Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Greeter

Hear the story read by the author

In the town of Normal, Pennsylvania, there’s a little church at the corner of Wilson and Elm. Every month, church secretary Tammy Billings finds a member or two from the congregation to serve as greeter, welcoming people as they arrive for the service and handing them the bulletin. Though the job isn’t hard, Tammy found many people were hesitant to commit to arriving early every Sunday for a whole month. So she generally has to recruit from the same small pool of volunteers.

One month, however, Tammy was having difficulty finding a regular who was available. Then at coffee hour she noticed one of the newer members of the church, a woman named Missy Moore, munching on a cookie by herself. Missy was a heavy set woman (she preferred to say she was plump) of forty-four (she preferred to say she was celebrating the fifth anniversary of her thirty-ninth birthday).

Tammy approached holding her clipboard behind her back. People quickly learned that someone approaching them at church with a clipboard was probably looking for a volunteer for something. “Good morning, Missy,” she said.

“Hi!” Missy exclaimed. “You look like you could use a hug!” And Missy threw her arms around Tammy.

“Thank you,” Tammy said. “Listen, I’m in charge of finding greeters for church. Would you be interested?”

“Why sure!” Missy said.

Tammy was relieved. Maybe Missy would join her pool of regulars. Normally Tammy paired first timers with someone more experienced, but Missy was so resolutely optimistic and cheerful that Tammy figured she’d be able to handle the job on her own.

When Tammy arrived at the sanctuary on Missy’s first Sunday as greeter, she was a little surprised to find Missy was hugging each person as they entered. Tammy was well aware that Missy was a hugger, but she thought even Missy would tire of hugging every single person who came to church. Tammy underestimated Missy’s pep.

Though Tammy wasn’t the only one who was startled by Missy’s embrace, most people discovered they were in fact cheered up by the hugs and entered the service smiling. One person who was not cheered up, however, was Henrietta Miggins. Henrietta found Missy’s behavior unbecoming. “No wonder she never found a man,” Henrietta thought as she stiffly endured Missy’s warm squeeze.

When Henrietta strode toward Tammy during coffee hour, Tammy had little doubt about what was coming. “You have to tell that woman to stop groping people!” Henrietta sniffed.

If it had been anyone else complaining Tammy probably would have agreed and gently asked Missy to refrain from hugging while she was acting as official greeter. But Henrietta complained with such regularity that Tammy resented any criticism from her before it was even offered. “It’s just Missy’s style,” Tammy said.

“Well it’s disgraceful. Is this a church or some kind of foreign massage parlor?”

“If you don’t like the way she does it, you could always volunteer to be greeter next month,” Tammy shot back.

“Fine. I will,” Henrietta said.

That was not the response Tammy expected. She immediately regretted making the offer.

That regret only grew when she arrived at church the first Sunday of Henrietta’s month.

There was a short line waiting to get in. Tammy walked up just in time to hear Henrietta greet Jennifer O’Donnell, the pastor’s wife, who was wearing slacks. “I would have thought the pastor would want his wife to dress a little more feminine,” Henrietta told her.

“I’m old enough to dress myself,” Jennifer said as she snatched the bulletin from Henrietta.

Next in line were Jill Boyer and her two daughters, Mary and Susie, ages four and two respectively. Henrietta handed Jill a bulletin and asked, “where’s your husband today, Mrs. Boyer?”

“He’s not feeling well,” Jill said.

“Let me guess. Some kind of sporting event on TV?” Henrietta asked. Jill was too flustered to respond. She simply hustled her daughters inside.

Tammy was appalled but she figured yelling at Henrietta would only make it worse. So she forced herself to smile as she entered and said, “You’re doing a great job, Henrietta, but it might be nice if you complimented people when they came in.”

“You let Missy greet people with her hugs. This is my style.” Henrietta said.

“Yes, but you’re supposed to make people feel welcome. Not guilty.”

“Fine. I’ll do it your way,” Henrietta sniffed.

The next week Tammy loitered near the entrance to the sanctuary for a while so she could eavesdrop on Henrietta’s greetings.

Henrietta welcomed Florence Barker with a big smile and said, “It’s so good to see you here on time for a change!”

