“I believe you were just now saying ‘grace,’ so you must be believers?” I said to the little couple seated across from us at the long communal tables stretching forty feet down the dining hall of the Noriega Hotel Basque Restaurant in Bakersfield, CA.
This is community style not family style dining where a hundred guests now sat wall to wall. The first of seven courses (Basque bread, salsa, soup and beans) was already on the table. Before we had all found our napkins, he had shyly taken her hand, they quietly bowed their heads for thirty seconds, then looked up to meet our watching eyes..
“Believers? Oh yes, we are Pentecostals,” he replied.
Mid-eighties, she with grey hair tightly pulled back into a bun, he with galluses over a buttoned white long sleeved shirt, They could have been two plain Mennonites from Lancaster County Pennsylvania.
“Wonderful,” I say, adding, “We are also believers. In a restaurant, we raise our hands and say, “Do you solemnly affirm, before God and these witnesses, that you are grateful for the food you are about to receive and for the friends with whom you share it?’
All down the table a dozen people within earshot raised their hands and said, “We do.” Then we all said “Amen,” and began the multi-course Basque dinner. Even more stimulating, we continued an amazing, warm and friendly conversation among the fifteen or twenty in the mid-table stretch.
“Pentecostal? You folks are growing in amazing numbers. I have a close friend who is the Pentecostal representative in conversations with the Vatican on the massive conversions of Catholics into Pentecostal churches in South America—you are growing exponentially down there.”
“Yes, we are. We are the fulfillment of prophesy. It is all foretold in the book of Revelations. We are the manifestation of the final sign of the end of the age,” he began and then quoted John the Revelator with finality and authority. Darby would have been proud of his clarity and certainty.
“It is the promise of ‘all nations’ and we are the fulfillment.”
“Now isn’t this fascinating?” I replied. “Here we are a whole group of us talking over dinner at the Noriega about The Revelation to John.”
“It is the most fascinating, the most revealing book in the Bible.”
“I’ve found that many Pentecostals tend to read the gospels through the lens of the Book of Revelations. As a Mennonite, I read Revelations through the lens of the Gospels. We see it from two different ends. It looks surprisingly different, if you look at faith and life through the teachings of Jesus or through the eyes of John.”
“Never thought about it that way,” explodes the tattooed Goth style black T- shirted 300 pound young man seated on his left—my image of a gang banger—“but it does make sense. I think I try to wear the Jesus lenses, to ask what Jesus taught.”
I look at him in incredulity—this rebel in scary clothing is talking about Jesus.
“What do you do?” I ask, more than a tad surprised and much impressed by his response.
“I direct a street ministry for abused women and sex trafficking in Bakersfield,” he said. (So much for my stereotyping by appearance.) He soon reveals what a gentle spirit and caring heart he has for the forgotten and ignored. He is non-denominational, he repeatedly says, (a growing denomination, I failed to point out.) Later as he is getting up to leave, he would offer his final word to us, “Just let me tell you all to be ready, Christ will return in 2017. The Scriptures have given us the clue to know the date. Definitely, it will be in November, 2017. He is coming back.”
“What is even more exciting, He is here now,” I say, and am surprised by the “Yes” responses from a half dozen voices up and down the table.
“I didn’t know when I came to the Noriega tonight that it would be a ‘come to Jesus meeting’,” Leann says, and we all laugh in recognition.
But in between the first prayer or the announcement of the schedule for the rapture there were many warm and often funny exchanges. Like when the sliced pickled tongue vinaigrette salad was served, the Pentecostal brother turned up his nose asking “What is that?”—so I offered him the plate first saying, “Brother may I give you the gift of tongues?” And he declined ruefully. As he did when we passed around the red wine the Basques serve.
The family on the right soon entered the conversation to tell of teaching high school in Shafter, Leann’s alma mater, of Mennonite colleagues and shared friends. Then we learned that the man across the table is church organist at First Methodist, Los Altos up near San Jose. We discussed Buxtehude, Widor and Bach. I mentioned my former colleague Orlando Schmidt who could play Widor so presto that he emptied the chapel in quick step.
At some point I told of how Orlando and his Catholic priest friend toured Europe to see all the organs Bach played and getting to play several of them. As a musician, he loved the story, somehow I added that Orlando was a man who had suffered deeply, his wife and son burned to death in front of his eyes when their Pinto was rear-ended on the 55 near Bloomington Il. “It was not the divinity of Jesus that saved my sanity through all that, it was His humanity,” Orlando would say often. I mentioned that as years passed his witness was highly respected even though it became clear that he was gay, his having suffered so much so faithfully silenced any who might have criticized him.” Leann heard the Pentecostal man ask his wife, “ Should we leave?” when a good word was said about a godly gay man. She shook her head “No,” after all, the garlic chicken was arriving as the fifth course, to be followed by the pork ribs. And then the blue cheese plate (our Pentecostal friends tasted blue cheese for the first time, but it was not pleasing to their tongues). The topics returned to their comfort zone.
Our Goth garbed brother tells of intervention into sex trafficking and I realize how valuable tattoos are in identification, solidarity, and connection with many he serves. As we are talking about sharing Jesus, I mentioned what I learned from the late Clarence Bauman quoting, “I often wonder when folks talk about Jesus, which Jesus? I have learned to ask: 1) do you have clear beliefs about Jesus? 2) do you believe in Jesus? 3) do you believe Jesus? 4) do you believe what Jesus believed? The first is orthodoxy, the second Pietism, the third discipleship, the fourth is doing what you do ‘on the streets of Bakersfield’ caring for the oppressed and the misused and abused.“
“Now that is good” the Pentecostal man said with conviction. “That’s where it’s at, the Goth said,
To the right a family from Alhambra had brought a guest newly arrived from Berlin to eat Basque food, so then a few lines of Deutsch were exchanged. The ice cream came and we passed all the left over blue cheese from the whole long table down to the German man who wanted it instead of the “Eis.”
As people rose to leave, we got the final parting “heads up on the second coming 11/17. It was a bit like saying goodbye after a church potluck. The Methodists and the Mennonites stayed behind to reflect on the mystery of how different faiths meet. We were still chuckling together as we got into our cars in the parking lot and waved “So long.”
Now that we are getting closer to 2017 and the “second coming,” I reflect on the many comings of Jesus, surprising us as we break bread.