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Three years earlier
Calvin Harper exchanged the highway for a two-lane county road that stumbled down into a valley between two Appalachian peaks, or what would have been peaks millions of years ago, but which were now more like exaggerated humps in the terrain. They were not imposing like the Rockies. They didn't pierce the sky like mountains do in pictures from scenic calendars. Rather, they lay comfortably on the earth, like the lumps a sound sleeper makes under the covers. Evergreens and deciduous trees carpeted both squat mountains, and a hundred shades of high summer green painted on them a kind of contented, venerable majesty that the adolescent Rockies will not match until wind and time have scrubbed away their rough edges.
Calvin followed the winding road down into the valley, which fell north to south between the two slopes. Calvin could see dozens of houses peeking out from the dense cover of trees on the opposite slope. As he descended, the density of houses on his side of the valley grew thicker until there were enough of them for a generous person to collect them with the word "neighborhood."
A weathered sign, which had skipped its last three or four repainting appointments, greeted Calvin at the spot in the county road where the slope gave way to level ground. He stopped for a traffic light, the first he had encountered since leaving the interstate, and read the sign. "Victory—Established 1781—B&O Railroad 1842—State Football Champions 1981, 1982, 1994." Beneath the sign hung half a dozen plaques announcing the local societies: Rotarians, Elks, the VFW, and some he couldn't read.
Calvin's eyes passed over the rest of the plaques and fell on a rusted metal sign hanging at the bottom. A shield dominated the sign: red cross on a white field, a patch of blue in the northwest corner. The once bold colors were now pastel, and the once bold writing was now faded nearly to illegibility. But Calvin knew what the sign said without reading it: "The Episcopal Church Welcomes You."
He smiled at the familiar words, knowing people all over the country were driving into towns and seeing similar signs. But the smile drooped as he strained to read the particulars below the message: "St. John's—across the railroad tracks—two blocks—on right." Calvin put the car in gear as the light turned green and ventured into Victory, wondering how true the cheerful message of welcome was in a small town nestled between two demoted mountains.
The car bumped over the railroad tracks, and Calvin looked down the row of old buildings for a first glimpse of St. John's. He could tell the downtown area of Victory, which straddled the tracks, had thrived in years past. There were too many buildings down the main drag and clustered near it along the side streets for Victory always to have been a small, tired town.
But now many storefronts were shuttered and dark. Calvin couldn't tell if they were out of business or simply closed, though it seemed strange local businesses would be closed in the middle of a weekday. Some locations were obviously vacant: windows hid behind hastily hammered plywood, upon which was spray-painted, "4 Sale," and a phone number to contact someone named Wally.
Three buildings on the block past the railroad tracks had names carved into the stone of their lintels: Town Hall, Firehouse #2, Williams Inn. But the building displaying the words "Town Hall" also sported a banner announcing it as the location for the summer semester of a local community college. Firehouse #2 was a Chinese restaurant named Year of the Dragon. Williams Inn had a collection of mailboxes tacked to its grimy brick wall and a small forest of satellite TV antennae sprouting from its patch of front lawn, and Calvin realized it was no longer a hotel, but what must be tiny apartments.
By no means a ghost town, Victory bore all the hallmarks of being left to its own devices when the town's main industry fled. Calvin didn't know what that industry was exactly, but it was the same story all over the state—plants closing, mines cutting back, aging workforce, young people choosing to live anywhere but there. What saved Victory from falling off the map entirely, Calvin's bishop had told him, was the elderly population. Fifteen years ago, there had been a single nursing home in the town. Now there were five, plus another half dozen assisted- and independent-living facilities for seniors.
"And what comes along with elderly people?" the bishop had asked. Before Calvin could respond, the bishop answered his own question. "Doctors. Nurses. Orderlies. Lab techs. Paramedics. Janitors. Estate lawyers. People at the Y who teach water aerobics." He ticked off each one on a finger. "And those folks have families." The bishop picked up a magazine from his desk and tossed it to Calvin. "In that issue, the AARP rates Victory as one of the top ten retirement communities in the country. And you're their new priest."
* * *
Calvin parked his car on the street half a block past St. John's. He was surprised and pleased to see the church stood out from the rest of the buildings on Washington Street. The steeple was easily the highest point this side of the railroad tracks, and the bricks of the church's exterior seemed shinier than those of the surrounding buildings. The mortar in between bricks crumbled only here and there, and the bell, visible in the tower above, gleamed in the midafternoon sun. On first glance, the only things Calvin disliked about the exterior of St. John's were the windows. A layer of Plexiglas protected each window, but the outside panels were so caked with the filth of years that Calvin had only a vague impression the church owned stained glass at all.
