On Drifting Back, And Looking Ahead Part 2
When I was writing my Belief Series regarding my faith and belief journey thus far, I got an amazing and timely message from a friend. In that message they shared encouragement and support, but they also shared a story.
Not only is my friend’s story impactful, but it is very well written. More than anything- more than facts and statistics- it is the power of our stories which moves hearts and shifts perspectives. And so I asked my friend if they would mind sharing their writing on my blog and, lucky for us all, they agreed to do so. This week I will be sharing my friend’s 3 part story and I hope you will join us, comment, and share. (My friend is writing anonymously for privacy. The names in their story have been changed.)
You can find Part 1 here.
It’s the beginning of the summer. We’re all arriving in J City, most of us for the first time. Some of the volunteer coordinators go to the small Bible college located here. For a college town, there isn’t much around. There’s a Walmart and a McDonald’s, as is the custom in small town America, but they also bump it up with a couple Mexican restaurants and a drive-thru tobacco store. There isn’t a liquor store within a thirty minute drive – J County is what they call “moist;” only beer and wine can be sold in the county. That doesn’t really matter though because we aren’t allowed to drink alcohol while we’re here. It’s written in Comic Sans on the paperwork, so they must be serious.
I’ve packed way too much into my fifteen-year-old, golden-brown Dodge station wagon; it’s surprising that it’s survived the trip. I’m drunk with the independence of being a new college graduate, so the strangers helping me unload don’t bother me as much as they normally would.
We’re set to do some standard onboarding stuff in the first week, like getting to know each other and splitting up into our teams. Some will help with operations at the ministry center. Bailey and a couple of the other girls will be helping at the women’s shelter associated with the ministry. Most of us are set to work in one of five or so home repair teams. It’s what I expect to do, but I’m told instead that I’ll be trying to make working computers out of the shitty computer garbage they’ve collected. I’m less than happy.
I almost immediately ask Shawn if we can chat for a few minutes. He brings me to his cramped, baby-blue office and starts laying out some platitudes and non-answers about why I’m not heading up a repair team. He says I should be “serving gratefully,” whatever that means. I play a couple video games by a studio that makes these relatively popular “choose your own adventure” titles. When you make a decision in the story that’s going to affect the outcome, a little notification will pop up, saying something like, “Cassandra will remember that.” This usually happens after you do something terrible to Cassandra, like leaving her alone in the scary woods or using up all her chapstick. Thinking back over these memories, that same kind of notification pops up to the left of Shawn’s head during this meeting: “Shawn will remember this.”
Tyler has a goatee – heavy on the chin, light on the mustache. He’s about a foot and a half shorter than me. I can tell he plays sports. Tyler will be my roommate for the next handful of months. Tyler also uses my computer when I’m not there, which turns out to be most of the time. Tyler is the one who gets our internet turned off because he keeps hitting the porn blockers the college has set up. Tyler goes camping alone with another staff member for the reasons young couples like to be alone. Tyler puts up both of his hands and closes his eyes when he sings the Jesus songs. Tyler won’t be asked to leave.
JD, on the other hand, has a more traditional coating of fashionable stubble and is tall enough that I don’t feel like I need to kneel down to talk to him. JD has grown as close to me as Bailey and Jacob have. He’s from Texas. We both love Dave Matthews Band. We play guitar together. When we’re at the Mexican restaurant, JD orders plain flour tortillas that he rolls into tubes and dunks into the queso dip. JD comes up with the idea to run an internet cable through a hole in the wall between our rooms when Tyler gets ours shut off. JD dips Kodiak chewing tobacco and sings a little song when he packs the can: “The pack, the pack of the kodiak.” It’s a little problematic, but he can do surprisingly lengthy Eddie Murphy bits from memory. He’s not doing that anymore, though, at least not here. He’ll be leaving tomorrow morning, halfway through the summer.
Another humid and oppressively hot afternoon in J County is winding down. I’m sitting in an odd roadside diner across from Shawn and Rick, the site foreman. It’s a good thirty minutes away from J City and fifteen or so from my jobsite. Rick seems very uncomfortable. At least whatever this is will be climate-controlled; this place has a strangely robust cooling system.
I’m anxious to get out of here and meet up with Bailey and the others. It’s a pretty tight-knit group I’ve found myself in here. We smoke Kamel Reds that we get from the drive-thru tobacco store with our pitiful stipend. We think it’s hilarious to make the dam pun about the dam picnic we have at the dam lake, every dam weekend down at the dam. We have fairly progressive and liberal religious beliefs for white Christian kids in the early 2000s. We talk back. As far as Shawn is concerned, we are basically heathens.
