When we lived and served in Tilden, despite a lot of crises–or maybe because of so much crisis– I grew up in ministry. I was plunged into so many raw and tragic moments of people’s lives that I felt completely unprepared for, but by the grace of God was able to offer comfort and support. I learned a lot from Larry in those situations. It never ceased to amaze me how much tragedy filled the lives of the people in these three small towns. I realized that while I was growing up, I was shielded from a lot of real life and real pain in other people. Somehow my father seemed to ride above real life and avoid the messiness of it all.
I relied a lot on Susan’s friendship those first two years at Tilden. She was a warm, kind, motherly presence and sometimes I just went to her house to have a good cry over coffee. Larry and I had many sleepless nights during those days. I dreaded calls from Ginger, our Staff-Parish Relations Chair, because she seemed to think it was her job to find all the things we did wrong in each church and report to us regularly. Between her, individuals in the churches who were just mad about something, and the constant calls from bill collectors, we felt constantly harassed and broken down.
But there was comfort in real ministry. Many people losing their fights with cancer. Teaching confirmation. Doing funerals for people who were turned away from another church because they hadn’t paid their “dues.”
During the spring of 1996 as I approached ordination as Elder, Larry and I wrestled with whether we could stay at the Parish for a third year. Our finances were a shambles, we were in debt seemingly beyond repair. We couldn’t pay the bills on 1 1/2 salaries. But I also struggled with the shame of leaving after only two years, when I left Guide Rock after only one year. We went back and forth, and finally decided to ride it out one more year. It was a difficult decision.
Those three years were the hardest years of our marriage, and there were days I thought we would be broken apart by the stress. I was chronically depressed and struggled each day to get out of bed. Sarah was the reason I could. I kept trying for her. I pressed on for her. She was the light amid so much darkness, the joy that teased us and invited us to continue to hope.
Larry presented an idea at the very beginning of our time in Tilden. He wanted to take a group of youth from the parish across country, stopping at several significant “spiritual sites” like the Amana Colonies, etc., and end up in New York City. There they would see the historical churches and tour NYC. Most of those kids had never been out of Nebraska, much less the East Coast. They would learn about different religious groups that were a part of our nation’s church history.
He thought it was a good idea.
For some reason, there were individuals in a couple of the churches that got angry. They thought some kids from one church would get more money than other kids, or that somehow the kids of their church would lose out. Or that the kids who didn’t want to go on the trip would feel left out as the other kids were working on fundraisers.
None of this made any sense to us, but Larry pressed on under incredible pressure and frequent angry phone calls from one church member in particular. She accused him of stealing money from their church’s youth group, or favoring the kids of the other churches. She would call him and literally scream into the phone. She did this for the entire three years we were there.
But Larry was committed to the kids who were already excited about traveling cross-country, and to the adults who already committed to chaperone.
Nebraska is the birthplace of several well-known celebrities such as Dick Cavett, Marlon Brando, Johnny Carson, Henry Fonda, Nicholas Sparks, Hilary Swank, and even Gerald Ford, just to name a few. When we arrived in Tilden, we discovered that this town of about 1,000 people was the birthplace and childhood home of Richie Ashburn of the Philadelphia Phillies. The small local pharmacy had Phillies memorabilia in the window, as the pharmacist was a school buddy of Ashburn. Everyone in town was proud of their hometown boy, and the baseball field was named after him. Ashburn’s Mom, “Toots” Ashburn, was a member of the Tilden United Methodist Church, and still active. When Richie was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, he came to Tilden for a celebration and we got to meet him. We had Sarah dressed up in a tiny Phillies uniform and cap.
At the beginning of 1997, however, we learned about another well-known celebrity who was born in Tilden. This one would have a greater impact on our ministry that year.
We were invited to a community meeting one day, along with all the other leaders of the town, only to discover that a lot of planning and negotiations had been going on that we were unaware of. That was one down side of ministering in three communities– we couldn’t always keep up with what was going on in one town.
At this meeting, there were a lot of people in expensive suits who looked very much out of place in this small rural farming community. It was clear they weren’t from around here. They had tables set up with shiny brochures, videos, posters and books about the Church of Scientology.
