Losing My Religion

Even people who know me well often do not know that I was a teenage evangelist or that I was a licensed Methodist minister at the age of nineteen. In the Methodist denomination being a licensed minister meant that I could pastor a church, perform marriages, and officiate funerals. Before I turned twenty-one, I had done all of these.

My parents did not attend church, but from an early age, my mother sent us off to Sunday School every week. My maternal grandmother attended the Methodist church, and perhaps it was her influence that saw my mother slick our hair, straighten our clothes, and give us each a quarter for the collection plate.

Memory is not a reliable historian, but I clearly see the influence that a Methodist minister had on me as a pre-teen. All during my childhood my parents imprinted in me the idea that I was too different from my siblings to fit into the family. To be cast as an outsider was a shattering experience for a seven-year-old. Reverend Alcorn was the antidote to my parents: kind, patient, and supportive. I responded to him, and under his guidance became passionately involved in the church.

At age fifteen I decided to become a Methodist minister. I also began speaking occasionally at church gatherings, especially youth programs and tent revivals. It is perhaps impossible to know the true motivations for decisions made over fifty years ago, but two memories stand out: one, I felt a sense of doom, despite my baptism, and believed that my only hope to mitigate a hellish afterlife was to save others; secondly, I was infatuated with a Pentecostal girl whose family was big on tent revivals.

While church took the top spot in life, I had other interests as well: academics, sports, and girls. My high school was small: 120 students in grades 9 through 12. Our teachers were mostly people who couldn’t find a job elsewhere. Our library’s largest collection was Zane Gray westerns. It was an academic wasteland. We were terrible at sports too. For reasons that remain a mystery, I always had a girlfriend, usually a year or two older than me.

Two months after graduating from high school, I enrolled at a state college 50 miles away. No one in my family had gone to college, and my father opposed the idea. He saw college as another example of me thinking I was better than him. With no financial help, work and student loans were how I would pay for college. Of course, I still needed money: food, housing, books, and to keep my old car running, so I worked as a janitor during the week in the Student Union and returned to my hometown on weekends to work on a farm. Sundays were for church and the correspondence classes in theology, Methodist history, and similar topics I had to take to qualify for a License to Preach.

For a year I lived in a dank basement apartment, but eventually I could not afford the forty dollars a month rent, not if I wanted to eat, so I moved home, or at least close to home. Instead of living with my parents, I lived with my maternal grandparents. A high school classmate attending the same college lived on a large farm outside town and commuted daily to Cape Girardeau. For $1 a day, I could ride with him. My grandparents provided food and a tiny bedroom.

College was a struggle initially, and for the first time in my life I was a “C” student. Each semester saw my grades improve even as my course load increased. By the end of my Sophomore year I made the Dean’s List. At the same time, I completed my coursework and personal interview with Methodist church officials and received the coveted License to Preach. Afterward, I occasionally held Sunday service at some small church in the area. I was paid a meagre amount, but I was doing what I wanted to do. Besides, preaching beat slopping hogs, bucking hay bales, and cleaning bathrooms.

During my second year of college, I was asked to pastor four small churches that could not afford a fulltime minister. I was a circuit rider. Circuit riding was a Methodist tradition. I was provided a small house in Patton, Missouri, 18 miles from where I grew up, and paid $200 a month. I conducted two church services every Sunday, alternating churches every other week.

I began to date a girl from Patton. Her father, her younger brother, and Pamela were members of one of my four churches. I don’t remember our first date, but a month before beginning my final year of college, we were married. I wrote about this part of my life in the novel White Boy Blues.

Because I went to summer school and also carried 18 to 21 hours of credit during the fall and spring semesters, I completed college in three years. During my senior year I applied to graduate school at Saint Paul’s School of Theology in Kansas City. I had never been to Kansas City, so along with a fellow college student who also planned to attend the seminary, we drove across state one frigid weekend. Saint Paul was in a slightly seedy area of the city, but the seminary itself was a beautiful, albeit small campus. I was not surprised that I was accepted for the Master of Divinity program, but I was shocked that I would be one of ten incoming graduate students given a full scholarship. My wife was hesitant about leaving Patton, but she knew I had to attend seminary to be ordained.

The year was 1968. The Vietnam War had divided the country for years. Love it or leave it was the establishment theme. Peace and Love was the counter-culture theme. Protests were frequent and usually met with violence. Death was the main topic on the nightly news, death in Vietnam and death at home. Political and civil rights leaders were publicly murdered – Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X – while activists, both white and black, often died without notice in the swamps of Mississippi and Louisiana. Black churches were burned regularly, and anti-war protestors were shot for sport. Despite all of this darkness – the predecessor of America 2020 – the straights still could not grasp why a youthful generation wanted to get high.

