(today’s blog is a little raw and personal, long because it’s a story I wanted to get out, not because I wanted to write a gem.. turn back now if you wish)
Oh geez, my foot hurts. Either that means the surgery wounds are healing or all that tap dancing I did Saturday night is making me pay the toll. Call me twinkle toes.
My guess is that the foot hurts because I decided it would be OK going out Saturday night. There were good reasons. My wife and son wanted to go hear a band at a local drinking establishment, a good band that a friend of mine just formed with his son as the lead singer. Those three women pictured above were another. Only thing is that the last time I saw them before Saturday night, they were teenagers.
Go ahead. Say so what. Seeing them did more for me than I am sure they are not aware.
Did I ever mention that I was a church youth minister in another life? I was. Already there are people looking at this blog with wide eyes questioning that. Yes. I was. I wasn’t one of those guys who wears robes or drank communion wine or who mowed the lawn in black socks. Not at all. I wore Buckbo tee shirts with shorts.. on the subway in New York even. It felt very daring at the time. I rode a motorcycle to church and had long hair. I had a black Chevy Z24. Appearances did not scream church guy.
Buckbo! Get it?
I was the type of minister who knew that preaching was the least important part of my job. So I focused on the people around me, tried to be real as much as a minister can be. Odd to say? Well, I was a minister. A single guy in his twenties who you wouldn’t know was a minister until I told you I was, a WWJD type more than a theologian. Some people responded well to my style, some didn’t like it at all. That is pretty much the way it goes in life. But in church life that is not often the best philosophy because you are expected to be able to please everyone. I called it living in the fish bowl.. and I hated it. There were a whole lot of people looking at me and expecting me to swim a certain way. If I started to tilt to the wrong side, then there was always someone ready to flush me down the toilet.
My three blast from the past friends got together for a girls weekend this weekend. The blonde haired woman, Christa, lives in the Bucktown district of Chicago, a nurse. The pleather clad woman (yes, she did mix pleather with leather) is Mattie, lives an hour west of Chicago in Rockford. Becky, the taller woman who looks like she is about ready to hork from laughter in the picture, lives downstate and took the train up from Springfield (my old stomping grounds). They all grew up in the Springfield area and went to the same church and camp, best friends who just happened to be safely crazy. Had they been born to different parents, they would be tattooed wild women. Instead, they were and are fun church girls with a lot of common sense mixed in. Nothing wrong with that.
Between October 1986 and July 1988, I was the associate minister to youth at a church in Taylorville, Illinois. I graduated from college in 1984, ministered at a church in Eldon, Missouri for two years and left that church for reasons that are another story. Taylorville is out in the middle of nowhere, about 20 miles from Rochester (my hometown) and roughly 30 miles from Springfield. The church hired me based on a lot of high recommendations (no, the board was not high when they hired me although they should have been), a lot I like to think were deserved, with recommendation from the previous associate minister (very highly regarded). They liked my outgoing personality, comfortable demeanor that I displayed both face to face and from the podium, and the athletic skills I had – Jeff Mayfield, the previous associate, was also a basketball buddy who lauded my court skills. Everything seemed perfect – close to home and to my roots, small town, a program that seemed to have been nurtured by a talented youth minister and his equally charismatic wife.
It wasn’t as it seemed, not at all. The church had a lot of problems, the senior minister was a bit resentful of the youth programs, the small town was just that in a way that was both good and bad, and the high school kids were a mix of town kids and farm kids who sorely missed the guy who had just left my position. They never clicked with me. I became discouraged early on and did a lot to create my own problems, including dating a single mom in the church (and had another single mom stalking me), a terrible decision that the church board was concerned about enough to pull me into a meeting to discuss. Adding to all of that was the plain fact that I had a lot of growing up to do. I made a lot of good choices, but I also made bad ones. Working in a church is rough even for someone who is solidly mature, much less someone who was still naïve and learning about life. That was me.
