“Welcome to God’s country!” Gene Lowry greeted me, reaching out for a side hug. I’d flown into Kansas City, Missouri to visit the campus of St. Paul School of Theology.
Larry had picked me up from the airport on Friday, and drove me north to Nebraska where I’d stay with his church treasurer for the weekend and preach at his church in Osmond, Nebraska (pop. 774), before he drove me back to Kansas City on Monday for my visit.
I don’t know what I was expecting when I landed in the Middle.
“Wow, they have tall buildings and everything,” I mused as we drove out of the parking lot at the airport. Larry smiled.
“Yeah, it’s a real city.”
However, as we drove beyond the city limits and closer to Nebraska, the land flattened out and the trees grew more sparse. The sky formed a dome over the earth and you could see the sky to the right, the left, in front of you and behind. I’d spent my entire life to that point in New Jersey, with traffic, buildings, and trees.
About halfway through the trip north, I started hyperventilating. My body was responding to something that I couldn’t put into words, but suddenly the anxiety was overwhelming. I couldn’t breathe, my hands were cold and clammy. I panicked.
Larry pulled the car over to the shoulder and held me. He dug out a fast food paper bag from the back seat and instructed me to breathe into it. An officer pulled up behind us.
“Everything ok here?” He asked into the open window.
“Yeah,” Larry assured him, “she just isn’t feeling well.”
I’d had panic attacks before. In the middle of the night when I lived alone in Collingswood, thinking I was having a heart attack and they’d find me dead in the morning. Or on choir tour with Lester, when he’d wanted me to play guitar from memory. Or the night before I moved into my own apartment in Woodbury, and Mom had taken me to the ER where they injected me with something that made me sleep for 24 hours.
It was usually in the middle of the night. Not in broad daylight. But something about the wide open spaces around me triggered terror in me. There was nothing around me or above me to protect me… from what? I didn’t know. I felt exposed. I had the irrational fear that if something bad were to happen– like a physical emergency– there was nowhere to go. Just miles and miles of wide open… space.
Larry talked to me gently, never questioning my sanity or reaction. He made me concentrate on breathing into the bag until I calmed down. It worked. He had an incredibly calming effect on me, and the longer our relationship went on, the anxiety attacks eventually disappeared altogether.
Larry’s congregation in Osmond was thrilled to meet the “pastor’s girlfriend.” They were kind and welcoming to me immediately. I was instantly immersed in the unique hospitality of small town Nebraska. They acted as if they already loved me. We walked downtown to the post office and people greeted us all along the way. Larry had an account at the grocery store where he could put groceries on his “tab,” trusted to pay later. Later, I spoke to my mother and told her Osmond reminded me a little bit of Mississippi.
She laughed. “Brookhaven’s has about two or three times as many people!” She couldn’t imagine a town with fewer than 1,000 people. Well, neither could I. But I liked it. I liked the familiarity among people. The friendliness. I appreciated the congregation’s joy over Larry having a “girlfriend.” They were very kind and appreciative of my preaching on Sunday.
I liked Nebraska. I told my closest friends that it felt like “coming home to a place I’d never been before…” (John Denver, Rocky Mountain High.)
Gene Lowry was a lot less intimidating on his own turf. He wore an open-necked shirt and sweater as he embraced me before the noon meal at St. Paul’s that Monday. We’d had a good visit back in Princeton, New Jersey, and he realized from that conversation, I guess, that I wasn’t some flighty fan-girl. That I was serious about wanting to come study with him. I’d assured him that I wanted to check out the school to make sure that it was as good as he was. He was a kind and enthusiastic host, setting me up to visit classes he thought would interest me.
Lunch at St. Paul was served in a large dining hall, with people seated around large round tables. The food was served family style. There was a prayer said before the meal, an open mic to share prayer concerns, and a singing of a hymn. That day we sang, Leaning on the Everlasting Arms. I mused that we’d never have sung that at Drew, it was too “evangelical.” As I sat at my table, with a couple of professors, some office people and some students, my eyes teared up. Is this heaven?
