“You and Jesus,” Mariam shook her head, blowing cigarette smoke in my direction. “I remember what it was like to be in that honeymoon phase with Jesus. We were all giddy, in love, and it was magical, just like you are. But you’ll see, you’ll end up like me. Now me and Jesus are like an old married couple.”
We were sitting on the floor of my rented room in Mariam’s house. She had an ashtray next to her. She squinted into the smoke she’d just produced, with an amused smile. “Yeah, it’s sweet now, but just wait.”
I chuckled at her, my eyes watering from the cigarette smoke. You’re full of crap, I thought. I resented being talked down to. I faced that a lot at Drew. They found faith amusing, some of them. As if they were too smart to believe in Christ or personal faith. Most of these people were serving churches.
“I stopped believing in the Virgin Birth years ago,” Robert said to me over one of our long lunches one day. He sipped his Cutty Sark, the ice sliding toward his lips.
“How do you preach on Christmas Eve?”
“Oh, I preach as if I believe in it, you have to. People need that.”
It was one of many moments that I was disgusted with the “intellectuals” of Drew. Some of my professors would say in their lectures, “you can’t preach this” or “you can’t teach this in the Church.” As if people in the church were too stupid for what we were learning. It seemed we were to treat people as if they were children who still believed in Santa Claus.
I spent a lot of time in the Admissions Office at Drew. It was still located in a temporary trailer as they restored the old main administrative building that had burned on the first day of my first year. Randall, the admissions officer, was a kind, gentle, down-to-earth man of faith. I stopped by often to vent with him.
“Don’t take them too seriously,” he’d advise me. “You know what you believe, and you’re very smart! Hell, I can see you becoming bishop one day. Just be you.” I always left feeling better.
Mariam leaned down onto her elbow on the floor. I guess she was going to stay for a while, I thought.
“You and me, we’re a lot alike,” she said, and I thought, please God, no. “I like you. You’re a head and heart person, you’re not just smart, but you feel. That’s me too. I think we’ll get along fine.” I stifled a cough as another cloud of smoke came my way.
I was already afraid of her. She had a raging temper and there were times I wondered if there wasn’t something more wrong with her than met the eye. She was twice-divorced, held three jobs to pay the mortgage, and had dropped out of the Graduate program at the Theological School. She had hard lines around her eyes that were piercing blue. When they looked at me, I felt exposed, as if they were searing through my skin and going where they weren’t invited.
One night I drove into the driveway at her South Orange house, and there were cops out front, their red and blue lights lighting up the dark. My heart caught in my throat. I ran in the back door and heard screaming and pounding downstairs. There was a young couple living in the basement. I hadn’t met them, but they did make a lot of noise and hosted a lot of parties. I could hear Mariam’s voice screaming above some loud, heavy metal music. There was a loud thud and the walls shook.
I decided not to get in the middle and went up to my room and called Larry. I was terrified. As we talked, I watched the red and blue police lights swirl across the white garage out back. Larry’s voice calmed me down, and he stayed on the line until Mariam came trudging up the staircase.
“I gotta go,” I said, hanging up quickly.
Mariam dropped down on my floor, leaning up against the wall. Her hair was a mess and her eyeliner was streaked across the side of her face. “Well, you missed the party,” she scoffed, pulling out her pack of cigarettes and lighting up.
She told me that the couple downstairs got into a huge fight and the guy was beating the crap out of the girl. Mariam heard what was going on from the kitchen, in addition to smelling the pot that drifted up the basement stairs. She’d done down there, and the man had a baseball bat that he swung at Mariam’s head and hit the wall instead.
“There’s a huge hole in the wall. That’ll cost an arm and a leg and I sure as hell know he ain’t gonna pay for it. God-damn.” She shook her head, looking out the window, where the police lights had moved away. Mariam’s hands were trembling as she lit her cigarette.
