Donna had been trying to get my attention for a few moments: tap-tap-tapping on my shoulder, pausing for 30 seconds, then tap-tap-tapping again. When I finally turned away from my conversation with Jeanine on the other side and faced Donna, she said with some urgency, “We’re going to pray for Gary.”
There were at least fifty of us in the church hall. Conversation was lively. Several booming male voices rose above the others: men whose conversations rallied back and forth across the large space. Pastor John stood with me for a moment before making his decision about which of the large round tables would be best. As we approached one, ten friendly faces looked up and I was well into a conversation even before sitting down. At our table, conversations were more intimate; we all leaned in and listened closely. And when the call to pray came, it took no time for everyone to be holding hands and listening closely,
“Dear God, we’re praying for Gary…we don’t know where he is…” Laurie was leading the prayer. Rumor had it that Laurie had been ordained as a minister in the Methodist church, though this wasn’t her job now. She paused for a moment before adding, with a bit of a quaver in her voice, “we hope he’s ok…” There was a brief silence and then everyone in the circle squeezed hands and let go. Some “amens” were said.
Conversation continued in the line going up to get food, though to be clear, not everyone was talkative. “What kind of meat is it?” I asked, pointing to the patties. “Beef” one of the kitchen workers responded quickly, “Yeah, it’s not pork,” another added. Beef patties with onions, bowtie pasta salad and a mixture of corn and kidney beans. For desert: apple pie with a dairy topping, cheese cake, and danish.
Donna had brought her own lunch, turkey on whole wheat. She held it up for others at the table to see. “I got it at Cub foods for $2.00” she said, “they put it on a special table for same day sale”. Those within earshot nodded approvingly. “Which Cub?” someone asked. “At the Har Mar Mall,” Donna responded. “That’s what I thought,” another chimed in, giving a knowing nod, “not the one in Midway”.
“So, what does he look like?” I asked, keeping my eyes peeled for Gary. “Not very tall,” Donna said, “white hair…” she paused, “…well that’s not saying much…” she laughed and several others at the table joined in. “He has a beard; kinda looks like Santa Claus–except now, he doesn’t have a beard during the summer,”” Donna continued. Laurie added, smiling, “You’ll know when you see him…he’s kind of in charge here.” Others at the table nodded.
I realized that I hadn’t seen Pastor John for a while when I looked up and saw that he was at the front of the hall again. “Hello everyone,” he said and paused as the hall gradually became quiet. “I’ve just been on the phone with Gary’s family,” there was a catch in John’s voice when he continued, “Gary died yesterday. He was out biking in Stillwater and got hit by a truck.” There were quiet gasps, I heard someone say, “Oh no…” Someone else said, “What was he doing in Stillwater?” At our table, Donna said, “He was trying to lose weight…he had high blood pressure.” People had finished eating by this time and at our table at least there was a kind of tenderness and even intimacy that had come from this sudden experience of shared loss. We helped each other pile empty plates onto a tray, squeezing crumpled napkins and other trash along the sides. Soft “thank you’s” were exchanged.
I found John in the church sanctuary where he was talking with his wife Andrea on the phone. He looked up when I opened the door, put the phone down and shook his head. Gary Bernard Michel was dead at the age of 67. He had been out on a long bike ride and was in Pine Springs near Stillwater when he was struck by a pick-up truck. “I’m so sorry, John,” I said. John was caught in the moment, he rested the cell phone in his lap, “He was such a character,” he began, “very private…wouldn’t even tell me his last name at first.” Then remembering his wife, John lifted the cell phone to his cheek, “I’ll call you back later, Andrea,” he said.
I came in, gave John a long hug, and felt, what could have been a sob, but ended up being more of a hiccup, pass through his body. “He was a medic in the army during the Vietnam war,” John said. “Volunteered to go to Vietnam, but ended up at an evacuation hospital in Germany. Worked as a nurse when he got out.” John paused, “His friend was a medic in Vietnam and came back just shattered…” John gestured with one arm toward the church hall below us, “He’d been doing this for a while. Nobody asked him to…he was here every Thursday.”
Pastor John and I talked for a while about the people who came for the community meal on Thursdays. There were some who were members of the church—but mostly not. Gary had become a member—but hadn’t started out as one. The people who came were all kinds of Christians: Baptists, Methodists, Catholics, and Lutherans. And there were Muslims who came. Usually the same people each week—sometimes there were newcomers. “It’s not just about the food,” Pastor John said, “it’s a community.”
This day, the community had lost one of its own. There was some confusion when at the end of the meal, shopping bags filled with food for the week were distributed. “This was Gary’s job,” Donna explained. Gary would take the list of everyone who had signed in for the meal and read off the names one by one, making sure that everyone went home with a bag of food. The confusion came when a different voice began reading the names. No one listened. Names had to be repeated, shouted through the hall, before people began coming forward to get their bags.
Today something big had changed. I could tell, though I had never been to the community meal before and had never met Gary. Donna could tell, Laurie could tell. Even before the news of Gary’s death was shared, the two of them–and everyone at our table–was ready with a prayer.