The Preacher’s Son

Sun­day Good Times

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.

My Lit­tle Suit

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.

The Church of the Light­ed Win­dow

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.

The Acolyte

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.

Mount Mori­ah Methodist Church

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.

Rev. Thom Rain­er

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.

The Preach­er, Wife & Son

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.

The Preach­er

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.