Tuesday, August 21, 2012

A Parable

The small village was a generic place like many others around the world. There were no distinguishing features of the land or people, nothing to draw tourists, but it was home to an assorted group blending at least three cultural heritages and languages.
For months, maybe years, the village council had been debating what to do with the town square, or plaza, as some called it. Originally the village center had been used to hold livestock, with homes built in a haphazard fashion around it, and there were fields and pastures beyond the enclosure made by the houses. Over the passing decades, the homes were converted to shops, bars and restaurants. The center field became a playground for the kids and picnic area for special events. The shops drew people from outlying areas and the men discussed the issues of the day seated on the benches outside. Eventually, stores and eateries were established along the main road into the village and fewer people came to the central square. Patches of grass, weeds and bare earth made the old village center unattractive and unappealing.
The village fathers debated the problem. Some wanted to invite a major department store to build in the square. Others wanted to create a formal park and band-shell for concerts. The debates waxed and waned without resolution. No one felt strongly enough to push his idea through the stagnated council meetings.
One morning, the shopkeepers entered the square and discovered a huge box-like contraption in the plaza. It filled the open area and was at least as tall as the highest two-story building, maybe taller. The shop owners’ and clerks’ indignant voices filled the air, silencing the birds. One man set off in a huff to see the mayor about the monstrosity.
Mayor Dayly had just finished reading the newspaper and drinking the last drop of his second cup of coffee when Arthur Rodriguez entered his office. Without any preamble or minimal greeting, Rodriguez asked, "Who decided to put a box in the plaza? Damned fool idea. It’s ugly. You can’t see across the field."
The mayor scrutinized Rodriguez for any sign of a prank, then answered, "What do you mean? Nobody’s done anything to the plaza."
"Well then, you better come see for yourself."

Rodriguez turned around and left. Mayor Dayly sat behind his desk, perplexed. What in the world was the man talking about? Had he lost his senses?

By the time Mayor Dayly got to the plaza, it had filled with people examining the huge structure, walking all around it and calmly talking about its origin and purpose. As soon as they saw the mayor the crowd turned their attention to him in anticipation of some announcement. He cleared his throat. "Folks, I’m just as surprised as you are. I had no idea someone was going to do this. I’ll get back to you when I know about it." An indication of the level of mystification was that no one asked a question or made a rude remark about his ability.

