Monthly Archives: September 2014

It only takes a spark…

It only takes a spark…

Old First

When I was growing up in Huntington, Long Island, New York, we were members of the Old First Presbyterian Church at 125 Main Street.  The church was (and is) an imposing edifice, a historical building with a long history.

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My father had been a stalwart Presbyterian since the age of 11 and the church was in his blood.  My father was Clerk of Session, my mother sang in the choir, we all went to Sunday School, and when we were in High School, we all were part of TUXIS.

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TUXIS was our church youth group.  The name is less an acronym than a symbol – the “X” in the middle standing for Christ and the letters surrounding it meaning something like “You and I together for Training and Service with Christ as the Center.”  It was old-fashioned even then – but to be honest, I don’t think most of us even thought about what the name meant.  For about 20 years, from the late 1960s and through the 1980s, TUXIS was the place to be on Sunday evenings, from 7:00pm – 9:00pm – no matter what your religion, or even if you had a religion at all.  It was our community.

This past October, Dr. Stan Dransfield, who had been the minister during most of my time at the church, passed away.  One of his sons “discovered” Facebook, found a few former TUXIS members and proposed a reunion.  Being a logistical sort of person, I volunteered to try to organize it.  The response was overwhelming.  And this past summer, about 40 former TUXIS members (and one former youth minister) gathered at the Old First Church to celebrate, to worship, to share community and to remember.

I had not been inside the church since my mother’s funeral in 1996…and then it was just briefly.  So when I walked into the side door by the Parish Hall, the sense of memory was visceral and strong.  The side door where we would wait for my father to talk to “just one more person” during coffee hour.

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The smell of the wood floor of the Parish Hall, and the stage where we would put on our Sunday School plays.  And the huge kitchen with the giant 8-burner stove and hundreds of plates and cups for church suppers.


The photographs of the previous ministers – all lined up along the wall along with the bulletin boards announcing paryer groups and various events.  The old bell that had cracked while ringing one Sunday.

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Behind the stage was the “Cradle Roll” for the babies and underneath the Parish Hall were the old Sunday School rooms and a tunnel that led to the “newer” part of the church – built in 1958.  I have a vague recollection of them putting in the block with the dates when they built that addition.

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The new addition was built with expansion of the Youth Program in mind – there was a full-size basketball court, another kitchen, various classrooms and a “TUXIS” room.

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Up the main stairs, there was the choir room – still looking exactly the same with the robes hanging in their compartments and the shelves of choir music and folders.

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The Sanctuary is the oldest part of the church – and at one time, it was the entire building.  Not much has been altered.  At some point, the seat cushions were added.  A chandelier has been hung from the ceiling and, contrary to the traditional austere Presbyterian decor, a cross was installed over the altar about 10 years ago.  I spent most of my time in the sanctuary in the choir loft, where I sang alto in the church choir.  A beautiful new pipe-organ was installed in 1982 and the choir loft redesigned, just in time for my wedding.  (The wedding was lovely, the marriage rather ill-fated…)
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What was TUXIS and why was it so important?  Well, it was a community.  A community of young people from varying circumstances and belief systems, who were at various places in their spiritual journey.  And it was a safe place to come and feel that you mattered.  We were fortunate to have wonderful youth ministers who built that community, who listened to young people with great consideration and love and who showed us, by word and deed, what it meant to “be the hands and feet” of Christ.  Many pictures were shared of those times.  We had camping and beach trips, trips into New York City, work-sessions, presentations and performances, discussions, singing and dancing, tears and laughter.

Confirmation 1974 Confirmation 1 Car wash Burt W

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We put on our own “Contemporary Worship Service” once a month, featuring more modern songs and our own singing group called “The Main Street Singers.”  There was even a “Bible-a-thon” to raise money.

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We had three youth ministers during “my” TUXIS time.  Don Dempsey was hired at the beginning of my 9th grade year.  There were so many of us that we had a separate group for the 9th grade called “Niners.”  Don was 24, young, idealistic and rather a hippie.  There were stories about him mowing a peace symbol into the front lawn of his house and an incident where the police were called to the manse, because the neighbors didn’t realize he had moved in yet and thought his gathering of TUXIS young people (complete with candles because the electric had not been turned on yet) was a bunch of hippie-weirdos.  Turns out the stories were true – I got in touch with Don, who is still a Presbyterian minister and he had many memories.  We all loved him, but he was summarily fired after 9 months.  The session then hired Howard Warren.  Howard was “my” TUXIS leader and my brother Doug’s as well.


