Brides and Prejudice: Philip Gulley’s Latest Book

An excerpt from A Place Called Hope, his latest novel out now.

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Illustration by Jonathan Carlson

A decade ago, I created the little town of Harmony, Indiana, filled it with Quakers, and sent them a pastor named Sam Gardner to see what would happen. The series of novels had a good run, but I wanted to dabble in theology and pursued that genre of writing for a while. I missed Sam and the Harmony crowd, though, and I decided to see what they had been up to in the intervening years. The pastor had gotten a new secretary—Lindsey Hinshaw, the granddaughter of his nemesis, Dale Hinshaw. A Unitarian church had come to town, rightly scandalizing the populace. Sam’s older boy was off to college, and his younger son was finishing his high school career. It will be a year of change for Sam and his family, culminating in their move to, appropriately enough, a place called Hope.Philip Gulley

The weekend of the Corn and Sausage Days dawned storybook perfect, which is how almost every disastrous day begins. The heat of summer had broken, and Saturday morning was crisp and clear. By noon it was 60 degrees, a new Sausage Queen had been crowned, and the women of the Circle had served 532 dinners, a new record, with another 50 people in line, stretching out the meetinghouse doors and down the front steps. Shaken by the departure of Deena Morrison and the Iversons to the Unitarians, Sam was working the crowd, greeting people, inviting them to return the next day for worship and leftover noodles.

By 2:30 p.m., everyone had been fed, and the kitchen cleanup was well under way. Sam was in his office putting the finishing touches on his sermon when the church telephone rang. It was Pastor Matt from the Unitarian church, waylaid by the flu, vomiting on the hour and half hour.

“I have a wedding to do at 3:30, and I’m in no shape to do it. Can you cover for me, Sam? I’ll owe you one.”

Sam glanced at his watch, and feeling charitable said, “Happy to help. Who’s the happy couple?”

“Chris Marshall and Kelly Johnson. Nice folks. You’ll like ’em. First marriage for both of them.”

“Hmm,” Sam said. “I don’t know them. Where are they from?”

“Cartersburg,” Matt said. “They were one of our first couples here. They’ve been dating about four years, but living together for a year or so. Does that bother you?”

“Well, the way I see it, if the church thinks it’s a sin for an unmarried couple to live together, why should I object when they want to get married,” Sam said. “Seems to me they’re trying to set matters right.” Sam paused. “The only thing is, I’ve never done a Unitarian wedding. Can I use the Quaker vows?”

“Unitarians often write their own vows,” Matt said. “I’ve sat down with the couple and gone through the service. You just need to stand up front, listen to the vows, and say a prayer of blessing.”

“I can do that,” Sam said.

“It’s pretty straightforward,” Matt added. “No attendants. The couple, Chris and Kelly, will come down the aisle together, there’ll be a few readings, then the couple will give their vows.”

“Piece of cake,” Sam said.

Matt thanked him, then Sam hurried home, changed into his suit, and was at the Unitarian church with five minutes to spare.

The church was full, and a smattering of latecomers clustered in the back, searching for an empty seat. Deena Morrison and Judy Iverson were there, looking treasonous. Bob Miles from the Herald was standing in the doorway. He glanced up as Sam entered.

“Fancy seeing you here,” Bob said.

“Matt’s sick,” Sam explained. “He phoned to see if I could help out.”

“Awful nice of you,” Bob said. “And brave, too. Not just any pastor would do this.”

“Oh, most would. We pitch in and help each other out,” Sam said. “We wouldn’t want to leave a couple in the lurch.”

Sam wondered why performing a wedding required bravery. He’d never known a pastor to be injured at a wedding, after all.

The pianist began, and Sam took his place at the front, facing the congregation.

The couple appeared at the back of the church, stepping forward slowly to the tune of the wedding march.

They stopped before Sam, smiling.

Sam could just imagine the headline. “Quaker Pastor Sam Gardner Performs Town’s First Gay Marriage!”

A young man came forward and read from First Corinthians about noisy gongs and clanging cymbals and the power of love. Then a man with a ponytail read from Kahlil Gibran’s book The Prophet, about there being spaces in your togetherness and moving seas between the shores of your souls and not eating from the same loaf of bread. Sam didn’t understand much of it, but he smiled anyway and nodded his head in all the right places.

