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Here’s Mary, tour guide extraordinaire.

Today we’ve put the Magic Dog on a leash and walked down the street to the Corner Cafe, where we’ve caught up with Mary Montague Sikes, a woman who knows exactly what a vacation should involve–an exotic location, a mysterious, studly stranger, a beautiful woman (who is “us,” of course), a spice of danger, and romance. How do we know this? Her popular Passenger to Paradise series proves it. She’s been writing books that offer her readers a taste of the perfect summer vacation for 10 years now.

Bodie: Hi, Mary, thanks for meeting us. We’re all curious, though–why here?  What is The Corner Cafe, and what’s so special about it?

Mary: Almost every small town has a gathering place—a diner, a cozy family-run restaurant. That’s what the Corner Café is for me. This quaint little restaurant has been in business for many years and is now a community landmark.

Bodie: But The Corner Cafe  is also a charming collection of short stories produced by Dani Greer, mastermind and blog book tour maestro, and you have a short story in it, right?

Mary: Right–“A Face at the Window.”

Bodie P: “A Face at the Window” starts out like many of your travel books–a young woman finds herself in dire need of a vacation, so she packs a bag and heads out. But that’s where the similarities end. Your central character, Arianna, has tragically lost a child, and in seeking to escape the anniversary of her loss she winds up in Milwaukee, possibly one of the least “exotic” cities in America. And there’s not a whiff of beefcake in sight. What prompted this story?

Mary: Last summer we spent several days in Milwaukee where I visited the beautiful art museum located on Lake Michigan. One of the exhibits that most impressed me was the bronze sculpture with a countless number of the same male figure, mouth open in a cry. That exhibit left a lasting memory for me. The story itself was prompted by something that happened years ago when our middle daughter was four years old. We were crossing a street to one of the Smithsonian Museums when she suddenly disappeared. I still remember my terrible panic which, of course, she never understood. What if I had never found her?

Bodie: Remember that movie, Tootsie? There’s a scene where Jeff (played by Bill Murray) says, “I don’t want people to say, ‘I saw your play. I liked it.’ I want them to say, ‘I saw your play. What happened?’ “A Face at the Window” is like that. I read your story.  And after I read the closing words I found myself wondering, What happened next? I don’t want to give away the end of the story for those who haven’t read it yet, but is there anything you can share without doing that? If you see Arianna and her daughter in another ten years, where are they? What are they doing?

Mary: That’s a very good question. In this age of the Internet, people do reconnect. Children find parents they never knew. Sometimes reconnecting can destroy a family. I know of one such case. I can see this story as the beginning of a novel. I’m going to think about it.

Bodie: In Arianna, you’ve written a character who badly needs the sort of escape your “Passenger to Paradise” series offers. Since we’re just heading into summer, can you recommend a few summer reading destinations you think we’d particularly enjoy?

Mary: I love the Caribbean where St. Martin is one of my favorite destinations. Although I haven’t written about it yet, I have a story set there waiting for me to tell. My book Secrets by the Sea  is set on another favorite Caribbean Island, Antigua. A sequel, Jungle Jeopardy,  is more of an adventure and is set in Central America. Jamaica is my favorite destination of all—we’ve been there more than a dozen times. My very first novel Hearts Across Forever  is set there. If you enjoy reincarnation stories, you’ll want to read this one.

Bodie: Thanks, Mary, and thanks for introducing us to The Corner Cafe. (All right, all right–full disclosure prompts me to admit that I already know about it, and this is part of a little thing we like to call a “blog book tour,” where a bunch of us bloggers get together and decide we’re going to blog about one thing–in this case, a book for which many of us contributed a short story or two–and we’re going to do it in succession. And so the party rolls across the internet, going from blog to blog, spreading the glad news that The Corner Café is open for business. Tomorrow The Corner Café book tour visits Heidi Thomas‘ very fine blog. Stop in and say hi. If you’d like to download The Corner Cafe for yourself, you can do it here for the very fine price of 99¢. Or, if you’re really thrifty, wait for a free download weekend–I believe we have one coming up soon (like in a couple of days).

Mary: Thank you so much for having me as your guest, Bodie. Now I want to hit the road for one of those beautiful destinations where a fragrant summer breeze dances through my hair.

And thank you, Gentle Readers, for joining us on this stop of The Corner Café’s blog book tour. Here’s the tour itinerary. Please join us for tomorrow’s scheduled event!

June 8 Heidi Thomas http://heidiwriter.wordpress.com
June 11 Marian Allen http://www.marianallen.com/
June 12 W.S Gager http://wsgager.blogspot.com
June 13 Chris Verstraete http://candidcanine.blogspot.com
June 14 Helen Ginger http://straightfromhel.blogspot.com
June 15 Kathy Wheeler
June 18 Morgan Mandel Double M http://morganmandel.blogspot.com
June 19 Pat Bean http://patbean.wordpress.com
June 20 Shonell Bacon http://chicklitgurrl.blogspot.com
June 21 Alberta Ross http://albertaross.wordpress.com
June 22 Karen Casey Fitzjerrell http://karencaseyfitzjerrell.blogspot.com
June 25 Pat Stoltey http://patriciastoltey.blogspot.com
June 26 SB Lerner http://www.susanblerner.com
June 27 Maryann Miller http://its-not-all-gravy.blogspot.com/
June 28 Mary Montague Sikes http://marymontaguesikes.blogspot.com
June 29 Stephen Tremp http://breakthroughblogs.blogspot.com

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The books we respond to most powerfully are those that arouse an echo in our own experience, a “Hey, I know about that!” moment. Holy Ghost Girl does that for me. Like Ms. Johnson’s mother Carolyn, I, too, found myself caught up in a relationship with a married “Man of God” at one point in my life.