“I was so scared, Peggy,” she looked at me, her eyes still burning with tears. “He hit that girl in the stomach with that bat, and I thought I was next. He was flying high on something; more than one thing, I’m sure.” She leaned over and dropped ashes into the ash tray she’d carried in with her. “I thought I was dead. Turns out they were dealing… out of my basement! Jesus. I managed to call the cops when I shut myself in their bathroom. They’ve been arrested. I don’t know who’s going to come and get their stuff. Shit, I don’t know how I’m going to make it without their rent.”
There were dark circles under her eyes. I know she didn’t sleep much, and she came in at all hours. I just nodded and smiled. I tried to appear supportive, but the idea of a woman-battering drug dealer in the basement took my breath away. Even if he was gone. How many nights had I come in late? He could have been there, waiting for me. The possibilities made me shiver.
I was juggling a lot that semester. I spent most evenings at the church office, doing my homework in the quiet of the building when there were no meetings. I stayed late enough some nights that Mariam was in bed when I got home. Keeping my secret was exhausting. I wasn’t sure my relationship with Larry would survive the 1500-mile separation. He had $500 a month long distance bills, not to mention the cost of driving back east every month to see me. The connection with him felt so natural and deep, as if I’d known him before and simply recognized the face I’d been looking for. As if we knew each other instantly, as if each of us truly understood what it was like to be the other. It felt too good to be true. The secrecy of it at Echelon Hills felt like my punishment. I didn’t believe I deserved something so good, so life-giving. I guess that’s why I didn’t fight Robert’s ridiculous demands to keep it a secret, however much a toll that took on me emotionally. Secrets were shameful. I told myself I must be bad. The relationship must be bad. I was paying for it.
I checked my post office box every day for Larry’s almost-daily letters. At least at Mariam’s I didn’t have to hide my phone conversations with him. At church, however, I still pretended to be single. Despite the stress of making sure I didn’t slip and talk about Larry or that my face didn’t react when people spoke of their suspicion that he’d obviously had a mid-life crisis, I managed to enjoy my ministry.
A lot of my job was to oversee the youth ministry. I didn’t feel comfortable at all with that aspect of the job. I was shy. I’ve never been a dynamic extrovert, as most youth ministers tend to be. I didn’t know how to engage them, really. Fortunately, there was a couple who did most of the work. I showed up, did some teaching and praying, and was more an overseer. Charlie, who headed the program with his wife, had been close to Larry. He was quiet a lot on the subject of Larry, though his wife spread cruel and untrue rumors about him among her friends. Sometimes Charlie would chuckle and say, “Larry used to…” and he’d tell a funny story. I was grateful for him. He knew how to reach youth, too, and I learned a lot from him.
Meanwhile, Larry was writing letters and making phone calls to the Southern and Northern New Jersey Conferences to see if there were any openings for him. He wasn’t getting any positive answers. He spoke with Ed in person on one of his visits back East, and Ed informed him that the Conference was full. It was true of Northern New Jersey, too. In fact, as I came to learn that semester via a letter, Southern NJ was going to have to turn away those eligible for Deacon’s Orders until we graduated from seminary. It would delay my own two-step ordination process. Worse, there was no room for Larry. He contacted other conferences surrounding New Jersey, just to get closer to me. No room anywhere.
Leaving Southern New Jersey didn’t feel like an option for me. It was home.
Meanwhile, after having spent a month immersed in the full running of the church during that previous summer, going back to classes full-time was a shock to my system. I couldn’t help but feel the huge gap between what I learned at school and real-life ministry. At Drew I didn’t learn how to do a funeral service, how to put together a sermon or a worship service. I didn’t learn how to do pastoral counseling, how to administrate meetings, how to deal with the budget. All the practical, hands-on stuff of ministry was largely ignored at Drew. My pastoral counseling, preaching and worship courses were all half-semester courses, as if they were minor subjects. One graduated from Drew having preached exactly one sermon. Having been thrown into the water that summer, the lack of practical education at Drew proved to be a glaring void as I returned for my third semester. Despite Robert’s flirtations, long lunches, multiple whiskies, and indications of his own collection of secrets, I learned what I needed from his example.
