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Looking Back

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Looking Back

From November 1942


Miami Sunday Morning – by J.L.Kerr

There are three hundred and sixty nine hotels on Miami Beach. There are three protestant churches.

One week-end thirty of us, all RAF Cadets, went down from a flying field in the north to luxuriate in the millionaires’ playground, and so it came about, on a broiling August Sunday morning, that two stolid Presbyterians set off to sing the Lord’s song in a very strange land. We had risen at seven – two hours later than flying routine allows – and spent the early morning swimming off the Cabana Club Beach. (“Would we please keep nearer the shore,” said the life-guard plaintively, “even the sharks don’t keep the Sabbath in Miami.”)

We had breakfasted in an air-conditioned dining room where bacon and eggs was the Cinderella of the menu.

Then we started to find a church, which was no easy matter. There were no residents to question in the hotel at 10am, since most of them had just gone to bed; and the staff, while eager to help, were blandly ignorant. Yes, there was a church somewhere near 79th Street causeway, but it was Christian Scientist or something. Would that do? In the end we located a Community Church three miles off, with an administration similar to that of the Congregationalists and a service in our own Church of Scotland tradition. There were no ten-cent taxis available, and walking in a temperature of 90 degrees in the shade was out of the question, so we boarded a small electric bus – “White passengers seat from front; coloured passengers from rear – State Law”. We drove down quiet avenues, fringed by palms and cocoanut trees, lined by chain stores and villas, luxury shops and skyscraper hotels; across a mile-long causeway, with sunlight dazzling the lake waters and Miami City’s skyline shimmering in the heat. At last, near the intersection of Washington Avenue and Lincoln Avenue, we found our church.

It was a tall building of moderate size, cream-coloured in rough cast outside and smooth stone within; the roof and gabling were of new wood (Florida pine looks eternally new) and at the end of the long aisle were the choir stalls, fronted by a pulpit and lectern. There were about three hundred present when the service started at precisely eleven o’clock – British tradition combined with American punctuality. There was no organ (I have never seen one in an American church), but a grand piano, superbly handled by a US Army private. The choir processed from the main door, white robed except for three men in uniform, and the congregation stood to join in “The Church’s One Foundation.” As the choir reached their places, the minister appeared from a side door – a Doctor of Divinity in shirt sleeves, white duck trousers, and a bright blue tie. We repeated Psalm 91with him and sat down for the anthem: the choir was cooled by a huge rotating fan, the congregation by individual hand ones, each inscribed “Courtesy of W.J. Tilbrich, Funeral Director, Serving Greater Miami.”

These fluttered busily throughout the service, except during prayer, and would have been a sad worry to any preacher used to the deep stillness of a Scottish church.

The prayers were spontaneous and simple, and we sang ‘Dear Lord and Father of Mankind’ as a prayer of intercession. The sermon was an exposition of the psalm we had read, of its verses and its dominant themes. Its motif, said the preacher, was the faithfulness of God – if we could believe in that as the psalmist had believed, all worry, all fear would disappear from us. To believe required hard thinking and an effort of will, but there was no possible alternative to us as Christians to-day. There was nothing rare in what he had to say and little new in the way he said it, but if he never rose to the heights, at least he never lost himself and his congregation in the clouds. It was a reminder of the sine qua non of the Christian Hope, of the fundamentals of our faith, and of the particular relevance of the Old Testament to nineteen hundred and forty-two.

When he finished, there was a short prayer of re-dedication, during which the piano commenced quietly a series of arpeggios which continued until the minister had left his place and passed down the aisle to the main door; there, from the rear of the congregation, the benediction was promised.

Everyone spoke to us afterwards. We were from Scotland. Did we know Robert Murdoch who lived in Inverness? No, we replied gravelly, we did not know Robert Murdoch. Eventually we escaped the deluge of invitations to lunch and walked off slowly down Lincoln Avenue, carrying the echoes of familiar tunes in our heads, thinking of the lowlands, and the highlands, and the unforgotten islands; of the meadows of England shining after rain; of what Sunday morning meant in the perfect quiet of the Scottish countryside, or amid the grey dignity of Glasgow and Edinburgh. We had recovered the things we had loved long since and lost awhile. We had been refreshed more than we knew.


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