The United Methodist Church has been breaking my heart all my life.
When I was a kid, the church was still hewing closely to its circuit-riding past and uprooting ministers about every three years. Soon as we got someone good and broken in, the reverend we’d come to love would be off to a new congregation. I took it as a personal affront when the North Carolina Conference uprooted the Rev. Eddie Barber from Englewood United Methodist Church in Rocky Mount when I was in middle school. Pfft.
Things eased up by the time I was in college, and they had the good sense to leave Rev. Bill Gattis in the pulpit of University UMC in Chapel Hill for a good long while, but some tough transitions continued in some of the churches I attended after graduation.
Mercifully, the North Georgia Conference has left Dr. Sam Matthews in charge at Marietta First United Methodist Church for about the past 15 years. Just before Thanksgiving, though, he announced in a heartfelt letter to the congregation that he’ll retire in June, after 47 years. (Keep whoever comes in next in your prayers. They have enormous shoes to fill.)
I read Dr. Sam’s news then glanced at the bulletin board where I keep the note he sent my husband and me in 2010 after a fun occasion: The time we all went to see Garrison Keillor.
Keillor has been to Atlanta a number of times over the years, both for live performances of “A Prairie Home Companion” or solo appearances. Prior to one engagement Keillor gave a talk at the Atlanta Press Club. We decided to get a group of friends together for the luncheon, and asked Dr. Sam if he and his wife, Bobbi, could come. It was a great time, and a memory to cherish all the more now, knowing they would be leaving.
Then here came Wednesday’s news bulletin: “Author and longtime radio broadcaster Garrison Keillor has been fired from Minnesota Public Radio amid allegations of improper behavior.”
The 75-year-old Keillor, who says his crime was patting a woman on the back in an act of consolation, was dismissed hours after NBC announced it terminated longtime host Matt Lauer amid what has become a growing number of serious accusations.
The firings join a tawdry parade we’ve seen lately as prominent figures such as entertainment mogul Harvey Weinstein, celebrity chef John Besh, broadcaster Charlie Rose, comedian Louis C.K. and actors Jeffrey Tambor and Kevin Spacey have seen their careers collapse amid a range of allegations. U.S. Rep. John Conyers and U.S. Sen. Al Franken (who Keillor defended in a Washington Post column just prior to his own denouement) are facing calls to resign following accusations of misconduct.
The reckoning has felt necessary, cathartic and decades overdue in many cases, but even people closest to some of the now-disgraced figures have received the news with anguish.
“I really am still reeling,” CBS broadcaster Gayle King said as she processed the news about Rose, her former colleague. “I’ve enjoyed a friendship and a partnership with Charlie for the past five years. I’ve held him in such high regard. I’m really struggling. What do you say when someone that you deeply care about has done something that is so horrible?”
What do you say when it turns out you took your pastor and his wife to see a guy now making headlines for all the wrong reasons? I wondered if Sunday was going to be awkward.
Then I took Dr. Sam’s note off the bulletin board and realized what wasn’t there. Witty and warm, there was no mention of Keillor by name.
“Charlie and Jennifer, lunch with the two of you at the Press Club and the opportunity to meet some of your friends was a real treat for Bobbi and me,” it read. “The appearance of the tall fellow from Minnesota was a nice addition to the day.”
It gave me a new sense of the peace that passes all understanding, something we talk about in the Methodist church. My cherished memory wasn’t about Garrison Keillor at all, but rather about the day our friends and pastor pushed pause for a little while to enjoy some time together.
Maybe an apology won’t be necessary after all.