“Downtown” Guide Rock, Nebraska; Population: 200
I was sitting at my desk in Guide Rock, Nebraska when an enraged, huge man appeared in the window next to my desk. I jumped backwards out of my chair. His face filled the entire window, and his eyes narrowed as he found me in the room.
“They’ll never get over you!” he screamed and his image disappeared to the right. I knew he was heading for the door. I could hear him laughing as he burst through the front door, so I ran toward the hall only to realize that there was no back door. I turned and ran full force into the front screen door, hope to get past him and escape. Hoping that someone would see me in the front yard and help. But then as I was feeling the cuts of the screen against my skin, I realized no one would see me. No one would help if they did.
And I woke up, trembling and sucking air desperately as if I’d been underwater.
I grew up with stories of my father’s first appointment in Erma, New Jersey. It was a small church that he grew over 13 years. They adored him, I was told. They threw him a “This is Your Life, Rollo” event in which they flew his mother out from India, showered him with gifts, and named their fellowship hall after him.
I didn’t need a hall named after me, but I was excited to dive into ministry full-time and apply all that I’d learned. I had big expectations.
During my last year of seminary, Bishop Martinez visited Nebraska students on the St. Paul campus. He told us that it was his intention to give us all very positive first appointments upon graduation, because, he said, that first appointment could affect the rest of our ministry. If it was good, then we’d start off on a strong foot. If it was a bad experience, we could be struggling up hill into the future.
Bishop Martinez was a prophet.
As wonderful as Ceresco and Valparaiso were for us, we had to go. I didn’t realize, when falling in love with Larry, that for some conferences, clergy couples were a problem, not an asset. Especially those couples who desired to live in the same parsonage. It was “difficult” to appoint us. Many couples compromised by the wife taking a part-time appointment while the husband took a full-time appointment. Crazy me was ready to go full-time. In addition to being ready for ministry, I had bills to pay.
So, we had to leave Ceresco to be able to appoint both of us full time. We’d been at Ceresco for two years, and we loved the people and the churches. But it was time to go. After all, we were United Methodist pastors in an itinerant system. Larry had agreed, upon full ordination, to “go wherever the Bishop sends (him) without reserve.” I would someday make that promise… trusting, of course, that the Bishop would have my best interests in mind. Assuming that I was more than a push-pin on a map.
1993. We packed up our things and moved to Superior, Nebraska, where Larry would serve Superior and Nora UMCs, and I would commute 25+ miles to Guide Rock/Cowles/New Virginia. The Guide Rock congregation, who owned the parsonage, were not happy at all that I would not be living in the parsonage and asked me why I couldn’t. I said I wanted to live with my husband. They were angry.
They stayed angry.
Actually, they were angry before they even met me.
Before I graduated, my predecessor, Marilyn, met us in St. Joseph, MO to tell me about the churches. She’d been there a year. She was an older woman, a bit unkempt, and ready to unload. She told me about individuals in the church, particularly the nasty ones. The Conference had bragged that Guide Rock had paid their full apportionments to the Conference the previous year, the sign to the Conference of a “strong church.”
Marilyn said, “The only reason that they paid apportionments is because Helen, an old lady on the edge of town, owns greyhounds. She won big last year– $30,000– so she paid off the church’s apportionments for them.”
Gambling is actually frowned upon in The United Methodist Book of Discipline, but hey.
She also told me that the whole town has a strong history and reputation for hostility. Guide Rock has a population of 200 people and is far away from everything, out in the middle of nowhere. The closest town is Red Cloud, famed for the writer Willa Cather, but Red Cloud is not very big either. The people of Guide Rock were ticked at the government, the Conference, basically everybody. They feel victimized.
Five years earlier, GR had a woman pastor who bullied them. She was hostile, demanding, and controlling. I believed it because I knew her. She left after a year. Then the Conference appointed a man, an older man, who last six months. Upon leaving GR, he left the Conference and the ministry. He was followed by a pastor who had been kicked out of two churches before being appointed to Guide Rock. He didn’t do anything, I was told. For six months out of the 18 months that he was in Guide Rock, he was in the hospital. He left the Conference. Then there was Marilyn, who I was told by my District Superintendent, bullied people. She was a bully. She trashed the parsonage while being there for only a year. She, too, left the Conference.
The average length of stay for any pastor serving Guide Rock in its entire history was a year, or slightly less.
