The Worst Good Church

Scars are as much the evidence of healing as they are the history of the trauma, two identical paths with opposite narratives.  Robert’s scars bore the signature of a machete, a tool suited for clearing jungle but just as effective as an urban sword. He was attacked early one morning while he slept on the covered stoop of a plasma donation center, a place that was both shelter for the night and a reliable source of income for this homeless alcoholic. Weeks later the long, deep machete strikes still divided Robert’s face with all the disrespect for its natural contours as the political cartographer’s pen has for the physical geography of the globe. That was when he joined our little church.

Robert first attended St. Timothy Lutheran shortly after leaving the hospital. His presence was a new wrinkle in my world as machete-wielding marauders were well outside the experiences of an 11-year-old suburbanite. The only thing more alarming than Robert’s appearance was the knowledge that the vicious attack had happened at the building immediately adjacent to where St. Timothy was meeting. To me this was some kind of fantastic coincidence but I knew nothing of plasma centers, homelessness, or the peculiar nightlife of Kennedy Boulevard in south Tampa, a hard place even under the sun’s scrutiny. My parents and the other adults, of course, knew well where they were and why they were there. Robert’s presence was neither accidental nor uncomfortable. The shunned were precisely the point: St. Timothy went into the wilderness to minister. Jesus made it 40 days out there; St. Timothy would never come back.

St. Timothy Lutheran Church was born from scandal and as all births and most scandals go the root cause was original sin. The first members of St. Timothy all came from St. Paul, a fine brick structure with a proud steeple, the mother church for Lutherans in Tampa. Built in 1926 on North Central Avenue, the church rested on a block of shade trees, sidewalks, and bungalow cottages in the solidly working class Seminole Heights neighborhood. It was for decades a desirable place to live until the 1960s when the interstate, kingmaker for the emerging suburbs, brutalized older established neighborhoods. I-275 ripped through Seminole Heights, destroying many historic homes and depressing property values on the ones left straddling the concrete tourniquet. The fortunes of St. Paul, along with the neighborhood that surrounded it, were in decline.

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A postcard from the early 1980s shows St. Paul Lutheran Church in brighter days.

The old church was far from lost, however. The building was handsome, the sanctuary enlivened by sunlight pouring through stained-glass windows. Decades of seasoned light had darkened the oak pulpit, pews, and windowsills and the nave was endowed with that sense of permanence that comes from generations of baptisms, weddings, and sermons. St. Paul’s greatest asset was its tightly knit community of worshippers who gathered on Sundays for services and church school, and Wednesdays for potluck suppers and choir practice. My parents deeply loved this church, so much so that more than twenty-five years after her last communion there my mother still calls it her church home. What St. Paul desperately needed, simply put, was leadership and the struggling church found it in a new shepherd, Pastor Reed.

Reed came to the ministry after successful careers in sales and radio. With his work experience, resonant baritone, and confident smile, his gifts of persuasion and communication were unassailable. He arrived at the church with a spirited, good-humored wife and charming children. Best of all he was concerned about outreach, wanting to bring more people into the church and a more diverse group at that; Reed did not see a single black face from his pulpit and some members of the church were openly hostile to gays. He found these conditions incompatible with the lessons of the Bible.

The new pastor’s inclusionary program was not warmly welcomed by all parties at St. Paul. This was the early eighties when gay bashing was still fodder for comics like Sam Kinison and Andrew Dice Clay. AIDS was new, touted from many pulpits as an exciting form of retribution straight from heaven. Predictably, the more conservative elements in the church were opposed to many of Pastor Reed’s ideas while liberal members like my parents found precisely the message they sought. As it turned out, this ideological divide would reliably predict a parishioner’s position when Mrs. Reed moved out of the parsonage, when divorce papers were signed, and when—ink still wet—Pastor Reed very suddenly had a girlfriend.

