In January of 1990, the Drew Theological School Choir was going on tour.
We were a ragtag bunch of people, since Drew’s student body was made up of mostly second and third-career students. I was by far the youngest in the choir. Our director, Lester Berenbroick, was the music director at the theological school and had been there since the dawn of time. He was kind of a living legend around the school. We were frightfully intimidated by him, yet he commanded high respect.
His face was carved up by deep lines and his toupee was a point of discussion among students. It was a rather bad one. His angular face and the harsh lines that carved it up all served to make Lester a somewhat frightful presence. He was a master musician and we all knew it, but his personality was not conducive to teaching. He didn’t seem to like people. Many years later, after his death, he came out in his obituary. He’d been living with his long-time partner for decades. At Drew such things were probably known in whispers among students, but despite Drew’s proud legacy of liberalism, such things weren’t talked about openly. I guess most people knew, but I was still naive and never on the gossip circuit. He just scared me.
If I’d known about Lester’s closeted relationship, perhaps I would have better understood his hard personality. I certainly cannot imagine having to keep the most important relationship in your life a secret. I did come to know a bit of that for a short time, but nothing near a lifetime. I realize, now, there was much more to Lester than met the eye.
We were all encouraged to go on the Choir Tour, of course, and after some major conflicts with my father during my first semester, I was not eager to spend the January term at home with my parents. Lester demanded that I bring my guitar on tour, which would have been just fine with me had he allowed me to have my music. But he wanted me to play by ear, accompanying the choir on several pieces. I didn’t do this. He insisted. You didn’t say “no” to Lester and survive his scathing looks.
I was a nervous wreck. An anxious fool.
We “toured the south,” literally singing in a different church every night of the two-week tour. It was a brutal schedule for a bus full of mostly middle-aged pastors. We went from New Jersey to Alabama and back, staying in the homes of kind church members along the way.
At Lester’s request, I practiced my guitar-playing during every free moment I had, which was mostly on the bus.
For each of the songs that we sang in our concerts on the tour, two students were paired up to take turns introducing the piece. I was paired up with a second-career student named Larry Rush. He sought me out to share conversations about how we would introduce the song. Being a man who never forgot anything he ever read, he already knew quite a bit about the Moravian piece that we had been assigned. I was more than a bit annoyed with Rev. Rush, as he seemed like a know-it-all. Plus he talked too much. On top of that, I was in a permanent state of anxiety over my guitar-playing.
One night a few of us were sitting in the living room of our host family when suddenly I got hot all over, started trembling and hyperventilating and felt an urge to throw up. I gracefully excused myself and went to bed, where I held onto the sides of the mattress and gritted my teeth to keep them from chattering. It was a full-blown anxiety attack. There was nothing I could do but ride it out. It happened again a couple of nights later right before a concert. I sat down on the floor and became short of breath, sweated profusely and trembled, my teeth chattering. Someone called on a young theological student, Carlos, who also played the guitar, and told him he would have to fill in for me that night. He panicked. As I sat on the floor, hugging myself and gritting my teeth, he attempted a laying on of hands. He laid his big pudgy hands on my head, pressing down, imploring the Holy Spirit to heal me and fill me with the courage I needed. I think he was the one who needed courage. He didn’t want to play. The Holy Spirit did not intervene on time, and a very nervous Carlos took my place on accompaniment while I sat out the concert.
On the journey back north, Larry Rush started sitting near me on the bus, and he made fun of my head bobbing all over the place as I tried to sleep on the bus, since I wasn’t sleeping well at night. I was tired, I was stressed, I wanted to go home. I was not amused by him.
However, as we got closer to home, we started talking some more. I shared with him my own spiritual emptiness at Drew, where personal faith was generally frowned upon, and if you uttered the name of Jesus even in conversation, you were labeled Conservative. Evangelical. It was not a compliment.
There were few corners where I found morsels of spiritual nourishment. The campus United Methodist Church was dry and boring. Larry suggested that a few of us be in a covenant group together. It sounded like a good idea.
