Recently, half the town and I attended a benefit for the Reverend Jim Gordon, to raise money for his treatment for Lewy Body Dementia. We gathered in the lower level of the big church to see Jim again, as many of us had only seen him sparingly since he and his wife Bonnie had been called to foreign shores for mission work. We gathered on this windy January night to donate and eat spaghetti dinner—though many I talked with had come straight from dinner and weren’t even hungry. They donated anyway. And the church still ran out of pasta noodles twice over. We gathered and stepped back to a time thick with memories, and felt the old familiar nostalgia. Even as we lived it, years ago, we felt a happy pining for the very moment we were in, and we longed to hold on to it forever.
Jim and Bonnie Gordon had been our Youth Group leaders, opening their home every Thursday–and probably every day knowing our unannounced-drop-in rabble–to half the teenage population in town. We showed up, wandered the grounds, ran in the house, ate, danced, laughed, cried, hugged, sang, and lived.
Thursday night Youth Group was the place to be. It was a place to explore. This was where I was first introduced to the Dutch [existential] philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, the social unrest of Bob Dylan, and the voice of Robert Frost.
I remember distinctly the time when Jim used The Road Not Taken in a sermon, asking us if we wanted him to read the poem or if we’d rather that Frost read it to us. I had no idea what he meant, but others behind me shouted out their vote for Frost. Jim then obliged with a record—oh, vinyl!–of Frost’s poetry that he put on the stereo. (I also remember another time when Frost showed up mid-skit, thanks to the wigs and makeup from the Gordon’s prop rooms.)
Youth Group lasted three hours, consisting of an hour of unstructured time, followed by a dinner hour, then by a singing and sermon hour. Unstructured time was filled with running about the house, meeting new people and joining a made-up game where the rules changed as you went along on one side of the living room, listening to music on the other side, an intense discussion about school or politics or super heroes in the dining room, sitting outside on the wooden fence, or joining in some sport in the yard, and it was all so carefree that you could join for a few minutes, then wander off and join the next thing. None of it was structured, and it was all sort-of us-oriented. Nothing was led by adults. There were plenty of adults around, joining us in what we were doing, but we got to take the lead on games, discussions, and whatever we wanted to do.
The dinner hour gathered all of us together from far and wide into the long dining room filled with wooden picnic tables. The tables were sometimes separate, sometimes set together into one long table. We’d choose our seats, a blessing was offered, and we’d line up to fill our plates from the potluck set out in a room at the base of the stairs before returning to our seats.
“Man, these mashed potatoes are so good, they’ll change your life!” a wild-haired man at the potluck table said to me on my first day. This place was full of characters, everywhere you looked. Beside me, my friend Danielle introduced me to the man, who was none other than Jim Gordon. I figured, it being my first day at youth group and all, and with the endless numbers of people there, that it would take weeks before I’d meet the famous Jim and Bonnie Gordon, and longer still before they’d ask my name or remember it. I also figured I’d spot Jim in the crowd sooner or later, as he’d be the one in the clergy collar. These pre-conceived notions of mine were all incorrect.
Jim and Bonnie didn’t see an overwhelming gaggle of teens converged in their dwelling. They saw us as the individuals we were. And Jim was a sight to behold: Untamed curly hair, tan, usually wearing jean shorts and a faded t-shirt, always smiling and laughing. This was not a preacher telling you how to live. This was a man with a joy for life, showing you how it’s done.
As for the catchphrase, I still use it. Rarely a day goes by that I don’t find something “so good, it’ll change your life.”
Part III, coming soon… ~
On Lewy Body Dementia
The scientist Frederich H. Lewy discovered the abnormal proteins in the brain (the Lewy Body proteins) back in the early 1900’s during his Parkinson’s research. These Lewy Body proteins can interrupt dopamine flow, resulting in Parkinson’s, or can spread throughout the brain, wreaking havoc in the form of Dementia with Lewy Bodies which causes impaired attention and visuospatial function and can manifest visual hallucinations. Unlike Alzheimer’s, in Dementia with Lewy Bodies, short-term memory is affected later. Treatment involves drawing together a team of doctors, each treating different symptoms according to their specialty and in conjunction with one another so as not to allay the team’s efforts. Research goes on, but as of now, there is no cure.
To donate to the research for Dementia with Lewy Bodies, see the Lewy Body Dementia Association website. To donate directly to Jim Gordon’s treatment, please send a check payable to Saxonburg Memorial Church, Attn: Carol Hines, P.O. Box 466, Saxonburg, PA 16056 and memo “Jim Gordon Benefit.”