The man with the ponytail sat down, and Sam turned to face the couple, Chris and Kelly, taking them both in for the first time. Chris was finely featured, with shoulder-length blond hair, and was dressed in a simple, lovely gown. Kelly had short, spiky hair, neatly gelled, and was attired in black pants and a tailored jacket. Not a suit, actually, Sam thought, more like a pantsuit. And pearls. Which is when it occurred to Sam he was inadvertently performing his first same-gender wedding.

He paused, wishing more parents gave their children names like Ralph, Betty, Elmer, and Hazel. Good, old-fashioned, straightforward names. Whatever happened to those names? Now people named their children Drew, Pat, Jordan, Riley, Shawn, and Morgan. What kind of names were those? Names that confused people and got ministers in trouble, Sam thought. Chris and Kelly? How was he to know which gender they were? For Pete’s sake!

This was Sam’s 92nd wedding, which meant he had mastered the pause. He stopped for a moment as if he were considering the solemnity of the occasion, desperately thinking how best to proceed. Chris and Kelly looked at him expectantly, then at one another, their faces radiating happiness. On top of his chest of drawers, there was a picture of him and Barbara on their wedding day, smiling. Sam called it his I-can’t-believe-you’ve-agreed-to-marry-me smile. It was that same exact smile.

Bob Miles was making his way toward the front of the church, snapping pictures as he drew nearer to the couple. Sam could just imagine the headline. “Quaker Pastor Sam Gardner Performs Town’s First Gay Marriage!” He wished Matt would hurry up and get better so he could kill him.

Sam leaned toward Chris and Kelly and said, “Can we go somewhere a bit more private? We need to talk.”

He turned to the congregation. “We’ll be right back. Don’t leave.”

He guided them to a small room, where they sat down. He said, “I wasn’t aware this was a same-gender wedding. They’re not legal in our state, you know.”

“We know,” Chris said. “We went to the county clerk’s office to get a license, but she wouldn’t issue us one. We’ve decided not to wait for the state to validate our relationship.”

“But I’m not supposed to do them,” Sam said. “The superintendent of our meeting told me specifically, ‘Don’t marry gay people.’”

The year before, Sam had accidentally married a man secretly married to two other women. The newspaper in the city had learned of it and written an article on bigamy. They had scrounged up a copy of the marriage license with Sam’s signature on it and published it in the paper. The next day, the Quaker superintendent had talked with Sam about whom he could and couldn’t marry. He’d reminded him several times not to marry gay couples, people who were already married, or minors.

0914-GulleyBookCover“I thought Quakers believed in equality,” Kelly said. “Why won’t you marry gays and lesbians?”

“The Quakers in these parts are more conservative,” Sam said. “I would get in a lot of trouble. I’d probably lose my job.”

“Even if it weren’t a Quaker wedding?” Kelly asked. “I mean we’re in a Unitarian church, in front of a Unitarian congregation. We’ve written our own vows. And since we don’t have a marriage license, you don’t have to sign anything. All you’re doing is listening to us make our vows, then offering a prayer. Surely your superintendent can’t forbid you from praying.”

Sam thought for a moment. “I wouldn’t think so,” he said.

“Then what’s the harm?” Chris asked.

“I guess when you look at it that way, there’d be no harm in my saying a prayer. I’m sure the Quakers won’t mind that.”

Although Sam was a seasoned pastor, his naivete could be breathtaking. They returned to the sanctuary, where Sam thanked everyone for their patience. Chris and Kelly recited their vows from memory, while Sam looked on, then caught himself just in time before pronouncing them husband and wife. He launched into prayer, thanking God for letting them live in a free country and for the food that nourished their bodies. He had never been good at extemporaneous prayer and usually wound up thanking God for various things, none of them relevant to the event at hand.

Everyone present applauded, Bob Miles snapped a few more pictures, Chris and Kelly walked down the aisle hand in hand, then everyone went down to the basement and drank punch made from ice cream and 7-Up.

Sam was standing near the punch bowl when Bob Miles approached him. “Like I said, it sure was nice of you to do this. Not many pastors around here would conduct a lesbian marriage. They’d be afraid of getting fired.”

“It’s not like I married them,” Sam pointed out. “I didn’t sign a license or anything. Just said a prayer. I don’t see how I can get in trouble for that.”