Soon after I was hired at Taylorville, the camp director at Lake Springfield Christian Assembly called. I had been referred to him as someone who would be a good camp dean, something that my education and experience had left me highly qualified for. Want to dean a week of Junior camp? Sure. No problem. Camp is a good way to get to know my own church kids and also adults/teens who would help. Want to work as staff at a high school week? You kidding. My church had hired me to keep the high school kids interested. Oh yeah and for the same reasons. Adding to the motivation was the fact that LSCA was the camp I attended growing up. Wow. I would be returning there as a camp dean and as staff. Cool.
That is where I met the Becky/Mattie/Christa trio. They were campers at the first week of high school camp and I was on staff, my first time back at LSCA. The girls were an interest of some of my high school boys as well as hitting it off with me. Becky also was the daughter of a man who worked at the same company as my dad, so I knew her a little from that. At least the name was familiar, especially since I had worked there for a summer after high school. The girls were a ton of fun, something I had really not been able to find with the kids from my own church. Their ring leader was a woman named Deb Natale, an adult volunteer from their church who bubbled with enthusiasm, a friend who became one of my best friends by the time my short career in Taylorville ended. When times began to get tough in Taylorville and later after I moved to the Chicago area, Deb and her husband Frank were there for me. The friendships and fun I had that week of high school camp carried me through a very rough two years of my life.
The BMC trio looked like sweet little innocent high school girls. They were, but they also were full of mischief. When they crossed paths with me, they found a good opponent. That whole week was filled with pranks. With the help of their ring leader, my infamous Buckbo tee shirt was stolen, worn around the camp shamelessly by the trio. I’m pretty sure Buckbo was run up the flagpole and frozen in the camp’s kitchen freezer.. something I had done to at least one of their swimsuits during the week. We had a blast.
I can remember the girls saying “won’t you come be our youth minister—you’re fun”, an encouragement I sorely needed even that early in my Taylorville ministry. In a lot of ways I wished I could be.
I spent a lot of time in camp that summer and some of the next summer and enjoyed a lot more time with my friends. BeckyMattieChrista had successfully adopted me, enough that when my little brother’s prom came up, I did him a little favor. I asked Christa to the prom for him. She was so sweet and nice, seemed like such a perfect date for my shy and calm mannered brother. Paul and I took two days detailing my Z24 for that prom date. From the report I got, he had a great time and she was worth the time spent getting ready for the date. As you can see from the picture, she was (still is) a little cutie. I ain’t gonna say what else my brother said. Wouldn’t be proper.
Beauty and the dork. I love my brother.
My time as associate minister at the Taylorville Christian Church ended rather harshly and abruptly. To this day, I am not quite sure of the real reason why I was fired. Almost appropriately, I returned from a week of camp to find a message on my home answering machine. It was Greg, an elder on the church board and one that I had a real good relationship with, spent a lot of time with his family.
“Steve, can you give me a call when you get home tonight. The elders want to meet with you tonight.”
I just stared at the phone. Not helping me was the absolute exhaustion I was feeling from the rigors of staffing a week of camp. One does not sleep much during a week of camp. Staff often sleeps less than the campers, which is not much. The thing was that I was already prepared for that moment, already had another job in the works and was waiting for an offer. I was tired in more ways than one. So making the call to Greg was a bit easier.
“We’re not happy with the job you are doing. Please write a letter of resignation, give it to Greg by tomorrow afternoon (Saturday) and he will read it for you at Sunday’s services. It’s your choice but we prefer you not be there. When can your office be cleared?.” I gave them a date, asked them if I could leave, and walked out by myself.
The meeting was short and to the point. I was given two months severance which cut my shame a little bit. But it still hurt, the shame stinging by not being allowed to read my resignation. Why had they done that? I was done with the paid ministry. Taylorville would be my last. I spent a few days at my parents while I pulled myself together, then went back to Taylorville to tie up loose ends. That took about two weeks. I packed my house, taking my time, spending time with friends who stopped by to say their good byes. My friend Deb Natale came by on the day I had given to have my office clear, helped me pack my car. Took me to lunch.
I woke up the next morning, drove my Z24 to the church building, stood in the gravel parking lot for a few moments, drove out to the end of the gravel drive and stopped.
