Southern Legitimacy Statement: I grew up in south-central South Dakota. My maternal great grandfather’s family came from Nodaway County, Missouri named after the Nodaway River that flows south. My home town is Mission, population less than a thousand, the largest city on the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation. I have not seen a dead mule, but my friends and I did a c-section on a bloated cow, dead about four days, when we were in sixth grade. Good thing it was March and pretty cool yet.
Not Always United Methodists
I was three years old when I was baptized in 1963. I remember my feet leaving the pale tile and stepping up the two red-carpeted steps that lead to the Mission United Methodist Church’s alter. I am guessing my mother held my hand, though I’m not sure. I don’t remember being told to bow my head to receive the three very cool drops of water, but because my memory holds as much detail about the floor as anything else, it was probably already bowed at the time.
Our church on the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation in South Dakota was a small metal rectangle constructed a short time before my baptism. I came to know it well through my attendance in Sunday school, Release Time on Mondays at 3:00 during the school year, and Vacation Bible School, in the summers. I filled water glasses, dropped a large plate of sloppy spaghetti once, and then filled more water glasses at church bazaars.
Across the dirt street to the east of our church were the Baptists. Their church was built after ours. I don’t remember what year my friend Becky and her family moved into the Baptist parsonage, but I do remember that being in her large stern father’s presence, I felt like a heathen.
According to Rev Unroe’s standards, I was a heathen. He came to South Dakota on a mission to “save” Native Americans, not a well-nourished little white girl who had no idea she was only related to these lost souls by marriage, friendship and the Allotment Act of 1889. My baptism was only a sprinkling of water, not total immersion, and it happened before I was old enough to make any conscious decision what-so-ever about my salvation. In fact the word “salvation” would not enter my vocabulary until I was nearing middle school, the summer we had VBS with the Wesleyan Methodists.
Rev. Unroe had eyes that looked as if he could see into my inner darkness. I’m sure he knew my parents drank beer and smoked cigarettes just by looking at me. I was further certain the man knew my younger brother and I had played saloon, kneeling on either side of the old piano bench with a third of a jelly-glass full of the real beer we’d begged Dad for. If the Reverend knew how many times I ended up being “saved” as I grew up–because I felt like an inadequate Christian–he would now be shaking his pious head. He is one of the reasons I became a Missouri Synod Lutheran. We know we are saved and our beer drinking has absolutely no bearing on it. In fact, Martin Luther’s wife, made her own beer!
As United Methodists, we weren’t “savers” as a rule. We did, however have these great ideals in regard to being united and inclusive, especially when our congregation’s baby boomers were aging out, bringing Bible School numbers down and the same tired old moms were looking for a needed break. We made the noun in our name a verb by uniting with other heathen churches for VBS.
The first year was glorious. I was in fifth grade and a bunch of Wesleyan kids, a few Catholics and some other kids, whose religious affiliation or lack thereof I cared less about, joined us. Becky and her older sister, just across the street, did not come. It was a shame because there were lots of kids our age. Some were our elementary school classmates and some were country school kids I’d never seen before. Since our church hosted the event, it had the same familiar organization and teachers of years past. The ladies went all out to impress. Even if you didn’t care a whit about Jesus, the cookies, cupcakes and Chicken In A Biscuit crackers, were a draw. Eula, our egg and cream lady whose own kids were long gone, donated gallons of fresh milk from her cows for us to drink because “we didn’t spend money on Kool-Aid in my day”. Several moms, worried that the raw taste of whole cow’s milk might not be palatable to “modern” children, secretly donated chocolate and strawberry Quick.
Games in the spacious side yard had waned the past several years due to our smaller numbers, but once again took on challenging proportions. Running mightily to break through a sweaty handed chain of kids your age in Red Rover—what joy! No longer did Wendy, my one constant fellow United Methodist, and I have to fill in the circle for Drop the Hankie with near toddlers—a true gift from God! We even had big kid crafts–we turned oiled paper bags into stained-glass windows and made cardboard, felt and cotton ball dioramas happily inhaling noxious amounts of permanent marker and rubber cement. My diorama was of David letting Goliath have it. Doug, a Wesleyan Methodist, wanted me to make David cutting off Goliath’s head with blood gushing out. I didn’t want Mrs. Pierce to think I was psycho (this is United Methodist VBS, Doug–sheesh!). Plus, I didn’t want to scare the pants off little kids who thought everything in the Bible was like the huggable picture of Jesus in their classroom—soft white robe, well fed toddlers, waiting their turn to sit on his lap.
I knew that blood wouldn’t bother the Catholics. I saw their Jesus once when I went to St. Thomas’ Church with my friend Maureen. When I got brave enough to take a longer look at him hanging high up there on the altar, I wondered if there was a pan under him to catch his drips. God, it looked so real! Definitely not huggable, in my opinion, unless you want to get poked by nails which was something weird about Catholics. It’s like they wanted to hurt themselves. Maureen used to wear this itchy scapular thing under her shirt. She got it from her aunt who was a nun at St. Francis Indian School. I had to finally ask why Maureen called her aunt “sister” when she was her aunt because it certainly did not make sense. Maureen couldn’t eat meat on Friday–well actually none of us could eat meat for lunch on Fridays because our school only served fish sticks or mac and cheese and we all got free lunch because the reservation was so poor. Maureen couldn’t have candy during Lent either. At the time I thought she was saying “lint”. I was totally confused and sorry that she had to do all that stuff to be Catholic.