Politically, I was anti-war and pro-equality for women and black people; practically, I was a young man who had spent his whole life in southeast Missouri, an area rooted in racism and spousal abuse, both of which were sanctioned by local churches. Along the way I had shed the crew-cut my father insisted his sons wear, but I had never marched in a protest or smoked a joint, and I was more likely to watch baseball on TV than a political rally. All of this changed when I got to seminary.

When people think of a seminary and seminarians, most people equate seminary with some form of piety at best and a campus of milk-toast students at worse. Saint Paul School of Theology was the opposite of any such expectations. The 60s were turbulent, and Saint Paul School of Theology in 1968 was determined to shake the roots of religion and upend expectations of piety.

Of course, seminary had classes in theology. I read Karl Barth, Reinhold Niebuhr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Paul Tillich among others. We had classes in Methodist history, the Bible, and ethics. In some ways Saint Paul even resembled an elite British school. Students, faculty, and staff all lunched together in a dining hall; a lunch served family style at round tables catered by motherly women. Still, in the dining hall one saw more peace symbols and political buttons than crosses, and as many students carried around Soul on Ice as the Bible.

For money I worked as the Youth Minister at Grand Avenue Methodist Church in downtown Kansas City. To counterbalance this role, I volunteered for an organization aiding draft resisters, and I made signs and marched against war and racism. Not everyone at the seminary supported social activism, but enough of the faculty were on board that radical theology ruled.

Unfortunately, I cannot recall the name of the professor that had the greatest impact on me, but I vividly recall the class. It was designed to expose us to people and places outside our norm. The class was even called EXPOSURE. We had classroom lectures, books to read, and papers to write, but the real essence of EXPOSURE class happened after hours,  after dark, away from the seminary. Our assignment for one class was to hang out at a gay club and interview gays and lesbians. For another class we went to the Playboy Club and talked with Bunnies.  We visited a burlesque show and interviewed strippers. Other classes had us visiting a prison, a homeless shelter, a mental hospital, and marching in an anti-war protest.

But the one class that stands out most was the time we attended a Black Panther meeting. We were a dozen white people in the back of an auditorium filled with black people. After the rally, we met some of the Panthers for a Q and A. They thought we were brave little fools. Fools, yes. Brave, no.

Maybe Exposure was intended to be a sorting class, like in the Harry Potter books that would appear years later. I was never sure what the seminary intended. Whatever the intention, my first year at Saint Paul changed my life so dramatically that I realized my parents were right: I was an outsider.

Before I started my second year of the three-year program, I announced that I would not pastor a church, a requirement during the second year. In fact, I told a committee of church elders that real Christians would burn down their churches and stop wasting money on stained glass windows and varnished pews. After one such meeting, Saint Paul School of Theology decided to get rid of me. But the seminary did not kick me out. Instead, I was “invited” to attend Eden Seminary at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. I was like a ballplayer that gets traded to a new team, but I was never sure what Saint Paul got in return.

My wife and I had a rocky marriage from the time we moved to Kansas City. We separated, got back together, separated. We were back together when we moved to Nashville. I immediately found a night job in the post office while Pam worked again as a store clerk. Days I attended classes. Life in Nashville was difficult for us both. We saw very little of each other and the more we saw, the more we realized our expectations were different. I was not turning out to be what a girl expected when she married a minister. Once again, Pam and I split up. She returned to her father’s house in Patton, Missouri, and I struggled to study, sleep, and earn enough money to survive at Vanderbilt.

Despite being separated, Pam and I spoke on the phone regularly, and during one of these calls she told me that the local high school needed a replacement English teacher. I was disenchanted with seminary and exhausted by my schedule, so I phoned the school and spoke to the principle who remembered me from my days as a high school student playing basketball and baseball against Patton. I was offered the job. There was only one problem. They needed me quickly.

There were two problems. My semester at seminary was not over, and I wanted to finish it. On top of that, I did not have the money to drive to Missouri. I arranged to finish my classes off campus, and then phoned my father, who, to my surprise, loaned me $200.

Without fanfare, I left seminary. I did not know at the time that I also was leaving religion behind.

I did not revisit religion for twenty years, and when I did, it was a secular mediation practice based on Tibetan Buddhism that attracted me. For ten years I refused to become a Buddhist. I know Buddhism is not a religion, but globally, it is considered as such. Eventually, I saw resistance as folly and formally became a Buddhist. Thirty years in I remain a Buddhist, although much of the time I’m not sure what being a Buddhist means other than practicing kindness and compassion, the same kindness and compassion I learned from a Methodist minister when I was twelve.

The wheel keeps turning!

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