The Bishop of the Florida-Bahamas Synod of the Lutheran Church of America decided that Reed had to be relieved of his position. There was a distinct constituency of the liberals that was incensed at the bishop’s summary decision. Had he consulted these members his decision would not likely have changed, but they felt they should have had an opportunity to defend the man they found to be such a powerful spokesman for the communion of Christ. My parents were two of twelve agitators who were particularly strong in their support for Reed, twelve disciples following an imperfect avatar. These twelve would form the core of the splinter group that would leave St. Paul to fulfill the work Pastor Reed had started. With roughly half the membership of St. Paul, St. Timothy—Timothy being the spiritual son of Paul—would first meet a few weeks later in April 1985. One of my mother’s former congregants, her “beloved Mrs. Kerry” called one night. She said only, “This thing is not of God,” and hung up.

My brother attends one of those non-denominational churches that have become fixtures of American byways both large and small, usually favoring the large. He became acquainted with his future bride there but the couple was not married in their church home. The sanctuary is an old grocery store constructed from cinder blocks and tin and while it is ideally suited to the concert-like format of the Sunday morning services conducted there the building lacks those accouterments of faith—like stained-glass windows and brass altar pieces—that photograph well. It is hard to know if non-denominational churches outsource weddings, funerals, and baptisms because their buildings are homely or if they have homely buildings because they want to outsource these ceremonies. Either way, these churches are relatively easy to start because the only real necessities are a charismatic preacher (ordination optional) a band, and the band’s equipment.

Starting a denominational church is a different animal altogether. For the sake of example, a Lutheran church is essentially a franchise operating under the auspices of a synod, headed by a bishop. The bishop confers the right of the church to meet as an official Lutheran body within the synod. Shattering the body of the mother Lutheran church in Tampa had not endeared the members of the fledgling church to the bishop of the Florida-Bahamas Synod of the Lutheran Church of America (LCA); for his part, the bishop had hastened the disunion of St. Paul by his unilateral actions. Clearly St. Timothy was not going to be recognized by the LCA but as it happened the competing Florida-Bahamas Synod of the American Lutheran Church (ALC) was then looking to get established in the Tampa Bay area and found a ready entrée by recognizing this homeless congregation, thus St. Timothy segued effortlessly from sex scandal to ecumenical politics.

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The author’s mother produced the church newsletter until the last few months the church existed. She kept one of each of them. These newsletters were dense with the stories, poems, hopes and dreams of the congregants, and the source material for much of this essay. The cross was designed by a parishioner and a point of pride for the church.

My mother describes the early years of St. Timothy as “being in love with being a church.” Those that were willing to leave St. Paul in the first place were inclined to be left-leaning, adventurous, and artistic; some of the members were already practicing artists or craftsmen. For many of St. Timothy’s members, attending St. Paul had become a matter of habit, spiritual sustenance by rote. There was comfort and predictability in that but the established order allowed little room for involvement outside the choir and a few committees. In a church with nothing, its members found an outlet for creativity and endeavor that spawned furious acts of participation, creation, and activity. They were a “priesthood of all believers,” as one wag put it. Cecile, a practicing metal worker, made the altar cross and the baptismal font, carpenter Janet made the base for it. Joe built a lectern, Scott a large wooden cross for Lent. The Hayes family donated an electric piano and organ. For several months services were held in the homes of the Wilsons and then the Rhodas who lived just a few blocks away from St. Paul. Members wrote articles for the newsletter, sang in the choir, and joined committees to find a permanent church home and to do outreach. I wrote the St. Timothy Rap:

Hello there, you don’t need to know me

But I’m representing St. Timothy

We are the church with a lot of love

And we get our help from Heaven above

 

The couplets continued for four more stanzas. While it has not improved with time and lacks street cred, the St. Timothy Rap reflected the experimental nature of the church; in 1985 there could not have been a great many denominational churches endorsing hip-hop, however bleached it might have been.

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The “St. Timothy Rap” featured in a synod publication.  Regrettably, the details of the publication are not in the photocopied sheet in the author’s files.

