At 6:30 Deacon Jon microwaved a bran muffin and made French press coffee, which he ate and drank while skimming the New York Times, then walked up Amsterdam to the cathedral. He had his own keys to the public entrance, off to the right of the great door (which was ordinarily used only to admit the bishop, when he felt grand, or a giraffe on the Feast of St.
Francis). Stepping over the odiferous homeless men sleeping on the porch, he let himself in. Habib, the cathedral’s Palestinian security guard, also came in around 7:00 to chase away the homeless and sweep the steps of any food cartons and empty bottles. Having been homeless himself after coming to the United States ten years ago, Habib was gentle with the men he had to remove. There were places nearby that would feed them breakfast if they got up and out quickly enough. Habib pointed them in the right direction. The Bishop of Manhattan had declared that the homeless were welcome to sleep on his cathedral’s steps. “These are children of God,” he intoned for the benefit of the diocesan staff, “and we may not deny them a night’s rest.” But, at the same staff meeting, he had added, “I want them off the porch before the tourists show up. Adios. Hasta la vista, baby. Savvy?”
The cathedral’s dark interior harbored light. The stained glass windows created the effect, which was like discerning the hidden glow in darkness.
Back in 1979 when the church approved its new Book of Common Prayer, it began to emphasize baptism as a fundamental theological concept for the life of the church. It meant that everyone, not just clergy, constituted the church. The message was the same as the one that came from Vatican II and then was muted by the popes who followed John XXIII. Nor was the baptismal message any longer true for the Episcopal Church as it grew smaller and the power (and corresponding frustration) of the bishops grew. The rhetoric still sounded uplifting. Only in the increasing number of places where there were no longer any priests was it more often the reality.
As part of the new emphasis, which minimized the breast-beating worthlessness encouraged, in Jon’s opinion, by the 1928 prayer book, the baptismal font was relocated to the entrance of most Episcopal churches. There it symbolized the rite of passage from the world out there to the new life of Christ in here—and reminded those leaving the church of their obligations in baptism to care for others. Because deacons were clergy who made their living in secular jobs, they were seen as symbols of this transitional place between the church and world. Jon felt that identity deep within.
The cathedral’s baptismal font was a gem of hand-carved pink marble, massive and at the same time light on its feet. Jon glanced toward it, as he always did when he entered in morning half-light, to catch the subtle glow of the stone. An object was in the font that looked like a basketball. His first thought was that some kids had put it there the night before following the “Teens for Jesus” rally, an event designed to generate renewed excitement among the church’s few and mostly apathetic young people. They got to eat cheesy pizza in the cathedral, where ordinarily the only food allowed, other than the bread and wine of the Eucharist, was served at the annual black tie fund-raising banquet, from which the young, lacking disposable funds, were excluded. A cathedral should smell of incense, not pizza, the dean objected (and was over-ruled by the bishop, out of spite). The kids called their party a black tee event, after their black tee-shirts stitched with “Jesus” in glitter on the back.
Jon crossed the polished floor to the font, the heels of his loafers echoing shots in the cavernous well of the nave. His thoughts about the wayward teens for Jesus were not benign. But when he reached the font, he recoiled in horror: nestled in its bowl was the head of the Dean of Trinity Cathedral, The Very Reverend Canon Robert Tourneau, his eyeballs frozen in terror, his red hair a bloody halo.