By David M. Baumann
Anyone who has been a pastor for any length of time has seen God acting in the lives of people in ways that amaze and delight. I certainly have my share of such stories from nearly half a century of ordained ministry. Here is one. At the outset, I’ll note that I’d planned to change the woman’s name, but she insisted, “There’s no need to change names. I would be thrilled to have you tell my story.”
I first met her in the spring of 1975, when I had been a priest for only about a year. She was 25 and I was 26. I received a telephone call, asking if I would preside at the funeral of a troubled young woman who had committed suicide. The family had a history at the church where I was serving but had not been active for a long time. It was the first time in my ministry I had to deal with a suicide. I put a ton of effort into devising a fitting sermon.
A few days after the funeral, Sherry, the bereaved older sister, came to see me and said that as a result of my sermon, she wanted to renew her life in Christ, but wondered: did she have to change her job?
“What do you do?” I asked.
“I’m an exotic dancer,” she said.
Well, I knew she didn’t have a high school education and was the sole support for her widowed mother, the two of them sharing a small house. So, I advised her not to quit cold but to look for a better job while bearing witness where she was. She and her mother began to attend church regularly and show an ever-deepening faith.
A month or so later, Sherry called me on a Saturday afternoon to say that she was having a very hard time at work. Her boss was relentlessly making fun of her and shaming her for her new faith. I thanked her for calling me and said I’d pray for her. She expressed relief and said she had to get back to work.
As soon as I put the phone down, God slapped me on the back of the head and said, “That wasn’t enough!”
“What do you want me to do?” I asked, puzzled.
“I want you to go to her.”
“To a topless bar??!”
“Are you sure?”
“Do I have to wear my clericals?”
With hands clammy and trembling, I drove 20 miles to the bar where Sherry worked. I parked in front, took a deep breath, and entered the place. It was dark, with steamy music playing. About half a dozen sleazy-looking fellows were slouched in chairs watching a young woman gyrate on a stage with a couple of other young women serving tables; one of them was Sherry. I didn’t know what to do next, but suddenly Sherry saw me, and shouted, “Whoa! Father David!”
I tried to drop into my shirt like a tortoise pulling his head in, but couldn’t quite disappear. Sherry’s eyes were glowing and her face was rapturous. She guided me over to a chair, and called another waitress over. “This is the priest from my church!” she exulted in a loud voice. Then she asked me to pray for them. They both knelt down at my table and I prayed over them. They were thrilled. They knew that they were with a man who was treating them like persons, like someone’s daughters, and not like showpieces for the voyeuristic.
The sleazy men had taken no notice other than to glance my way for a moment and then return their attention to the stage, but the boss, wherever he was, probably behind curtains or something, had to have seen everything. He ordered Sherry to go onto stage and dance in front of me. She did, and as she twirled, she made a theatrical sign of the cross, not obvious but evident to me. It seemed to me that I was seeing Jesus on the cross. When she was finished dancing, a man in the audience handed her a hundred-dollar bill. “Oooh, thank you!” she exclaimed; “I will give this to my church!”
A couple of weeks later she brought “Jimmy,” a regular at the bar, to church, where he asked for baptism. He owned a bookstore, and some weeks later we had a celebratory blessing of his store with a couple of dozen church members present.
Six months after her conversion, Sherry had passed through two other jobs, each one a “step up,” and finally had become a clerk at a toy shop.
Years passed, and Sherry endured many tragedies, but she remained faithful to Christ and active in the church. She followed me when I became rector at a local church, and at my invitation, she joined the altar guild. She married “Bob,” a welder, himself a new convert who had recently finished serving a six-year prison term. The two of them would often show up for the 8:00 a.m. Sunday Eucharist dressed in black leather, having ridden in on a motorcycle with high handlebars. With other members of the congregation, mostly retired and conservatively dressed, they took turns as ushers, greeting people and passing out bulletins.
Bob is now serving a life term in prison for a murder he did not commit. I have documented the proof after an investigation was done by a forensic psychologist whose work was funded by a grant from my bishop. The investigator even uncovered the person who actually committed the murder, and verified every aspect of Bob’s defense. No one in the legal system or the media has shown any interest in the story, and Bob remains in prison where he has been for 30 years. He and I correspond regularly; he is one of the most saintly men I have ever known. He is a radiantly joyful evangelist in the prison and has changed many lives. He has forgiven the corrupt prosecutor who manipulated the legal system to gain a conviction to advance his career — behavior for which he was well known.
For many years Sherry lived in a small mountain community about 70 miles from me. I visited her twice a year, almost always taking a few church members with me. Sometimes I brought children, other times college students, sometimes entire families, a different group every time I went. We would gather in the living room of her cottage, and I would celebrate the Eucharist on her dining table; then we would all go to lunch. A few years ago, she moved to another state for a better cost of living.
Now Sherry is alone, having been widowed twice. She has been suffering with cancer for over a year. We live many states apart, but we remain in frequent contact. She is the godmother for my second-born daughter, and has always maintained a loving relationship with her godchild. Due to the covid outbreak, we haven’t been able to visit her for over three years. It’s heartbreaking, because she is so very sick. But every time we talk on the phone, her faith is deep and her trust in God is manifest. “God is with me, David,” she affirms. I ask how she is doing, and she says, “I am weak, but I love our Lord so.”
One like Sherry, going through the loves and tragedies of life with the faith of Jesus always at hand, shows what Jesus meant when he said, “You are the light of the world.”
Epilogue: I called Sherry on her 72nd birthday on Sunday, January 16. She told me then that she was under hospice care. I received a call from a mutual friend three days later to tell me that Sherry had died peacefully in her sleep on the evening of January 18. Shery had told me in our telephone call that this is what she was hoping for, and that she fully trusted in our Lord Jesus Christ.
In a career spanning nearly fifty years, David Baumann served as a parish priest in five congregations in the dioceses of Los Angeles and Springfield. He retired last year.