At the start of Spring semester, I was encouraged by my New Testament professor, Dr. Neil Hamilton. Dr. Hamilton was a good friend of Jesus and a bit of an oddball. He was short, with thick, shockingly white hair and thick-rimmed glasses. He ended sentences with, “don’tcha know?” Sometimes he actually giggled like Tigger. He seemed energized by a relentless joy. He began each class with a heartfelt prayer and led us in many guided meditations centered on Jesus. This annoyed a lot of the more scholarly liberals. They were offended that he “made” us pray. I worried for the future of the Church if its pastors didn’t want to pray…
I ate up everything Dr. Hamilton did. I was a sponge, eagerly soaking up all the grace his class offered me. I made an appointment with him one day just to talk. He understood my spiritual struggle, my ache and longing for spiritual community. He also said I’d have to initiate my own, because there wasn’t much of it on Drew’s campus. He suggested some books about spiritual direction and encouraged me in starting a covenant group with Larry. At the end of our conversation, he took both of my hands in his and prayed fervently for me and my struggle. He gave me a hug and sent me on my way. I felt a little less alone.
Seminary Hall was where the Theological School had most of its classes and on the third floor was the chapel. The outside of the building was carved stone, much like the Graduate Hall across the lawn, and I felt very scholarly walking through The Forest that was Drew’s campus. The trees came together high above to form a colorful ceiling, and the many trees were an Eden for the campus’ large squirrel population. The squirrels were a much loved presence at Drew. They seemed remarkably large; well-fed without a doubt. It helped my spirit to watch them as I walked through campus. Their antics and interactions made me laugh at loud. I was grateful they were there.
Larry became a regular fixture every weekday morning in the basement of Seminary Hall, where there was a gathering place with vending machines and coffee makers. Before class, I’d stop in and have a cup of coffee with him and others who gathered. Larry came to be known that semester as Dr. Death. He was taking a Death and Dying course, taught by a popular professor named Nelsen, who was at the time undergoing treatment for cancer. Larry loved to share all that he was reading and learning in Nelsen’s class, and asked us questions about our thoughts and feelings on death. Most of us were more concerned at that time of passing exams, writing papers and passing ordination interviews.
Several of us did participate in a covenant group that semester and got to be close friends. Larry, as the resident third-year student, led it. We prayed together, meditated, discussed various topics, etc. I shared some of my writings with Larry and we got to be very good friends. However, I was leery of getting too close to him, as he was planning on moving back to Nebraska in May. He was originally from Pennsylvania, but had finished his Bachelor’s degree in Nebraska while serving two tiny rural churches there. He fell in love with the state. We thought he was nuts. I didn’t even know where Nebraska was. Out in the middle somewhere.
Larry was a student assistant pastor at the UMC in Roselle Park, NJ. He was planning to take his youth group to a David Meece concert in April. David Meece was a popular Contemporary Christian music artist whose music I’d come to know at Messiah. Larry invited the covenant group to come along. I was especially excited to go when I realized that the concert was going to be at The Pennington Prep School, where I’d gone to camp.
I had mixed feelings about it. It had been six years since my father had worked on me, relentlessly planting doubts about Ed and Pennington in my head and heart. During those six years, I’d softened. I wasn’t sure what was the truth anymore, but I did have enough memories in my heart to know that even if Ed had been inappropriate at all, he’d done a lot of good in my life. Even if it was in spite of himself. I’d tentatively sent him a college graduation invitation, to which he responded with a beautiful letter, affirming me and memories of our time in Pennington. He’d sent me a letter encouraging me in my call to ministry after I wrote him about heading to Drew. I still wasn’t sure what to think.
When we went to Pennington for the concert, I was flooded with memories. There was the dining hall where we ate all our meals at camp. Where Ed greeted us all each morning, singing at the microphone, making jokes. There was the building with the swimming pool, where he’d thrown me in my first year. There were the steps to the main building where we gathered at night to sing songs in candlelight before going to bed. Or where we had early morning communion.
The concert was to be in the gym. I remembered all the dances we’d had in the gym during my years at camp. We settled in for the concert and I soaked up the memories, though still confused at what it all meant.
I liked David Meece’s music. His song, “I Don’t Know What I’d Do Without You” was a song I played a lot during my time at Messiah, especially that freshmen year from hell. However, that night he was promoting his new album, Learning to Trust. The songs on the album followed a particular theme of being the child of an abusive alcoholic. David told the story that night of his father’s death three years earlier. His father’s death unleashed a lifetime of pain that he’d previously kept secret. For the first time during his career, David was addressing his father’s alcoholism and how that affected David’s life.
He was very real as he spoke. He talked about the dynamics of living with an alcoholic. Something seemed terribly familiar. It wasn’t the first time, either. Before I’d gone to seminary, a recovering alcoholic church friend asked me to accompany her to a seminar on Codependency. That day, too, the family dynamics surrounding an alcoholic sounded exactly like life in my own family. I couldn’t understand why, as my parents didn’t drink. My mother would flip out if Dad ordered a glass of wine. It was then that I discovered that my grandfather was an alcoholic, which would have affected my mother deeply.
