I never knew her history or how she came to be the only black person at the First United Methodist Church in Las Vegas, New Mexico.
But she was there, and had been a part of the church for many years before I discovered it. She always sat at the end of the second row pew on the west side. That had been her seat for decades, and no one disrespected her seat. It was usually waiting for her when she came to church.
I have always studied and sought out quality people. I had known a man a decade earlier who called that “his” church. He was an exceptional man -- good, honest, hospitable. He won a Medal of Honor, and when WWII was over, he came back to Las Vegas, New Mexico, and ran a business with integrity and grace. He was an active member of that church and the Rotary Club and one of those men who made a town feel special. It made me think well of both 'his church' and 'his club'. . . I liked him. I also admired an attorney in town who carried himself with equal style, kindness and intelligence. He loved nothing more than friends and riding his horse out on the mountains of New Mexico. I liked his lifestyle. He had two churches, one his ranch and mountains while horseback, the other the First United Methodist Church in Las Vegas. Because of those two, I determined to visit the First United Methodist Church one Sunday morning. It was the beginning of three wonderful years, years that I watched, listened, observed, and thought to myself, "What an exceptional time and place this is."
The interior was unusual, a semi-round design with stained glass windows that surrounded the auditorium. They told through stained glass in chronological order the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and as the clear mountain sunlight hit those windows, the auditorium glowed with warm, flowing light. The design of that church auditorium was comfortable and intimate. I fell in love with the building, like a teenager who first is attracted to a girl’s looks before he discovers her deeper character. The old church had a pipe organ, piano, a bell choir and hand-crafted woodwork and a bell-tower steeple. The old wooden pews were hand crafted half a century earlier and felt good. Then they added cushions, and they were even better, especially during long sermons.
Every Sunday brother Dan Capaccio would leave his end seat in the pew and almost run as he climbed the stairs to the little office off the second floor. It overlooked the street where the rope from the bell in the tower hung down through the ceiling. Brother Dan would pull that rope, and it would creak as the old bell started to move. He strained against that old rope and finally rang the bell to remind the town of the worship services at the old church.
It was a way of saying, “We are still alive,” in that sleepy town. But we smiled and were assured at the sound of that bell, that there were no late sleepers within several blocks of the First United Methodist Church in Las Vegas, New Mexico, on Sunday mornings.
I sometimes day dreamed about having that little office, up under the bell tower, and scaring the heck out of the town from time to time on a work day by ringing the bell. Fortunately it was just a day dream, otherwise I might have been chased from town.
On the east side in one of the back pew rows, a young man sometimes sat, and he had a leg that always shook. I liked the kid. He was a former drug addict and had pink hair but also deep spiritual curiosity and insights. But when his leg shook, the wooden floor of the church in that area was such that you could feel the floor under you moving as well. Drove me crazy to the point that I moved my seating area. That turned out to be wonderful, because I could study Gladys more carefully. We learned to warn people not to sit over there in front of the young man, as a person could could never get any sleep because of the vibrating floor there.
When we attended services there regularly, before we moved, the members seemed of higher than average education. They seemed to love learning and growing. Even though many were older people, in classes we noticed there were always penetrating questions and comments. One was a historian, one a music teacher, one had a Ph.D, another one or two had taught at university. A couple were ranchers but both well read. One or two had written books. One day I mentioned a concept of physics to one of the men, and he just took and expanded the conversation in more depth than I would have dreamed. It seemed that several had degrees in this or that. Except Gladys. She just had a gift, a lifelong gift of song. She carried herself with kindness and charity. I noticed that many in that church possessed a balance, grace, insight and tolerance in their lives, and I became a part of that church. It was, and is, a progressive and thoughtful group.
Gladys Hightower, in her 80s, was and is an exceptional woman. She always walked in just as the service was about to start, and she sat on the end of the second row on the northwest side. Every Sunday, you would see her sit with a look of independence. She was self-assured, and she had music on her lips and soul in her heart. When someone led a song, she moved and added a beat and often a bit of flair. She often verbalized a thought. Occasionally, when our minister Rosemary Pierson made a good point, Gladys Hightower would say “AMEN” out loud and wake up the congregation. Gladys was always well-dressed. Her hair seemed ever fixed, and she had presence, joy and style. When she was thinking of a song, her hands would move atop the pew, and she would count the beats with her fingers. When you saw those fingers counting time, you knew she was singing silently as she sat in the pew. If you could see her face, she might be mouthing the words to some spiritual song. One day my wife went up to her and said, "Can you teach me to sing? I will pay you." Glady's said, "I would not know how to teach you to sing, child. It is just in me, and it comes out. You can't teach that." Glady's had nature's Ph.D in music built into her heart! And when she sang (and sings), oddly, it isn't just her voice. Her arms, her legs, her entire body seems to emit the meaning of the music. Her eyes, even her fingers, all send out a message. It is wonderful to see, hear and feel.
