In the Name of the Father

At age five, Howard’s father took to standing on boxes  and imitating his preacher, and soon after, he sought mentorship in the ways of the ministry. But Howard’s calling was not quite so clear. The truth is, he never wanted to be a pastor. When it seemed he was meant to move in a particular direction, that’s what he did. He believes his calling emerged over time: first, at his father’s death, then through the economic collapse, and again three summers ago in Italy, when he and a Middlebury classmate, Yolande Smallwood ’89, were in a car accident. Smallwood died, and Howard woke from a coma one month later. “It’s all part of the movement forward,” he says. “I suppose I was meant to be here to help the church move through its grieving.”

One Sunday morning I went to see Howard preach. I took an empty pew and watched as women in metallic blouses and wide-brimmed hats crowded onto narrow benches. A young mother and her daughter slipped into the row beside me, and across the aisle, Deacon Francis sat with several suited men. Maestro began softly at the piano, and as his notes grew heavier, the chatter subsided and congregants began to hum. The music rose an octave, and an old woman raised her hands and called out, “Play it, Maestro!” Then she lowered her head and danced as she prayed.

When the Pastor stepped to the pulpit, his first words were tame and academic. He dissected a parable like an English teacher, carding and spinning each line until his pupils grasped its meaning.

When they began to nod, he took them further. When they began to shout, he, too, raised his voice. And soon, as if his formalities sloughed off his robes, Howard began to speak in a way I had never seen him do before. He dropped the g’s from his gerunds. He slipped into character, like an actor in a one-man play. “Hey, girl,” he said in imitation, “Did you hear the latest?” His congregants hooted and pushed him on. Then he grew serious again. “Was it you who woke yourself up this morning?”

“No,” they cried.

“Was it you who provided that food or those wheels to that automobile that took you through the streets of the city this morning?”

“No, no.”

“We need some lifting up this morning. The city of Detroit needs you, oh God.”

Later, Deacon Francis would tell me that Howard had preached like his father that day, his voice high and strong, rising nearly to a roar before settling across the sanctuary. But at the end of his sermon, he did something his father never would have done. He lowered his voice, softened his shoulders, and began to sing, first by himself, and then with Maestro, who leaned back from the piano, squeezed his eyes shut, and echoed the Pastor’s melody.

Sierra Crane-Murdoch ’10 lives in Colorado, where she writes for the award-winning magazine covering the American West, High Country News.

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