So my mom’s church just got blown up by a sex scandal. It’s really a story of blatant lies and undeserved faith, but “Sex Scandal” has a better ring to it. Especially in our sex-negative culture.
Before we get to the scandal, some background.
I grew up in Erie, Pennsylvania, attending Second Baptist Church in the 1980s. My parents were super into it. They were in various choirs, attended weekday “prayer meetings” and made my younger brother and I memorize Bible passages for special programs at Easter and Christmas. The whole bit.
I can even remember the chorus to the Vacation Bible School song by heart…
Vacation Bible School is here now.
We’re just as happy as can be.
We’ll work and play — Yes!
We’ll sing and pray — Yes!
At Vacation Bible School.
That’s still in my head. I’m 49-years-old.
Almost every weekend, Sunday School started at 9 and regular church service followed at 11. For the half-hour in between, Mr. Donut donuts and coffee were served. Most Sundays, we wouldn’t get home from church until 1:30 or 2 p.m. Good times.
When I left for college in Pittsburgh, I stopped going to church. I’ve returned in spurts throughout my adult life. I particularly enjoyed an Episcopalian church my ex-wife and I briefly attended. However, religion is not currently a part of my life. I’m often conflicted about it.
In the early nineties, there was some minor trouble I never bothered to understand at Second Baptist, but my parents didn’t let the empty nest change their church habits. They simply left and found other churches — separate churches. Weird, right? There was no shortage of Black churches in tiny Erie. Some were Baptist, while others were A.M.E., or African Methodist Episcopal. All were 99 percent Black. NFL aside, it has been said that Sunday is the most segregated day of the week — just as Jesus would’ve wanted it. In any case, both of my parents remained pretty involved in their respective churches.
When they retired, left Pennsylvania and moved to Arizona, they attended and became active in the same church again for the first time in years.
WWJ have D?
Expecting our first child, my then-girlfriend (now wife of 15 years) and I moved to the desert several years after my parents. Our infant daughter was born with a congenital heart defect and we lost her at just 2 months.
We didn’t have a church and my parents’ new church — a megachurch with stadium seating and Jumbotrons — declined to host the service for our daughter. Carrie and I shrugged and found an alternative through some amazing people at her workplace.
Just to be clear, while my parents’ megachurch dismissively shrugged at members who had just lost their first and only grandchild, complete strangers were kind to us during that most awful time. We fell in love with those strangers and their church, became members and attended Shepherd of Grace until the pastor there retired and the church dissolved a short time later. A member there even helped me land the job I’ve held since 2005!
My mom was disgusted by the inhumanity of her own church and never set foot in the place again. I thought the whole thing was kind of shitty, but concede that Carrie and I weren’t members. Could we have expected their help? WWJ have D?
My dad is still a member of Megachurch, Inc. today.
While Carrie and I were devastated by the loss of Corinne, my mom felt it just as hard. Corinne was the first grandbaby on both sides of the family and my mom was absolutely crushed. Those were some dark days.
Shaken by the loss of our angel and repulsed by the callousness of the big church to which she tithed, mom attended no church for the next 14 years, before discovering a scrappy congregation which met in a school cafeteria. Armed with a Master of Divinity degree and effortless style, the pastor of Tiny Church was charming and its 50 or so members welcoming.
She talked excitedly of her many new friends, joined a seniors group and had a church home for the first time in a decade-plus. My dad even attended with her on some Sundays, as Tiny Church was more than twice as close to their West Valley home.
My wife and 15-year-old son joined my parents in the always chilly school cafeteria a few times. The services were… Alright. The music was bad, but the pastor was a natural. An Oakland boy with a friendly smile and an admirable beard, the people loved this guy. In my half dozen or so appearances, I never had a hint that anything was wrong.
The only reason I didn’t join Tiny Church is that I’m super-conflicted about religion in general. I only went to appease my parents’ bullying that we expose the boy to The Church. In these hyper-partisan times, I think of the evangelicals who lined up behind a thrice-married white supremacist who made secret payments to strippers and porn stars just because he’s on “their team.” I think of the religious leaders who still support a guy who didn’t have the moral gumption to denounce literal Nazis who were marching in the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia. Yeah, Nazis are a thing again. So that’s where the conflict lies for me.
Even though I have friends I consider a brother and a sister who are very devout in their faith, I’m not sold. On an intellectual level, I know church folk come in all flavors, but on an emotional level I feel those people aren’t on my team. When it comes to religion, I’m not sure what I believe anymore.
My mom was happy though. And I was happy for her. The Lord and her church are important to her. Then last week, a bomb dropped.
THE PASTOR AND THE SECRETARY
There had apparently been whispers among the cognoscenti, but the whispers became roars as it was learned the beloved pastor — married with three kids — was having an extramarital affair with the also married with three kids church secretary.