But I was fresh out of seminary, I was pumped and ready. Perhaps my job was to provide healing to these folks. Perhaps my mission was to offer them grace, build them up, strengthen them.
I was also terrified.
The parsonage in Superior was a lovely, two-story old house with finished wood sliding doors into each room. It reminded me a lot of the house in Red Bank, NJ where I grew up. I kept looking for the good, for signs that this was what God wanted. I enjoyed unpacking and making it ours.
Cowles was the second of my three churches. There was no population posted for Cowles, as it was “unincorporated.” (Not enough people to count, basically) There was very little there besides the church, and Cowles UMC had 9 people in the congregation on Sunday morning. There was no indoor plumbing, but there was an outhouse out back that hadn’t been used in years.
New Virginia was a little white clapboard church all by itself in the middle of the prairie on a dirt road. Not gravel, but dirt. (Toto, I don’t think we’re in New Jersey anymore) The church consisted of 10 people on Sunday morning, but they only met for worship once a month. The members were all over the age of 70 (which seemed old to me at the time).
On the first Sunday of the month, they met for a covered dish dinner, laid out on the back set of chairs in the sanctuary. They brought in jugs of water as there was no plumbing there either. They had two outhouses out back, men’s and women’s. After a hearty potluck meal, the men sat on one side of the church and the women on the other for worship.
It was like stepping back in time. The chairs all folded up and were linked by iron. In the summer, they were sticky, as if newly varnished. The room smelled very musty and old. People dressed from Little House on the Prairie would have looked right at home.
“Keep it short, they tend to fall asleep quickly,” Marilyn had informed me. There was an old out-of-tune piano, but no one to play it, so I would have to bring my guitar as well to accompany them on the hymns.
Welcome to ministry, Peggy Sue.
That first Sunday went well. Everyone was polite and kind, but I sensed that they were very reluctant to trust me. After all, they didn’t expect me to hang around long. I hoped to win their trust and prove them wrong. This is what I was prepared for, this was the culmination of all the exciting things that happened to me to get me to that point. I was ready to dive in.
The most memorable part of my first day was driving to New Virginia. It had rained two inches the night before, so the dirt road leading out to the church had turned to pure mud. My 12 year-old stepson Michael was with me in my pick-up as we struggled down that muddy path for ten miles. The truck fishtailed the entire way, I struggled to keep it on the road. Mike was laughing the entire way, delighted in the adventure, and perhaps some of the choice words coming out of my mouth.
My heart raced a bit more when the little white church finally came into view. The old men were out on the porch of the church as I pulled in, the sides of the truck splattered generously with mud.
Wayne, the youngest of them all at 70, sat on the step and slapped his knee. “Welcome!” he said, laughing. “By the way, normally when we get 2 inches of rain we cancel church because it’s too hard to get here. But we really wanted to see how a young woman preacher from New Jersey in a pick-up truck would handle it!” He laughed, and the others joined in.
I chose to assume they were good-natured, and laughed along with them.
The Pastor-Parish Relations Committee and I talked about how it was crucial that I be a visible presence especially in Guide Rock, especially because of the hostility over me not living in the parsonage. So I set up my office in the empty house. The rest of the house was completely empty. I went there every morning and sorted through the mail. Much of the mail, of course, was advertisements for exciting new Bible Studies, approaches to ministry, curriculum for confirmation, etc. Most of it went in the trash.
My secretary, Wanda, was a tall, older woman who lived on a farm with her husband. She was kind, but she was the one who filled me on in the church’s dismal history. Talk about a glass-half-empty person. She’d seen enough pastors come and go, get chewed up by the congregation and spit out, that she seemed to actually feel sorry for me before I even started. But for two days a week, she was company. The rest of the week, I was completely alone in that empty, silent house.
Someone told me about a rock concert in Guide Rock that I needed to attend. The group was a small family Christian band from in town. They didn’t come to church much, but Wanda said maybe I could win them over. The kids were all home-schooled, which was a new concept to me, and the family, Wanda said, generally stayed to themselves when they weren’t performing.
I saw it as an opportunity to show interest in the community. When Larry and I arrived at the large hall in Hastings, about 45 minutes away, we saw some of my people from the Guide Rock Church. They seemed glad to see me. I think one of them was related to the father of the family band.
