"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Spiritual Revelations In A Back Alley – A Look At The Trash And Discouragingly Ordinary Bits And Pieces From The Very Reverend Winston Roberts

Fieldingtown is a pleasant, well-tended, upper-middle class neighborhood of Washington, DC, home to starter families, older families who were the young couples of a generation ago, and the odd renter waiting for the epidemic to abate and mortgage rates to fall.  It is a quiet neighborhood, well-settled, uniformly white and ambitious, and the kind of neighborhood that would have satisfied the residents of Wilder’s Our Town.  The residents are contented if not happy, stay-at-home or downtown professionals working for he federal government, for the K Street lawyers who service it, or the many private, non-profit organizations which with government money, do good.

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Winston Roberts was the pastor of the Grace Episcopal Church, the go-to Christian lay-in for this tony corner of Northwest. His was an easy job compared to most.  The people of Fieldingtown, even  if they had existential angst or spiritual doubts, would never go public with them.  Theirs was a legacy of New England Protestant reserve; so the Revered Roberts ministered to no one and simply managed the school, the playground, and the after-hours colloquy about global warming, the glass ceiling, and  the evils of Donald Trump.

Reverend Roberts was the perfect pastor for Grace Church.  He had grown up in a small city of New England which had made its living by small tool-and-dye shops and the warehouses for storing their goods.  HJs parents had been burghers, respected citizens members of Rotary, Elk, and Moose; church-goers, and Republicans.  His was and was to be a life of rectitude and small values.

When the Reverend Roberts moved to Washington and took up the pastoral reins of Grace Church, he had evolved far beyond his modest Reformist beginnings.  He was profoundly Christian, insistently Episcopalian, but committed to secular, social change. He added to the cross of St George the banner of Black Lives Matter, and the rainbow flag of diversity.  His congregants flocked to him for his social conscience and sought him out for guidance as to right action. . He was  a man of god with solidly secular, progressive ideals.  He was the very image of a muscular Christian, a man of compassion and kindness but who would stand at the barricades of social change and refuse to stand down to the forces of regression and individualism.

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How was one, then, to reconcile this life of propriety and rectitude with his trash bins full of vodka bottles, Mama’s Pizza Helper, and frozen chipped beef packets?

Billy Baxter, a neighbor, was not a snoop. He simply walked the alleys of Northwest as a variant – the main streets were similar and predictable – late model SUVs out front, trimmed hedges, discrete Christmas lights, New England dormers, and forsythia.  But the alleys displayed the inner, intimate, private lives of the Turners, the Cartwrights, the Fallows and Winston Roberts. 

It was of little consequence that these families threw away the detritus of frozen chicken pot pies, laundry freshener, and boxes and boxes of silk ties and J Press doublets; but when the Very Reverend R. Winston Roberts gave lie to his piety and his Puritan simplicity by tossing Chef Boyardee, Swanson, and Hearty Man ready-to-eat, heat-and-serve TV dinner trays into the dumpster, there was meaning. The aluminum trays suggested a disconnect – a huge gap between his spiritual homilies and his real life. 

From the trash Billy assumed that the Reverend Roberts and his alluring, dark-haired wife, got drunk on low-end vodka, and ate microwaved frozen dinners before tumbling into bed for their Saturday night visit.  He – Billy – in fact had notions of sex with Molly Roberts, a wife who must have been hot in her day but who having opted for her husband's Bishopric long ago and having waited far too long for it, might now be ready for something else. 

There were no clues in the dumpster except for the vodka bottles and face cream.  Aha, thought Billy, a clue? The lovely Mrs. Baxter drunk, disillusioned, and sitting before her vanity mirror making herself up for an unknown lover, perhaps Billy himself, but probably submitting only to her husband who, on Saturday nights, was always prix fixe. 

How could anyone listen to such a poseur - a man of God, ordained, chosen, and anointed minister of Christ on Sundays who on Saturdays got drunk on cheap vodka with his cold-creamed wife, had frozen TV dinners for supper, and then had sex her with the shades up and album rock on Spotify?  

The alley is a public place which no one considers public.  However, there, for all to see are the week’s Amazon purchases, take out containers, and Giant Food deliveries.  No one even thinks of stuffing these tell tale signs deep down in the dumpster and closing the lid.  The alley was presumed to be off limits and no one but vagrants and the homeless would be cruising them before garbage pickup.

What was the old, dogeared Bible doing in the trash?  No matter how shopworn, tattered, and stained a Bible, it was still the Word of God at best, and a chronicled family history at least.  There was no such thing as a useless Bible.  One could never have too many, and if Christmas and Easter gifts from distant relatives crowded the bookshelves, a place would be made elsewhere.  To throw one out was unthinkable.  Imagine it tumbled and compressed among soiled diapers, rancid meat, and kitchen bits! God’s word; but there it was, the King James Version of the New and Old Testaments, tossed amidst the Kung Po chicken and sink hair in the dumpster, in the alley behind the Reverend Roberts’ house.

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Perhaps this was the last straw for Roberts’ wife.  After a violent argument about his holier-than-thou presumptuousness and indifference to her needs, she must have grabbed his Bible and there being no fire in he hearth, tossed it into the evening’s garbage for Billy Baxter to find.

From the alley at night, curtains open and shades up, undressed and illuminated, the Roberts were on full display  Just as they disposed of their trash willy-nilly without a thought about who might see it, they paraded  around the back rooms facing the alley as though they were alone.  Yet Billy was there breaking no laws or social contracts. Blinds up was an invitation to watch.  Billy watched the children fighting in the playroom, the older daughter masturbating on her Edwardian bedcover, and Mom and Dad harassing each other over something discarded.  Scenes from a marriage and a family, uninteresting and predictable in most circumstances, special and meaningful here.  How on earth could an ordained minister of Christ act is such lowly fashion, have such boring children, and fight over such nonsense?

Catholics priests were  better by far.  Better, as St Paul advised, to stay celibate and avoid the fol-de-rol of married life, demanding wives, and irresponsible children.  So what if modern day priests had a very different idea of celibacy, and God only knows what would be found in their dumpsters.  But at least the Church made a distinction..  Once a priest was ordained, he was a consort of Jesus and always would be.  His sexual deviancy from Church teaching could be overlooked.  But a Protestant minister had to navigate in far less clear waters.

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And so the alley gave up its secrets week after week for all to see.  One could at a minute’s notice disassemble the lives of those who lived on the main streets only by lifting a dumpster lid in an alley and expose all manner of life.  Yet it was only the Roberts’ dumpster which yielded important information, clues to piety and belief. 

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