Yesterday was Friday, the third full day I’d been in Newberg, and I’d finally started to recover from the emotional whirlwind that had captured me upon arrival when I laid eyes on Jackson Harris and (though I didn’t know it at the time) began falling in love. Wednesday afternoon and Thursday, I’d been in such an altered state that I felt like I was bouncing between feeling tingly all over at being around him or the chest pounding and light headedness that goes with having a fever. Fortunately, by Friday afternoon and evening I’d gotten back on an even keel after some in depth and amazingly frank conversation with Jackson. All seemed well after out tour of the roads in the parish when we pulled up at the Harris house just before arriving back at the parsonage. We’d had amazingly candid conversations out our attraction for each other. We’d made new and interesting friends in Susan Albridge and her housemate Ellen and enjoyed our time with them. Now we were back in town and in front of the Harris home where Jackson’s dad made clear he wanted his son home. Jackson’s dad was very direct about it, emphasizing he didn’t want Jackson dawdling around when he said he’d go get his bike at the parsonage and then come straight home, and something changed: Jackson in that instant had sounded small and tense all of a sudden. He seemed to shrink, to undergo the kind of personality change that happens when you’re scared.
I didn’t think about it too much because I was focused on his vow to return later that night, and we separated with me emphasizing that he needed to be careful, not take any chances and especially not to do anything rash. The last I saw him he was walking his bike home, and then I turned to more unpacking, finishing up worship service preparation and working on my sermon for Sunday. The giddiness and acting starstruck of the last forty-eight hours were replaced with my usual working self as I worked through the afternoon and evening. I thought a lot about my position and our developing relationship, with all its hopes and implications, but believed we’d have to take it a day at a time. And, if Jackson came back to my house tonight (which I was pretty sure he would do), he could sleep with me, but there would be no sex. We were going to wait on the sex until we were both ready. But we’d be together, snuggled in each other’s arms, and sharing the growing love we had for each other. I fell asleep wishing I was in the arms of Jackson instead of the arms of Morpheus, but willing to wait for him to come. But he didn’t come.
I woke up at 7:00 am, like the day before, expecting that Jackson would switch around his paper delivery schedule and making mine last instead of first—which would put him at my house around 7:00. I didn’t smell the aroma of coffee like yesterday, when he’d delivered my paper last, then made coffee and came up to the bedroom to wake me up. Instead there was silence, and just the normal house smells. That’s when I realized he hadn’t joined me during the night. That also meant that waking up on this the third morning in Newberg was framed by disappointment more than anything else. Why didn’t he come last night? Was he having second thoughts? Was he suddenly afraid because we’d had such frank and mature conversations about our relationship? I didn’t even think about complications that could have prevented him coming over. He was sharp and competent, he had his fort and said he could always sneak out to when he wanted and had demonstrated over the last two days that when he decided to do something he could. But he hadn’t made it over last night.
I brushed my teeth, pulled on some khaki shorts and a T-shirt, then wandered downstairs and started the coffee maker. As I heard the water start to run through the brewer, I headed for the kitchen door and out to the porch hoping to catch a glimpse of him coming up the driveway to deliver my paper. Maybe he’d just fallen asleep last night and slept through the night—he’d told me he hadn’t gotten full nights sleep that last two nights.
Then I saw it: the paper had been delivered! It was laying on the back porch waiting for me.
That meant Jackson had come and gone this morning and hadn’t come inside. What could be going on? I walked down the driveway, alternating between shock and panic, but acting as if I was enjoying the beautiful July morning, stretching and trying to act nonchalant. I casually looked over to the Harris home for any sign of Jackson. All I saw was Bud, Jackson’s dad, walking from the front yard around to the back. It was Saturday, the weekend, so no surprise that Bud wasn’t at his machine shop. No sign of Jackson, though.
I was crestfallen. What had happened? Had something gone wrong? He was so assertive yesterday afternoon about coming back during the night so we could be together. He’s said he HAD to! Even if he slept through the night, it was really strange that he’d just toss the paper on the porch. Even weirder was that the paper was already there when I got there, meaning he’d have delivered it before I got up. That meant he’d probably done his usual route where my house was first, instead of the change around of the last two days where mine was last and with his route done, he could come in and we could spend time together.
It was a Saturday morning, and very few people were out and about yet, so standing in my driveway didn’t make much sense regardless of how downcast I felt. I headed back to the kitchen with a heavy heart pondering what could have happened. Now I was starting to worry something had gone wrong. Was he sick, injured? Had something gone wrong with his plan? Had he been caught? Were we exposed? If he was sick, I was worried for him; if he’d been caught and we were exposed I was worried for him in a different way and for me in a way I’d never worried about before. All those questions whizzed through my mind while my stomach sank, and my heart got heavier and heavier.
When I got inside the coffee did smell good despite how I felt, and I told myself I needed to eat something so I wouldn’t have an upset stomach to compound how I already felt. Coffee and some cereal consumed ten minutes, then it was back to worrying. I tried reading the paper, but it was no more successful than yesterday. Yesterday I hadn’t been able to concentrate from having that beautiful boy next to me for breakfast. Today I couldn’t concentrate as I worried about what had happened to that beautiful boy and why he hadn’t joined me.
That went on for another twenty minutes, as I was constantly looking up the street toward the Harris home, before I saw Bud Harris out in the front yard preparing to do some yard work. Suddenly I felt like a walk. Maybe I could find out what happened? Better yet, maybe I’d be able to see and talk to Jackson.
I changed sandals for sneakers, headed down the driveway and turned up the street toward the Harris home. As I got abreast of it, maybe twenty feet from him, I called out, “Good morning, Bud. Pretty great morning, isn’t it?”
He whipped up his head and looked my way, like I’d scared him. Then made a face as he stood up and walked over my way. “Well, whether it’s a great morning or not depends on where you are. I’ve got a wise mouth, trouble making kid I’m dealing with, so it’s not that great around here!”
