Courage at Twilight: “I Hate the Church”

For over a century, my Church has preached a ministering program called “home teaching,” where Church members, two by two, visit with assigned families to make sure their temporal and spiritual needs were being addressed. At the awkward age of 14, I was Dad’s home teaching companion, and he was the “bishop” or unpaid lay minister of our large congregation—he knew all the Church members and their many problems and hardships.  He saw on the records the name of a young woman he did not know, and assigned himself to be her home teacher, always taking me along, once a month, without fail.  We visited her for the first time on a Sunday afternoon in summer.  The setting: an ancient white clapboard house with peeling paint and sagging porch, in the shade of enormous thorned honey locust trees.  At the backyard volleyball net played shirtless young men with long hair and mustaches.  Guitar strumming floated out from within the communal house, and the old screen door slammed on its spring as young men and women came and went and joined in the game.  The young woman we had come to meet—I will call her Jane—was not happy to see us.  A student at Rutgers in the 1970s, she stood inside the screen door and scowled at us.  “I hate the Church,” she spat.  Dad followed an impression, and asked her to “Tell me one thing you hate about the Church.”  She muttered a particular resentment, and Dad replied, “I can see why that would bother you.  It would bother me.  But that is not the doctrine of our Church, and is not the practice of our Church.”  Dad asked Jane where she had learned that particular untruth—“My father,” she hissed, and Dad told her with kind candor that her father was wrong.  “We’ll see you next month, and you can tell us what else you hate about our Church,” he promised.  That next month, always on a Sunday afternoon, Jane spoke her loathing for another doctrine, and Dad responded, “I can see why you hate that, but that is not the doctrine of our Church,” and he explained the real doctrine.  The shirtless pony-tailed men and tie died braless women sat on blankets eating watermelon and smoking and staring at us, and I was an awkward 14-year-old boy with his father talking about religion to a woman who was not remotely interested in religion and wanted us to leave.  Every month we went to see Jane, never staying long, and every month Dad asked her the same question, listened to her venom, and informed her truthfully that her hatred was reasonable, but that the doctrine or practice she hated was neither the doctrine nor the practice of the Church, and then he set the facts straight for her.  “Son,” he asked me after several months, “what do you think we can do to relate to Jane?”  I suggested we bring some produce from our garden, and we did.  Another day I suggested a bouquet of wildflowers, and another a plate of cookies, and then a small wrapped Christmas present.  One Sunday afternoon, Dad congratulated her on our “anniversary.”  “What are you talking about?” she scoffed.  “Well,” he explained, “today marks exactly three years since we started visiting you, and we haven’t missed a month.”  She was taken aback.  After a long silence, Dad asked again his monthly question, “Tell us something you hate about the Church,” and he had always answered her the same way because the things she had learned and hated were not true, but hurtful disinformation.  “That’s it,” she said flatly.  “There is nothing else I hate about the Church.  I’ve told you all of it.”  We waved our see-you-next-month wave and smiled our see-you-next-month smile and drove home through the beautiful New Jersey woods.  The next month, Jane’s roommates told us she had gone back home to Idaho to reconcile with her family, now that she had reconciled with her Church.  Jane never did let us into the house to visit—we spoke always through the screen door or in the driveway under a huge honey locust.  But I hope we did her some good—we really did care.  I can still hear the crunch of the gravel under our tires as we backed down the driveway and drove home through the woods.

(Pictured above: Dad at the pulpit in 1973.  He was a corporate attorney Monday-Friday, and a lay minister 24/7.)

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