The group came out and played. They weren’t very good. They were loud and chaotic, but their lyrics used Jesus’ name a lot. Finally, the father, with his guitar, stepped to the mike. He looked out into the mostly empty hall–about 30 people were there– and launched into a tirade about the devil being at work in our community. He shook his Bible in the air and said, “This is pitiful! Nobody wants to hear the Lord’s music!” He began to pace the stage and came back to the mike.
“And I tell you what, it’s the fault of those phony, ordained, paper-preachers…” he growled. I stiffened. “They’re all frauds! They think with their education they got something to say but they don’t know the Lord! They’re not saved! I can count on one hand the number of preachers I honestly trust…”
My chest tightened. What the…? I nudged Larry, whose jaw was visibly tensing. “Let’s get out of here.”
The next morning at the empty parsonage, Wanda told me, “Oh yeah, Kevin is just plain crazy. He’s just angry all the time. The kids can’t relate to anybody, they don’t know how. They’re all holed up in their house alone. Someone said that Kevin got mad at all the sex on T.V. one night and took a shotgun and blew it to pieces.”
During my first week, Edythe had a stroke and was sent to the hospital in Lincoln. I hadn’t met Edythe yet. I was eager to get out of town anyway, and the two-hour drive was a chance to get a break.
Edythe was a sweet, tiny red-haired woman in her 80s. She was very appreciative that I came to visit her all the way in Lincoln. We talked a long time. Her husband came in during our visit, as he made the trek from home to Lincoln every day to see his dear wife. He told me about his garden and all the things that were coming up that he would share with me. The visit was a gracious oasis in that turbulent first week.
Edythe was moved to a rehab hospital soon after that, also in Lincoln. After my first Sunday in the pulpit, I headed to Lincoln again to see her. As I approached her, I saw she was huddle over in her chair with her son stroking her back. She was weeping. I knew tears were very common in stroke victims. Her son looked up and me and thanked me for coming. He went to get some coffee and gave me his chair.
“Hey, Edythe,” I said, stroking her arm. Her smile was shaky through the tears. We talked a bit. She stopped crying eventually.
“Is your husband coming today?” I asked her.
She looked up at me, startled, and began to cry again. “I thought that’s why you were here,” she said, puzzled. “My son just told me that Henry’s dead.”
Someone had found him the night before, laying in his garden. A massive heart attack.
My heart hurt. He’d been such a sweet man.
My first funeral in Guide Rock was huge, as I was told it would be. Everyone liked Henry. That was one thing that people in town could agree on, said Dayre, the funeral director. Dayre was a young, blond, tanned partner in Williams Funeral Home out of Red Cloud, and I met him and his brother Michael before the funeral.
“You look way too young to be a preacher,” Dayre told me when I walked in with my clergy collar on.
I laughed. It was something I heard quite a bit, and I confess, it made me feel good.
Dayre and Michael both teased me and joked with me that day about being a Jersey girl stuck out on the prairie. They also added their two cents about the history of this doomed ghost town. “Everybody fights. It’s what they do. It’s the main activity,” Dayre said. “Nobody trusts each other, much less outsiders. You’ve got your work cut out for you.”
The funeral went well. I had met with family members in the days leading up to it, asking them about Henry. They shared stories, laughed through their tears. I visited others in the community, too, to hear what they had to say. It was agreed; Henry was a sweet, beloved man in this community.
Afterwards, Dayre approached me. “That was beautiful,” he said. “You sounded like you knew the man!”
Matthew, a leader in the small community and a banker, approached me. “You may hear my name around church. I don’t come. These people are nuts. I can’t handle them. I left years ago and there’s no way I’m coming back. And I hate preachers,” he said, “but you’re alright. I think you’ll be good for them. Just don’t let them eat you alive,” he said, patting me on the arm.
(Wanda said later, “You can take that to the bank. Matt doesn’t say good things about just anybody…”)
I felt pumped full of hope that day. I’d won them over. Many, many people complimented me on the funeral and were surprised that I was able to capture Henry’s spirit in my sermon, not having known him. One of my seminary professors had told me, “you do a good funeral, and you go a long way to winning over the community.” My hopes were back up.
I didn’t realize that my main task in Guide Rock would be… funerals.
