Exile

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I walked the campus in sunny California, breathing in the warm air, feeling the peace of being 1,000 miles away from the chaos in Mountaintop.  We would be moving soon after I returned home, and I hoped that this Conference, put on by the Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus, would be good for my soul.

It was.

Reta, my feminist professor friend from Messiah College was there and one of the presenters.  I met many passionate, gifted women, many of whom had left the institutional church behind.  They shared their painful stories with me and listened to mine.  I didn’t think I could actually leave the Church.  However, I was haunted by that image of the pastor who killed himself in the church sanctuary.  “NOW is it enough?”  Also, on my last visit to Messiah to have lunch with Reta, I visited with my friend and former psychology professor, Phil.

He knew my story.  “Peggy, I think you’ve outgrown the church.”  That conversation stuck with me.  In a way it did feel that way.  Not that the Church was “beneath” me, but somehow my experiences and gifts had outgrown what the church wanted from me.

During the Conference in California, I met all kinds of women.  Some were professors, some were writers, and some worked other jobs but had a passion for women’s place in Christianity.  I felt embraced and affirmed in my disillusionment of the structural Christian church.

The seminars focused on women in the Gospel stories, both named and unnamed.  Linda Allen, a folk singer from Bellingham, Washington, provided the music.  The songs were folk songs about women’s reality, everyday lives, and the struggle to find our story within the Christian story that is so focused on male “heroes.”  I learned more about Wisdom-Sophia, as referenced in Proverbs and the Apocrypha. Wisdom was with God in the creation of the world.  Many scholars believe that Jesus is the personification of Wisdom.

I bought some of Linda’s music.  One song that stood out for me was “I Cannot Call You Father.”  It was about women whose relationships with their fathers were abusive, certainly the opposite of grace-filled, and therefore the association with God as Father made it difficult to relate in a healthy way to God.

Growing up in a house with three brothers and a father who tried to be the center of our worlds, I had lived most of my life embracing the male point of view.  My father’s psychology and perspective dismissed female experience as inferior and less important than the males’.  I didn’t have a lot of strong-female influence growing into adulthood. In fact, my strongest experience of female grace was also one of profound loss: Sandie.

The Conference was an immersion of grace.  It was OK to be female!  It was OK to feel the way I felt, to see things the way I saw them.  It was a huge blessing to know that being female gave me a unique and important perspective– not an inferior one.

I also realized that my image of success in the Church was skewed by my father’s perspective.  Success in the Church meant climbing the ladder in the Annual Conference, getting bigger churches and bigger salaries each time.  Having the congregation lavish you with expensive gifts.  Honoring you with “This Is Your Life” or expensive trips.  That was a profoundly male image of success.  And very secular.

I’d been given the “prize appointment” in the Wyoming Conference and it nearly destroyed me.  And my marriage.  That image of success, I realized, was not really what I wanted, but what I was taught to want.

I came home to Mountaintop to pack up and get ready to move.  I was filled spiritually, emotionally and mentally.  I’d spent a powerful few days feeling connected to other women who weren’t competing with me, who were actually impressed that I was ordained in a mainstream denomination.  They also listened to my pain of that year, and affirmed that I wasn’t crazy or “too sensitive.”  That my deep pain was legitimate.

Larry and I would be replaced by a pastor who’d always eyed Mountaintop as the ultimate prize.  He was chomping at the bit to get there.  Many pastors could not understand how we could walk away and thought we were fools.

Nevertheless, after the Conference, I had hope.  An intense image of Grace that I carried with me from the experience was Linda Allen’s song, “Lay It Down.”  It described a comforting mother, a comforting wife, allowing her loved ones to lean against her in her arms, and ended with the image of God as Mother inviting us to lay our burdens down upon Her breast and rest.   I was refreshed.

Poor Larry was not.  He was still broken, exhausted, angry and stressed.  He was not  hopeful in his new appointment.  He would be associate to a harsh woman pastor who had just come off of being a D.S. She had to prove herself at Elm Park, following a white-haired man who’d been there for many, many years. The Church had once been the biggest in the Conference– many years ago.  Now it was a huge stone building, very majestic and beautiful inside, but attendance every Sunday barely filled 1/4 of the sanctuary.  As associate, Larry basically would run the youth group and do whatever his senior pastor did not want to do.

