Lepers of Today

 

My effort at an OP-ED piece, written 2012

He came into our church and sat in the rear of the sanctuary.  He looked with eager eyes at all of us, craving love and acceptance in a small corner church, at the intersection of Mt Pleasant and Spring Garden.  He was accompanied by a friend, a woman who had stood by him through his recent prison sentence for molesting a young boy.  She had reported him after finding him fondling one of her sons as he gave him a bath.  Too much temptation, way too much temptation for a man that was abused as a boy himself.  Many years earlier, he had been walking home from school when a neighbor man called him into his house and released a passion Rob had never known…and changed his life permanently.

But church was a place of refuge, a place where he was asked to play the church organ as a young man.  Now he was an older 50-something, but still loved the acappella singing and the rich blend of instruments present in a worship service. So, when I turned around to see Rob and his girlfriend at the back of the church, it’s no wonder he looked thoroughly happy.  He felt free at last and wanted to give God thanks. 

“Rob Meyers has been asked to wait to attend our church,” an elder informed us the next Sunday.  We sat stunned listening to how a probation officer had called to make us aware of Rob’s past offenses and the risk of relapse.  It was Meghan’s Law in action to protect the public, especially our children, from victimization by sex offenders.

We as a church were not prepared.  In 2002, we did not have any background checks or criminal checks in place for any of the persons working with children. Voices clamored for attention: those with young children, those with a history of sexual abuse, and those feeling led to minister to Rob. There were a lot of ultimatums being thrown around like “if Rob comes, we’re leaving,” “There are no second chances for sex offenders.” People shared about their own sexual abuse stories and how they “would never” let anyone like that near their children. “We need to protect our own rather than let someone new in that could cause harm to our children.”

Then in the fall of 2003 a new pastor was installed and we were glad to bring all the frayed edges and frazzled nerves to new leadership. Our conference minister and other members of church leadership spoke at congregational meetings to discuss Rob’s possible attendance. The faces changed for each meeting, but none of them seemed to prevent our desperate fall into an abyss of dissension, distrust, and judgment. We filled out surveys about how we saw the issue and whether it was important enough for us to leave the church. I felt confident that our pastor would come to a good decision.

“I think it is best if Rob not attend our church at this time and that we find other ways to ‘be church’ to Rob,” our pastor said in March of 2005.  

I was Church Council Secretary at the time and a few days after this decision, we had a church council meeting. I felt physically sick over the decision and let them all know it.

“How could we decide this? How can we not allow him to come to our church?” I ranted and raved about hypocrites, homosexuality, and child molesters.  The next day I felt spent and depressed.

I believe it was during this time that I stopped having faith in the goodness of humanity.  I started expecting all people to respond to others in a wary, suspicious manner… even among Christians who go to church every Sunday, even among my family, even among my friends. Fear is a powerful adversary that usually wins… even in churches with a history of persecution and exclusion.

“I’m tired of waiting for a decision and will not be coming back,” Rob said at the end of 2007. When he said this a part of me died. For the last 5 years about ten of us from church had been meeting with him in an off-site location for the Sunday school hour, praying that he could someday attend our church. But Rob decided he no longer wanted to have anything to do with our church or any church that subjected him to an Inquisition of review and distrust.

Where do sex offenders go for support and sustenance?  Whether it’s in prisons or in churches, they often feel like the lepers of our society, forced to live in the outskirts of our cities, forced to alert others of their presence with a bell.

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Not Returning Evil for Evil

 

Written Winter of 2011

Theodore Hughes lived a life filled with obstacles to overcome. His ancestors also overcame great obstacles.  His mother, Vertelle Ward Hughes, wrote down her memories before she died and from this we can determine some of Ted’s heritage. His great grandfather was a son of slaves in Virginia.  He escaped from slavery and came to McCain County, Pa.  In Pennsylvania, he married an Indian girl and they had five children.  These children were soon separated because of the fear that they could be kidnapped and sold into slavery.  One of these children, Charles, Ted’s grandfather was sent to a family in Canada.  There he was raised and later educated at Lincoln University.  He then received his BA in 1877 and entered the Theology Seminary, graduating in 1880 and was ordained as a Presbyterian minister.

Another one of Ted’s ancestors moved into a rich white family’s home in Oxford, Pa. This family was very much against slavery and worked with the Underground Railroad. Ted’s ancestor, a young African girl, was taken into their home, not as a slave, but in order to educate her. However, this white family had a son who fell in love with her. Marriage was out of the question and the child was given another last name to protect the identity of the wealthy, land owner father. This child was Josiah Davis and was given four acres of land near Lincoln University, Chester County, Pa.  He married an Indian girl, part of the Lenape tribe, and they lived on the property near Lincoln University. Josiah was Ted’s great, great grandfather. His granddaughter, Eleanor Angelina Davis (nicknamed Lamb), married Charles Ward when they met in Lincoln, Pa. After Eleanor graduated from Scotia Seminary in North Carolina and Charles graduated from Lincoln Seminary, they were married.

