my lesson in interfaith organizing
Andy Warhol painting of a Campbell's soup can, circa 1965
About 1966, when I was 10 and my brother David was 4 years old, he left his plastic ride-on Campbell’s soup can in the parking lot of the Presbyterian church across from our house in California. It wasn’t our church but we made obstacle courses from their parking cones on quiet weekdays. We must have been called in for dinner and stuck David on the front of someone’s bike, abandoning his precious vehicle. After supper, with David crying and Mom yelling, we three big kids searched until it was really dark and scary but we couldn’t find it.
A day or two later, we saw it through the window of the church’s preschool room. The Presbyterians had stolen David’s Soup Can!
We made a secret plan. We told David he couldn’t come, it was too dangerous and secret. We left him home, crying but hopeful. We rode our bikes around the church until a workmen’s van pulled away, leaving open a door to the second-story fire escape, to ventilate a freshly painted hallway. We posted a couple of neighbor kids as lookouts. We sneaked up the fire escape, into the hall, careful not to touch the walls, rolling each foot down heel-toe like dancers so our sneakers wouldn’t squeak.
We had to pass the Pastor’s study. He was bent over a sermon, concentrating. We took it one at a time, three giant silent steps past his open door, holding our breath, so quiet we could hear his pen scratch.
Steve and Laurie stood guard outside the preschool room. I tip-toed in there, grabbed the Soup Can, and then we ran — back upstairs to the second floor, down that fresh-paint-smelling hallway, down the fire escape… Where the Pastor was waiting for us, having strolled out the back door while we were scampering through his church. Our look-outs were nowhere to be seen.
“Hello,” he said, “What are your names?” We were supposed to say our Star Trek names if we got caught, so I said, “I’m Noelle Nikant.” And Steve said, “I’m Serok,” just like we’d practiced. And Laurie said, “I’m Laurie,” so Steve said, “No, she made that up, her name is Onli Merrill.” The Pastor just looked at us and we waited to see what he would do with kids who were liars and thieves.
“What brings you here?,” he asked. So I told him the truth: that someone from his preschool had captured our baby brother’s Campbell Soup Can, but we rescued it so David would stop crying. I said our real names and where we lived, across the street. I explained we were careful not to touch the wet paint, not to touch anything, only the Soup Can. (Laurie mentioned she had told her real name to begin with). I asked him, please don’t tell our parents.
The Pastor was stern but said we were brave. He said he wouldn’t tell if we promised we would never sneak inside the church again without permission. He said, next time, you could knock on the door, and ask for what you need.
This was my first adventure with interfaith organizing. With being a fearless and successful captain, planning and accomplishing a mission, rescuing my little brother from misery, righting a wrong, lying and trespassing, being betrayed by unreliable volunteers and a sister with too much integrity and a loyal brother with clumsy subterfuge. Being graced with privilege (white kids, white pastor, quiet exurb, no cops, no “stand your ground”). Feeling accomplished, mortified, forgiven, and foolish, all at once.
I’m still parsing those lessons. Still too often inclined to assume some treasured thing was taken away, rather than rescued and preserved. Still doubting the likelihood of kindness and generosity, still astonished and moved to tears by its abundant presence. Still, in an unhealed hurt spot, afraid of getting into trouble for doing the right thing in a stupid way. Still learning to start with trust, to knock, to ask.
In solidarity and faith and gratitude for the colleagues and partners who are making possible our fundraiser this week,