Deena Morrison poured herself some punch, then made her way over to Sam. She was in tears. “That’s the loveliest wedding I’ve ever seen. I’m so proud of you, Sam. This will upset a lot of people, but you did it anyway.”

“Oh, I don’t think people will be all that upset,” said Sam. “I really didn’t do anything.”

“Don’t diminish your bravery, Sam. What you did was courageous,” Deena said. “It makes me want to come back to meeting.”

“We sure have missed you,” Sam said. “It would be wonderful if you returned.”

“The Unitarians are nice, but it just isn’t the same.”

Sam was elated to learn of her unhappiness. He stayed another half hour, then walked home, pleased as punch. What a day it had been! A new Sausage Queen, record noodle sales, a lovely wedding skillfully conducted to keep him out of trouble, and Deena Morrison on the verge of returning to Harmony Friends Meeting. Climbing the steps to his front porch, he danced a little jig, confident things were finally turning his way.

 

The Monday morning after the wedding, Sam woke up early and went for a walk out in the country toward Ellis and Miriam Hodge’s farm. He arrived at their house just as they were pulling out of their driveway. Ellis rolled to a stop and lowered his window. “Howdy, Sam. Out for a walk I see.”

“You bet. What are the Hodges up to this beautiful morning?”

“Don’t you remember, Sam?” Miriam said. “We’re going to the Smoky Mountains.”

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Illustration by Jonathan Carlson

In all the years of their marriage, Ellis and Miriam had never flown anywhere, and gave considerable thought before driving beyond the county line. Ellis didn’t trust engines. He believed all engines were as persnickety as the engine on his Farmall tractor and he’d have to climb out on the wing, 30,000 feet in the air, and whack it with a hammer or duct tape a fuel line to keep it running. Distrusting the internal combustion engine, he seldom drove beyond walking distance from home, which gave him about a five-mile radius. But now he was throwing caution to the wind and driving 400 miles to the Smoky Mountains. The month before he had noticed blood on his toothbrush and had convinced himself he was dying of cancer, so he was going to the Smoky Mountains, which he’d always wanted to see before he died.

“How long will you be gone?” Sam asked him.

“Should be back next Sunday,” Ellis said. “Unless we have trouble with the truck, then there’s no telling.” He looked anxious, thinking about blown engines, flat tires, and fuel explosions.

“Traveling mercies,” Sam said. “Enjoy yourselves.”

It was a half-hour walk back into town, past the town garage, down Main Street to the meetinghouse. Technically, Monday was Sam’s day off, but he went in just the same and found Lindsey Hinshaw in the office, reading the church’s mail.

“Good morning, Lindsey,” he said.

“I thought today was your day off,” she said.

“It is. I just wanted to stop by and check on things. Any messages on the answering machine?”

“Pastor Matt called to thank you for helping him out this past Saturday. The superintendent called and wants you to call him back as soon as you can. And my grandpa called. He and Fern Hampton have called a special meeting of the elders tonight at 7 p.m. and want you there.”

“Criminetly,” Sam said. “It’s my day off. Would you please call him back and tell him I’m not available.”

“He won’t like that,” Lindsey said.

“This happens every week,” Sam replied. “I take a day off and someone calls me with something that just can’t wait.”

He left the meetinghouse in a sour mood, his formerly pleasant day ruined. His wife, Barbara, was in the basement doing the laundry when he got home. “Dale Hinshaw phoned,” she yelled up the stairs. “There’s a meeting tonight at 7. He wants you there. I told him it was your day off, but he said it was an emergency.”

“Everything is an emergency,” Sam muttered. “Do this, do that, be here, be there. Hurry up. I need it now. You’d think the world was ending.”

He yelled down the stairs to Barbara, “If he thinks I’m just going to drop everything because he asked me to, he’s got another thing coming.”

Sam arrived at the meeting five minutes late to show Dale and Fern he couldn’t be pushed around.

Dale Hinshaw, Fern Hampton, Bea Majors, and her sister, Opal, were in the meetinghouse basement, seated around a folding table, waiting for Sam to arrive. Miriam Hodge was the other member of the elders’ committee, the only one with a functioning brain. It mystified Sam that in a congregation of reasonably bright folks, four of the dimmest people served as elders. If it weren’t for Miriam, the elders’ committee would have steered the church off the cliff years ago.

