By John Thomas Tuft

It started out as just another Sunday in Advent at the Mt. Hermon Church. The good folks filtered in as the worship hour approached, nodding and smiling, but not too broadly. They were all good Methodists. Or maybe Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Baptists. Take your pick. Catholics, Roman or otherwise, makes no nevermind. The music leader checked the accompaniment tape in the sound system, the screech of feedback jolting everyone wide awake. Red poinsettias decorated the altar rail. A Christmas tree off to the side kept vigil over the worshippers. Johnny A. wandered down the center aisle, the wick in the candle lighter alive with flame. After a few tries he gets the worship candle lit and there you have it: the light of the world. Illuminating, as he turns back to go, the lollipop nestled firmly between the cheek and gum.

The choir gets settled, the pastor makes a quiet entrance in his black robe, settles in front and asks for pastoral concerns of the gathered perishables. And birthdays. In this crowd you don’t dare forget birthdays. Miss Jennie stands up and lifts a sign high overhead, a huge 84 colored in bright magic marker. The crowd goes wild…well, as wild as Methodists, or Presbys, or Episcopalians or Catholics are allowed to get in church. You get the idea. The first hymn is an old faithful: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. The singing is more of a mutual muttering until they reach the chorus. Then its all hands on deck for the “Rejoice! Rejoice!” of the chorus. Then a family comes forward to light the Shepherd’s Candle in the Advent wreath and we all wonder at the poor bastards…the shepherds, not the family. Look it up. Shepherds were kind of the Hispanic gardeners or chicken processing factory workers of their day.

Before they depart the front, the family places the wooden shepherd figurines in the creche set being slowly assembled, Sunday by Sunday on the front communion table with the “Prepare Ye the Way” banner hanging demurely across it. And then it happens. The children’s sermon. Three boys, loaded for bear, and two shy girls make their way to the front. If you squint just right, the worship candle flame looks like a halo hovering above the half empty, or is it half full, manger scene, over their heads. Dear Mrs. Smith is gamely trying to hold their attention when little Billy Simpson turns around and kneels in front of the creche tableau, staring intently and growing increasingly distressed, rocking back and forth, shaking his head violently. Mrs. Smith struggles on while the pastor gets out of his anointed seat and comes to sit beside little Billy and whisper gentle reminders that he knows where Billy lives and the pastoral equivalent of ‘if you know what’s good for you’ level encouragement.

But Billy begins to wail. “Where’s Manny Bean? We have to find Manny Bean!” Nervous titters travel through the crowd, some of the ‘glad it’s not my kid’ kind, others enjoying the show. The wailing reaches fever pitch. “Manny Bean, where are you?” He turns to the baffled pastor, desperate. “What did you do to Manny Bean?” Finally screaming to the startled perishables, tears streaming down his cheeks, “We don’t have Manny Bean! Please help me. FIND MANNY BEAN!” In the stunned silence, Old Mister Richardson, his 94 year old body held together by modern alchemy’s latest tubes, artificial joints, and waste collection bags pushes himself out of the pew, workworn hands grasping his double canes.

“Bring the child to me,” he says quietly, confidently. Pastor takes Billy to the old man. He holds Billy’s face in his hands. “We’re all just human beans, aren’t we?” Billy nods, sniffles loudly. “Momma says human beans hurt each other, like Daddy did her.” “Tell me about Manny, child.” Billy takes Old Mr. Richardson’s hands in his. The knuckles are swollen, covered with scars. Billy caresses the simple wedding band. “Does it hurt?” he asks in all innocence and all wisdom. “Always, Billy. It always hurts,” Mr. Richardson says. “There was a boy in my class named Emmanual. We called him Manny,” Billy explains.

“What happened to Manny?” Old Mr. Richardson asks gently, not unkindly. Billy points out the window. The entire crowd turns to gaze at the stones of the church cemetery, strangely beautiful in the morning light, the Shenandoah foothills hazy in the distance. “Don’t fret none, boy. My Katherine is with him. And Manny Bean is with her. Always.” And the crowd whispered, “Amen.”

And that is why, if you are on a two-lane state road, outside a town that resembles Mayberry, or just plain reminds you of home, and you come across the Mt. Hermon church on this Christmas Eve. Stop in. But come prepared. For now, everyone brings a bag of beans. All kinds. Black beans, white beans, navy beans, kidney beans, lima beans, or blackeyed peas. They’re all welcome. Set them up front on the table. Near the manger. Where the worship candle is always lit. And if you squint right you just might see a halo. Because we all are wanting to find Manny Bean. And stick around. Because the New Year’s Eve Community Bean Soup Festival is out of this world. Where you come from makes no nevermind.

Words are magic, and writers are wizards.