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Brother Lester

An excerpt from my journal 15 years ago. (Named changed for anonymity)

March 11, 2005

Brother Lester was our organist and choir director for many years—for as long as I could remember. He was always at every service and lent his hands to a number of departments—he visited the elderly, served the homeless, and even helped decorate the church. He was arguably the most active member of our church—even beyond the pastor.

One Tuesday during a weekly Bible meeting, Brother Lester shared with the congregation that God had called him to Africa to spread and share his gifts abroad; robust applause was the response.

As full as Brother Lester’s life was, I questioned his fulfillment. He wasn’t married, no children, and in his mid-40s. The family I knew of was his mother, who died some years ago.

One thing beyond question-- one word to describe Brother Lester would have been “colorful.” He was a very skillful and ornate singer and organist. He spoke with a slight lisp and had a sort of dainty air about himself-- even in our expressive evangelical congregational worship, the way he would lift and wave his hands, clinching a scalloped handkerchief. Some of us teens would mock his very signature demeanor—his bold gestures and animated wrist motions. His hair was always immaculately trimmed, and he would wear these wonderfully bold jackets—fuchsia, mustard yellow, lime green.

One time I remember so vividly is the time our choir was invited to Atlanta. The group was a very seasoned group of singers who sat under Brother Lester’s meticulous leadership for years. Our robes, our arrangements, and our voices were all reflections of the man himself—larger than life. In Atlanta, a few of the younger members decided to take the train to the mall when we had crossed paths with Brother Lester. He was alone and, much to our chagrin, had decided to join us. So with my fellow youth filing to the opposite side of the train car, Brother Lester sat alone. I also sat alone, directly in the middle—between my peers, between Brother Lester. A gentleman had boarded the train and sat next to him-- a large, casually-dressed man of his late 30s or so, the color of espresso with a bald head and a sort of stuffy demeanor. Brother Lester smiled and struck up conversation with him.

I heard them both share they were musicians and ministers. They talked and talked and laughed and really seem to be enjoying each other. Brother Lester leaned in, lightly slapping the man’s shoulder, and softly catching his chest in delight; he even dabbed the corner of his eyes with his signature handkerchief. I had never seen Brother Lester laugh like this. On this 30-minute train ride, I had seen, among all that Brother Lester had and did, what was missing.

We were nearing our stop when I heard the man tell Brother Lester, he’d love to see him again and asked how long he was in town. Lester returned the sentiment but had to leave. They shook hands and held on for a while. As we all exited the train, Lester forced a smile and took another route from the rest of us.

I'm sure he took another route to pray or reflect or cry. I decided to take my own route as well. I’ll never forget the way, he looked that night—and how in a matter of minutes, I had seen joy like never before to distress like never before. I thought about my own life. I had created an identity in denying a part of who I truly was as well. Was I on the path to becoming Brother Lester? I'm sure the man was torn, his whole life. I wondered if he'd ever known love. Even had love returned to him? Not brotherly love, not paternal love, but a companion’s love.

Thinking about it, I wonder if the missionary work had anything to do with his lonely existence in America. I remember that encounter between he and the stranger. Then I remember his fervor playing the organ. He was very capable of multiple levels of love. People will deny themselves the most precious gift—love—because of religiosity, practices, and all sorts of things that choke out the true essence of who and what God is. After that train ride, I didn’t mock or laugh at Brother Lester anymore. In a time where individuals were forced to choose only one facet of the expression of love, he went as far as his own strength could take him. I respected him.

Some months later, Brother Lester moved to Africa to serve as a missionary to work with disadvantaged communities in a country very much in need. Several months from then, our church received the very disturbing news that Brother Lester was killed by a revolting militia.

The qualities of the human spirit – love, compassion, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, contentment, gratitude— lead to self-development, which leads to self-esteem, which, in turn, comes back to love. I am grateful for the memory that allows me to better understand who Brother Lester was and, in turn, better understand myself.

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