Sunday, December 27, 2009

There Was Room at the Inn (Fairhope, Mobile & Grand Bay)

Mark, Benjamin, Tiffany & me on Christmas Eve in Fairhope

Noah, me, Karen & Chris on Christmas Day in Mobile

Stephanie, Matthew, Mark and me in West Mobile on Saturday night

Me & the Providence Presbyterian Church in West Mobile on Sunday morning

Larry & Debbie and me in Grand Bay on Sunday night

When I was planning where I might be able to stay over Christmas I sent emails to three Presbyterian churches in the Mobile area. The subject line was "Seeking room at the inn" in a not so subtle reference to the connection between hospitality and the birth story of Jesus. I am happy to report that two of those churches - Central Presbyterian and Providence Presby - replied with an enthusiastic yes and their pastors offered to have me stay with them personally. The third pastor, who I'd asked about finding a host for Christmas eve, could not be of help but did send a gracious note. After all the churches I have contacted only to get no response, even that was very much appreciated.

Luckily, someone else filled that gap on Christmas Eve on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay. Mark Moseley and his wife Tiffany heard about my journey through a co-worker and reached out to me by email to say I would be very welcome to spend Christmas eve with them and their son Benjamin. Mark & Tiffany did a lot more than give me a place to stay. Christmas Eve day was ridiculously stormy in the southern Alabama region and sitting in Bay Minette I wanted no part of a 18 mile walk in wind and rain. Given that it was the holiday season I decided to give myself a gift. Well, rather to accept the gift that Mark was willing to give - a pickup in Bay Minette and a ride down to their place in Fairhope.

In that way I stayed dry and happy and in the Christmas spirit. Tiffany is a labor & delivery nurse and had to work that night, but Mark, Benjamin and I lounged around and did our best to do justice to the holiday. For me that meant watching my first ever Star Trek movie. Verdict? Not too shabby. Or, as Larry David would say, pretty ... pretty ... PRETTY good.

On Saturday morning I walked around Fairhope, marveling at what a charming place it is, and then Mark gave me another automotive assist through the pedestrian-prohibited tunnel that leads into Mobile. He dropped me off downtown and I walked along Government Street the rest of the way to the home of Chris & Karen Bullock.

In both Fairhope and Mobile some streets are lined by huge live oaks which often form canopies across the street. Click on my slideshow from last week on the top right and see how they dominate the landscape along Government Street. Chris & Karen live just off of Government in a house they only moved into a few weeks ago. They are joint pastors at Central Presbyterian Church, having started their call there this past summer. For having moved in so recently, their house was remarkably put together. It is an old house with beautiful high ceilings, in a way reminiscent of the manse where I grew up in West Hebron. Chris cooked an absolutely wonderful supper of low country shrimp and grits with a spinach salad and an almond pound cake for dessert. We ate at 3pm and I wasn't hungry for the rest of the night. That is how we rolled in downtown Mobile. One of the highlights of our conversation was discovering that even before meeting them, we were connected by only one degree of separation. Both of us know a preacher near Cape Town, South Africa named Spiwo. I stayed with Spiwo back in 1996 and they stayed with him more recently, proving once again the world can be a very small place. Especially when riding the Presbyterian hospitality train.

The next stop on that train was at Mark & Stephanie Renn's house in West Mobile. Mark had been the first to respond to my email and not only invited me to stay with them but asked if I would be open to speaking at church the next morning. Mark does a great job of bringing fresh and innovative ideas into worship, so he decided that he would preach on hospitality and then bring me up as a surprise guest after playing a clip about me that was featured on the news. With a mini sermon looming the next day I thought I'd better carbo load. Any excuse for gluttony. So Mark cooked dinner and I feasted on his shrimp and pasta and homemade bread along with him, Stephanie, their son Matthew and their friends Tom and Laura.

Come to think of it, that made three straight nights of meals made by husbands, the last two of those being Presbyterian pastors. My dad must have not gotten the cooking memo. I think the only time my Dad ever cooked for me and my brother he managed to scrape together a gourmet dish of scrambled eggs and toast. And then only barely. The meals Mark, Chris and Mark made were all delectable. If I entered Christmas down only five or six pounds for the trip, I'm afraid to step on a scale now. I fear I might finish in New Orleans weighing more than when I departed West Hebron.

Having dinner with the Renns on Saturday night I mentioned that I still didn't have a host for Grand Bay the next evening. It is amazing how nonchalant I have become about finding places to stay at this point in my trip. I have a quiet assurance that something will fall into place, even up until the last 24 hours when nothing has yet turned up. Sure enough, Mark got on the phone and a few minutes later told me a family in his congregation had agreed to host. Done and done. Back to eating, socializing and watching the University of Michigan indoctrination DVD Mark got his son Matthew for Christmas. Da da ... da da da da ... da da da da ... da da da da. Every time I hummed this fight song for Matthew at the dinner table he would crack a huge smile. Obviously his dad's plan is working.

On Sunday Mark's plan for the worship service went off without a hitch. He preached, then played my news clip and then announced I was there and would talk about my experience. The congregation seemed genuinely surprised. Even before I spoke everyone had treated me with a welcome befitting a king. A kinder, more enthusiastic congregation would be tough to find. So after the service most of us gathered up front and took a group picture. It marks a moment in time where I came the closest to following in my dad's professional footsteps. Even then, my 8 minute infomercial was only as close to a true sermon as my dad has come to cooking a full meal. Which is to say, not very.

After church I walked out to the Simmons' house in Grand Bay. They gave me their address at church and it only took me about four hours to get there. At this point in my trip, that is a mere stroll. They took great care of me, we had dinner with another couple from the church and their dog competed fiercely for the title of most talkative canine of my trip.

I know I usually wrap up these posts in a neat little thematic knot, but this one will just have to stand as is - a brief accounting of what happened in Mobile in Christmas 2009. This was a Christmas like none I have ever had or will probably ever have again. I was 1,500 miles from home, a bit physically and emotionally exhausted, but cared for by my 92nd, 93rd, 94th and 95th host families of the trip. That number is staggering. I seem to have tapped into a vein of human compassion that is inexhaustible. What isn't inexhaustible is my energy. It's fading, but people keep lifting me up, one day at a time.