If all the funerals I did that year were church members, I would have emptied out the church. Larry thought Dayre recommended me and called me for funerals because he was attracted to me. He did flirt, though he seemed happily married with kids he adored. But for whatever reason, when someone died in or around Guide Rock who didn’t have a church affiliation, I got the funeral. Or if they were Missouri Synod Lutheran and hadn’t kept up on their pledges to the church, I got the funeral.
Sometimes I’d get home from one funeral and walk in the door only to have a phone call from Dayre or Michael telling me about the next one. All in all, I had close to 60 funerals that year. In 12 months.
Meanwhile, the rest of my ministry was stalled. I couldn’t get anyone on board to do anything. I had a lot of ideas. I was on the mailing list for piles of United Methodist resources that ended up in the trash.
“That’ll never work here.”
“You can try to have a confirmation class, but nobody will show up.”
“Nobody wants to come out at night.”
As time went on, people in Superior told me that the Guide Rock church had a reputation across two counties as being a place that couldn’t get along. They fought about everything. People left the church because they couldn’t stand the fighting. Just driving into town it felt like some force sucked out my breath, my spirit. No one was out on the streets. It was like a ghost town. Within three months, I was depressed, sucked dry. Everything I was so ready to do, dreams I had of ministry and getting things going, making a difference, were completely crushed. Sitting in the parsonage day after day, immersed in the stillness, the empty quiet, I sunk deeper and deeper into depression.
I did go out visiting with detailed directions from Wanda. People seemed confused as to why I was at their door, they were suspicious of my motives for visiting. So I stopped doing that. I went downtown to have lunch at the cafe, hoping to make connections there. People stared at me, of course knowing I was an outsider. It didn’t feel warm.
In October, I discovered I was pregnant. We’d thought about waiting till I got through my first year of ministry at least, but somehow, I think we needed a little hope. As soon as we started trying, I got pregnant. That life growing inside of me was my source of perseverance.
If people would have yelled or screamed or raged, I would have still been afraid, but somehow their passive, hostile silence was more draining. They expected nothing good and they sucked the life out of anyone trying.
Wanda told me they all liked me. They liked my preaching and worship services. Back in Echelon Hills, I’d started singing my benedictions, which was something congregations really appreciated, so that became my trademark. Wanda said people loved that.
But whereas worship and preaching usually energized me, it was draining in Guide Rock and Cowles. Cowles simply didn’t have enough people to feel like a worship service. I did increase the worship attendance in Guide Rock to about 60 people per Sunday. But there was no energy coming back. They took whatever I had to offer, but gave nothing in return. It was as if the community was a black hole that sucked everything out of me that I had to give.
I carried 7Up in a to-go cup with me every Sunday, as I suffered from morning sickness. I had it with me in the pulpit. But the long miles in between Guide Rock and Cowles and (monthly) New Virginia, took a toll. I had to use the otherwise unused outhouse behind the Cowles church, full of cobwebs and creatures lurking about. The house next door had peacocks in the backyard that eyed me curiously as I disappeared into the dilapidated building. They screeched during Silent Prayer every Sunday, without fail. As if they were against anything good as well.
The New Virginia people told me in my third month that they were ready to close their church. It was becoming too difficult for them to trek out to the church each month, much less haul the food and water. And their main benefactor, Charlotte, was moving to Red Cloud.
So in the midst of death, there was strangely– life. For the final celebration at New Virginia, I wrote up their history, their long list of pastors who served them, and the members who’d made them a church. I sent invitations to family members who were away, and former pastors who’d served there. We packed the little prairie church. A member’s great-grandchild was baptized. It was the first time the baptismal font was used in decades. We sang hymns, I played the guitar. The District Superintendent spoke. An offering was taken for the upkeep of the building in the future. The plate was overflowing.
We had a covered dish dinner out on the lawn. It was bittersweet, but it was a holy party. I kept trying to figure out why I was there, what God wanted from me amidst all the death. Perhaps it was this. To give dignity to the little church on the prairie as they closed its doors.
A week later, however, we were back in the little church on the prairie to say goodbye yet again. This time, to Wayne, the youngest member of the New Virginia Church at 70. He’d been found dead of a stroke in his house just days after the celebration.
It was around that time, too, that I started bleeding. “It might be a miscarriage,” Wanda said nonchalantly. I was ordered to bed rest by my doctor in Superior. I missed a Sunday at church.
And the death spirit that seemed to follow my ministry in Guide Rock daily, intensified.