Neil calls himself a preacher – a preacher of the gospel, he says, but he’s unlike any preacher I ever met. I stumbled upon Neil sitting in a little shop with no name, a tiny storefront nestled in the huge drag of Pacific Avenue in Tacoma’s downtown. The shop was holding a sale on snowman decorations, and looking inside, you’d think all they sell is snowmen, because they’re just about everywhere – on every shelf and rack and carousel display – makes me wonder what the place sells when it isn’t Christmas time. I suppose their next sale will be on little stuffed teddybears with hearts and cupid arrows.
So Neil was sitting in the back corner of this snowman shop, having a serious sounding conversation with the guy I suppose was the shop owner, talking about how he’d been doing this now these sixty years, and nobody was going to tell him it was time to stop doing it. I didn’t mean to eavesdrop…yes I did – I suppose I must have, because what else was I going to do in a shop full of snowmen? I certainly wasn’t planning on buying one, so I must have been there for other reasons, and Neil is the type of guy who speaks in a way that you can’t quite ignore, not because his voice is loud, but because it stands clear against all the din you’re used to hearing in the air. He has a voice that means what it says, and whatever this thing was that he’d been doing sixty years and meant to keep on doing – well, that was a thing he felt strongly about.
I attempted to look casual as I navigated toward the back – through the stuffed snowmen and crystal-coated snowmen of wood and pictures of snowmen on greeting cards – I tried to look casual, because that’s my way, even if I’ve got some distinct agenda in mind, I try and force myself to be casual about it. When I approached the spot where Neil sat, I knew I’d found the guy; for, certainly I’d been drawn to this street on this day, to wander among the crop of buildings growing among the zigs and zags of potholed avenues – certainly I had been drawn for a reason, because there was a guy somewhere in the sea of buildings, in the Sea of Faces, and I was to speak with this guy, and here he was – sitting in a tiny snowman shop, wearing sunglasses, even though he was indoors. I never got around to asking him why he was wearing sunglasses indoors. At first, I thought he may have had a problem with light sensitivity in his eyes, or maybe he had a disfigurement he wanted to obscure. Maybe he forgot he was indoors. I never did find out, but I did speak with him – walked over to him and said “hello”, and he took it from there.
“What’s your first name?” he asked, and he flashed a smile toward me of the most genuine sort – a giving sort of smile. It was the smile your grandmother gives you when she serves you homemade cookies or the smile an old friend gives you when having you over for dinner. It was a smile that said welcome. I gave him my name, and he said, “Why, that’s a great name!”, then related a Bible passage I was familiar with, written in the gospel I was named for.
“My name is Neil,” he said, “and I been preaching the gospel out here every day for sixty years!”
“Hello, Neil” I said. “What’s your story?” So Neil told me his story – of how he served in the military during the Korean War, and God rescued him from some hard situations over there in Korea, but that was only the start, because God’s been rescuing him ever since, and there isn’t anything you can do to earn that sort of rescuing; it’s all God; it’s a gift, “In’t that wonderful?” he would say, over and over.
“Yeah, that is wonderful.” I’d say, so many times in response to that repetitive, rhetorical question that he’d obviously come to say out of habit, but it was a good sort of habit, because he said it so often that I started to get misty eyed from the reminder that God is a giving God, and for all my worrying about what I’m doing or not doing in my life or what I should have done once upon a time – in the end, it is all a gift. Life is a gift, Love is a gift; you can’t earn it, and Neil has a hundred scriptures memorized to remind you of that fact.
His memory’s grown dusty over sixty years of preaching; his recitations of verses occasionally come out disjointed. When sharing with me, he would get tripped up on the references, but the stuff was all in there – in his mind and in his heart. I imagined that his brain’s like a grand old library, and the librarian who attends it is a little slow, a little hunched over, but still knows where to find what you need; you just have to give him some time to pull out the squeeky rolling staircase and lumber up to the high recesses to retrieve that old gem of a tome.
Neil carries a leather satchel of self-made Bible tracks that he’s designed by cutting and pasting scriptures and sayings and pictures of his own family.
“There’s my brother. He served in Korea, too. He’s gone, now. They’re all gone. Now there’s only me. But I keep coming out here, seven days a week. And it’s not just me! I can’t do it myself. It’s all God! In’t that wonderful?”
“Yes, it is. Sorta like David and Goliath.” I said.
Like I mentioned, Neil calls himself a preacher, but he doesn’t seem like a preacher to me. “Preacher” – as it refers to the type you’re most likely to encounter on the streets, seems to denote someone uninviting, unpleasant, perhaps angry – a holder of signs with images of fire on them. Neil seems too full of smiles to be a street preacher.
I suppose it was about ten minutes I spent with him in the snowman shop, with him doing most of the talking. As I got up to leave, he put his arm around me in a half-hug and said, “You made my day!”
“You made mine.” I told him.
“In’t that wonderful?”
Categories: Faces In The Sea