No, it’s Kansas City.
At Drew, there was a definite sense of who was important and who was not. The professors did not dine with students and many of them didn’t even live in New Jersey, but commuted in from various other locations to bless us with their presence. There was no sense of community. We were all competing with each other. One day our classmates may be our bosses, our District Superintendents. We didn’t trust each other. If you mentioned personal faith or a sense of God’s Spirit guiding you, you were labeled. “Evangelical.” “Conservative.” “One of Those.”
After lunch, I sat in the admissions office, talking to the office manager there until it was time to go to my first class visit. I was anxiously waiting for a chance to meet Tex Sample, the church and society professor. Larry had one of his books and had met him years earlier at a conference retreat. He’d been very impressed with Tex, and I’d read on the back of his book that he was from Mississippi. Go figure. It was another one of those weird “coincidences.” I was hoping to get to ask him where in Mississippi…
The day before my trip west, Robert called me into his office at the church. He’d just been away at a Conference in Texas, put on by the denomination. It was a Church Growth Conference, and there’d been many presenters and speakers from around the United Methodist Church. Robert was a die-hard faithful Drew alumni. He was on various boards and promoted Drew wherever and however he could. I knew he was troubled by my looking elsewhere, especially when it would mean my giving up the prestigious Carl Michalson scholarship.
He started talking before I had a chance to sit down. He handed me a hymnal and bible, each with the logo of the Conference etched on the front. “A gift,” he said. I thanked him. He sat back in his chair and looked down at his entwined fingers. He let out a deep sigh.
“You know I’ve not been altogether supportive of you transferring out of Drew and leaving us here at Echelon Hills.” He shook his head. “But there was a presenter there at the conference, a Dr. Tex Sample.” He paused.
“Oh yeah! I’ve heard of him! Larry met him…”
“Yeah, well, he was incredible. The way he engaged us, the amount of research he’s done, his presentation, and how it all was so relevant to the Church today. God, he was funny!” Robert laughed. He looked directly at me. “My point is, there are no professors at Drew that come close to that guy. If were 25 years younger and had the opportunity to study with the likes of him and Lowry…” he sighed and shook his head. “I’d go for it.”
Wow, another miracle. I didn’t need Robert’s approval, but I didn’t want to hurt him. Despite everything else, he was a good mentor. I wouldn’t have known the basics if I hadn’t worked with him. With all my A’s at Drew, I would have been wholly unprepared for church ministry.
After lunch, I was sent to Tex Sample’s office. I’d met him briefly while in the admissions office, when he stopped by to tease the secretary. He wore blue jeans and an open-necked shirt. He spoke with a thick Mississippi accent, and when we were introduced, he chuckled.
“Oh yeah, you’re enamored with that rascal Gene Lowry. Oh well, you’ll get over it,” he winked. “I’ll see you later.”
“Don’t listen to him,” Betty the secretary assured me. “He and Gene have been best friends for 20 years.”
Later, I nervously made my way to Tex’s office. The door was open, and I peeked in. Three of his walls were lined with books. It was a pretty small space, but he had lots of pictures and various memorabilia here and there.
“Hey you, c’mon in,” he said, getting up. He had a baseball bat in his hands. He motioned for me to sit while he continued standing. He swung the bat around, which added to my nervousness, since it was a very small space. “So, tell me, why do you like Gene so much?” He grinned.
I gave him a short version of my call story, and the strange, unfolding journey to the Midwest. He nodded, swinging his bat as he listened.
“So I wanted to ask you…where in Mississippi are you from?” I was still very shy, intimidated, but his familiar way of communicating and his bat-swinging made me think he was just a regular guy under all the published books, fame across the United Methodist Church and speaking tours.
He chuckled and leaned the bat up against the wall, sitting down across from me. “It’s a tiny place in the southern part that no one’s ever heard of. Brookhaven.”
Oh my God. I flushed a bit. This was all so weird. “I’ve heard of Brookhaven,” I said quietly.
