Monday, February 17, 2014

When the Right Thing Means Everything

Like everyone else, I am outraged and disgusted by what has been going on at Bob Jones University. Because of BJU’s history of extreme fundamentalism and blatant racism, I’ve had issues with this so-called school long before now. But this time, I had to write.

If you are wise and usually avoid all headlines referring to BJU, let me summarize the latest news so you will know what I’m talking about. Like many institutions of higher education, BJU has an on-campus counseling center. Last year, it came to light that some students who had sought counseling there for sexual abuse that had occurred earlier in their lives were told not to report the abuse. Doing so would, if the abuser had been from a fundamentalist Christian community, harm the body of Christ, the students were told. For instance, if a young woman reported being raped by a pastor at her home congregation, exposing him would damage the cause of Christ. So it would be best to keep quiet and let him get away with it protect the body of Christ.

Christ, who stood for truth and love. Christ, whose churches are supposed to be, among other things, refuges for the lost and hurting.

Anyway, BJU initially appeared to do the right thing. They brought in Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (or Grace), a Christian consulting group that empowers Christian communities, through education and training, to recognize and respond to the sin of child abuse. The investigation was to take about a year. But last week, BJU acknowledged that just before Grace was to have concluded its investigation, BJU fired the consulting group. Stephen Jones, current BJU president and great-grandson of the school’s founder and namesake, eventually explained that “…Grace had begun going beyond the originally outlined intentions.” He has not elaborated. Meanwhile, people are outraged, and rightly so.

In eighth grade, I was attending a conservative Christian school in the South. It was not a fundamentalist school like BJU, but there were rules that our public-school friends thought were ridiculous. We couldn’t have dances. Cheerleaders had to pay extra to have their skirts made longer than they way they came from the uniform company. All school employees had to be members of the denomination with which our school was associated. We had daily chapel that was mandatory. We could not worship with musical instruments during chapel. We had a strict dress code. Girls who became pregnant had to leave. (This particular rule had an unfortunate by-product. When any girl abruptly transferred to another school, rumors spread that she was pregnant—whether she was or not.)

During the spring of my eighth-grade year, a boy who was older than me began showing me extra attention. I liked it at first, because I was suffering from that typical middle-school awkwardness and was not used to attention like that from a guy. I was 13, and when he went out of his way to talk to me, it made me feel good. Attractive, even.

One night during a function away from school, he got me alone. He wanted to touch me in ways I knew he was not supposed to. He said everyone at school was saying that my best friend and I were lesbians. If I did what he wanted, I would prove the rumors were false, he said. He was older and more popular than I was. So I believed him. And it happened more than once. I knew it wasn’t right, but as is typical, I thought it was my fault.

Eventually, I told my two closest friends. We ended up writing a series of notes about it to each other. (That’s how teens communicated in school before texting.) Someone found one of the notes, read it, and had the wisdom to take it to my parents. The boy’s dad was in a position of leadership at our school. My parents met with him and told him what they had learned. He and his wife were mortified, assured my parents it would never happen again, and made the boy apologize to me. It was a forced apology, and he was seething as he spit the words out, but I took it. I had realized he had never found me attractive, and I was feeling more horrible about myself than ever. The whole thing had been hurtful and confusing, and I just wanted it to be over. A year or so later, the boy and his family moved away.

Should more have happened? Should he have been kicked off the sports teams he was on? Suspended from school? I don’t know. What he did to me would have been impossible to prove. But what did happen was that truth came to light. There was confrontation. There was acknowledgement that what the boy did was wrong. There was an apology.

And all of these things were right and should have happened.

You can have a conservative Christian school with uptight rules. And that conservative Christian school can respond appropriately to allegations of sexual abuse. If an institution is truly seeking to follow Christ, doing the right thing will be the only option.

Bob Jones University is completely indefensible. The school’s leaders have no excuse. If BJU wants to show that Christ is truly its focus, its leaders will respond to this tragic situation in a Christ-like way, the way my own school did.