He walked up the three steps to the front door and pulled. It was a massive, iron-studded oak thing that would look more at home on a castle keep. And it was locked. Calvin looked at his watch. It was only 2:30 in the afternoon. He looked left and right, hoping to see a sign with hours or directions to the church's office. With no sign in sight, he circled the building and found the door to the office three-quarters of the way around, also up three steps. This door was locked too. He peered in the small window set in the door only to see a dark hallway and several more closed doors.
Calvin continued his circuit of the grounds, and as he was about to turn back onto the sidewalk, he spied a small door set into the side of the church. He walked up to it and was surprised to find the door was much smaller than any door had a right to be. He couldn't possibly understand what this door was designed to accomplish, but he tried it anyway. Locked, of course. Or was it? He tugged again and realized the door was locked only by a crossbar, like the kind you'd find on the door to the castle keep he had imagined earlier. He stood at the door for a few moments, thinking.
Now, in the ensuing minutes, Calvin made three mistakes. First, he decided it was a perfectly good and normal idea to force open the small door. He cast around for something thin enough to slip through the gap between the door and frame and strong enough to lift the bar without breaking. There was nothing in the churchyard but sticks and twigs. Then he snapped his fingers and ran back to the car. As a going away present, his parents had given him a set of pots and pans along with various other cooking implements. Calvin had stored them in the passenger seat because he had already packed the rest of the car. He rummaged for a moment and then pulled out a brand new chef's knife. He jogged back to the small door and began maneuvering his makeshift lever into place. This, of course, was his second mistake.
"What in the world are you doing, boy?"
Calvin froze at the sound of a clipped voice behind him. As the question hung in the air, he took a single moment to wonder the same thing. What was he doing?
"Turn around slowly with your hands where I can see them."
Calvin turned around slowly with his hands where the police officer could see them. He looked up and was mildly surprised to see the knife clutched in his right hand. So too, it seemed, was the police officer, who took a step back and put his hand on his holster.
"Drop the weapon."
Calvin dropped the weapon. It spun gracefully out of his hand and buried itself in the soft earth of an unkempt flowerbed bordering the church's wall.
"You must be some kind of stupid, boy, breaking into a church in broad daylight."
And this is when Calvin made his third mistake. He laughed. It began as a grin and then a chuckle escaped between his teeth and, before he could catch it and pull it back in, another followed and soon the absurdity of the situation was spilling from his lips in waves of unbridled hilarity.
By the fact that Calvin ended up in the back of the police cruiser, he could tell the officer did not agree with his assessment of the situation.
"So you weren't breaking in, you say?" asked the officer after Calvin had calmed down.
"No, sir," said Calvin. "I mean, I was breaking in, but it's not a crime."
"Oh, it's not a crime. Perhaps I missed the day they taught 'Breaking and Entering' at Police Academy, then?"
This time a chuckle escaped between the officer's teeth, but it held no mirth.
"I apologize. I'm not explaining this right, sir."
"Then. Try. Again."
"This is my church. I'm the priest. Well, I will be. Today's my first day. I don't have a key yet, and there's no one here, even though the administrator is supposed to be in the office. I just wanted a look inside, and I guess I wasn't thinking straight. I've been driving all day."
It all came out in one breath. Deflated, Calvin slumped forward and placed his forehead on the grill between the front and back seats of the police car.
"Aren't you a little too young and a little too stupid to be a priest?" asked the officer.
"Well, sir, I'm not too young."
The officer chuckled again, and this time a hint of amusement crept in. Then he laughed a single time. It came out like a bark, and as he laughed, he toggled his radio. "Dispatch. This is 127. Got a kid here. Caught B&E in progress at St. Jack's side door. Says he's the new priest."
"Copy 127," hissed the radio. "Hold on a sec, Carter."
Officer Carter eyed Calvin, who gave him a weak, defeated smile. Carter answered the smile with a look that said, "Wait till I tell my wife about this one." A long moment passed. Then another voice spoke from the tinny radio.
"Yeah, 127, this is the Chief. What's his name?"
Carter shot Calvin an inquisitive look.
"The Reverend Calvin Harper," said Calvin.
Carter thumbed his radio again. "Says his name is Calvin Harper."
The Chief's own laughter crackled over the radio. "He is the new priest at St. Jack's, Carter. Cut him loose."
Carter put down the radio and stared at Calvin. Calvin's smile widened, until the look of defeat turned into one of triumph.
"Oh, and Carter," said the Chief. "Help him get that door open."