My mind was spinning! OK – something had happened, and it probably wasn’t good. One side of my brain started responding pastorally, as in what’s the problem and how can I help. The other side, the paranoid side, started worrying if this meant trouble—as in real trouble because of the relationship that had started between Jackson and me.
I decided to be kind of neutral and supporting. “Well, Bud, I’m sorry to hear that. I’m guessing it’s Jackson, right? Teenagers can be a handful, and I know that can mean real headaches sometimes. If there’s anything I can do to help you and Mrs. Harris sort this out, I’m right here.”
He looked at me for a few seconds before saying anything. “Attitudes are hard to change Pastor, and Jackson’s got an attitude problem.”
I’d already figured out he was strong willed, and he’d candidly told me that he got impatient quickly, tended to speak his mind, and all that probably meant that he’d occasionally speak before thinking.
Wondering just what “attitude” Bud was talking about, I said “I hope you don’t mean the wrong attitude caused a major problem in your family.”
He responded quickly this time. “It sure did. He’s got a wise month and doesn’t know how to show respect and thinks he can do what he damn well pleases whenever he wants. That doesn’t fly in my house!”
“Geez,” I replied, “that does sound like something more than a minor infraction. He told me yesterday that he got grounded the night before because he was very late coming home. Was it more of that?”
“Yeah, he got grounded, and then late last night after midnight Lily was up for the bathroom and caught him trying to sneak out to his fort……after he’d been grounded for God’s sakes!”
“That’s not good,” I said, leaving it pretty neutral.
“No, it’s damn well not! And then when he cussed out his mother and woke me up and started giving me lip and disrespecting both of his parents, that’s over the top.”
“Swearing at his parents?”
“That’s right, Pastor. He called his mother a bitch and then got smart with me, so he’s now on detention. He’s not allowed out of the house except for his paper route, and I’m timing him on that too! He’s going to be wound down so tight it’ll be like solitary confinement. And, he’ll be locked in his room at night. No more sneaking out to that damn fort to get up to whatever the hell he does out there!”
“Wow, Bud! That just doesn’t seem like the teenager you introduced me to and that spent the last two days helping me get settled in Newberg.”
“Well,” Bud replied, “like I said, he’s got an attitude problem, and I aim to fix it once and for all.”
“I understand, and also understand the challenges of raising kids even though I don’t have any, and the discipline challenges that can arise. Don’t forget, though, that I’m your pastor and his pastor too. I’d like to help if I can.”
“Can you change attitudes,” he asked with a smirk on his lips?
“You know unlike the Lord, I’m not a miracle worker,” I replied, “but we can all work on it together.”
“Well, I’ll think about it. Meantime he’s on detention till he shapes up.”
“Does that mean he won’t be able to help me finish up getting the parsonage in order today while I get organized for my first Sunday worship service tomorrow, then?”
Bud paused. You could tell he hadn’t thought about that piece, and while his wife Lily was on the Parsonage Committee, he was on the church Grounds committee, meaning he was part of the church establishment and needed to meet his commitments. The furrows in his brow indicated he was wrestling with the tension between exercising his household discipline and complicating plans for the new minister to get settled into his new home and church in time for worship tomorrow.
“Pastor, I’d forgotten about that, and I’m sorry. We don’t want to make you pay for his misbehavior, so how about if I let him come over for two hours this afternoon to help you finish up?”
“If you’re OK with it, I’d appreciate it, and maybe it’ll give me a chance to talk with him about his attitude and the responsibilities of being a son.”
“OK, I’ll do it, but it’s an exception, and I don’t make many exceptions. I’ll tell him he can come over about 2:00 PM. That OK with you?”
“Yeah, that’ll work fine, and I’ll try and help if I can. Thanks, Bud. I’ll let you get back to your work now. I’ve taken enough of your time. See you later.”
With that he just nodded, and I turned and walked home.
I spent much of the morning worrying—worrying for Jackson and worried about what this all meant for our blooming relationship and consequentially for me. Sure, Bud has said it had to do with Jackson cussing out his mother (not smart) and sassing his father (even dumber given what little I’d seen of their interactions), and that was all on Jackson’s side. It seemed like he hadn’t given anything away why he was sneaking out at midnight. Still, the potential for big trouble was here.
I cleaned up the kitchen and realized that I had a worship service to conduct tomorrow. Fortunately, I’d done the bulletin, Susan Albridge and I had connected on the hymns, so most of the service was under control. There was still the sermon to wrap up. I’d done work on it yesterday that made me realize I was trying to transition from a more stilted “doctrine and theology” approach to a more “honest and feeling” approach—but his was the first time and I still wasn’t sure how to approach it or how it would work.
I went back and looked at my notes, and then again read the Epistle and Gospel passages for the day: Luke 10:25-37, the Good Samaritan parable and Colossians 1:15-20, the passage on the preeminence of Christ. Frankly I was still struggling with how to turn those into an introductory sermon for my new congregation. It wouldn’t be hard to expound on the passages as both were classics in their own right, and usually you had to choose between the Gospel and the Epistle passage, but how to do so in a way that would let them know who I am, and would deliver something meaningful to them that they could use in their daily lives. And now this new question of how the sermon could possibly help a family with a problem and with a member I cared deeply about. I sat and stared at the passages in my Bible for minutes......and minutes.
I was stuck between just interpreting the passage and writing a sermon that was more about me. Back and forth, back and forth, and then I heard tires on the driveway.
God, who now! I’m trying to sort out this sermon and who.......and suddenly there was Susan’s “hello to the house” call from outside! My first reaction, though I was already growing fond of her, was that I didn’t need this distraction right now! No choice, though, so I went to the porch and waved and invited her in.
Today, in contrast to yesterday, I was thinking, and once she was inside and seated in the kitchen, I asked her if she’d like something to drink....and she said tea! So, I hunted around in the cupboards, found some Constant Comment tea bags, put some water in the kettle and on the stove to boil and got out the cups and saucers. All the while she was chirping away about don’t bother, how nice of you to do this, and other pleasantries. After serving the tea, and both of us taking a sip or two I asked her what prompted her to drop by on such a nice Saturday morning.
