It’s a cool Thursday evening, and I’m standing in the parking lot outside St. Bob the Informal’s Presbymethertarian Church. Inside, my wife Rhumba hosts a meeting of her knitting group.
St. Bob’s is well off the street. Most of the campus lays beyond the view of passing motorists; and the parking lot is barely lit at night. I like to hover outside as the ladies come and go. Just in case.
I also put out the tea and cookies. I’m versatile.
Churches aren’t really public spaces, but they stand empty most of the time and as long as your dog isn’t digging in the geraniums or you’re not obviously casing the joint, we don’t say much. A few Thursdays ago I had to gently persuade a homeless man to move his camp away from the front door so that we could enter. No sir, the building’s not deserted, it just looks that way sometimes. St. Bob’s is a small church getting smaller, as old members die and new ones fail to materialize.
But tonight, as usual, all is well. A while ago, an old man wandered onto the campus and disappeared behind the parish hall. But I’m not worried. He had a newspaper under one arm, and there’s a little concrete patio back there with a chair or two. It catches light and warmth from the setting sun. Not a bad place for an old man with cold bones to sit for a bit, and read.
The old man reappears from behind the parish hall and walks toward to the rear of the campus. He sees me and says, a little defensively, “I like to come back here and check how the construction’s going.”
“And we’re very happy for you to do that,” I answer.
“The construction” fills the whole back half of the campus. Where once stretched a derelict field of weeds, now stands a substantial building, or what will soon be one. The roof’s not on yet, but the framing stands tall. And it’s big; two stories high, easily 100 yards wide. They’ll have it buttoned up in a few weeks, and ready for business by spring.
“What’s it gonna be?” the old man asked. His face was all vertical creases, like the shell of a walnut with human features superimposed.
“Subsidized senior citizen housing,” I told him. He nodded. “Forty-six units. You could apply, maybe, if you qualify.”
Just briefly: I live in a small, beautiful city that’s become too desirable. Investors from near and far swoop in to scoop up income properties. Enrollment at the local university is up by 1000 students, and there’s little room for new housing.
Wealthy folks from Silicon Valley are buying second homes near the beach — which then stand empty 29 days a month. We have a housing crisis, yet whole neighborhoods show but one or two lights after dark.
And the rents are crushing, and if you lose your rental you may never get another one. Meanwhile, where do regular folks live? And how can the town live, if regular folks cannot?
So St. Bob’s teamed up with a nonprofit housing agency and, after years of bureaucratic wrangling, put together the senior housing project. St. Bob’s gets a small chunk of change for a 99 year lease, and the nonprofit handles the rest. Upwards of 50 seniors will live there. In what was once a messy wasteland, there’ll be lights and life and activity at all hours.
And St. Bob’s campus will no longer be dark and forbidding at night. To me that’s better than the money. The money is welcome, but simply makes St. Bob’s a shrinking congregation with a nice bank balance. Young families are the lifeblood of a church; and most of ours moved elsewhere years ago.
“The rent’s not all that cheap,” I tell the old man. “Just cheap by local standards. You know, you’ve got investors buying all the apartments and doubling the rents And then everybody has to move out. Investors don’t care, it’s all about the money to those guys.”
The old man nods. “You know what’s going to happen to them,” he told me. “They’re going to go to the court house, the big house, and the big man there, he won’t mess around with them, he won’t take any crap from them, because you don’t mess around with the big man, no you don’t.
“And the big man, at the big house, the court house, he’ll bring them down low. Real low. Lower than the street. Lower than the ground. Low, low, Low. And all their properties will be given to others. You don’t mess with the big man, at the big house. He’s tough, he’ll take them all down. Low, lower than the ground, and….”
And he repeats himself, and repeats himself again, and suddenly he is chanting to the air. Over and over: the big man, the court house, the big house, the mighty brought down low, low, low.
Later I’d tell all this to my Rhumba, who knows three or four hundred thousand things about religion. And she laughed and said, “You met Jeremiah!”
Jeremiah, the Old Testament prophet who couldn’t keep his mouth shut, even though he asked his God to shut it for him. And God wouldn’t. Jeremiah, who for decades looks the people of Judea in the face and condemned them for their sins. He condemned them for turning to idols, to sacrificing their children to Baal, for ignoring the wisdom of a demanding God for the selfish good times of a pagan god.
God would send the Babylonians to bring the Judeans low, Jeremiah preached endlessly. He frightened the people. He made uncertain the soldiers. He enraged the priests. The powerful put him in the stocks. They threw him down a well. They sent the establishment prophets to discredit him. They imprisoned him. But he couldn’t stop preaching. He wanted to, but his God wouldn’t let him.
Now, when random strangers like the old man rant at me on the street, I never interrupt. Listening isn’t what they want to do. I just move on. But I stood and listened to the old man carry on and on, about the Big Man and the court house and the mighty brought low. I liked his message. I agreed with it.
But he does go on, that old man; and the darkness comes on, and I haven’t brought my coat. It seems to me, by his body language and the way he shuffles his feet, that the old man himself wants to leave. But he can’t. He can’t stop talking.
So finally I say, “Look, it’s getting a little cold, so I’d better go back inside.”
And he ends his rant at once. “Don’t get cold, don’t get cold,” he says, shaking his head. “Nossir, don’t get cold.” He turns and walked back to the street, paper under his arm.
“You neither. Stay warm!”
Now, old Jeremiah’s dire predictions landed him in jail. But they came true. The Babylonians did come. They destroyed the kingdom of Judea forever and sent its people, or many of them, into exile — where they mended their ways and made a new, righteous form of Judaism that lasts to this day. And birthed other great religions.
And lo, the Babylonians were very kind to Jeremiah. You tend to approve of people who’ve told others that God sent you. They set Jeremiah up in a comfortable home, and let him be. His preaching done, Jeremiah set to writing down his teachings.
It seems to me this year that Jeremiahs are popping up everywhere. Things are wrong, they say. The old truths are now lies, they say. And unlike in old Judea, people are beginning to listen.
A Jeremiah ran for president. He did not win, but he carries on, as do his followers: some still walk behind him, while other find new paths. Right here, right now, plans are under way to breach the walls of old Washington: once the center of justice, now a place of false prophets where lies are called “spin,” and evil gets a free pass.
And the battle may be long, but the Jeremiahs won’t stop. They can’t. And someday, down at the court house, the big house, the Big Man will deal with the mighty. You don’t mess with the Big Man, because he’ll bring you down low, lower, lower than the ground. And your property will be given to others.
I don’t know who the Big Man is. Justice, perhaps. Perhaps, just us. Perhaps we are our own Babylonians, waiting for Jeremiah to summon us. But whatever happens, in the end, I hope that my old Jeremiah gets a nice one-bedroom apartment out of it. With a sit-down shower.