Ghost Town

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Despite the tension, being a pastor felt natural to me.  It seemed to be what everything in my life had prepared me to do.  Preaching brought me out of my introverted silence, pumped life and passion through my body.  I knew I was good at it, it came easily to me.  Preaching was a high, and Sunday afternoon, I napped.  With a sense of being gloriously spent.

Visiting people who were in pain was a natural expression of who I was.  I felt like I was in my element, and during such visits, the rest of the world and its worries  melted away.  Part of the reason I was called to do more funerals was that I was good at it.  Most of the time I didn’t know the deceased, but I knew how to gather families and get them to talk, tell stories.  That time turned out to be cathartic for family members.  They laughed and cried, remembering their loved ones.  Remembering moments.  From those stories, I built a service.  I made them laugh in the midst of their tears.  I told their stories back to them.

“You sounded like you knew them!” I often heard.

The people of Guide Rock liked me.  They liked my preaching.  More people came to church.  Some came back to church after they’d been to a funeral.  The new preacher cared, they heard.

At Edythe’s husband’s funeral that first week of my appointment, Robert approached me.

“You’ll hear my name from others.  I’ve had so many run-ins with our previous pastors, I’m famous for making trouble.  You won’t see me on Sunday mornings, I’m not coming back.  I’ve had it with these people.  But I’m glad you’re here.  I’m glad for them.  You’re obviously one of the good ones,” he said, shaking my hand.

I thought maybe I was here to help them heal, to strengthen as a church, and to grow.

The second time I bled, Larry took me to the ER in town as before.

“Well, you may be miscarrying,” the doctor said bluntly, “but we’ll just have to wait.”

I laid on the exam table and closed my eyes.  Tears linked down the sides of my head onto the paper beneath me.  Larry put his forehead on mine while the doctor left the room, to allow me privacy to get dressed.

She’d been so blunt.  “Miscarrying.”  She advised me to stay down again for a week and check in again with her; sooner if I bled more or miscarried.  Larry helped me sit up, though the room spun and my hands were trembling.  I tried to hold in the tears.  I felt so alone, just the two of us.  No family nearby, and I couldn’t call my mother.  I’d have to take care of her if I told her, assure her everything was alright.  But I didn’t know that.  I wanted to be comforted instead.

From the couch at home, I called Wanda, my secretary, and told her that I’d be down again for a week.  There was silence on the other end of the phone.

“Uh… ok.  I’ll call Pat (the chair of the Pastor-Parish Relations Committee).”  Silence again.  “You’re probably miscarrying, huh?”  My face tingled with unshed tears and I felt suddenly nauseous.  No comfort here.

“I don’t know.”

A couple of days later, Pat called me.  “I just wanted to tell you about a special PPR meeting I’ve set up for next week when you’re back,” she said, not asking me how I was, not even saying ‘hello.’

“Ok,” I laid back on the pillows. “What’s it about?”

“Oh,” she said, “Nothing to worry about.  We just need to address some concerns across the parish.”

Pat was a member of the Cowles Church.  I’d met Pat at her house in the country.  Well, not technically.  She had no house.  Her house had been destroyed in a tornado a few years previously.  Only her basement was left.  Her and her husband had plans to retire and move to Red Cloud in the near future, so they didn’t rebuild.  On her property was a large cement slab, with a doorway  in the center of it, attached to a triangle that was the descending stairs.  That day I’d met her for coffee to get to know her as my PPRC chair.  She was reserved, but friendly.

She hung up.  I felt a deep, sickening dread.  Tingling again, beginning in my face and extending down my body.  My chest was tight and I felt nauseous.  I was scared.  I started to cry.  I just wanted a little bit of comfort, some assurance.  Support.  Larry was my sole supplier.  I was grateful for him.

But otherwise, I felt so alone.  And panicked.

“I don’t know if I can do this for another 37 years if this is what church ministry is going to be like,” I told Larry when he brought me supper and fluffed the pillows under my feet.  He didn’t say much.  He was furious at my churches for showing no support whatsoever, no concern.