“Surely you have other more important things to do, right?”
She responded quickly “Yes, I do have errands to run, but making sure that tomorrow’s worship service goes off well, and your first service here is a success, is top of mind for me today.”
I asked her what she was concerned about, and her first response was about timing. She wanted to make sure that the service wasn’t rushed, that the hymns weren’t played too fast, and that there was a good flow. “That’s on my mind because we haven’t celebrated a service together before.” Her choice of the verb “celebrated” took me right back to seminary because that’s what it’s supposed to be: a celebration, not just a production or performance.
I assured her that I’d lead the service at a comfortable pace, though I’d be nervous for sure, and would probably need her to bail me out once or twice. “Don’t let me get ahead of myself,” I said, “especially, for example, rushing the Creed.”
I asked her “How is this congregation in terms of participation? Do they actively engage in the people’s part like saying the Creed or the confession, do they actively participate in singing the hymns, or is it just the choir and a few others?”
She assured me that the congregation was progressive, and they participated. For most of them worship was a joy, not a duty. That put my mind somewhat at ease. She asked me how I was approaching the sermon given the two kind of different Readings.
It dawned on me that she had dropped by because she wanted to help, to make sure the first service was a success, and to help if she could or bolster my confidence if needed. I decided just to be candid, since our time together at her home yesterday with Ellen was open and warm and honest. No better time to start building a team then right now.
“I’m still struggling, Susan, truth be told. I’ve known the Gospel and Epistle readings for this Sunday since the lectionary for this year was published. The passage in Luke about the Good Samaritan is one of the most well known in terms of putting faith into action. The Colossians passage is pure theology. I’m still struggling with just trying to interpret the passage and make it relevant, while I also want it to be a good introductory sermon. You know, they tell us in preaching classes that you only get that first sermon once, so you better make a good impression. My worry is that it could be too much theology or too much about me. That probably sounds self-centered and dumb, but I know everyone wants to know about the new pastor, and I want to get to know as many of them as I can. That’s why Jackson was showing me the road system yesterday when we drove by your home—I plan on visiting as many parishioners as I can in the first year.”
Susan paused and looked me straight in the eye. “You know,” she said, “I’m no expert on preaching even though as organist I have heard more than fifty-two sermons a year for over forty years! That said, I’d encourage you to try and make it relevant. Try and translate it into something that helps them. Besides the praise part of worship that makes you feel good in the moment, the other thing most people look for is something that helps them, that they can take home with them to get through the day or the week.”
“Wise counsel, Susan. Thanks for that. When it’s put that way, it seems so obvious!”
She just smiled.
“I guess I should quit worrying about the impact and start worrying about the benefit. Is that what you’re suggesting?”
“Yep,” she said, “that simple.”
I paused for a few seconds then said to her, “Given that counsel, I’m guessing you’re a pretty effective music teacher.”
She smiled briefly. “I don’t know about that, but I think it’s the same: if you can’t help students get better and do well, what are you doing?”
“Get better and do well,” I mused. “That’s a good summary of the goals.”
She looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Now that we’ve got the service and sermon questions out of the way, why do you look so glum?”
“Glum,” I said?
“Yes. You look down in the mouth, almost like someone died. You were mumbling and messing around with the cups and saucers when I got here like you couldn’t concentrate or something. You seem pretty pre-occupied. Is something bothering you this morning?”
I could see Susan was both a no-nonsense person and pretty perceptive. No point in beating around the bush.
“Yes, there is a concern. You saw yesterday and the day before that Jackson and I have gotten to be friends, he’s been helping me get organized and unpacked and stuff, but something happened overnight and there’s been a family blow up of some sort, he’s not just grounded, but essentially on detention and locked down at home.”
Susan didn’t answer right away. “Hmm,” she said.
I went on. “When we got back here from your home yesterday, Jackson’s dad suddenly wanted him home to do stuff, immediately got all over him, and I could see Jackson just kind of close down or shrivel up inside. Then whatever happened last night, and how he’s on detention. It doesn’t feel right. Are you aware of any problems I should know about? I mean I reminded Bud that I’m their pastor and wanted to help, but he’s not much at opening up and sharing.”
I could see Susan take a deep breath. “There’s been on and off problems in that family for years. I don’t know all the details, but Jackson doesn’t seem to me to be developing fully. He was a late bloomer to start with and began school later than most. You heard what I said to you about seeing a good relationship developing with you and his real need for a good friend. And I meant that - he needs a close friend because he doesn’t really have any. He seems isolated much of the time. And the same goes for his brother. As a teacher these are things you observe from afar, and I’ve seen it too at church and in the youth fellowship. It’s not just that he’s a loner. That’s an easy label to apply. He gets bullied, and he doesn’t seem to fit in his family. I have to be really careful what I say because I’m also a teacher in the school system, but I’m talking to you here as a staff member at Grace Presbyterian Church, right? So, two things. First, I’ve heard that there has been child protection services intervention at some point for child abuse. I don’t know any details, but that means someone reported it. I know that because as a schoolteacher in Oregon I’m a mandatory reporter.”
Well, this was new and unpleasant information, I thought to myself, but it does kind of go along with how Jackson’s dad behaves and how Jackson acts around his father. There’s fear and cowering there. “Susan, what do you mean by mandatory reporter,” I asked.
“In this state like most others, under the Federal child protection laws, most professionals—and that includes schoolteachers, but interestingly in Oregon doesn’t include ministers—are required by law to report child abuse when they see it. So, if there was child abuse in the Harris family, either someone in the family, or friend, or a mandatory reporter did report it. It could have been mild and just involved family therapy or maybe there wasn’t enough evidence to make a case, but I’d bet it was reported and is on file.”
“Geez, that means there’s history here, right?” I said, “I’ve seen a little of this type of stuff from afar during seminary, but this is new to me. What’s the second thing?”
She paused, then said, “Sometimes I think to myself that he doesn’t really look like he fits in that family.”