Responding in truth and humility is BJU’s only option. If the school’s leaders fail at this, BJU can remain open and function as a college. But they need to remove all references of Christ and Christianity from the school’s identity. Because the way they have gone and are going is not the way of Christ.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Honest to God: An Accidental Minister's Wife

Like me, my mother didn’t know she was marrying a future minister. When she married my dad, he had an accounting degree and worked in banking. There’s a photo of them at a charity event in the mid-’60s. My dad is in a tux and my mom is wearing an evening gown. Her hair is up in a fashionable '60s style and her smile reveals a row of perfect teeth. Both my parents look like movie stars. To me, this photo is a glimpse into a life that I never knew—before my dad went into the ministry and my parents’ social standing took a significant hit. I never knew if my mother resented trading in those society evenings for teaching the toddlers’ Bible class in the church nursery and hosting all those church bridal and baby showers. As I remember, she adapted to the role of minister’s wife well. Everywhere we lived, she made friends with church women, and she gladly hosted youth group gatherings at our house. If she ever felt that her individuality was being stifled or that she couldn’t be genuine with people because of my dad’s job, she never showed it.

During the early years of my childhood, Mom was a homemaker who sewed and organized playgroups with the other young mothers at church. But years later, I would learn about the enormous pressure she sometimes encountered. At my dad’s second church, he was the associate minister. This was an ambiguous title that, in this case, meant he did everything but preach. Visiting the sick, organizing the youth group program, coordinating Bible classes from infant through adult—all of this and more fell on his shoulders. My brother and I were eight and four, and my mother was at home with us every day and most evenings. When their marriage began to suffer under the strain, she realized she had no one to confide in. Her closest friends were church members, and what if they knew the associate minister and his wife were having marriage problems? After all, their children were in the Sunday school classes he was coordinating and teaching. So when my dad came home at night, my mom would put my brother and me to bed, get in the car, and drive the streets of our neighborhood, silent tears streaming down her face. Eventually she would come home, and get up the next morning to start another day. We stayed at that church only two years. When we moved away, I thought we were off on another adventure. But now I know my parents were trying to escape an incredibly stressful situation with their sanity and marriage intact.

By the time we moved to my dad’s fourth church, Mom seemed to get restless. She began working as a substitute in the public schools, and after we moved to the next town, she went back to school to finish her bachelor’s degree in education—just as I was beginning fourth grade. I noticed something that unnerved me at the time. For the first time, my mom was enthusiastic about something that didn’t have to do with home or church. She loved school. She came home from class and spoke endlessly about projects, professors, and her career options for the future. At her graduation, she was presented with the Dean’s Award for her academic achievement.

Mom taught first grade for several years before getting her master’s degree. As I was entering college, she became an elementary-school principal. At the time, I thought she had simply done what a lot of women had begun doing in the ’70s by pursuing her own academic and professional interests. But she was also following a trend that had been predicted by Shirley Foster Hartley in the Review of Religious Research in 1978. Hartley had conducted a study in which 448 clergy wives from six mainstream Protestant denominations were asked 138 questions regarding their satisfaction with being married to pastors (Hartley 178). The study found that the wives’ satisfaction levels increased with higher education levels and employment. As for the idea that clergy wives should strive to be nothing more than model homemakers, Hartley found clergy wives moving toward fulfillment outside the home.
Overall satisfaction tends to… decrease with the average hours of housework reported by these respondents. The myth of the joys of homemaking is exploded even for (or especially for) those who might be expected to be most fulfilled in those tasks (Hartley 186).
As the study found more satisfaction in pastors’ wives who embraced their own individuality rather than finding identity in their husbands’ ministerial roles, Hartley predicted that clergy wives would continue to gradually shift away from the roles traditionally expected of them.

Greater variety in acting out the role of ‘minister’s wife is to be expected in the future. Not one stereotypical pattern, but many possibilities within the general role are anticipated… As clergy wives have been in a most extreme, stereotypical, traditional, wifely role in American society, they can be expected to move only slowly into the more individualistic roles (Hartley 189).