When the glorious week of united VBS was over, I found solace in the fact that we would experience the adventure of going to the Wesleyan Methodist church the next year. I wondered if Becky’s Dad would let her go. At the time I thought he might because the Wesleyan Methodist church looked more like a real church with a steeple and a cross and built in wood pews. Our metal building looked like a farm shed and had shuffleboard tile built into the floor–not at all convincing, I guess. But, all we had to do was move a couple rows of folding chairs away from the altar and—presto! Game time!
The Baptists didn’t have VBS. They had a weekly party called the Joy Club or something. They had a bus, donated by some rich people in Michigan, to drive around and pick up kids. They picked up Doug, but I was never invited—further proof that though Becky and I were really good friends, mixing United Methodists with Baptists in any kind of churchy event would be like mixing USDA commodity peanut butter with a jar of smooth Jif. It might look okay right after you stirred it, but after it set for a while, it would start to look pretty oily. I felt like the oil.
It was apparent soon after mom dropped me off at the Wesleyan Methodist church the following summer that the Wesleyan’s weren’t ready for us. In fact, most of the other Methodist mom’s must have gotten a memo suggesting that the Wesleyan’s plans might be a bit less congealed. Time has faded the order of events, but the images I recall are vivid.
Image one: Twin brothers Randy and Kenny have a new rope. They show off their roping skills by lassoing my friend and fellow Methodist, Wendy, and pulling her into the sandy street. She falls down. Kenny continues to drag her a bit further as if she is a calf ready for branding. There is not a single adult outside.
Image two: The basement is dark and bare. There are no platters of cookies, not even a box of saltines. There is a tin pitcher of water in the fridge, but no Kool-Aid and certainly no Quick-infused milk. The water is cold, but it tastes like it’s been in the fridge a long time.
Image three: Wendy’s mom picks her up. I know she is not coming back—ever again.
Image four: I am the only girl now and Doug’s somewhat frantic mom– asks me to come with her. I follow her into the living room of the Wesleyan parsonage and sit. She brings a little toddler to me and asks me to play with her. I sit down on the floor with the little girl and try to interest her in a cardboard box with a few faded give-away toys and some old kitchen Tupperware. While we pretend to make cookies I am gaining an understanding of the emergency taking place. The bedroom door is ajar and something isn’t right with the minister’s wife who recently had a new baby. Doug’s mom comes out of the bedroom with the tiny baby and sincerely apologizes to me for the chaos. I am in total forgiveness and solemnly resolve to take the task I have been given very seriously. The Indian Health Service ambulance comes and as they lift the pale dark-haired woman onto the gurney I see blood—not the dark painted on Catholic Jesus blood, but real blood. The ambulance crew whisks her through the living room pausing briefly so the woman can whisper, “take care of my babies”.
Image five: It is the next afternoon. My mom finally let me return to the Wesleyan Methodist VBS. After hearing my version of what transpired and after talking to Wendy’s mom on the telephone, she shook her head. I knew it was doubtful. Doug’s mom called after Wendy’s mom hung up and that proved to be the turning point. It was understanding and forgiveness in action, especially with the new baby. So, I’m sitting in real pews, praying for the minister’s wife who has already responded to prayer and is coming home soon. My friend Becky is miraculously beside me! Her older sister, Nancy, has joined us along with Randy, Kenny and Doug. Still no Wendy. I am forming an opinion that the Wesleyan Methodists should be renamed Wesleyan Baptists. I think this because though we are praying and singing words that I know and that are in the dictionary, they appear to have a hidden meaning to the Wesleyans, almost like a secret code. Becky and Nancy make it clear that they too have knowledge of the code. I do not. I start to feel like a Methodist and not united to any of these people at all.
Image six: We finally get to go into a basement classroom. Our teacher, Mrs. Campbell is introduced. She reminds me of Eula the dairy lady. There are no religious storybooks with pictures, only Bibles and some broken lead pencils in a tin can on our table. Mrs. Campbell talks a lot, especially about being saved. Though she is talking about being saved to all of us, she is looking at me. She asks us to put our heads down and raise our hand if we want to be saved. Though I’m pretty sure that I’m already saved even though I’m not sure just exactly what it means in code, I’m thinking Mrs. Campbell thinks I am not. So, not wanting to look like a heathen to her, and since of course this is all private, I raise my hand. She announces out loud that the Unroe girls did not raise their hands and explains that with their dad being the Baptist minister they, of course, are already saved. I can feel Nancy and Becky’s agreement through my closed eyes. I now wonder why we even put our heads down. The following is a summary of my feelings:
Cindy—Methodist. Hand raised=HEATHEN. Heat from bowed cheeks radiating to lap. Thanking God I don’t have to ask Jesus into my heart, out loud.
Becky—Baptist. Preacher’s daughter=HALO
Doug—Wesleyan Methodist= Better than Methodist. Saved by going to Mrs. Campbell’s church.
Randy—Same as Doug. See Kenny.
Kenny—Evil twin brother of Randy and the kid that actually dragged Wendy out into the street which is why I am the only HEATHEN Methodist here! If anyone needs saving, it’s him. He also needs a good spanking with his new rope.
I don’t remember much more of the afternoon except that the Unroe girls answered most of the questions and probably knew more about the Bible than Mrs. Campbell. I played it safe by keeping my mouth shut. When Mrs. Campbell did ask me directly, I stuck with the universal Sunday school answer, “Jesus”. You can’t go wrong with that answer. We finally had some fresh water Kool-Aid and a few cookies out of a package. I don’t remember any more Wesleyan VBS that year because I did not go back. I did get to go roller-skating with Maureen in St. Thomas’ basement. It was way more fun then being saved.