* * *
The sound of Officer Carter's police cruiser roaring down the street faded as Calvin closed the small door behind him. He found himself on a square landing about a third of the way up a staircase, which made its curling ascent to the choir loft. The shadowy narthex below him looked uninviting, so Calvin took the stairs in the direction of a soft, purple light emanating from what he guessed was the circular stained glass window set high in the west wall of the church. As he took the first step up, his head brushed the ceiling, and he noticed just how narrow the staircase was. At a hair less than six feet tall, Calvin wasn't used to stooping to go up stairs, but these stairs in particular seemed peculiarly shrunken.
His steps echoed in the empty church until he reached the loft. An old oriental rug muffled his footfalls as he navigated a jumble of folding chairs that might have once been arranged in a semicircle around the organ's console. The purple light was, indeed, coming from the rose window, which adorned the wall behind the loft. Seen from the street, this window was a dirty hole in an otherwise clean brick exterior. Seen from within, the window sparkled with story. The dove of the Holy Spirit stretched its wings from the central pane of the window. The spokes springing from this central pane displayed vines that twisted their way outward and bore fruit in a dozen different colors, all of which stood out gleefully against the soft, purple background. The vine of each spoke ended in a word: faith, meekness, temperance, love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness.
Calvin smiled at seeing the King James language and wondered how many people over the four hundred years since the translation's birth had been told their gift of the Spirit was "longsuffering." The modern translation, "patience," just doesn't have the same ring to it, he thought.
He continued surveying the window until his eyes landed once again on the word that had first caught them: faith. What was it that Hebrews said about faith? Things hoped for. Something about "unseen." Calvin scanned the patchy Bible in his mind and was surprised when he remembered the verse for which he was searching. "Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen."
He slumped down onto one of the folding chairs near the organ's console. Assurance. Conviction. If there were two things Calvin had less of concerning his coming to Victory, he couldn't think of them. He looked out from the loft to the darkened church below. The soft light from the rose window fell on his back, but it did not extend past the edge of the loft. He could see the edges of the pews outlined in the faint light of the other windows. He could make out the shapes of the lectern and pulpit and rail and altar. But everything was dim, leeched of color, as if Calvin were just waking up in the hour before dawn and couldn't quite understand all the shapes of the perfectly ordinary things in his bedroom.
The bishop had sent him to Victory as Priest-in-Charge. Calvin could have refused to take the assignment, but that was never really an option—not for a priest fresh from seminary, which was partially paid for by diocesan funds. The assignment. He turned the word over his tongue. When priests go to new churches, they are supposed to be called there, called by God and by the people of the church. Not assigned. Not tossed in the ring because no one more qualified would take the position.
Calvin crossed his arms over his chest and allowed a wave of self-pity to wash over him. He was a stranger in a strange land. He was alone. No one had even come to the church to welcome him. He nursed the pity until it mutated into full-fledged self-satisfaction. He had taken one for the team. No one else wanted the job, but he had done his duty. He was Jonah if Jonah had gone straight to Nineveh like a good little prophet. A smug grin began at one ear and played across his face, but it turned sour before it reached the other side. The Ninevites listened to Jonah, but he still ended up alone on the hillside.
The pity returned and mingled with the satisfaction, and Calvin sank into the depths of self-righteous lamentation. He didn't deserve this. He had always done everything everyone had asked of him, and he still got banished to the radar station in Alaska? How was that fair? He should be on the staff at some big, suburban church, not the hospice chaplain at this backwoods church on life support. Calvin stopped for a moment and looked for more reasons to lament his situation. He remembered the small door and the shrunken staircase. And to top it off, I don't even fit inside the building.
And then he remembered more of his conversation with the bishop. "It's one of the oldest churches in the diocese, son—both the people and the building. Built way before the railroad went through. You know, there wasn't even a West Virginia yet." And all at once Calvin realized why the door was so small and why the staircase was so shrunken. The side door was once the slaves' entrance. The choir loft was once the slaves' balcony. There must have been enough fertile ground in between the low mountains for some sort of farming operation. Tobacco, perhaps? Calvin didn't know the history of the area, but he knew he was right about where he was sitting. When he looked around the loft and imagined dozens of enslaved people huddled close together listening to a white preacher using the Bible to justify the slaves' dehumanizing servitude, the pity and satisfaction and self-righteous lamentation fled from him.
He sat there, hollowed and ashamed. "What am I doing here?" he said aloud to no one in particular, except perhaps to God, though if he was praying, he didn't realize it at the time.
