By David Heddendorf

I was raised in a heroic age of churchgoing. I won’t say we rivaled our Puritan forebears, devoting whole Sabbaths to sermons and Psalms – but we certainly wouldn’t have commended you for showing up once a week and leaving after a tepid hour. We looked down on that sort of thing – my present routine, more or less – as the feeble observance of indolent, misguided souls. In addition to the regular morning service, which often exceeded an hour and a half, we attended Sunday school before and the fellowship hour after. There was Wednesday night prayer meeting, and a youth group event one other weeknight. And on Sundays, after spending three hours at church in the morning, and often sharing the midday meal with fellow members, we never missed the evening service.

         Although I find it increasingly difficult to credit, I know there are people who still spend Sundays in this strenuous fashion. It is I who have changed, and relaxed into softer habits, and not necessarily the world in general. Yet for me those arduous Lord’s Days belong to an utterly different time, gone the way of butter churns and manual typewriters. Most people I know take their lives a good deal easier now. There are television shows to watch on Sunday evenings, and friends to spend time with besides those from church. Those grueling hours in the pew, and all that bad coffee, aren’t to be borne after a long week of work.

         There are times, though, thinking about the sheer effort we put forth, when I realize there must have been a reason for it all, and I know what that reason was. We believed. We believed “nothing wavering,” as I seem to recall it saying somewhere.

         At the handful of funerals I attended growing up, the word I remember hearing most often is “victorious.” From those services, and from innumerable Sunday sermons, I formed a picture of a glorious translation, an instantaneous removal to a world of song and ineffable light. I thought of these visions the other day when, fetching some tool from the basement, I paused to examine a spider hanging lifeless in its web. The filamentous legs and crumb-like center remained intact, so complete that I blew on them to make them stir. The object bobbed on my breath, a macabre marionette. Uninjured to outward appearances, the creature had simply stopped, like a rundown watch. I was appalled by the utter absence of fanfare.

         Our pastor back then was a short, plump, soft-spoken man named Craig. No one called him “Reverend Soderstrum,” or “Pastor Craig.” He was simply “Craig,” even to teenagers like me. We sought him for advice, consolation, and spiritual knowledge, and he needed no awe-inspiring titles or vestments to elevate himself above his flock. We invited him into our homes the same as any other member, and we thought about him and talked about him with no special, reverent regard.

         I don’t know whether this intimacy helped spread the rumor that Sunday, or whether people would have discussed Craig still more readily, even gleefully, had he led in a remote and austere manner. I’m not sure whether familiarity or aloofness breeds the speedier onset of contempt. What I do know happened that morning is that Craig pronounced the benediction (“Now unto him that is able to keep you from falling…”), we sang the closing hymn (I suspect it was “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah”), Mrs. Patterson pounded out some spirited recessional, and Craig in his too-tight suit, Bible in hand, hurried down the aisle to his station at the door. Then, instead of the usual genial hubbub, a new sound rose from the blessed and dismissed congregation–a grim sibilance, like the hiss of summer leaves before a storm. I noticed the difference immediately. Even in that first faint glimmering of trouble, I watched people form into two distinct groups: those who were eager to break the news, and their stunned, disbelieving hearers. My parents were in the latter group. I thought we’d never get out of the pew.

         At that time–I must have been fifteen or sixteen–I had just begun attending to the power struggles that occasionally racked our church. I wasn’t fully admitted into the mysteries, though, and I couldn’t make out, as we loitered in the sanctuary, what had so disturbed the adults that morning. I thought I heard the words “improper” and “speculation,” but I could get no concrete details. Everyone was murmuring, some even muffling their lips with a cupped hand. When we reached the basement for the coffee hour, having shaken hands with Craig as usual, people bunched again in whispering knots. My parents joined one of these, and I hung off to the side, unable to hear anything more.

         I drifted over to the missionary map on the wall, where I pretended to immerse myself in the worldwide spread of the Gospel while listening for unguarded comments. Ten minutes passed, and still I learned nothing. I asked some people my age if they’d heard anything, but either they knew no more than I did or they shrugged, incurious, and went on munching their doughnuts. I turned back to the map–convinced that whatever the Winkelmans were doing in Indonesia, it couldn’t be half as exciting as whatever it was the adults were keeping from me.

