You Meet the Strangest People

Have you ever met a children’s worker who hated kids? I have.

Have you ever seen a preacher who did not believe in God? My friend John attended some divinity school classes with such people at Berkeley.

Have you ever met a Bible teacher who did not believe the Bible? The woods are filled with them.

It takes all kinds, they say. I reckon so.

I thought of some of the weird people we meet in the ministry this week while reading Pat Conroy’s latest book, “My Reading Life.” For everyone who loves to read, I cannot recommend this too highly. Every chapter is a delight. And for anyone who loves to write, ditto; every sentence is a wonder.

As a military brat, Conroy’s family moved around a lot. When they settled in Beaufort, SC, he found it hard to form new friendships and while dodging the campus bullies discovered the school library. This became his favorite place. The odd thing however, is that the librarian resented him coming in and reading books.

I thought you’d appreciate Conroy’s story about the librarian who hated readers. Here’s the story….

Wandering through the stacks, young Pat Conroy came upon Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. So, he pulled it out, took a chair at a table, and delved into the world of Jean Valjean. For the next two weeks, he visited the library during off periods and read that book.

And then one day he met the librarian.

Her name was Eileen Hunter. “I had heard of Miss Hunter,” Conroy writes. “She was famous among both teachers and students for her legendary temper and her need for absolute control of her book-lined fiefdom.”

“When she spotted me reading Hugo she reacted as though I’d taken a box of Crayolas to the Book of Kells.”

“What on earth are you doing here?” she said.

“I’m reading a book, ma’am,” I said.

“I can see that. Do I look like an idiot or something? It’s against the rules for a student to be in the library during lunchtime.”

Then she said, “What’s that book you’re reading?”

She grabbed the volume from his hands and studied it like it were pornographic.

“She eyed me with a ferocious scowl. ‘This book’s never even been checked out. Are you reading it for the dirty parts?'”

Pat said, “I didn’t know it had dirty parts.”

“If it does,” Miss Hunter said, “I’ll toss it with the morning trash. If you find anything dirty report it directly to me. Hugo’s a Frenchman. I don’t like his books.”

She suggested that Pat might prefer to read something Hugo had written about a football team. A book called The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I’m not making this up.

Conroy writes, “Checking a book out of the Beaufort High School library required a swashbuckling, adventurous spirit, as Miss Hunter patrolled those aisles with the austerity of a knight-errant. Whenever she checked out a book, she treated the poor student as she would a visiting pirate. For Miss Hunter I think that the state of nirvana would be a library cleaned of all readers and the books all shelved and accounted for. As a librarian, she was legendary in all the wrong ways and for all the wrong reasons.”

There’s a funny aspect to this sad little tale. After Conroy’s graduation from The Citadel, he returned to Beaufort to teach for a while and dealt with Miss Hunter as a faculty member and a colleague.

“She was as cranky and adversarial as ever, and would light into me with her complaints as I would bring four or five novels to check out for my weekly reading.”

Pat’s way of handling her was to tease her, to tell her that he knew she adored him and dreamed of him at night.

Then something unexpected happened.

One day he received a note from Miss Hunter asking him to meet her in the library after school. His curiousity was aroused.

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed it lately, Conroy,” she told him, “but I’ve come down with a summer cold.”

The trouble, she went on to say, was that cold medicine did not work with her. The only thing that seemed to help was….are you ready for this?….was a shot of bourbon.

Pat said, “So you want me to buy you a bottle of bourbon?”

She said, “A half gallon of Jack Daniel’s Black. There is a delivery box for Coburn Dairy beside my front door. Come after nightfall. Be discreet. There’ll be an envelope with the exact amount of the purchase waiting for you. This is for medicinal purposes only. I’ve had trouble shaking this cold.”

And how long had she been bothered by this problem?

“I’ve had this summer cold for about the last twenty years.”

For the next two years Pat Conroy supplied the school librarian with her cold medicine, “always with discretion and under the cover of darkness.”

She was lonely, Conroy writes. “In the years I knew her I never saw her reading a book or talking about a book she’d read. ”

At the end of that chapter, I scribbled, “This alone was worth the price of the book.”

Got any Eileen Hunter clones in your acquaintance? Any in your church, pastor?

I’ve had a finance chairman who did not want anyone to spend money.

I’ve seen a missions president who did not want to do missions.

I’ve not seen a prayer chairman who was against praying but I’m confident some of them were not much in the way of praying.

And worst of all, I know a preacher who struggles with his faith, who sometimes does not read his Bible, can go a full day without praying, and has to keep reminding himself to share his faith with others. He has been known to read smutty stories, flirt with females he isn’t married to, and skip church when he’s out of town.

I know that one best of all. That one is me.

I may be the strangest bird in any congregation I’ve pastored.

People thought when I was urging them to pray for their pastor that it was only as a formality. They had no idea how desperately I needed their intercessions.

After nearly a half century of pastoring and religious leadership, I’d like to report that my spiritual maturity has grown to the point that they can now drop back and pray for lesser mortals. But I’m in as dire need of the prayers of God’s people as I’ve ever been. Little has changed.

I can’t say that I find comfort in the line from the Apostle Paul, but I sure understand it. O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? (Romans 7:24)

Aren’t we all thankful for the grace and mercy of God upon strange people like you and me.

Oh? You thought I was just talking about myself?

4 thoughts on “You Meet the Strangest People

  1. “…the strangest bird in any congregation I’ve pastored.”

    What a statement!

    Hope you don’t mind if I borrow it for my own use.

  2. It is sure good to hear a pastor (I still think you are one) be honest about his needs. We have more in common with the people sitting in the pews than we are willing to admit. We all struggle at times with our spiritual growth and yes we sin. Therefore we need the understanding and the constant prayers of our church members. We need to have a cup of coffee together sometime.

  3. I think we all need to be on someone’s prayer list. I KNOW that I do! Thanks for the blog–I am going to the library today to find Conroy’s book…I think I have read all the others.

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