Sunday morning I woke up with the feeling that I should go to church early. It was more than a feeling, actually, and sure enough, when I arrived Brother Nigel LaBeouf was layering his organ prelude with unmistakable notes from that immortal Boston song.
At a quarter to nine the chapel was almost half full and funereally solemn. It would be a hard Sunday. Two weeks ago a member of the stake presidency had informed us that the records of any members aged 30 and over who were attending singles wards in the area would be moved into their corresponding family wards. Today five of our flock would be released from their callings, including Nigel LaBeouf.
No one in a Church calling is irreplaceable, but Nigel was certainly inimitable. He played with the passion of a concert pianist, his torso lifting and swaying, toupéed head shaking in impassioned little no-thank-yous. By weekday he taught German at the local junior high, where he’d taught many of my friends. Despite an English first and French last name he spoke with a German accent, a mystique which heightened when my friend, who became his home teaching companion, discovered he’d grown up in Kansas and served an English-speaking mission in Florida.
Seamlessly, “More than a Feeling” led into three measures of “There Is Sunshine in My Soul Today,” followed by the entire minute-long intro of Zeppelin’s “Your Time is Gonna Come”—which is, actually, a church organ prelude. That tune put a lump in my throat. I’d joined the ward after graduating from high school two months before, and any Zeppelin song reminded me of high school, and that it was over, and that, like Nigel LaBeouf, you can’t hold on to anything forever.
At five minutes to nine, the bishopric took the stage. Nigel’s next motif surprised me. He often riffed on Clapton’s “The Presence of the Lord” during his sacrament post-lude, but here it was in the prelude. That, I realized looking back, was no coincidence. Nor was it an accident when Brother Brady, our first counselor, stood to conduct, and Nigel held out the final chord five seconds too long.
Brother Brady waited, turned toward the organ, swiveled back, then welcomed us, recognizing Bishop Fry and Brother Tingey, the second counselor, as well as Brother Jensen from the high council. He expressed appreciation to Sister Jimenez for conducting the music, and then, ceremoniously turning around again, thanked Brother LaBeouf for his years of service to the ward.
The opening song was “Now Let Us Rejoice.” But Nigel had transposed it—maybe beforehand, maybe on the fly—into a minor key. It was the right thing to do with the wrong hymn for the occasion, but it didn’t make the singing any easier. People glanced around, whispered, and shrugged. The bishopric members glanced at each other but did not shrug.
Near the end of the final chorus, Tami Jackson approached to say the opening prayer. She’d timed her walk perfectly to arrive at the podium two seconds after the hymn’s final chord, but it never came. Well, it did, but instead of pulling off, Brother LaBeouf began a variation on the melody, moving in fairly brisk quarter notes with solid pedalwork to arrive at a slowed-down rendition of The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” Tami stood with folded arms. Ten seconds passed. She turned to look at Nigel, but he kept swaying away, eyes closed. She gestured toward the bishopric, who were engaged in earnest discussion, then after a few more seconds just walked back to her seat.
Meanwhile, Nigel kept playing. “Let Us All Press On” morphed into Tom Petty’s “Won’t Back Down.” Bishop Fry walked back and put his arm around Brother LaBeouf, still swaying and shaking his head. Bishop Fry returned to his seat and whispered to Brother Brady, who approached the podium and announced, almost shouting, “WE’D LIKE TO CONDUCT AN ITEM OF WARD BUSINESS–”
But a speaker-distorting surge of organ drowned him out. He covered his ears and kept talking, but we could only see his mouth move. Brother Tingey strode to the organ, bent down, and amid strains of “Sunday Bloody Sunday”—a bit too far, in my opinion—yanked out the power cord.
The sound from the organ stopped immediately, but Nigel kept playing. In dazed collective silence we heard the clack of plastic keys against felt, the gentle tap of foot pedals. Nigel, sweating like Bruce Springsteen, kept swaying to a rhythm now only in his head.
Brother Brady returned to the podium. “Okay, brothers and sisters, we’d like to thank Brother Nigel LaBeouf—”
Not the shout of a repudiated organist, but its corresponding fermata-powered chord from “Shall the Youth of Zion Falter?” out of an inexplicably reanimated organ. True to the truth…Nigel drove home those chords, left hand and both feet dancing down the bass line of the chorus. People stood, trying to see how the organ had started playing again, or sat with eyes closed and hands over ears. This was the 1990s, and the bishopric didn’t have cell phones to call the stake president or police. They huddled again, pointing and gesturing around a blue Handbook of Instructions.
Finally, as Nigel played “All Creatures of Our God and King” mashed up with “Don’t Stop Believing,” the three bishopric members and Brother Jensen approached the organ. Another hand on the shoulder from Bishop Fry, then a step back, a visible three-count, and two brethren took Nigel LaBeouf lovingly under each sweat-gray armpit and hoisted him up. The other two unhooked his legs from the organ bench, and together they carried him twisting and protesting through sobs towards the chapel’s heavy swinging doors.
We watched in helpless silence. Then someone started clapping. In another second the chapel erupted, people standing and cheering and clapping as they set Nigel on his feet and escorted him out of the chapel, broken-spirited and released, but not without our vote of thanks.