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Learning from a Craftsman

Tom has given his life to upholstery. His garage workshop is a maze of fabric bolts, sample books, and foam rolls, with a few half-finished projects neatly stacked against the walls. He learned the trade working long hours alongside a master, and he’s been out on his own for over fifty years. Tom’s fingers are callused and swollen from thousands of hours of hand stitching, and he has trouble staying on his feet for long these days. He doesn’t advertise any more, but people keep calling him to do one more job, and he just can’t say no.

There were once a dozen upholstery shops in his small city, Tom told me, back when he had a shopfront in a snazzy new strip. But young people don’t want to mess with work like this anymore, he said, and most folks just throw away a couch that gets a big rip in the back.

Tom did a beautiful job with an Eastlake loveseat I’d inherited from my grandparents a few years ago, finding the right navy brocade, nailing some loose fretwork back into place, refinishing the scuffed spots on its oak frame. A year into COVID-tide, our diocese was still discouraging kneeling for Holy Communion, and when the Altar Guild started talking about doing something about the browning velvet trim on the hassocks in the chancel, I knew just where to take them.

I went to pick them up a few days ago, making sure to set aside a good 45 minutes for shop talk. The hassocks looked brand new. Tom had handwashed the needlepointed tops multiple times and sought out a microfiber velvet from a fellow tradesman on the other side of the state, the shade of blue perfectly matched to the paint on the reredos wall. He had salvaged the dense foam inside (“they don’t let them make it like that anymore,” he said — and I didn’t dare ask why), and installed zippers to make the work easier for the next upholsterer a half century hence.

As I expected, he had also prepared an extended technical critique of the work of the hassocks’ original craftsman, with a big pile of fabric scraps to illustrate his point. This was the moment he had been waiting for; he was truly, as my grandmother would say, “in his glory.” I nodded along, enjoying his passion for the art.

Tom was sure I would want to recreate the explanation for my parishioners, because they too needed to know about the odd burlap backing and wrong color thread and uneven stitchery. He sent me home with labeled exhibits, placing far too much trust in my technical competence; maybe, for his sake, I’ll try to run through them one Sunday after church with the fastidious Altar Guild members, the ones who tack up the loose embroidery on the frontals and know just how to patch a corporal. We have a few souls of his kind, after all.

After I gave him the check at the end of our long conversation, Tom filled out a receipt. Handing it back, he pointed a callused finger at the motto printed on the bottom: “Proverbs 22:29. Do you see a man who excels in his work? He will stand before Kings; he will not stand before unknown men.”

Upholstery isn’t just a job for Tom. It’s his way of serving God: offering back the gifts and talents seasoned by long experience for the life of the world and creating a little beauty in the midst of so much crass ugliness. It’s a true vocation, and he aims to do it as honorably as he can, as long as possible. It rightfully commands respect from people of all kinds.

Tom is one of many craftsmen I have gotten to know in my work as a parish priest. Our old buildings and fussy accoutrements require a surprising number of them: the woodworker who turned out a perfect Paschal candlestick for the chapel, the timber framer who refitted the lych gate beams, organ tuners and bell founders, kindhearted repairmen who know just how to coax another year out of a superannuated boiler.

By and large, they are eccentric and passionate, always ready for a glass of lemonade and a technical chat. They don’t know how long they will be able to keep at work like this, but they are grateful to do it while they can. Some of them pray before they get started (the young engineer planning our new HVAC system wrote ahead last week to tell me we needed to start our next meeting with intercession for wise discernment). They almost always assure me that doing work in God’s house is something special, and that I can expect their very best.

We sometimes read Saint Paul’s exhortations to share the Holy Spirit’s gifts to build up the life of Christ’s body only as summons to the members of our congregations to use their soft skills to help the church achieve its mission and maintain a common life of peace and goodwill. But those “in whom the Lord has put ability and intelligence to know how to do any work in the construction of the sanctuary” (Exod. 36:1) also share gifts worthy of respect and honor. Though few of our congregants know their names or have heard their stories, we are surrounded by the fruit of their labors, and their works are part of our common offering of praise and thanksgiving to God.

Since nearly all of us can safely worship together again, I hope we will hear no more of this “church is the people, not the building” talk for a while. Christians started building churches even before it became legal to do so. The Diocletian Persecution of 303 was provoked by the too-grand basilica that the local bishop had just completed, right across the street from the imperial palace. The inventories of confiscated goods taken by their ancient persecutors show that even then, they stuffed them with the most finely crafted goods they could afford. Our common work is the public worship of Almighty God, and such an undertaking demands a place fitted as best we can for that transcendent purpose.

Of course, if we had no buildings, or if our buildings were merely functional spaces, we would also have no use for craftsmen like Tom, and he would have no way to share his gifts. For such a loss, the world would be a bit sadder and less beautiful than God intended.


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