About Those Small Town Values

*The group was solemn, though they were gathered in a decorated living room on Christmas afternoon. It remained solemn even though everyone had a drink in hand and there was plenty of food. It was the sort of picture Norman Rockwell might have painted. He would have put smiles on their faces and portrayed a wondrously wholesome gathering, such as one expects in small town America over the Christmas holidays.

It was the home of Arthur and Thelma Johnson, and their 26-year-old daughter Mary (Mary Elizabeth when you were serious) was home from her big city job, with her big city boy friend in tow.  If one were to look closely, one would notice that Mary was the center of attention, and that her fiance was absent.  Mark had discovered a department store in a town a mere 45 minutes drive away that was open Christmas day and was planning to “pick up a couple of things.”

“Where’s your young man, Mary Elizabeth?” asked Thelma.

“He went to town to pick up a few needed items.” Everyone knew where “town” was. They didn’t have to specify it by name.

“Don’t you think that’s a little thoughtless of him? It’s Christmas day! It’s time for family.” Thelma kept her voice quiet, giving an impression of entreaty rather than condemnation.

Mary didn’t think it was thoughtless at all. She thought that Mark had plenty of excuses to get out of the way right now, starting with being called her “young man.” Mark was 32, and the six year difference in their ages had been subtly emphasized. Nobody said “cradle robber.”  How could they? They just took note of his age. But it wasn’t any of those good reasons that had sent Mark to the department store, searching for items she was pretty sure he didn’t need. It was his sensitivity to her feelings, one of the things that had attracted her to him in the first place. He knew she’d rather handle this without him, so he made himself scarce.

In fact, the very idea that he would avoid an uncomfortable situation made her smile. Mark was mild-mannered, but it was deceptive. What made him a good attorney, already a partner in his firm with seniority well beyond his years, was that he could read people with uncanny accuracy, and that nothing phased him or made him panic. He chose his battles and chose them well. In this case, he knew his fiance would want to speak for herself, and so he arranged not to be in the way.

“Why are you smiling?” asked Thelma. “Did I say something funny?”

“You did, Mom, but you wouldn’t get it.”

“I wish you wouldn’t patronize me, Mary Elizabeth. I’m smarter than you think.”

“OK then Mom, in that case, why do you despise Mark? You hardly know him.”

“I’m a good judge of character,” said Thelma.

“That she is,” said Pastor Sollaway, “Pastor Mike” to his flock. “At church we always know to listen to Miss Thelma when people are involved!”

“Thank you, pastor,” said Thelma, glowing just a bit. Then she turned back to her daughter. “Mark is a big-city boy,” she continued. “And I don’t mean just that he grew up in New York City. I mean he’s big city through and through. He’s not at all the type of young man I’d hoped my Mary Elizabeth, my only daughter, would bring home one day.” There was a slight emphasis on the “young man” again, emphasizing her mother’s belief that they should be closer in age.

Mary remembered the day she had come home from college to visit.  She had been 21 years old, and her mother had set her up with a date with Bill Weisser, 30 at the time. It wasn’t the age. That was just a handle her mother had grabbed onto.

“And what is it about him that makes him inappropriate for your daughter?” asked Mary.

Thelma seemed at a loss. “But honey, he’s a big city lawyer!” she exclaimed.

“And that’s really your whole objection, isn’t it?”

“Mary,” said Pastor Mike. “It’s just a label for what your mother feels deep inside her about his young man. It’s the package. She knows he’s not the right type of man for you.”

“So why is that, Pastor Mike?”

“Well, I don’t think he’s really a Christian. I asked him if he thought the Bible was true, and he gave me a lawyer’s answer about different ways something could be true.” He paused. “Tell me, Mary, how often are you attending church these days?”

“Oh, I probably make it once a month or so,” said Mary.

“You see! It’s his unbelieving influence on you. You’re no longer living up to the values you learned here in your home town.”

Mary was rather stunned by this for a moment, but then she realized that she had never told them about church in the “big city.” She’d lied during college. She’d attended a little church near campus once in four years of college, and had used that one time to help her make up stories of all the other services she wanted to pretend she’d attended. She hadn’t attended at all in graduate school, and hadn’t known where the nearest church was to where she lived in New York. Until Mark, that is.

Is this what being a good judge of character means? she thought. Mark was a member of a small Episcopal church some miles from his apartment. One of the things she had to get used to when they started going out was that this smart, worldly-wise attorney, who could handle himself as well at a cocktail party as in a courtroom, nonetheless went to church regularly.

She recalled a day when he was rushed with preparations for a difficult case in court. As usual, he was calm and collected, but he was working rapidly. She was sitting on his couch watching him and the TV in about equal proportions when suddenly he got up from the table, told her he needed to go down to the church. This wasn’t his home church, but a larger one nearer to his apartment. She went with him. It was a tiny service, with just the minister and half a dozen people, offering the Eucharist.  “Eucharist.”  That was a word she had learned that evening. Mark told her he never went into an important case or a meeting without it. She hadn’t understood then. She didn’t understand now. But she was beginning to. But how could you explain that to Pastor Mike?

“Do you have any idea how often Mark attends church?” she asked.

“Well, it can’t be very often,” answered Thelma and Pastor Mike together.

“He didn’t even know any of the songs we sang when he came to church with you last Sunday.” That was Thelma’s comment. She could always tell who was really singing and who was faking it.

