Searching for the Yellow Christ


Searching for the Yellow Christ 

            And so it came to pass that God took wily, wiry, wee Father Carson far too early and left us in our tiny parish of St. Matthew’s to search for a priest willing to serve a rural congregation whose families had worshipped in the same pine pews for centuries and had dozens of members in the adjacent well-manicured cemetery. Those families had rebuilt our wooden Gothic church after the Union’s gunboats cannonaded it in April 1862, and after the 1918 fire that destroyed our downtown, including my grandparents’ stables.

            Janet and I sat in the Sheridan pew. My great, great, great-uncle General Gloucester Kent Sheridan, a veteran of the Mexican War, donated two stained glass windows and our pew in 1863. A year later, a fusillade of Miniè balls separated his head from his neck at the Battle of Cold Harbor. He was buddies with Captain William Latané, whose burial is forever memorialized in an iconic painting, reproductions hanging on many a wall in this County. Gloucester was buried five tombstones from my parents, Buccleuch and Louisiana.

            And so it came to pass that our search committee recommended Father Sydney, a former Navy chaplain from San Diego, become our new priest and the vestry voted him in. Father Sydney was short, squat, with eyes that made you think he cheated at solitaire, and a furrowed brow that made you think he’d told many a lie to children. His personality matched his looks, and Janet and I wondered what the search committee had seen in him. A published article, perhaps? An inspiring sermon? A fund-raising genius?

            He wasted no time in alienating those of us who were large donors, who had served on various committees or the vestry or the Daughters of the King.  He lived rent-free in the fully-furnished rectory, a four-bedroom, three-bath brick home with a view of the lovely river upon which our town perches. St. Matthew’s paid for a weekly maid, a biweekly landscaper, electric, propane, water, sewer, cable TV and internet. With Father Carson, the rectory had been the site of after-church socials and organizational meetings, parties after a christening. With Father Sydney, all church use of the rectory stopped. Period.

            I had always helped maintain the grounds of the church and the rectory, weeding, planting bulbs, deadheading, clipping the crepe myrtles, power washing the sidewalks. Running routine errands. Not much trouble since I did the same at our house. Father Sydney stopped me. “You’re not closer to God than anyone else. You’re not a special Christian.”

            St. Matthew’s hired Father Sydney after Easter and before Pentecost. In recent years, we had added to our Pentecost service, Holding the Hand of God:

                        Don’t push away, don’t push away

                        Don’t push away the hand of God

                        For He will lead you to peaceful rest

                        He will take you to the place blessed

                        Don’t push away, don’t push away

                        Don’t push away the hand of God

                        He will lead you o’er the gravel road

                        He will take you to his heavenly abode.


            Father Carson had written the hymn and sung it in his deep baritone. Father Sydney struck the hymn from the service, and denounced the vestry for permitting a hymn not in the hymnal. No one from the vestry fought back. I suppose that this easy victory encouraged our new priest to seize more power.

            Father Carson had initiated third-Thursday pit-BBQ dinners free to anyone in the County. Janet presided and other volunteers served as many as 200 of the local poor through this ministry. And they were poor: sometimes taking home three or four dinners, which might be all they would have until their SNAP or other benefits kicked in. Father Sydney cancelled the dinners, saying that our church insurance wouldn’t cover any harm that might befall someone, a piece of bone lodged in a throat, diarrhea from poorly-cooked banana pudding. Yes, that is what he claimed.

            Jesus’ words, “Inasmuch as you serve the least of these, you serve me,” inspired Operation Inasmuch, 85 County churches coming together on a Saturday to repair homes, raise barns, prepare meals, donate clothing, toys, games, electronics, and furniture. Father Sydney cancelled our participation. He didn’t bother to claim an insurance problem. He said participation was not consistent with the mission of our church. That our church was White and the beneficiaries of Operation Inasmuch mostly Black supposedly didn’t enter into his thinking.

            And so it came to pass that an EF4 winter tornado struck our County well into the night, torturing a thirty-mile path, pulling Bill Morrison out of his trailer home, sending him flying through the air, tearing out his intestines. He would require twelve operations. The tornado killed eight, injured eighty-five, destroyed 150 homes, and wrecked the footings for the bridge that links our downtown with the development where Janet and I live. I was home listening to half an hour of horrendous hail strike our roof and skylights, a constant pinging, a worrying that the windows would break. Janet was in St. Matthew’s tidying the kitchen, readying it for the next BBQ dinner.

            The road was cut. Janet couldn’t come home.

            Do you think Father Sydney offered Janet the comfort of the rectory, half a block away?


            When the rain and hail ended, I joined two hundred men (and a few women) with power saws and generator-powered floodlights at the nearest volunteer fire station and we worked through the night clearing trees from county roads so emergency vehicles could reach our hospital.