He was a gentle man, in his mid-thirties, who seemed to know how to handle both the radical young people and the stuffy and staid members of the session.  He had a way of leading us to the “right” decision without us feeling like we were being told what to do.   After Howard left, we had Bill Humphries who came to us right out of seminary, with his very young wife, Cindy.  Bill was youth minister for about 10 years, and was the TUXIS leader for my younger brothers Mike and Tom.


One very important person who could not attend was a woman name Suzie Viemeister, who was like the mother of us all.  She came on every trip, was there every Sunday evening and her home was a place of refuge for a number of young people who had had a falling out with their parents and needed a place to crash.  She is in her 80s now, but still spry and joyful.

Suzie VSuzie V now

When we all finally showed up at the church, there were many hugs, many remembrances and some tears.  Howard – loved by so many of us – passed away from complications due to AIDS in 2003.  Ironically, he turned out to be far more radical than Don Dempsey ever was.  After he came out of the closet (“exploded out” as some say!) he became an outspoken advocate for inclusion of all in the church.  The Presbytery tried to silence him ; they tried to take away his ministry (my father was furious at this) but Howard persevered and was known as “God’s Glorious Gadfly” for his unrelenting insistence that the Kingdom of Heaven was for everyone.  (Read more about Howard HERE.)

Some of us had gathered for dinner the night before.  Now we shared more food and memories and music and had a communal worship led by Bill Humphries.

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We were then lucky enough to have a brief talk about the history of the church from John Collins, who was a member of TUXIS and is very much involved with the Huntington Historical Society.  And…we got to climb up into the steeple, which, since the installation of the new organ, now involves a trap door over the choir room, a scramble above the ceiling of the sanctuary and then a rickety climb to the top.  It was pretty awesome…I hadn’t been up there since I was a very little girl.

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Everyone who attended the reunion was deeply moved by the gathering.  And I was near tears when I was given a card, signed by everyone, thanking me for organizing the event.  It was a wonderful way to recall a very important part of my life.

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At the end of the worship service, people wanted to sing “Pass It On.”  This is a cheesy song, with a cheesy tune and lyrics that don’t quite scan.  But we all used to sing it with great gusto and I had a guitar and we all sang it again.  I am not ashamed to say that I broke up a little when we got to the last verse.  Thank you, dear Divine Spirit, for the fellowship of TUXIS.

It only takes a spark to get a fire going,
And soon all those around can warm up to its glowing;
That’s how it is with God’s Love,
Once you’ve experienced it,
Your spread the love to everyone
You want to pass it on.

What a wonderous time is spring,
When all the trees are budding
The birds begin to sing, the flowers start their blooming;
That’s how it is with God’s love,
Once you’ve experienced it.
You want to sing, it’s fresh like spring,
You want to pass it on.

I wish for you my friend
This happiness that I’ve found;
You can depend on Him
It matters not where you’re bound,
I’ll shout it from the mountain top!
I want my world to know
The Lord of love has come to me
I want to pass it on.

A Zambian Wedding!

A Zambian Wedding!

Last weekend, I was privileged to be invited to the wedding of my housekeeper’s daughter.  Weddings in Zambia tend to be very big deals – even among the lower-income people.  People of means who are invited are expected to purchase a suitable gift – in fact, Mary asked me beforehand what gift I would get and how much it would cost!  A traditional gift is cookware, or something for the kitchen and I got a very classy and serviceable casserole dish that could be put on the stove or in the oven and had a 15-year guarantee.  Mary seemed pleased with my choice.

The first part of the wedding was a full mass in the Catholic Parish right down the road.  Mary insisted that I sit up in front with her and the family and introduced me to everyone as “her friend.”  I was the only non-Zambian there, not to mention the only white person.  Everyone was very friendly and welcoming and shook my hand in the traditional Zambian way – a shake, then a grasp of the thumbs and then another shake.  People filed into the church, dressed in their finest.  As mother of the bride, Mary had had a beautiful outfit made for the ceremony.  Her mother was also colorfully attired, and had a headdress to match.  Most of the men were in western-style suits.   There was a choir, complete with a drum set and two guitars.  At first I thought their voices were amplified, but then I realized that they were singing along with a recording, which reverberated throughout the church.

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The groom was escorted in and sat by himself in the front seat.  He looked very handsome and very young.  I asked Mary if she thought she would cry during the ceremony.  “Oh…no, I don’t think so,” she said.


The music started and the acolytes, altar boys and priests all came down the aisle.  They danced as they came – the music was loud and rhythmic and many of the congregation also danced and sang along.

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The flower girls and boys came dancing down, and then the bridesmaids and groomsmen.  The color scheme was green – all the dresses had been made locally.  Everyone was smiling and dancing and singing and moving.

