Saturday, September 22, 2007

Naming the Evil, Part I

It was the first risky act of community ministry that I performed after my ordination. I had been called as pastor of St. John United Church of Christ in Cannelton, Indiana, and also as Assistant pastor of St. John’s daughter congregation, Evangelical United Church of Christ, in Tell City. The daughter had about three times the membership of the mother church and, since the two churches were only about three miles from one another, the dual call seemed logical.

Our arrival in Cannelton had been accompanied by a couple of foreboding events—the night we arrived an automobile caught fire in front of the parsonage and the next morning we were shaken by an earthquake. Had I been a priest of Zeus, I think we would have packed up and moved on to a less menacing environment.

There was a third event which should have been more of a warning that either the burning automobile or the earthquake: we began to suffer from cultural shock. That wasn’t because we had come from a city (St. Louis) to rural Indiana where the county’s population was a staggering 19,000 souls, which included the offenders in the state prison. It was more problematic than that. All of us “outsiders” were touched by the cultural shock; some were more intensely distressed than others. (The wife of the new president of the Cannelton bank basically didn’t leave their house for the first six months after they arrived).

Being who I am, I worked intensely to determine what was so negatively impinging on the residents. The demographics were easy to find: the county had been losing population for the past twenty-five years and there were no jobs (it had the second highest unemployment rate in the state) locally. The “main streets” of the two local communities had more empty shops than functioning business, rather like a small town that has been Wal-Marted, but there was no Wal-Mart within 40 miles of the county.

But what really impacted us outsiders was that there was really not much for the population to do except illicit drugs and alcohol. Cannelton is a river town that had been cut off from the river by a (necessary) flood wall. The river side of that wall was a kind of “no man’s (and definitely no woman’s) land” that was controlled by a rather nasty motorcycle gang. People seldom went by the river and then only during daylight. Only fools (like me) went there after dark—and I always wore a clerical collar when I did.

On the town side of the flood wall was a section called “Bucktown.” It was about two and a half blocks of taverns and bars. Besides a hell of a lot of drinking, there was also a lot of violence in Bucktown. One of the local legends was that the volunteer fire department washed the blood off the streets of Bucktown early Sunday mornings so the “good folks” wouldn’t see the results of Saturday night’s carnage on their way to church.

Being who I am, I began walking through Bucktown on Friday and Saturday nights (wearing my clerical collar, of course) and talking with the folks outside the bars. At first it surprised me that most of these folks were teenagers. Then I learned the routine. The bar owners were careful not to allow those under 21 into the bars. However, every bar had a “carry out” window. The kids would simply pay someone who was of legal age to buy them whatever booze they wanted from the carry out window and then they'd stand around drinking it and hiding it whenever one of Cannelton’s two and a half police officers drove by.

While all of this was going on, the “good folks” simply pretended that Bucktown didn’t exist. They seldom talked about it and they never went near it in the evenings. This took quite a bit of denial, since the high school and the Episcopal and Methodist churches were on the fringes of Bucktown. Likewise, the town's disavowal included the high incidence of domestic violence and sexual abuse in the community that, in my opinion, was directly related to the alcoholism and drug abuse centered in Bucktown and the river side of the flood wall.

As providence would have it, within six months of my arrival I had the opportunity to do something constructive about the situation. Four months after my arrival, I was elected vice president of the county clergy association. Two months later I became president when the clergyperson who was president was transferred to another parish. As president, I suggested that we needed to confront the community’s denial of its problems. Specifically I suggested that on the same Sunday (or, Saturday, for the Seventh Day Adventists) each of us preach a sermon in which we named the power, the evil—i.e., “we live in an alcoholic, violent, and abusive community.”

The theology behind that is that only by naming the “evil” do we gain any power over it. As long as we can pretend that it doesn’t exist, it will continue to have power over us. In other words, as Ursula K. LeGuin wrote in her Earth-Sea stores, one keeps one’s true name secret. One's true name is revealed only to those who are trusted implicitly, since it can be used to control that person. By giving name to that which plagued the community, action could finally be taken to confront and gain some control over it.

[This is the end of part one of this tale. I shall reveal the results of the naming in part 2.]


  1. The posts about your personal experiences are always my favorites. :o)

  2. I think I know what is coming in part 2. As you usually do, you leapt into the fire and got burned. Right?

  3. Thank you for writing this. It hurts the faith when things like this happen--we are so fallable. I needed to read this. Bless you, my dear blog friend.

  4. Hi Nick ~~ Interesting story from your own experience, look forward to next part.
    I liked your pun "I Heard Him" was a good hymn. Well done. Take care, Kind regards, Merle.

  5. Hi Nick

    Now that's an interesting story from your past incarnation as pastor. I'm looking forward to the next part...did you, or didn't you?

    I'm glad Alex is going to become a fully fledged blogger. As for a about Alex's Antics?

    Take care xoxo

  6. I was not aware of this incident in Cannelton, Rev. Saint. I remember that you were a community leader during your years there. Was this the beginning of that?

  7. Wow. Its amazing what people will deny. Even when its so in-your-face. Can't wait to hear the rest of it.