All I knew about the Church of Scientology was that some people thought it was suspect but that it was something that Tom Cruise and John Travolta espoused as their religion. I knew nothing else. I vaguely remember advertisements on TV for the book Dianetics, written by Hubbard, that was supposed to have all the answers to life. We were curious as to what was going on and what all this had to do with Tilden. That’s when we learned that L. Ron Hubbard was born in Tilden and moved away at the age of 6 months.
These leaders in the Church had been talking with town leaders about donating a half a million dollars to Tilden to build a park in honor of L. Ron Hubbard. $500,000 was a lot of money to a community that size! The town had very modest sports fields and a walking path was being developed that would go all the way to Norfolk and beyond. The prospect of a much nicer community park was huge to this small rural community.
The Church wanted to build this park and have the various precepts of Scientology carved in stone along the new walking path. I think a statue of Hubbard was mentioned.
That day neither of us had any idea of the major storm that was brewing right under our noses. We didn’t know a lot about Scientology, but learned that day that there was a lot of controversy surrounding the Church. We had no idea why. We were surprised that a lot of preliminary negotiations had already been underway that involved some of our church members in both the UCC and the United Methodist Church in Tilden. We were trying to get up to speed with what seemed to be already in process. They saw this as a huge gift of grace for the community.
Other members started showing up at our door at all hours of the day to express their fears and misgivings about the project. The local library–which at that time was just a storefront downtown–stocked up on everything they could find on the Church of Scientology. There were many, many articles from Newsweek and Time. Church members generously photocopied all of this to have us read. The more we read about it, the more we were concerned.
Larry and I are pretty open-minded people. We tend to fall on the liberal end of the theological spectrum. We like to be fair. But we were concerned about the reputation the Church of Scientology had, and that was addressed by reputable news sources. We were concerned that such a big organization with an enormous amount of power and resources could swallow up this little town and perhaps hurt the community. We weren’t sure how, but our guts told us this wasn’t a good idea.
We didn’t feel passionate enough to forbid anyone from being involved in this endeavor. Not in any way did we feel like we had the right to make that decision for the community. We didn’t take the action of the Church of Christ pastor who damned them and warned people of burning in hell if this went through. He had a reputation of sending anyone he didn’t like to hell, and that’s how we ended up with a lot of funerals of people from his church. People didn’t take him very seriously.
The whole thing grew into a maelstrom that gained momentum from both “sides” and divided the town. Families were divided over it. Siblings stopped speaking to each other, lifelong friendships were broken. It was always in the air that winter and spring. Us and Them.
Our own members kept asking us for our thoughts. We wrote a letter to our congregation and passed out copies. We did not condemn the Church, but we voiced our concerns about its size, power and reputation. We weren’t going to tell people what to do, but they wanted to know where we stood. We thought honesty was our best bet.
Well. It grew from there. The members who were involved in the negotiations were furious with us. They called us, showed up at our door and confronted us after church; yelling, cursing, and getting in our faces. On Valentine’s Day 1997, some of the local church members and community leaders asked to meet with us to discuss it as a group. They presented this as just an opportunity to talk rationally with us and express their concerns.
They didn’t tell us that leaders of the Church of Scientology would also be present.
We remember it not so fondly as the Valentine’s Day Massacre. I didn’t get a sitter, it was a day we normally didn’t get a sitter and I figured I could hold Sarah in the meeting. Fortunately, our secretary, who was in the church office, came out to take Sarah out of the line of fire. The level of noise was getting out of hand.
People we’d known and worked with for two years already called us names, accused us of being part of a witch hunt, and not “being very Christian.” We tried to reason with them, but we were quickly overwhelmed. Leaders of the Church of S appeared calm but said things to stoke the fire of rage and condescension.
Nothing was accomplished. One man from the Methodist Church threw up his hands and left the room. At the end, we were shaken and very wounded. The Scientologists shook our hands, smiled as if they hadn’t been stabbing us repeatedly with verbal knives and said, “Happy Valentine’s Day.”
We didn’t sleep that night or for many nights.
A couple of times, a minister from the Church of Scientology showed up at our door from Hollywood, unannounced, requesting a meeting to try to convince us we were all “on the same side.” To convince us of the merits of his organization.