That comment was really weird, but facts are facts, and while Jackson has lovely light brown hair and a very light complexion, his brother has black hair and is darker completed like his parents. More to ponder!
“Susan,” I said, “I appreciate your candor and concern. And we’re having this conversation within the Church, that’s understood. The way Bud talked to him yesterday afternoon was more like a boss on a job site, and just seemed to make him shrink or wilt, and that’s not usual. In fact, it frightened me.”
“I don’t know what that means” she replied, “but Bud is a hard person. He’s very demanding, very rigid and doesn’t seem to be very forgiving. I’ve seen students come to school after receiving parental discipline, and I can’t say I’ve seen evidence that Jackson has received corporal punishment - you know what I mean, right? Spanking or whipping. But I have seen him at schools acting like it. You don’t have to see the welts to know someone got whipped. You can see it in they way they walk and their general demeanor. That kid is kind of tough, so he does a good job of not letting on when there’s trouble. Do you think that’s what we’re talking about?
“I just don’t know, Susan. I saw his reaction with his father when he got home. Then there’s a big blow out overnight, and now he’s on detention—can’t leave the house except to do his paper route. Bud’s letting him out at 2:00 pm for a couple of hours this afternoon to help me finish up the unpacking and organizing so I hope I can learn a little more then.”
“That’ll be good,” she said.
“I’ll try and learn what I can. Then we’ll see where it goes. Oh, on a completely different subject I wanted to ask you about the youth fellowship. Obviously, the church has an active one, but what’s planned for the summer? I mean we’re in July now. Is there any kind of church camp or bible camp planned? What normally happens?”
“Well,” she said, “our last pastor was elderly, so youth fellowship wasn’t his strong suit. He’d have the weekly youth meetings, but the fellowship part pretty much turned into bible study and lecture, or so I’m told. Summer camp? Church camp? It’s pretty much died on the vine. One of my hopes, and a few other ladies too, was that since you’re younger you’ll be able to jump start the youth fellowship. Why? Are you thinking about some kind of church camp this summer? I think it’s a great idea.”
“Well, yeah. I mean you know I just graduated from seminary, and that means besides studying most of what I’ve been doing is pulpit supply in churches without pastors, and youth ministry. I’m not thinking about something huge and formal for the first year, but maybe a weeklong program at the church where we start out there with a lesson or bible study or singing—for which I’d need you—then go do something like swim or go to the amusement park or take a hike, or whatever. What do you think?”
Her reply was instantaneous. “I think it would be tremendous. It would also be a great way to reinvigorate the youth fellowship. Get it going again with a mix of fun and faith. What can be wrong with that? Especially if you’re a kid!”
“Well, Susan, thanks for the encouragement. I think we’ll do it then. Do I need to run it by the Session, or is that not necessary because there used to be one?”
She thought a moment and said “I would try to get the Elders on board and so you can make sure they understand how and what you’re trying to do. The more support you get, the better. You’ll also need them to approve a budget.”
“Good plan,” I said “I’ll bring it up on Monday night at my first Session meeting. I’ll need to get a few volunteer counselors to help me organize it. How many kids total?”
She thought a second or two and said “Maximum twenty across all ages. It’ll be harder to get older teens involved since many have summer jobs. Yes, I’d say twenty max—most will be junior high, some freshmen or sophomores, likely no juniors or seniors. And, some counselors would be a good idea. They not only help you, but it helps them and gets them involved in helping others.”
I paused for a bit and didn’t say anything, just thought. She did the same. I finally looked up at her and said “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you coming by here today. You’ve helped me a lot on a lot of important subjects. I think we’re going to make a great team, if I may say so.”
She started to grin, then the grin spread into a huge smile and she chuckled. “That sounds like a plan to me. If we can work together to help people get better and be happy, I’m all for it. And with that, I’ve got to get going. I’ve finished my errands and shopping, and now I’ve got to get back home on schedule or I’ll be hearing about it from Ellen!”
I smiled at that and didn’t say anything. Just tucked it away in my memory for further consideration. Susan got up and headed out the door to the back porch and said “It was a pleasure chatting with you. I’m looking forward to your sermon tomorrow. It’ll be a great worship service, I know.”
“The feeling is mutual,” I said, “and tell Ellen how much both Jackson and I enjoyed meeting her yesterday and for the hospitality you extended to us. She’s also a lovely lady.” Susan just smiled and headed out the kitchen door. I heard her car start and the tires crunch on the driveway.
It was almost 1:00 and I was starting to feel hungry, so I cleaned up the teacups and made a sandwich, pulled out some chips and had some lunch. If everything stayed according to plan, then Jackson would be here in an hour or so. How would that go?
I washed the dishes and put the lunch food away and headed into my office. After my chat with Susan I was already getting new thoughts about how to approach the sermon, but also had to think about what needed to be done to finish up the office organization as well as my library and album collection. First, though, a quick nap. Sleep last night was pretty poor, and a nap to refresh was suddenly very attractive. I woke up twenty minutes later thinking about organization: obviously some of the books would go in the church office, the science fiction and other non-religious books and albums could go in the living room. Jackson would be a big help moving and unpacking the boxes. The stereo was set up, how or organize the rest of the albums wouldn’t be hard, and I started looking through the remaining moving boxes and was kind of lost in thought when I heard knocking on the kitchen door.
I started and walked through to the kitchen. It was Jackson outside on the porch, waiting, standing sideways to the door. I opened it and said “Hi Jackson. What are you knocking for? This is your house too, don’t you remember? Equals, right?”
I saw him wince, almost like he thought he was going to be struck. I pushed the door the rest of the way open and he turned to come in. That’s when I saw it. He had a huge red contusion on the left side of his face, covering most of his upper cheek, and a partial black eye with a bruise above his left eyebrow.
“What the hell happened?” I cried.
He looked at me with a wan smile. “Last night was a disaster.”
“Are you OK,” I said, “you poor baby. That must hurt like hell. Come here.”