Ted lived in the shadows of his parent’s heritage and was raised by his grandmother as well as his mother. One memory Ted does have of his early years was of the time he was told to sit, but instead got up and ran into his grandmother who was removing a hot pan of bacon grease off the stove. The bacon grease slid down his head and he had such severe burns that his hair never grew back on that spot of his head. Ted remembers his head being wrapped up but does not remember any pain from the accident.  “I know I milked the situation, “admits Ted.  “Whenever I had to be punished, I would say, ‘Oh my head, my head.” Ted has always felt fortunate that the bacon grease did not run forward on his head and cause blindness.

At the time of this incident, Ted was staying at his grandmother’s house in Lincoln, Pa, as he often did in the summer months.  But the remainder of the year he lived with his mother and father in South Philadelphia.  He does not remember much of this time period or his father because when he was seven, his parents got divorced.  His life changed drastically when his father moved away.  Ted is the fourth child of 5 born to his parents, but after the divorce, his mother, a dental technician, could not afford to take care of all 5 children.  She kept the oldest child of the family, a sister, Estella, but the 4 other boys went to the Thompson’s home in Andrew’s Bridge, Pa. Their home was close to his grandmother’s home in Lincoln and it was through her that contact was made to the Thompson’s. They were to stay for just the summer, but stayed until they were grown. Ted recalls that the home had no electricity or indoor plumbing and that life was full of activity. As the boys got older they worked on neighboring farms. Ted recalls, “We were very poor.  We even saved cardboard to stick in our shoes when they got worn out.”

Among the four brothers was Frederick, Ted’s oldest brother who was born with cerebral palsy.  His mother and grandmother were an active part of the boy’s lives despite not living with them and they both visited the boys often while they were living with the Thompson’s.  When it was suggested that Frederick be put in an institution, “Grandma said she would never put him in an institution as long as she lived.”  Ted recalls how “meanness in us brought out independence in him. He couldn’t talk, couldn’t read and could barely walk but he had a job selling Grit newspaper.  And people never took advantage of him.” Frederick had a unique language that only his family understood.

The Thompson home was one of the largest homes in the community and the pastors at Mellinger’s Mennonite Church at that time were part of an outreach to this black community in Andrew’s Bridge. He held a Sunday morning service at the Thompson home and this is how Ted was introduced to the Mennonites. In fact, all 4 boys were baptized into the Mennonite church at the Thompson home mission church.  Two of Ted’s brothers wore the plain suit (Mennonite attire of the 1960s that was cut straight with a Nehru collar), but Ted refused to wear it. At one point, he was told that he couldn’t lead singing unless he wore the plain suit, so he stopped leading singing. 

There was one bicycle for the three boys and no car, so they walked everywhere.  After high school, Ted started attending Monterey Mennonite Church with a friend who had a car.  There weren’t many young people in the area, so the ones that were around seemed to attend at Monterey and were involved in varied youth activities. Ted and his friend attended a Christmas program at Monterey and Ted encouraged his friend to ask out a young girl in the choir named Lina Yoder. 

Lina was one of a family of 10 children who had moved from Belleville, Pa.  Her dad, Levi Yoder, wanted to live in Lancaster County and had heard of someone who needed a farmer there.  After Ted’s friend broke up with Lina, Ted started dating her. “Lina and I started doing things together. Our families were friends until they realized that our relationship was more than just a friendship.  Suddenly, Lina’s family’s feelings took a U turn.”

Lina and Ted attended church together, but this attention of a young black man dating a white woman brought out feelings of racial prejudice in the church and the community. “They had a church meeting to decide if we could get married.” Finally, it was decided that the minister would marry them in the Monterey Mennonite Church and in 1961, Ted and Lina were married.  No one attended except the minister and another couple.  Lina’s family was very much against the marriage, so Lina and Ted started their marriage pilgrimage trying to ignore racial prejudice and instead praying for those who mistreated them.  Lina says, “If I was invited to a place and he wasn’t, I didn’t go.” 

On their honeymoon, they went to Niagara Falls, Canada.  They both remember people staring at their wedding rings in amazement.  They also recall a hotel with vacancy signs but when they went in and talked to the owner, he told them there were no rooms available. So Ted and Lina left and found a room elsewhere.  It was a guiding principle in their young marriage that they would “not return evil for evil.” Over the years they received hate mail but never honored the letters with a response. Ted and Lina believe they were the “first interracial couple to walk down the streets of Lancaster city holding hands.”

By this time, Ted was working at Provident Bookstore in Lancaster.  He had worked on the farm in Andrew’s Bridge until a man asked him if he’d like a job at Provident in the shipping department. At that time Provident was the largest office furniture dealer in the area.  Soon his job changed and he worked in the music department and eventually this job moved them to the Souderton Provident Bookstore.  While still living in Lancaster, Ted and Lina were blessed with a baby girl named Nancy.  After that Lina was told she couldn’t get pregnant again and they adopted Curt. Ten months later, Dave was born.  A year later they decided to adopt another child and named her Mary Beth. 

Relations with their families eased over the years and both sides began to see the beauty in Ted and Lina’s marriage.  Ted’s mom, Vertelle, who “did not like white people,” learned to really appreciate Lina.  Vertelle admired Lina’s strong determination as a woman and her advice as a nurse. Ted, too, in his interaction with the white communities of Lancaster and later Souderton made many friends and became known for his exuberance for life and his love of music.  One person admitted to Ted the feelings of perhaps many when he said, “My grandfather never liked black people until he met you.”