            Not long after the tornado, Clayton Cauthorne called. He was so thin he looked lonely, as if his body were waiting for another fifty pounds to show up and complete him, as if he could walk between raindrops. His voice was a bullfrog. “Major, Father Sydney has killed the Shell Shockers. Anything you can do about it?”

            The Shell Shockers was a PTSD support group I’d organized decades back. Our little town had its share of those who struggled recovering from serving: Jessica, a former Marine who’d been a Soviet prisoner in remote Kamchatka during the Vietnam War; Dorothy, a former CIA agent who’d been gang-raped while on a mission in Yemen; Claude, undercover FBI caught in a gangland turf war in Norfolk; Pedro, ambushed at Ia Trang; Phil, ambushed in a war whose location he couldn’t disclose; Zebulon, whacked by an IED while riding in an armored personnel carrier, shot five times trying to rescue the occupants of the APG ahead of him; and so many others.

            “Nothing,” I said. “I have no influence with Father Sydney. He never said he was doing away with our group.”

            So, at that point we were about to leave St. Matthew’s, a difficult move, you must understand, because we were cradle Episcopalians, and this was where we’d been baptized, married, buried our family dead. There were 17 Sheridans and 22 Claptons in the adjacent cemetery.

            “Let’s take a week off, and go to France,” Janet said. “Let’s not make any rash decisions. Plus, I’d like to see the inspiration for an early Gauguin.”

            Janet was an art history major, and had taught at our community college, and served on the boards of directors at two local museums. She could explain, in perhaps too excruciating detail, the relationship between Velazquez’s Las Meninas and the numerous versions by Sargent, Dali, Whistler, and Picasso. “One painting leading to so many,” she’d say.

Now she wanted to see the crucifix that inspired Gauguin’s The Yellow Christ, housed in a small chapel in Pont Aven in Brittany.

            The chapel was made of ancient stone and its roof sloped steeply, ending a few inches above my head. The interior was smaller than I expected with only a handful of benches and lots of touristy stuff in six languages on the walls. We both searched the altar and its surrounds for the crucifix, but found nothing. Janet was the first to realize that the yellow crucifix hung from a beam on a side wall. The wooden Christ in a yellow loin cloth was close to five feet tall with arms outstretched the same distance. His head was turned at a severe angle. He looked in pain.

“Imagine that,” she said. “One of the most important pieces in the history of art and it’s on a bare stone wall, not in the chancel.” We took some photos with a real camera, not a cellphone, and left for a late luncheon at a restaurant in a watermill. On our walk to the restaurant, Janet’s hand touched mine, and she said, “Let’s give Father Sydney another chance.”

            We returned to find that our pew was no longer ours. Father Sydney had removed our nameplate and those of a dozen other families. When we confronted Father Sydney in his office, after a week of unreturned phone calls and emails, he said, “This is a democratic church. We can’t have any elitism here.” He dismissed us with a shrug of the shoulders.

            We left the church, and found a welcome a few miles down the road. We saw our attorneys and knocked St. Matthew’s out of our will. Our new church was the all-brick St. Francis on the River, dating to the eighteenth century, never a victim of cannonades and fire, much larger than St. Matthew’s, a good two miles from the river, near a creek called Muddy Gut. The congregation had many familiar names, Butlers and Crofters, MacKenzies and Schools. A few distant Sheridans and Claptons attended. St. Francis was closely connected to a local prep school, St. James, with Scottish roots. The celebration of St. Margaret’s Day brought kilted St. James’s boys and girls marching behind wailing bagpipers. St. Francis, like St. Matthew’s, had a bevy of quilted teatime ladies who clustered at the country club and bemoaned the impending loss of Confederate statues from our town square.

            Our priest was a Russian Jew, Alex Waters, formerly, believe it or not, Shlomo Wassermann. When he was thirteen, he had a vision that he was on a pilgrimage to Ephesus. He wrote a premonitory epistle about his capture, trial and death. His mother beat the life out of him for his two pages.

When he was seventeen, he quietly converted without telling his parents. When they found out, they evicted him. Fortunately, he had a full Ivy-League ride, and then at seminary. He hadn’t seen or heard from his parents in years.

            Like Father Carson, he could sing and, unlike Father Carson, he could play the fiddle and the mandolin. As a side gig, he had a bluegrass band, The Tsars of Bluegrass, and performed in Kentucky, North Carolina, and Virginia, and in church. He incorporated Holding the Hand of God into his informal hymnal.

            He entertained at St. Francis’s rectory, and was not shy with the wine or the stories. One morning, Bloody Mary in hand, he pulled a chunk of gold from an oak buffet and asked, “You know what this is?”

            “Looks like gold to me,” Janet said. She was on her third coffee, always black as the night.

