Jessica shivered against the North Minnesota December cold. She replayed the scene from an hour ago for the hundredth time in her head.
Dad. Holding her positive pregnancy test. Why did she throw it away in the bathroom garbage can? What was she thinking? The Bible verses came in a stream of rage, one after another about adulteresses and adultery and being holy as God is holy. The lips of an adulteress drip honey. Jessica knew the verses. She had known them for as long as she could remember. She had read them at least once a month when she was reading Proverbs every day. It took ten minutes before he finally got around to asking what man she had corrupted with her sinful ways.
The story came out through the sobs. It started with Peter, the boy she was courting. They had been so in love. He hadn’t meant to pressure her, but they pushed past one boundary after another, each one more shameful than the last, each time more determined to stop and each time more certain that nobody could ever know what they had done. When they finally went all the way, nobody had bothered to tell either of them about birth control of any kind. When she missed her period, Peter had insisted on a test. When it came up positive, the relationship ended. His heartbroken lips forced out a few last words about purity that dug into her soul like a poison injected into her heart. A few moments later, he had said goodbye for the last time. Dad was horrified. Sweet, pure, gentle Peter, corrupted by his own daughter. He loved Peter like a son. He shook his head in sadness and spouted off a few more verses. “My own daughter!” he said. “A temptress. How could you? We did everything we could to raise you up right, and now you do this to us?” The tears began to form a puddle. “Of course, you’ll have to confess.” “To who?” “To the church,” he said. “There’s nothing else to do.” He shook his head again and went for the phone. Mom sat in a chair looking heartbroken and nursing tears of her own.
And Jessica went for her coat and gloves. In a moment, she had slipped out into the darkness. She flailed through the falling snow to Peter’s house for one last try at salvation. The door was opened and then closed without a word. She looked up and saw Peter’s window shades close. She promised herself she would never again speak his name, and she ran before they could see her cry.
She had read a story in school about a girl with a scarlet letter, and she could almost feel the red “A” burning its way into her own forehead. On she trudged into the white-flake-pocked darkness, not caring where she was going so long as it was away. She passed warm houses outlined with Christmas lights that mocked her loneliness.
She presently found herself standing next to a sign. “First Fundamental Methodist Church,” the sign read. The flashbacks came without permission. An entire childhood in warm pews, accepting Jesus, Vacation Bible School, a first kiss stolen behind the church from Peter… she even remembered hanging letters on this sign. It seemed like a different life. “THE VIRGIN SHALL CONCEIVE AND BEAR A SON,” the interchangeable letters read. Virgin. There it was again, that word. She looked down at the purity ring she still wore on her finger. It was too late. She took it off and put it into her pocket. Even the sign condemned her. She turned and walked away. The virgin Mary may have gotten similar treatment, but at least she could live with herself. At least what they’d said about her wasn’t true.
An abortion. No, that was out of the question. She had stood in far too many pro-life demonstrations outside of the local Planned Parenthood. They would probably recognize her face. Besides, it was wrong. But wasn’t getting pregnant out of wedlock wrong in the first place? As she crossed the railroad bridge, she thought about climbing over the railing and letting it all be over. But that would be wrong. Still, she climbed over the railing and held on loosely, hoping her fingers would slip by accident. They didn’t. After fifteen minutes, she gave up and climbed back over, half-hoping to slip and fall back into the dark water. Her dreams dashed, she walked down the tracks, jumping over one track at a time, just like she had when she was younger.
Still aimless with nowhere to go, she kept walking. Her fingers were cold. She pulled her fingers out of the glove fingers and balled her hands into fists, then shoved them into her pockets. “Dear God,” she started, and then stopped. God probably didn’t want to hear anything that she had to say.
