Sunday, January 18, 2015

When Religions Collide

"Do you want to speak with Big Detra or Little Detra?" Confused by the server's question, I thought to myself, "How many people named 'Detra' could there be in the world, let alone employed at the same restaurant?" A bit impatient, the busy server fired off a follow-up: "Do you want the younger one or the older one?" "I, I, I don't know. I think I want the younger one, but maybe you should send the older one over, just in case." "Well, you can't talk to Big Detra because she's not here. I'll get Little Detra."

A few minutes later, after I had noticed a group of servers and the hostess who had seated me cautiously eyeing me from around the corner, the latter hesitantly came over to my table. "I'm Detra," she said. "I'm sorry," I responded. "You don't know me, but Dave at the Squire, whom I think you know, has been after me for some time now to come here and introduce myself to you." 

As a young, single, culinarily-challenged assistant pastor of a large, suburban Lutheran congregation and a full-time graduate student at the University of Chicago Divinity School, I didn't have a lot of time to prepare or eat my meals. So I had gotten to know Dave, the bartender at one of the better eating places in town. I frequently found myself in conversation with him, while waiting for a table to open up. On many occasions, I just ate at the bar, which allowed the two of us to continue our discussions about religion, politics, literature, the arts, and other important matters. For nearly eight months, he'd been prodding me to go meet this young woman named "Detra" who worked at her family's nearby Greek restaurant and whom he knew from his frequent visits there, where he would go to eat his dinner on his days off. But I wasn't really in a position to date anyone at the time. Besides, I had my hands full with church and academic challenges. So I kept deflecting his prompts. 

I had passed that Greek restaurant I don't know how many times, typically when I went to make pastoral visits at the large regional hospital a few miles away from it. Sometimes I would eye it, as I passed by, and wonder about this woman with the strange name. 

On that particular dog-day, however, as I approached Paul's, I decided that I could at least stop in for a cup of coffee and check things out a bit, which is what I did after making a couple of pastoral visits to two of our hospitalized members. 

"My name is Matt and I've known Dave for a while. He asked me to come in and introduce myself to you." "Oh. Ok." And off she walked. Talk about "crash and burn." Although she never came back to the table, I did spot her on my way out. Mustering up some courage, I went over to where she was eating her lunch. "I realize you don't know me but I'm wondering if I could call you sometime to go to lunch." There followed a very long pause. "Normally I don't give out my number to customers. But since you know Dave, you can call me here, if you want." 

So that's what I did a few days later. A week after that, we had a picnic lunch together alongside the Fox River. Ten minutes into that meal she asked, "So what do you do for a living?" I was a bit surprised by the question, as I thought Dave had told her. "I'm a Lutheran pastor." I could tell by the expression on her face, this was not something she had wanted to hear. "Are you a Christian," I asked as casually as I could. Long, long pause. "I'm a Jehovah's Witness." 

I don't think either of us said anything for several minutes. We did, however, continue to eat the crab salad I had purchased from a deli. Gradually, we resumed our conversation and carefully avoided bringing up anything that might lead us back to the awkward subject of religion. After a couple of hours of rather enjoyable food-centered discussion, I took her back to her aunt and uncle's house, where she lived. (I later learned that her mom had died of a heart-attack when Detra was only nine. Her mom's side of the family is Greek Orthodox. Her aunt and uncle had been operating Paul's Restaurant for several decades--and that's where Detra worked. Detra’s other aunt, "Big Detra"--who stands all of about five feet tall!--also worked at the restaurant.)

That initial, somewhat “blind” date would have been our only one, except that I was smitten by her intelligence and beauty. I just couldn't get her out of my head. So, in addition to seeing Dave at the Squire, I started making sure that I ate at least a few of my meals each week at Paul's. While Detra tried to keep her distance, we still found opportunities to talk. Food had a way of bringing us together. 

But religion kept intruding and creating awkward conflicts. Some elders from Detra's local Kingdom Hall stopped by my office one day to tell me to stop seeing her. I told them that she was 23 and could make up her own mind about who she saw. A month or two after that, her aunt--the one who owned the restaurant--took me out to lunch to encourage me to stop seeing her niece: "Matt, you seem like a nice man. We don't want you to get hurt. We've tried unsuccessfully for many, many years to encourage Detra to become Greek Orthodox. All to no avail. If she won't listen to her own family, do you really think she'll listen to you?" My response: "You might be right. But I'm willing to try to keep the lines of communication open--and to trust the Holy Spirit." One of my members was shocked to learn that I was "dating" Detra. Initially he thought I was dating Big Detra--who is married!--but then he really became flummoxed when he learned I was seeing her niece, the one who is a Jehovah's Witness.

I had to have a special meeting with the elders of my congregation to explain the situation. For a couple of hours we discussed the matter. At the end of the meeting, the head elder, speaking for the senior pastor with whom I worked and the other elders, said, "Pastor, we trust you. We will pray for you and for Detra. However, we ask that you not do anything that would harm the ministry of this congregation." I assured them that I would ask God to help me to seek His will.

My parents, on the other hand, were worried and bewildered. "Matt, can't you find a nice Lutheran girl to date? Surely in that large congregation of yours, you could find someone! Not a Jehovah's Witness...!" One of my pastoral colleagues told me: "Matt, you always like to do things the hard way, don't you?" He joked that I surely was the only LCMS pastor in history ever to date seriously a practicing Jehovah's Witness.

