Waking up in Shamrock, Texas, my mother was already on my mind. It was 33 years to the day that I returned home from work and found her unconscious in the bathroom. I tried to save her, but both my and the paramedics’ efforts were too late. At the age of 43, her life on Earth was over. The replay button in my mind never changes the final outcome. So, this time, I posted this reflection of her to my Facebook account: “33 years have passed. Your words to me last and last. ‘Remember there is always a reason for all that happens. It may take 10 days, 10 years or more, but there is always a reason.’ Thank you, mom, for continuing to help me understand this world I travel.” My goal was to reach the state Capitols of Oklahoma and Kansas. I was two hours away from Oklahoma City. A quick breakfast and short drive had me in front of the Oklahoma State Capitol. Three distinctive images stood out: An oil well, a yellow security fence blocking the front steps and a Native American statue at the top of the Capitol dome. The oil well is active and connects to an oil field under the Capitol. There were no visible signs of a church to be found. I snapped a few pictures, walked around the yellow fencing and entered through a side door. Immediately, a security checkpoint stopped me. I asked if anyone had information about the closest churches. ”Sir, you must go through security to reach the information desk.” I emptied my pockets, checked my iPad and proceeded to the information desk. I explained my state and church project and asked for the closest church. I received puzzled faces. Then a man offered to pull out a map and help me. “Not many churches in walking distance, but there is a black community church a short drive down 21st Street.” I retrieved my iPad and headed to finish circling the Capitol. The back steps were clear and I walked past the Ten Commandments statue on the walkway to the left. It had just been placed in 2012. It was in an odd location since most people would not see it. (Since my visit in 2013, the statue has been a lightning rod of controversy. Other groups, including Satanists, Hindus and the satirical Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, have all tried to erect statues, but were refused. The statue itself was destroyed by a man in a pickup truck in 2014, but again rebuilt. As I write this article on 10/05/2015, it is being removed after a ruling by the Oklahoma Supreme Court citing separation of church and state). On the grounds behind the Capitol on Tribal Plaza is a unique monument called “The Meeting Place” where people may honor Native Americans. The design is two walkways meeting at a rock with a small water fountain in the center. It is aligned with the Guardian, a Native American statue atop the dome. The walkways come through a sunken mound and gives a half-tunnel look at the rear of the Capitol. I will take “The Meeting Place” over the oil well entrance any day. As I finished circling the Capitol and returned to the car, my wife Marie called just before work. We briefly discussed the significance of the day as I followed instructions to the closest church. We said goodbye until evening just as I saw a church on the next corner. I parked the car, grabbed my iPad and stepped out onto the street. Someone was sitting on the steps. I tried to frame the picture to catch the church sign and building together. Voice of Praise Baptist Church is indeed the closest church to the Oklahoma State Capitol. I’ve therefore accomplished my first goal of the day and once again it was time to move on. But wait! You’re not going to get away without hearing … the rest of the story. After taking the picture, I walked up to the person sitting on the steps and asked if the church was open. She stood up and shook her head no. She was a tall black woman wearing a black overcoat. I quickly explained my project; she nodded and then started preaching and teaching. She started with John 1:1 and each time she mentioned God, she shook. She would then, in mid-verse, switch to tell me about Thomas Jefferson: his habits, his wife’s church habits with his slaves and then, just as quickly, she would switch back to preaching, then to her personal history and the history of other churches in the area. It was quite fascinating and I stood transfixed listening to her for 15–20 minutes. A man pulled up in a SUV, nodded to the woman, entered the church for five minutes and then left. My guess was that he’s the pastor. I had a brief opportunity to ask the woman her name. She looked me in the eye and said, “My name is Pastor Karen Schwartz.” Then she paused with the wind blowing, looked up and said in a calmer voice, “I’m known as the spirit faith.” This was no ordinary moment. I somehow managed to reach out my hand and say, “Thank you for the information.” I noticed a marking on the cornerstone behind her that read “First Presbyterian 1948” and asked her if she knew about the history of the church. She said, “That is a long story,” then reached out her hand in return and said in the same calm voice, “Look beyond the skin.” She quickly looked up and at me straight in the eye, tossed her head to the left and said, “When you return, you’ll find me over there and I’ll tell you more.” The look and head toss were very familiar; I suddenly felt very drained. I thanked her once again and returned to my car. She returned to sitting on the steps. As I drove away, I tried to comprehend what I witnessed. I managed to find a McDonald’s and recap my experience. As I parked and shut off the engine, I heard a voice whisper,“That was me.” I sat and cried happy tears. “But, how,” I asked myself, yelling at the heavens as I again barreled up I-35 toward Topeka, Kan. “How does this work? Was that Whoopi Goldberg in the movie ‘Ghost?’ Was that my mother reincarnated in Oklahoma City? Was this divine intervention? How? Why are there more questions than answers?” I was pretty sure this day would end with my tear glands a few quarts low. Approaching Topeka, I refocused on my project, made notes about the Kansas Capitol, then headed east on I-70 toward longtime friends in Kansas City. Then the phone rang. I answered on my car’s Bluetooth and Marie was there, having just finished her workday. She asked how my day went. I tried to recap my experience since we last talked; tried was the operative word. When I finished, she paused and said ever-so-perfectly, “In my prayer this morning, I asked God to send your mother to you because you could really use her right now.” I pulled over the car and stopped. I emptied what was left in my tear tank. You may think this completes the story of March 19, 2013. You would be partially right. I discovered my 18th Capitol and its closest church. There is a nagging thing about new discoveries, as they lead to even more discovery. Recall the last statement that the tall black woman on the steps of Voice of Praise Baptist Church said to me: “When you return, you’ll find me over there and I’ll tell you more.” Come back next week and I’ll tell you … the rest of … the rest of the story.
Capitols and churches: When you return, look over there December 19th, 2013 There were still 33 Capitols to visit. I lived in Tennessee and was technically unemployed. Yet, this woman that I met on the steps of the Voice of Praise Baptist Church near the Oklahoma State Capitol said that I will return. Was it just a casual remark? Or was there some mysterious question yet to be resolved? Either way, life and this church and state tour consumed the remainder of 2013. I finished visiting all the Capitols by June 8, which you will read about in the coming weeks. I was offered a terrific job in Jackson, Tenn. which I accepted at the end of June. This required putting our house up for sale and hopefully purchasing a new one. The new job occupied just about every other mind thought that I had. The summer and early fall flew by. Thanksgiving was another turning point. The house had not sold and it became obvious that this job was meant to be a short-term bridge. At this point, I was commuting between east and west Tennessee every weekend. So I gave my one-month notice, took the house off of the market and prepared to finish my time in Jackson. On December 17, I woke at 3 a.m. with a whisper in my ear. “Go back to Oklahoma City.” I got up and researched the time and distance: eight hours, 555 miles. to the west. Home was 500 miles in the opposite direction. I dismissed the idea as crazy and went back to sleep. That day the news mentioned that it was the new Pope’s birthday. A quick search indicated that Pope Francis was born in 1936. Interestingly, my mom was born on Christmas in 1936. Her name was Noella Carol. Pope Francis and my mom were born only a week apart. The next morning, December 18, I awoke again at 3:56 a.m. with a similar but more urgent whisper, “Go back to Oklahoma City, now!” I quickly packed my bags, checked out of the hotel and went to the office. I left a note saying that I had urgent personal business to address and would be back in a day or two. I started driving to Oklahoma City. Crazy is as crazy does. At mid-morning, I called Marie and said, ”guess where I’m going?” Without hesitation she replied, “Oklahoma City.” My lovely wife knows me better than I know myself. I pulled into the city around 4 p.m., headed straight for the Capitol and took a right onto 21st Street toward Voice of Praise Baptist church. As Yogi Berra would say, “Deja vous all over again.” The only difference from nine months earlier is that I looked for Pastor Karen, the tall black woman with the black overcoat. Her words were still fresh on my mind. “When you return, look over there” as her head looked to her left. Attached to the left of the church was a small daycare facility. I put on my Sherlock Holmes hat and started asking questions. ”Do you know of a tall black woman at the church that goes by the name of Pastor Karen?” Sharon at the daycare explained that she remembered a woman matching that description at the church but hadn’t seen her recently. She thought the woman might be homeless. She was occasionally seen sitting at a bus stop on 23rd Street or further up at the library, pointing to her left. I thanked her and walked back to the front of the church