Joan lay inert in her bed after she awoke Monday morning at six, hardly refreshed. Gray daylight leaked into the room. Her red suit huddled in a wad in the corner where she had thrown it the night before.
She groaned, then chided herself for slipping into despair. Didn’t parishioners who came to her for counseling invariably say, “Thank you for helping us to see the positive side of things”? And when she grieved after the breakup with Dennis—which seemed to turn half the seminary student body against her—she felt sure, deep down, that everything would work out all right.
She got up and pulled on a pair of jeans. She picked up the suit and put it on hangers. Maybe she would wear it again after all; the wrinkles would fall out. She made the bed and opened the curtains and checked the philodendron. It needed water. She recited as she moved, “This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
She padded to the kitchen. The cord from the wall telephone dangled to the floor, and the receiver, detached from the cord, lay on the counter like a steak bone saved for someone’s dog. She picked it up, plugged the cord into it, and set it back on the hook. She stared at the blinking light on the answering machine and then turned it off. She wasn’t ready to listen to messages that had come in yesterday before she took the phone off the hook.
She started the coffee pot and took a folder out of her canvas satchel. From it she retrieved the long list of phone calls and thank-you notes that she wanted to write in the wake of yesterday’s vote. It was six-fifteen when she called Cassie.
“Got a pile of things to do, so you’ll need to walk without me today,” Joan said.
“What?” she screeched. “I tried to call you a zillion times! I heard about Strong. Why didn’t you call me? Are you okay?”
“Of course I’m okay. I just have a lot to do.” She tried to be upbeat. “The congregation gave the go-ahead to plan an expansion.”
“Who cares? This Strong thing is awful! Don’t you think you could have called me? He was talking about us, not just you.”
Joan’s heart surged. She had never heard Cassie sounding so shrill before, and the tone of voice confused her. Hadn’t they had a wonderful evening together just Saturday night? The air in the room began to squeeze her chest.
She gulped a breath. “He did ask about you when I saw him and his wife at the track meet Saturday.”
“That creep. Look, you’re right that we shouldn’t walk today. We need to let this blow over.”
“That’s not why I want to cancel.” At least she didn’t think it was.
“Well, it should be. There’s going to be a firestorm.”
Joan chuckled. “Oh, Cassie. Single women make easy targets. People know it’s just Bill Strong grasping at straws because he doesn’t want the expansion.”
“Don’t count on it.”
Joan slumped and stared out the window. Surely, everything would be fine.
Bill Strong answered on the fifth ring. Evidently Martha wasn’t talking to the telephone, either.
“Hey, Bill! Just wanted to say again you did the right thing.”
Cal Thompson. Didn’t even identify himself. Guess he didn’t need to with that booming voice of his.
“If she’s a dyke, she shouldn’t be the preacher, that’s all there is to it,” Cal said.
Cal’s voice hurt Bill’s ear, and he held the receiver an inch from his head. Martha glared at him from across the kitchen table. Today, she had set a bowl and a box of cold cereal on the table instead of fixing him his usual oatmeal, toast, and coffee.
“I just think the expansion is a mistake,” he said.
“I don’t care about the expansion one way or the other,” Cal said. “I’m thinking, though, that maybe somebody needs to do something to get Joan out of the pulpit.”
Bill fidgeted in his chair and glanced at Martha.
“I’m just going to mind my own business until they vote on actually building the expansion. Then I’ll have a thing or two to say.”
“Come on, Bill. I don’t have anything against Joan. She’s a good old gal. But if she’s queer, and you tell me she is, then she shouldn’t be pastor. Am I right?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. I just want to stop the expansion.”
“Bill, Bill, Bill. This is much bigger than the expansion. I thought you might want to lead the charge to get her out of the pulpit, but if you don’t, I’ll find somebody who does. Are you with me?”
Bill hesitated. The idea had certain appeal. Cal, even if he was a gossip, held a certain prominence in town and got things done. He was active with the Chamber of Commerce and, before he retired, worked on retainer for the city. He was big in the United Way and with the animal shelter. He had never before called on Bill to lead anything, and Bill wanted at least to agree to back him up.
Martha glowered at him, and he felt his face turn red. “I need to think about it, I guess.”
“All right, but if you don’t, you don’t,” Cal said. “We’ll find somebody else. Expect a call, though. I’m sure we’ll need your help.”