            “It’s the gold with the heart of a whore.” He propped one lizard-skin boot on a footstool. “Lord Fairfax’s wife was paying a stable boy for sex. When the Lord found out, he killed the stable boy, chopped his heart into pieces, and dipped them into melted gold. Each year he gave a piece to his wife who thought the stable boy had run away.”

            “A gruesome story,” Janet said.

            “No more gruesome than some biblical tales. Did you ever think that there is no commandment against rape?” Father Alex asked.

            Janet and I were both stunned. No, we had never thought about it.

            Father Alex, perhaps compensating for having left Judaism so early, so precipitously, fondly incorporated the wisdom of Jewish rabbis into his sermons and the occasional pastoral letter. He particularly liked a nineteenth-century Ukrainian, Rabbi Yoshpe, who wrote: “When did G-d create death? Some may argue that death was implicit from the first moment of Creation. But others that death was an afterthought, punishment for sin. As with the creation of light, we are caught in an intractable dilemma, unless we escape the terms of the dilemma and view life and death as the same.

“They say there is a bird in the far Pacific called the hornbill. The hornbill mates for life, and its life is long and fruitful, thirty years and more. The hornbill has a bright orange beak, perhaps ten centimeters long, and bright blue eyes. In the beginning of the dry season, the female carves a nest in the trunk of a dead tree, and seals herself in, except for a small hole at the top through which the male feeds her figs which he has picked and stored in his stomach, regurgitating them uneaten to his mate. After two months, their offspring is born, and the female breaks down the wall and flies free, soaring into the South Pacific skies. The male rears the baby. 

“They say there is a bird called the malawesi that buries its eggs in hot volcano soil, and lets the heat of the soil hatch the eggs. One industrious bird, one lazy bird. I myself have never seen these birds, but I believe they are there. And that G-d created them, but I do not know when G-d created the notion that these birds would die.”

            That passage stuck with me. We were happy at St. Francis, even though we did not have a pew of our own. So we saw our attorneys and wrote the church into our will.

            Seven years passed. You might ask, and it would be a fair question: “Why didn’t you fight Father Sydney? Why didn’t you protest to the vestry?” I’m not sure. Possibly because we didn’t want to stir animosities. Possibly because we figured he wouldn’t last long.

            Father Alex had no problem finding space for the Shell Shockers, Wednesday mornings nine o’clock; just before the local AA.

            Seven years did pass. The six-billion-dollar Episcopal church, Trinity Wall Street in Manhattan, hired Father Sydney. That one church was richer than all the other Episcopal churches combined in the United States, and rarely shared any of its wealth.

We went back to St. Matthew’s, relieved, thankful, and found others returning from years elsewhere. I can’t convey the overwhelming sense of relief as we passed through the narthex and entered the nave, as we kneeled for communion, as we shook the hands of others no longer exiled. (Janet did what she always did: copy the numbers from the hymnal board onto sticky notes and tuck them into the hymnal. I did what I always did: play the first three numbers on my Virginia Lottery smartphone app. And lose.)

            We resumed our old, but nameless, pew and vowed to immediately replace the Sheridan nameplate. We cleaned the Clapton stained glass window, circa 1872. The congregation was less than half its former self. The choir was gone. The organist was gone. And no one had signed up to host coffee hour. We put our names on the chalkboard. You can bet we splurged on the next coffee hour. We put our names back on the pigeon-hole hallway mailbox.

            The sidewalks hadn’t been cleaned in seven years. I power washed them.

            The crepe myrtles hadn’t been pruned. A truckload to the town dump.

            Father Sydney’s three WaWas (a Jack Russell and Chihuahua mix) had had no respect for the carpeted floors. Cauthorne and I replaced the carpet. He’d added twenty pounds and no longer looked so lonely.

            Yet even as Janet and I sat in our ancient pew or wandered through the church or itemized what needed repair or polishing or replacing, we thought about how much we liked St. Francis and Father Alex. We had divided loyalties.

            The interim priest was bright and sparkling, so, too, the sermon. Father Sophia produced a roll of plastic wrap, and showed how difficult it was to rip the wrap off the spool, cut it, and use without a crinkly mess. She talked about other products that are difficult, but nonetheless everyone buys. Neckties. Self-adhesive hooks. Potpourri. She emphasized that Christianity was both easy and difficult at the same time. Amen, I said to myself, as easy as finding the Yellow Christ, as difficult as understanding.

Later, she said, sure she’d incorporate Father Carson’s hymn into our next service, Pentecost or not.

            The next day we saw our attorneys and drew up a new will benefitting St. Matthew’s and St. Francis.



Ben Shiriak


Retired New Jersey attorney and businessman. Marched against the war in Vietnam. Pioneer in minority business enterprise. Specialist in public utilities and railroad regulation. Published on legal and business matters in West Virginia Law Review, Rutgers Law Review, Public Utilities Fortnightly, and Harvard Business Review. Published fiction in Witcraft and other small magazines.

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