and noticed two things. First on the church sign was a message, “With God all things are possible” and the front door was open. In the church I saw the man I thought was the pastor back in March. He was conversing with a patron. After he finished his conversation, Tony the pastor turns to me and said, “How can I help you?” I briefly explained my experience in March and asked if he knew Pastor Karen. His expression turned serious and he said, “We tried to help her; we really did. We invited her in for food and prayed with her. But she kept telling people that she was the pastor and became incontinent right on the steps. So we had to call the police and have her barred a few months ago. We really tried to help her, but sometimes … “ his voice trailed off. I pressed on for more information. ”Have you seen her anywhere else,” I asked. He said that he had seen her at some bus stops, sleeping during the day and thought she was mentally challenged. I reached into my pocket, pulled out my business card and a $20 bill and said, “If you see her again, please call me. I’m really concerned and want to thank her and maybe help her if I can. Please give this money to someone who can use a little extra at Christmas.” I returned to my car, drove over to 23rd Street, filled my tank, had a bite to eat and thought about what to do next. It was now nighttime and very dark. I drove down 23rd Street, searching every bus stop until I reached the library. No sign of my mysterious friend. Resolved myself to the reality that I was unlikely to find her in the limited time that I had. I eased back up to I-40 East to the outskirts of OKC and pulled over to search for a place to sleep. Priceline gave me a La Quinta that I thought was close by. Upon closer inspection, it was one hour in the opposite direction west of OKC. I called customer service immediately to correct my mistake. No luck, I was stuck with a hotel one hour in the wrong direction. After checking in, I tried to quickly sleep and get an early start. However, the day was on my mind. This woman that meant so much to me earlier this year appeared to be lost with mental health issues somewhere in Oklahoma City. I compared her dilemma with my dear mother who battled with periods of mental illness at points of her life. I fell asleep after vowing to give the search another try in daylight. Morning broke and back into the city I explored. I drove down 23rd and stopped at the library this time and explained my mission to the front desk. They suggested I ask the security guard, Charles Johnson. Mr. Johnson was very helpful explaining that it sounded like a lady that comes around here every few days. He said that she was in fact there the day before, but can never know when or who will show up. “She has split personalities like the three faces of Eve. She calls herself the anointed one.” I shared my story and indicated that I drove nine hours because I was told to come back to OKC. He said he did that sort of thing once. I asked if he would call me if he saw her. He said no, he didn’t have a phone. I asked if I could leave a note and have her call me if she showed up. He said yes. So I made a note with my name and phone number. I spent some time in the parking lot hoping that Pastor Karen would show up. No such luck. One more time back to the Capitol. I stopped to take a picture and a man walking by flags me down and says ,“Sir, Sir, do you have 75 cents for a beer? I pulled out some cash from my pocket and he saw a ten dollar bill and said, “But a ten would be nice.” I laughed and said, “Let’s split the difference” and gave him $5. I briefly told him my story and asked if he saw Pastor Karen to send her to the security guard at the library for a note. One last time, I drove past Voice of Praise looking for other churches to the left side. I found an administrator of the local Catholic church who said he would keep an eye out for her, as he knew a number of the homeless in the area. I left a donation and, having exhausted all obvious options, once again headed for home. Approaching the Arkansas state border, my wife called and just like in March I answered. We discussed the day and I heard a beep of another call coming in. Looking at the number, I recognize the Oklahoma City area code. I excused myself from Marie and answered. It was Pastor Karen. I asked if she remembered me from March. She said “ I do” I said “Well, I just wanted to thank you for connecting me with my mom”. She said, “I know.” I said, “God works in mysterious ways.” She replied in a very soothing voice, “The power of prayer works.” I then asked her if this was a good number to reach her. She said, “Sometimes.” I asked for her name one more time. She said, “Evangelist Karen Casey and I have to go now.” I said “Thank you. Will I get the chance to meet you and thank you in person?” She said “When you come back again” and hung up. Right then, over the very next hill on I-40 east in Arkansas appeared a big, lighted white cross. The tear tank was joyously emptied again. In memoriam, Noella Carol Flanagan 12/25/36–3/19/80. The best Christmas present this boy has ever received!