Excerpted from Letters from Ruby by Adam Thomas. Copyright © 2013 Adam Thomas. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted October 28, 2013
Bridging the Generations
The back cover of Letters From Ruby states “Not everything a young pastor needs to now can be taught in school” which sums up the first novel by Episcopal priest Adam Thomas quite well. As I work with many young ministers during my day job, I can attest to the truth of this statement and that much of what happens in ministry as well as any job must be experienced in real life. The main character, Calvin, quickly steps on toes and identifies the congregation’s official and unofficial leaders. Shortly after his arrival, Calvin experiences both the death of a parishioner as well as the birth and baptism of a new generation. Throughout his experiences in Victory, Calvin can count on his Morning Prayer ladies to guide him.
Thomas uses a variety of techniques to share Calvin’s adventures as a young priest as well as the story of Ruby and her husband. Calvin’s story begins in the present and then via flashback tells the story of his time in Victory, West Virginia when he first meets Ruby. His flashback is prompted by a letter from Ruby which, as the title indicates, appears regularly throughout the book. The juxtaposition of Calvin’s story and the letters give the reader almost the feeling of reading two stories at once yet the two techniques work together to tell an integrated story.
Some readers may be unfamiliar with various terms used in Letters from Ruby as it is set in an Episcopal church. Author, Adam Thomas, explains some unfamiliar terms and practices in passing, yet also expects readers to have some familiarity. Reading this book just may entice you to seek out a local Episcopal congregation to visit. Letters from Ruby shows how much different generations can learn from each other. As such, this book will appeal to individuals who enjoy a warm WWII romance and those who are looking for a more contemporary story as well. I hope to see more books from Adam Thomas in the future and perhaps even more about Calvin as he continues to grow in his ministry.
I received an advanced reader's copy of this book from Abingdon Press in exchange for an honest review.
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Posted November 2, 2013
I recently fell hard for a fictional character: Ruby Redding, the star of Adam Thomas’s novel, Letters from Ruby. Ruby is a feisty octogenarian who ministers to others with her pep talks, her prayers, her piano playing . . . and her pen.
Ruby reminds me of some of the older folks I’ve treasured in my life. I love how her legacy of wise words influences all those around her. Here’s how her story goes . . .
When Calvin Harper arrives at Victory, West Virginia’s St. John’s Episcopal Church—St. Jacks-across-the-tracks—he’s a scared 25-year-old with a bad haircut and a brand new seminary degree. He knows little of life. And most of what he knows about God comes from his books. Fortunately, God sends an expert to take Calvin under her wing—80-something Ruby Redding.
In her pearls and cardigan sweater, Ruby may look like she just stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting, but there’s nothing posed about her joyful nature and her deep love for God. Ruby’s faith sort of rubs off on people. All who meet her find themselves changed, including Calvin.
This novel begins with an older Calvin being prompted to reminisce about his time at St. John’s when he discovers a stash of Ruby’s letters in the midst of moving into a new home . . .
“Calvin traced the loops and lines of Ruby’s signature. It was graceful and beautiful without being ostentatious. Like its owner, thought Calvin. He ran his finger along the signature a second time. Wishing you all good things, too. He looked at the stacks of letters in his lap and then looked at the living room where all the pictures still needed hanging. ‘They can wait.’ As Calvin pulled out Ruby’s letter, he thought back to those days in Victory. ‘Dear, dear, Ruby,’ he said again. ‘All of them dear to me.’ He took the last sip of lemonade, rocked the chair back on two legs, and waded out into the depths of memory.”
As Calvin recalls his past—his first day when he was almost arrested for breaking into the church, meeting Ruby and her quirky cronies, baptizing babies, sitting by the hospital beds of the folks he’d come to love, filling his plate at church picnics—each chapter of his experiences ends with a letter from Ruby.
What I Liked Best . . .
• Being treated to Ruby’s story in her own words.
• Reading about her World War II romances. (Love that time period!)
• Ruby’s relationship with her husband Whit, a beautiful love story that spans sixty years.
My Life Lesson Takeaway & Favorite Quote . . . “You think you have all the time in the world to get to know someone, but a year, two years, fifty years—it’s never enough. There is always something you never said out loud, although you meant to. It hides somewhere in your heart waiting for the right moment to be said.” Ruby
What a blessing when we take the time to share those special words with the people we love before it’s too late.
Posted October 30, 2013
Letters from Ruby, by Adam Thomas, was heartwarming and inspirational.
Reverend Calvin Hooper's character was written perfectly as a newly ordained priest. I was glad to see Ruby Redding helping him. He was certainly lost as to what to do with a new and elderly congregation.
