On a wintry Friday night, I drove along our town’s short Main Street toward the big corner church. There’s not a lot of traffic in town after dark, and I didn’t encounter much, which made me a little sad to think the cold would keep people away from the benefit dinner taking place. But when I turned the corner into the church’s back lot, I suddenly saw row after row of vehicles. “They came!” I said out loud and laughed at the tears in my eyes. “Look at all these people!” Indeed, it looked as if the entire town had turned out.
From far and wide people arrived in order to visit our old Youth Group leader, Jim Gordon, and to donate toward his treatment for Lewy Body Dementia. The place was just stuffed with familiar faces I’d known 20 years ago, now graying at the temples, and it brought back a surge of memories of our Youth Group days.
Years ago, every Thursday night, the senior high students took over Jim and Bonnie’s house for camaraderie, dinner, sing-alongs, skits, and life lessons. After an hour of running around, playing games, starting conversations, and generating fun, I remember we’d pile around the dining room’s picnic tables for potluck dinner. (Yes, wooden picnic tables in the dining room. This was not your ordinary parish house. And 60-some kids wouldn’t fit together in just any dining room.) We’d start out sitting by class, with the seniors on one end of the room and we 9th graders on the other. But there were no rules, so usually by the end of dinner, everybody’d switched seats.
After dinner, the whole lot of us would grab a spot on the living room floor surrounded by postered walls and memorabilia. The souvenirs that most people lined up on shelves or tossed in a drawer the Gordons put directly onto the walls. You looked for a spot where you’d be comfy, because you’d spend the entire last hour in your spot. Jim, and anyone else who wanted, would start tuning guitars and shaking tambourines. The rest of us would pass around song books–paper binders filled with lyrics in numbered order–and we’d shout out our favorites like, “Let’s sing 88!” and the guitars would start Mellancamp’s “Jack and Diane,” or Jimmy Buffet’s “Volcano,” or Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl.” The songs were interrupted by classmates, leaders, and Jim’s wife Bonnie doing skits. Bonnie was always a ton of fun. She was tiny, with beautiful blonde curls that went all over, and she wore pink lipstick and smelled like a powdery fragrance that I’ve never found in any store. She’s got a quiet leadership about her, but had no trouble acting in the skits and getting everyone to laugh.
There were religious songs in the books, too, and we’d save those for last–especially if they were quiet because they’d set the mood for Jim to talk. He’d give us a 15-minute sermon, sometimes more, sometimes less, which always began with random-seeming talk–about music, a band, a recent conversation with a man on the street, a memory from long ago–then related what he was saying to a Bible verse that he or a volunteer would read. We were allowed to shout out questions or comments at any time, and he’d address those. Then it would get quiet and he’d make his point, which was always something you could ruminate on for the next few days as you went back to school and headed into the weekend and into the next week. We’d close in prayer, and then listen to the brass of “All You Need is Love” as we got ready to head on home.
In those days, we lived from Thursday to Thursday. [That line isn’t new. I wrote, “We live from Thursday to Thursday” on a scrap of paper back in ninth grade because it was obvious, even then, that we were living out something to remember.] Back then we truly lived for those three hours where anything could happen and everything was possible.
On Friday after my first Youth Group, I remember walking down the hall in school and I passed a group of football players. Two of them, who had sat at the next table over the night before, made eye contact with me and said, “Hey.” I said hey back. (Hello was way too formal.) I also remember a senior, later on that day–probably the most beautiful girl in school–was standing at her locker with her friends and she also greeted me as I passed by because she’d seen me the night before at Youth Group. Class, age, athletic ability, talent, brains, beauty, clubs… none of it mattered. The barriers were gone.
We weren’t told to be nice to each other. We weren’t told to be accepting and kind and to offer help where we could. We learned it. We saw it in action and we absorbed it for ourselves. Youth Group was not a day of the week but a way of life. As Jim’s sister described us on Facebook on Saturday after the benefit, “You are a force. You learned from the best. Make good things happen.” That’s exactly what it all felt like: A force.
There were years of retreats, and breakfasts, and trips to amusement parks—once when our bus broke down a state away from home–and baseball games in corn fields (whispering, “If you build it, he will come…”), and volunteering—like the times we cleaned the carnival grounds and had a contest to find the weirdest items (you didn’t want to win that one)—and the coming years of change ahead of us. There’s so much that I could fill a book (and maybe I will). Yet hundreds of us, many with spouses and kids in tow, returned to the big church on the corner on a cold winter’s night to see Jim again and to donate and reconnect with each other across the miles and years because we share something in common. Deep within, a force has reawakened.
We were, we are, and always will be the Gordon Bunch.
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.”