Waverly and Factoryville UMCs were linked for the first time.  They couldn’t have been more different.  Waverly was a high class, wealthy town that had a reputation for being very uppity.  Factoryville was a blue-collar community with a university in town.  Waverly  averaged about 25 people per Sunday, but had enjoyed having their own pastor, Ted, for many years.  They did not want to be linked with any other church, much less Factoryville.  Factoryville wasn’t thrilled to be linked with Waverly, a town that had a reputation for looking down on the surrounding communities.

The Waverly members were hostile from the beginning– with few exceptions–because they adored Pastor Ted.  He did everything they wanted him to do, had no boundaries, and had the time to visit every shut-in several times a week.  They thought he was wonderful.  He told them, as many pastors do, that the Conference was moving him against his will.  However, I did know that he had asked to leave.  Go on to bigger and better things.  He was appointed to a bigger church within 10 miles away.

I started off with a positive attitude, determined to serve these two tiny churches the best way I could.  Factoryville was a small but passionate church, full of many enthusiastic leaders and down-to-earth people.  They were thrilled I was there.  They liked me from the beginning.  They received my preaching and worship with enthusiasm.  They were very kind.  I wasn’t able to give them my best after all, and I do regret that.

The day we drove into Waverly following the moving truck, I was anxious.  I knew they resented me already for replacing Ted.  They also believed that they “had” to be connected to Factoryville just to give me an appointment.  They blamed me for that.  Despite their low numbers, they believed they didn’t need to share a pastor with anyone.

Larry pulled up to the curb on the narrow Church Street that day, behind the moving van.  I anxiously jumped out of the car to meet the parishioners that were out on the front lawn awaiting our arrival to help us carry things in.  Just as I opened my car door, a white Cadillac Escalade drove past us, hitting the car door.

The car door was intact, but I realized that a side mirror on the Escalade was sheared off, laying in the street.  “You go,” Larry said, “I’ll take care of it.”  He went to talk to the passengers in the Escalade while I greeted my shaken parishioners.

It was not a good first impression.

My hope quickly diminished.  The parsonage was huge, right next door to the white clapboard church, and in fact shared a driveway with the church.  They had done what they were supposed to do, painting rooms, touching up here and there, fixing what needed to be fixed in the house.  There were no carpets, but all hardwood floors.  It was a beautiful house, really.  But it never felt like home.

They weren’t impressed by my preaching.  In worship, they were cold, I had no sense of Spirit or connection that I normally experienced in worship.  They were visibly reticent and detached towards me.  Sarah, 9 years old, sensed it immediately.  She requested that she attend church with me at Factoryville and then go home during the service at Waverly.

I struggled in worship at Waverly.  Usually I felt something coming back to me, that I wasn’t in worship alone, summoning the Spirit.  Worship felt like work at Waverly.  Still, their faces were expressionless, ungiving.  I couldn’t get them to laugh, much less smile.  Worship was a drain there, no matter what I did.

At Factoryville, they embraced me, responded to my preaching and worship.  I hated that I had to rush off to Waverly after service.  I wanted to stay for fellowship time.  Be with those people.  They were real, down to earth, devoted in their faith.  The choir was especially powerful.  The director happened to be a professional music director, and the choir was unusually good for such a small church.  They blessed my soul every Sunday, and I told them so.

Sarah made friends at Factoryville and even had a little boy follow her around who had a crush on her.  For Children’s Sunday, she was asked to do the sermon, and she did an excellent job. (Of course)  At nine years old, she preached about the gospel elements in Harry Potter.  She did so without my help.  I was so proud of her.  She loved hanging out at Factoryville.  Sometimes parishioners let her stay for Sunday School with the promise that they’d drive her back home afterwards, to Waverly.

My relationship with Waverly was contentious from the start.  I resented them for not giving me a chance and they resented me for just being there.  During my first Pastor-Parish Relations Committee meeting, they listed all the things I did wrong. Or the things I wasn’t doing.  I’d had no chance to heal after Mountaintop, so my mental health was already shaky.  I broke down crying in the meeting.

“What the hell is wrong with you??” Stella shouted at me.  Stella was a large, elderly woman in the church, well-connected in the community.  She’d been “like a grandmother” to Pastor Ted’s daughter.  She kept in touch daily with Ted and his family.

Depression and anxiety set in quickly.  It didn’t help that Larry was miserable at Elm Park.  He had so many gifts to offer the church, but he was in a position that wanted none of them.  He spent many days in his office reading his books from seminary.  He couldn’t make up enough things to do to fill his day.