As it happened, parishioners also took on the rotating task of giving sermons; they formed a committee to find a pastor and created a way of administering communion without one. The second newsletter began with a “Letter from Pastor Reed.” Although the missive was ostensibly from Reed, he clearly did not write a word of it. Written in third person, it said that he was taking a position with a 125-year-old church in Tennessee, one with precisely 689 members housed in a Gothic edifice in downtown Nashville. While Pastor Reed had not asked for St. Timothy, it was a church of his own making. His tenure at St. Paul had been brief, fewer than two years; at St. Timothy he had lasted one newsletter. And glorious, prestigious First Lutheran would only hold him for 18 months. I was close to his son and well remember that Reed’s exodus to Tennessee marked the end of his fatherhood as well. This note in the newsletter, quite by accident, succinctly summarized the man and his fidelity to his church, his family, and his faith: he simply was not there.

Pastor Reed’s departure was devastating. None of the 12 agitators had ever really thought he was going to stay with them, but many of the others that had left St. Paul did so believing they were following their champion. Membership dropped in half, leaving about thirty regular attendees.

For the first two years of its existence, the congregants of St. Timothy were like the Israelites in the desert. Without a permanent church home they set up the church and packed it again every Sunday. The first location outside a parishioner’s home was in a reception hall on Buffalo Avenue. At first this seemed like a good location, situated as it was along the Hillsborough River and having a colonnade of tall, airy windows running the length of the building.

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The banquet hall beside the Hillsborough River that served as the first semi-permanent home of St. Timothy, photographed decades later.

The owners were probably thrilled to have a regular tenant on otherwise quiet Sunday mornings and the hall was spotless when we arrived, at least until the day it was not, the morning after a wedding reception. The streamers and balloons had migrated to the floor and were rigidly held in place with dried beer and cake. This situation became increasingly common and when the one-year lease expired the church moved again, first to another home, then a Safari Lodge, a York Rite Temple, and finally in August 1987 with a three-year lease, to the building on Kennedy Boulevard next to the plasma center. “St. Timothy is no longer moving around. We are moving forward,” the newsletter read.

A few months into the St. Timothy experiment, the conference bishop pulled a pastor out of retirement to minister to the young church. Pastor Bartell’s arrival allowed the church legitimately to perform functions like weddings, baptisms, and, most importantly, communion, but a burned-out pastor was not the best fit for, as member Shirley called St. Timothy, an “ambitious mission.” He was a kind man but he only had 52 Sundays and 9 seasons in the liturgical year, and one book from which to draw material, the best of which had been used perhaps a decade before. “He was just dull,” my father remembered, “There was no spark in him.”

Among the inspiring thoughts expressed in Bartell’s letters to the church he discussed dropping membership (“Love encourages, strengthens, and provides the foundation for forgiveness when we have messed up in our relationships. I mention that because we have missed certain of our membership recently”), fatigue (“It’s frustrating to know I cannot be as available and it’s simply exhausting traveling all the time. Often change takes it toll in the loss of spiritual drive.”), and the difficulty of the church’s work (“[Being responsible for God’s creation] is a great blessing and burden because most of the time we can hardly handle our own lives, much less help others and take care of the world around us.”). After just over a year, St. Timothy’s first official pastor called it quits and the pastor search committee culled its members to search anew.

St. Timothy had a salvation schedule almost perfectly coordinated with the holy calendar. The church was formed at Easter, admitted into the ALC at Easter, and for the third time, the first Sunday after the first full moon of the vernal equinox would bring momentous news: not one but two pastors had answered the call to St. Timothy. When Grace and Jan arrived in the spring of 1987, they seemed to have emerged, fully formed, from the breast of the Creator. “Grace” is the most common name for Lutheran churches in America and Jan is a Scandinavian form of the venerable Christian name John (Scandinavians being good Lutheran stock, dontcha know). Both were ordained Lutheran ministers and, as Jan was also a licensed psychologist and presumably able to find external employment, they were willing to work for the price of one pastor, and not a particularly well paid one at that. They were both lively, funny, and, most importantly, committed to the same outreach that had driven the creation of St. Timothy in the first place. They were twin loaves of raisin bread compared to the communion wafer that had preceded them. Or perhaps fruitcake would better carry the baking metaphor.