He walked right into my arms and I gingerly pulled him close to me. I could feel his warmth against my chest, then in a few seconds the sobs starting as I hugged him closely.
“I got caught trying to leave last night. It turned into a confrontation.”
“I heard a little bit of it from your dad this morning,” I said.
“Him! Yeah, I bet he told you the whole story about what happened!”
“I don’t know what you mean by whole story, but I want to hear your side of the story. I’m sorry you got caught trying to leave the house last night, but my heart feels better already that you tried to get here. You said you needed it and you would, and I didn’t doubt you.”
The sobs kept coming. “I needed to be here, to be with you, and then I got caught and they wouldn’t let me out and, and……, it all just blew up”.
“Come inside. Come on, get in here. Can I get you something to drink?”
“Yeah, a Coke would be great. I know you’ve got some cuz we got them at the Food Town in town the other day.”
“You’ve got that right. Go sit on the couch, and I’ll bring one in.”
I got two Cokes out of the fridge and handed one to him as I sat down next to him on the sofa.
“OK, Kiddo, here you go. Now what happened? I know I only got one side of the story from your dad. Also, do you need a couple of aspirins too?”
He paused for a few seconds and then said “I had aspirin a while ago, so am good for now. Do you want the full story or the edited version?”
I looked him straight in his eyes that seemed a darker shade of hazel now because of the moment. “We agreed we’re going to be equals and that means we’re going to be completely honest with each other. I will with you, like I did yesterday about struggling with coming out as gay, and I expect you to about what’s going on in your life too.”
“That’s what I hoped you’d say, David. But, some of it’s pretty heavy. You’re not going to like it.” It was David now, not “Rev,” which I appreciated as more intimate and less flippant than our conversations yesterday, but the last part started to sound ominous.
He went on. “I told you I needed to be with you last night, and that I’d come to you, and I tried. I waited till just after midnight and slipped out of my room to head down the stairs. But my mother was still up for some reason and I didn’t hear her. She was at the top of the stairs and I almost ran into her. She was drunk and wanted to know what I was doing and where I was going. I tried to keep it easy and told her I was going out to the fort, that I was claustrophobic in my room. But she said I was grounded, and I couldn’t do that. She was slurring her words and very emotional and it turned into an argument and she started yelling and trying to stop me and calling me a sneak and worthless and stuff.”
I looked at him. “And what did you do?”
“Well, I tried to argue and then it got louder, and we were shouting cuz she was accusing me of stuff I didn’t do and then when then she called me a worthless shit I kind of lost it.”
I kept looking at him. “But you cussed out your mother. Is that when you called her a bitch?”
His eyes blazed at that and he said, “Yes. My dad must have told you that, right”
“Of course, he wouldn’t have told you what I really said,” he spat out. “I didn’t just call her a bitch. I called her a drunk bitch cuz that’s the way she was acting.”
“That’s right. She was drunk like she is most nights. It just got over the top this time. She was loud and pushy and slurring and stuff and then started accusing me of stuff that wasn’t true or fair. I just want to get out of there and get to you, where I feel safe and loved. And she was drunk and wouldn’t let me go and started pushing me around. And then my dad showed up.”
“Oh no, let me guess what happened,” I said.
“Yeah, that’s when it got bad. She told him I’d called her a drunk bitch, he went ballistic and started yelling that I had a bad attitude, was a joke of a son, was disrespectful, didn’t earn my keep and on and on. I started yelling back, and by that time we’d worked our way down most of the stairs toward the landing by the front door. He told me I wasn’t going anywhere; I was grounded and to get back in my room and he was going to lock me in. I told him that he couldn’t stop me, and that’s when he hit me. I mean he just swung like a boxer and hit me a huge slap on the side of my face. It knocked me off the step and onto the landing and I hit my forehead on the banister as I went down.”
“God,” I said. “You’re lucky you didn’t get knocked out or worse.”
“I know,” he said. “But it hurt like hell immediately. I knew I couldn’t go anywhere then and that I needed to get some ice on my face. So that’s what I did. Neither of them was sympathetic nor worried that I got hurt. It was all about being disrespectful. They stood there and watched while I iced my face, then said they’d had enough standing around and I could go back to bed and I’d better stay there, and tomorrow he’d figure out a way to lock me in my room at night.”
“I can’t believe it,” I whispered. “I’ve heard of parents with problems, but most don’t do stuff like that.”
“Well, that’s the Harris family. Way screwed up!”
I tried to change the subject. “Do you think some more ice would help? What can I do?”
He looked back with a puppy look in those eyes. “Can you just hold me for a while? I just want to feel safe and loved. I don’t think ice will help any more.”
“Sure, Jackson, that’s the least I can do.” I moved closer to him, wrapped my arm around his shoulder and drew him close. I could feel and hear him start to sob again.
“It’s okay, baby, it’ll be okay,” I heard myself whisper into the hair on the top of his head.
“How will it be okay? My family is totally screwed up,” he said.
“Jackson, like I told Susan earlier, I’m no miracle worker but I love you, and I’m also your pastor, and we’ll work on this, I promise. I’ll do everything I can to make it better and make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
I could feel him nod his head against my chest.
“I have to ask you a couple of questions. Is that okay?” I felt his head nod again.
“Has your father struck or beaten you like this before?”
Jackson was quiet except for the sobs. “I don’t know if I can tell you.”
“Why not,” I asked, “we love each other, and we agreed to trust each other.”
“Because he said if I ever told anyone what went on it would be worse,” he whispered.
“Listen, my beautiful boy, I’m no therapist, but I can tell you that a threat like that means what’s happening is bad. You’ve got to tell me.”
He was silent for a minute or so, then looked up at me. “Yes, it happened a lot. He’s big on spare the rod and spoil the child and whips us when we get out of line or break the rules. Last night he was in his pajamas, so he didn’t have a belt handy.”
“What about Gary, does he get whipped too?”
Again, he was silent for minute, and I could feel him making up his mind, deciding to talk or not. Finally, he said, “Gary gets it worse.”