At one point, during that first year, Detra and I were contacted by a producer from Oprah's talk show. Oprah wanted to interview us. Somehow she learned about us—a Chicago-area Lutheran pastor who was dating a Jehovah's Witness—and wanted to have us on her show to talk about how we were faring. We respectfully declined the invitation.

The greatest conflict was yet to come, however. Detra's father had become a Jehovah's Witness shortly before Detra was born. He had made sure that his two younger children were active in their local Kingdom Hall.  When he learned that one of them, his middle child, was seeing a Lutheran pastor, he was beside himself. He reminded Detra of her promise always to remain loyal to him and to Jehovah. Her dad told her that he would completely disown her if she continued to see me.

There were many difficult, troubling moments throughout the three years that Detra and I dated each other. During that time, we actually stopped seeing each other for extended periods--only to find ourselves together again at the same booth at Paul's or at the movies or at the Art Institute or a concert. It helped that Detra met gospel-oriented people from my congregation, who showed her unconditional love and acceptance. It helped that she enrolled at Concordia, Chicago, where she took some theology classes as a  part of her degree program in education. It helped that her roommates at Concordia could talk about the Christian faith in ways that were better than my more "academic" approach. It helped that the Christian message of God’s love and grace in Jesus Christ is truly a good message, almost too good to be true!

That message was tested in all sorts of ways, none more significantly than when Detra learned that her college roommate, Becky, had died as a result of complications from a bone-marrow transplant. We went to Becky’s funeral in St. Louis, where the gospel was proclaimed loudly and clearly in word, song, and deed—with joy and hope and confidence in Christ’s victory over death and the grave. On the way back to Chicago, we were mostly silent. And then, rather out of the blue, Detra told me, “I want to be baptized.”

After being instructed further in the Christian faith by another local Lutheran pastor, she was baptized on Easter Sunday, 1993. We were married later that summer. (If you’ve seen the movie, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” you have an idea of what ours was like. On our wedding day I had asked a couple of the groomsmen to keep their eyes open for Detra’s father, in case he should try forcibly to stop the ceremony from taking place.)

True to his promise, Detra’s father disowned her. Despite her efforts, her father refused to meet me. He was angry that his daughter had left him and her childhood faith to marry this apostate. Thereafter, year in and year out, we never heard from him. He was not a part of our lives, not even when his grandson was born to us in 1999. Actually, that’s not quite right: there were times when the absence of Billy Joe in our lives created problems of a special sort, which I need not describe. For more than twenty years, we were estranged from him. Actually, that’s not quite right either, at least in my case and that of my son: I had never met my father-in-law and my son had never met his Grandfather Crunk. How can you be estranged from someone you haven’t ever met?

Exactly one year ago this weekend, however, a minor miracle occurred. We got word that Billy Joe was not doing well and that he wanted to see us, to meet me for the first time, and to meet his 14-yr-old grandson. We were cautiously joyful, excited, nervous, and perhaps a little fearful. We didn’t know what to expect. How would that meeting go? What would (or wouldn’t) be said? But we knew we needed to risk the encounter and to trust that God could bring about reconciliation.

Our meeting went better than any of us could have imagined. Billy Joe was happy, pleased to see his long-lost daughter and to meet her family. There were hugs and smiles, jokes and stories, moist eyes. We were surprised to see on his dresser and bookshelves all of the photos of our family that Detra had sent him through the years. Despite the fact that his daughter had been "disfellowshipped" from the JWs, he had not destroyed the photos. At one point, Billy Joe, who was in a wheel chair, and I were off by ourselves. “I know you know that I didn’t want Detra to marry you. I had hoped she would remain a Jehovah’s Witness. I know now that she is happy with you.” I didn’t say anything, but nodded my appreciation for the comment. He then continued, “I know we’re all trying to go to the same place.” “It’s all by God’s grace, isn’t it?”, I asked. “Yes. You are right. It is by God’s grace.” When it was time to go, he shook my hand in both of his. He hugged his daughter. Our son then went over and hugged him. “Grandpa, I love you.”

We left that day with a sense of quiet gratitude. I knew that my sermon for the next Sunday would have to be different now.

We have tried not to be bitter and angry about all the joys that could have been shared--but were not--with Billy Joe during the previous twenty-three years he had been separated from us. There were certainly times during those years when I was angry with him and, I’m sure, he with me. Detra, too, had to face her own anger, frustration, and sadness that occasionally confronted her. We had often pondered all that could have been experienced with her dad but didn't happen. Nevertheless, during this past year, we have been thankful for this reconciliation and the contacts with her dad that subsequently occurred.

This past October one of Billy Joe’s step-children (the daughter of his second wife) called to tell us that Billy Joe had unexpectedly died a few hours earlier. As we drove south later that day (he had always lived in southern Illinois), I couldn’t help but think that our time of mourning would be tempered by what had happened last January. God’s grace and mercy had had their way again.

During the funeral and afterward, when we again found ourselves together as a family, eating a good meal, I kept returning to what Billy Joe had acknowledged to me a year ago when he and I had been by ourselves.  

Rest in God's grace and peace, Dad.