The box itself was unusual, not only in size, but construction. There was no entrance or windows and no seam where sections might have been joined. It was as smooth as polished granite and highly reflective so that a color was hard to discern. The surface, when touched, gave no feeling of warmth or coolness, but seemed the same temperature as the air. However, there was a soothing sensation when it was stroked. As the mayor walked the perimeter, he unconsciously trailed his hand along its side. The people followed him and mimicked his gesture.
Every member of the contentious village council examined the structure and came away calmer than when they’d first heard about the box. When they met, not a single person raised his or her voice and none offered a course of action in its regard.
As the days and weeks passed, individuals developed their own relationship with the box. Children liked to play near it. Teenagers made no effort to cover it with graffiti, which probably wouldn’t have adhered anyway. People began leaving small tributes next to the box, bouquets of flowers, a polished stone, a whittled twig and other items. The unobtrusive offerings each had a story. A young woman anxious for children left flowers from her garden as she muttered her wish for a baby. A man suffering from cancer treatment sprinkled tobacco along one edge as he spoke about his hope to see his son graduate from high school. The box drew people to it in a respectful way and they left it, not with their problems solved, but with a sense of ease that somehow all would be well.
News of the box traveled slowly because the villagers were hesitant to speak about something that they couldn’t explain but which comforted them in an indescribable way. Nevertheless, others were drawn to the plaza to see this strange box.
The village boasted three churches (two Protestant, and a Catholic), a Jewish group, an Islamic cluster of faithful, along with assorted Buddhist, Hindu and those who followed other faith-ways. The clergy of the institutional groups met monthly to discuss common concerns. When the box first arrived, they were puzzled, but had no particular problem with its presence. By the third month, however, the Catholic priest was worried.
Father Thom scanned the faces of his colleagues before speaking. "Since the arrival of the box, there’s been a dramatic drop in the number of people coming to confession and fewer attending mass. I’m sure it’s due to the box because I happened to overhear two parishioners talking about its comforting presence in the village."
At first no one spoke, then they all talked at once. Rabbi Jacobs said, "Our group was never very large, but now I’m lucky if three come to Sabbath observances."
"I agree," Rev. Smith said. "Now that you mention it, my congregation has about thirty people attending most Sundays, but lately there have been only twenty. And, fewer have been coming to scheduled counseling sessions. I checked my calendar and noticed that the shift came after the arrival of the box."
They had no solution for the drop off in participation in religious activities, but agreed to continue to monitor attendance.
Six months later, people had begun talking about the box with reverent tones. Those who had shunned some people in the community for their unorthodox religious practices began asking for their insights. No one left their church or faith community, but disparaging conversations about other beliefs subsided.
Sheryl, the woman who wanted children, became pregnant and Horace’s cancer went into remission. Each of them went to the box with tokens of gratitude. While they didn’t talk about the changes in their status, family and friends made a connection with Sheryl’s pregnancy and the arrival of the box. Horace’s friends associated his improvement with the presence in the plaza. News of the possibly healing powers of the box spread and those living further away made an effort to come to the village square.
Much to the surprise of Mayor Dayly, no matter how many people left offerings at the box, they never piled up to become an eyesore. He had worried about incurring additional expenses as a result of the change. Although nothing had piled up in an unsightly way, it bothered him so he decided to spend the night in the plaza and see if one of the shopkeepers was cleaning the area around the box. He casually strolled the perimeter of the plaza all night and saw no one, but in the morning the gifts around the bottom of the box seemed less, ready for the offerings of the day.
Mitchell decided that the box would be the best place for him to propose to his girlfriend. So, he waited for a night with a full moon and brought Jessica to the plaza. The box was stunning with the full moon's light glowing through it and on each side. Instead of one full moon, it seemed like there were eight or ten lighting the square with a soft glow. Mitchell almost forgot why he brought Jessica, but not quite. He knelt next to the box to ask her to marry him and looked up at Jessica speechless as he saw her she stood bathed in the moonlight that revealed her startling beauty. After she said yes and he slipped the ring on her finger, he stood up and took her in his arms. He felt as if another set of arms caressed them as they kissed.
Although word of the box and special events related to it had spread throughout the region, the plaza hadn’t become a major tourist attraction as some on the town council had hoped and others feared. The box related to each person in her or his deepest heart so that people shared information about it with more thoughtful words.
No one knew who first coined the phrase, the God box, but it fit so well that nearly everyone used the term. It didn’t change the way people frequented the square, but reflected more accurately their sense of awe.
At the monthly clergy meeting seven months after the appearance of the box, Father Thom could hardly wait for the opening prayer to conclude. "People are calling that thing in the plaza, the God box! It’s a sin! They seem to worship that thing. We have to do something about it."
The others nodded, but no one suggested any course of action. Finally Rev. Smith said, "There are some things about this situation that I don’t like at all, like the extreme drop in church attendance and lack of participation in other church functions. But, I was talking to the chief of police, who’s a member of my congregation, and Manuel said that crimes have come to a standstill. Since the arrival of the box, there have been no murders, no rapes, robberies have dropped to single digits and drunken-disorderly conduct has stopped." He paused and shook his head. "I don’t like the worshipful attitude that everyone has about it, but things have changed for the good since that box arrived."
Pastor Whilmsy tilted his head to the side, a habitual pose prior to saying anything. "I can agree with both of you, but I’m worried about my quarterly reports to the central office for our church. Not only has attendance dropped, but giving has plummeted. I don’t know how to explain this phenomenon to the superintendent when he calls to find out what’s going on."
"It’s hard to know what to do. On the one hand there’s so much good that’s happening. But the truth is that our religious services are suffering and if it goes on too much longer, we all may be out of work." The last remark was meant as a joke, but Rabbi Jacob realized it was closer to the truth for Pastor Whilmsy.
"So what do we do?" Still indignant, Father Thom looked intently at each one.
"It came on its own schedule. I have to believe that it will leave that way too." Rev. Smith’s voice was flat with resignation. "Until then, we muddle along as best we can."
Six weeks later, Mayor Dayly walked into the plaza and sensed tension in the atmosphere. He looked around to figure out what was different and noticed that the plaza looked normal again. There was no box! He stood glued to the ground. The shopkeepers straggled into the square and had the same reaction. Finally, someone blurted out, "Where is it? Who moved it? We need to put it right back where it belongs."
News that the box was missing spread faster than wildfire, drawing groups to the square to see for themselves that it was gone. Speculation about what happened flowed like heavy snow melt in spring, but no one knew the answer. One of the kids went to the outline of tributes and gifts left behind when the box disappeared. He bent down and started sorting through it to pick up old soda cans and empty plastic bags.
"Who put that trash there? We showed respect for the God box." The woman ran across with a black trash bag and shoved the trash into it as fast as the boy he picked it up.
Disappointment, like a heavy blanket, settled on those gathered. By ones and twos people returned to their daily schedule. Toward the end of the day three men had been arrested for fighting and that night, there was a three-car accident from drunken driving. After nearly a year of peace and cordial relationships in the county, the social fabric was beginning to fray. There were signs of friction in the patched quilt of ethnic groups and languages. It was as if the box had never been there.

