The Smell at the Front

Who is welcome in your church?

Dan Richmond looked at the bundle of old clothes heaped on the very front pew of Brackstone County Church and sighed a long, hard sigh. Not because the pile of clothes contained lots of dirt; not because the pile of clothes contained lots of wear and tear; not even because the pile of clothes contained a significant aroma of unwashed sweat. No, the reason that Dan Richmond, Elder of Brackstone County Church, heaved such a sigh was because the pile of clothes contained a human being - or to be more precise, a tramp. 

He looked at fellow Elder, Reg Stokeman, who looked back at him in disgust. “The first morning with the new Priest and we’ve got a damn tramp stinking out the church.” He regarded the pile of clothes which shifted slightly on the pew but appeared to all intents and purposes to be asleep - or drunk.  

“You better go and keep an eye out for him” said Dan. “I’ll try to shift this before he gets here.” 

“What’s he look like?” asked Reg.  

“No idea” said Dan. “Terry and John did all the ground work - they interviewed him, and got it all settled with the Bishop. All I know is his name is Father Theo. Just go look for anyone wearing a collar - how many priests do you expect to arrive?”  

Reg left Dan with the human flotsam. “Oi!” called Dan to the pile. “You can’t sleep here - come on, clear off. This is a church. It belongs to God not drunks.” 

The bundle shifted a little but otherwise ignored him. He heard a noise behind him and realized that five or six of the congregation had arrived. They were eyeing the bundle distastefully.  

“How’d he get in?” asked an elderly lady of about 70. “Break a window did he?”  

“No, he seems to have got in when Brother Terry or Brother John opened up” said Dan.  

“Where are they?” asked the woman.  

“Gone to pick up the Bishop” said Dan. The bundle groaned slightly. “We’ve got to get rid of him” said Dan.  

“He’s disgusting” said a young man of about 25. “You’d better get some gloves - and disinfectant. Those pews will need a good clean.” He looked at the pile on the pew. “Do you want a hand to chuck it out?”  

Reg came rushing down the aisle. “It’s too late” he said. “The Bishop has just arrived with Terry and John - and I reckon that priest coming in with him must obviously be Father Theo.”  

Dan was renowned for fast thinking. He rushed into the vestry and returned with a large white cloth. He covered the sleeping rubbish heap with the cloth just as the bishop arrived.  

“Just pray he stays asleep” said Dan. “And hope that no-one notices the smell.” 

A few minutes later the Bishop stood at the Lectern, behind him stood a small man who was evidently Father Theo. The bundle still lay unmoving on the front pew, covered by the white cloth. It was clear to Dan as he looked at those around him that they had all noticed the smell.  

The bishop addressed the congregation. “We are here”, he said, “to welcome to this church your new Priest - Father Theo.” The small man standing behind the bishop looked slightly uncomfortable and appeared to shrink slightly smaller. “Now Father Jonathon Theo is, I am pleased to say, exactly what you need in this church. Father Theo is not just a Church employee nor someone who comes to Church every Sunday. Father Theo is a Christian. Something every church needs” he paused, looked about the church, and then continued. “and this church in particular. He is, very literally, the answer to all our prayers. I present to you, Father Jonathon Theo.”  

The little man shifted uncomfortably as all eyes turned to him. But a moment later, a groan from the front pew drew everyones’ attention to the bundle which sat up slowly, shook off the white cloth, and looked around. “Oh,” it said gruffly. “We’ve started then?”  

There were many looks of disgust and revulsion - and some of the ladies held handkerchiefs to their noses. Dan looked at Reg but he had his eyes closed. Tightly closed.  

The bundle stood up and wandered - to everyone’s horror - up to the bishop. He looked up at the bishop who had remained where he stood. The bishop was a true Christian they thought - protector of the church.  

The bundle which was now revealed in all his sordid, dirty and untidy glory, winked at the Bishop and then turned back to the congregation. The bishop spoke a word or two behind the tramp’s back to the new Priest who then walked down to the tramp. The priest looked very embarrassed and no-one could blame him. But given the Bishop’s introduction, they knew he’d sort this unhappy creature out.  

But when the Priest got to the tramp, the tramp did something unbelievable. He put his arm around the priest. An entire congregation withdrew their breath in horror. How dare he, they thought almost as one - how dare that human garbage touch their new priest. A few of the men started up as if to tackle the tramp, but the Bishop waved them down.  

The tramp looked at the congregation, and then spoke. He spoke well - surprisingly - as though he was a proper person.  

“My dear Christians - if I may call you that. I thank my friend here, Herbert, for the loan of his clothes and for his courage in taking my place behind the Bishop. He has done the Lord a great favour. Take a seat at the back and I’ll see you after the service.” The tramp dressed as a priest nodded to the priest dressed as a tramp, and made his way to the back of the church where he sat down.  

“Since we - my friend Herbert who has no house of his own - and I exchanged clothes,” continued Father Jonathon Theo, “I have been privileged to discover the full extent of your Christian devotions. I have been fortunate in that I have been able to see for my self exactly what sort of Church I have been given by the Good Lord in His infinite wisdom.” He looked at the light which was dawning - painfully - on the faces which still stared at him in horror and continued. “We shall start our service today with that classic hymn ‘Come as you are’ during which you might all like to reflect on the fact that the state of our physical appearance and circumstances are of no significance to the Lord - He is more interested in the state of our soul.” 


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