Despite his control issues (which I later learned were characteristics of an addict), I learned how to do the practical aspects of the job from watching him. I added my own touches, of course, but he gave me the basics. I could also share with him my own excitement over giving communion, praying for someone at the chancel rail, praying over someone in the hospital only to find that I made them cry, and having little children run up to me on Sunday mornings to hug me. I could share with him my joy of preaching. He understood. Though I sensed all along that he was a troubled soul and there were things he wouldn’t talk about, I knew he loved the church. He loved God. And he wanted to do good ministry. I was surprised to find how much I cared for him as a human being. I didn’t think it was appropriate for him to share his secrets with me, but I did think that one of these days he was going to crash and burn. I could see it in his eyes. There was a good, caring man with integrity and deep love tortured by a man who did things he didn’t really feel were right but couldn’t seem to help himself. I sincerely didn’t want to know what they were, but I did pray that someday he’d find the help he needed.
One day when I came home in the afternoon, I got the mail. There was a package from St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Missouri. What the heck? I opened it and in the large envelope was Eugene Lowry’s latest book, How to Preach a Parable. There was also a letter. From Eugene Lowry. My God, it wouldn’t have been more exciting if it’d been from Bruce Springsteen.
He thanked me for my letter about my call, and for sharing it with him. He said one thing that stood out to him was the fact that I’d won the Carl Michalson scholarship. Carl Michalson, he said, was his professor when he was studying at Drew (he studied at Drew??) and in fact, Michalson was the main influence on his own development of narrative preaching. He said he wanted to share his latest book with me, and thanked me again for entrusting him with my story. He signed off, “I hope our paths cross again soon, Sincerely, Gene Lowry.”
I hope our paths cross again soon. I read that line over and over again. Wow. I sat down on the sun room couch immediately and began reading the book. Like him in his presentations, Lowry’s writing was engaging, witty, and informative. I could picture him preaching and telling stories on the Ocean Grove auditorium stage.
Taking a break, I tossed the book aside on the day bed and said out loud, “I wish I could study with him!”
And then I sat still. It was quiet except for the birds singing outside. Mariam was thankfully at work for several more hours. I looked at the envelope the book and letter had come in. St. Paul School of Theology. Kansas City, Missouri. I wondered where Missouri was. Did it happen to be close to Nebraska? I wasn’t sure where any states west of Ohio were.
I ran upstairs and called the phone number under the address of St. Paul’s, asking for the director of admissions. When he got on the line, I told him I was a student at Drew, but was finding that Drew didn’t offer the practical courses needed for ministry. Also, my call to ministry was heavily inspired by Eugene Lowry, and I just wanted to receive some information about St. Paul’s.
“Wait,” Brad the director said. “You attend Drew University Theological School and you want to transfer to St. Paul’s?”
He wasn’t a very good marketer of his seminary, I thought to myself. Why are people so impressed with Drew?
“Yes,” I said impatiently. “And I’d like to set up a time to come visit the campus,” I added, then thought, dear God, I don’t even know where Missouri is, how am I going to get there?
“Well, ok!” He seemed sheepish about it, but he took my information and promised to put a catalog in the mail that afternoon. My heart was racing. I looked around my room. “Are you up to something again?” I whispered. I giggled nervously. The waters seemed to be churning up again. Spirit waters…
Oh, to have had Google back then! I called Larry and told him what was going on, and he laughed out loud. “Missouri is right next to Nebraska,” he informed me. “Kansas City is about six hours from here, but that’s better than 30!” I was breathless with the gracious absurdity of the idea…
Then one night when I was lying on my bed reading, I heard the door downstairs slam. “Peggy!! Peggy, come quick! Help!” Mariam’s shrill voice carried up the stairs. I immediately went into panic mode and ran downstairs.