Sam greeted them, then turned to Dale and said, “So what’s the emergency?”

“With Miriam gone, we’ll need an acting clerk,” Dale said, ignoring Sam’s question. “Any suggestions?”

“I think you should be in charge, Dale,” Fern said. Bea and Opal Majors nodded their agreement.

“I thought only the clerk could call a meeting,” Sam said.

“Well, Miriam can’t call a meeting if she’s not in town, now can she?” Dale said.

“Are you sure this can’t wait?” Sam asked.

“Not one more minute,” Dale said.

Now they wanted to fire him for praying for two people who genuinely cared for one another.

Sam hated it when Miriam missed a meeting. “Okay, what’s so important it can’t wait until Miriam gets back?” he asked.

“I got a call from the superintendent this morning and he’s awful upset,” Dale said. “Have you talked to him yet, Sam?”

Sam had forgotten to return his phone call. “No, not lately. What did he want?”

“He told me you married two women this past Saturday,” Dale said. “In direct violation of our beliefs.”

“I don’t think it’s accurate to speak of ‘our beliefs’ since we all don’t believe the same thing,” Sam said.

“Were you there or not?” Fern said.

“Yes, I was there,” Sam said. “I said a prayer of blessing. Pastor Matt at the Unitarian church was sick, so I stepped in at the last minute to help.”

“That’s it, you’re fired,” Fern snapped.

“Opal and I have a nephew who would make a fine minister,” Bea suggested. “Should we call him?”

“We’ve been through this before,” Sam said. “You can’t just fire me. That has to be decided by the congregation.”

This was the third time Dale and Fern had tried to fire Sam. Once for not wearing a suit and tie at Easter, and another time for suggesting they cancel the Chicken Noodle Dinner. Fern had spent an entire elders’ meeting complaining that none of the younger people wanted to help with the dinner and she was tired of doing all the work and if people didn’t want to work, then maybe they should just cancel the dinner, which Sam said was fine with him, that he was tired of it, too. Then Fern said it was a shame when the church’s pastor lost his passion for ministry and that Sam should quit so they could get themselves a minister with a heart for the Lord.

“The superintendent said he’s going to have to fire you,” Dale said.

“Yeah, well, he can’t fire me, either,” Sam said. At least, he didn’t think so, but maybe the rules had changed.

Their superintendent routinely confused himself with God and had gotten in the habit of handing down edicts to the pastors, most of which Sam ignored, since the superintendent lived two hours away and hadn’t darkened the door of Harmony Friends Meeting in three years.

Bea chimed in. “I don’t see how you can remain our pastor after this. The congregation won’t stand for it.”

She had him there. With Miriam gone, and Asa Peacock out of commission with a bad heart, Sam was hanging on by a thread.

He sat quietly, fuming. Fern and the Majors sisters had never been married. Dale had reduced his wife to a mindless robot. Now they wanted to fire him for praying for two people who genuinely cared for one another. He couldn’t believe he’d given up his one free evening for this.

“Well, folks, it’s my day off, so I’m going home,” Sam said.

“We’re not done here,” Dale said, his voice rising. “What are we going to tell the superintendent?”

“Tell him to mind his own business,” Sam suggested. “Or tell him to grow up. Or maybe you should tell him people won’t always do what he wants and he’d better get used to the idea. Take your pick, Dale.”

He walked by Grant’s Hardware store on the way home. He sometimes envied Uly Grant his vocation. Why couldn’t his father have owned a hardware store? Hardware stores sold nuts and bolts to anyone, straight or gay, black or white, male or female, Catholic or Protestant, Democrat or Republican; it didn’t matter. Sam had known Uly since the first grade. They’d sat together for 12 years, in alphabetical order, and he’d not once known Uly to be mad at anything or anyone. Sam thought there was something about hardware stores that made a man content.

Uly was locking the front door of the store as Sam went past. He fell into step beside Sam.

“Well, hello, Sam. How the heck are you?”

“Good enough, I suppose. How are the Grants?”

“We’re doing fine,” Uly said. “Hey, I heard you might be leaving us.”

“Who told you that?” Sam asked.

“Lindsey Hinshaw mentioned it.”

“Well, she was mistaken,” Sam said.

“I hope you don’t, Sam. I just thought maybe you’d found a church that could pay a little more. Couldn’t hardly blame you, what with your boys heading off to college.”