This morning was Good Friday, and there was a noon service before Easter. It worked like this: People read scriptures, and the organist and pianist played songs as the congregation was led in singing by an elderly man. I don’t think the church needed him up there waving his arms, but it seemed to make him happy. He obviously had found his place and took pleasure in trying to help. But no one in that church had that natural confidence, that charisma that Gladys had (and has). She was independent and completely assured in what she would say and do. She felt "led" when she stood up to sing. This morning as Gladys walked into the church, the music leader got up to take her hand, and she kindly shook him off as if to say she didn’t need HIS help to sit in a pew. I don't think Gladys needed any man to "help" her at this point in her life. She had her path and she was confident in where she was headed.
The lessons were all on the death and burial of Christ, and she was to sing a song at the appropriate time. It was nice, but just a touch repetitive and boring. But when Gladys's time came, the old song leader got up and took her hand as if to lead her to the podium, and again she shook him off and said, “I am fine, thank you.” Then she said to the organist and congregation in a loud and clear voice:
“I am going to sing a different song than the one you had written down for me to do. I just feel and know this is what we need."
The organist panicked, and the song leader in charge of music frowned, but she said, “No worry, I can do it acappella, and I don’t need this microphone.”
Then she started speaking a sentence ... ”A man was with a small group, and he said ...” then she sang with such natural skill and poise ... ”Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Oh… oh…oh…oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble...tremble...tremble... Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” Then she spoke and said, "What happened then?” And she sang, “Were you there when they nailed him to the cross? Were you there when they nailed him to the tree? Oh…oh…oh…oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble…tremble…tremble. Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?” Then again in speaking voice, she said, “And the sun went black, and the clouds darkened with thunder.” And she sang, “Were you there when they speared him in his side? Were you there when they put him in the tomb? (Her voice was controlled but carried such rich emotion. Tears ran down my cheeks just with the power of her singing.) “Oh oh oh oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble….tremble…tremble. Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?” Gladys held the church in rapt silence as she spoke in voice. “The man said, what happened next?” And she sang, “Were you there when the found an empty tomb? Were you there when he showed them his deep scar? Oh…oh…oh…oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble...tremble…tremble. Were you there when he rose up from the dead.” Gladys at 80-something didn’t miss a note nor a word. My memory in writing this may miss a word or two, but you get it, you can see it in your mind's eye, and that is what is important. Gladys finished without fanfare and quietly walked back to her pew and shook off the man who tried a third time to give her an uninvited helping hand. She was indeed a strong and independent person. It was the most powerful Good Friday service of my life. When the service was over, I didn't want to speak to anyone, I wanted to think about this, absorb and meditate on it.
And I thought, “God has blessed her with long life and amazing talent to connect us to an ancient teaching.” What an uplifting experience. The rest of the service, the light shining through the windows, the kind words of the minister Rosemary, all were nice. But I think I appreciated Gladys's last name more -- Hightower. She stood taller than anyone at the First Methodist when she sang.
The minister Rosemary called her singing, “The Gospel according to Gladys, and what a wonderful gospel it is.”
If you ever happen to be in Las Vegas, New Mexico, on a Sunday, drop by the First United Methodist Church. You may get the treat of a lifetime. It may be one of those days, when Gladys shuffles up to the front and sings. Her singing penetrates to the depth of your heart, and if you can hear her sing, her gospel, I will give you $5 if a tear doesn't roll down your cheek.
My heart fills with gratitude for every song I have heard her sing in that old, special church. Gratitude for every tear she sent down my cheeks reminding me that, “Yes, I too am a Christian. I often forget how special the heritage is. Thank you, Gladys Hightower, for your life, for being and for sharing that which “is inside” of you.”
No doubt when she gets to the pearly gates, she will shake off the helping hand of St. Peter and say, "I can walk through just fine, thank you.”
And she will probably be humming her next tune and counting the notes with her fingers as she walks those golden streets.