I found her leaning over a towel on the dining room table. Underneath her arms was a tiny kitten, laying limp and lifeless. There was blood on the towel. “Oh my God!” she shrieked. “I’ve killed one of God’s creatures! Oh my God! I’m so sorry! Please forgive me!” Mariam sobbed over the tiny, still kitten.
I stood frozen, watching, feeling anger at her for her drama, feeling relieved that she wasn’t bleeding herself, and feeling genuinely afraid of what was going to happen. “Oh Peggy, I’m a killer. I didn’t see it, I swear! Oh God, Oh God, oh God,” she slumped over the tiny body. She jumped up, turning this way and that, almost manic in her movements, and turned to me. “We have to bury it, oh my God. We have to bury it. Oh GOOOOOOOOOOD!” She slumped over and fell to her knees. “Please, please forgive me, I didn’t mean it!” I couldn’t move. I didn’t want to touch her, as if her mania was catching. My heart started racing. I wanted to run. She was crazy. Batshit crazy. I just stood there.
She jumped up, her eyes intense. She folded the towel over the kitten and stroked it. “You’re going to have your first funeral,” she told me, and my breath caught in my throat. No, no… “I’ll be right back. I’m going to get a shovel and a box. We’re going to have a funeral.” She disappeared out the back door.
I stumbled backward, feeling my way back to the stairs. I could not imagine myself doing a funeral for that kitten. Not that I didn’t care, but Mariam’s intensity scared the crap out of me. I ran upstairs and looked out the back window as Mariam ran into the garage. I heard banging and clanging, as she searched for what she needed.
My phone rang. It was about 10:00 at night. I hoped, prayed it was Larry. It was not.
“Peggy? Is this Peggy Michael?” the voice didn’t sound familar, and my heart was already racing from all the excitement.
“Hi! This is Gene Lowry from Kansas City, Missouri…” and my knees buckled. Whaaaaat?
“Oh! Hi!” I said as casually as I could. My body was still trembling from the cat drama downstairs, and now it was shaking because as far as I was concerned, I was talking to a celebrity.
“Yeah, I was talking to Brad, our admissions director, and he said you wanted information about St. Paul’s. And I got your letter, you said something about something weird going on, and I wanted to hear more about that…”
For the life of me I couldn’t remember a thing about anything, I was so wound up over Mariam’s theatrics over the kitten and nervous and frightened, so I gave him some lame response.
“Oh, ok. Well, I also wanted to tell you that I’ll be at Princeton Theological Seminary in October, and if that’s not too far for you to drive, I’d be happy to meet you there and talk about St. Paul’s. Is that far from you?”
I had no idea. It didn’t matter. “No, not at all!” I said.
“Great! Well, then, if it’s not too much of a bother, I’d ask you to take me to the Newark Airport from there to catch my flight home.”
Oh my God oh my God. “Sure, no problem,” I said as casually as I could.
As soon as we hung up, I called my mother. “Mom, you are NOT going to believe who just called me!”
“Gene Lowry! The Preacher! He wants to meet me in Princeton and visit with me!” I could hardly breathe, I was so excited.
She laughed, but it was an excited laugh. “Hey Rollo,” she called to Dad nearby, “Gene Lowry just called Peggy and asked her to visit with him at Princeton next month!” she shared excitedly.
I heard his response in the background. “Yeah? So? Of course he does. She’s a beautiful young woman, what old guy wouldn’t want to meet with a gorgeous young thing?”
“Oh Rollo…” I could imagine her waving him off. My heart sank, but only for a second. I was too excited.
“That’s wonderful! How exciting!” my mother gifted me with her excitement for me. I was so grateful. I hung up and called Larry. He, too, was excited for me. After getting off the phone, Mariam came up the stairs, looking tired. Her face was smudged with dirt and there was dirt all over her clothes.
“Don’t worry about it. I buried the kitten. Goodnight,” she said, waving at me with her dirty hand.
I didn’t have to do my first kitten funeral in the middle of the night. And Gene Lowry wanted to meet me.
Oh. My. God.