The neighbors thought it was a publicity stunt at first, a tactic to get media attention or fund a new wing on the church building. Even members of Graceland church were scratching their heads, thinking Pastor Eli was doing another one of his outrageous fundraising strategies. Like the time he had the youth fasting for 36 hours to raise awareness for famine relief in Sub-Saharan Africa, or the time he handcuffed himself to a pew to raise money to build a well in a poverty-stricken village in Honduras.
But these were not the reasons Pastor Eli was precariously perched on the ledge of the church’s tall steeple tower looking down at the concrete parking lot far below. Something else was going on in his mind that no one in the community was aware of.
Gloria was the first to spot him on her walk home from the Goodwill on County Line Road. She had only been attending Graceland church for a couple weeks because they were the sponsors of the refugee program that placed her in the community. It had been an adjustment for her, moving from her war-torn homeland of Syria to this mostly white, rural township in South Jersey. The church had been as welcoming as they could be under the circumstances, dropping off casseroles and giving her multiple rides to the DMV when she didn't pass the driver's exam the first two times. The rest of the community kept their distance, eyeing her with a mix of curiosity and fear, and making her feel self-conscious and out of place.
Fortunately, one of the heavy wooden doors at the entrance to the sanctuary was unlocked so she was able to walk right in. The AA meeting that usually convened on Monday evenings in the basement had been cancelled, so the building was completely empty. She dropped her bags of secondhand clothes by the door and climbed several flights of stairs to a ladder that led to the roof. She wasn't a fan of heights, so it took all her strength and will to pull herself up the final few rungs.
She moved cautiously across the shingles so she wouldn't slip or startle Pastor Eli and cause him to tumble over the side. She still wasn't sure if he was up there to be closer to God or as a cry for help. His stiff body language suggested to her the latter.
Gingerly, she stepped up onto the narrow ledge of the steeple where Pastor Eli was standing.
"Blessings, Pastor Eli!" she said, unsure what the proper greeting was for a situation like this.
"Gloria? What are you doing up here? Get down before you get hurt!" Pastor Eli urged.
"I could say the same to you," she countered.
"I have my reasons for being up here."
"You want to go inside the church and talk about them?" she tried feebly.
"No, I want to stay up here."
A few cars slowed down to gawk as they passed by but then drove on. Pastor Eli and Gloria stood in silence for several minutes.
"I can't do this anymore!" he finally said.
"You can't do what?" Gloria asked, hoping if she just kept him talking long enough whatever was plaguing him would pass.
"Be the pastor everyone expects, take on all the congregation's burdens, fix the world's problems, any of it."
"That sounds like a lot to carry."
"It is, especially when everyone's putting you on this pedestal and expecting you to keep it all together."
"That makes sense," she affirmed.
"I know I signed up for this, but sometimes I just need a goddamn break from it all. I'm sorry for the language."
"I've heard worse."
Neighbors in the housing subdivision across the street began to congregate in their front yards, squinting to see what was happening at the church.
"It's just that no one thinks to ask how I'm doing. If they did, they'd find out I'm not alright. I'm supposed to shepherd the flock, but what happens when the shepherd isn't well? Who pastors the pastor?"
"That must feel very lonely,” she said softly.
"You have no idea! I can't talk to members about my struggles or my doubts because then it may cause them to struggle and doubt. Or if I told anyone what I was dealing with they might think I'm not fit to lead."
"That's a lot of pressure."
"They look to me to be this perfect leader who is always peppy and hopeful, who never gets angry or sad. But I am sad. I'm more than sad. I've been depressed ever since we lost Deacon Jenning’s little boy to cancer. We prayed for healing for months. I really believed he would live. When I got the call from his dad that he didn't make it, I felt like I had been punched in the gut. Then I had to turn around and preach about the hope of heaven when I was still pissed at God for making me look like a fool for believing the prayers would actually work. I haven't even had a moment to process my own mother's passing last year because I've had to be there for everyone else's crises. When do I get to grieve?"
Gloria nodded knowingly. "Grief is a wound that must be given space and time to heal."
"Then there are all these causes in the world that I'm supposed to be caring about and fighting for, but right now I just want relief. I can't help anyone else. I need help!"
"It's a very brave thing to ask for help. Those who are always helping others but can't accept help for themselves will never know love. Love is a two-way highway."
Pastor Eli sighed. "Being a pastor is a one-way street on a dead-end road!"
Several cars were now pulling into the parking lot including a local news van who was hoping to get a sound bite for the evening news.
"Now everyone is going to see what a failure I am,” Pastor Eli muttered.
"What you're doing is not failure. It's called being vulnerable, being human."
"Pastors aren't allowed to be human,” Pastor Eli rebutted. “That can get you fired."
"Then you shake off the dust and move on to the next place."
"Easy for you to say," Pastor Eli said, then caught himself. "I guess it wasn't that easy for you."
"No, it wasn't. I had to leave a lot of family and friends behind. I've had to be the one in need and receive assistance. You know, I have a PhD in agriculture where I'm from, but I can't pass a simple driver's test here."
"Those are hard tests. They have questions designed to trip you up! It usually takes a couple tries before you pass."
"It's good to know I'm not the only one who struggles with tests," she said.
"No, you're definitely not."
A large group was now forming on the church lawn wondering what was going on above. A couple teenagers were recording on their smart phones in case something viral-worthy happened that they could post on social media.
"We're all a mess Pastor Eli, and none of us can make it alone."
"Just call me Eli, ok?"
He looked down at the long drop to the pavement. "I think I need to see a counselor,” he said quietly. “Something's not right in my head. I've been afraid to take medication for fear of what that says about my faith, but I've had some dark thoughts."
"There's no shame in that. No shame at all."
Eli took a deep breath. "Gloria, I think I'm ready to come down now. I just have to ask you a question, and I want you to tell me the truth."
"Are you an angel?" Eli asked.
Gloria laughed so hard she almost slipped off the ledge. Eli reached out and grabbed her arm to stabilize her.
"Whew! That was close," she said, then looked him in the eyes. "What's the greater miracle Eli, that God sent an angel to minister to you in your moment of need or that you actually allowed a fellow human being to help you for once?"
Eli smiled, then took Gloria’s hand, and together they made their way downstairs to talk to the crowd gathered below.
Shawn Casselberry sees the world in stories. He's written fiction and nonfiction books and is currently working on a book of short stories called, "Strange Fire." He's the co-founder/editor for Story Sanctum and lives in the Chicago area with his wife Jen and their introverted dog Colin. You can check out more of his writing at: www.shawncasselberry.com.