Another Side of the Church
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because imperfection doesn’t always mean disillusionment.
In the summer of 1987 I came to California as a 26-year-old emotional runaway. I had boarded a plane in a hurry, I was anxious, I didn’t know much of anything. I had packed my bags with distrust, and when I opened them up again a flight later, I extracted distrust.
You can’t flee as easily as you wish.
I had left Texas confused and looking for spiritual advisement. As soon as I arrived in California, I realized I needed it with even more urgency than I’d assumed. I put my things away, and within 24 hours, I found the name of a church. I remember calling this church and asking for directions. To my surprise, the pastor — who was driving the church band that night — told me he’d come and pick me up around 7 o’clock. I went that night, and within a month, I was a church member, attending nearly every Sunday. Within six months, I felt certain: Something had changed, though I didn’t know what. I was in the choir, I was building relationships.
When we think of leaders, we fail to see their humanity.
And I was beginning to notice certain people in particular. There was one lovely young lady, with a vibrant smile and a contagious laugh. I was leaving church one night when the opportunity presented itself: She was alone, and as I approached, she smiled, as if to say, “I was wondering when you were going to ask me.” She gave me her number on the spot. For the next two or three months we dated, but quietly, never holding hands in public or spending time at church together in front of the whole congregation. I didn’t think much of that, though; I was just happy to go on any date with her. Until one night. I remember sitting on the couch at her apartment and noticing a photo on her living room table. I recognized the man in the photo — the one who had come to pick me up in the church van months ago. The pastor. But he was different: no Sunday-best suit, just jeans and a flannel shirt. And he didn’t look godly so much as lusty. That’s when I realized this woman was the pastor’s mistress.
I could tell you that I stood up in the church and decried the immorality, but I didn’t. What happened went the other way: My lady friend told me that one night, when I had missed choir rehearsal, the pastor called a meeting for all the women in the choir and told them to steer clear of me, romantically speaking, because I was going through “spiritual hardship.”
That was one of my first brushes with tainted leadership. So often, when we think of leaders, we fail to see their humanity. Back then, I was naive enough to believe that men of God were different and that they had been given some type of spiritual superstrength. I was wrong. So I turned from the church to the bars, the clubs. My nights out increased from one day a week to four. My soul was fed by tunes, melodies, smooth R&B verbiage. I liked this place called Stardust. I landed there one night and did what many of us do upon entering a room with a party — I sized it up. Where did I fit on the ranking system? Was there another guy whom the ladies might prefer over me, or did I have the room on lock?
This particular night I saw one of Those Guys, the kind who’s sharp and powerful; I’d seen him before, That Guy — he stood about 6 feet 2, with a tight physique and even tighter gator shoes. Once or twice I’d catch his eye in a bar and see him give me a look, like, “I’ve picked my girl for the evening; stay away from this one.” And I’d do the same. We had our quiet pact that way. I knew a real player when I saw one, and he was one. He and I, we never spoke, but we swapped glances of respect a couple of times a month. On that night, this sister I was getting at asked me to come to her house to play cards. I agreed. We were hanging out, drinking a little. My girl told me her friend was in another room, with her guy. Sooner or later, the couple emerged. And lo and behold, it was That Guy. That smooth cat. That itself seemed like a good laugh to me, until I heard the other girl say, “Baby it’s getting late, and you have to go to church in the morning.”
I inquired: What church did he go to? I’d been calling around to try to find a good church since that first pastor, I told him. Maybe he could give me some advice. Just as soon as the question was out my mouth, the girls started giggling. “He’s the minister at the church,” one said. “I thought you knew.”
And in that moment, I saw that when he stood up in front of the pews the next morning, he would seem perfect, morally untouchable, to many members of his congregation. But he wasn’t. I knew he wasn’t and he knew he wasn’t. It didn’t make me sad, though. It made me think, simply, that I couldn’t even have held another human being accountable for the spiritual highs and lows of life. It made me see how imperfect I am.