“Barbara’s interviewing for a job at the library,” Sam said. “That’ll help.”

“Not that I want you to move, but if you ever do, be sure to let me know,” Uly said. “We might be interested in buying your house. Always liked that house.”

“Don’t start packing your things just yet,” Sam said. “We’re staying put.”

Sam walked on, thinking about Lindsey Hinshaw, wishing Frank, his previous secretary, hadn’t moved to North Carolina. Frank had kept the malcontents in line. He had been in the military and understood warfare. Sam suspected Lindsey was a spy, sent by Dale to infiltrate the pastor’s office and sabotage Sam’s best efforts. She’d bear watching, that one.

 

Sam was seated at his desk the next morning when he heard Lindsey say, “Hi, Grandpa. What are you doing here?” As if she didn’t know, Sam thought.

“This is my granddaughter, Lindsey,” he heard Dale say. “She’s the director of communications here at the meeting.”

“A pleasure to meet you,” an unctuous voice, dripping with insincerity, responded. “God bless you for your ministry here.”

The Quaker superintendent! Sam wanted to hide under his desk, and would have if Lindsey hadn’t said, “Yes, he’s here. Go right on in.”

When Sam had become a pastor, the superintendent at the time had been a calm, caring man, a pastor to the pastors, with a genuine love for people, and prone to err on the side of grace. But he had retired, and had been followed by a string of short-termers, coasting toward retirement. The latest superintendent had come along with a plan to start new meetings and double membership, which hadn’t yet happened, though he had managed to run off several good pastors whose theology wasn’t to his liking. He was a strutter, a man given to arm-waving and self-righteousness, two qualities Sam had never admired in clergy. Now here he was, standing in the office doorway, blocking Sam’s retreat.

“Sam, my child, so good to see you.”

He was a year younger than Sam, but referred to all the pastors as his children, no matter their age. Except for the women ministers, whom he called his girls. He was as good an argument against institutional religion as Sam had ever met.

All his life, Sam had strived mightily to make everyone happy, but since crossing the half-century mark he had decided to let others make him happy for a change, and figured Dale and the superintendent were a good place to start.

“Well, look what the cat drug in,” Sam said. “Come in, gents. Sit down, take a load off. I’d offer you something to drink, but we’re out of everything.”

They sat down. Lindsey followed them in, standing in the doorway.

“What can I do for you?” Sam asked.

“I’ll not beat around the bush,” the superintendent said. “I heard you conducted a gay wedding.”

“Not exactly,” Sam said. “I offered a prayer at the wedding of two women.”

“It wasn’t a wedding, since homosexuals can’t marry,” Dale said.

“Well, if it wasn’t a wedding, then I guess your visit was pointless,” Sam said, smiling at the superintendent. “Sorry you had to drive all that way for nothing.”

“Whether or not it was a wedding isn’t the point. Your very presence implies acceptance of what happened,” the superintendent said. “And not just your acceptance, but the acceptance of this congregation, and by virtue of that, the acceptance of our entire yearly meeting.”

“I was invited to offer a prayer for two young women and I did so. I saw nothing wrong with praying for two people wanting to share their lives with one another.”

“The Lord condemns it,” Dale snapped.

“That’s your opinion,” Sam said.

Lindsey spoke from the doorway. “Come on, Grandpa, leave Sam alone.”

This was certainly a surprise.

“This doesn’t concern you, Lindsey,” Dale blustered. “Go back to your desk.”

“Dale, I’ll thank you not to order my staff around,” Sam said. “Lindsey, this is your church, too. You can say what you wish.”

Dale stared at Sam like a landed fish walloped by a two-by-four, his mouth agape. “I knew you would turn her against me.”

“Don’t be silly, Grandpa. I’m not against you. I just don’t agree with you.”

“Let’s get back to the matter at hand,” the superintendent said. “I can’t have my pastors running around condoning this.”

“I am not your pastor,” Sam informed him. “I’m my own man. You don’t own me.”

“The Oversight Committee says pastors report to me,” the superintendent said.

“Ah, yes, the Oversight Committee,” Sam said. “The committee you formed without asking the rest of us. They have no authority over me. God has called me to ministry, and this congregation invited me here. Until God tells me I can’t pray for people, I will continue to do so.”