A soft glow from a spotlight bathed St. Mary’s and made it look like the snowflakes fell only in its light. The cathedral rose like a fortress in the dark. Catholics, she recalled, have issues with unwed mothers getting pregnant. But still, she felt strangely drawn to the glass doors. It was 10:32 PM on the eve of Christmas Eve. The doors were all locked, of course. A metaphor for her life, now. She had gone where she should not have gone, and church had locked her out.
She walked aimlessly around to the side. A lonely light lit up the rectory. Against all probability, a door in the church was cracked open. A sign in the door read, “For I was hungry and ye gave Me meat: I was thirsty and ye gave Me drink: I was a stranger and ye took Me in.”
Her mind began to debate, but her hand pulled the door and her feet went in. It was warm, or warmer. She took off her gloves. A dim light from candles illuminated the front of the church. Curious, Jessica went forward. The church was so strange. Instead of a pulpit, an altar, and a communion table, there were all sorts of strange things. Bells, candles, a table. Her eyes were drawn up to the ornate paintings on the ceiling. There were paintings in the stained glass windows, paintings of Jesus and saints, and a huge statue of Jesus on the cross and another of Mary and another of, she guessed, Joseph. Jesus on the cross. His pain would have a hard time competing with hers.
She looked around the room for a place, some seat that was near enough to a door that she could make a run for it if someone came in, somewhere that she could see if someone came in, but far enough from the door that maybe she could hide. She laid her coat on the padded pew and laid herself down on it. She tossed and turned uncomfortably a while, then faded off into a troubled sleep.
~ ~ ~
Morning came, or something like it. Jessica forced her eyes open and tried to figure out where she was. It was a tall, strange building. She was on a pew. The paintings on the ceiling. The windows. A church. It must be a Catholic church. Why was she in a Catholic church? And then last night came back in everything awful that it had been. What do I do, she wondered. She walked up to the front of the church and knelt down and closed her eyes. The words came out aloud.
“God, I don’t know if you even care about me anymore, but I could use some help. I know you don’t hear sinners, but could you please at least listen to me? I said I was sorry. God, where are you?”
“Here,” came a voice from in front of her.
“Well if you’re here, do you care about me?”
“Of course he does, child,” said the priest. Jessica opened her eyes.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t realize you were there,” she said.
“I didn’t realize you were here either,” he said. “I’m Father Richard. Are you all right, young lady?”
“Yeah, I think so,” she said. The short, thin, elderly man looked over his spectacles at her. “No, I’m not.”
“I am a confessor,” he said. “Would you like to go into the confessional booth? It helps sometimes.”
“Can I do that?” she asked. “I’m not Catholic.”
“Neither am I,” he replied. “This is an Episcopal church.”
“Oh. Well… I guess so.”
And so she went, and she poured out the whole story.
“Don’t you have any friends?” asked Father Richard.
“I was home schooled. All of my friends go to First Fundamentalist Methodist,” she said. “Nobody cares about me.”
“I’m sure your parents are looking for you.”
“I doubt it. Can’t I just stay here?”
“Well, you can, but do you really want to?” Jessica thought for a moment.
“I guess I don’t.”
“I didn’t think so,” said Father Richard. “Let’s get you home.”
Jessica didn’t really want to go, but she agreed half-heartedly. She got into Father Richard’s car and they drove down the familiar streets toward home. Maybe things would have cooled off by then. Maybe things would be better. She stared silently out the window as her street got closer, and she felt a cold fear build its way up from her heart to her throat. But maybe she was wrong.
As short as he was, Father Richard felt like a fortress next to her on the porch when she rapped on the locked front door of her home. It took a moment, but one of her brothers came to the door. He had a sad look on his face, and he turned around. Dad appeared in the doorway. He demanded to know who the short, elderly stranger was. Father Rich introduced himself. Dad didn’t ask Jessica where she’d been, only why she’d come back. Father Richard looked like he was taking it harder than Jessica was. When the door closed again with a warning not to come back, they got back into the car.
“I’m so sorry, Jess,” said Father Richard.