Mayor Dayly called a special meeting of the village council. He waited until everyone had a cup of coffee doctored to their preference with milk and sugar and was comfortable in their regular seat at the table. "Before the box arrived, we were discussing what to do with the village square. While it was here, there were all kinds of positive spin-offs for the shopkeepers and community in general. It’s time for us to choose a plan and develop the square."

Art Rodriguez cleared his throat. "I’d like to see it paved with bricks and a gazebo in the south corner. We could hold events in the plaza. Artists could have booths to sell their merchandise or we could have performances there."

"That sounds nice. It’s the best proposal yet," Sheryl Watson said softly as she rocked her infant daughter.

Manuel Mondragon nodded. "It would be good to have a place for social events. With regular use, it would deter some of the drug activity that has returned to the plaza after the shops close."

"I speak for myself, but I think the members of the clergy in town would support this effort. Maybe some of the people in our congregations would donate time and supplies to make it less costly for the village," Rev. Josiah Smith said.

By the end of the special meeting, everyone was in agreement to move forward with the plaza improvement. On May first of the following year, there was a village celebration for the opening of the new plaza. Much of the work and some supplies had been donated. Flowers hung from baskets at each corner and spotlights mounted on the corners of the shops provided light into the evening. Local music groups took turns entertaining the crowd that swelled with families from outlying areas who came for the day.

With the schedule of social events for the plaza and the fact that many of them, including teenagers, helped construct it, the town folk developed pride in keeping it looking good. At least one couple got engaged in the gazebo. Families brought their children for picnics on the weekends and in the evenings many returned for the music and dancing.

On occasion, someone would mention the box, but no one lamented its disappearance. Its presence had led to a new rapport in the community and a spirit of cooperation. Crime statistics rose again, but never to the level they were prior to the arrival of the box. Tensions between the cultural groups waxed and waned, but something had changed to mute the ferocity that had been so common in past grievances. It was not an idyllic village, but things had changed in a good way.

Mayor Dayly was just finishing the paper and his second cup of coffee when Arthur Rodriguez entered his office. The mayor looked up and raised his eyebrows, anticipating a complaint, but Rodriguez took the visitor’s seat across form the mayor’s desk.

His eyes locked on the mayor’s with a steady gaze. "What do you think about all that’s happened here the past three or four years?"

"Art, that’s a pretty general question. Can you narrow it down?" The mayor would never have called him Art before, but they’d worked so closely on the issue of the box and developing the plaza, that a relationship, almost friendship, had formed between them.

"Frank, I’ve been thinking about the box and all that’s happened since. Is there some kind of moral in it or lesson for us?"

"I’ve struggled to find something to hold on to after that event. I couldn’t come up with anything. It was totally unexpected and no one knew anything about it. Its presence broke down some invisible barriers and changed the regard we had for each other. All I can say is that it was a good thing to have happen to us."

"Yeah, I’ve had similar thoughts. I want to have some kind of moral that I could pass on to my kids as they grow up, but I couldn’t come up with one." Baffled, Art shook his head.

Frank’s eyes softened and he smiled. "It didn’t do anything. But so much good came out of its being here. Don’t get me wrong, the plaza looks nice now, but once in a while, I miss the box."

No comments: