation. Nor will Jose’s sweeping the church sidewalks and steps, pruning the roses, raking the leaves, and picking up garbage be the main reasons his absence will be noticed.
Jose will be missed because he irritated us by often wearing his big sombrero-like hat in church, speaking or yawning loudly, hugging people that did not want to be hugged. Sometimes Jose even came to church smelling of alcohol, reeking of cigarettes, and wearing dirty work clothes.
Then Jose would never stop telling us about all the ills in the world – the oceans and air were being polluted, the orchard workers were not being paid fairly and were made to work in unsafe conditions, the drug cartels were creating havoc. He sat in our compassion circle during fellowship hour and asked why we were so afraid of each other.
Jose wrote letters not just to congresspeople, but also to first President Obama and then President Trump though it scared him to do so. He feared he might be sent back to Mexico. Jose wrote letters to the Secretary-General of the United Nations, H.E. Antonio Guterres. Jose even wrote to Vladimir Putin.
One of our church members showed Jose how to use the library computers and printers in our little town. Jose could really turn out the letters then. But he also just picked up the phone and called pretty much all the embassies in Washington, D.C. I didn’t even know there was a place called Djibouti. I think the Saudia Arabian Embassy may have hung up on him when he tried to explain problems with the oil situation.
Yes, Jose died on Tuesday. This Sunday we couldn’t help ourselves. We grieved. It wasn’t what we normally do, but during our “joys and concerns” time, we shared a few Jose stories.
“Jose liked to tease me,“ said Claudia. When he saw me getting out of my car, he stopped raking leaves and ran to open the door. “Want a leetle wheesky?” he joked.
“Jose, you know I don’t drink,” I replied. He just laughed.
Then Claudia turned to the congregation. “I think Jose was sent to us. He tried our patience. He pushed our buttons, but as I look around, I think everyone in this congregation at one time or the other helped him with food, clothing, money, advice, transportation, medicine. And he helped us. I bet he’s up in heaven trying to get all the angels to drink a leetle wheesky.” She chuckled.
Then one of our lay leaders, Tom, spoke. “Jose offered me whiskey one Sunday morning too. I told him it was a little early in the day for me. I’m not so sure he was kidding.” Tom talked about the ways that Jose had pushed us with some of his outlandish behaviors. Tom noticed that, nevertheless, we had become more patient and compassionate. It seemed to Tom that all of us were the better for knowing Jose. He felt Jose seemed better too. “At least he kept coming back,” Tom smiled.
Our curly-haired, blonde Seventh-Day Adventist pianist, Dorene, couldn’t restrain herself. She jumped up from the piano bench, “Jose was a person of integrity and honesty. He borrowed one hundred dollars from me to get some welding equipment. He couldn’t really work in the orchard anymore because of a wrist injury and he was taking a lot of ibuprofen. I really couldn’t afford to give him the money, but Jose called me the day he got his social security money and paid me back. Then I went to see him this Monday, he had a bad stomachache. My sister and I took him some yogurt and honey. You know the other day I was reading Ezekial. I don’t think it’s right to mix politics and religion, but maybe Jose was kind of like a prophet. He was a social activist even though I didn’t always like what he said.” Dorene had more to say, but Justin interrupted.
Justin was wearing three medals he had recently won in the Special Olympics. “Jose was a good man. He joked with me.” Then Justin pumped his fist together in a way that was hard to catch the meaning and went up with others to light a candle on the altar. Justin wept as he was hugged by another church member. Later he reached into his pocket and pulled out a half-empty packet of grape to give as thanks for the hug.
“You know how Jose always sat at that round table?” Justin’s unsteady finger pointed to the fellowship hall. “We should reserve his seat. You know put a sign on it like RSVP.”
Maybe we should do just that. “Reserved for Jose. RSVP.” It could help us remember not only him and who he was, but who he nudged us into being.
Naw, folks don’t look all that much different on the outside. Still a bunch of over-sixties. Lots of balding heads or white-streaked hair. We wonder sometimes if we’re losing some of our marbles. But something IS changing.
In fact, it could just be that Jose WAS sent to us. And, lucky for us, he wasn’t turned away. Because it does seem that during that opportune time when Jose sat with us, joked, yawned, broke bread alongside us, that folks did become a tad more tolerant and a tidbit more patient. And I wouldn’t be all that surprised to hear that at least one or two hearts turned at least partly to solid gold.
Dr. June Darling lives in Cashmere, WA. She is a Radical Compassion facilitator for the Pacific Northwest Conference and writes a regular column for a regional magazine, The Good Life.