When we first met, he seemed to be a stiff, jovial man. The stiffness was only in his movements and not his heart. He kept a full, broad smile on his face, wore glasses and a gray beard, and I could tell early on that he had jokes I wouldn’t understand. Jokes, perhaps, I’d laugh at later.
I was told to call him Brother Tom because that was his preference. We would get along because I could relate to his Christian faith, to the songs he sang, to the scriptures he went on and on about. All those markers would be little pieces of Brother Tom’s deep faith. He had an abiding song for his God.
On several occasions when I was with him, he had me pull his CD player to his side so he could play Gaither gospel, music I didn’t enjoy but lyrics I could follow. The tunes’ texts were so familiar that I could follow them, even if I had to close my ears to their sounds. Looking at Brother Tom’s face as he sang–closed eyes, his deep throat open–I’d think back to rehearsals with the Soul Children of Chicago when we would sing with all our selves. I’d think about my days at church singing in the choir. And I would join Brother Tom. Sometimes.
We talked about the Bible. We spoke of theology. He always asked about my ministry and my leadership. He wanted to talk about his writings, and I wanted to hear about his life. Sometimes it felt like our conversations were dull in the sense that they were aimless, almost lazy. But there was something building, an intimacy I wouldn’t know until my internship and time with him was ending. Still, with all those important words shared between us, it was his music that marked our time.
He would sing in the middle of a conversation, offering a public display of affection, even next to sleepy residents in St. Paul’s house. I didn’t want to wake up his fellow residents. But he didn’t mind it. He would simply sing. Loud and never quietly, he’d open his throat as if God was before him, waiting and encouraging him to sing louder.
Donny Hathaway, a singer I’m sure Brother Tom was unfamiliar with, sang that “for all we know tomorrow may never come.” But the faith residing in the deep bottoms of my old friend, old because he’d seen so many days with God and with people, old because he’d experienced plain loneliness and gripping isolation, old because he was aged by grace and suffering and illness, that faith had a different lyric. In some ways, Tom Lopresti sang because he believed he would see a tomorrow.
On the first day of the week, when he died, Brother Tom’s voice joined another melodious chorale. He wouldn’t sing along. He would join the sounds of the stars and the unseen vocalists from all eternity. In death, he would start a new chorus, hardly ending his lovely baritone rendition of thankfulness. He would keep singing, even if I’d never hear him again. Perhaps this time he’d open his eyes, but Brother Tom would sing. For sure he would.