         I remained in the dark until the ride home. My parents couldn’t resist talking about what they’d heard, and my sister Margie and I leaned forward from the backseat, listening in.

         “Velma says she thinks it’s just a misunderstanding,” said my mother.

         “Stories do get twisted around, the more they’re told,” agreed my father, barely keeping two fingers on the wheel. His careless driving contrasted oddly with his formal speech. “It could also have been a case of people thinking they saw something when they actually didn’t see anything.”

         “Mmm,” said my mother.

         This was almost worse than nothing. Margie looked at me, wide-eyed. She’d spent the coffee hour chattering with her friends, oblivious. I glared at her, then jerked my chin toward the front, waiting for more.

         “I have a feeling there’s something to it,” said my mother.

         “That’s getting to be my impression, too,” my father sighed.

         There was nothing more to say for the time being, as far as they were concerned. For the next couple of miles, neither of them spoke. We lived in Meridian, a long twelve miles from the tiny town of Reuben, home of Reuben Bible Fellowship. Going to the right church, for my parents, was worth the twenty-minute drive. I knew every barn and pond and dead tree on that trip. The abandoned gas station meant we were almost to the church. The weedy drive-in theater meant it was two minutes to home. The only members who had a longer drive were Craig himself, his wife, and their three kids.

         “I wish someone would tell me what’s going on,” I finally said.

         “Yeah, what’s going on?” whined Margie.

         “Oh, just some talk going around,” said my mother. “Nothing serious.”

         I gave an indignant snort.

         “It’s being said that Craig was seen in Danner City with another woman,” my father said slowly. Danner City was a town of about 30,000 people, not far from Meridian and Reuben. We went there several times a year on errands and doctor visits.

         “So?” said Margie.

         “I’ll explain later, honey,” my mother told her.

         “It doesn’t look good, to put it mildly,” said my father.

         “She could be a relative,” I said. “Or someone from the denomination that he needed to see.” This was a stretch, as even I knew. Women in our denomination did not hold positions that would require a pastor to meet with them.

         “All of that’s true,” my father generously said. “The trouble is that several people have seen Craig with this woman. On several different occasions. And yesterday it was in a somewhat out-of-the-way part of town.”

         I particularly remember that delicate expression of my father’s: an “out-of-the-way part of town.” Did he mean a red-light district? A block of strip joints and cheap motels? It didn’t occur to me to ask the obvious question: what had Craig’s accusers been doing in this “out-of-the-way part of town”?   

         “So they think he’s carrying on with this woman?” I asked. I was proud of my grown-up circumlocutions in front of the innocent Margie.

         “That’s clearly what is being implied,” said my father.

         We ate Sunday dinner at our house that day. My parents had invited no guests. After a quiet meal–pot roast or chicken casserole; the good Sunday china–we dispersed to nap, read the paper, or watch TV.

         It was a dull afternoon, blank and featureless as the January sky. I have no idea what pastimes I chose for myself. I recall only the heaviness of that day, a listlessness that made us barely acknowledge each other as we consumed tasteless snacks, lay stunned on the sofa, stared out at the snow-rimmed yews and spruces. We could think of nothing but the rumor, yet there was nothing we could say, still less we could do. The phone seemed to ring constantly. My parents answered. From the hushed, somber voices I knew it was about Craig.

         It’s incredible how shocked and grieved we were. Looking back from a new, more cynical century, it seems a sadly familiar tale. Clergy people make mistakes, often highly public ones. A period of obligatory dismay might follow, but no one is really surprised. Pastors are human. They work under stress. They succumb. Why did we think Craig was any different?

         I know why. I know perfectly well why. This was a man who, three or more times a week, stood before us and spoke in a soft, calm voice about grace, faith, and love. He always carried a Bible with him into the pulpit, but I never think of Craig as reading from a book. Instead he always quotes from memory: verse after verse, clause after stately clause, whole passages and chapters of exhortation and encouragement, doled out in unfaltering portions. “There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man,” he says, holding up a pudgy forefinger. “As far as the east is from the west,” he announces, arms spread wide, “so far hath he removed our transgressions from us.” And in an awestruck murmur, repeating what must surely have been his best-loved verse: “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.”