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Two pastors for the price of one. A full page of the newsletter was dedicated to their arrival. Note the address installation:  the ceremony for welcoming the new pastors to St. Timothy was performed at St. Paul.

Two and a half years after first meeting in the living room of the Wilson’s mobile home, St. Timothy could reflect on some of its accomplishments. They had the full complement of altar ware, hymnals, pianos and other musical instruments, a semi-permanent place of worship, two pastors, and in joining the ALC, itself an accomplishment, they had codified their commitment to inclusion:

Our ministry will be intentionally inclusive of all ethnic, racial, economic, cultural, and social groups within our defined area, e.g.: Hispanics, blacks, the poor, the affluent, the street people, the mentally and physically handicapped, the gay population, the University of Tampa community, etc.

The church’s doors were wide open but while members had participated in food and clothing drives to help the poor, they had not succeeded in finding a meaningful way to minister to the community.

At first blush Grace and Jan seemed to be exactly what the church needed. By September 1987, the couple had already proposed their “community mission model,” a formalized plan for the church’s mission work in the community. Grace and Jan took very seriously their role in helping the catchment area of the church, choosing to live in the—undesirable—neighborhood behind the building on Kennedy Blvd. They fed hungry neighbors and took care of children while their single mothers were in rehab for crack cocaine addiction. The couple involved the church in its immediate area, working with Metropolitan Ministries, an organization that helps homeless families get back in a normalized living environment, and farther afield—in an ironic affront to reason—members took bags of food to migrant tomato pickers in Ruskin, Florida.

Looking for new members, Grace and Jan initiated outings into the neighborhood to leave door hangers and leaflets on cars; church members went door-to-door to invite people to Sunday worship, took the altar flowers to neighbors, passed out surveys and brochures. The church resorted to bribes, strolling the neighborhood in St. Timothy-printed t-shirts with root beer floats in hand to give away to the children.  They hosted kickball games for anyone who would come to play. The church courted prostitutes and drug addicts, but they rarely stayed for more than a few weeks or months. Robert’s circumstances were extreme but the outcome was typical. Like the mountains of San Andreas, his scars were only the visible evidence of the fault line underneath and the slightest tremor sent him back to the cold comforts of addiction. Not even the infusion of two pastors could help St. Timothy grow.

I cannot recall my first meeting with the new pastors but I imagine my first impression must have been positive. In a parallel universe Grace and Jan would have come directly from central casting, inserted where the script called for an earnest and caring, but childless aunt and uncle. Both were slightly chubby and huggable. Grace kept her naturally gray hair very short and had a Marine’s posture that instantly revealed her as the taskmaster. Male pattern baldness had given Jan an involuntary Roman tonsure, the same horseshoe-shaped haircut worn by Martin Luther. He relished his nickname, “Pastor Cream Puff.” The couple in fact had a grown daughter, and I am sure I must have met her, but I cannot reconcile either of them in my mind with the word “parent;” the warmth they radiated was that of the desert floor: conditional and superficial.

It was clear from the start that Grace was different. In her first written communication, submitted to the church before the couple’s planned arrival, she wrote of wanting to hold a retreat where members would share “dreams and visions for the future. It is a way to give ritual to a time of transition and therefore empowering such a time.” The Online Etymological Dictionary gives 1985 as the date of origin of “empower” thus making her one of the earlier adopters of the word.