Everything we did and said that spring was consumed by this community fight. There was so much hostility in the air it made us physically ill. My anxiety level was at its peak. I cried a lot. I got very paranoid as to what people would do next. Relationships with some members were distanced because they were “disappointed” in us.
People talked about the Church of Scientology as being like the persecuted Christians of the early church. Or even like the Jews during the Holocaust.
We were completely on our own, as we often were. We called our District Superintendent, Marvin, and he kind of shrugged. He didn’t know what to do. He suggested we call the United Methodist agency on Christian Unity and Inter-religious Concerns. We called and left a message for the Chairperson of CUIC in Nashville. We gave a summary of what we were facing in Tilden with the Church of Scientology and asked for their advice.
A couple of days later, we got a call back. Neither Larry or I were in the office at the time, but he told the secretary that it was “absolutely imperative” that he talk to us. She gave us the message and Larry called the man right back.
“Don’t do anything,” he said. What? “Don’t engage them, don’t challenge them, and for God’s sake, don’t put anything in writing.” Oops. Too late. We didn’t mention that. “Back off, you don’t want to mess with them.” His tone was anxious and adamant.
We were on our own.
Meanwhile, we’d made it very clear to Marvin that we really had to get out of Tilden that year. We were afraid that if we didn’t, if we continued on a salary and a half, that we would have to file for bankruptcy. We were stretched beyond our limit financially, but also spiritually, emotionally and mentally. There were so many people across the churches that we came to love deeply, but we were exhausted. Was this ministry? I wondered. Would it always be like this?
Meanwhile, Nebraska Public Radio called and asked to interview us. We weren’t sure that was a good idea, after what the CUIC had advised us, but at that point, we weren’t sure we had anything else to lose. And it was NPR, after all.
The day the woman came to the church to interview us, I hadn’t wanted to get a babysitter–again, to save money– so she ended up interviewing Larry as I chased after my toddler. They were doing an entire program on the Church of Scientology and had heard about the battle at Tilden. Larry felt good about the interview, though nervous also, and the interviewer was very kind and professional. We had no idea that the interview would be included on National Public Radio until many months later when my friend Phil heard it in Pennsylvania!
We got the news that we were definitely leaving in June, but we didn’t know until late May where we would be going from there. In the meantime, we decided that with all the furor over the parish and all the resentment that the UMC had set this up without the church’s input– that it was only fair to put it to a vote. Let the people of the parish decide if they wanted to continue. This really wasn’t how United Methodists do things, of course, but we thought it only fair, especially to the UCC Church to either decide to pull out of the parish our claim it themselves. I have no doubt the idea made our D.S. very nervous! But we were tired. We were leaving. We didn’t want our successors to inherit the rage we’d been working under.
Much to our surprise, the parish voted in favor of continuing as a four-church parish and adopted the official name of The Elkhorn River Parish. After everything we’d been through, we felt that was a huge accomplishment.
As I packed for the move, Larry went on the trip back East with a large group of youth from across the parish. My parents came to help me pack, and Larry called from the road every night. For three years, he’d been very tempted to ditch the whole thing, convinced he’d gotten in way over his head. But his nightly calls from the road were a treat. He was so excited and energized by the kids and their enthusiasm. Of course the highlight of it all was the trip into New York City, where they visited several churches and took pictures on the top of the World Trade Center. Larry said he had to remind his adult chaperones to watch their assigned kids because the adults were so in awe of the city, they forgot about the kids!
On our very last Sunday, we decided to have all four churches worship together in the community center in Tilden for one service. The youth were just back from their trip and had a part in the service, sharing pictures and stories of what they learned and encountered. More than one kid jokingly related how they were “abandoned in New York City by their chaperones who were too busy looking up! I preached that day and planned the whole worship service that was focused on celebrating the “new” parish that they had all now claimed, and the ministry they would continue to do together.
It was a day of great joy, celebration, hugs, tears, and profound worship. It was a beautiful way to end our time there, on a note of grace and healing. Forgiveness for the hurts and a way for all of us to move on into a more hopeful future.
Again, as I often was and have been since, I am amazed at the profound grace that can come despite and often through much darkness and pain.
But I still get a little tightness in my chest when I see anything regarding the Church of Scientology…