Sunday morning, Mom stood at the bedroom door all dressed up for church. “Time to put on your Sunday suit, Kenny.”
Still in my Roy Rogers pajamas, I lay in bed beside Dad, who was asleep, or pretending to be asleep. “I want to stay home with Dad.”
“Tommy?” Mom said.
Dad didn’t stir.
Mom gave us a worried look, then walked away. When I heard our Hudson Hornet pull out of the driveway and head up Route 60 toward the church, I got dressed and ran outside, gloriously free to do whatever I wanted.
I wasn’t born a preacher’s son. Dad was a car dealer when I was a little boy, and he refused to go to church. He was my get-out-of-church free card, and I played it every week until the summer of 1954 when I turned seven years old.
That summer, Dad wanted to move to Hagerstown, Maryland. Mom didn’t want to go. She agreed to the move only after Dad promised to go to church.
In Hagerstown, Dad got out of bed bright and early every Sunday, put on a blue suit and a starched white shirt, helped Mom stuff me into a torturously uncomfortable miniature version of his outfit, shoved me into the Hudson’s back seat, and drove us all to The Church of the Lighted Window.
I hated my little suit. Hated church. Hated Sunday School. I whined, cried hysterically, and threw fits. Nothing worked. After a long struggle, I gave up and zombie-trudged my way through the Sunday morning ordeals.
Meanwhile, Dad warmed up to the church, and our family commitment to it deepened. Dad served as an usher; Mom became a Sunday School teacher; they volunteered me to be an acolyte; and the Church chose Dad to be its treasurer and then its lay leader.
In 1956, any lingering hope of returning to the Sunday morning good times died for good when Dad attended a Christian retreat, found Jesus, and decided to become a preacher. I was upset because I didn’t want to be a preacher’s kid, but when I learned what the Methodist Church would require Dad to do, I calmed down. With no formal education beyond high school, he had to take years of college courses. Even if he stuck with it, which I doubted, his ordination was so far in the future it didn’t seem real.
Time passed. We moved back to Virginia and joined a big church in Hampton. Dad doggedly plowed through scores of courses, but the Church kept piling on new requirements.
In June, 1961, I thought he was still years away from attaining his goal when he came home from the Methodist Annual Conference with shocking news. Although the Church still wouldn’t accept him as a full-fledged minister, they had designated him a “supply pastor” and had assigned him to the Albemarle Circuit, four churches located in the mountains 175 miles away.
The appointment was effective immediately. We had one week to relocate. We loaded our belongings in a truck. Tears blurred my view of our home as we drove away. I had just finished the eighth grade. All my school friends lived in town. I didn’t get to say goodbye, and I never saw any of them again.
The parsonage, an old two-story white frame house with a tin roof, sat down the road from Mount Moriah Methodist Church in White Hall, Virginia, a rural farm town. About fifty people stood in the yard to greet us when we pulled up in the moving van.
Dad led us through the crowd, and we ended up standing on the front porch overlooking a sea of uplifted faces. As he spoke to them, I panicked. Emotionally, I was still the seven year old who wanted to stay home with Dad Sunday mornings, but Dad’s appointment had turned me into someone different, someone I didn’t know. I was now the preacher’s son, a role I didn’t choose or want.
Standing on the porch in front of that crowd, I felt like all eyes were on me. I assumed they expected me to be a paradigm of Christian virtue. I didn’t know how a devout teenager was supposed to act, so I did my best to fake it. I stood stiffly with my hands clasped together in front of me, straining to maintain a beatific, angelic smile. On the outside I was trying to impersonate a preacher’s kid saturated with the Holy Spirit. On the inside I was so scared and miserable I could barely breathe.
The anxiety that consumed me that day plagues most preacher’s kids. Thom Rainer, a pastor, wrote a blog post in 2013, asking church members to be more understanding of his children. To his surprise, the post went viral and he received more than 500 comments, most of them from preacher’s kids. They complained about living in a glass house where they thought church members watched their every move and expected them to be perfect. They believed they couldn’t question Christian doctrine or express doubts without being labeled rebellious. They worried that their slightest transgression might destroy their parents’ image in the church. And most of them were desperately lonely.
I experienced all of those emotions my first few weeks in White Hall, but my life changed for the better as suddenly and decisively as my first day as a preacher’s son had turned sour. One of the church women asked Mom if I could spend the day with her son. Mom knew I was lonely and shoved me forward. With a big smile and a sunny personality, my new pal was easy to like. We spent the day running all over his family’s farm. It was close to the most fun I’d ever had. I went back the next day. And the next.
When school started in the fall, most of the kids I met didn’t know I was a preacher’s son, and those who did know didn’t seem to care. As it turned out in the end, no one cared except me.
I was fortunate Dad was assigned to the Albemarle Circuit. White Hall was a special place. The people who went to Mount Moriah were thoughtful and kind. They accepted me for who I was and didn’t criticize me or judge me. That’s how they approached everyone, preacher’s sons included. It was the best place I and my brothers could have grown up.
Fifty years after we left White Hall, I sat by Dad’s deathbed and held his hand while he slept. After a long while, he stirred; his eyes opened; and he saw me there. He shifted in the bed and knitted his brow. “Was it hard for you?” he said. “Being the preacher’s boy?”
I was surprised by the question. We’d never spoken about this. In the beginning of his ministry, he had worked so hard just to survive that I thought he hadn’t noticed my struggle.
I considered my answer for a good while before I spoke. “It wasn’t hard,” I finally said, meaning it. “It was one of the best things that ever happened to me.”
He looked at me for a few moments, then put a trembling hand over his eyes. “Good people at Mount Moriah.” He took a deep breath. “Wish we could go back to White Hall one more time.”
“Me, too, Dad. Me, too.”
Post Script: Apparently, there was an advantage to being a preacher’s son that somehow eluded me. In 1969, Dusty Springfield won a Grammy, singing in a sexy, brassy voice about a preacher’s son named Billy Ray. “The only one who could ever reach me/ Was the son of a preacher man/ The only boy who could ever teach me/ Was the son of a preacher man/ Yes he was, he was, oooh, yes he was.”
Suffice it to say, Kenny Bill was no Billy Ray.