The women of Superior were already discussing who would get to babysit this new little person.  They did send flowers, cards and shared concern with Larry when they saw him at the church.  I envied him his appointment.  There were issues, of course, but it was a good strong church with a viable ministry.  They were responsive to his leadership.  There were times I resented Larry for having a good ministry, where he felt rewarded.  Where he could use his gifts.  He went to the office every day and people came in and out, visiting with him.

I felt like I was a pastor in a ghost town.

The following week I still hadn’t miscarried, and was given the go-ahead from the doctor to go back to work.  The SPRC meeting was Tuesday night at the Guide Rock church.  As I drove the 25 miles west to Guide Rock, I looked out at the seemingly endless prairie.  Cows grazing, a gorgeous Nebraska sunset.  So much beauty.

I walked into the basement of the Guide Rock Church.  Everyone was already there.  Pat, the older couple from Cowles, and three Guide Rock members.  Waiting for me.

Pat sat up straight, lips pursed, not looking like the friendly woman who served me coffee in her basement home just weeks before.  They asked me to say a prayer, which I always found odd.  What was I praying for?  For guidance?  They knew what they were there for, and they already had their script.

“A lot of people are upset,” Pat said, opening the meeting.  No one asked how I was feeling, how I was.  The Guide Rock contingency, led by Wayne, looked down at the table, as if folding into themselves.

“You missed two Sundays of church!” Pat noted accusingly.  “We had to pay for replacements for two Sundays!  Are you going to pay us back for that?”  She stared at me angrily.

“I was on bed rest, ordered by my doctor,” I said feebly.

“Still, we had to pay out that money… and while we’re on the subject, what are you going to do with the baby?  Is the baby going to take time away from your ministry?  Are you planning to bring the baby to the office?  What if you get called out?  Then what happens?”  Her questions, obviously rehearsed and written in the notes in front of her, came in rapid-fire succession, giving me little time to answer.

“I will set up child care in Superior,” I said quietly, stunned at the attack.  They were already threatened by my baby?

One of the Henderson’s piped up.  “You’ve never come to visit us at our home.  People are complaining that you don’t visit. Why not?”

“I’ve done some…” I answered feebly, again, “I’ve had a lot of funerals.”

“yes, of people not even in our churches!  People complain they don’t see you much in Guide Rock at all…”

And so it went on.  Pat let it slip that she’d been going door to door in Guide Rock and to the other six members of Cowles not present to get a list of complaints against me.

The Guide Rock representatives were silent.  They didn’t look at me.  They didn’t speak.

The attack went on and on.  I tried to answer their concerns, but I was stricken.  I was exhausted, depressed, and angry.  But I didn’t have the nerve or the energy to defend myself.

With two separate episodes of bleeding and bed rest, all of my concern and emotions were directed toward my baby.  I felt desperate.  I wanted this baby so badly.  Once we decided that we’d start trying, we grew more and more anxious to have a child together.  We assumed we’d only have one, since Larry would be almost 42 when it was born.  Secretly, though, if we had a boy, I wanted to try again for a girl.  With all my heart, I wanted a daughter. I’d love my son if I had one, but I wanted a daughter with all my heart.  I couldn’t even explain the intensity of that desire.  Part of it, perhaps, was to have the kind of relationship with her that I’d always longed for with my own mother.

When Pat seemed satisfied that she’d filled her agenda of dressing me down, she adjourned the meeting.  The Guide Rock people left quickly.  The Cowles contingency tried to make small talk with me as I locked up and turned the lights out.  Outside, I sat in my truck and waited till they were all out of the parking lot.

And I sobbed.

After a long conversation with Sam the District Superintendent, he scheduled a meeting with Pat and Wayne at the parsonage.  Sam and I had lunch frequently in Red Cloud where I poured out my anguish.  He listened faithfully.  Sam was a good pastor.  He was kind and compassionate.

At the meeting, Pat was on her own.  She was without her cohorts from Cowles.  Wayne felt more empowered.

