Having decided that what the Church of St. Simon the Cyrenian terms the Sermon Response Hymn would this week be Julia Ward Howe’s Battle Hymn of the Republic, I had that stirring anthem of struggle on my mind as I walked down the street to the local food store to pick up two or three items that my wife Jane had requested as she prepared supper.
We’ve recently made the Parish House, right next to this Caribbean and African American church, our residential base for the month, so I’ve been enjoying settling into this particular New Rochelle neighborhood rather than commuting to the church from White Plains. The sermon, based on Jeremiah’s call, “Seek the welfare the city,” will be a call to civic engagement in preparation for the mid-term elections, hence Julie Ward Howe’s hymn: “As he died to make men holy, let us live to make all free.”
I’ve been a whistler all my life, and I tend to whistle entire pieces, whether hymns, concerti, sonatas, show tunes, jazz – whatever. So without thinking about it I started in with the Battle Hymn of the Republic as I walked down the street in the dusk.
First thing, I received a wave from a young Hispanic man while he talked on his cell phone. I met him yesterday as he sat with his friends on the front steps of the church. I’d stopped and rolled down the window of my car, he’d come over, and I’d invited him to come to church. He said he didn’t attend anywhere, so he would consider it. And now he was waving to me. Not a promissory note exactly, but it was clear we’d made a connection, and now he was waving a greeting, maybe prompted by the whistling.
Still whistling the hymn, I crossed the nearby avenue and made toward the humble food store that a Chinese couple opened about five years ago. Walking ahead of me on the sidewalk was an African American man with his son, about age 10. They turned to stare at the whistler a couple of times, and then just in front of the food store he turned and put out his hand. He identified the tune as a familiar hymn and then asked, “Are you a Christian?” I said I was and that I’m pastoring the nearby church, and I pointed to it. He was interested in that and asked when the services were. I said 10:30 and he would be welcome to join us tomorrow. He said he’d consider that, and there we left it.
Coming out of the store, I resumed the Battle Hymn of the Republic, and on the corner of the avenue I had just re-crossed another African American man caught my eye and began jiving to the hymn, so I stopped and jived with him until stanza’s end. He put out his hand and said, “You’re a very accomplished whistler!” I said I enjoy whistling. He introduced himself as Louis and went on to identify the tune as a hymn he knew. He asked whether I had anything to do with a church, and I said I was pastoring St. Simon’s, now just a stone’s throw away. It turned out he lives almost directly across the street from the church. He goes to another church but indicated some dissatisfaction with it and thought he might stop in tomorrow. “10:30, right?” “That’s right: 10:30. Hope to see you then.”
And then I moved on home.
It was all quite delightful: Whistling a hymn, just for the joy of it. That music hooking other folks enough to stop and inquire. Conversations unfolding that turned into invitations. Call it happenstance outreach. A hint of mission.