Rodolph Rowe | A show of strength

Sabine greeted the last of the lingering parishioners at the front door. As she came past the Welcome! kiosk on the way to her office, she picked up a handful of brochures that had been prepared to introduce her to the church and community. She’d meant for many, many months to send some of the extras to her mom in Gainesboro who would distribute them to family and friends with the zeal of a brand new Amway salesman. The reason she’d put it off was because the brochure was still a painful reminder of her first conflict in this new church.

At thirty-five years of age, after serving for a decade in staff positions at large churches, this was her first parish where she was on her own as the pastor in charge.

Clive and Warren Parcher, bachelor brothers, large donors, senior men of considerable influence, had let it be known that they were personally funding the development and printing of this introductory brochure as well as underwriting a mass mailing to every home within five miles of the church. Generous indeed.

***

She had given the introductory brochure committee a nice color photo of herself presiding at the communion table, arms spread in welcome and some basic biographical information.  The catch tag, “Come Home to a New Beginning,” had been readily agreed upon by the administrative board, hoping to appeal to many of the young people buying their first homes, who might consider returning to the churches they’d left behind, as they started families of their own.

She had been pleased with the drafts, but then Clive passed around the final galley like he was giving out one hundred dollar bills at the end of a Staff-parish Relations meeting. She felt a dull ache in her breast when she saw that one word had been added on the front panel underneath her picture. Instead of the agreed upon, “Come meet our new pastor,” it read, “Come meet our beautiful, new pastor.”

She blushed with anger and shame and fought back tears. She had tried to convince herself that the comments she overheard in the first few days were harmless–just people trying to get a sense of her. Yet, the phrase, Moves like a lioness, which slipped free from a group of young husbands loitering outside the nursery as she came past them on the way to the sanctuary, entered her breast like an arrow. Or just yesterday, when she was stopped by laughter outside the door of a classroom room used for a women’s book study, and felt slightly nauseous, when hearing a disembodied voice claim, I’m telling you she’s in the Sophia Loren mold, but tight ladies, eve-ree-thing tight as a marathoner!

Now, as people around the table looked to her and saw her distress, they went very quiet trying to sort out whether she was genuinely touched or very hurt. The only sound was a dry shuffle of the impressive three-fold being opened, smoothed out, closed. After a few moments, Clive moved that the brochure be accepted as is and printed for distribution. His brother Warren offered a friendly amendment. “Let’s print five hundred extra brochures to put in the pews and for people to take home and give to their neighbors.”

Clive nodded and smiled.

“Remove the word, beautiful, and I’ll be fine with it.”  This was greeted with quiet laughter around the table. “I’m serious. It’s inappropriate.”

“Rev. De Luca, surely—.”

“Nonnegotiable, Clive.”

Always the peacemaker, younger brother Warren jumped in. “The picture’s right there. The word is not even necessary. One picture is worth a thousand of them, right? Everyone can see for themselves.”

Clive Parcher was just over five feet tall. Retired now from a long career teaching young women in Catholic day schools, he always dressed like a bank president or Wall Street lawyer, expensive, immaculate. He was tightly wound, supercilious, and like some small men, met every perceived challenge with all out disdain that he only half-heartedly tried to mask as kindly condescension. He was sourly displeased to ever be confronted by an opposing idea, but to be even mildly challenged in public by his jug-eared, lanky, let’s-all-get-along, Up with People, younger brother, made him instantly apoplectic–a state that those who had known him a long time found sadly amusing. Who’s got the nitro? Was code for Clive is about to stroke out over something again.

Struggling for composure, Clive said coldly, “The reason, my dear brother, the word is important, is that to most people, this is junk mail. But beautiful! Beautiful? The soul is hungry for beautiful.”

Warren cringed as usual, but to everyone’s surprise, possibly because he knew something about his older brother’s conflicts with women in his past, murmured, “It’s sexist, Clive.”

“Oh, pleeese!  We are always grousing on about what a grace-based, inclusive, generous, progressive gospel of hope we have. How attractive it would be to new generations of young people if they only knew us, right?  Well, we have “attractive” embodied for the first time in a gifted person. Sabine, surely, I mean honestly. Is it really too much to ask not to have you hide your light under a bushel?”

She wanted to tell them all about the dark side of being female and clergy. Explain how adding “attractive” to that mix often simply made things worse.  She wanted them to know about the man who, when she offered him bread at the Lord’s Table, forced her fingers momentarily into his mouth and sucked. Or several men and even one woman, who used the excuse of needing pastoral care to hit on her in her office, even though her secretary was just a few feet away. Or the series of increasingly explicit, sexually violent anonymous notes left in her inner office mailbox that led to involving local police and the costly installation of surveillance cameras, putting an end to the notes but not the chilling sense of violation. Or just have them imagine what it’s like every Sunday to gracefully disentangle themselves from men who held on just a bit too long at the passing of the peace, and feel cutting into their souls the cold eyes of jealous wives. She wanted to tell them all this as well as challenging their understanding of the community of Jesus. Is our center the Spirit of a present Savior, or a personality cult focused on the pastor?  Instead she just said again, very slowly, very quietly and very clearly, “No, Clive, absolutely not.”

She hoped that was the end of it, until three days later when she came into her office to remove her robe after the eleven o’clock service and found Clive tucked into the visitor’s chair. Seeing the dismay on her face, he raised a hand, “I come in peace,” and chuckled. “A compromise, pastor.” He pointed to a copy of the brochure he had laid on her desk.

“Clive, it’s been a long morning—.”

“It’s a way for both of us to win. I mean the church to win. See, it says, come meet our lovely pastor and tour our beautiful facilities. Surely you can’t object to ‘lovely’, for you are lovely.”

“Mr. Parcher, please.”

“Sabine, look. Just take off your robe, sit down and relax a minute.” When she kept still, not bothering to conceal a look of contempt, he said, “You really don’t get it, do you? How very sad.”

“What don’t I understand, Mr. Parcher?”

“Well, for starters that for any man, but especially us older men, even watching you take off your robe is one of life’s rare pleasures.”

She suddenly felt chilled. Wondered for the briefest instant how rage could be so hot and yet so cold. “Clive Parcher, do you. . . . Breathe so you don’t cry. . . .have you any idea at all . . . .breathe. . . . of how that makes me feel? To be turned into an object for your pleasure?”

“Now you are being ridiculous. You’d think you were—.”

“Were what Mr. Parcher? Nude? Nude under my vestments?”

“Now again that’s just—-.”

“Ridiculous, right? What’s ridiculous is thinking this deeply offensive behavior is acceptable. It’s not. Let me inform you of its proper name. Sexual harassment.”

Suddenly, his whole body hiccupped as an electric jolt cut deep into his chest and he made a gargling sound. Then Parcher started to use the arms of the chair to try to rise. “Naaa,” he reached for his throat with both hands as he toppled toward her. She caught him under his arms and helped him to the floor. Then, kneeling beside him loosened his collar button and tie.  Seeing the raw terror in his eyes she said, “Clive, try to relax. I’m calling for help right now.” Then, with trembling hands found her cell on the desk and punched 911.

***

(Continued)

 

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