For some time I’ve been fascinated by the ability of religion both to hurt and heal. Even pastors, who are supposed to bless, sometimes abuse. In the following short story (my first attempt at fiction writing) I explore this tension between good and evil in the church. The characters are based on real people I have ministered to over the years but I’ve changed names and details to protect their identity. The original idea for the story came from a sermon written by my friend Charles McGathy, a retired Navy chaplain and pastor of First Baptist Church of Madison, NC. If the story touches you, please leave a comment.
Nobody sat in the first three rows at Calvary Baptist Church. It was like the splash zone in front of the killer whale show at Sea World, only the waves that washed over you in church were waves of sorrow and guilt. The front of the church was a wet place and not just because there was a baptismal pool. It was where people came to kneel and repent, shedding hot tears over their sins. It was where widows sobbed at the caskets of their departed husbands and where mothers of brides and grooms dabbed their moist eyes with lace-trimmed handkerchiefs. That’s why nobody sat there during Sunday morning services. Nobody except Leland.
When Pastor Tim saw him sitting there, in the middle of the second pew with no one near him, he figured the man was a visitor, likely someone unchurched or at least not Baptist. Baptists fill up a church from the back to the front on Sundays. Only the latecomers were forced into the front pews and only when the church was full. But the church was half empty, and there he sat.
Leland was middle aged, forty-nine, but he looked more like sixty, heavyset with thinning grey hair and pale skin. His suit was grey too, three piece, making him look like a banker. After the service the pastor introduced himself and learned that he wasn’t alone. Leland was married. He and Linda had three children, Jordan, a girl who was off at college, Ben, a senior in high school, and Mary, the youngest, who was fourteen and a freshman. Linda and the two younger kids had been in church too but they sat in the back. The family had just moved to town a few weeks earlier after Leland’s company transferred him. He was an engineer who designed missile systems for a large defense contractor.
If Leland was wound a bit tight, his family was the opposite. From the first Sunday they arrived, Linda and the kids jumped into the life of the church with gusto. They were social butterflies. Ben and Mary attended youth group and Sunday School. He would roughhouse with the other boys. She would whisper secrets to the girls and giggle. Linda became part of the women’s missionary society, volunteered for the nursery, and delivered Meals on Wheels to elderly shut-ins. Only Leland held back. No coaxing would get him to a men’s prayer breakfast or Bible study, but every Sunday, there he was, sitting up front.
Pastor Tim noticed that Leland seemed to know the hymns by heart. He sang with an open hymnal resting on the back of the pew in front of him, but he never needed to look down. The pastor kept hoping and praying he would come forward at the end of a service and give his heart to Jesus, but Leland was glued to his seat. He never moved. He sat ramrod straight throughout the sermon with a painful expression on his face. Did he have back problems or sciatica? The minister knew better than to pry, especially with men in the church who could be as skittish as field mice. When his wife Cindy asked him why he thought Linda’s husband acts so strange, Pastor Tim just said, “Pray for him, honey. I think God’s working on his heart.”
“Working on his heart?” Cindy said with incredulity in her voice. “I hope so, because he gives me the creeps. He’s the kind of guy people talk about on the eleven o’clock news, saying, ‘I just can’t believe he had a dozen bodies buried in his basement.’ Well, I can. I hope God works on his heart before he brings a gun to church.”
“No, I’m serious! Remember that guy who walked into a church last year and shot the pastor in the pulpit while he was preaching and at first everyone thought it was an act? I don’t wanna be like that pastor’s wife on TV, crying in front of the camera, saying, ‘I’m just thankful that God took him home quickly and he died serving the Lord.’ You get shot by that loon and I’m gonna look in the camera and say, ‘I tried to warn my husband but he was just too stupid to listen to me!’”
“Now, Cin, nobody’s gonna shoot me, and I think you’re wrong about Leland.” Pastor Tim sounded like he was trying to convince himself as well.
Cindy wasn’t the only one in the church who had doubts about Leland. Mrs. Turner, the matriarch of the church, did too. Virginia Turner was a white-haired dowager of indeterminate age, who had a hand in everything at church. She cornered Pastor Tim after church one Sunday in the hallway outside his office.
“Pastor, I’m concerned about the safety of our church,” she announced.
“Oh? Why’s that?”
“Leland,” she said, lowering her voice. “He’s a dangerous man.”