Every day each of us drove through Clarks Summit.  In the middle of Clarks Summit was the bridge from the PA Turnpike exit, towering several stories above the road.  It was called “Freedom Bridge,” which many locals found ironic, because it was a popular suicide spot for jumpers.  Sarah called it “the jumping bridge.”  Both Larry and I drove under that bridge with dread, haunted by how desperate we both felt.  Hopeless.  Neither of us could comfort the other.  We were out of hope entirely.

But I managed to preach every week, which was my lifeline;  always having to scour the weekly Scripture lessons for hope and grace.  My preaching didn’t suffer, oddly enough.  It was always my strongest gift for ministry– that and funerals.  That year, my preaching kept my head just above the water, making me have to continually search for good news while everything else felt so dark.

There was grace in the midst of the darkest days.  When I was still in Mountaintop, I’d asked Jim Baker, my former D.S. and Sarah’s surrogate grandfather, to meet with me every so often over lunch to talk about ministry.  To serve as my mentor in an unofficial capacity.  We kept that going during that year in Waverly, thank God.  He gave me much-needed pastoral care.  He prayed with me.  He listened.

I also  went to Maureen for counseling regularly.  Those two were my gentle, gracious incarnations of Jesus, helping me to walk through one of the darkest times of my life.  I felt beaten up.  In my journal I wrote, “This year feels like a spiritual flu.  It’s emptying me out, leaving me weakened… I’ve lost my passion for the Church… I feel used.”

It was August, 2004, just two months into my ministry at Waverly/Factoryville, where I wrote of a deep sense of my own pulling away from the Church.  My relationship with the institutional Church was like a marriage falling apart.  The passion was certainly gone.  I had a difficult time imagining staying in the relationship.

“Why would you give me these gifts for ministry, only to punish me?  To waste me here, where they don’t want what I have to give?…”  I’d rage at God out loud in the echoey emptiness of our parsonage. Some days I got out of bed to walk Sarah Gene to the bus stop, then go home and go back to bed.  I’d get out of bed and shower in time to walk across the square to the small deli where I’d buy a couple of sodas and meet her bus in front of the store. It became a gracious ritual to sip our drinks there and have her tell me about her day.  It literally got me out of bed.

There were stacks of unopened boxes in the dining room.  I knew I wouldn’t stay.

It was not a friendly town.  The postmaster at the post office on the square was always rude and impersonal.  I’d lived in so many small towns where I came to know the postmaster and exchanged pleasantries every day, picking up my mail.  Not with this woman.  The deli became my safe place.  Our afternoon ritual of sipping sodas, sometimes adding a sweet treat, became the highlight of my day.

One day I visited a shut-in that Stella had specifically asked me to visit.  Frank was an older gentleman that was bed-bound and had a 24-hour caregiver in his home.  It was a very nice home, and the caregiver, a young, large man in a T-shirt and sweatpants, ushered me through the house to Frank’s bedroom.

I approached Frank’s bed.  I took his hand.  “Hello, Frank, I’m Rev. Peggy.  Stella asked me to come see you.  How are you doing today?”  I rubbed his hand as I spoke.

Frank’s eyes turned toward me and he yanked his hand away.  I was startled, but didn’t take offense.  He had an oxygen mask over his face, which he removed for a moment.  He struggled with his breath.

“How….” he put the mask on again and drank of the air.  “How do they…” He sighed, seemingly gulping the air between phrases.

I smiled pastorally and touched his hand again.  Again, he yanked it away.  “It’s ok,” I said, “take your time.”

He removed the mask again.  “How….do they…. let you… be a minister??” His eyes glared at me as he replaced the mask and sucked in the much-needed air.

I froze.

His young caregiver approached the bed, hovering over his face.  “What the hell did you just say??” Frank turned away from him like a petulant child.  The young man looked up at me and back at Frank.  “You apologize to her right now!  Why are you being so mean?”

I smiled at the young man and quickly moved away from the bed.  “It’s OK,” I said, putting up my hand with surrender.

“No it’s not,” he said angrily, still glaring at his charge.

“Don’t…. come back….” Frank struggled to say, momentarily moving his mask away from his mouth.

I swallowed and backed out of the room.  The caregiver followed me, apologizing profusely.  “I am so sorry, he can be a real bastard sometimes, but that was uncalled for.”

I shook my head, waving my hand in dismissal, as if his words were just a cloud of gnats hovering around my face.  I swallowed the sour taste in the back of my throat.

“This town,” he said, “Can be very mean.”

I laughed bitterly.  “Oh, trust me, I know.”

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