THE CONTEST

By John Thomas Tuft

The Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in the City and Diocese of Washington, commonly known as Washington National Cathedral, has hundreds of stained glass windows, Gothic spires and flying buttresses, along with a few other odds and ends that serve to make it look mighty important, even anciently so, one might say. Situated in Mount Saint Alban, off Wisconsin Avenue, in the Northwest quadrant of the District of Columbia it is the site of events of national importance such as funerals for presidents, and other such oddities. A lot less well known was the first attempt at a National Interdenominational Theological Preaching Invitational Contest, or NITPIC for short. Everything was all set: famous preachers from near and far invited, rules of conduct and concourse set, tickets sold to raise prize money (no television preachers permitted, thank you very much!) and only the most distinguished Bishops, Senior Pastors and Senators, Seminary Professors, District Superintendents, President of the Southern Baptists, other Holy Rulers, and of course, Executive Presbyters, served as judges…with the Dean of the Cathedral in charge, naturally.

The great weekend of the NITPIC arrived and attracted great crowds. All day Saturday and Sunday great throngs heard great preachers. All sorts of great exposition, dispositions, prepositions, theological positions, syllogisms, and exegetical propositions were expounded. And some stories were told. Everyone likes a good, handy illustration, after all. Finally, the hour for announcing a winner of the $150,000 prize, along with publication of the winning sermon and picture of the winning preacher in USA Today, drew near. The judges were huddling when the Dean received a text message: ‘One more. Rag man.’ He climbed the circular stairs to the NITPIC pulpit high above the crowd and asked, “One more?” Then, hesitantly, face scrunched up, “Rag man?” Far in the back of the National Cathedral a figure pushed through the gathered people, an older woman who began limping down the center aisle. Her white hair escaped in all directions, her chin stained brown with snuff juice, her mismatched clothes covered by an old Army surplus great coat, and on her feet a pair of gold-colored high top Air Jordans with the big toes cut out because of her bunions. “Git outta my way, Sonny!” she belched at the acolyte who greeted her at the front.

She creaked up the stairs and settled in behind the pulpit. “Rag man said to tell y’all about my Daddy. My Daddy was a grocer. Fine store outside of Mobile. Known all over for his produce. Lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. He’d set them all out under them bright lights in the cases: apples, oranges, lemons, lettuce-4 kinds, mind ya’-beans from all over tarnation, and so forth.” She paused, dug into a pocket of the great coat, took out a can of snuff and proceeded to tuck some back between her cheek and gum. “Where was I? Oh yeah, Daddy would say to me, ‘Sibby, lookee here at all these perishables. All colors, all sizes, all different strains and varieties.’ Then Daddy would reach over and push the button for the sprayer. And all them perishables would look clean and shiny from the water on ‘em. And he’d say, ‘Sibby, them perishables ain’t gonna last much longer, no matter how good they look. I can spray ‘em, wash ‘em, dunk ‘em, sprinkle ‘em. But if no one takes them home and eats them, what good are they? They’ll sit here and rot nevertheless. If nobody wants ‘em…well, they’re just compost. Or pig slop.”

She stopped, sucked hard on her lip, leaned over the side of the pulpit and spat a stream of tobacco juice onto the sacred ground far below. A moan of disgust went up from the gathered. Sibby looked out over the crowd and shrugged. “I ain’t no preacher. Never said I was. The rag man asked me to tell you a damn story and now I done told it. It’s just fruits and vegetables, but rag man, well he’s funny that way about perishables.” Another stream of juice splattered the marble floor. “Fat lot of good it did Daddy, though. When his store burned down, them sprayers didn’t save him.”

She turned and started down the steps. Halfway down she stopped, turned back. She was slightly out of breath when she spoke again. “Maybe….maybe,” and here she looked down at all the gathered princes and popes of the kingdom, “what you need up here is a sprayer button. Y’all could push it when you needed, and all them perishables out there would look shiny and clean. Useful like.” She sucked hard on the stash in her cheek. “The rag man says, if by this time tomorrow, everyone of ya’, if you ain’t poor, or homeless, or hurtin’ or broken….” And Sibby shrugged, “or if you ain’t on the way to befriendin’ someone who is…” and she fixed her eyes on the gathered contestants and sighed. “Then all you’re adoin’ is makin’ compost. Or, as Daddy would say, pig slop. And the world already done got enough of that.” Another spit. “Amen, y’all.”

The National Cathedral has never been the same since. And the first annual NITPIC was the last one.

Words are magic, and writers are wizards.