I’m getting ready to do some of that talking back as Shawn lists the reasons why I’m being told to leave. The reasons aren’t good enough. I honestly address all of them, though not to his satisfaction. He brings up the porn and internet situation again, and all but forces me to give him someone to blame. I hadn’t named names up to this point, but I do now because Shawn is yelling. In this two-table convenience store diner, Shawn is yelling at me. Yelling at me right above the shitty sandwich and off-brand chips he’d just bought me. The other reasons were a jumbled mess, including a “You don’t really want to be here, do you?” and a “Someone told me there was a girl in your room.” To be fair, he’s right about the girl-in-the-room accusation. But it was a globally-ignored rule; we were all in each other’s rooms all the time.
It’s clear that the reason I’m being asked to leave is because I’m a point of resistance. Don’t get me wrong, I get along with everyone on staff here. But if you line us up it’s pretty obvious that I don’t match the shirt-tuckers who raise their hands and close their eyes when we sing Jesus songs. Shawn doesn't like that. Shawn doesn’t like me, and that’s really why we’re here. He’s attempting to cover it up with his accusations of moral failure, but it’s enough of a stretch that it’s pretty easy to see through.
I look over to Rick and ask if he’s ok with this. He recently saved me from my previous job assignment and put me onto a repair team, for which I am incredibly grateful. We’ve become good friends, partly because I’m competent enough to help him manage the different teams spread over the county. Rick knows we aren’t heathens. He knows me. Rick knows that this isn’t fair. I can see now that it’s not the humidity making his face red as he cuts Shawn off and pulls him over to the side.
Later, I’ll connect the dots as I’m watching Rick and Shawn having a hushed argument in the diner. Shawn had the same kind of talk with JD. I hear Rick say his name and wonder what Shawn could have said to make JD leave without telling us what actually happened.
You could see most of J City from the small parking lot next to the water tower. I try to recreate the magic when I get back home to the hills, but looking out over a cemetery and a gas company truck yard never really does the trick. Tonight, J City law enforcement has graced us with their presence; apparently they aren’t comfortable with us sitting around on the hood of a car, doing nothing. We don’t make a fuss and drive back over to the dorm that’s been my home for the last few months. We drag some chairs out to the parking lot and I grab my guitar to show Bailey the guitar riff that I’d learned from “There are Ghosts.” She feigns being impressed; I appreciate the gesture. I light the last cigarette of the day and toss the green 7-11 lighter over to Jacob to do the same. I’ll need to wake up in three hours to pack the van for my last home repair assignment of the summer. A week and a half later, Bailey and I are sitting in exactly the same spot, her head stuck to my shoulder. I’m staying an extra day with her because she isn’t able to leave along with everyone else. Jacob is already gone – yesterday afternoon in fact. We mostly spend those last hours stuck in a weepy lament. It’s a beautiful kind of torture that carves an equally visceral memory deep into the folds of my brain. It was definitely love.
I’m talking to Sol; he’s probably got some goofy joke to fool me with, but I don’t really remember. We’re over at Rick’s house for a picnic. I’m assuming it’s just a get-together to mark the end of the summer. Shawn isn’t here; he’s apparently not been invited. I’m just fine with that. I still don’t really know what convinced him to allow me to stay. It seems like Rick was involved, but I’m just not sure. That is, until now, when Rick pulls me aside on my way up to fill my plate at the food table.
He tells me about what happened that day in the diner, about threatening to resign on the spot if anyone else was sent home because of Shawn’s bullshit. He says this kind of stuff with Shawn has been going on for a while now. I take one of those short, convulsive breaths you sometimes take before you’re about to burst into tears. I don’t, but I am speechless. I’ve never needed this degree of advocacy, let alone been given it. As I step over to the grill and grab a hamburger, Rick announces to the group that he’s leaving the ministry at the end of the season. He’s not being forced out or anything; he’s just choosing a better path. It’s a moving moment, and his family seems relieved.
Shawn leaves the ministry a couple years later.
I’d like to think it wasn’t his choice. I don’t have any information on how it transpired, unfortunately. The contrast between Rick making the choice to leave and Shawn not having a choice would have made for a nice ending, but “God don’t make things that you can rearrange.”
Stay tuned for Part 3 on Friday!