Pickett’s Church in Ashfield, Massachusetts

Pickett’s church in Ashfield, MA was inspired by a real house of worship- and a smoking acolyte

Backstory of Pickett’s church in Ashfield, Massachusetts

As perplexed as I am about the beauty of wealth and the ugliness of greed, beneath this paradox, l think I’ve come to know a beauty greater than them both. Having grown up with the embarrassing assumption that privilege is “a gift from God,” the decision to become an Episcopal priest was an effort to seal the deal. But somewhere down the line—between my ordination and ten years working on the street—I discovered, quite by accident, a palpable presence that looked a lot more like Jesus.

The truth is, I never liked going to church (as allergic as I am to institutions), which may be why I spent twenty-five years as a college chaplain. Thanks to a bishop who thankfully lacked the courage of his convictions, I was given free rein to pursue the truth wherever it happened to take me. Exploring the nature of belief itself—through music and the arts, God and science, and adventures out on the streets—my religious saints could no longer be found in the lead of stained-glass windows, but rather in the cosmic God of Einstein, and the Jesus of Jack Kerouac.

With all due respect to the parish where I started, I decided to become a college chaplain. Early on, I got a call from a little country church; it needed a priest for its Sunday morning service, for which I was available. When I arrived, I was greeted by an aged acolyte, smoking a cigarette—whose physical antics and incoherent speech suggested mental challenges—and following the service of its handful of members, singing like there was no tomorrow, I came to realize that Jesus had it right: greatness is found in the least.

Thus, another saint was born beyond a physicist named Einstein and a writer named Kerouac—an acolyte named “Gordon,” whose mind is in the cosmos and whose taste is in Kerouac’s bottle. It is Gordon who introduces John Pickett to the narrator and the reader. Following the wedding of Athena’s sister, which Pickett has conducted, Gordon waxes eloquent concerning the virtues of the modest, handsome cleric:

            “The elderly acolyte who heralded us in was stationed on the front step of the church. He was leaning on his crucifer’s cross with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, and handing out squares of construction paper with directions to the reception.
             ‘Ya’ made it!’ he howled. Giggling with delight, he banged the cross on the step. ‘What d’ja tink ob da’ pestibal?’
            ‘I’ll never forget it,’ I said.
            He tumtin’, ain’t he?’
            ‘The groom?”’ I asked.
           Poh Crite ‘take, Padduh Pickett!’ 
           Taking unfair advantage of the opportunity, I asked, ‘Has he been here long?’
            ‘One year, teben munt!’ the acolyte replied. ‘Bet preet dit ole church eber had!  ‘Xcept por one ting,’ he qualified.             ‘Pends too much time on peoples in town who nebba be comin’ ta church! I tell him, I know dey be libin’ in da’ goddam woods, but dey ain’t nebba be comin’ ta church! But Paddah Pickett tays, dat don’t matta’ a wit—dey no dipperent prom you or me!’”

If there is one thing I learned in a prosperous parish, it is that affluence doesn’t work. For all the failed attempts at buying paradise by billionaires and sloppy presidents, the evidence abounds that in the end, excess doesn’t make us happy. The little country church in Ashfield, Massachusetts, where I encountered Gordon—whose struggle to heat the building is part and parcel of its struggle for justice—testifies to the wisdom of the saints, whether “religious” or not: that less is more, the least are the greatest, and the margins are at the heart of God. 

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