I don't think anyone knew how old the widow Thibodeaux was. Maybe no one ever asked, and I'm not sure she would have remembered. But both the length of her dark grey braids, and the depth of the wrinkles that almost swallowed her eyes, commanded wordless respect.
She was Choctaw. I guess she must have married a Cajun fellow once upon a time, but whoever he was, he had been gone so long that we didn't know anything about him. It was hard to imagine her as a young, beautiful bride with big dreams for her life and visions of a future filled with children. But once in a while you could almost see a remnant of that dream in her quiet gaze.
When the widow Thibodeaux climbed the three uneven steps up to the tiny church on Wednesday nights, with one hand on a railing that was almost as weathered as she was, and the other on her old cane, you couldn't help but hold your breath til she got up safely. No one ever helped her - not because we didn't care, but because we did. We honored her determination to climb those steps on her own.
Sister Thibodeaux was an active member of the congregation. Her trembling voice would suddenly get rich and deep when she described a vision of the divine, or offered words of testament or prayer. The services were often a couple hours long, filled with music and eager participation by members who seemed to get happier, the longer the service lasted. There was no printed program, like there was in the Methodist church I grew up in, above the Mason-Dixon line. No, these folks would never have understood how anyone could print a schedule ahead of time - how could you anticipate what God might decide to do? With them, it was all improv of the spirit. When a parishioner felt that she had received a divine message, she would stand up and deliver it, sort of like the Quakers did. But unlike the Quaker meetings, in this church there was also lots of joyful jumping, dancing, shouting and rousing music.
You knew folks were there because of the passion in their hearts and souls. I never got that feeling in the Methodist church. As a kid, it had never even occurred to me that religion had anything to do with emotions. Church was about following a script, standing, sitting, or reciting, as the script directed. On a good day, the minister offered a few jokes in his sermon and you didn't leave feeling guilty. But if he went over his allotted time even slightly, church would let out a minute or two late and he'd get rebuked on the receiving line. The members made it sound like a joke, but even a kid could tell that underneath they were dead serious. His congregation was intent on getting to their Sunday dinner on time, by God! And you couldn't blame them for wanting to leave, those pews were mighty uncomfortable.
I always thought the Methodists were aptly named, since they were all about the method. Stay on schedule. Put your money in the plate. Stand up and sit down when instructed. Recite the doxology. Don't get me wrong, there were lots of intriguing concepts for a young baby boomer's mind to ruminate over while sitting quietly under the stained glass windows. And I did plenty o' ruminatin' since my family never missed a Sunday. I wondered about where Jesus went during those unrecorded years. You sure could live a whole lifetime in those missing years, maybe he did. And I wondered what he and the disciples meant when they were discussing what a baby born blind might have done before birth. And how John the Baptist had lived before as Elijah. And I wondered why Mary Magdalene didn't get more kudos for being the first one to recognize Jesus after he rose, and why Peter was so jealous of her. There was lots of puzzling stuff to think about that no one really explained, even if you asked.
Still, Methodists have traditionally been noted for some good qualities such as intelligence, tolerance and charity. And great music. I still love to hear a lot of those old hymns, though even as a 9-year-old I knew that "Onward, Christian Solders Marching as to War" was all wrong. But one quality that the Methodists, at least the ones up north, have never been known for, is gushing emotion.
And while the heart and soul of the little charismatic church in the Louisiana countryside was a delight, and the music could lift your spirit into bliss and joy, the members did tend to be a little slim on the intellectual aspects. Once I heard a minister there say that he had only read one book in his life, and that was the Bible. And he said he only read the King James Version of the Bible, because that was the one that Jay-zus used. I wondered if he thought Jay-zus used the red letter version because - like the Methodists - he needed a script. But I didn't ask. I wanted to respect that minister's good heart and passion, and his struggle to find joy and meaning in life even though he'd been hindered by poor educational options. Some folks have heart, some have smarts, some have luck, but very few have all the horses going in the same direction at once. I figured he was doing the very best he could, just like most of us.
And back then I was still trying out samples from a smorgasbord of spirituality, choosing the tidbits for my plate that looked tasty, and I was perfectly content to leave the rest for people who preferred other flavors.
In Louisiana during the 1970s, plenty of folks like the widow Thibodeaux lived on less than $100 per month. That didn't pay for luxuries, but it pretty much paid for housing, utilities, food, and enough gas to get to church and back in a rusty ol' truck. Lots of those little country houses had old newspapers and scraps of lumber covering holes in the floors to keep the cold and the critters out. Indoor plumbing and reliable heat were still appreciated as one of life's recent upgrades, lots of those elderly Louisianans hadn't grown up with fancy extras like that.
One cold, December night Sister Thibodeaux raised herself up unsteadily in church, and her voice was thin as she asked for special prayer. The heating unit in her home, fixed several times by church members, had broken again. This time, when the repairman came to check it, he told her it had to be replaced.
The wrinkles around her eyes swallowed up a few small tears. The cost of replacing the heater was monumental, much more than her monthly Social Security check. A neighbor had loaned her a tiny, temporary heater, but she was cold and worried. She didn't know what she was going to do, so she did the only thing she knew, she "gave it to God." The poor little congregation prayed with her. And, as was their custom, they all praised the Lord in advance for whatever the answer would be.
My husband and I weren't rich back then. We became much more well-to-do later. But at that time we had plenty of expenses, with our new baby and his three tween and young teen kids. Still, we'd managed to save up a couple hundred dollars for Christmas. But after hearing the widow Thibodeaux's story, we realized there really wasn't anything we needed. We had plenty of food, we were warm, we had each other. Things the widow Thibodeaux didn't have.
So we crafted a plan. We talked to the kids. We put a little of the money aside for our own holiday, and put the rest of the cash in an envelope. Enough to cover the widow Thibodeaux's expenses for a month or two, and pay for her new heater. And late one afternoon, we piled the kids in the car, and drove out to the widow's house, in a little community of ramshackle cottages perched on a dusty road. We found hers, and parked around the corner, behind some bushes. When we craned our necks, we could just barely see her front door.