By Gary Flanagan
Waking up in Shamrock, Texas, my mother was already on my mind. It was 33 years to the day that I returned home from work and found her unconscious in the bathroom. I tried to save her, but both my and the paramedics’ efforts were too late. At the age of 43, her life on Earth was over. The replay button in my mind never changes the final outcome. So, this time, I posted this reflection of her to my Facebook account:
“33 years have passed. Your words to me last and last. ‘Remember there is always a reason for all that happens. It may take 10 days, 10 years or more, but there is always a reason.’ Thank you, mom, for continuing to help me understand this world I travel.”
My goal was to reach the state Capitols of Oklahoma and Kansas. I was two hours away from Oklahoma City. A quick breakfast and short drive had me in front of the Oklahoma State Capitol. Three distinctive images stood out: An oil well, a yellow security fence blocking the front steps and a Native American statue at the top of the Capitol dome. The oil well is active and connects to an oil field under the Capitol. There were no visible signs of a church to be found.
I snapped a few pictures, walked around the yellow fencing and entered through a side door. Immediately, a security checkpoint stopped me. I asked if anyone had information about the closest churches. ”Sir, you must go through security to reach the information desk.” I emptied my pockets, checked my iPad and proceeded to the information desk. I explained my state and church project and asked for the closest church. I received puzzled faces. Then a man offered to pull out a map and help me. “Not many churches in walking distance, but there is a black community church a short drive down 21st Street.”
I retrieved my iPad and headed to finish circling the Capitol. The back steps were clear and I walked past the Ten Commandments statue on the walkway to the left. It had just been placed in 2012. It was in an odd location since most people would not see it. (Since my visit in 2013, the statue has been a lightning rod of controversy. Other groups, including Satanists, Hindus and the satirical Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, have all tried to erect statues, but were refused. The statue itself was destroyed by a man in a pickup truck in 2014, but again rebuilt. As I write this article on 10/05/2015, it is being removed after a ruling by the Oklahoma Supreme Court citing separation of church and state).
On the grounds behind the Capitol on Tribal Plaza is a unique monument called “The Meeting Place” where people may honor Native Americans. The design is two walkways meeting at a rock with a small water fountain in the center. It is aligned with the Guardian, a Native American statue atop the dome. The walkways come through a sunken mound and gives a half-tunnel look at the rear of the Capitol. I will take “The Meeting Place” over the oil well entrance any day.
As I finished circling the Capitol and returned to the car, my wife Marie called just before work. We briefly discussed the significance of the day as I followed instructions to the closest church. We said goodbye until evening just as I saw a church on the next corner. I parked the car, grabbed my iPad and stepped out onto the street. Someone was sitting on the steps. I tried to frame the picture to catch the church sign and building together. Voice of Praise Baptist Church is indeed the closest church to the Oklahoma State Capitol. I’ve therefore accomplished my first goal of the day and once again it was time to move on. But wait! You’re not going to get away without hearing … the rest of the story.
After taking the picture, I walked up to the person sitting on the steps and asked if the church was open. She stood up and shook her head no. She was a tall black woman wearing a black overcoat. I quickly explained my project; she nodded and then started preaching and teaching. She started with John 1:1 and each time she mentioned God, she shook. She would then, in mid-verse, switch to tell me about Thomas Jefferson: his habits, his wife’s church habits with his slaves and then, just as quickly, she would switch back to preaching, then to her personal history and the history of other churches in the area. It was quite fascinating and I stood transfixed listening to her for 15–20 minutes.
A man pulled up in a SUV, nodded to the woman, entered the church for five minutes and then left. My guess was that he’s the pastor. I had a brief opportunity to ask the woman her name. She looked me in the eye and said, “My name is Pastor Karen Schwartz.” Then she paused with the wind blowing, looked up and said in a calmer voice, “I’m known as the spirit faith.”
This was no ordinary moment. I somehow managed to reach out my hand and say, “Thank you for the information.” I noticed a marking on the cornerstone behind her that read “First Presbyterian 1948” and asked her if she knew about the history of the church. She said, “That is a long story,” then reached out her hand in return and said in the same calm voice, “Look beyond the skin.” She quickly looked up and at me straight in the eye, tossed her head to the left and said, “When you return, you’ll find me over there and I’ll tell you more.” The look and head toss were very familiar; I suddenly felt very drained. I thanked her once again and returned to my car. She returned to sitting on the steps.
As I drove away, I tried to comprehend what I witnessed. I managed to find a McDonald’s and recap my experience. As I parked and shut off the engine, I heard a voice whisper, “That was me.” I sat and cried happy tears.
“But, how,” I asked myself, yelling at the heavens as I again barreled up I-35 toward Topeka, Kan. “How does this work? Was that Whoopi Goldberg in the movie ‘Ghost?’ Was that my mother reincarnated in Oklahoma City? Was this divine intervention? How? Why are there more questions than answers?” I was pretty sure this day would end with my tear glands a few quarts low.
Approaching Topeka, I refocused on my project, made notes about the Kansas Capitol, then headed east on I-70 toward longtime friends in Kansas City. Then the phone rang. I answered on my car’s Bluetooth and Marie was there, having just finished her workday. She asked how my day went. I tried to recap my experience since we last talked; tried was the operative word. When I finished, she paused and said ever-so-perfectly, “In my prayer this morning, I asked God to send your mother to you because you could really use her right now.” I pulled over the car and stopped. I emptied what was left in my tear tank.
You may think this completes the story of March 19, 2013. You would be partially right. I discovered my 18th Capitol and its closest church. There is a nagging thing about new discoveries, as they lead to even more discovery. Recall the last statement that the tall black woman on the steps of Voice of Praise Baptist Church said to me: “When you return, you’ll find me over there and I’ll tell you more.” Come back next week and I’ll tell you … the rest of … the rest of the story.