As David talked, he spoke of how everything centered around his father and his needs. He was the most important one in the family, and he must be pleased. He would put down David and his friends. He demanded perfection. He was angry when good things happened to David, instead of celebrating such things. It took attention away from him, the father. David talked about never feeling good enough to please his father, about never trusting good things as there was always a consequence, a punishment. As he went on and on, I truly felt that he was describing my own experience.
Even as an adult with a successful music ministry, he never felt good enough. David said he could offer God’s grace to other people and believe in it for them, but somehow had a hard time accepting grace for himself.
As he spoke, my eyes burned with tears that I didn’t understand. And then I had a flashback to Pennington. I suddenly remembered a moment. I think it had been my third summer at Pennington. We’d had a dance that night in the gym– the same gym where we were then. Ed was going through the gym making sure everybody was out, picking up trash and planning on turning out all the lights before the next event. A few kids were still hanging out, talking. As I often did, I went to Ed to get a hug. That summer I’d been having a particularly bad time with depression for some reason. The moment that burned in my brain in that moment was of Ed hugging me as I cried.
He didn’t know why I seemed so resistant to God’s love and grace. “Peggy Sue,” he said, holding me away from him, “God loves you. Your parents love you. I love you!”
It might have been in the very spot where David Meece was standing as he told his stories of pain and abuse. As the image faded in my mind, I broke down. I cried hard. David kept on speaking and went into a song, the album’s title– Learning to Trust. It was about how hard it was to trust in the goodness and grace of God’s love as a kid. It talked about a child growing up with the hope of a mother and father who would love you unconditionally, and how, if that didn’t happen, it was hard to trust in God’s love. I cried harder.
The image of Ed standing on that gym floor, wondering why I was so resistant to God’s grace, stayed in my mind. It was as if God tapped me on the shoulder and whispered,
Your father lied.
Larry and my friend Tonya had no idea what had sparked my tears, but as I literally bent over in my chair (as if I was throwing up), they each rubbed my back from each side of me.
I looked around the campus in the darkness after the concert, seeing it all again for what it had been: a profound moment of grace in my life. An experience where my faith had taken root. It was real. It was trustworthy. It was Good.
My father had lied.
The next morning, Larry and I had a long, emotional talk in the snack bar. I related many memories of my father and his gaslighting (although I didn’t know that term then), his convincing me that my own perceptions of anyone or anything were not trustworthy. His jealousy over Ed. His always wanting to defuse any good thing that happened to me. I always felt afraid when good things happened, even then– as if I would be punished for it.
My father lied. It was the first time, and not the last time, that I would realize that my father lied. It was devastating. How could a father do that? I continued to have my mind and heart flooded with all the best, highest, holiest moments of Pennington, when I experienced a profound sense of God’s love for me. And a sense of horror that Dad had tried to tear all of it apart.
I didn’t know why my father’s behavior resembled that of an alcoholic– this being the second time I discovered that. I didn’t know yet about Narcissism, basically an addiction to Self, and how everybody around a narcissist had to behave in a way that fulfilled the Narcissist’s needs. That my father’s behavior paralleled that of an alcoholic because he was an addict– he was addicted to himself. He couldn’t love me, or anyone else.
But that day, I didn’t know that. I was just mad. And horrified that I’d lost my friendship with Ed because of my father’s lies. Larry advised me to go see Ed and tell him the truth.
So I did. I called him up and asked if I could come see him. He lived about an hour away from the seminary, and he seemed glad of a visit.
The day I was to go see him, I could hardly breathe. I could not imagine telling him the truth of why I’d been distant these past six years. Would he believe me? Would he wonder why I’d been able to believe such things about him at my father’s word? Or worse, was I stupid yet again and would I find out he was a horrible human being after all? Somehow, that last fear felt the least likely. I could believe, perhaps, that he’d be hurt that I’d believed my father…
The day I arrived at Ed’s front door, I was shaking, my hands were as cold as ice, and I could hardly breathe properly. He seemed glad to see me. We chatted for a while as his wife Carol prepared lunch. He let me go for a while, before he finally asked me, “So what brings you here… now?”