He served her a small brunch of eggs and toast back at the rectory and apologized for the quality and the mess. Things hadn’t been the same since his wife died, he told her. “Let me make some phone calls. Maybe someone from the church can take you in.”
And she waited. Like Israel for Messiah she waited. But there was nothing after an hour.
“I’ve called everyone. I left four messages, five didn’t have an answering machine, and eight had no extra beds or couches due to out-of-town guests. I’m so sorry, Jess. You could spend another night on the pews or stay here, but I’m going out of town to see my grandchildren tonight. I don’t know what to do except wait to hear back.
Three returned calls and six hours later, there was still nowhere for Jessica to stay. There was nothing for Jessica to do but wait and pray, or try to. She helped Father Richard clean the church up, helped him decorate the front room, and sat blankly watching him prepare his sermon.
The time for the service came. She opted to sit in for it. There was nothing left for her at First Fundamentalist Methodist. The service was strange. The carols were all familiar, but the candle light service was different. Four passages. The Psalm was sung. There was sitting and standing and sitting and standing. It felt very Catholic. But there was something warm and familiar about the candlelight at the end, though the candles revealed unfamiliar faces. She felt a bit better as the lights came back on and the smoke from the candles filled the church. She walked over to Father Richard.
“Thank you for everything, Father. I think I’ll just go down to the mission.”
“There you are, Jessica!” he exclaimed. “I was just looking for you. Meet Alice and Jane Smith.” Jessica found herself embraced by two women in their mid-forties. “They’ve agreed to let you spend Christmas with them.”
“We’ve talked about it, and you can stay as long as you need to,” said one. “I’m Alice.”
“We’ve always wanted a daughter,” said Jane.
Jessica was just about to decide that Alice and Jane were two of the kindest women she had ever met. Then she noticed their rings. “The two of you live together with both of your husbands?”
“Goodness, no,” Alice replied. “We’re married to each other.”
Jessica’s face went white. The only sin worse than hers, she know, was the one these two impossibly kind women were living in. And here they were offering her a place to stay.
“Don’t worry,” said Father Richard. “I performed the wedding myself twenty years ago. They were just recently allowed to make it legal.”
“Can we talk about this in private?” asked Jessica. She pulled him away. “Aren’t they… pedophiles?”
Father Richard was horrified. “Goodness no!”
“But aren’t all of… them?”
“Where did you learn such nonsense!?”
Father Richard shook his head. “Oh dear. No, Jessica. You’ll be quite safe with them. These dear ladies would sooner shoot themselves in the face than hurt you in any way. You’ll be perfectly safe with them.”
“Is everything all right?” Jane asked.
“Everything’s fine,” said Father Richard. To Jessica, he added, “I would’ve connected you with someone else, but there wasn’t anyone else. I know it’ll be a bit strange, but do you want to give it a try?”
“I don’t see what choice I have,” said Jessica. And she went.
On the ride home, Jessica told Jane and Alice her story. Alice said that she had gone to a church like Jessica’s when she was a girl and been rejected herself when she came out. Jessica’s story rang true for her, only she hadn’t had anyone to go to and had been homeless for several years. “And then Jane’s family took me in. They were more accepting, maybe because they weren’t Christians. But I missed church, and when Jane and I fell in love, we both wanted a beautiful wedding. We both wanted to be married in a church. This church was the only one in town that would do it. Father Richard was wonderful, and he made me want to come back to church.”
“He even pulled me into his web of Christianity,” said Jane. “I’m so sorry for what happened to you in the name of God, and on the night before Christmas Eve. But we are so glad that it means that we get to spend Christmas with you.”
They pulled into the driveway of the most beautiful house on the block. There was a small nativity scene in the front yard, a lighted wreath on the door, and an electric candle in the every window. “Welcome home, Jessica,” said Alice.
“Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me…” Matthew 25:34-35, NRSV
Next: “A Candle and a Prayer“