Questions flooded over me, questions I had avoided during the weeks since my forced resignation. Had I really been called to the ministry? Is this it, God? I trusted but didn’t feel real confident about what was ahead. Chicago was a big place, somewhere I had been twice in my entire life. I had been effective as a minister in other places, but at the church I knew I was looking at for the last time, there had been very little if anything I felt good about.
Except for my girls. But they had nothing to do with the building at the end of that driveway. God had given me a refuge in them. They were a gift.
My last memory of Taylorville is what I did when I got out of my car at the end of that driveway. I shook the dust off of my feet. I am done with you.
I never looked back. I talked to one member of that church after I left Taylorville – Boyce Dobbins, who had offered me a job with his pest control company and was baffled as to why I had left. He had two college aged children who I had helped to reconnect with the church through the acting group I had started at the church. He also had sold my parents a golden retriever puppy, a dog they had named Tank and loved dearly.
My last act as a minister was to attend a going away party at Lake Springfield Christian Assembly camp. I was supposed to be dean of a week of camp that coincided with my first day at my new job as restaurant manager for Bob Evans Restaurants. My friend Deb Natale had volunteered to take over leadership of that week of camp for me, knowing I wouldn’t be up to it. She organized the party, bought a new PA system for the camp, had a plaque put on it with my name inscribed as a dedication, and invited my family and my adopted friends to attend. It was a fun time for me. A great send off.
I did see Becky now and then after that. Of the three, I had probably cherished her friendship the most. She had a maturity about her that I liked and the most sly sense of humor, a little twisted smile that rivaled my own. I have a way of picking on the people I like and she took it well, returned it even better. When I left she made a real effort to write and call, even visited me. There have been a lot of times over the years where I have missed her and my parents have always made sure to pass on whatever news they have had about her and her family. When my dad saw her at a funeral wake last year, he made sure Becky knew how to find me on Facebook. And she did just that, a brief how-are-you-doing, but nice.
Saturday afternoon I found a picture waiting for me on Facebook, a tag from Becky, the picture of my brother and Christa at his prom. She was waiting for my response and when I did, mentioned that she was visiting Chicago. Could I come into the city and have dinner with Becky, Mattie, and Christa? They had been reminiscing, probably needed to settle some curiosity.
“Naaaa, can’t, just had foot surgery plus I am home with Nate tonight. Mir is out with the girls and we’re meeting her later on to watch some friends perform with their band. Besides, you aren’t here to see me, you’re here for a girls weekend.”
Eventually, she said they were coming out to see me. They wanted to meet my family and my wife. And they did. Nate and I went to dinner with them, then they went to the bar to hear the band with us.
They had questions that I wasn’t quite sure how to answer. The girls are in their early forties now, but they still were teenage girls in my mind. The only true friends I took away from my time in Taylorville, to boot. That seems strange to say, but I have no desire to hear from any of the children from that church in Taylorville. But I was so glad to see my friends from Springfield.
We had a blast. When they pulled up in the car, I could have sworn it was the same teens from 25 years ago. They had not changed in my eyes. And it felt like I had left yesterday. We started laughing immediately, never stopped all night.
It did feel strange talking to three women that I remembered as teenagers. Christa had the unique ability to fit both fists in her mouth. I could now joke with the adult Christa about that, told her that was one of the reasons I wanted her to go to prom with my brother. My son thought Mattie really was a teenager, beamed at the kind attention she gave him. I smiled when she reminded me that I should have been their youth minister – I was so much fun. And I started teasing Becky immediately and continued for the few hours we had. They were too short. I wanted to know more, but the night was over quickly.
I’m not sure the girls got what they came for Saturday night. There are probably still curiosities. I am very sure they don’t know what their visit meant to me. What affect their visit had on me.
The next morning I found myself at the end of that gravel drive. Looking back on a past I had spent some twenty five years burying and hiding away. So much that there is no way I can tell it all in one blog. This one is already half a novel.
But I have seen all I want to see again and that was Becky, Christa, and Mattie. Thanks girls. In a way, I needed to see that something good came from that time in my life. You reminded me that God did indeed bless me. And he blessed me again Saturday.