To make matters worse, this secretary and her husband had been seeing the pastor for marital counseling. For the secretary’s husband, they were there in a last-ditch effort to save a crumbling marriage. For the handsome pastor and the pretty young secretary fond of tattoos and sundresses, the sessions were more like early dates.
A mental health professional or doctor would lose his license for such an ethical breach, no?
The pastor and the secretary, who is at least ten years his junior, even went on a church-sponsored mission trip to Japan together. They came back with a literal slide show of all the Japanese Christians they had fellowship with. An entire Sunday service was dedicated to explaining the importance of missionary work and how successful this trans-Pacific reach had been. That Sunday just happened to be one of the handful where I attended.
While outreach was the company line for why the trip occured, it was the pastor and the secretary’s “couple on vacation” behavior while on it that did them in. Other church members were present during their brazen adventure. A parishioner reported the secretary had her legs draped over the pastor as they snuggled on the plane, her head on his shoulder. The proselyte told fellow believers the secretary was putting food into the pastor’s mouth as they giggled like newlyweds returning from a honeymoon.
The church’s out of state financial backers got wind, fired the pastor and the secretary, then cut funding to the whole enterprise. Just like that, the church was no more. With little warning, it all crashed in a little more than one week.
The pastor and the secretary denied the allegations, while also filing for divorces from their respective spouses within just three weeks of one another. Still insisting he did nothing wrong, the pastor began to blame others at the church for “spreading gossip.” In other words, FAKE NEWS!
My mom is devastated. She feels let down by a spiritual leader she cherished. It hurt me when my dad confided she had been crying and depressed for days. No-one likes to think of their mother that sad.
Most disturbing to me, she initially refused to believe the stack of evidence — a lot of it circumstantial, but this isn’t a court of law — until after a face-to-face meeting with the pastor. Many of the seniors who attend were likewise ready to chalk it up to “rumor” and look the other way, continuing to put their time and money and faith in a man who did a very human thing, then lied about it.
She was even unconvinced after a reality TV-style dustup last Sunday during church services, when the guy tried to shoot the messenger instead of resigning, as he had apparently promised to do during a meeting with his board the Friday before. A longtime follower stood up as the pastor spoke and shouted “He’s lying!” iPhone cameras came out as the confrontation grew heated and spilled into the parking lot.
I asked mom just why she felt she needed a one-on-one meeting with the pastor. She told me she wanted to see whether he would lie to her face. She says she asked him whether he was having an affair. She says she asked him whether he was getting a divorce. She says she scolded him for letting a lot of people down and hurting his three boys. I told mom none of that was really any of her business.
Having an affair is something people do. It’s not right. I think people who have affairs know it, but the excitement of an illicit relationship — or just an illicit encounter — appeals to the animal brain in a way reason sometimes can’t. What makes the pastor’s all too common failing bigger, of course, is his position of leadership.
Just like a police officer or a school teacher or a judge are held to a higher standard when it comes to thievery or drug use, a person who stands in front of dozens every Sunday and tells them how to get closer to God should probably keep his dick in his pants. Bedding someone you were supposed to be providing marital counseling to makes it worse.
While it’d be easy and self-righteous to do so, I don’t fault or judge the pastor for having an affair. No-one knows what’s going on in someone else’s marriage. Despite the six damaged kids (SIX!), that’s none of my mom’s business. She can, however, stop supporting a charlatan. She can stop giving her time and her attention to a man who clearly doesn’t deserve it.
She and my dad both said something surprisingly thoughtful when this all started; “You worship the Lord, not the man.” People put their faith in other people when the focus should be on what brought them to church in the first place. You can admire a church leader, but when you put them on a pedestal, you’re setting yourself up for a letdown.
People my age will never forget another charlatan, Jimmy Swaggart, crying “I have sinned!”
I’m weirded out and bummed at how easily older people can be taken advantage of. All of my mom’s friends were ready to cast aside what they had learned. A person doing shady shit can cry “Fake news” and that works. Apparently not only in politics.
Seeing all this firsthand was unsettling.
I hope mom can find a new church, as going without one for another decade-plus is no longer an option at her age. Perhaps the 50 or so people from Tiny Church can regroup and find new leadership and stay together. That would be the best outcome. It was just two people who fucked up. The group shouldn’t have to disperse and have something important ripped from their lives because of the actions of only two.
This whole ordeal does nothing for my desire (or lack of desire) to get back into that world. In closing though, aren’t I doing the same thing my mom did? Aren’t I putting (the collective) man on a pedestal by letting the actions of hypocrites sour me on the entire concept of faith? Maybe.
That is something I’ll have to figure out someday.
Epilogue: As of last weekend (6 weeks after the events described), my mother is back at what remains of Tiny Church. A dozen or so people (without common sense or self respect?) still meet weekly in the school cafeteria. Instead of a full-blown church service, they now sit in a circle and have Biblical discussions. The pastor leads these discussions. The secretary is also present. The pastor’s wife and family is not; neither are the secretary’s.