For whatever reason, this week’s readings don’t resonate much with me – so instead of considering them directly, I ask you to indulge a little story instead.
Early in my first-grade year, while playing a football-related, pass-catching game invented by Charles “Chiggy” Rhodes, the young coach for the small Trinity Episcopal School in New Orleans, I somehow landed awkwardly and dislocated my hip. Apparently I was all bent into some gruesome position. Coach Rhodes lifted me up, carried me across the street that separated the field from the rest of the school, and into the school office where arrangements could be made to take me to the hospital.
I ended up in a body cast for several weeks, all the way up to my chest – and then was wheelchair-bound for a few more weeks, gradually building up to using crutches and then, finally, walking again on my own.
But as soon as I did return to school in my wheelchair, every single day when it was time for Physical-Ed period, Coach Rhodes would come to my first grade classroom and personally wheel me out to the field so I could at least watch as he taught the rest of the kids the then-new game called soccer. The first day he did so, when he deposited me on the sideline he announced to everybody else that he wanted them to introduce them to a “new kid” (me) and make me feel at home.
Of course the joke was that I wasn’t new, but had just been away for several weeks, and everybody laughed. But from then on, for Coach Rhodes (and Coach Rhodes only) my nickname was “New Kid.” When I was able to walk but not yet run, he said: “New Kid, get in the goal: You may not be able to run down the field, but you can play goalie and lunge at the ball to stop it.”
When I was back full strength, Coach would always put me in the middle of the action. I was the smallest kid in the class, but he’d say: “Hey, New Kid, show’em how it’s done.”
Chiggy Rhodes was for years the only coach for all the boys from first grade all the way through eighth. He taught us just about every sport under the sun, and always made it fun. We played no interscholastic sports when he arrived at Trinity, but he eventually got us into leagues against other schools in basketball, soccer, and baseball – and we did pretty darn well.
The girls eventually got their own coach, Ms. Barr; and then another coach, Elsa Claverie, came on to assist both Coach Rhodes and Coach Barr in any way she could.
So the years went on, all the way through almost the end of sixth grade, with Coach Rhodes helping me recover from other injuries (most notably a dislocated elbow in a sixth grade soccer game) and still laughingly calling me “New Kid,” especially when I did something well. Somehow, it made me feel special – and I wasn’t the only one. Coach Rhodes had a knack for finding something unique about each kid and, through repeated, smiling attention, make it a badge of honor.
On Saturday, May 15 of that year, 1976, our Trinity sixth grade team had an “away” baseball game against one of the best teams in the league. Coach Rhodes showed up wheezing and coughing and occasionally sneezing. We kids thought nothing of his apparent head cold. We didn’t know it was a somewhat more severe respiratory virus and that a doctor had told him to rest for the weekend – but he showed up anyway, because some girls’ teams had the attention of Coaches Barr and Claverie, so the boys had nobody else to coach us. Alas, we lost badly.
“Not our day, New Kid,” Coach said.
Coach wasn’t at school on Monday. Tuesday evening, the calls started going out to all the Trinity families: Coach Rhodes, fit and trim and athletic and just 28 years old, had had a virus attack the pericardium of his heart – and he dropped dead at home.
Of course the next day we all prayed in our daily chapel service for Coach’s family, and we walked around the school shell-shocked and heartbroken. At P.E., everybody in my class, boys and girls alike, joined in a massive but joyless game of “kickball” – everybody frequently putting arms around each other, whispering nice words to each other, being amazingly and reassuringly kind to each other. But after just two minutes, I couldn’t keep it up. I just wandered out of the action, sat on the edge of the field facing sideways from the game, and stared into space, while pulling up bits of grass and twisting them and tearing them and grabbing more grass and repeating it again and again.
Ms. Claverie, the kindest and most reassuring soul anybody has ever met, came over and sat beside me. For about five minutes, as I remember it, she didn’t say a word. She just sat with me, offering a comforting presence.
Then: “Why don’t you go join your classmates, Quin? That game won’t be the same without you.”
“I don’t feel like it,” I said.
“Yeah, but you’ll be glad you did,” she said. “And Chiggy loved to see you run around out there.”
So up I got, and shuffled back over to the game. I swear, the way I remember it, one of my classmates – I’m not sure who – said: “Hey, look, it’s the New Kid.” Somebody else audibly chuckled at the allusion, and the game went on….
Postscript: Well, that game wasn’t specifically a gathering in the name of Christ, but in a sense everything we had done that day after the chapel service was tempered and burnished by the spirit of the day’s opening chapel service.
And it certainly was true in that kickball game – and in the quiet attention from Ms. Claverie – that, as in Matthew 18:20: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
Every day our Lord renews us as New Kids, and welcomes us into His loving game.
Quin Hillyer is a veteran conservative columnist with a degree in theology. His faith-themed satirical novel, Mad Jones: Heretic, is due for publication later this month by Liberty Island Media.