Martha was staring at him, her mouth pinched, after he hung up the phone.
“Cal Thompson wants someone to work on getting rid of Joan. I said no.”
She returned to her newspaper.
“Martha.” He worked his jaw from side to side. “You have to talk to me about Will. I know we aren’t exactly Mario and Michael Andretti, but he’s my son. You can’t just go saying something like that and not tell the whole story.”
Her eyes pierced him again, and this time he stared back. They stared at each other for a good minute. She looked away, out the window, where a cardinal was challenging a chickadee at the bird feeder. Then she said, her voice quiet, “Okay. I’ll tell you. But I quit talking the second you start hollering or making snide remarks.”
Joan headed to church at ten o’clock. Since she usually took Mondays off, the day would be quiet. She bade a cheery greeting to Tracy and Darice and proceeded to her office. She got her coffee cup and went to the workroom to fill it. Tracy met her there.
“I have nine messages for you,” she said, and she handed Joan a stack of pink slips.
Joan raised her eyebrows. “Hmm. What’s that all about?”
“Something about yesterday’s meeting.” She paused. “I heard about Bill Strong. That’s terrible.”
Joan shrugged. “I feel sorry for him. I’m afraid his fear of change won’t let him see what’s best for the church.”
“If you say so.” Tracy snorted. “The old coot. Anyway, do you want me to keep taking messages, or go ahead and put calls through?”
“As long as I’m here, put them through, unless I’m on the phone, of course,” she said. “Any reason not to?”
“A couple of people sounded kind of…unpleasant, I guess.”
Joan returned to her office and thumbed through the messages. Five callers, three of them anonymous, left the approximate same message: “If you are a lesbian, you need to quit now.” Three people, all named, sent their good wishes and regrets about Bill Strong. The last message came from the bishop.
She called him.
“Fred told me about what happened at the meeting,” he said. “I’m not much worried about rumors. They come and go. But, and you’ll forgive my asking, if the church member making the accusation is correct, then we need to discuss it.”
“I am not a lesbian,” she said.
“Fine, fine,” he said. “Anything else you want to talk about? I know I’ve been a little out of touch lately.”
“I think we’re doing fine. Fred probably told you the proposal passed two-to-one, and the board immediately appointed a planning committee.”
“Yes, he told me, and I’m very pleased.” He paused then spoke deliberately. “Joan, as you know, there is not much about a pastor’s life that is private. You might feel lonely without a spouse and look to people outside the church for friendship, which is completely understandable. But do be careful. I know you would not want gossip to derail this expansion.”
“And Joan? Write this number down.” He gave her the telephone number for the church conference’s help line for employees. “If you think there’s a chance you might be gay, you can call it, unless you’d rather talk to Fred or me.”
She was not gay. On Saturday night—could that have been just two days ago? —she had gone to Cassie’s house to watch a movie, just as she might have a few weeks ago, before her life went topsy-turvy. As they watched a video, “The Love Letter,” Cassie took and held her hand. Maybe she should have pulled her hand away, but she did not. In fact, she reveled in sitting close, in feeling Cassie’s warmth through her shirt sleeve and her hand in Cassie’s hand. She felt loved for herself rather than for her role, and that was a good thing.
And when the movie ended—and the writer of the love letter turned out to be a woman who had written it to another woman—Cassie said, “I don’t want to rush you. I know you are in a difficult position, but I can wait.” Then she touched Joan’s face and kissed her, and Joan felt as though she could breathe at last after being under water for a long, long time. It felt so right that she kissed back and wrapped her arms around Cassie. They held each other until at last Cassie kissed her cheek and pulled away. Cassie cleared her throat and said, “We’d better stop now, or I won’t be able to stop at all.” Joan didn’t want the embrace to end, and it didn’t occur to her to feel guilty until she got home.
Still, she couldn’t be a lesbian. Surely, she would know it if she were. Yes, it was both exciting and comforting with Cassie, but it wasn’t indecent.
Of course, there was Donna Park, a member at her church in Atchison who left her husband for another woman. Donna told Joan, “Everybody is bisexual, at least a little bit. Even Margaret Mead said so. It’s just a matter of which part of your sexual nature you follow.”
Joan wasn’t sure she believed her, and that point of view raised its own difficult questions.
