It happened in the back of the former living room we called our chapel. The church itself was an insignificant Flemish rowhouse. Thirty-six chairs crammed the room. Six rows of six. When half of them got filled, we boasted on the Church’s growth in our city.
One Sunday, the old man walked in. Shabby, bizarre. Sacrament meeting had already started. He must have seen the sign out front, roughly painted on a wooden board: “Kerk van Jezus Christus van de Heiligen der Laatste Dagen – Vrije toegang – Iedereen welkom”. Indeed, Free entrance – All welcome. He sat down on a chair on the last row, with a serene look as if he had been coming to Church for years. His dog, on a worn out leash, lay down next to him. It was a cur of sorts, old, ugly, sleepy.
As we said our Amen to the closing prayer, the visitor had already slipped out of the building.
A week later he was back. The usher was prepared:
- Err… good morning… Normally, we don’t allow dogs in the building.
The man mumbled something which sounded like good dog, no bark, no bite. And took his seat, the dog quietly at his feet.
The branch presidency discussed what should be done. For once someone had entered the Church on his own initiative! The handbook? It did not say dogs were not allowed. Of course we would not count the animal as a visitor on our attendance report, only the old man. And one more chair filled helped our progression to converting the whole city. So, with a conditional “unless he starts barking…”, we avoided an expulsion nobody would volunteer to execute anyway.
Besides, those who could have seen the rest of our tiny congregation would have understood our leniency.
He kept coming for months. When the Sacrament was passed, he would reach out his arm well in advance, to make sure he would not be omitted. The first time he came, our only deacon had skillfully ignored him, following instructions that the Sacrament was not for non-members, and, in free interpretation, certainly not for a vagabond with a dog. The man had looked dejected when the deacon passed by. Now, with his arm raised and his eyes eagerly turned to the approaching boy, who could refuse him the bread and the cup?
But he was unteachable. As missionaries or members tried to strike up a conversation, he would mutter a few unintelligible sounds. When we asked for his name, he got nervous. Still, he kept coming and simply blended into our Primitive church. Members shook his hand. A lonely child cuddled the sleepy, grubby mutt who was as deaf as a post.
Our only concern was the Sacrament and the dog. Each time the old man partook of the bread, the dog would lift his head in a quiet, unassuming movement to look at his master. Did he expect his part? We knew we could not tolerate that, and prayed inwardly the man would not take a second piece. He never did, but each Sunday the ritual of the dog’s lifting eyes, our anxiety and subsequent relief became part of thinking of the atonement.
One day, the drifter entered without his dog. His beard snotty, his back deeper bent than usual.
- Dog dead, he said.
That Sunday, he did not partake of the Sacrament, even when the deacon touched him lightly on his shoulder.
He left softly. It was the last we saw of him.