As Florence gave Henrietta the stink eye and strode inside, Henrietta glanced over at Tammy with a self-satisfied smirk. Heat rose in Tammy’s cheeks. She had tried to be nice, but now Henrietta was just goading her.

Before Tammy could intervene, though, the entire Boyer family arrived. Henrietta made a big point of looking Kevin Boyer up and down. He was wearing jeans and a polo shirt. “How nice that you feel comfortable enough to dress so casually for church. In my day that would have been considered disrespectful,” Henrietta told him.

Little Mary sidled close to her father and asked, “is she really a witch, Daddy?” Jill’s cheeks reddened and she shushed Mary. But Kevin nodded in the affirmative.

Henrietta’s jaw went tight but she kept smiling. She leaned down close and pinched Mary’s cheek. “Well, you aren’t shy at all, are you? It’s so wonderful how your parents’ generation encourages self expression instead of discipline in their children. We were always taught to honor our elders but I guess that kind of thing is old fashioned these days.”

“Your breath smells like fish,” Mary informed her.

That actually stunned Henrietta speechless. She stood up quickly and covered her mouth. Jill also covered her mouth, but failed to stifle a giggle. “Come on, girls,” Kevin said and led the family inside.

Henrietta pulled herself together and turned to greet the next person in line.

It was Missy Moore.

“You look like you could use a hug,” Missy said, and threw her arms around Henrietta, practically lifting her from the ground.

For the rest of the month Henrietta restricted her greetings to “welcome” and “good morning.”

(c) 2008 Douglas J. Eboch

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Video Game Ministry

by Douglas J. Eboch

Hear the story read by the author

In the town of Normal, Pennsylvania, there’s a little church at the corner of Wilson and Elm. Like many churches, they have difficulty attracting teenagers. Often only three or four teens show up for youth group, usually all girls. And one of those girls is Pastor Henry O’Donnell’s own fifteen year-old daughter Katie who pretty much has to go or risk having her father take a more active interest in her other social activities.

One recent Sunday afternoon, Henry climbed the stairs to the converted attic room above the kitchen where the youth group meets. No wonder they aren’t showing up, he thought as he surveyed the worn couch, stained bean bag chairs and dark, sticker covered walls. Who’d want to come to this shabby place?

At the next trustees meeting the pastor asked for some money to fix up the youth group room. Normally the trustees presumed every spending request was a devious attempt to defraud God Himself, but the one thing that nearly everyone could agree on was the need to bring in more young people. So with surprisingly little debate they approved a few hundred dollars for the project and Henry went shopping.

That much money didn’t go far but Henry did manage to buy a couch, coffee table and several new padded chairs all in dark wood and leather. He also bought a gallon of bright green paint and spent a Saturday painting the stickered walls.

The next day after church Pastor O’Donnell found a reason to putter just below the youth group room as Katie and a couple friends headed up with their snacks from coffee hour. He hadn’t told any of them what he’d done and he wanted to see their reaction and bask in their inevitable gratitude.

“What the hell,” Henry heard Katie say. She stuck her head out of the room and spotted him. “What did you do, Dad?”

“Do you like it?” Henry asked.

“Where are the bean bag chairs?” Katie responded.

“I threw those filthy things out. Do you like the color I chose for the walls? Pretty cheery, huh?” Katie just sighed and rolled her eyes. There seemed to be surprisingly little gratitude for Henry to bask in.

Disappointed at his failure to awe the church teenagers with interior decorating, Henry decided it might be a good idea to ask Katie for her help. “What do you think would attract more kids your age to youth group? I’m particularly interested in boys.”

“So am I,” Katie said.

“Very funny. Besides girls, what do boys your age like?”

“Video games,” Katie said.

Henry sighed. “We can’t buy video games for the church.”

“Why not?” Katie asked.

Henry realized he didn’t actually have a good reason. In fact, the more he thought about it, the more it made sense. A premium video game system and a nice big TV might just entice a few boys to give church another look.

So he went back to trustees and pitched his idea. It didn’t go over nearly as well as his previous plan. The trustees wanted to know how the new furniture had been received. “They love it,” Henry lied. “But it’s going to take more than a new couch to get teenagers to come to church.” A few of the trustees seemed to recall Henry predicting something quite different at their last meeting.