“We’ll see about that,” Dale said.

“Indeed we will,” Sam said. He turned to face the superintendent. “The church has plenty of small-minded people afraid of change. Our leaders need to move us beyond that, not encourage it.”

For someone who wasn’t good on his feet, Sam was surprised by his burst of eloquence and wished it were being recorded.

The superintendent rose to his feet. “Given the circumstances, I’ll have to retract my offer for you to speak at our next pastors’ conference. It’s clear to me you are no longer in the Spirit. In fact, I prefer you not attend at all.”

Sam had never liked attending pastors’ retreats, but now that he knew the superintendent didn’t want him there, he’d be sure to go. If he were still around, that is.

“Gentlemen, I have work to do. I trust you can find the door.”

“This matter is not over,” the superintendent said.

“No, I suppose it isn’t,” Sam said. “But this conversation is. I have other things to do. Next time, make an appointment.”

The superintendent strode from the office with Dale in tow.

“I’ll be gone within the month,” he told Lindsey after they had left.

“I love my grandpa, but he’s wrong,” Lindsey said. “And I’m going to tell him so.”

“Lindsey, I appreciate the support, but don’t stick your neck out. I don’t want there to be hard feelings in your family.”

“He’s the one who was all hot for me to take this job,” she said. “He’s probably regretting that now.”

Even though it was only Wednesday, Sam went to work on his sermon. It was a scorcher of a message, in which he quoted Jesus and the prophets of old, going hammer and tongs against injustice and narrow-mindedness. If the elders didn’t like it, they could always attend the Harmony Worship Center, where they sang one-line songs projected on big screens and couldn’t make a noodle to save their souls.

 

The next morning, Sam and Barbara went to the meetinghouse early to get the coffee started. Before long, Uly Grant arrived with the doughnuts, and folks began streaming in, including Deena and the Iverson family, with twins in tow, followed by Miriam and Ellis, who seemed especially cheerful to have survived their out-of-state ordeal and greeted everyone with robust hugs and a few tears.

“You wouldn’t believe it down there,” Ellis told Sam. “It’s crazy.”

“Well, I’m glad you’re back home safe,” Sam said. “It’s good to see you, friend.”

Sam fussed over the Iverson twins, gave them each a doughnut, asked them about school, then predicted they’d be the first twins to serve as U.S. president.

“Don’t be silly. They were born in China,” Fern said. “They can’t be president. It’s against the Constitution.”

Leave it to Fern to dash a child’s dream.

The twins hurried off to their Sunday school class, while the adults gathered in a circle in the basement dining room. This was the worst hour of Sam’s week, listening to Dale teach the adult Sunday school class. The class was reading its way through the Bible, a verse at a time. Dale would read each verse, stopping after each one to ask, “What do you suppose the Lord is trying to tell us here?” When anyone ventured a guess, he would argue with them. They had been in the book of Habakkuk for several weeks, hung up on the sixth verse of the first chapter, “For lo, I am rousing the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation, who march through the breadth of the earth, to seize habitations not their own.”

“Who are the Chaldeans today?” Dale asked. “What nation has chosen to set itself against God?”

No one dared answer, for fear of getting him cranked up.

“I would have to say it’s the Soviet Union,” Dale said. That the Soviet Union had gone belly-up decades before seemed not to have occurred to him, and he spent the next hour blaming every modern ill on a nation that no longer existed.

Sam excused himself to prepare for worship. Deena followed him out. “Boy, I didn’t miss that,” she said. “We either need a new teacher, or need to start a new class.”

“Probably easier to start a new class,” Sam said. “No way he’s going to give up teaching that one.”

“Maybe Judy Iverson and I can work on starting a new class,” Deena said.

“That would be great,” Sam said. “Run it by Jessie Peacock. She’s the clerk of our Christian Education Committee. I imagine she’ll be delighted to help you.”

Sam hugged Deena. “I’m glad you’re back,” he said. “We sure have missed you.”

Sam spent Saturday evening softening his sermon. A sermon that in its first writing had been a scorcher against intolerance and narrow-mindedness was, by the day of its delivery, reduced to a flickering candle, a general admonition to be nice to people and love everyone.

At the conclusion of worship, Dale stood, announced that the elders had called an emergency meeting of the church, and urged people to stay.