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Finally, it was time for the bride to enter.  The groom left his seat and went down the aisle to escort her to the altar.  And suddenly, most incongruously, the African music stopped and there came the strains of Wagner’s wedding march, played on the organ!  The bride was demure and shy and dressed in a frothy white wedding dress complete with a veil.  It was hard to get any pictures, because as they walked down the aisle, almost everyone was standing in front and around them, snapping photographs.  This continued throughout the entire service. Nobody seemed to find this the least bit strange.

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There were several scriptures and several more songs, which almost everyone knew.  I only knew one – a very African-tinged version of “How Great Thou Art” and I sang along with great gusto.  Finally the priest came down to address the couple.  His sermon was half in English and half in Nyanja.  His speech talked about how they should forgive each other and be kind to each other.  He was very good, making the couple and the congregation laugh a number of times.  He made a point of telling them that it was time to “say goodbye” to past boyfriends and girlfriends and had them wave “bye-bye” to the young men and women in the choir and the bridal party!


There was communion and a few more songs and then finally,  there were the vows – not much different than wedding vows in any other church, except instead of saying “I do,” they answered simply “Yes” to the questions.  When he pronounced them married, the church exploded with yells and cheers and the particular joyous ululating sound made in Africa at all times of joy and celebration.  Two of the bridesmaid had confetti in a can that they sprayed over the couple. (I had taken some videos of both the ceremony and the reception, but unfortunately, they all came out without any sound…a great disappointment.  There is really no way to describe in words the atmosphere of the dancing!)

Then everybody individually went up to the newlyweds to hug and kiss them and congratulate them on their marriage.  Mary hung back until everyone had had their turn (myself included) and then she went to hug her daughter and her new son.  When she turned back towards me, her eyes were wet.  “Oh, Mary,” I said. “You are crying!”  “My daughter,” she said.  “My daughter – now she is gone.”

I drove Mary’s mother and several aunts to their house after the ceremony.  Everyone would rest for a few hours until the reception.  I came back later to pick them up – everyone had changed into clothes more suitable for a party and dancing.  On the way to the reception, Mary’s mother asked me how long I would stay in Zambia and I told her maybe one more year.  “I miss my people,” I said.  She took my hand.  “We are your people now,” she said.  We passed by the house of the Zambian President, Michael Sata.  He has reportedly been ill and I asked Mary’s cousin if they knew anything about his health.  “Who cares?” she responded.  “Sata doesn’t care about us!  We take care of ourselves.  We always have!”

The reception was held in a big hall owned by another church halfway across town.  Everything had been decorated in green and orange and some of the decorations were still being put up.  People slowly filled the place.  Babies were carried in chitenge cloth tied around the mother’s backs.  Children were everywhere. People were dancing, talking, laughing.

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There was a DJ playing music and after a while, some women came around with trays of soda – Coca-Cola or Orange Fanta.  I had a Coke – the first time I’ve had one in years.  I had forgotten how sweet it is!  Mary had changed into a very smart-looking suit.  Everyone was anxious for the wedding party to arrive.

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Finally, the MC announced their arrival.  They danced in and you could see that they had spent months rehearsing.  Each “pair” of bridesmaids and groomsmen did their own little dance.

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The bride and groom finally arrived to more ululation and noise!  They maintained a quiet dignity…and I thought they must be exhausted from all the festivities.

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The MC introduced all the bridal party, announcing that each one was “single and free to mingle!”  They then left and changed into different outfits – much more suited to the kind of “mingling” that had been mentioned.  More dancing ensued, joined by many of the guests.

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Food was served – a simple meal, but certainly good.  I was also given a cup of home-made punch with fruit in it.  After one sip, I could tell it packed quite a wallop. I couldn’t even imagine what it must have cost to put the whole party together, buy the dresses, rent the hall, order the food and drink…but as I said, Zambian weddings are a big deal.

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Finally, the bride and groom did their “ball dance.”  Again, the African music stopped and a slow pop-tune was played.


The cake was cut, and the bride and groom knelt in front of Mary and presented her with a portion of the cake.  I found this particularly moving.


There was more dancing and everyone was moving to the beat.  I got up to dance and was immediately swept into the circle by Mary’s cousin and mother and then by several of the groomsmen.  One of the women tried to show me the correct way to shake my bottom, which is a huge part of dancing here.  I tried my best!  It was a fabulous time and I felt very welcomed!

When I saw Mary the next Monday, she told me how everyone was so happy to see me dance and that people had remarked that I “really knew how to dance!”  Which is not something I’ve ever heard before, but it sure was fun.  I was so glad to be invited and be made a part of Mary’s family.