When you look upon an image like this, you can’t tell whether the sun is coming or going?! Or which is the original and which the reflection?!?! The Summer of ’68 was like that for me. My whole world was turned upside-down. I lost my dear friend Bobby – along with a heckuvalotta hope
But only days later I found a new Bobby, who was destined to be my very best of friends. This one’s for him! But let me introduce him with his favorite story…
On Easter Sunday two years later, a passionate young man named John-Michael Tebelak went to Church for the Great Celebration. He heard of a Son of God Who LOVED SO MUCH that He was willing even to “Become Sin, though He Himself had never sinned…” taking all sin upon Himself and into a grave so that it could conquered by Love. What a Story! Surely the Greatest that could ever be told! But John-Michael FELT NOTHING of it in that Church that day. He pretty much experienced a crowd that got stuck in Friday, stuck on a Cross, as Good as it was. As Good as it was, it wasn’t Easter, it wasn’t REBORN!! What was wrong with those people around him? Why weren’t they FLIPPING OUT!?!?!? That day he became bound and determined to bring THE GOOD NEWS OF JESUS back to the modern world, and he went home and began to create GODSPELL. He would later team up with a musical genius named Stephen Schwartz, and BAM! The Christ had “risen again.”
i was in the seminary at the time, though home on vacation in the summers. That first summer that “Godspell” was on tour, i was so fortunate to see it at the Ford Theatre in Washington – even sitting very close to Abraham Lincoln’s last seat. A wonderful priest who understood the power and relevance of this show brought me and my girl Annie Martin there. Fr. Paul Graney!!! WHAT A GUY! Wow, i even felt that Great ABE had Resurrected to be with us all again!!! He and his Mary were dancing in the aisle with Sts. Peter and John.
But there was no place i ever experienced “Godspell” better than in my big seminary brother, BOB GRIX. He embodied the message, body and soul. He was Christ Reborn in the heart of the city. He had one goal in life, the same as Tebelak, to bring that Good News of Love and Mercy to the good but struggling people around him. As priest-friars Bobby and i were together some years in Da Bronx, New York, on Gun Hill Road. And while it sure was true to its name in those days, Bobby, who grew up in that very neighborhood, always saw passed the guns and violence and drugs and grime, to the GOOD, to the SUN that was always shining, however many clouds tried to cover Him. During several years that we lived and worked together, we often had “Godspell” playing on a cassette in the car, especially our favorite, “Beautiful City.” How often he helped me to find such beauty in places where there seemed to be none. We would sing every song to the tops of our lungs, bound and determined to join in that great challenge of building.
In 1990 i took a different path, leaving my Bobby on Easter morning in the parking lot on Gun Hill Road with a giant hug and many a tear. i went out in search for “the other half of me,” hoping to have a wife and children some day. Fr. Robert stayed, this DYNAMO of a Capuchin Priest, a legend among his people for his passion in preaching and in reenacting the Gospels in the modern cities….until one Christmas, of all days, my dear brother was suddenly overcome by a stroke, which left him pretty much paralyzed and barely able to speak, but for some most precious phrases.
Dag Hammarskjold, the Secretary General of the United Nations who was killed on a mission of Mercy, had written in his Journal, “There is no separating Christmas from Calvary, the Crib from the Cross.” As speechless as Bobby’s suffering was, he knew from the start that his time had come to enter that part of his Jesus’ life and to carry a very heavy cross for many many years. Sad and suffering as it was for all of us who knew him, it was in a way the greatest joy in my life to share my Bobby with my wife and children, who came to adore him, as he did them.
Music was a key to Fr. Bob, as my children learned immediately, and immediately they shared their modern world with him in the form of an ipod, on which they entered most of his favorite tunes, including those of “Godspell.” On many days it lifted him to ecstasy. It gave him a Strength Beyond Words to carry on, to suffer through…
After life’s long journey with this precious guy, the first one to greet me on the steps of the seminary in August ’68, he stayed close to me to the end, never judging, only loving. True Friend! True Blue. When we took this picture of him, he was listening to Olivia Newton-John, his favorite, “I HONESTLY LOVE YOU.” He HONESTLY loved! i wrote to her all about him, his devotion, his pure love. She wrote back – a love letter to him – but it arrived days after he died. They will sing together side by side in heaven some day…in the Beautiful City.
Uncle Bobby gave to my Van and Molly, of course, one priceless gift, a copy of the movie, “Godspell,” (though more than anything they recall those back-breaking hugs – or nothing at all! LOL; try to get away with a handshake, and you were in trouble!) That’s the way he had always been on his home turf, da Bronx! Da ding is, he already saw “the Beautiful City” in all of those people, the good and the “bad” ones, and he knew that he just had to get it all out of them, this Wonder of God. With strong yet gentle love he worked to “have them be who they already were, the children of God!” That was how he always saw it, as simple as that! Simple, yes, but tough! And tough he could be, though he never knew just how tough that really was.
i always found it most interesting how something most profound happened to “Godspell” around pretty much the same time as this tragedy to my Bobby. America found itself whipped by terrible waves of violence, hatred, and terror, battering his dream so badly that Stephen Schwartz was moved to rewrite his “Beautiful City,” replacing what he himself has called “drippy lyrics” with some much more profound, pointing to how the City is actually built out of intense pain, with so much shedding of blood and sweat and tears. “Out of the ruins and rubble” it will RISE UP! Little did Stephen know how he was writing a tribute to Fr. Robert Grix, who would be to his own great surprise Building the Great City along with the millions who ride in wheelchairs or who just lie in hospital or nursing home beds, many who can do little more than smile – with true smiles from the soul, as they feel utterly one with the Christ. That day at Ford Theatre i recall a section set apart for the handicapped, and i saw in their eyes more than in anyone else’s such a pride to be part of John-Michael and Stephen’s dream. God’s Dream, of course, Death, Resurrection, New Life, Never Giving Up! Ehhhh, Bobby?
i have spoken to Stephen’s lawyers about using his lyrics here or in a book i wrote about Bob. There are all kinds of legalities, so it’s easier to simply direct you to YouTube and to the absolutely incredible rendition of “Beautiful City” by Hunter Parrish. It often put my friend into that state of bliss, and it gave him great great confidence that his suffering was not in vain but rather truly useful to God in the building of the City. If you want to visit the heart of Bobby – still very much alive today – go there.
And Hey, HAPPY EASTER, EVERYBODY!!!