“You attacked Peggy unfairly!  You went around town and collected complaints, people told me!  You didn’t even ask them for what they love about Peggy or how she’s helped them!  You asked them specifically what she needs to do that she’s not doing.  You even gave them ideas!”  Wayne was uncharacteristically outspoken and visibly angry.

Pat was silent, her lips pursed with indignation.  Sam tried to mediate.  Pat didn’t deny that she looked for complaints.  She didn’t say much during the meeting, and she didn’t look me in the eye.

The baby growing inside of me gave me hope, a sense of new life.  We found out we were indeed having a little girl.  When I called my mother, she screamed and laughed.

I wasn’t going to bring my daughter into this hostile environment.  I wasn’t going to apologize for having a baby, or allow them to dictate how much time I had with my child.  Having a baby, a daughter, for me, was a dream come true.  I wasn’t going to allow this community to suck the joy out of this experience as they sucked out the life from everything else.

With Sam’s help, I was able to get an audience with the Bishop.  The Bishop was well aware of Guide Rock’s reputation for chewing up pastors and spitting them out.  The role that the Cowles’ leaders played in that was new to him.  My proposal was that Guide Rock was too small a church to carry the parish, now that New Virginia had closed.  Financially, they couldn’t pay their own bills much less apportionments to the Conference.  I proposed to the Bishop that Guide Rock and Cowles be joined to Red Cloud in a parish, since Red Cloud was a bigger and stronger church.  He agreed that seemed like a good idea.

Since I was a recent seminary graduate, I also knew that I would not be appointed to that arrangement and we would move.  Larry and I had talked about this.  There was some tension around that decision, as he was in a good appointment.  We were moving because of me.  But he also was angry at how cruel Guide Rock and Cowles had been to me, and did not want to bring our child into that arrangement.

My last Administrative Council meeting was also my last day in the parish.  At the meeting, after we’d taken care of regular business, Wayne stood up.  He looked up and down the table.  The Cowles people were there, as it was a joint Ad Council meeting.

“You all should be ashamed of yourselves,” he said, looking around.  “We should all be ashamed at how we treated Peggy this year!”  People looked down at the table.  “She is the best pastor we’ve ever had, and we treated her like crap!  We never let her do what she needed to do, and now we’re paying for that.  She’s leaving.  And I don’t blame her one bit.  Who would want to stay and take this crap?  You should all be ashamed of yourselves, I know I am.”  He sat down.

It was very quiet.

The Chair moved that we adjourn.  He turned to me.  “Pastor Peggy, we do apologize.  We are sorry you  were treated so badly.  I wish we could undo it.  But I, for one, wish you all the best in your new appointment and with your baby.  Thank you for all you’ve done for us.”

Meeting adjourned.  We moved into the fellowship hall for my baby shower.

The baby was due June 16th.  Annual Conference, from which I’d been excused, was June 1-4.  We were scheduled to move out June 6th, and into our new parsonage June 7th, staying overnight in Norfolk, Nebraska.  Larry and I had traveled to Norfolk to make arrangements with the hospital there.

My parents flew in from New Jersey to be with me while Larry attended Annual Conference, and to be there for the birth.  My grandmother had stayed with my mother six weeks for each of the babies my mother had.  Dad retired from pastoral ministry in May.

On June 2nd, Larry came home early from Annual Conference and offered to take us all out for a steak dinner at Dreisbach’s in Grand Island.  GI was 90 minutes away, but the steak was really good.  My father complained the entire way about how absurd it was to drive 90 minutes for dinner, and how famished he was.

I remember seeing the waitress come through the doors carrying a tray with our salads on it.  At that precise moment, I had a really weird feeling in my abdomen, followed by a sudden gush of liquid.

My father, with his fork poised to enter his mouth, stopped.  “What’s the matter?”

“I think my water just broke.”

“Are you sure?”

Yeah, I was pretty sure.

One thought on “Ghost Town

  1. Cindi and I served the Superior and Guide Rock American Baptist churches back in the early 90’s. The Guide Rock ABC and UMC shared a parking lot. Guide Rock was okay but Superior became a nightmare. I’m sorry the bishop sent you there and for what you endured. Guide Rock UMC did have a reputation even back then.

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