Language was, in fact, the defining characteristic of Grace’s tenure. She had her own community discourse and she demonstrated iron resolve in instilling it in her parishioners. She was fluent in a new-age patois that introduced her new church to concepts like “energy flow,” “life-giving differences in personality,” “inward-outward journey,” “inner child,” and “co-dependence.” Together, Grace and Jan “charted inward journey routes” for parishioners, now called “co-creators” with the pastors acting as “facilitators.”

St. Timothy was at this point a very small church, but a tough one. The constant moving, the packing and unpacking, and the lack of the regular stability and familiarity that are the hallmark of most churches had already scattered the less-than-committed members; those who remained were not likely to wilt from the crotchets of an otherwise well-qualified cleric.

But that was before the revolution.

For me the honeymoon ended one fall Sunday morning as I held the door for Grace. “Don’t you hold the door for me!” she excoriated. “A woman can open the door just as well as a man.” No more would male parishioners patronize female parishioners with their 19th century displays of male chauvinism. From the pulpit, Grace began a program of gender substitution that left no room for the traditional Lutheran God who made man in His own image. Grace’s incense rose to the bosom of the mother God in heaven, in her name we pray.

Outside of the Bible, a text written entirely by men, there is no evidence that God has a gender assignment, and from that standpoint Grace was not wrong. But the Bible has an unyielding relevance for Christians and the good book’s version of divinity has God decidedly in the male camp. While rigid and inflexible, that is the system Grace chose as an ordained Lutheran pastor who graduated from a Lutheran seminary and her flock had a reasonable expectation that she would operate within those strictures. More and more seats became available for visitors on Sunday mornings; after a few months of this, there were hardly any men at all.

Grace was a true revolutionary, every bit as much as a Trotsky or a Che, who needed struggle like hell needs heat. Far from the laminations of Pastor Bartell who mourned each empty chair, Grace reveled in her purge. She was making steel, and everyone in her proximity burned in one way or another; the slag floated away but the ore remained, and when it cooled, as it always did, it became hard and strong. “The Gospel is like a two-edged sword,” she wrote. “It must cut deeply. We are together for something greater than ourselves and for losing our lives to have them given back to us.” She continued:

Lent has been a wilderness time at St. Timothy. Some of you have shared with me how hard this model of power sharing is and how vulnerable one feels as one walks in trust and faith waiting for revelation. I feel the same myself. Why take on the entire killing system of the world and create a community of peace? Why try to do the impossible? Because the Lenten sojourning with our angry, gentle Jesus calls us to love and heal this world.

By January 1988, the congregation had dwindled to just a shadow of its original self. There were only about ten or twelve regular parishioners still attending. The rare visitor would find a church consisting of the two pastors (a cream puff and his butch wife), a pair of lesbians, a few single divorcees, one elderly woman, a middle-aged married couple (my folks), a teenage boy with long hair (me), and, occasionally, a gay couple worshipping in a small, dingy strip office building in the armpit of Tampa. The pastor who usually preached referred to God only in the feminine sense and spoke in an opaque language that only parishioners and the most ardent devotee of the new age bookstore could understand.

And for what this avant-garde? The plan was revealed to the congregation in phases and increasingly through the lens of tribal spirituality. For Christmas week, 1987, Grace wrote of wanting to open a healing arts center where both learners and teachers would find “the mutual support needed to bring forth life instead of killing.” Part of this plan was to have a store that would sell items produced by the artists to help support the mission. She also wanted to sell items made by people in developing countries with the profits supporting other ministries, a Ten Thousand Villages for the church set. Next came the “naming of women’s spirituality ceremony,” followed by a vision quest and study of a book about Native American spirituality. Grace began taking the church on outings to what she believed were Indian burial mounds. There they burned incense and “named losses,” (safety, innocence, a home, comfort, invisibility), shared visions (masculine and feminine energies balanced, Ybor City artists co-op), and played on drums and a triangle. Two teenagers had hung around during one of these services and wrote the final blessing in the earth by Grace’s car: “You people are weird.”