Gloria Gardner announced the profits of the Chicken Noodle Dinner, then reminded the ladies of the Friendly Women’s Circle to gather Tuesday morning to begin making noodles for the next dinner.

Sam offered a closing prayer. He hadn’t even said “Amen” before Miriam Hodge was hustling toward Dale. “What do you mean the elders called an emergency meeting? I’m the clerk of the elders and I wasn’t aware of this.”

“We sent out an e-mail this past Wednesday,” Dale said. “Don’t you read your e-mails? Something came up when you were gone and we had to meet. We’ve got ourselves a situation and people need to know about it.”

Miriam was starting to remember why she didn’t take vacations. The congregation was making its way to the basement for the meeting. It was out of her hands now.

Harvey Muldock was the clerk of the meeting. He was a nice man, good with furnaces and lawn mowers, but the finer distinctions of chairing a meeting were lost on him. He clerked a meeting like he drove—gas pedal to the floor, no brakes.

“Let’s start with a prayer,” Harvey said, after everyone had found a seat. The crowd fell silent. “Lord, we don’t know why we’re here, but you know why and we trust you to be with us and guide us. Amen.”

“Amen,” people rumbled.

While Sam was pleased with the outcome of the debate, he knew Dale would not go silently into the night.

Harvey turned to Miriam. “Miriam, you’re the clerk of the elders. What’s so important it couldn’t wait until our regular meeting? ”

“I have no idea. Ellis and I have been out of town. This meeting is a total surprise.”

“Dale, what’s going on here? Miriam’s the clerk of the elders. The elders can’t call a meeting of the church without her knowing about it.”

“Says in Faith and Practice they can. If the clerk of the elders is unavailable, the elders can call a meeting. Miriam was out of town, but the rest of us could meet, so we did. We sent everyone an e-mail announcing today’s meeting, and called the folks who don’t have e-mail.”

“Well, what’s so all fire important it can’t wait another week?” Harvey asked.

“Sam conducted a lesbian wedding,” Dale said. “It says in Faith and Practice that marriage can only be between a man and a woman. Sam knew that and did it anyway.”

“Is that right, Sam? Did you marry two women?” Harvey asked.

“It was inadvertent,” Sam explained. “I didn’t realize they were both women until the service had started.”

“Where did this wedding take place?” Harvey asked.

“At the Unitarian church,” Sam said. “Their pastor got sick at the last moment, so I stepped in to help him. We ministers do that for one another in emergencies.”

“The Unitarians don’t have any rules against lesbian weddings, do they?” Harvey asked.

“Apparently not,” Sam said.

“Well, then, I don’t see the problem,” Harvey said. “You weren’t conducting a Quaker wedding. You were conducting a Unitarian wedding, so you had to go by their rules. If it’s not against their rules, I don’t see how we can fault you. Anybody else have a problem with Sam helping the Unitarians?”

“I think it’s terrible,” Fern snapped. “He needs to be fired.”

Bea and Opal nodded their heads in agreement. Were it up to them, Sam would be blindfolded, given a last cigarette, stood against a wall, and shot.

“St. Ambrose said, ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do,’” Miriam observed.

“Well, if it was good enough for a saint, it’s good enough for me,” Harvey said. “Now, Sam, if you ever get sick and the Unitarian minister has to pinch-hit for you at a wedding, we would expect him to do things our way just like you did things their way,” Harvey said.

“I’m sure he would,” Sam said.

“Then that’s that,” Harvey said, standing up. “If we leave now, we’ll get home in time for the Colts game. Meeting’s over, folks.”

“You can’t end a meeting because of a football game,” Dale protested. “You haven’t given everyone a chance to talk.”

“I don’t see how sitting around flapping our jaws is going to help us,” Harvey said. Several people nodded their heads in agreement, all of them men who wanted to watch the game. “Looks like we’re done then,” Harvey said. “Thank you all for staying.”

It was, according to Ellis, who had attended every church meeting for the past 72 years, the shortest gathering of elders ever held in the history of Harmony Friends Meeting.

While Sam was pleased with the outcome of the debate, he knew Dale would not go silently into the night, and that even now, in the dark and twisted recesses of his corrupted mind, the man was plotting Sam’s pastoral demise.

 

Illustrations by Jonathan Carlson

For more on Philip Gulley’s latest novel, A Place Called Hope, visit his website.

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