Relationships

The Mall Church

Finding the pure joy of faith in the unlikeliest of places

There is a chapel in the mall where I work: the St. Francis Sanctuary. Wedged between Dunkin Donuts and Ann Taylor Loft, just across the corridor from a cupcake kiosk. Curious as to what a mall church looks like, I stopped in the other day, right before my afternoon Starbucks run.

It turns out once you get past the Sheraton sharing the lobby, a mall church looks like any other church.

On a whim, I lit a candle for my grandmother. Gram wasn't Catholic. Far from it, she'd have said, ever the New England Protestant, born again before born again was uncool. My mother wasn’t wholly convinced and married a lapsed Catholic, so my brothers and I were raised vaguely Methodist, which meant that on most Sundays we watched televised golf and played Monopoly. Catholic or not, I felt like throwing up a flare to let Gram know she’s missed. I lit the candle, stared at the bronze St. Jude flanked by a wall of votives (are those Crate and Barrel?) and did my best to conjure her.

I miss you, Gram. Does heaven have a bandstand? I hope you're having a blast.

She didn’t answer, but I sat there in the quiet anyway. I don't know the Lord's Prayer by heart and my only practical knowledge of the rosary comes from Madonna videos, so for a moment I ad-libbed my way through a prayer: Heavenly Father, thank you for the blessings you have bestowed upon me. For my health, the roof over my head and the love in my life. Thanks for the steady job and for the safe car. Thanks for Aretha’s greatest hits and crisp fall nights and premium cable.

As I ticked through the list, it dawned on me: I have every earthly thing I need.

I asked for something anyway.

Just in case someone up there was actually listening, I requested even a tiny smidgeon of the faith my Gram had while she was alive, the kind that from the outside looked like rose-colored glasses and sounded like big laughs and joy. The kind that celebrated with sing-songy certainty the knowledge that Jesus had a mansion just over the hilltop with her name on it. Even after losing my grandfather and after her health started failing, she had a smile for every person she met. Gram didn’t fret for nothing. I think she saw the good in the world because she knew exactly where she was going when she was done with it.

There, in the mall church, I asked for a small slice of that kind of certainty.

I'd had a brush with it once before, several years ago. I was holding vigil for my (then) boyfriend in a hospital intensive care unit. He was catastrophically ill and on life support, given very little chance of survival after a heart attack. He's fine now — a medical miracle who even made the local papers — but every expert medical opinion at that moment had him on the fast train to the pearly gates. At the time I was just a bystander on the platform, and all I could do was sit on my hands and rock myself with worry.

The nights and days in the ICU passed like the kind of fever dream where everything terrible happens at once. But amidst the fraught all-nighters and blurry tear-stained days, I noticed something: When I took a moment to breathe and surrender to the uncertainty, I felt something downright wonderful welling up inside me, something akin to what I’d always imagined unconditional love might feel like. I felt safe, at peace, resolute. A calm in the storm.

As I passed the days and nights pacing the halls of the hospital, I thought of Gram a decade earlier at Gramp’s bedside in hospice. I thought of all the other Grams and Gramps in the hospital and in the history of the world who’d been in the very same shoes: loving, suffering, waiting, hoping. Gram would have said, We’re all in God’s waiting room.

The idea that I was just a bit player in a timeless story as big and as old as the universe calmed me. I felt myself just knowing everything is gonna be all right, whether this very human, very mortal man I was holding vigil for lived or not. I heard Bob Marley singing those same words from my car radio when I finally left the hospital for the first time to go home and sleep. I turned it up, rolled down my window and breathed in the fresh air. In spite of myself I felt as good as I’d ever felt. I exhaled THANK GOD out loud as I motored down Storrow Drive, and I felt like maybe he’d heard me.

In the mall church, I prayed to feel that again.

God, thank you for everything. I totally appreciate it, really. But if it you don’t mind, can you please help me feel that feeling again, now, when everything is good, and not just when the, um, shit hits the fan?

Again, no answer. I left the mall church and went back to work. I wrote a checking account brochure and listened to casting selects for a voice-over. I requested an actor who was less Judge Reinhold and more Gene Hackman. I drank a banana-almond-milk smoothie. I scrolled through Facebook. The chapel, my prayer and the candle for my Gram — all forgotten, like so many status updates.

Then something happened. On my way home from work I stopped at CVS, and as I rounded the corner for the pharmacy I saw him.

Manuel.

Even though it had been almost 5 years since we’d last met, I recognized his bald head and big smile immediately. He’d been the custodian who worked the second shift at the ICU, cleaning up blood, piss and balled-up Kleenex. I saw him every night. Sometimes there was small talk, but mostly we just did our thing. He worked and I fiddled with my iPod, feigning something I hope resembled non-panic.

One night, Manuel tapped me on the shoulder and offered me a tiny can of Coke from the employee fridge. He expressed concern that I was in the waiting room again, late at night, all alone. I took the can from him and said, "But I'm not alone. You're here." He smiled.

The exchange became a nightly ritual between Manuel and me.

You're alone.

But I'm not alone. You're here.

Days stretched to months. I saw Manuel on more nights than I didn’t, sometimes in the hospital cafeteria, sometimes in the lobby. I’d find myself looking for him, a lucky omen. Whenever we ran into each other, we had our little routine. Sometimes I'd go first, saying; "I'm here alone."

To which he'd reply, "But you're not alone, I'm here, querida."

When I ran into him in the CVS, he wasn’t alone. His wife, a beautiful, silvery haired woman introduced herself. She hugged me, saying: "You're the lady he told me about! Nobody thought your friend would live, but you were there every night."

We exchanged the usual pleasantries about weather, the Red Sox and the end of summer. Then it was time to go. As we parted, he smiled at me.

“You're here alone, querida!"

I’m not alone. You’re here.

We said goodbye without exchanging numbers or emails. Squeezed hands and walked away.

But I'll see him again, I’m certain.

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