The Boy who became a Pastor
Last week a man was killed in a car crash in Uganda.
He was a pastor.
He was also one of the most mean-spirited and vicious people I have ever encountered in my life. He made me question what Evil was.
His death has prompted an outpouring of sorrow from people touched by his ministry and those he had encountered along his life. He leaves behind a wife and three daughters, a pastoral mission of renewing and celebrating marriage and the indelible imprint in my memory of his defiant pockmarked face as I carried my winter jacket out of my dormitory room to remove the stench of urine, soda and the rotting bird carcass that he had left in its pocket.
We were in eighth grade. It was the second semester of our first year at an exclusive boys’ boarding school in New England. We were the youngest boys. The school was run by the Benedictine Order, a group of catholic priests and professors who lived monastic lives of prayer, contemplation and good works.
The Boy who would grow up to be a Pastor was from Morningside Heights in New York. He was a scholarship student. I was a faculty brat, the son of an English teacher. I was a scholarship student.
The Boy who had become a Pastor targeted me as an easy mark that he could taunt and bully. I didn’t know how to defend myself.
I ran, hid, evaded, eluded, misdirected, equivocated, denied, delayed, deceived, detered, deflected, perseverated. I watched the pack from a distance as they prowled through the lower campus searching for me. The Boy who would become a Pastor prowled at the front, gesturing and pointing, his chest pushed out and his face twisted into a contrived grin.
He was misshapen and perverse in his physical aspect. When he stripped naked in the shower, we saw his sunken chest and thick shoulders, the rolls of his waist hanging over a crooked penis and stringy thighs. He overcame those impediments. He was cunning and unforgiving, imperious and certain. He was mean. He was vain.
One boy in our class didn’t have the skills to slip by the mob. He was fair skinned and slight. He was still young when he came to the school. He liked to build model airplanes. He brought a few. He spent time working on new ones in the evening. He kept the finished planes on the top shelf of his cubby.
Thinking back now, I can imagine how excited he must have been to bring his prizes to school. He’d have had an idea — encouraged by the materials the school sent us in the months before we started — that he’d find a club to do his projects with, or that he could start a club himself.
That first semester hadn’t been in session more than a month when I saw the model planes come flying out of the second floor window and crash to bits on the asphalt road below. I could hear the Boy who became a Pastor taunting, “Do they fly? Let’s see them fly.” After all the planes had been thrown out the window, the feral crowd growled and the boy screamed and whimpered. The other boys began to clap and cheer. The whimpering changed to cries of pain and panic. They came marching out the front door of the dorm. The boy was suspended on a broom stick threaded through his underwear. The seat was wedged deep into his naked buttocks. He was in agony. They marched off down the road. I slunk away in the other direction. I couldn’t understand what I had seen. The Boy who would become a Pastor was at the center of the group, one of the ringleaders.
The boy they had wedgied withdrew from school the next week. He had been broken.
By the time the Boy who would become a Pastor had urinated on my winter jacket, poured soda all along the lining and put a dead bird in the pocket, I’d been forced to acknowledge my own kind of withdrawal.
The summer before starting my first year at the school, I’d been swept away by my imagination. My family had moved to the school the year before from our home in a swampy section of southern Massachussetts, a down-trodden part of New England that was blinded to its long history by the mean requirements of cobbling together a living. It didn’t matter that Miles Standish had bought Massachusetts from Chief Massasoit in the back yard of the town doctor’s farm. It mattered that the only jobs around were in the prison where the Boston Strangler was locked up, that the dairy farms couldn’t keep in business, that the cranberry season was too short, that the small manufacturers couldn’t stay competitive and that too many boys were going off to Southeast Asia and coming back wrapped the brilliant red, white and blues of the American flag. The people took on the quality of the land, its stubby trees, sandy soil, deep, murky swamps, gravelly stream beds, long shallow ponds.
When my father came home and told us we were moving to the place by the bay where the horizon ran long, the sunsets were brilliant, the wind blew fresh and steady, and the monks rendered their loyalty to God through the veneration of books and arts and learning, I felt like I was being dropped into a world I had only read about. When it came time to enter the school for my first year, I believed with all my heart that I was being initiated into a special Order.
To prepare, I went with my parents to buy new clothing. We had the list from the school: dress shirts, corduroys, flannel pants, blue blazers with the school shield, ties, dress pants. This was the uniform of casual privilege, the clothing that signalled you were a member of the order, clothing that I’d only seen the LL Bean or in the promotional literature of the better schools.
We spent more than we could afford on the clothing, more than we’d ever spent on my clothing before. The winter coat was a special allowance. I had seen the boys at the school wearing them the winter before: bulky parkas with fur around the hood and a long zipper that created a funnel around your face when it was fully drawn. The parka had special pockets, diagonal lines above the square pockets on the front, and small pockets on the outer arms and inner lining.