         How could a boy with an awakening delight in words not be enthralled by such performances? And yet it wasn’t just the music of Craig’s delivery that lodged in my mind, where the refrains and harmonies echo to this day. I took to heart the simple, unaffected faith he preached. I believed in the abiding comfort of his words. Craig was–he unalterably is–my pastor.

         I’ve said that he didn’t separate himself from us, and this too made it difficult to accept the stories being told. The sordid images simply could not be reconciled with our everyday pictures of Craig. At the time of the rumor, I played on the church basketball team, and Craig was our oldest, second-best player. Seven or eight of us would drive to some creaky, ill-lit gym, where we won every game thanks to a high-school football star who attended the minimum number of services. We competed without uniforms or referees. In tight white shorts and T-shirt, so that he seemed to be playing in his underwear, Craig ran the floor with a stamina that put me to shame. He was in his late thirties then, almost entirely bald, his small potbelly jiggling as he grabbed a rebound or cut for the basket. He was an excellent passer, but more often he launched his archaic two-handed set shot, right knee lifted as if for a layup. If one of our players or–more typically–an opponent swore after a missed shot, Craig’s calm voice rang out as he backpedaled on defense, or dribbled downcourt to begin a fast break: “Keep it clean, boys. Keep it clean.”

         Craig and his family lived in a century-old farmhouse about ten miles outside of Reuben. Their drive to the church over winding dirt roads took nearly ten minutes longer than ours did. I think Craig liked the quiet out there. The congregation used his small lake and adjacent shelter for picnics, potlucks, and retreats of all kinds. During the summer we had monthly “Teen Nights” there, when several dozen of us from three or four churches went to Craig’s place for swimming, volleyball, and a big bonfire. After eating, we sat around the fire and sang “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Puff, the Magic Dragon,” and those Christian folk songs that afflicted most denominations in those years. Then Craig or another adult would settle everyone down for a “talk.” I’d hear warnings about the lust of the flesh while eyeing Judy Bentley’s nipples, stirringly apparent beneath her wet suit.

         Long after dark, a climactic fit of anarchy would usually break out. Tossing fully-clothed adults into the lake was popular, as were made-up games loosely resembling tag and hide-and-seek that scattered the entire group over the fields. Craig was always in the thick of it, wearing an impish smile as though he hoped no grown-ups would notice. He performed seismic cannonballs off the float in the center of the lake, and was said, a number of years before my time, to have released seven frogs in the girls’ changing cubicle. 

         One night during my first “Teen Nights” summer, when my fellow revelers seemed old and sophisticated to me, I strayed into a hollow beyond the reach of floodlights and bonfire, where insects whirred and weeds rustled under a moonless sky. I couldn’t remember in what direction the house lay. Even the lake was swallowed up in a darkness completely unlike the Meridian night of glowing windows and friendly streetlamps. For a few minutes I listened for voices; but either I’d wandered out of earshot or else the game we were playing had suddenly demanded silence. I could see and hear nothing. When my disorientation turned into confusion, then fear, I called out.

         “Hey! Hey anybody! I don’t know where I am!”

         The reply came immediately–the clear, quiet voice I’d heard so many times from the pulpit. “It’s all right, Mitch. I’m right over here.”

         That long Sunday afternoon of the rumor, snow began falling at about four o’clock, and by six o’clock lay heavy on the roads. We didn’t have computers with instant weather maps back then, and TV stations didn’t carry fifteen-minute updates. We looked out the windows and watched the inches accumulate. As the light failed, we peered into a welter of steadily falling flakes, enormous, plummeting like stones. I turned back to the living room, dizzied by the motion.

         My father lowered his newspaper. “I guess we’d better get ready,” he said.

         My mother stared at him. “We’re going?”

         “Well, I thought we’d try.”

         “You can barely see the road.”

         “If we leave early we can take our time. I don’t think it will be too bad.”

         My mother hesitated. “It isn’t just the snow.”

         “You don’t think the service is going to be cancelled because of that, do you?” asked my father.