She looked back at the message slips in her hands. What was it the bishop said? Be careful; avoid being the object of rumors. She supposed that meant she should avoid Cassie. She felt a twinge at that thought, even though Cassie suggested the same thing. She needed Cassie’s advice and support to get through all this. She stared at the employee help line number, folded it, and placed it in her pencil drawer as the phone rang.
Joan had just finished returning the last phone message, when she took a call from Inez Walker.
“Cal Thompson is getting a petition together to run you out of office,” she announced. “But I don’t want you to worry. I’m working on a letter of support now.”
Joan’s stomach knotted. “Are you sure?” Cal Thompson wasn’t particularly likeable, but he knew everyone and could be counted on to do whatever he said he would do. In fact, Joan was planning to suggest that he head the fundraising committee for the addition when the time came.
“I am absolutely sure. He wrote a draft and gave it to Ernie McElroy. Winnie McElroy read it and called me while Ernie was at the hardware store. I take shorthand, so I took it down.”
Joan shook her head. The pastor-parish relations committee would be meeting in a couple of weeks to make its annual recommendation to the district on whether to retain her or assign her elsewhere. Until this moment, her only thought about the upcoming meeting was how good the expansion progress would look for her annual review. A petition could definitely complicate things.
Inez said that the petition cited the Methodist Book of Discipline and emphasized the phrase, “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” Then it quoted from the Bible, from Romans 1:26-27, where Paul said that homosexual acts were “degrading passions” and “unnatural.”
It concluded with, “‘We, the undersigned, therefore respectfully request that the Reverend Joan Dillon be removed from her pastorate at the Walnut Grove First United Methodist Church as soon as possible,’“ Inez reported. “That man needs a hobby.”
Joan sighed. “I’d better call Cal and Ernie and talk to them.”
“Don’t do that to yourself, Joan. You can’t talk to Cal. He loves this church and has done a lot of good things for it, but once he makes up his mind about something, well, there’s no changing it.”
“Thank you, Inez. I’ll give that some thought. In the meantime, I hope you’ll hold off on your letter of support, although I appreciate your thoughts more than you can know.”
Inez sounded hurt. “It’s very positive. It’s something I might want to do, anyway, before the pastor-parish relations committee meeting. I was the debate coach at the high school for 15 years, you know, and I can put forth a pretty good argument, if I do say so. Here, let me read it to you.”
Before Joan could stop her, Inez began.
“It opens with, ‘Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,’“ she said. “I thought it was good to remind people right off that they’re supposed to follow Jesus and not their prejudices.”
The letter went on to say that the signers wanted Joan to be reappointed to her position. It cited a long list of reasons, starting with the expansion plan and including the growing membership roll and Joan’s commitment to personally attending to members in need.
Joan squirmed, though, when Inez read, “We are sad that some members seem to have forgotten the commandment about bearing false witness. You can rest assured that the vast majority of the congregation will support the committee’s recommendation to reappoint the Reverend Joan Dillon as pastor of Walnut Grove First United Methodist.”
The letter concluded, “Like you, we are trying to live Jesus’ commandment to love one another,” and thanked the committee members. The letter made no mention of homosexuality.
“I think it sounds sincere and positive,” Inez said. “I don’t see how an unfounded accusation could ever beat love.”
Joan issued a long, tired sigh.
“I think the situation that Bill started is a little like poison ivy,” she said. “The more you scratch it, the worse it will be.”
“Cal’s scratching. I want to put salve on it.”
“I appreciate your thought, Inez, but it will pass, I’m sure. Let me get back to you before you do anything, okay?”
Just as she hung up the phone, Dorothy Meadows peeked into the office. “May I come in?”
Joan rose, and Dorothy walked behind the desk and gave Joan a big hug, to Joan’s discomfort. Dorothy then grasped Joan’s arms as if she were a child. “I am so upset about what Bill Strong did yesterday,” she said. She moved to the chair opposite Joan and smoothed her skirt after sitting down. She dabbed her eyes with a tissue. “I know all too well from Brad how hard it is to be gay, but I hope you know I’ll do whatever I can to support you just like you’ve supported Brad and me.”
An image of Brad, looking skeletal in his final days, flashed into Joan’s mind.
Joan flushed. “I am so grateful for your support, Dorothy, but I’m not gay.”