“What does that mean? Jackson, you’ve got to tell me.”
He went on, “Gary’s gotten whipped and beaten and punched around the head and worse. He’s older and bigger and can take more, I guess. He’s always bullied me, and I don’t like him, but that doesn’t mean he deserves it. It’s just not right to treat kids this way.”
“I’ve got to ask you a hard question now. Susan told me that she understands that something like this has happened before and child protection services were involved. Is that true?”
“Yeah,” he whispered, “it was a year or two ago and Gary got caught at something, I forget what, and Pop went nuts and almost beat him to a pulp. He was all bruised on his face and chest and limped from the kicking for a couple of days. The folks kept him out of school on Monday, but he still looked bad on Tuesday. It was after that that the CPS people showed up.”
“And then what happened?” I asked carefully.
“The parents got threatened with losing both of us and had to go to anger management counseling and stuff, and that was the end of it. I guess enough time went by that there wasn’t enough evidence or whatever. Everything mellowed out for six months or so, then it all started back again.”
“Jackson, now I’ve got to ask you the really hard question. I’m doing this for a reason. Gary is distant and subservient in front of your parents, in addition to being big and slow. You’re almost timid in front of your Dad. Has anything else been going on? Has your Dad been doing anything else with Gary or you?”
Jackson was quiet, and in a few seconds, I could feel him shiver. He hugged me tighter and just said, “Oh God!”
I said, “I love you and I’m asking because I love you. If there’s a bigger problem here we need to solve it.”
Finally, after fifteen or twenty seconds of sobbing he looked up at me again and said, “I don’t know for sure, but I think so. I’ve seen Dad haul Gary out to the back tool shed and they’re there longer than it takes to get a whipping. I don’t know for sure, but I’ve been scared about it. And its crazy cuz he’s basically anti-gay. I mean if he found out I was gay he’d beat me to a pulp; I just know it. But he might be doing something like that to Gary. That’s crazy, man.”
“OK, that’s all. Thank you, Jackson for trusting me enough to tell me all of this. I don’t know what I can do, but I promise you I will do what I can. I mean, I just got here so I don’t know anyone really, but what I’m hearing is beyond what’s right and normal and I’ll do my best for you. We’ve got two issues. The gay one, and that involves both of us. There’s physical abuse possibly sexual abuse of your brother and we’ve got to address them. Okay?”
Jackson said nothing.
“Can you look at me.” He looked up again and I kissed his forehead. “I’m here for you not just because I love you, but because I’m also an adult and parents shouldn’t behave this way, and because I’m your pastor and I have an obligation to care for you. Do you understand?”
He nodded and said simply, “Yes, and I love you too. I’m sorry I got caught last night. I had to be with you, and I screwed up and got caught and it all blew up. It’s my fault. If I’d been cool or waited and gone later, it wouldn’t have happened.”
“Jackson, you’re wrong,” I said, “if it hadn’t happened last night it would have happened another night. The point is what’s going on is wrong and we need to fix it. Okay? And I’ve got to ask, has anything sexual happened between you and your father?”
He didn’t wince on that one, just looked straight at me and said, “No. I’ve wondered why. I’m younger and smaller, so it’d be easier to force me than Gary.”
“That’s true now,” I replied, “but if he started abusing Gary when he was younger, he would have been move manageable and subservient and you would have been too young to start with. Either way, we’ll get to the bottom of this, Okay?”
“Okay. I trust you and love you, so I’ll take your word on it.”
We just sat and hugged for a couple more minutes while we thought about what we’d just learned. Finally, I said “It’s almost 2:45, Kiddo, and if we need to get off this couch and do something else. I was hoping you could finish up organizing my album collection and all my sci-fi books here in the living room, while I finish putting away my theology books in the office. Are you up for that?”
“Do we have to? I’m happy just being here hugging you and having you hold me.”
I replied, “I am too, Kiddo. I love it, but the plan was you were going to help me finish up organizing and that was the deal I made with your Dad when he agreed to let you off detention this afternoon for two hours. So, we’ve got to do some work or we’ll both be in the shitter if we get caught out!”
“Rev,” he blurted out, changing tone,” you just said shitter. What’s up with that?”
I grinned. “Well, you know, we don’t need to get you in any more trouble. Come on. You started on the albums the other day. How are you planning on organizing the music collection?”
He smirked for a minute, loving that I could lighten up and swear, and then said, “I was just thinking the easy way: alphabetical order by musician or band. What do you think? The other option is by album title, but I usually think I want to hear something by that band, or listen to that song by that musician, so it usually starts with the musician or band. Is that cool with you?”
“Makes sense. It also says we both think alike. Okay, you get after the albums. They should all fit on those bookshelves on that side by the stereo, and still leave enough room on these other shelves for the sci-fi books. You’ll also find some historical novels in there too, just put them together apart from the sci-fi. Meanwhile I’ll go get started on the theology books. Cool?”
He smiled, and we slowly untwined and got off the couch. He’d started on the albums two days before, so it was easy for him to pickup and continue. I headed into the office next door and started pulling theology books out of boxes. I found I was just loading shelves with books, not really thinking about how to organize them by author or by type, my mind whirring with what I’d just learned.
This sounded bad and could be really bad? If Jackson’s Dad was beating both of his kids that was bad enough. What if he was doing more to Gary? That was a bridge I didn’t want to cross. I’d learned about child sexual abuse in counseling classes but had no personal experience of it and pretty much was in denial. I mean, did adults really do this kind of stuff to kids, did they? Worse yet, did parents?
I was buzzing all those thoughts and questions around in my head when I heard the crunch of tires on the driveway. “Now who?” I immediately thought—not a good time for a visitor. I walked into the kitchen and noticed Jackson was focused on what he was doing with the albums and not allowing himself to be disturbed. Good!
As I approached the kitchen door, I saw Susan come onto the porch. She was no longer calling out “Hello in the house” like it was a ship in port. She obviously felt more comfortable and welcome. She walked up to the kitchen door as I opened it.
