In his newest book (to be released in North America on Oct 1), “The Galapagos Islands: A Spiritual Journey,” Brian McLaren includes words shared with him by Jim Bear Jacobs, a member of the Stockbridge-Munsee Mochian Nation: “You people of European descent tend to think of events occurring on a timeline. An event that is distant on that timeline is distant to you. But we indigenous people think of events primarily occurring in a place. Whenever we are near that place, we are near that event, no matter what has happened. For us, places hold stories. Places become sacred because of the stories they hold.”
On Saturday evening, September 7, I had a few hours to myself so I took my first walk around Oxford in seventeen years. I was walking along St. Giles’, toward Regent’s Park College. I wanted to walk by the College where I had spent a semester researching early Baptist history. I also wanted to grab dinner and a drink at the Eagle and Child. When suddenly I noticed… I noticed the red phone booth.
I had not thought about that phone booth in seventeen years. I was not on a holy pilgrimage to return to this sacred place. An hour before I would not have even known it was sacred, even remembered its existence.
But there it was. And as I approached, my stride slowed and stopped. I leaned against the building on the sidewalk’s other side and gazed. It was here some seventeen years ago that I anxiously fled from the archives of Regent’s Park to call my finance, Jenny. She had messaged me (the old-fashioned IM way, laptop connected to ethernet). She told me to call her ASAP, something was very wrong with my father. I could sense the panic, the gravity. I quickly ascended the stairs from the basement archives and made my way to the nearest pay phone. I fumbled for the pre-purchased international calling card in my wallet, hands shakingly dialling (yes, I remember). It was in this red phone booth where I suddenly realized my dad who to my knowledge had been perfectly healthy the day before, was likely dying.
I took a deep breath Saturday evening. I wasn’t filled with grief. I was not suddenly saddened by the encounter. I did feel the gravity of the place pressing in upon me. Who knew, I sure didn’t, that along a street in Oxford I would stumble across a place that held time for me, held it there all these years.
Of course, it has changed as have I. Indeed, I’m a bit surprised it is still there, useless now. There is no longer a phone in the booth. There is a bit of graffiti on one side and I suppose it is a good place for classic pictures or to temporarily house other activities I choose not to ponder.
Yes, this place has seen thousands upon thousands of students come and go. Tourists and scholars from all around the world have scurried by it. And I dare say no one has even known it is sacred. Sacred for me. A place of memory.
I walked on. Laughing. The phone booth no longer had a phone—I have changed too, a lot. My journey has carried me on, carried me to places within myself and within the world that I could not have imagined seventeen years ago. We’ve both changed.
And now, I pack my bags once again in Oxford to return home. Home is in a different nation now. My fiancé is now my partner of seventeen years. And tonight, I’m not packing in a panic. I’m not going home to say goodbye to an already unconscious father. I am going home to embrace my own daughter who has missed her father very much this last week. And for all of it… for the hard times that have helped make me who I am today and for the richness of this last week of conversations and learning and for First Baptist Halifax, a church I am so thankful to serve and for a larger progressive and affirming Baptist family that I have connected with this past week and for the sacred red phone booth on St Giles’ and most of all for the family that will greet me in Halifax, thanks be to God.
I have a hunch, as long as it is not uprooted, I will be seeing that phone booth again soon–next time, Jenny Bilderback-Edwards will be with me.