         My mother looked down at her needlepoint. Her hands were still. “I don’t know. Will anybody come? It’s just hard to imagine the service going on the same as usual.”

         “I think we should try to go,” said my father.

         I listened and said nothing. To me, my parents’ discussion missed the point. I couldn’t imagine going outside, getting into the car, and leaving for church–but it had nothing to do with the snow, falling harder than ever now, nor exactly with the possibility that Craig’s disgrace (if he was disgraced) had caused the service to be cancelled or unattended. The problem, for me, was simply movement of any kind. Since the rumor had sunk in, I’d been unable to do anything all afternoon. I didn’t know whether I believed what people were saying about Craig, and I didn’t know what it would mean if the story turned out to be true. I knew only that my brain had turned sluggish, my limbs to lead. For the last three hours it had been unthinkable to cross the room and turn the channel knob, let alone contemplate driving over snow-clogged roads to the evening service.

         For my father, however, the afternoon of phone calls and lowered voices had only steeled his determination. He would defy any blizzard, ignore any innuendo. “I think we should go,” he said again, and my mother knew argument was useless. I went to get Margie, and we all pulled on our boots and coats.

         The Meridian snowplow had deposited a knee-high barrier across our driveway entrance. After several minutes of shoveling and pushing we got the car onto the street, where we skidded and fishtailed at every intersection. We hoped things might get easier on the road to Reuben, where my father could maintain a slow steady pace. We thought we’d reach the church in only slightly more time than usual.

         We were wrong, of course. In the open farmland, the snow changed from a neat perpendicular fall to a blowing, whipping shroud, obscuring anything beyond a few yards. The headlights picked out a maelstrom of darting, flashing flakes. For quarter-mile stretches the pavement would be strangely bare, windswept, then a two-foot drift would leap into view, extending over half the road. My father crept along, leaning into the windshield, squinting through the ice and the beating wipers.

         We’d made that short trip hundreds of times, but that night we could have been anywhere. For all that we could see, we might as well have been nowhere. No landmarks were visible. At our slow, dreamlike crawl we could not gauge distance. I stopped wondering whether or not we’d make the service on time. I just wanted to see the quiet, well-lit streets of Reuben.

         When we finally did reach the town, I wasn’t disappointed. Not only were the winds calmer and the drifts smaller, but the storm itself had weakened. The pelting clots thinned to soft, floating particles. The night sky reemerged from a billowing white curtain. At about ten minutes after seven we sighted the stubby church spire–only slightly worse than other shame-faced late arrivals I recalled.

         At first the parking lot appeared empty, a pristine white field. Then, drawing nearer, we saw a single car huddled against the building, its cloaked shape trailing half-filled tracks. My father rolled slowly across the uncleared lot and eased in beside the other car. He switched off the ignition and sank back in his seat.

         “Well done,” said my mother.

         “Look,” said Margie.

         At the head of the neatly shoveled steps, behind the twin glass doors, Craig stood looking out at the parking lot. He must have witnessed our arrival, but he showed no awareness of us. He gazed out over our heads at the beauty of the night, hands in his pockets, motionless in his old charcoal suit. The snow continued to fall.

         On vacation in Colorado a few years earlier, I had bought one of those plastic water-filled domes that one shakes to simulate a snowstorm. White specks rose and swirled around a tiny mountain scene, never failing to hold me spellbound. As I watched Craig standing behind the glass doors, with the light snow filling the air between us, I thought of that miniature shaken world. He didn’t move, although we remained in the car for several minutes. His face and bearing betrayed no care or concern. He just stared out at the roofs and trees and cars, all clothed in a sparkling garment of white.


2 Responses to “Craig, My Pastor”

  1. Neil Campbell Says:

    Very interesting and stimulating.

    Are you the David Heddendorf with whom I worked in the Summer of 1979 at Capernwray? I remember our conversations and your short story, Clouds?

    Would be good to hear from you.

    Best wishes from Scotland UK,

    Neil Campbell

    • David Heddendorf Says:

      Hello Neil! What a nice surprise to hear from you! Thank you for reading my story. Yes, I remember you from Capernwray–you were one of my good friends there. Hope all’s well with you.


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