Rev. Hooper spent a lot of time with the older women's group of the church. While I thought it was interesting, I would have enjoyed more interaction with the men of the church.
Letters from Ruby would be best for women.
Disclosure of Material Connection- I received Letters from Ruby by Adam Thomas for free from Abingdon Press. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255.
Posted October 28, 2013
Imagine yourself a newly-minted pastor, sent out to lead your first church. I've actually been there, done that, and it's not hard to imagine. It's the point where the rubber meets the road, and you realize just how much you have left to learn. Adam Thomas' new novel Letters from Ruby looks into just that situation. Calvin Harper is new to the ministry, new to rural life, and newly being arrested for attempting to break into the church, because he has no key!
This start kicks off a novel told as a series of flashbacks about young Rev. Harper's first charge in the ministry. These flashbacks are interspersed with personal letters written to the reverend after he has been reassigned to a different ministry. As a general fiction read, it was great fun, and a novel that I am not troubled to leave laying around my home for even my pre-teen daughter to glance through. It may not quite be exciting enough for her tastes, but it is certainly acceptable reading for her.
I found the characters to be fully believable within Thomas' Letters from Ruby. This may be because I have also pastored that first church in a rural setting, though I lacked a Ruby to get me through much of it. Others may not have been able to put faces with names as I could, but I assure you that I had both faces and different names for each and every character of Letters from Ruby.
Letters From RubyPlot-wise, Letters from Ruby does not move very quickly. This may drive a few readers to put the book down and come back later, but it presents a fairly good picture of pastoral life: Rev. Harper has a few days like I have had: wall-to-wall for 48 hours, then rather sleepy for weeks!
As a novel, Letters from Ruby works well, though it is not a nail-biter or heart-pumper. For some, the typical life stages shown in the book may bring tears, but for others they only reflect what we experience on a daily basis. I liked this as a novel.
I liked Letters from Ruby even better as a pastoral brain-pusher. Many times, I see pastors (and I have myself) run splat into the wall of reality in their opening years of ministry. However, a few real-life lessons are helpful to remind us of how success should truly be measured in ministry. While Thomas does not explicitly cite how he learned these lessons, it is clear to me that he has some experience in these moments.
I also liked the reminder of the value of personal letters. If I found a fault here, it would be that Letters from Ruby is written by an Episcopalian about Episcopalians, and this Baptist isn't quite sure what the traditions and habits of The Episcopal Church actually are! So, while some readers will know immediately what schedules and services Rev. Harper is keeping, it was a shade lost on me. That only detracts from my nerd-nature in reading the book for information, but brings no harm on reading for enjoyment.
(Note: no pastors were harmed in the making of this book. Also, the publisher provided a copy of this book in exchange for the review. No requirements were placed other than the date of the review.)
Posted September 24, 2013
Very young, wet behind the ears but ready to serve the Lord, Calvin Harper arrives at his first parish in the small town of Victory as their new priest. Being a bit nervous and shy he has no idea what to expect. Morning Prayer is always attended by four quirky, elderly ladies that break him in quickly: Avis, Esther Rose, Mary, and Ruby. From their first awkward meeting he never dreamed the impact these women would have on his life, especially Ruby. She takes the new priest gently under her wing, encouraging, guiding, and teaching him not only about dealing with all the different personalities in his new church, but also about life.
They bond as the story of Calvin navigating the perils of his new ministry unfolds. He grows with Ruby’s help by learning to face each challenge through God’s eyes, not the circumstances he faces. Although Calvin only serves at the church for three years, he grows very close to Ruby and her husband.
When he is assigned to a new church in Boston, Ruby keeps in touch my writing him. These letters are very personal in nature, sharing about her childhood, young adulthood, courtship, and marriage with her beloved husband, Whit. This is where you get a glimpse the World War 2 era through the eyes of the young people of that time. My favorites were the love letters she exchanged with the two soldiers in her life. The poignancy and sensitivity with which the author writes these letters, it is hard to believe they were not real. Her correspondences also reveal the heartaches and hardships faced by senior citizen as they age.
This book was a blessing in several ways. I found it a sheer pleasure to read. Also, Ruby‘s character was such a blessing in her godly, peacemaking attitude in dealing with others, and her great faith and courage in dealing with her own trials. But one of the most surprising ways it touched me was totally unexpected. Some of the women in the story faced the death of their cherished husbands. Their struggles and emotions in comforted me as I had just lost my precious husband a month earlier. This book is beautifully written and touches you on every emotional level you can conceive. Definitely one you want to read!
I received this book free from Abingdon Press. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.