“To what do I owe this pleasure, Susan,” I asked with a slight smile on my face.
She looked me straight in the eye and said “You told me Jackson would be here for a couple of hours this afternoon, and given what you said happened last night I decided it was important to take the opportunity to stop by and see him and say hello. Is that agreeable with you?
“Susan,” I said, looking her straight back in the eye, “yes, it is because I know you want the best and are rightfully concerned. Jackson’s in the living room. Come on in.”
We walked through to the living room, and as we entered, I said loudly, “Jackson, look who’s dropped by to say hi and make sure I’ve got my act together for tomorrow’s worship service.”
Susan followed me into the living room as Jackson looked up and appeared to blanch. Then he stood up and turned toward Susan, who walked right over to him and simply said “Hello, young man. I wanted to drop by and tell you how much Ellen and I enjoyed having you at our home yesterday for tea. You know, it’s not too often that two old ladies like us have two good looking young men like you and the Pastor come by.”
Jackson was silent, blushed just a bit, and mumbled “You’re welcome, Miss Albridge. It was a fun time.”
“It was,” Susan replied, and then went on, “I meant what I said about the importance of the friendship you are already forming with David. You understand that, don’t you?”
Susan paused while she smiled, looking at his face, then continued, “What happened to your face, Jackson?”
This time Jackson really did blush, but not enough to hide the contusion or bruise. “It was an accident….a mis…a misunderstanding.”
“Jackson,” Susan said, “I’ve known you since you were born and your family longer than that. You can’t BS me. You’re my student as well as in my church. I care about you and asked you what happened to your face. Don’t you think you own me an answer?”
Jackson glanced at me. I looked at him directly and nodded, trying to assure him and encourage him to tell Susan what he’d told me.
He hemmed and hawed a bit, then relented and told her pretty much what he’d told me, explaining it as wanting to go out to his fort to get out of the house, and how that turned into the confrontation and where it went from there.”
Susan walked the remaking three steps to Jackson, reached out to him, wrapped him in a big hug and pulled him into her ample bosom. “I’m so sorry to hear that Jackson, and especially that this is happening again in your home. Did your parents take you to the Emergency Room when they saw the extent of your injuries?”
Jackson just shook his head. “No, they just let me use some ice in a bag and then sent me back to my room.”
Susan’s eyebrows couldn’t have been raised higher! “That’s outlandish. You don’t deserve it. No child deserves it. I know you’re bright and strong willed, but that doesn’t warrant this type of reaction. Jackson, you know this is physical abuse, don’t you? I want you to be sure you understand that. It’s not your fault. You don’t deserve this. Nothing you did warrants being beaten like this. Do you hear me”
Jackson had started sobbing again, and after a few seconds he quietly said, “Yes, Ma’am.”
Susan paused and then said, “Jackson, I’m going to say this again because it’s important. You’re a good kid, and you may have done something bad last night, but that’s bad behavior and doesn’t make you a bad person. You didn’t deserve this. You’re a child of God and as they say, ‘God don’t make no junk!’ Do you hear me?”
“Yes, Ma’am,” Jackson said again, and I could see him giving her a big hug. “Thank you for that. I really needed to hear it and I just learned I have two friends: you and the Rev!”
“Two friends for sure,” Susan said. “Just be careful when and where you call David the “Rev” she said with a smile on her face. “He is our pastor, and we’ve got to show respect too.”
“I know,” Jackson said as he unwound from his hug, “but thanks. I always thought of you as just another teacher, and I’m sorry about that because it meant I didn’t appreciate what a kind and caring person you are.”
“Thank you for that Jackson,” Susan said, “but enough already or you’ll have me blushing. Now, I have to be going and let you get back to work. It looks like you’re doing a great job organizing the record collection. I’ll see you tomorrow at church.”
Jackson smiled weakly and turned back to the bookshelves. Susan turned to me and motioned me to follow her into the kitchen where I ended up following her onto the front porch.
“You were right in your suspicions and concerns,” she said, “and this is serious. There’s a pattern, and to bend a metaphor, ‘where’s there’s smoke there’s fire.” I’m sure now that there’s a repetitive pattern of behavior going on. And to compound it by not taking him to the ER adds negligence to the problem of physical abuse. You know I’m going to have to report this on Monday, don’t you?”
I paused for a few seconds, my natural inclination being to avoid controversy, and finally said, “I’m not surprised that you say so, and something has to happen to stop this. I don’t have a counseling background, but with what you said about a previous problem, I’m guessing it’s the only way to stop it from happening again.”
“Thank you for the affirmation, Pastor. I’ll do so on Monday, but in the meantime, we have to come to grips with the implications. What I mean by that, and I’ve thought a lot about it since we spoke this morning, is that we know Jackson has been subject to physical abuse, and that probably means Gary has too. Gary wasn’t always sullen and withdrawn. I’ve known him all his life too, and he’s changed in the past few years. He was never the brightest student, but he’s retreated into sullenness and bullying. We have both children to think about here, because if Lilly is an alcoholic, she’s enabling this situation. That could mean intervention that involves both children. Do you understand?”
The implications were coming together in my head pretty quickly, whether I liked them or not. Susan and I were on the front line. “Yes, I think I do, but obviously not as clearly as you do. You have a lot more experience in these matters than I do. But I will tell you something else very troubling. When I quizzed Jackson earlier, he implied that Gary is being sexually abused too. He doesn’t know for sure, but he suspects it.”
Susan was unruffled. “It’s unfortunate and a travesty,” she said, “but I’m not overly surprised. These behaviors often happen together. If it’s true, then what I just said about being prepared to deal with the implications is even more the case. We won’t know until CPS gets involved and does an intervention. In the meantime, though, first things first, let’s focus on tomorrow and try and have as uplifting a worship service as possible.”
Susan smiled, turned to the steps off the porch, and headed for her car. I watched her head down the driveway, and then turned back into the house wondering how things could swing so far so fast!
