The Next Faithful Step
Episode 19: Laura's Story
Almond Springs (Scott Cormode, Fuller Seminary)
"You did the right thing," Doc Davis said to Rev. Charlotte Robinson. "But there are going to be problems." They were sitting in her office at the First Church of Almond Springs, California, where they had just met with a resident named Gary Rivers. She felt that she had just done the only a pastor could do. "Forgiveness is not mine to dispense," she said to Doc. "I can only point Gary to what God has already done." But she worried about the implications that were going to ripple through her congregation.
"I know there are problems, but I don't understand them," Charlotte began. "I got a phone call from Laura Webber." "I'll bet you did," Doc interjected.
"Why'd you tell her about the meeting?" Charlotte asked. "I didn't," Doc said, "I'd bet it was Mavis, your secretary. She seemed quite incredulous when I called to set up the appointment." Mavis's indiscretion was an on-going problem for Charlotte. But she put aside her concerns about Mavis so that she could deal with the matter at hand.
"Why is Laura so upset?" Charlotte asked, "I hardly recognized her voice on the phone. She sounded so vindictive, almost hateful."
"I should probably tell you the whole story," Doc began. "You'll need to hear it if you are going to minister to everyone who needs your care in this situation." He paused before beginning. "Now, you know how I feel about Laura," he said looking directly at the pastor. Charlotte nodded. She knew that Doc regarded Laura almost as a daughter and that Laura revered him as a father-figure. Indeed, Charlotte suspected that Doc's regard for Laura is what prompted him to convince the church to hire a woman as pastor.
"Laura married quite young, not long after her mother died. (She never knew her father.) She was still commuting to Fresno State University at the time. Walt Webber was a good old boy in a small town. He played football, drove a fast car, and married the most popular girl in Almond Springs. They had a son less than a year later."
It sounded to Charlotte like a story straight out of American Graffiti. But then, she thought after a moment, it was not all that different from her suburban upbringing.
"But Walt drank—a lot," Doc continued. "And, like Gary Rivers said, Walt had a violent temper. I think things would have exploded much sooner if Gary and his wife Sally had not kept Walt in check. It started with open hand slaps, and there were times that he would scold her like a child. Then Sally divorced Gary and there was no one for Laura to call when she saw it coming."
Charlotte was aghast. The portrait did not match her friend at all. "Laura's not the victim type," Charlotte caught herself thinking. And then she immediately scolded herself, wondering what it meant to think that anyone's personality type would make them a victim.
"One night in July, when Laura's son was about four, Walt came home drunk again. They argued and this time he punched her in the face. Knocked her out. When she came to, he was vomiting in the bathroom. She eventually pulled herself up and called the police. A young officer named Billy Merkle came out. And he reacted like Laura was his little sister." Doc shook his head in disgust.
"Billy took Walt outside and beat him senseless. Broke his arm in the process. Then he handcuffed him (broken arm and all) and took him to jail. The next day they called me to set his arm. Laura convinced the police to drop the domestic violence charges so long as Walt said nothing about how the fracture occurred. She took Walt home that afternoon and by dinnertime he was gone. He never again had anything to do with Laura, their son, or this town."
Charlotte ached for her friend. "What a burden Laura must still carry," Charlotte thought. The pastor knew from Laura's voice on the phone that her wounds had not nearly healed. But she did not completely understand. From the phone call, Charlotte knew that Laura blamed Gary. In fact, Gary seemed to think he was at fault as well. The question was why.
"Why did Gary Rivers take it so hard?" Charlotte asked. Doc answered, "Word got around, of course, about what Walt had done. And with Walt gone, people took it out on Old Man Rivers. 'He'd been Walt's best friend,' they said around town. 'He should have stopped him. But instead the Old Man beat his wife and now look what's happened to our Laura.' It was unfair and it was cruel. But he was the only one left to blame. So Old Man Rivers left Almond Springs. And you know that story from there."
Charlotte felt ill, like someone watching a tape replay of a horrific car accident. There were so many hidden wounds that were opening again in her congregation. Her triumph the week prior at the Town Meeting seemed a long time ago.
"This is going to take some time," she thought, "And it's going to be my job to get these people ready to hear God's message of hope." But before she could do that, she knew that she had to hear the rest of Laura's story.
"How has this affected Laura?" she asked Doc, hoping to keep him talking. "The lesson Laura took from this," he said slowly, "was that men are dangerous. Before that night, she thought of her husband and the police officer as good men. But for years afterward, she saw men (especially those near her age) as time-bombs—potentially explosive and inherently dangerous. Enough time and a lot therapy since then means that she knows that's not true, at least it's not supposed to be." Charlotte guessed that Laura's daughterly relationship with Doc had also helped to heal some of the wounds.
"All this seems to be at odds with the Laura I know," Charlotte wondered aloud. "Oh, it's made her a different person," Doc began and then stopped himself. "Well, not a different person exactly. But she is always in complete control of her world now. She is the organizer, the leader, the one who tells everyone else what to do. Look at the way she dresses, always wearing elegant suits with silk blouses, never polyester." Charlotte understood what he meant.
"You're right," Charlotte said, "I think of her as regal. She carries herself like a queen." "Exactly," Doc responded, "And look at the way the town has responded to her. No Almond Springs man would ever ask her on a date. They think too hightly of her. They think she is out of their league. In fact, her son had trouble dating in high school because none of the girls wanted to be compared to 'the perfect mother.'" Charlotte marveled at how little she knew about her good friend.
"And that reputation buys Laura a lot in town," Doc continued. "She is a great role model for the high school girls. They all want to be like her—to dress like her and have people treat them with such respect. She even does all the Sex Education classes for girls at the high school because the girls trust her. And she can say whatever she wants in those classes because the parents think she is above reproach. Small town reputations get exaggerated. They see her as someone who has elevated herself above her abuse—elevated herself from victim to role model. That's part of the reason no one complained that she has the deciding vote on the zoning question."
Charlotte was beginning to see her friend in a new, more complicated, light. And she was also beginning to understand just how difficult Gary Rivers's returning was going to be for Laura. She turned to Doc, "Gary Rivers's re-appearance has got to be really unsettling for her. Walt, Gary, and even Sally disappeared long before she was able to resolve her feelings toward them. Part of her probably feels very vulnerable."
"And she is not going to want to be a victim in public ever again," Doc said. "For Gary to find forgiveness, and for the town to accept him, he's going to have to make some kind of public declaration of repentance. There are all sorts of possibilities for a baptismal service that brings healing to the whole community. But for that to happen, Laura has to become the victim again. And she's not going to want any kind of public conversation that diminishes her role. There is no way that she wants the girls at the high school to think of her as anything less than the perfect role model. Perhaps I was too hasty in offering Gary such hope.
"No, Doc, you did the right thing. If a church cannot proclaim forgiveness, we might as well go home. And I'd love to help Laura see—and those high school kids understand too—that God embraces us in our brokenness. Victim is the wrong term. We are all broken by sin, our sin and the sin of others. But the hope of the gospel is that God meets us in our brokenness. My hope for Laura is not that she will hide her hurts, but that she will bring them before God. No, Doc, you did the right thing. The question for us is how to help the town understand that it was the right thing, and that we all need to grow because of it."
Doc and Laura then prayed together. And they agreed not to tell anyone about their conversations until they had a chance to meet again. "If we are going to help this town grow spiritually through this," Laura concluded, "we are going to need a plan."