The family business

[You can hear me tell this story live at The Moth here.]

In my family, we have this long-standing tradition of being staunch United Methodists. It’s almost as if it’s encoded in our DNA. We don’t just worship in the church; many of the men were or are ministers. My grandfather, my great uncle, my dad…You could say it’s the family business.

So, my poor dad didn’t have any sons. But, he was blessed with this extremely gregarious child – me – who never knew a stranger (as a child that is). I was known to actually crawl into the stroller with other babies to play in the store while my mom was shopping.

At some point, I started to notice that my dad would get this very particular kind of look on his face when I would do certain things, which over time I realized was the look of “aha ~ so, maybe she’s not a boychild, but she could still be the next in line.”

The first time it happened, I was about 4 years old and we were living in rural Tennessee. There was a podium in our carport that my dad used to practice his sermons sometimes. He had a speech impediment in childhood that he had overcome as a preacher, but he still had to practice, and he particularly had to go over passages from the Bible.

One day, my dad walked out of the house onto the carport to find me, standing on a stack of crates and that I’d made for myself behind the podium – I was marrying the car to the truck. The car was a 1977 Grenada, and it was the girl, and the truck was a 1979 Toyota. It was, of course, the boy. I wasn’t worldly enough at the time to appreciate the fact that I was sponsoring an international, mixed race marriage.

Sometimes in the Methodist church, there are these instances where there’s not enough ministers to go around or the churches are too small to have a full-time minister, and so several times, we would be in these situations where dad was serving more than one church at a time. He would preach at once church while the other was having Sunday School, and then he would drive to the other place and the schedule would flip. One time he served three churches at one time and I’m not quite sure exactly how that worked, but this time it was just two.

So, on this one day, something had happened, and my dad had gotten delayed at the one church and we were all waiting at the other for worship to begin. In Sunday School that day, we had learned about Zaccheus, and had drawn a picture of him sitting up in the sycamore tree, and so I went up into front of church and held up my picture for everyone to buy my dad some time because I was afraid that he’d be in trouble for being late. I told everyone the story of Zaccheus and I sang them the song when he still hadn’t arrived, I started making up new verses, and I got everyone to join in, until finally Dad walked in the back door. The moment he walked in, I just stopped exactly where I was and sang, “Amen.”

Of course, there were other incidents that gave evidence to the contrary of any sort of future “calling.” For instance, on Children and Youth Sunday, while being tasked with being an usher, I spilled the entire collection plate right under the pews. And of course, this was back in the day when many more people donated with coins, so that was a bit of a mess to clean up. I also have a very hard time keeping a secret. Unfortunately, my dad learned this problem because he confided a few things in me he maybe shouldn’t have over time. And, well, I just had a very hard time being the guardian of such powerful kernels of truth. It was too much pressure. I might even be the reason we moved once…

Nonetheless, as time progressed, my dad began to talk to me more seriously about going into the ministry. And, I did think about it seriously on occasion. But I couldn’t reconcile a few things about the whole idea. For one thing, I was already unlucky enough in the romantic department, and I was certain that becoming a lady pastor would just seal the deal on my being single for the rest of my life. For another, I’m a pretty sensitive person, and I had seen what it had done over time to my dad – having to move from place to place at the whim of committees and district superintendants and bishops. I couldn’t imagine being answerable to that many people all the time and having my job satisfaction on the line like that.

I mean, it all came down to politics, really. Those kinds of politics, and the other kind of politics.

See, thinking that he was well on his way to molding me into the next generation, my dad sent me off to a good Methodist college, same one he went to. I’m sure he thought that this would be all it would take. I’d be so inspired in those hallowed halls, under the oil painting of Bishop Emory and the smell of old books. I’d take a little Greek, a little Liberation Theology as an elective, and whammo, she’ll be off to seminary in four years or less!

What dear old dad wasn’t counting on was that in the 25 years since he went there, his Methodist school had scandalously embraced the liberal in “liberal arts” college. I did take all those things that he was hoping I would take, but I also took World Literature and theatre classes and Women’s Studies, and oh boy was that a problem! I came home for my first Thanksgiving and announced to everyone that I thought that it was completely unfair that the women should slave for days on end to prepare this wonderful meal and then the men just got to sit around and watch football and do nothing. I proposed that from now on, the men should have to clean up the dishes after the meal. Complete silence. Everyone looked at my dad like – so are you going to ask for the tuition back, or shall I?

Unfortunately, the answer to that problem was that they started using Chinette plates instead of fine china, so then they just crawled all over my sensibilities as a budding environmentalist, instead of as a feminist.

Anyway, like I said, by the time I graduated from college, I was this big, flaming liberal. But, my dad, he still hadn’t quite given up. He was even having me come and be his substitute preacher when he needed to go on vacation. I mean, the pressure was mounting. Emails were flying back and forth all the time. So, finally one day, we sat down to talk about it, and I said, “Look, Dad, it comes down to this. I can’t become a preacher in the United Methodist church because I just wouldn’t last very long.”

“Why not?” he asked.

I just looked at him and said, “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to celebrate the marriage of Marcus and Matthew.”

The conversations seemed to subside after that.

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