The answering machine was full.
Meningsbee had taken the precaution of turning off his phone for the Sunday afternoon drive which landed him in South Dakota, and now checking it for the first time, he realized that his “professional preacher profile,” which he had selected the previous Sunday, had not fooled any of his congregation.
He had at least thirty messages, all basically intoning a recurring theme: “Are you all right?”
He was in the middle of the eighteenth inquiry when there was a knock at the door. He opened it to discover Sammy Collins, a deacon who had been part of the great exodus from the Garsonville Church. Meningsbee invited him in but Sammy explained that he was in a hurry.
He said, “I have a Bible study at my house on Monday nights, and I would like you to come and see if we can’t make this thing right.”
On any other day, Meningsbee would have been reluctant, but he remembered Kitty’s words at the Four Heads Motel. Maybe he did need to listen.
So he agreed to come–with the stipulation that it would be a secret. Sammy agreed and departed. The following Sunday, Meningsbee was shocked to discover that everyone knew about the upcoming Monday night Bible study. They were thrilled, apprehensive, overjoyed–but mostly wanted to pray for him. Some wanted to come and give moral support, but he declined.
So all through Monday, Meningsbee fidgeted and wondered what his approach should be with the former congregation members.
He knew he didn’t want to be defensive. He knew he didn’t want to take too much time–and mostly, he knew he didn’t want to get there early.
Since it was a pot-luck dinner, which was served after the Bible study, he made his famous hot dog and beans for the occasion.
He arrived promptly at seven o’ clock, to discover that nobody was there. No one but Sammy Collins, his wife and Patrick Swanson, who was formerly the worship committee leader at the Garsonville Church.
Sammy was humiliated, frustrated, and just could not figure out what had happened.
In the midst of Sammy’s attempts at an explanation, Patrick interrupted and said, “Sammy, would you mind giving the Reverend and me an opportunity to chat privately?”
Sammy agreed, took Meningsbee’s casserole dish and headed off to the kitchen. Meanwhile, Patrick motioned for Meningsbee to come and sit down in the living room. Once seated, Mr. Swanson began his discourse.
“I need to be candid with you, Meningsbee. I told the congregation not to come this evening.” Swanson paused to see Meningsbee’s reaction. He offered none, so Swanson continued.
“You may wonder why. It’s because we aren’t coming back. There isn’t going to be a reconciliation, because we need our church out at the Holiday Inn. I know you think that you broke up the Garsonville Church through your policies. I’ll have to admit–they were pretty heavy-handed, and you didn’t really seek anyone else’s confidence, but I had decided months ago to abandon the property. I hadn’t said anything to anyone else, but two years ago I thought the new bypass was going to come through, and we’d be able to sell at a huge profit. But when they picked another path, I realized that the church basically had no financial worth. Simultaneously, the building’s getting old. The roof’s rotten, carpet is threadbare–I even had a guy come in who told us we have termites. Plus, after all my years of being at the church, I was tired of the flow of pastors. Most of them gave hapless attempts at being administrators, with no real business sense of their own. And then you arrived, on some sort of Mt. Sinai mission, to make us into something else. Well, it was enough. I made my move. My prayer was that all the old people would stay with you and all the young couples would come over to the new church, where we could talk about current events, politics, and plan excursions. You know–trips where we could fellowship and have fun. The church was dead, but I didn’t have the heart to kill it–and then you showed up. You became my gun.”
Swanson paused. Perhaps he was expecting an explosion of anger, a retaliation or a threat or two, but Meningsbee remained silent.
Swanson concluded. “Any questions, Reverend? What I’m saying to you is, you can try to keep that church together, but I will fight you.”
Meningsbee stood to his feet and stated, “Will you tell Sammy I’m going to pass on dinner?”
He headed to the door, leaving Patrick in the living room by himself. His hand was shaking as he reached for the knob.
Walking down the stoop to the sidewalk to his car, he felt like someone had taken a knife and hollowed out his insides.