#HolyPeople: Pops’ Story

“Brothers and Sisters: No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.”

Pops is a fool for Christ.

The elderly gentleman, perpetually clad in overalls, has lived several lifetimes in his eighty-something years. But rather than wearing him down, every wrinkle he has earned has been matched by a breezy, energetic dose of grace from the Holy Spirit.

I don’t recall my very first meeting with Pops, but I’m sure he was teasing someone. It’s what he’s always doing. Whether he was playing a practical joke on someone else or turning his goofy sense of humor onto himself, he was the life of the food pantry while I worked there. He was constantly sneaking up on me and my colleagues, popping into our office to make a silly face, stick out his tongue, or deliver a one-liner and a snack. He provided the much-needed levity in a sometimes-intense workplace.

We called him “Mr. Graves” or “Pops,” but he called himself “Trouble.”

“How do you ladies put UP with me?” was his daily refrain, delivered with a huge grin. “Why, oh, WHY am I so much TROUBLE?”

He said it to everyone, from the humblest client to the President of the Board.

Pops’ well-deserved pride in his achievements was another frequent topic of discussion. He could tell the same story over and over again, and we loved to listen. He was career Air Force, retired, and brought in his old photo album to show off his military exploits.  The transport of nuclear weapons would be quite an accomplishment in and of itself, but the extent of his bravery became clear as you flipped through the portraits, crowded with white men: Pops was frequently the only black man in the picture. I can’t be certain, but I would feel comfortable saying he was one of the first African-Americans to pierce the color line in the Air Force. But instead of dwelling on that extraordinary fact, he turned his military service into yet another joke.
“Thanks for paying my salary and my retirement. I live off the government!” he would tell slightly startled donors, shaking their hands warmly.

In listening to Pops’ stories, it became clear that he wasn’t proud of everything in his past. He sometimes described a previous lifetime of violence, drink, and heartache. He had regrets, but never despair. He knew who, and whose, he was.

Knowing Pops was a Christian, I once asked him to pray for a special intention of mine. I was shocked when he knelt down on the floor in my office, grabbed both my hands, bowed his head, and launched into the most heartfelt intercessory prayer I’d ever heard before or since. It wasn’t for show. It was just how Pops felt about his God. This holy enthusiasm extended into his church, where he acted as a deacon. It trickled into our monthly board meetings, where he was always invited to pray over the assembled. It spread into his weekly volunteer efforts at the food pantry and other organizations. And it was apparent in his moral life. He treated everyone he met with the same humor and respect. He honored his wife and worried about his children. He abhorred gossip and hypocrisy. He never turned down a prayer request. Every little joy or triumph was a reason to yell “Praise the Lord!” In my married life, he’s the only man besides my husband who has ever kissed me on the lips. When I told him I was cancer free for the first time, his emotions got the best of him and he spun me, grabbed my face with both hands, and gave me a big ol’ smooch.

Like most Midwestern black folks, Pops is not a Catholic. But that does not stop him from being one of the holiest people I have ever met. He is as much a part of the mysterious, universal Body of Christ as St. Therese or the Pope. As St. Paul said in the Scriptures we read for Pentecost, “Brothers and sisters: No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.”  The exuberant, honest, unbridled spirituality that Pops is infused with is something that the American Catholic church is sorely lacking. Like Pops, we should never be ashamed to shout and joke and be a fool for Christ, to leave our burdens at His feet and go skipping away toward heaven. It might be what saves us. Indeed, G.K. Chesterton famously said, “Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.”

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