My great grandfather, Robert Long, the child of a Slaves, was a Methodist preacher in Greenfield, MO. My fondest childhood memories were of his church. It was a beautiful church, a one room wooden building. The walls were adorned with life sized murals from the life of Christ, painted by my mother, who was quite the artist. We would have basket dinners in the front yard, and churchgoers and non-religious people from our community would gather for a grand meal.
Children were taught to obey our elders and to “act right” in church. For example, once my brother Charles and I were cutting up in the pew, and our Aunt Josie stood up behind us, laid her hands on our shoulders, and shouted loudly, “Unleach him, Satan!” We straightened right up and thereafter kept our mouths shut (at least for the rest of the service!)
At those basket dinners, we children often ran to the front of the line and tried to crowd our way forward. My great grandfather, speaking in his deep baritone, would say, “Boys, get to the back of the line. Take the lowest seat!”
This admonition has served me well throughout my years.
In 1989, His Holiness Shenouda III, Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of All Africa of the Holy Apostolic See of St. Mark the Evangelist of the Coptic Orthodox Church came to St. Louis, MO. A reception was held for him in a hotel grand ballroom, and there were dignitaries from across the Midwest. The proceedings began with a procession of bishops led by Pope Shenouda from the center of the ballroom out into the hall, in which he carried the very cross of St. Mark the Apostle. The hall was lined with the faithful who’d come to hear a word from their beloved leader. When he came to where I was standing, the Pope paused. He walked through the crowd to me, took my pectoral cross in his hand and laid the cross of St. Mark upon it. He asked if I was from Africa, but then intuited that I was American. He then continued in the procession. I felt puffed up – out of all those people, Pope Shenouda recognized me and spoke to me! I was special, and everyone could see it.
When the procession was complete, people went to their designated tables. There was a three tiered dais at the front of the room. On the top level was Pope Shenouda and Bishop Moussa of Cairo, flanked by the Cardinal of the St.Louis Catholic diocese and the mayor of St. Louis. The second row was reserved for the Coptic bishops and priests. The third row held Orthodox clergy from throughout the area. I looked for my place card, but it wasn’t there. I figured that was because at the time, I was in an unrecognized jurisdiction. When the host of the banquet saw that I was looking for my seat, he quickly took me to the very back of the room and set me at a table full of unruly children. After my upset and embarrassment about not being included with the clergy, I consoled myself about being with the kids in the back of the huge room, repeating to myself, “you came to hear Pope Shenouda, not to be seated in the right place.” Then my great grandfather’s admonition came to mind. “Boy, take the low seat.” This really helped.
After a short while, through the crowd came Bishop Moussa, Pope Shenouda’s right-hand man, who told me that the Pope wanted me to come a little closer. So I started towards the front, where the priests were sitting. Then the Bishop said, no – he wants you by him. So I spent the evening seated next to Pope Shenouda. We had an edifying and entertaining conversation, and he showered me with gifts. When I went home and told this story to my wife, we agreed that it was an almost “biblical” parable – the last shall be first.
From that point on, I’ve always tried to take the low seat. After all, we should not think so highly of ourselves as to consider that we ever deserve the high place.