I need you to understand what "evangelical" means. What it meant. Because otherwise you’re not gonna get the full import of what happens. You’ll be like my therapist who said, "Would you feel differently if religion weren’t involved?" If? Well, sure. But it is involved. It was involved. We were evangelicals. So I need you to understand a little what it means to have grown up in an evangelical minister’s home. For my sake – and for yours, so you can relax.
"Evangelical" has come to mean a set of politics, but started with the Greek word euangelion, an official proclamation from the Roman occupiers. So for Jesus, this radical peasant, to go around proclaiming what his followers called the euangelion was a radical act. We can't change what it means now, but that's where it started. It meant something like "of the good news." So:
I was sitting with my parents in the parsonage when the church phone rang. Oh – the "parsonage" is the house where a preacher lives with his or her family. In our parsonage, we had two phone lines, one that we answered, "Hello, Andersons?" and the other, "Evangelical Free Church. Rebecca speaking. How can I help you?" In our parsonage, these were also useful for playing what my mother disparaged as "phone games."
Now my dad answered the church phone. "Evangelical Free Church. Rick speaking."
My mom and I stayed in the living room. There were these long silences in the conversation. Mom, true to form, tried to guess what was going on, on the other end of the phone: who was sick? who’d gone into labor? who’d lost her job, bless her heart…
Mom said, "Rebecca, this is just like your play."
I was 23 and living with my parents again. After college, I’d moved back in. Which, I know. That spring, I’d completed my undergraduate thesis – a play about growing up evangelical. I tried to explain to an extremely secular audience what it was like to grow up in the church. My audience there was comprised of people who, when they found out how I’d been raised, treated me like I’d just gotten out of a POW camp. "Oh my God…I mean, I had no idea. Can you, can you talk about it? Are you…ok?"
And everybody wanted the dirt: what goes on behind the scenes. This had been true since middle school, when tele-evangelist scandals turned my bus ride home into an exercise in humility. Kids who’d previously only been able to fall back on "Oh, my daddy’s a preacher. My daddy doesn’t like me to swear" could now intimate things about my father and Jessica Hahn. But my dad – my dad was no big shot. My dad was the pastor of a small church in a small town. My dad was and is a short, squat, bald man with a crooked nose and glasses. Besides all of which: he was a man after God’s own heart. You know, like King David.
So I said to my thesis adviser, years later, "That’s the thing. There weren’t skeletons in the closet!" This is just a play about how surprisingly good and pleasant it was to grow up in the evangelical church in America. To my middle-school bullies, to the collegiate atheists and skeptics: there weren’t any skeletons. My work is a love song to my childhood in the church!
And even now, when I look back at the way things were, when I was in a conservative church, it looks like all good news. I see my family’s dinner table, lit up through a window. I see my father, who was my pastor for the first 23 years of my life, an ebullient, warm pastor who radiated joy and love of God. I see my brother and I climbing over church pews and performing weddings with our stuffed animals. I see my mother who did the real work of making a Christian out of me: not because she taught Sunday school but because she taught us at home: having us light candles during Advent and helping us memorize Bible verses. I see my whole faith community singing songs I still love, and I can hear the celebrations of Christian high holidays.
See? No skeletons. A love song.
But I also grew up with stories of the dead being raised, walking out of tombs and tripping over their own shrouds. I grew up with stories of stones being rolled away from graves while people stood back with their veils pulled across their faces to keep out the smell of death. So you’d think I wouldn’t shoot my mouth off about skeletons.
When the phone rang that September after college, our skeleton woke up…and stretched.
My dad hung up the phone and disappeared. He went into the basement; we heard the clang of the washing machine door, but otherwise: thick silence. In lower voices, my mother and I tried to guess what was going on.
And what was going on was this. Over the next few days, the news came out that my father had been having an affair with a woman who worked in the church, a married woman who was a well-known leader. But the news came out gradually over the course of several days:
on Wednesday, that phone call, and, when he came up from the basement, a tortured admission that they’d had an "inappropriate relationship;"
on Thursday; standing at the fence posts by the church parking lot, a tight-lipped report that they’d been "more than friends."
Early on Friday morning, in the gray of a pouring rain, my father stood with me in our kitchen and told me, "I confessed everything to Mom." I carefully folded a shirt I was holding, and then became very still.
"Can I ask what you’re thinking?"
I refolded the shirt and wondered what was I thinking. Where could I start? We stood by the sink, the rain dumping down, everything dark. Thinking of his great joy at life in the church, I finally said, "This was your gift. And you shot yourself in the foot."
