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Country Boy And City Bumpkin - Poem by Donal Mahoney

Although I emigrated from Chicago to St. Louis, Missouri, a long time ago, I have never been anywhere near the small town of Ellsinore, Missouri, the birthplace of the late Albert Ray Morlen, barber extraordinaire. Al cut my hair in his St. Louis shop for at least 30 of the 47 years he did business there. He may not have been Andy Griffith but he was close to a clone and no one marketed the glory of his small hometown better than Al. And he did very well promoting belief in Jesus Christ as well.

His family had owned the only grocery store in Ellsinore back in the Forties and Fifties. He came to St. Louis looking for work. Finding none, he went to barber school and never looked back. He was a tonsorial artist unrecognized as such by most of his customers who were blue-collar men wanting little more than a trim or a crewcut plus an update on neighborhood news. Al not only gave them what they wanted but often a more liberal education as well. His specialty was theology.

Al was a country boy and a Baptist and I was a city bumpkin and a Roman Catholic but we got along famously over all those years. If no one else were in the shop, we would discuss the differences in our two faith traditions. Al never flirted with Catholicism or I with his Baptist faith but when I first went to him he was convinced Mormons and Catholics were nothing more than cults and he didn’t hesitate to say that. After all, souls were at stake. Mine in particular unless I saw the light that he turned on every time I got a haircut.

But after many years cutting my hair, and many long discussions, he one day told me he had changed his mind. Only the Mormons qualified as a cult. He had been wrong about the Catholics but he was still not too fond of all those statues. And since most of his customers were Catholic, he often had to attend funerals and still could not understand what was up with all that standing and kneeling. He never knew what was coming next.

I could understand his problem since I had a attended a Baptist wedding once and we sat for the entire service. Big difference in the mechanics as well as the substance of the two faiths and not easy to explain, one to another.

It may have been on the same day that Al told me Catholics were not a cult that he also told me I was “saved, ” whether I knew that or not. I knew this was no small thing coming from a Baptist, never mind one as solid as Al in his faith.

I had spent 19 consecutive years in Roman Catholic schools in Chicago without ever being told I was “saved, ” a concept not accepted in Catholicism in the Protestant sense. But then I had never been tempted to be a priest, either. So when Al told me I was “saved” and just too dumb to know it, I took that announcement as a Medal of Honor whether I could wear it or not.

I demurred vociferously, of course, and said I was always in the process of being “saved” and hoped I would never fall off that path. I had a history of many tumbles in my time.

I tried to explain the Sacrament of Penance to him and its biblical roots but that did not go over well. Nor did Purgatory and Martin Luther’s throwing the Book of Maccabees out of the Bible in the 16th century because of its allusion to Purgatory. But it was the doctrine of the Real Presence in the Holy Eucharist as discussed in John 6: 41-59 that may have made some impression on him. Nevertheless, he remained steadfast in his appreciation of the grape juice and crackers used at his monthly Baptist communion service.

I told Al, however, that despite canards to the contrary, Catholics believe that the grace of God alone can save someone and that “works” are not the deciding factor in salvation as some non-Catholics might have you believe.

I added, of course, a reference to 2 James: 14-18 as the proof text which says “faith without works is dead” and told him Catholics believe that as well. Without works, faith is moribund, for all intents and purposes, but Catholics in no way believe works will get you to heaven. Works of mercy are what you do if you do believe, and you believe as a result of the gift of faith that comes freely from God. You can’t earn faith or heaven from the Catholic perspective but dying in serious or mortal sin can help you go to hell. Al didn’t agree with that.

Al regularly invoked his belief that faith alone guarantees salvation, that when one accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior he or she went to heaven at death. No pit stop in the car wash of Purgatory. He did not buy into the idea of dying with mortal sin on one’s soul as a means of finding hell as one’s eternal destination.

As a result, I used to remind him on occasion of a notorious adulterer in his home town shot to death by an angry husband. Al would always tell me that if the dead man had accepted Christ, he went to heaven and he thought legendary Cozy must have done that somewhere along the line. Maybe so, I said, but if he were a Catholic he’d have a lot of explaining to do, and we would leave it at that.

I never accepted Al’s offer to visit Ellsinore simply because I don’t like to “travel.” He told me I’d be welcome down there as a visitor and would love the catfish and barbecue but as a Catholic I might want to get out of town before dark.

In a sense he was joking, of course, but in another sense maybe not so much. Solid fundamentalists, whether in southern Missouri or elsewhere in the United States, often have a deep-seated suspicion of papists whom they view as souls needing to be saved. In contrast, Catholics I know harbor no great animus toward Fundamentalists with whom we share similar positions on abortion, euthanasia and other issues in our society today. We disagree on many things but on core issues there is great similarity whether either group admits that or not.

I used to read Al's hometown paper in his shop while waiting for a haircut and I had come to love from afar the people in that area. I would rejoice when I saw the rare obit in which the deceased “was of the Catholic faith.” I would circle that fact and give it to Al as part of my gratuity on the way out if only to prove we papists had infiltrated his part of the woods.

I also admired a senior columnist in the paper who at times not only voiced suspicions of cults (her readers knew who the cults were even if Al had pardoned one of them) but she also had serious questions about other Protestant denominations. She was a member of the Church of Christ.

I told Al that as a good Baptist he might not pass muster with the columnist or perhaps the Church of Christ. I later learned this denomination had split in two and neither of the two, as I understand it, accepts the theology of the other. Martin Luther’s 16th century earthquake still has tremors today with reputedly more than 23,000 sects or ecclesial communities already established and more being born as disagreements in doctrine occur.

I was often tempted to send the columnist a letter indicating that as a traditional Catholic who reads her column every week, I felt obliged to tell her we papists are Christian and believe that Christ is our Lord and Savior and anything she may have heard to the contrary is buncombe and balderdash. I never sent that letter. I didn’t think that kind of thing would be helpful in bridging the gap.

Al Morlen was truly one of a kind. Every time I go elsewhere for a haircut now I think of him. I have met a lot of people cut from rare cloth in Chicago and St. Louis but no one like Al Morlen, a Christian first and a barber second.

The man had to emigrate from his beloved Ellsinore, Missouri, to earn a living and he did that successfully. He reminded me of my parents who had emigrated from Ireland, circa 1920, to earn a living as well. They too succeeded, making it possible for the likes of me to pick up a couple of degrees coming out of a neighborhood where few went on to college. And like Al making the long hike from Ellsinore, my parents brought their faith with them.


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