I swallowed and stared at the floor. I told him about a class I had that semester called Religion and the Social Process. It was known to most seminary students as the White Male Bashing class. It was an emotionally brutal class for everyone, but usually left our white male colleagues feeling really defensive. In that class, I was exposed to very real stories, however, of oppression of anyone other than white males. I’d never read or heard much about feminism, or thought about it. Larry had actually introduced to me a lot of sexism in the Church and society. The more I heard about it, the more I recognized some of my own experiences.
I’d been in that class the day after the David Meece concert. That day they talked about men who were jealous of women gaining anything good, and who fought to keep women from getting ahead. They talked about fathers and emotional abuse of daughters. They talked about verbal abuse, men putting women down, men assuring women that they were, in fact, inferior and stupid. It went on and on. Women in the class shared stories. Again, some of the stories shed light on my own experiences growing up with my father. I was stupid, I was weak, he didn’t expect anything from me as he did my brothers. When I went against him or argued with him he assured me of my inferiority; too weak, too sensitive… too female.
I lost it in class that day, I told Ed. I had to leave and I ended up crying a lot. It was like throwing up emotionally, I told him, which I seemed to be doing a lot of lately.
Ed was quiet, his eyes never looking away from me as I spoke. Finally, he said quietly, “Did I oppress you?”
I was so stunned by his question, it took me a moment to answer. “No, no, not at all,” I whispered, shaking my head emphatically. I felt the tension in the room, as if time was standing still and it was just two of us right then and no one else was around.
“My father…” I told him what happened in 1984. I reminded him of David and spring semester and when I called him and he told me to get away from David, get a job across campus. I told him what my father said about him. How he had worked on me, analyzing and explaining and insisting that Ed had only been interested in me sexually and had therefore manipulated me to adore him all those years at camp. I told him how it built and built in my head with Dad’s help, and that it was much easier for me to believe that it was all a fraud then to accept that someone could legitimately care for me– even God.
Then Carol came in and said it was time for lunch.
And so it was out there, hanging in the air as we joined Carol and their two daughters for lunch. Ed prayed over lunch, we ate. Carol asked about school, we made conversation. But it was there. I wanted to look at Ed, see if he was alright. If he hated me. If he was hurt. But I couldn’t look at him. We had a pleasant lunch.
After lunch, as we sat down together again, I remember the air felt like it was tinged with an energy, a tension, but not a bad tension. Ed was quiet at first, still not breaking eye contact. “I thought you just wanted space to grow up,” he began. “That you needed space from me to do that.” He shook his head. He didn’t jump in to defend himself or to deny anything right away. He admitted that I was special, that I was set apart from the other kids at camp for some reason. That he felt a special connection with me. He admitted that maybe there were times that he could have been inappropriate, but not intentionally.
I interrupted. “I don’t believe you ever were.”
We talked for several hours. I told him more about growing up with my father. Never feeling good enough. About how everything was about filling his needs. Our lives centered around pleasing him, and as the only girl, I was inferior to my brothers and to him. No matter what I did, I could never be good enough. That if I argued with him, he dismissed me as “just a woman.” I was too sensitive, weak, and irrational. That I was never allowed to have anything good, certainly not all the attention at any given moment. I told him everything.
“You tell me all these painful things, but you’re smiling as you talk about them. How can you do that?” he asked.
Yeah. I was taught to always cover my feelings. Nothing was ever that serious when it came to me, but if it happened to my father, it was very important. My mother and I both did it. We smiled when we were angry. We laughed when we wanted to cry. I’d learned very well to cover. My feelings simply weren’t all that important.
When it got to be dinner time, I thought I better leave. We sat for a bit longer in silence. I remember the light came into the room behind me, surrounding us in the late afternoon glow, as if God was holding us. Gently keeping us. Tenderly setting us down to go forward.
I asked him if we could pray, and he simply nodded. We stood and held hands in the fading afternoon light. I treasured praying with Ed, he always had such a familiar, tender connection to God. We stood in silence at first, feeling God’s tender presence, before Ed began to pray. It was a tender thanks for bringing me there today, for the talk, for healing, for honestly, for friendship, and for God’s relentless grace. His words blessed me, surrounded me, filled me; gently held me. I don’t remember what I said, but with eyes closed, it was easy to be honest and vulnerable. I do remember thanking God for the restoration of friendship, for the safety and shelter of it. For healing.
“Thank you,” I said a bit shyly after we hugged.
He touched my arm and smiled at me, his eyes shining a bit. Were those tears?
“Thank you, Friend.”