Years before this article was published, my grandmother—the proud preacher’s wife—had done her part to break the mold of the stereotypical ministers’ spouse. Having never found much fulfillment in homemaking, Annie operated a private kindergarten in her home and worked as a newspaper columnist. She volunteered for the Red Cross at the local hospital’s emergency room, where she picked up a thorough knowledge of first aid. The house she shared with my grandfather sat at an intersection where car accidents were frequent, and the sound of screeching tires and crunching metal would send her into action. It was typical for my grandfather to step out of his home office into the living room to find the couches and chairs occupied by bleeding accident victims who, while waiting for the ambulance to arrive, had been bandaged up by my grandmother. Annie was busy with church life, too, but something led her to create a life and identity outside of church. By the late ’70s, the ship of clergy wives’ changing roles was beginning to set sail, and my mother had jumped on board by going back to college, finishing her degree, and starting a career. In creating a life for herself outside of church and my dad’s job, she carved out her own individuality. I didn’t think much about it back then. But my grandmother’s and my mother’s examples would one day help guide me away from an unseen monster of my own.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Honest to God: Sister Hamby

When you are the youngest of your grandparent’s grandchildren, and the only one of them to have reproduced, you can count on at least one thing. One day, several boxes will arrive at your house. Boxes of stuff. Stuff that your cousins believe should be passed down to future generations of the family. Two weeks before Christmas in 2012, this happened to me. I thought my cousin had gone overboard on Christmas presents for my family until I opened the boxes. And there it all was. Photos and letters and yearbooks from my grandmother’s side of the family. There seems to be a genetic tendency in my family to attach emotional value to inanimate objects, and these boxes were filled with supporting evidence. There was even a yellow wire hanger with a note from my cousin attached: “Meemaw took this with her to college in the 1920s, and I took it to college with me in the ’70s. I wish you could have taken it to college with you so the tradition could have been continued.”

A wire hanger. I’ll never know if my grandmother intended for this object to become a cherished family heirloom when she hung it in her dorm room closet in 1925.

Annie Bryan Whittington Hamby, my grandmother, died in 1996. I knew her as a physically-frail, but mentally-sharp, white-haired wisp of a woman. She weighed 88 pounds the year she turned 88, which made her the only person I ever knew to weigh her age. After my grandfather died, Meemaw spent her last years in a retirement center, where she made a host of friends and even had a couple of boyfriends. The Old Testament speaks of the woman who “… laughs at the days to come” (Proverbs 31:25), and that was my Meemaw. A sweet, devout Christian woman who wore white every day to honor my late grandfather, who had loved that color on her, she also had a wicked sense of humor. My dad and I took her out to lunch one day, and, when she tried to tell us about something funny that had happened at the retirement center, she dissolved into a fit of giggles that rendered her teary-eyed and breathless as my dad and I stared at her from across the table—unsure if we should join in laughter or administer CPR.

In the spring of 1996, Meemaw went into the hospital with complications from congestive heart failure, which she had fought for years. She nearly died during that stay, and when hospital personnel ignored her DNR and revived her, she was mad. She had been blessed with a good life and, like my Peepaw, she was ready to go. That August, she returned to the hospital. As she began to slip away again, my aunt called out to her, but Meemaw would not let anyone stop her from dying again. This sweet, funny, and determined Christian woman opened her eyes, said, “You talk too much,” and was gone.