"I know, Bec," he said. "I know."
By Friday afternoon, the rain had passed. My mother and her best friend sat in September sun in metal lawn chairs they’d dragged into the garden along with a box of Kleenex. All day, both phone lines rang and rang. Deacons showed up in the middle of the workday, the parking lot filling up with cars.
Then Saturday, well, Saturday’s a grave day. The day Jesus spent in the grave. The day my father spent preparing his public confession.
And we were alone. Just us, just the three of us, my brother off at college. We moved around the house, awkward and quiet. My father and I met in the kitchen that night as he carried his pillow upstairs to the couch; I was angry because it was so ridiculous. Now we were part of the American comic strip that has adulterous men carrying their pillows to the couch to sleep. Dad wanted to tell me something.
"Will you look at me?"
And now, angry because I was ridiculous too, I tried to look at him. I tried and I couldn’t, even though I could see out of the corner of my eye that he was crying.
I looked at him then. But I can’t remember what he said.
And then Sunday morning. Waiting for church to begin, to attend the first ever Anderson family public confession and resignation. I mean – we didn’t know what to wear, much less what to do with ourselves. I played the piano for a bit. A really generous friend of mine showed up. My brother arrived home, unannounced, with his best friend. Together, we all waited, like before a funeral, talking in hushed tones.
After the church service started, we made our way across the driveway and into my father’s office at the back of the church. We stood, sat, waited without talking. Finally it was time to go in.
We opened the office door. Single file, we walked up the long side aisle past the full pews while the people sang – heads thrown back and full voice – Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing. That song is beautiful and so lilting. And the lyrics?
O to grace how great a debtor daily I'm constrained to be!
Let thy goodness like a fetter bind my wandering heart to thee
Prone to wander Lord I feel it
Who chose that hymn? "Prone to wander, Lord I feel it"? And, by the way, that song has been a part of, like, every church service I’ve been at since then. Sufjan Stevens put it on his Christmas album! Not a Christmas song. It’s basically unavoidable.
While that congregation was singing it, I thought only a few leaders knew anything was wrong but people knew. They must’ve known: my whole family came in late. The worship bulletins were strange, with only a few songs listed, then cryptically "Pastor’s Message," then more cryptically "prayer groups"? There was no mention of that afternoon’s Labor Day picnic potluck even though everyone had their dishes to pass. But the biggest clue that something was wrong was the front of the church – the front of the church was usually hung with large banners. Evangelical banners, made of felt, that were changed with the season: "Revive us again, O Lord" with a Pentecostal flame, and "He is Risen!" with an Easter lily. But the church had been stripped of these, and I know that I felt, looking at the spare, empty walls, like I’d seen them being ripped down.
And I wondered who else beside me remembered who’d made all those banners, and if anyone wondered why she wasn’t in church.
After the hymn, we sat. In the very front row. My father put his hand on my back and rose to approach the pulpit. My mother went with him. At first, she sat down behind him in one of those – preacher thrones. Then she was kind of fidget-y and you could see her deciding where to be, she got up to stand beside him. My father began, "Beloved, I stand before you today for the last time as your pastor."
18 years a preacher. 12 years their preacher. A career made of something he loved. He stood in the pulpit, a place he was made for, and said, "I have broken my marriage vows." He said he had lied; he lied to our family; he lied to the church – but not, he said, about the good news.
Then he turned away from the pulpit and his face crumpled. But he turned back again and through a face scrunched with grief, blotched with shame, he repeated, "I’m just so sorry." And there it was. The past, still all bound up in graveclothes, blinking in the light of day. Stink and rot and skeletons spilling out all over the floor. In our straight line, my family walked out the front doors of the church. I leaned against my brother as we headed out into bright sunlight, into whatever was coming next.
About the artist...
Rev. Rebecca Anderson comes to storytelling via stand-up comedy, playwrighting, and preaching. She's a founding pastor at Gilead Chicago, a new church in Rogers Park built around storytelling (GileadChicago.org), as well as at Bethany UCC in Ravenswood. She's been on Snap Judgment (radio), The Broad Experience (podcast), and a Risk! live event. In Chicago, Rebecca has worked with companies and events like 2nd Story, The Moth, This Much is True, and Do Not Submit. As founder of Earshot Stories (EarshotStories.com), Rebecca leads workshops, retreats, and helps create events with congregations and non-profits. She loves to host potlucks for people who don't know each yet, gardening, and running outside year-round (but she won't bike into a headwind).