Henrietta Miggins was especially put off by the new proposal. “I know all about those video games,” she said. Henry highly doubted that Henrietta knew any more about video games than she did about water buffalo digestion. But he knew better than to openly question her expertise on any matter.

“They’re full of sex and violence,” Henrietta continued. “In my day children went to church because we’d get a wuppin’ if we didn’t. If you ask me it’s these parents we have to do something about. Do you see the way they let their children dress these days? Why, if I wore trousers that exposed my underpants my mother would have had me scrubbing windows until midnight…”

Henry zoned out. He’d heard most of this before. When Henrietta finally wound down, he assured her that not all video games were violent and sexual. But to assuage her fears he would personally test all of them before allowing the kids to play.

The plan was approved and, not wanting to repeat his mistake with the paint color, Henry took Katie with him to the store to help pick games that would be popular – but not arouse Henrietta’s ire.

And Henry kept his promise to test the games out first. He was never a big video game player even in his own youth. When he sat down on the new youth group couch and tried to turn on the new game system he began to feel a bit overwhelmed. But after consulting the directions several times he finally got the Goofy Go Cart game started.

And then ten seconds later it ended when he drove his Goofy Go Cart off the digital track. The game was more difficult than the cartoon on the box would suggest.

Clearly that was not enough time to really determine if the game was appropriate for children. He hit the restart button. Thirty minutes later he had played sixty very short games. This wasn’t going well at all.

That night over dinner he asked Katie if she would come to the church on Saturday afternoon and help him test the games. “It should only take an hour or so,” he said. Katie rolled her eyes but agreed. She was secretly kind of anxious to try them out herself.

That Saturday Katie and her father plopped down on the couch. With Katie’s help, Henry found that he quickly got the hang of Goofy Go Carts. In fact, it was actually quite fun. And on only the fourteenth try he actually beat Katie. He looked at his watch. They had been playing two and a half hours.

“Geez, I’ve still got to write my sermon,” Henry said. “We’ll have to zip through the rest of the games.” Katie inserted the next one, Lords of the Hoppennoodle Crystals. That game went along pretty well until Katie and her father had to face the red troll that guarded the caves of Gondorola. They had the troll on the ropes when Pastor O’Donnell’s cell phone rang.

“Should I pause?” Katie asked.

“Let it go to voicemail. We’ve almost got it,” Henry said as he furiously mashed the buttons. But they didn’t almost have it. At the last second the troll defeated them yet again. Henry was about to restart the level when Katie reminded him about the voicemail.

It was Henry’s wife, Jennifer. Henry was startled to discover it was almost 9:00 and they were quite late for dinner. Time had really flown. They saved the game and rushed home. Henry had completely failed to write his sermon. He decided to come in early the next morning to finish it when he wouldn’t be disturbed.

The next morning Henry had made pretty good progress by seven o’clock and decided to take a break. “One game of Lords of the Hoppennoodle Crystals,” he thought. “I bet I can beat that troll this time.”

Henry did beat the troll, though it took more than one try. As he was dancing around the youth group room celebrating, Katie and church secretary Tammy Billings burst through the door. “Told you,” Katie said to Tammy.

“Pastor, church was supposed to start five minutes ago!” Tammy yelled.

He had been playing the game for hours without realizing it. He dropped the controller and followed Tammy down to the Sanctuary. Unfortunately, he didn’t think to pick up the notes for his half written sermon on the way and had to improvise the whole thing live. Fortunately the topic was temptation. He suddenly had a very personal example to talk about.

Later that day Tammy used some of the church’s petty cash to make one last improvement to the youth group room. She bought a new lock for the door. She kept one key and gave one to Katie. She did not, however, give one to Henry.

The following Sunday brought two new teenage boys to the youth group. Katie had told them about the game system and they were excited to try it out. They played for about an hour before heading off to a Little League game but Katie thought they would be back again. As Katie locked up the attic room, she saw her father leaving his office.

Katie hadn’t really enjoyed playing the game with the boys as much as she thought she would. They always insisted on being in charge of the missions. She actually kind of missed playing with her Dad.

“I saw that you beat the troll,” she called down to him.


“So should we try to infiltrate the infinity tower now?”

Henry thought about it. He had a whole week to write his next sermon. Why not?

(c) 2008