As I lifted large brown envelopes out of the boxes and slid their contents onto the floor in front of me, I didn’t see my Meemaw. I saw Annie, a young, optimistic woman—one for whom becoming a grandmother was a lifetime away. In these photos, Annie and her three sisters are children growing up on their farm in Glenmora, Louisiana. Then they are teenagers who wore the shorter dresses and bobbed hairstyles of the ’20s. Annie’s smile shines through the grainy quality of the aged photos. She had been the first young woman in their rural Louisiana town to cut her hair short, a decision that prompted the family’s preacher to visit her parents out of concern for her soul. Her sharp eyes and knowing smile reveal that, while she did all the “right” things, like going to college and marrying a good Christian man, she didn’t mind shocking people now and then. Her college photos are my favorites. At Louisiana State Normal School (now Northwestern State University of Louisiana) in Natchitoches, Louisiana, Annie edited the campus newspaper and seemed to have a myriad of friends. Her father died during this time, and one of her yearbooks is full of notes of sympathy from her classmates. I knew her father had been an alcoholic, and that his death may have been related to this, but there was no mention of his drinking problem in the contents of these boxes. During these years, her eyes were bright, her hair was short, and her smile was daring and genuine. Within the next several years, she would become the wife of an accountant/preacher and the mother of two just as the Great Depression strengthened its chokehold on the economy. But in the late ’20s, her future was a crisp, blank page.

I think Meemaw was proud to be a preacher’s wife. After she and my grandfather settled at South Park Church of Christ in Beaumont, she was known to everyone as “Sister Hamby.” Traditionally, preachers’ wives are expected to be fabulous cooks, but this was not Meemaw. She had suffered from a number of illnesses as a child and was kept out of the kitchen so she could rest while her sisters did the work. So she never really learned to cook, and she did buck the minister’s wife stereotype in that way. But with her high moral standards and careful attention to her family’s image, she clung to it in other ways. Meemaw believed the families of church leaders should set examples for parishioners’ families.

This was a common school of thought in mid-20th Century church culture, and not just in the Church of Christ. As the nation thrived in post-war prosperity, pastors’ wives were upheld as ideal wives, mothers, and supporters of their husbands. In 1946, San Francisco Theological Seminary hosted a Presbyterian ministers’ wives’ conference that concluded:
… a foremost qualification of a minister’s wife is that she should preside over a well-ordered attractive home. Furthermore, she should be a woman who takes the time, forethought, and care necessary to insure good health for her husband, her children, and herself (Boyd and Brackenridge 83).

While I’m relieved—and somewhat surprised—that this edict includes the admonition for the pastor’s wife to take care of herself, the rest of it is troubling. It’s natural for wives and mothers to take care of their families, so I’m not sure why this had to be spelled out for ministers’ wives by a convention. And the “well-ordered attractive home” was not limited to the minister’s wife’s physical dwelling. Implied here is the idea that her family and life should be well-ordered, clutter-free, and—what no one had to say aloud—perfect.

People seem to find security in these stereotypes, so they have staying power. In the 1970s and ’80s, the ministers’ wives I knew outside my family during my childhood still seemed to fit these expectations. There was Sister Stevens, who always appeared at church with everything in order—from her hair to what her four children wore. At another church, there was Sister Tyson, who doted on her pretty teenage daughter and opened her immaculate home for youth group events. Another church was led by a preacher whose wife, Sister Cauley, was a sweet, loving soul who would let me sit on a barstool in her kitchen while she shared sunflower seeds, her favorite snack, with me. I never saw her without a smile. But looking back, I know now that these women’s families and marriages were far from perfect. Sister Stevens’ husband was controlling and insisted his wife have dinner on the table by a certain time every day. Sister Tyson’s husband had remained in his pastoral role past retirement age, and the church members were getting frustrated with his refusal to step down—criticism that had to have reached her ears. And Sister Cauley’s husband shocked everyone when, after 30 years of marriage, he left her for his secretary.

As for Meemaw, I know her life wasn’t perfect, either. There was tension and pressure and arguments—just as there are in every family. I guess I’ll never know how she coped with the pressure. Even if she were still alive, I doubt I would have the nerve to ask her.

The last time I spoke to my grandmother, she was in the hospital and nearing the end of her life. I pulled a chair up next to her bed and took her hand in mine.

“Meemaw,” I told her. “Chad has decided to become a minister.”

She managed a weak, but classic, Annie smile. She was proud.