“What makes you say that?” The pastor closed his eyes as if he were trying to wish her away.
“Well, I wouldn’t have believed it if someone had told me, but I saw it with my own eyes. I was driving home from the grocery store last Thursday, and I saw Leland on the side of the road, changing a tire.” She paused. “Only he wasn’t changing the tire.”
“What do you mean?”
“The flat tire was on the ground but he wasn’t putting the spare on the car. He had the tire iron in his hands and he was beating the flat tire with it. Beating it like you chop wood.” She demonstrated. “He was dripping with sweat and his face was red and he was beating that tire like it was the devil!”
Pastor Tim tried his best to reassure her. He reminded her that lots of people get upset when they have to change a flat. Taking out one’s frustration on an inanimate object may look violent but it doesn’t mean he’s a violent person. He ended with, “I’m sure there’s nothing to be worried about.” But the pastor himself wasn’t sure.
About four months after he started attending, Leland called the church secretary and made an appointment with the pastor for the next week. Pastor Tim prayed intensely in the days leading up to the meeting: “Lord, help me not to get in the way of what you’re doing in Leland’s life. Let me really hear whatever he needs to say and find a way to give him hope.”
When the day came, Leland showed up at the church office not wearing his usual three-piece suit he wore on Sundays. He was in khaki walking shorts and a white guayabera shirt. He looked like a banker on vacation in Miami, only a nervous one. The pastor invited Leland to sit down in one of the two brown leather wingback chairs in his office. Pastor Tim sat opposite him in the other one. After the usual small talk Pastor Tim said, “This is your time. I want you to know that whatever we discuss in here, stays in here.”
There was an awkward pause. Leland shifted in his seat then blurted out suddenly, “I don’t know who I am.”
Pastor Tim resisted the urge to speak, believing that silence could be as therapeutic as words, often more so. But when more than a minute passed, he tried an active listening technique he learned in his seminary counseling classes—restating what the person says in the form of a question. “You don’t know who you are?” Pastor Tim said.
The question shocked Leland out of his silence. It was as if he stuck his finger in a light socket. He became animated, electrified. His words came hot and fast. “I was ten, my brother thirteen, when mama took us away. Daddy was not a good man.” Leland told about hearing his mother’s screams and seeing bruises, sometimes blood. “She began sleeping with a gun under her pillow.” Pastor Tim raised his eyebrows. Leland continued, “She woke us up in the middle of the night and drove away with us and just a few of our things. She kept driving until daylight. We started a new life and never saw daddy again. She even had all of our names legally changed. I’ve been Leland Rogers so long now I can’t remember my old name.”
Leland explained how difficult it was for him deal with such trauma at a young age. “I . . . I used to wake up terrified . . . covered in sweat.” He spat out his words in a staccato rhythm as if he were coughing them up. “I’d bang my head against the wall . . . bang it until I’d pass out . . . and gouge my skin with my fingernails . . . until it bled.” He clawed his left forearm, mimicking his self-mutilation. Pastor Tim sat there listening carefully and nodding occasionally as Leland poured out his heart. Years of pain gushed out of him like water from a fire hydrant. He sobbed uncontrollably as he told about his older brother’s suicide and his mother’s death from cancer two years back. He was bent over double now, almost in the fetal position, with his face buried in his hands. He began to shake and whimper like a small child.
Pastor Tim got up from his chair, knelt down in front of Leland, and put his arms around him. After a while Leland stopped whimpering. He took a deep breath and let out a sigh. Pastor Tim let go of him, got up slowly, and returned to his chair.
“I’ve been holding that in for a long time,” Leland confessed, mopping his wet face with a handkerchief.
“That’s quite a story,” Pastor Tim said. “I’m honored you’d trust me with it.”
Leland looked different. His face shone like Moses coming down from Mount Sinai, and there was a peaceful expression where earlier there had been tension and pain.
Pastor Tim knew this breakthrough was only the beginning of what would no doubt be long journey of healing. He thought about making a referral to Dr. Ingram, a psychologist who worked with the Baptist association in town, but something kept tugging at his mind. “I’m just curious about one thing.”
“What’s that, pastor?”
“Why do you always sit up front in church, not with Linda and the kids?”
Leland’s brows knit together. He was thoughtful a moment, then looked into Pastor Tim’s eyes intently. “That’s where I had to sit every Sunday while my father preached.”
The two men sat together for a long time in silence.