The visions did not always take wing. A parishioner named Marie had shared the vision of the North South Healing Arts Center noted above, but consequently withdrew herself from participation and thus the mission group never progressed beyond naming. But others were spectacularly successful. Ruth House, a home for women leaving drug treatment to live with their children, formally came into being with a commissioning service with several members and an associate bishop in February 1988. The Ruth House mission group obtained grants from the synod and used donations from the church to rent and furnish a house in a decent neighborhood. MJ, one of the single women in the church, became the housemother. Up to six women stayed in rooms with their children; while the conditions were close, the environment was warm, safe, and non-judgmental.

The next summer, Naomi House was opened. Complimenting Ruth House, Naomi House was a place for recovery, the stepping-stone for entering Ruth House. Some residents shared Robert’s fate but others thrived. Naomi House resident Victoria got her GED and became the assistant manager of Ruth House after her first anniversary of sobriety. Gail was 28 when she entered Ruth House. She had four children who had all become wards of the state because of her alcoholism and neglect. The first time she went through rehab she went back to an alcoholic husband and relapsed. The second time she went to Naomi House. Soon she got back custody of two of her children, took nursing assistant training and found productive work in a nursing home. She later moved into her own apartment with all four of her children. In 1990, Ruth House was honored as one of President George H.W. Bush’s Thousand Points of Light, his recognition program for individuals and groups that were doing positive work in their communities.

The church was finally doing the work it was founded to do, but as St. Timothy moved ever closer to following its understanding of the teachings of Jesus, it moved further from the body of the Lutheran Church. Members of Grace, Faith, or even our old St. Paul Lutheran would not have recognized their own co-religionists under the mildewed drop ceiling on Kennedy Blvd. St. Timothy was blazing a new path in faith, but most people don’t go to church to transform themselves, to stop the killing, or to change the world. In a study cited in St. Timothy’s own newsletter, the five most common reasons for attending church were:

  1. because of what the pastor was like as a person;
  2. because members made me feel welcome;
  3. because it helps me in my attempt to lead a Christian life;
  4. because I like this church’s worship services; and
  5. because it was a place where my children can get a good religious education.

St. Timothy was good at welcoming people but less proficient on the others. On the last point, I was myself sent off to Grace Lutheran to attend confirmation classes. I had long since tired of Pastor Grace and most everything else about our odd little church, but my mother insisted that I be confirmed. My first act as an official member of the church was to quit. About a year later my father, a man who had once attended seminary and had never missed a day of church during my life, switched to playing racquetball on Sunday mornings. His last day at St. Timothy was marked by an imagining session where members considered what animal they most resembled. Dad chose a brontosaurus and when Grace asked him why, he replied simply: “I’m extinct.”

Hildegard von Bingen was a 12th century abbess, poet, composer, and mystic who spent years writing down the visions she received from God. She was the perfect symbol for a feminist church that prided itself on creativity and a free-form spirituality and it is remarkable that it took Grace until the summer of 1989 to introduce her to the church. She did so with the Order of St. Hildegard whose mission was to “share the wisdom of ‘creation spirituality’ with the church which has lost touch with the spiritual traditions and disciplines of early Christian mystics” such as Hildegard. Grace, the Scandinavian protestant minister who was trying to become an Indian, invited her photographic negative to the commissioning service, a Sioux Indian who was studying to be a Lutheran pastor. There was incense, fire, and water, and of course the “wispy sounds of the flute” as Grace was named abbess of the order.

