The day belonged to George Simmons. After twenty-three years at the organ console of Grace Church, directing the Chancel Choir, playing the hymns, often at the piano, and generally making sure Methodists worshiped God with music appropriate to the occasion, George was entitled. He will officially retire the last Sunday in June, after which he and Jeanne will move to the Poconos and the vacation home purchased a decade and more ago with an eye to the future and the next chapter in life post-Oceanside.
And this Sunday, May 17th, he went out, not with a bang or a whimper, but with a rising harmonious tide of music. Three handbell choirs, three vocal choirs, and a youth orchestra, augmented by church members Charles Zipperlen on the French horn, Dorothy Shorter on the violin, Ian Goodman on the drums, and trumpeter Mark Bennett, made the morning live up to its reputation in the processional hymn, "When in Our Music God Is Glorified." God was... glorified, exalted, honored, celebrated, pick your favorite verb. With more thanks to George than anyone else for that accomplishment.
George's compositional (and computer!) skill was also evident. He wrote the teen-age ringers' anthem, "Joyous Carillon"; arranged the Youth Orchestra's medley on three hymns, "The Name of Jesus"; and composed the closing hymn, created for Grace Church's 100th anniversary, "The Church Endures." The closing voluntary, a virtuosic adaptation of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," a tumultuous creation, louder and more vigorous than Vierne's "Carillon de Westminster" (with a hint of the calliope) had the congregation standing and cheering. In that moment George came as close as he never otherwise did to trespassing a line which he firmly espoused, one drawn between the sacred and the secular.
The service was a glorious and rousing benediction on a long, faithful, talent-laden career.
When the cheering subsided, we made our way to the gym (all purpose room) and a catered buffet luncheon for two hundred provided by the powers-that-be. On the stage above the dining crowd a dais was set up, at which sat the guest of honor and wife Jeanne, four clergy (present pastor Matt Curry and former pastors John Cole, John Carrington, and Bob Howard), and Lay Leader and emcee Bob DiSalvo, who enumerated George's excellences and presented him a plaque from the congregation. An honorific county citation was presented and read by Kim Neri, George's indispensable right hand person. Each of the clergy took a turn saluting George. The Chancel Choir led the gathering in a serenade to George, with new words to the hymn "This Is the Day of New Beginnings." George responded with an autobiographical summary about where he has been and what he has done musically since his first ecclesiastical gig in his teenage years. Among the secrets not previously known (by me, at least) is that George never took a lesson from a piano teacher prior to attending the Manhattan School of Music, where his first teacher traced his tutelage lineage back to Liszt, Beethoven, Mozart, and Haydn! He started his musical career as a trombonist and graduated from there to the keyboard. Once again a standing ovation and cheers greeted George's presentation.
George's day provided some special moments for Pastor Howard.
Several times, mostly while singing hymns, I welled up but didn't spill out, for this (as the Grace Church motto has it) "Family of Faith for the Family of God." Thirteen years of absence evaporated the moment I walked into the narthex and hugged Carol Provenzano. There's a Mel Brooks film in which he goes around repeating the sentence, "It's good to be king." Mel, there's something better to be, a pastor for a long time, loving the flock and being loved by them.
Before the service, I walked down the center aisle to the youth orchestra. In the front row were two tall blond fourteen year olds, Danny Neri and John Biegler, both of whom I think I baptized the year before retirement. They couldn't remember any better than I. But the father and godfather of the baby baptized this morning, Danielle Amanda Kurz, disabused me of any recollection of baptizing them, that their days of watering preceded my arrival, putting them well into their 40's. Grandpa Manny, however, is reported by grandmother Lenore to lead a Pastor Howard fan club... a nice thought, if somewhat excessive. Ah, it's good to be loved. And I did hug just about everyone who came into my orbit. At eighty-three I think I am entitled to fancy myself as one of the fathers of this family of God.
Sometimes I think the leaders of the denomination make a fetish of racial diversity. Grace Church has that diversity and has it naturally, as a reflection of the population in the neighborhoods surrounding the church. Some of the welling up referred to above arises from the realization that the church I served for nearly thirty years can now be compared to a chocolate fudge sundae with vanilla ice cream, delicious and colorful... and I had a significant hand in whipping up that heavenly con(fection)gregation. One worshiper after another greeted me at the door with a beguiling Caribbean inflection to the title Pastor, reminding me that, yes, I was there when they first arrived in the formerly entirely white suburban cathedral.
It pleased this paternal heart even more to note a fair number of families, across the racial spectrum, who have arrived, or at least become more fully engaged in the church's witness, since I left town. Two of the soloists this Music Sunday, soprano Kim Mastro and baritone Jonathan Goodman, fit that description. I noted too the presence and the prominence of several of my junior highs: the aforementioned Kurz boys and their sister (and godmother of Danielle) Lisa; Tim Harness (and wife Stephanie); Tim's cousin, Jeff McGregor (and his wife, Mary Rose); and Jeff's cousin, Jenifer Hartig (and her daughter Abigail); Karl Biegler with his wife Janice, daughter, son, already noted, and parents); Christine Cangialosi (with son Anthony); Jane Schreiber (with friend Tom Littman); and Michael Provenzano (helping Mom with ushering).
My gym floor never looked better, but the room still needs air-conditioning. The tables and chairs in the gym are stacked the way I learned from custodian Cliff and the present generation learned from me. The two large copper beeches on the church's lawn are gone but the portico and the stone stairs to it give the entrance an inviting and elegant appearance. All the floodlights in the chancel burned brightly. The baptismal font is as heavy as ever. The order of service program beautifully exceeded in format, information, and style anything I composed during my twenty-nine years at Grace.
Many dear souls were missing, most of a whole generation, in fact, those who provided leadership my years there. Among the members of the MYF Sr Highs when I arrived in Valley Stream in 1973 was Bob DiSalvo. He sang in the choir and acted in the plays. He wanted very much to be an upstate farmer, but now works as a master plumber. Bob is the current Lay Leader. He stands in a long and loving and illustrious (surely, in the eyes of God) line of men and women who have served in that capacity. No one does it better than Bob.
Yeah, it's good to be loved.