“And that’s where you’re wrong. No, I don’t mean wrong about the songs. He didn’t know them. I didn’t either, but you didn’t mention that. You see, up until I met Mark I hadn’t been in church for nearly eight years.”

“But, you told us …” Thelma’s mouth was hanging open.

“I lied,” said Mary. She didn’t really feel sorry either. She knew she should, but she didn’t.

“I just thought your church used different songs than we do. Not everyone is as progressive about the worship service as Pastor Mike.”

Everyone in the room was startled by another voice. Arthur Johnson spoke so rarely that not everyone was sure just what his voice sounded like. “You said, ‘until I met Mark.’ What happened then?”

“Well, Daddy, Mark goes to church more than once a week. He never insisted I go, but he would never skip it in order to do something with me. He often attends services in the evening during the week as well. He says it helps keep him centered.”

“Missed that, didn’t you Thelma,” said Arthur, and then lapsed into silence.

“But what church does he attend?” asked Thelma.

“Does it matter?”

“Yes! Some of these churches teach any old thing. They don’t have any values at all. If they did, they’d tell you two not to be sleeping together before you’re married. Oh now, don’t give me that shocked look, Mary Elizabeth! I can recognize lust in the eyes when I see it, and the two of you both have lust in your eyes. Never mind you’re sleeping in two separate bedrooms during your visit. I know you did that just because you knew that your father and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Mary was momentarily stunned. It had not occurred to her that her mother would assume they were sleeping together. She had assumed, when she started dating a dazzling attorney on the rise, that she would be expected to sleep with him. She’d fallen for him the first date, and would have done it too, she knew. But he didn’t ask. What he did was rush the engagement and the marriage, which was scheduled in a mere two weeks. Both the short courtship and engagement and the fact that they planned a non-traditional wedding in New York, rather than a more traditional one in her home town, were major bones of contention. She was surprised her mother hadn’t brought those up.

“Is he Episcopalian?” asked Pastor Mike.

Again, Mary was surprised. She’d assumed because the wedding was to be in Mark’s home church, an Episcopal congregation, that everyone had realized that was where he was a member. It was her small town upbringing, she supposed. Of course, big city folks often rented churches in which to hold weddings, and her parents and friends would believe that was the case.

“Yes,” she said simply.

“Well, then, no wonder he hasn’t been taught any moral values. They even ordained a homosexual bishop!”

“Pastor Mike, you’re assuming an awful lot.”

“Well, are you sleeping together? Did the church pastor tell you it was a sin?” In fact, they weren’t, and their pastor had told them precisely that. But for some reason she didn’t tell him. The question seemed to break something in her.

“Is it your opinion that people in this little town don’t sleep together outside of marriage?”

“We believe it’s a sin. We don’t condone it.” Pastor Mike’s tone was firm. Thelma looked too stunned to speak. Mary found she approved of that state.

“That’s interesting,” Mary continued. “I know the names of two elders in your church, Pastor Mike, who have committed adultery on a regular basis, and nothing has been done about it. Is that your small town values? Even more, I know of several members of families represented right here in this room who had sex before marriage. I’m not going to name names on the off-chance that someone in the room might not be aware of the situation.” She used “have sex” rather than the preferred “sleep together.” Truth be told, she had almost used the f-word.

The room fell into stunned silence. “And as for homosexuality, you do realize that the Eller brothers are not, in fact, brothers, and they both sing in the choir. Oh yes, I know that, and I know you know that, but you won’t name it.”

“That’s not fair,” said Pastor Mike.

“Not fair? Why is it not fair? Is it because all those people are small town people you’ve known all your lives? Yet Mark, who you can’t really accuse of doing one single wrong thing, is to be condemned?”

Pastor Mike had his mouth open again. But the accusations–he did know precisely who the adulterous elders were, and he knew the Eller brothers weren’t–simply left him speechless. How did she know? While he was looking for words, she continued.

“Oh, I know this sounds unfair. There are a lot of good people in this town. In your heart, Pastor Mike, you really just want to care for people. You don’t know how to pastor the Eller brothers, so you ignore the situation, and maybe that’s the best situation. I have less understanding of church elders who commit adultery, but then perhaps you don’t have the power to do anything about it. They are, after all, the church’s biggest contributors.

“I left this town intending to come back. Small town values are wonderful. I wish you’d live up to them. I wish I would live up to them. But there are also lots of big city folks who have values.

“Pastor Mike, you probably thought I never listened in those Bible classes you taught, but I do remember that somewhere in James it says that there is only one lawgiver and only one judge. You have set yourselves up as a judge over my fiance from the moment he came to town. You’ve put him down in small ways, and now you’ve falsely accused him.

“Perhaps, Pastor Mike, you need to work on those values of yours if they keep you from serving the people you’re supposed to serve, and find you judging others when you don’t know their circumstances.”

As Mary stood up, and strode out of the room, she heard the startled “Mary Elizabeth …” from her mother, but this time it didn’t stop her. She’d have to reconcile with her parents after that. Mark would tell her it was necessary. He’d say they were family, and you had to put up with them, though you didn’t have to let them run your life. But that would be for later.

Just now she’d had enough of small town values.


* This is a work of fiction. All persons and places (except New York City!) are products of the author’s imagination. Copyright © 2010, Henry E. Neufeld