The Order of St. Hildegard had only two members, or members-directors as they were called. One was “a craft-artist and trained re-birther,” the other was Grace, “pastor and spiritual guide.” By this point Jesus’ disciples outnumbered St. Timothy’s membership two-to-one. For years, St. Timothy had conducted itself like a more typical congregation: there was a choir even though its numbers often exceeded the rest of those in attendance; they held elections for leadership posts which usually amounted to a reshuffling of duties with some members holding multiple offices while other positions remained vacant. The pastors’ plan had always been to break the hierarchical model of pastor and congregation, hence the term co-creators. There was no longer a need for elections for regular posts, but the six women still in attendance took on increasingly consequential responsibilities as with caring for shattered families. Like a bicephalic monster, Grace alternately admonished her parishioners to find time for peace and calm and encouraged them to have new visions for ministry. This combination of tiny membership and pressure to do more yielded situations like that of Janet: a member of the Order of St. Hildegard, she declared herself wanting to become a member of the St. Hildegard mission group while continuing her two-year service as a member of the Ruth House mission group. She, earth, joined Cecile, water, and Grace, fire, through a commissioning ceremony.

A note in the newsletter about a visiting pastor from Minnesota gives insights into Grace’s awesome powers of persuasion. He attended a session with the Order of St. Hildegard and left us with a testimonial reminiscent of a Stalinist confession:

“This radical community doesn’t just taste; it embraces. It revives by calling to let go but into pain and grief and death. And it challenges me to step into chaos. . . You see, I am a male controller. I resist. I don’t want to give up, be naked, stand vulnerable, to travel inward and go down. . . Each time I was gently called to go down again to trust and obedience, to humility and gratitude, to Mother God.”

Grace was not herself a creative person, but she burned with a desire to release the creativity in those around her and she created opportunities for members to participate both in the spiritual and physical worlds. She liked to use the example of a study that found that 80% of 6-year-olds consider themselves creative while only 4% of 40-year-olds do. Where does it go? she wondered. The working artists/artisans continued to make beautiful pieces for the church (Janet’s lectern won 1st prize at the state fair) but those who were not professionals really came alive. They wrote poetry and essays, sang songs, and performed liturgical dances, my mother’s preferred form of expression.

Shirley was one of the lesbians in the group. That was problematic enough in the early nineties, but her situation was compounded by the public’s antipathy to gays working in public schools and she was in the highly visible role of a principal. It is easy to imagine the catharsis she found in writing by the lines of this poem about lent:

I want to be alone.

People mainly bother me,

Getting in the way of this sad time for me.

 

I don’t want to explain myself.

I don’t want to fight.

I want to go slowly.

I want to be still.

I welcome nights with no demands.

I celebrate empty boxes on my calendar.

 

It feels like I am a bulb with my mother, the earth, warming me all around.

In order to bud I need darkness.

I need a cold time.

And when enough days have passed, I will sprout into the sun.

Both Shirley and my mother said that the period at St. Timothy was the most creative of their lives but the wellspring came at a price. “[Creativity] was what they wanted and they celebrated your ability to write a poem, or dance, or make an altar hanging. Grace couldn’t do that, but she could create systems, a new order of thinking to give birth to ideas,” my mother remembers. “But she also has a very controlling part to her personality. She couldn’t keep women friends. People would come to the church and get excited, and then they would disappear.” Along with the other demands and stresses of this peculiar church Grace began holding interventions to “help” parishioners identify and treat destructive behaviors.

One of these “shreddings,” as mom called them, sent Cecile, the wonderful metal worker, packing while another repelled new recruit Silla. During one outing to the Indian mounds, Grace offered this curious comfort to a man who had recently joined the church with his family, accusing him of alcoholism. None of the other members knew he had a problem, if there even was one, but virtuous, intractable Grace had it in mind that he did and the gentleman left the meeting furious. It is impossible to know if the intervention was the trigger, but that week he left his wife and child, quit his job at, of all the places, Lutheran Ministries of Florida, and disappeared. Like Robert’s scars, Grace left a path of healing and destruction wherever she went.

It is not often that people express fealty to a church in terms of “staying until the bitter end,” but that was my mother’s intention. The end was hastened by yet another mission group, this one called Hope’s Child. It was Betsy’s vision and MJ (the Ruth House manager) and my mom joined her. The goal was to give foster children a permanent home that would at least see them through high school and into a nominal adulthood. Betsy would live in the house and my mom and MJ would come a few nights per week to give Betsy a break.

