When I learned of Betty’s death, I felt compelled to drive out for her memorial service. I didn’t know why exactly, but the pull was strong.
I’d lost touch with Betty the last couple of years. (My fault, not hers.) I hadn’t been back to the state in 20 years. There were only a few folks I’d kept up with at all, and that was all on Facebook. I’ve been a UCC pastor for almost 15 years. What need did I have to return to Oklahoma, a place that was very much part of my past?
Then I saw Tom and Nancy Willoughby. Tom served First Baptist, Shawnee, as Minister of Music when I first came to OBU. After a year or two, he was called to FBC, Lawton. After graduating, I got a job teaching school in Lawton. Tom, Nancy, and I renewed our acquaintance. They are two of the few people I’ve kept up with over the years. Delightful people. And always supportive. And terrific musicians!
When talking with Nancy, I reminded her of a comment she made at a goodbye luncheon a church member had thrown for me as I left Lawton for Southern Seminary. Over lunch, we’d been talking about how the fundamentalists were taking over Southeastern Seminary in North Carolina. (This was 1988.) Nancy spoke up, her voice laced with alarm: “I think Southern is next on their list.” I remember wondering if she was right, then—because the idea terrified me—I shoved the thought aside.
When I reminded Nancy of her statement at Mrs. W’s memorial service, she said: “I didn’t want you to go! We love you and we didn’t want you to be hurt!”
When I heard Nancy speak those words, I knew I had driven to Oklahoma, in part, to hear her speak them. “We didn’t want you to go.” Someone had cared about what happened to me even before the fundamentalists took over Southern. I had felt so alone, so cut off from anyone in Baptist life during the dark days of seminary, but someone had cared about what happened. They loved me and didn’t want me to be hurt.
As her words seeped in and I scrambled to reframe my narrative of seminary, Nancy looked at me and said, “We are so proud of you and your ministry!” It was like she was speaking another language. Proud? These people from way back in my Baptist history—proud of me? Later, both Nancy and Tom assured me that they were very proud that I am a pastor and that the church I serve practices an inclusive faith. “Really?” I asked in disbelief. “Oh, yes.”
I’ve always liked Tom and Nancy and have always felt welcome in their presence, but I didn’t know they believed in me. I didn’t know they were proud. Hearing their words, receiving their hugs, hearing about their own journeys away from Baptist life—that was what I needed to hear. It’s what I’ve needed to finally close this chapter in my life—the one of struggling to hear and follow my call to pastor. The thing I have sought for the past 30 years is a blessing for my calling. Certainly, many people and communities have done just that.
But I guess I’ve needed to receive that blessing from someone who was there at the beginning. I’ve needed to hear someone say they’re proud of me for being a pastor and of the congregation I serve for being Open and Affirming. I had no idea that blessing is what I’ve craved, what I’ve been hungry for. Now that the blessing has been offered and received? Now the fight to claim my call is over. Now I can say with the ease I first heard from a monk at St. Gregory’s Abbey 30 years ago: “This is my calling.”
(Far left–Tom. Far right–Nancy.)