He leaned forward with his hands on his knees. “How the hell have you heard of Brookhaven?” He was genuinely astonished.
I laughed, a bit breathless from all the continuing connections.
“My mother grew up there.”
His mouth dropped open. All politeness gone. “Who the hell is your mother?”
I laughed again. This was fun. “She’s a Calcote. Her father was Boyd Calcote.”
His mouth still hung open. “Hell, I know the Calcotes! Yeah, I knew who your grandfather was. Huh!” He stared at me. I just smiled. This was all so wonderfully weird and serendipitous.
We talked for a while longer, and he’d known some of my uncles, never met my mother. She’d gone to the country school, Loyd Star, and he’d gone to Brookhaven High.
I attended a class that he taught that afternoon, where he introduced me as “a big fan of Gene Lowry” and passed out Babe Ruth candy bars to all of us. It was a small, interactive class. Tex taught in the Church and Society department, so his classes often involved students going out into the city and engaging people of various walks of life. He was particularly interested in people on the fringes of society and how the church could reach such people.
Gene and his wife Sarah took me out to dinner at the Hereford House downtown. They wanted to hear all about my day, and I was so excited and breathless I could hardly eat. Sarah reached over and took my steak, putting it in a to-go box when I hardly touched it. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I’d heard Gene preach, and both of those times my life had changed. Both times I felt propelled out into the unknown, carried along by the Spirit, as pieces of this mysterious puzzle fell into place. I’d never experienced anything like it. But there was no room for doubt either time. It was like God had to make it all so convincing that I couldn’t turn away. I was a bit dizzy from it all.
I was still in awe of Gene and a little afraid of him, despite his being so down-to-earth, so… Midwestern. He and Sarah treated me like an old friend, who I saw was who they were. There was no pretenses. After supper, they drove me back to the school, as Gene wanted me to attend an integrated course with Tex. The core classes at St. Paul were classes taught by two different disciplines, usually a theoretical class like Theology and a practical class, like one of Tex’s Church and Society classes. The intent was to learn the theory, but also to learn how to apply it. It was the specific complaint I had about Drew. At Drew I learned how to think, I learned content and spit it back out. But never were we taught how to apply it. In fact, much of the time, professors would tell us, “You can’t teach this in the Church.”
Gene and Sarah hugged me at the door. “I have a feeling I’ll be seeing you again soon,” Gene said, winking, before he and Sarah got back into the car.
I don’t even remember what the class was that I attended that night, I just remember vividly how it felt. Tex paced the front of the class as he taught, gesturing and telling stories that applied. One minute was I was laughing out loud and the next I had tears in my eyes. At times I literally held my breath. I was scooped up in the moment, again, in awe. He was passionate, real, full of heart, and also brilliant. My father always looked down on my mother’s family, calling them “sub-culture.” He thought they were stupid and backward. And here was a guy from my mother’s hometown, talking like my mother’s people, and was a brilliant scholar. To my father, he would have been a walking contradiction.
I had tears in my eyes most of the night as I sat and listened, mesmerized. I would be a sponge in this man’s classes. He would give me another view of my mother’s world. He would challenge me, make me think beyond the narrow boundaries that I’d done previously. A whole world was opening up to me that night. I knew I was going to move to Kansas City in January. I was both terrified and exhilarated.
It felt like a huge gift. Giving up my scholarship at Drew would prove costly, of course. But like my falling in love with Larry, nothing ever felt so right. I was always unsure of my ability to make good decisions, always wracked with self-doubt. It was like God made it so clear I couldn’t deny it or question it. I had to just stay on board, hang on tight, and see where the road took me next. It was a magical time! It was delicious, other-worldly. It was Field of Dreams and Dead Poet’s Society and as magical as Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. Carpe Diem!
It was pure grace.
The next day as I flew back into La Guardia airport, I saw the lights of New York City and New Jersey and I literally started to cry. I felt homesick. It felt like I was leaving home instead of returning.