Hope’s Child was, like everything at St. Timothy, formed with the best of intentions, and since they were paving the path to hell, fate sent them hellions. Betsy, a small, unimposing woman, and her young son lived with three very tough boys and a girl. These were society’s least wanted children whose lives were chains of abuse and broken promises. They had every reason to see another opportunity for disappointment and they made life very difficult for their wards, all of whom worked full-time and had many other obligations.

At about the same time, Grace and Jan secured a new residence for themselves that would serve as a retreat center. It was a Spanish-style house that was given the lofty title “The Monastery of the Desert Wind.” Grace, first abbess and now monk, lived upstairs with Jan. Each parishioner was supposed to spend at least one night there in relaxation although the real targets were other Lutheran ministers in the Tampa Bay area. But word had long since gotten out about the strange antics of the pastors at St. Timothy and there was never any interest from other pastors.

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The cover of the St. Timothy newsletter announcing the Monastery of the Desert Wind.

Shortly after the monastery opened, Betsy moved in. My mother recalled that one day Betsy simply announced that Hope’s Child was over, the house was abandoned, and the kids sent back to foster homes. “It seemed so wrong to have abandoned those kids like that, but we were so tired and that is what things were like then. There were these great ideas and then they just ended.”

It was in the middle of 1990 that my mother too parted ways with St. Timothy. She has regretted ever since that she did not stay “until the bitter end,” but I think she is being too hard on herself. She endured much at St. Timothy and accomplished even more. It was not for weakness that she left. The demise of Hope’s Child and the fate of those children weighed heavily on her but did not cause her to go either. It was not because of Grace’s abusive behavior nor all the moving, nor the lack of a regular church life, nor even as a result of Grace unceremoniously removing my mother from her role as editor and producer of the newsletter, a duty she had performed from the very first day. She left for the most Lutheran of reasons.

Martin Luther taught of the primacy of scripture. Grace tried to reconcile her tribal spirituality with her nominal faith. She asked and answered the question herself when she wrote, “Is studying something like [a book on Native American spirituality] a Lutheran thing to do? The Lutheran way is to study, learn, and grow in understanding of God’s work with his people on this earth.” My mother ultimately decided that none of Grace’s tribal spirituality was ever mentioned in the bible, and so visions and Indian mounds were not part of a Lutheran life. She left the body of St. Timothy but continued her tithe to the end of the year. She stayed until her own end, and it was certainly bitter.

As with the call from her beloved Mrs. Kerry that marked the beginning of this great and terrible human endeavor, St. Timothy officially ended for my mom on the telephone. Grace called and left a message on the answering machine saying simply that the synod had pulled its funding and St. Timothy was dead. It is little consolation to have lived through what can only be described as the physical embodiment of a metaphor, especially when the experience was that of a church, and the metaphor the road to hell. But later on reflection, Janet was able to find a bit of perspective; she had never mentioned it before but those Indian mounds, where they danced and sang and from which Grace took so much spiritual strength, were middens. St. Timothy had howled at the moon from atop ancient piles of Indian garbage.

 

If you enjoyed this essay please forward it to a friend and share on Facebook.  If you want to keep reading please try my novels:

Departure Day

The Wandering: Departure Day Book II

Ciphers: Departure Day Book III

Eisodus: Departure Day Book IV

Smoke

2 thoughts on “The Worst Good Church

  1. WOW! I am impressed. Historically accurate, well written in an entertaining form (although I was not able to locate a definition for “crotchets” in any of my dictionary sources), it made for good reading throughout. Well done, thou good and faithful servant.

    Like

    • I’m glad you liked it! Crotchets as in “crotchety.” I looked it up somewhere but could not say where off the top of my head. Thank you for reading and please share with friends, especially on Facebook if you don’t mind!

      Like

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