Everything changed when Tyko came to church.
Ours was an isolated branch. Just a handful of members met in this worn out rowhouse, a remnant of workmen’s poverty, on a street called Galgenberg — Gibbet’s Hill. The mission president, let alone visiting authorities, never made it to our tiny Mormon unit in Ghent. My college studies had brought me to this gray city, one of Flanders’ medieval townships.
In the branch I was the only one my age. The others were in their fifties and beyond, single women, retirees. We were all fairly recent converts, a cluster of inexperienced heiligen der laatste dagen — Latter-day saints, making the best of rainy Sundays which seemed all similar. A dozen chairs in front of the make-shift pulpit sufficed.
He entered when sacrament meeting was about to start. Rather small and lean, broadly smiling, he shook hands with each of us:
– I’m brother Tyko, a member from Finland!
He was a sailor working for a Dutch shipping company. The tanker he worked on was now docked in the harbor of Ostend, so he had come down to the closest branch to enjoy the fellowship of the Saints.
His twinkling eyes and colorful broken Dutch lifted our little group out of its seclusion, out of the tedium we had adopted as our fate. At the end of the meeting, during which he was asked to speak and bear his testimony, we gathered around him, thanked him for his visit, and wished him well on his next travel over the ocean.
He was back the next Sunday. He would be around for one or two more weeks, he said, as his ship needed repairs. In our corner at Gibbet’s Hill, the sailor from Finland opened windows with ample views. He told us of places he had been, temples he had seen, church meetings he had attended in exotic harbors: Papeete, Valparaiso, Honolulu, Puerto Rico. Yes, there are Mormons in all those places!
Tyko conveyed to us the pride of the universality of the Church.
The repairs to his ship took longer than expected. The fortnight turned into weeks. A member arranged for lodging in Ghent, so Tyko wouldn’t have to travel back and forth to Ostend. No, of course he wouldn’t have to pay any rent. And would he please hop in for lunch or dinner with one or the other member?
He rewarded us. Tyko had been to Salt Lake City, the Rome and Mecca of our faith, the utopia at the other end of the world. He spoke of the broad streets laid out by Brigham Young, the tabernacle where a pin dropped in the pulpit can be heard at the back of the hall, the Seagull monument, the Mormon Handcart statue, the majestic temple. His hands drew sizes and shapes in the air, transforming our dim, moldy meeting room into Temple Square, where visitors from all nations walk between flowerbeds and listen in the sun to the message of the Restoration.
Weeks became months. Tyko told us he had been laid off as his shipping company was heading to bankruptcy.
– I’m trying to muster in with other companies. The prospects are good.
When it became clear he was low on cash, waiting for promised pay, the members chipped in with little loans.
At all times Tyko carried his sailor’s gear bag with him, medium size, sturdy.
– I must always be ready to go. A carrier may want me on a ship right away.
He added, whispering:
– Also, I never leave it alone. I have my temple clothing in there.
We looked at the bag with due respect. Most of us had not been to the temple yet.
– I hope my next ship takes me to a harbor close to the House of the Lord.
With Tyko around, Sunday school turned into a fest. He had a way of infusing into the lesson a doctrinal succulence. He would listen intently to the teacher, who did little more than reading from the book, would nod in encouraging approval and say:
– I’m sure you have also heard how the City of Enoch will return to the earth. There will be three great holy cities. The Old Jerusalem in Israel, the New Jerusalem to be built in Missouri, and then this City of Enoch. We don’t know where it will come down, but it might just as well be very close to our place here …
One fast Sunday, as he was giving his testimony, his voice cracked, and, unable to utter another word, he wept quietly. His quivering lip expressed a yearning unexplained. His emotion seemed to hid a deeper tale, an anguish from another life.
Tyko had settled in a routine of dinners at the homes of a few old sisters, widows who fed him, did his laundry, found better clothes for him. He made himself useful, painting a room, cleaning up a cellar, repairing a crumbling garden wall. His little loans started to add up.
Suspicion began to nag the branch president. He mentioned the case to someone in the district who contacted the mission president who enquired further. Information came back on a Saturday evening: Shiny blond hair? Athletic, but rather small and lean? Claims to be a sailor? Profiting from members’ hospitality? Used to be a member. Excommunicated. Has been spotted in a branch in England and also in Germany. Used different names. There’s an international warrant out on him for embezzlement. Now that you know, you should notify the police, otherwise you risk being viewed as an accomplice for harboring him.
Sorrow engulfed us. And resentment: all those times he had accepted the invitation to bless the sacrament!
But turn in Tyko? None of us could.
When he entered our building that Sunday, he understood at once, as he gauged the desolation of our group standing in the hall. The branch president intended to talk him into surrending, but he lifted his hands in a gesture of both refusal and apology, stepped backwards to the street, his eyes a blend of defiance and distress. On the threshold he turned around and walked away.
A few of us went out on the sidewalk to see him stroll down Gibbet’s Hill, his sailor’s bag wobbling on his side. Someone mumbled something about wolves in sheep’s clothing.
Sister D’Hooghe shouted his name and waved.
– Fare well, brother!
He disappeared behind the corner.