The first day of school I dressed in my new clothes and went off to my orientation. When I sat with my new classmates, I understood that I was different in ways that I couldn’t comprehend. The clothes told the story: we all looked the same at a glance, but closer scrutiny revealed the synthetic fibers in my blazer, the rough cut of the seam on my flannel pants, the glue used to bind the uppers and soles of my shoes.
The Boy who would become a Pastor was dressed as rudely as me. He understood what it meant to be wearing your entire closet, to be faking your way into the club. But where I pulled back in fear I would be found out, he forced his way forward. He would show everyone how to strike out at weakness, that power was the true fabric of the group’s nature, not the weave of the clothes.
When the Boy who would become a Pastor destroyed my winter coat, he knew that he was destroying the last hope I had of being one of the group. I came in the next week with a coat that I had found at the Army-Navy Surplus store for a few dollars, an oversized, weather-beaten parka rated for sub-zero temperatures. It was distinctive and an admission that I was an imposter.
We spent five years together at the school. We never became friends. We tolerated each other grudgingly. When I went to New York to college, we bumped into each other occasionally in Morningside Heights. There was no affection. Then we lost touch.
A few years ago, I found him on Facebook. He’d moved out west and become a Pastor. He had a church. He was an advocate for the sanctity of marriage. He had thickened. The pockmarks on his face were darker. His shoulders were heavy and his hands like slabs of meat. His wife was shorter than him, squarer, and in their photos he would lay his arm across her shoulder like a yoke. Some of the photos showed him preaching, his barrel chest swelled with force, his hand pointing into the air in an exclamation of authority.
The photos left me cold.
I questioned my rejection of his moral authority. He had been mean to me as a young boy when we had both been put in an alien place — why couldn’t he have found peace by opening his heart to God?
I could not believe that because I don’t believe that we change. I am the man that the boy I was would become. My essence — the way that I see the world, the way that I experience other people, the things that make my heart swell, that make me go cold inside — is no different today than 40 years ago.
The changes that we experience as we move from our youth to old age are the adaptations we make to get the things that we want. None of us want to be outcasts. None of us want to be afraid. We learn, as we grow, how to mitigate our impulses in order to be able to achieve the things that we want.
I knew the Boy who would become a Pastor. He wanted power. He wanted control. He wanted attention. He wanted authority. And he would use the weaknesses in others to justify to achieve those ends, regardless of the pain it caused.
The Pastor who led his ministry of marriage was that same boy. I could not believe that he had changed.
As I read the memorials to his life posted by his followers on Facebook, I felt the impulse to add the perspective of my own experience.
Then I read a message to her dead father from one of his daughters.
“Thank you Daddy for loving me so much and always caring the best for me. Thank you for raising me in such a Godly atmosphere and thank you do much for always pushing me to do my best. I love you so much Daddy. Thank you for the life I got to spend with you. No one could ever ask for anyone better to be in their life. You were truly a blessing to have as a father.
Although I wish I could have had more time with you, I realize it is/was all part of God’s plan, just like cancer and the healing of cancer.
You are the one and only man I have ever looked up to in my life and you are my Super Hero Daddy, no one could ever match up to the legacy you left here with us.
You are my favorite and I LOVE YOU SO MUCH DADDY! Thank you for the time we spent together.”
My own memories were making me uncharitable. A family has been mortally injured. Children have lost their father. A community has lost its center.
I typed his name into Google to see whether there was more information about how he had died.
On the first page of results a news story from six years ago came up. It had been published in an alternative newspaper. It told the story of an anti-homosexual event that had been organized by the Boy who would become a Pastor. The reporter describes the people who came to the microphone during the event to repudiate the sins of the unpure.
The Boy who would become a Pastor excoriates the state as political body that cares so little about its people that it would actually provide incentives for them to engage in soul-murdering sin.
When the Pastor died in that car crash in Uganda, he died with complete confidence in the rightness of what he had done in his life. Nothing had changed. He had found another scapegoat, another group that he could focus people’s fear and anger on, and within that fear and anger he could find his own place of power. He had no compunction. His right was his due. The weak had brought their own pain upon themselves.
What I had witnessed was a young boy perfecting the skills that would define him as a grown man.
The words of St. Augustine came to mind:
All the perversities of all errors, all sects, preaching deviant morals and ungodliness, have had as their authors men of great brilliance. They weren’t the brain-children of any sort of men, they were started by men of the sharpest intelligence.
I can mourn then, not my own lingering injury, not the loss his children suffer, not the early death of an influential man. I can mourn the waste of a powerful nature, even as I admit it likely never would have changed, because the Boy who would become a Pastor believed he had found redemption, and that in redemption others would have to be left behind to be punished.