When I got back to the living room, Jackson was on his knees, sorting through albums in boxes and continuing his organization of them on the bookshelves. He looked over at me as I walked in, the wan expression back on his face.
I looked him straight in the face and smiled, saying “Jackson, you don’t have to be unhappy because we’re going to fix this mess, Okay? You have a real friend in Susan, and you know that, don’t you?”
He paused and then nodded. I said, “Smile for me!” He did. I went on, “Look this is a mess, and it’s normal to be bummed, or angry or even melancholy. But you have to trust us, this is fixable, and we’re on your side, and you just have to believe that and hang on for a few days, Okay?”
“That’s easy for you to say,” he replied, “you don’t have to go back to prison in less than an hour. I’m not just grounded, I’m on detention. My parents can’t stand me, and they’ll hate me or worse when they find out I’m gay. I can’t leave the house after I go home from here except for my paper route and to go to church tomorrow. It’s a nightmare. You tell me why I shouldn’t just run away. My Mom’s a drunk and my Dad hates me. Why should I stay? Why should I think things will get better? They’ve always just gotten worse!”
His anger was rising as he finished his statement, and I was pained – I understood the emotion he was expressing.
“Jackson, there are no simple answers to complex questions. That’s one of the most important things I learned in seminary. Okay? Beyond that, I’ll give you a really good reason not to run away, but it might sound selfish. I love you, and if you run away where does that leave us? That said, I love you as a good and decent person who doesn’t deserve this and needs to have it fixed, and Susan does too. Beyond that, I love you like I’ve never loved anyone before or known that I could. Just stick with us and trust us for a few days, Okay?”
There was silence for a minute or two, and you could see his eyes sparkle as the mental calculations went on in his brain. His face was contorted, and it was obvious he was hurting inside.
He slowly got up from the records and we walked toward each other and just embraced. I felt the sobs starting again. “Jackson, just trust me, even though I know it will be hard. You’re strong willed and impatient, and I’m asking you to be cool and patient. Can you do that for us?”
He kept sobbing. I kissed the top of his head, that light brown hair waving in my face as I exhaled onto his scalp.
“I guess,” he whispered.
“I’m not saying it will be easy to go home in half an hour. I’m not saying it will be easy to be there for the next few days. I’m not saying any of this will be easy. I’m just trying to convince you that it will be worth it. That the outcome will be better if you will. Just hang in there and let us see what we all can do. Are you good with that?”
Silence for another thirty seconds. Then the sobbing stopped, like he’d reached a decision. He looked up at me and simply said, “Okay, I will. I’ll try my best to get through the next few days cuz it’s the best hope for it getting better. I trust you, David, and I love you, so I will. For you and for us, Okay?”
I smiled back at him, trying to beam my love his way, and if he’d been taller, I know he would have leaned in for a kiss. So, I just bent down a little and kissed him on the lips. Not a hot passionate kiss, but the kind of kiss a lover gives to the beloved when they need to feel they’re loved. He responded, and I felt relieved. There was a counter force working now in his life to offset what had happened to him overnight.
“Can I ask you something else, and this may be hard?”
He got a questioning look on his face, thought for a few seconds, and I watched as a “Geez, what now” expression flashed across his face. Then he simply said, “Yes.”
“This is going to sound like me the pastor talking, and it is……but it’s also me your friend, and me who loves you. Even though you got the worst of it last night with the stuff your mom said to you, then what your dad said and then getting hit down the stairs, you weren’t without fault, were you?”
Another pause. Then quietly into my chest, “What do you mean?”
“You swore at your mother, probably swore at your father and defied him. You may feel like you have good cause, but you did. Can you see your way to trying to make the peace by at least apologizing to them for losing your temper and swearing at them? It would be good for you and you might find it takes the edge off this family mess you’re in. Someone has to start it, from what you tell me, they won’t. But you’re a good and caring person, Jackson, and if you weren’t on the receiving end of this emotional firestorm, you’d probably be telling the person who was that they should do it to lighten the situation up.”
Silence. Finally, another whisper in my chest, “You’re probably right, but I hate the idea. They’re the adults, they’re supposed to know what to do, why do I have to do it?”
“Because they’re both stubborn and self-righteous from what I can see, and it’s unlikely they’ll take the first step. If you do, you’re on the ethical high ground, because you’ve recognized you weren’t perfect and lost your temper and are now trying to make amends. I’m not asking for a peace treaty, Jackson. I’m just suggesting something simple: apologize for cussing them out and losing your temper. Leave it at that and let the chips fall where they may. Can you do that?”
Silence again, then in a little brighter voice, “Yes, I can. And I will cuz you asked me to, and I know it’s the right thing to do even if I hate it!”
“Cool,” I said. “I don’t just love you, I’m also proud of you too. It takes a big man to step up and do something like that, but it’s the right thing to do. Now, we’re running out of time, so let’s get some work done before you have to head home, okay?”
“Alright,” he said, “if we have to. I like this hugging and holding feeling.”
“Hey, it’s called cuddling and I like it too, but we’ve got stuff to do if we’re going to be able to have it look like we got anything done.”
He looked up at me. “Is it okay if I put on that album by Simon and Garfunkel, the one that was on the other day with “I Am A Rock?”
“You bet,” I replied, “it’s one of my favorites and I hope it soon will be one of yours too, and the vibe is good for where we are at the moment, kind of light and upbeat.”
Jackson went and pulled out the “Sounds of Silence” album and was putting it on the stereo as I headed to the office to finish putting books away. The music came on and I heard Jackson turn up the volume as the first track got started. It was the title track “The Sounds of Silence,” another favorite. I listened as the song went along, then heard something for the first time in the lyrics, and I stopped sorting books and stood there listening to the lyrics all the way through and was thunderstruck. I was hearing words and messages I’d never heard before.
Suddenly my worries about tomorrow’s sermon vaporized. I felt like I was living out the Bible imperative “let those who have ears hear,” and in fact I was hearing something for the first time, but I’d just had the breakthrough I’d been waiting for, to make the sermon real and relevant.