By Michael Farris Smith
When I was a kid, we had just moved back to south Mississippi after a brief time spent living in Georgia, the move a common occurrence for a Southern Baptist preacher and his family. We had been there for less than a month, and one evening we piled into our Volkswagen Dasher, grabbed some Kentucky Fried Chicken, and set out for my grandparents’ house nearby. It was going to be a night of hugs and kisses and dollar bills snatched from my grandfather’s wallet, slick chicken legs, mashed potatoes, and gravy.
That night never occurred. As we passed through an intersection, another car ran a red light and crushed us head on. In the age before seatbelts were taken very seriously, the results were brutal: my father busted his ribs on the steering wheel, I was riding in the front seat and my leg snapped and my head and face met the glass, my mother was catapulted face-first from the back seat into the windshield. My sisters, who were kindergarten age, thankfully escaped with only cuts and bruises. I remember waking up in a hospital room in a bed next to my dad, him moaning in a drugged-stupor, “What happened? What happened?” The days and weeks to follow brought not only surgery on my leg, but also plastic surgery for my mother and I who both suffered the windshield. It could have been worse and I still marvel that none of us were killed. But it was pretty damn bad.
But what I remember from this event is not the sirens and screams and blood and ensuing operations. The most vivid memory is of the ways in which our new church family embraced us. Though we were still strangers to most of them, they stayed with us at the hospital, watched after my sisters while my parents were incapable, brought me hamburgers when I could eat no more of the hospital food, took care of our house, and so much more that I’m sure I don’t know about. It was a time of generous people caring for those who could not care for themselves.
Eight years later, members of this same community bullied my father to resignation after he made what was probably the most difficult decision of his professional and religious life.
It was a straightforward matter. Our music minister, who also served as the youth minister, had pornography of all description stashed in the desk drawer of his church office. This was the same office where he spent time with kids and teenagers. The same office where he counseled and had prayer time in private, one-on-one sessions with children. It was also the same man who accompanied the youth group on overnight trips and spent the night in the same rooms with minors.
You don’t have to read the daily headlines to realize there are some chances you don’t take. And my father didn’t take it. He made the decision to immediately terminate the minister (who had admitted the pornography belonged to him) while the committee of deacons—many of whom had children of their own in the church—inexplicably dragged their feet. I know it was a wrenching decision for my father, as he had known the minister and his parents at a church where he had previously served. Hiring the minister as part of his staff was my father’s way of helping him to begin his career, and as far as I know, neither the minister nor his family has ever spoken to my father again since this occurred.
In the following months, without the full support of the deacons, some church members refused to believe that the minister’s dismissal was anything other than a witch-hunt carried out by my father. Several influential members of the church began to attack his integrity, and began to rouse others, despite the reason for termination being both clear and unopposed. The minister began to morph into a victim himself, a role he cultivated by being both defiant and unapologetic as rumors and gossip swirled.
Next came the late night phone calls. Harassing, threatening phone calls made in an era before caller ID or call return. Gruff and dragging voices of men who threatened my father for what he had done. Threatened our family and promised they knew where to find us. A family friend on the police force made a point to circle our neighborhood at night when noises outside of our house kept me awake and listening and imagining.
My father’s health started to deteriorate from the stress and anxiety. Before much longer, he made the agonizing decision to resign as heart problems began. Voices of vengeance drowned out voices of support and the same community that had once taken us in with so much compassion had now spit us out with rancor.
Only a few months after the young minister’s termination, I remember seeing his car parked outside a church of another denomination, beginning a new job, working with new children and youth, not four blocks away from where he had been fired for having pornography in the same office where he spent time with alone with kids. I didn’t understand it then as a teenager. Didn’t understand it as a young man. Don’t understand it now as a father of two young daughters.
This was a small town. A place where I rode my bike downtown for an ice cream cone or to the Little League field which was cozily tucked in the corner of a neighborhood filled with magnolia trees. I ran around shirtless all summer, chasing fireflies, risking fingers and eyes in bottle rocket wars. The memories of the good, and of good people, are plentiful and vivid. But so are my recollections of the final days, being shoved out of the place we knew as home. And I wonder why I cannot stay long with the good memories before the sharp end of something nasty scratches that vision away.
When my grandparents were still alive and I would visit, like it happens so often in small towns, I would see a familiar face. Someone who knew what transpired. And I always fought the urge to approach that familiar face and ask, “Whose side were you on?”
But deep down, I really didn't want to know.
Michael Farris Smith is the author of Rivers and Desperation Road (out in 2017). To learn more about Smith, visit his official website, like his Facebook page, or follow him on Twitter @michael_f_smith. Also listen to his writing playlist!