It’s easy to condemn that relationship–and it should be condemned. Man of God or not, no man or woman has the emotional bandwidth to sustain two mutually exclusive committed relationships at the same time and lead a congregation. The simple, short answer is that Carolyn should have left the tent evangelism circuit, just as I should have left my job and filed sex abuse charges. It sounds simple, clean, and neat.

It’s not. The forces that shape women in fundamentalist denominations can make it incredibly difficult if not impossible to “just say ‘no.'” As a woman who has been there, let me give you a few of them, and explain how they work.

Soul-winning is a core value. When David Terrell taps Carolyn to join up with his crusade as his organist, in fundamentalist terms he plucks her from a shameful, failed obscurity (she has “wandered from the fold,” failed at her “life of sin,” and is now back home with no marketable skills) and offered her not only absolution but a prominent, visible position at the very heart of his ministry. As part of a team that has as its sole stated motive the winning of souls, Carolyn has become a fundamentalist star, a woman who has dedicated her life and talent to what everyone in her social network would see as the service of God, and the winning of souls.

To “leave the ministry” is more than just a career change for women in that position. It is seen as an apostasy, a forsaking of the “narrow, hard path” about which we fundamentalist children hear so much for the “broad, easy path” that leads to perdition. When someone does that, people want to know why. It would have been difficult for Carolyn to leave without having her relationship with Terrell exposed. And then, like now, that exposure might embarrass him, but it would destroy her.

Fundamentalist ministers stand in the place of God to church members. We speak of men (and there’s a reason for that term) being “called” to the ministry. The belief is not that men choose theology for reasons that may or may not bear examination, but that God Himself reaches down and taps them on their shoulders and says, “You’re my boy.” All anecdotal and historical evidence to the contrary, fundamentalist congregations still have a very difficult time believing that their pastors might abuse the power their positions confer upon them.

For one thing, acknowledging an abusive minister calls the entire “called by God” meme into question. This, in turn, calls the whole “sacredness of doctrine” meme into question as well. Instead of sitting peacefully in their seats, nodding and murmuring (or shouting) the occasional “amen,” congregations find themselves in the difficult and embarrassing position of  having to chastise the man they have chosen to lead them.

Many–I believe nearly all–churches prefer to take the less embarrassing path. Here’s how it goes:

First, the woman or child involved is discredited. She “misunderstood.” She “took something out of context.” She “led him on.” She’s “bitter.” She’s a “troublemaker.” She “needs help.” In cases like mine, where the minister in question was also my immediate superior, there was no room for euphemism. When I timidly asked a dear friend and fellow employee about what might happen if one filed a case for sexual harrassment she was blunt: “The secretary gets fired. The minister gets transferred if there’s an affair,” she said. “If you file a sexual harassment suit you might win the lawsuit, but you’ll lose your job, and you’ll be disfellowshipped. The brethren just won’t stand for that.”

Though it’s the consequence with the least legal ramifications, the last result of bringing a suit was emotionally and socially the worst. In our particular church it was believed that once one had been been given the “good news” of our particular brand of christianity, one could not leave the church and still reach heaven. It was called “living up to the light we knew.” What this meant was that, in that time, place, and denomination, filing a suit for sexual harassment would have meant giving up my chance of heaven, if I was so unfortunate as to die before enough time had lapsed to make repentence credible and rebaptism possible. In earthly terms, I would never work for the church again. In my case I ultimately found another job and moved on. For women like Carolyn, whose whole identity is tied up in her ministry, moving on is more difficult.

And there is also the paradoxical fact that because fundamentalist ministers “stand in the place of God,” refusing them a request is equivalent to refusing God’s request.  It doesn’t matter if the request is inappropriate–after all, didn’t Abraham get kudos because he was willing to go so far as to kill his own child? And didn’t God tell one of the minor prophets that he was supposed to marry a whore? God works in mysterious ways; in the scheme of a request–or demand–for sexual favors can seem pretty minor in the beginning–particularly when “no” isn’t a realistic option.

If the woman cannot be discredited, she must be silenced. Women are silenced in many ways. The threat of disfellowshipping did it for me until I got strong enough to leave, and wise enough to understand what had happened. Others are ostracized.Friends simply no longer call. If they meet by chance they engage in only the most superficial conversations. The minister is simultaneously showered with affection and support. Add to that the simple fact that ministers have a lot to say about what is printed in church periodicals and circulars, and everything to say about what message the Lord chooses them to deliver from the pulpit, and the woman often falls silent under the sheer weight of public opinion. What makes all this so deadly is that no matter what the minister may have done, and no matter how justified the woman’s suit may be, she is at a critical disadvantage. And no matter how deeply the rejection of those who have formed her social and support system corrodes her soul, a woman who is also a true believer cannot leave.

If the woman cannot be silenced, and if the minister’s behavior has become egregious, the solution is to shift or spread the blame. The woman herself is accused of “leading him on.” She is accused of being an “accuser of the brethren”–which is code for Satan. If it’s hard for some to swallow that explanation, blame is simply spread around–to the devil first (“The devil’s working hard”) then to all of us (“all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”), then to the fact that we are “living in the last days” (The Lord says that even some of the brightest lights will go out) and ultimately the guilt can become global (“We live in a wicked world. It’s all part of the fallen condition of the world.”) Once it’s spread that far, it’s easy to forget that Pastor X believed that he had a right to sleep with Ms. Y even though she wasn’t crazy about the idea because…well, because he wanted to, and because his wife didn’t understand him, and because the rules about pastors and divorce and adultery are too strict anyway, and because she had a great butt.

And then what happens? Some of us leave. We find other jobs. We find other churches. We find other faces for Divinity. Some of us stay, and if we stay we will either shut up about what happened or, if we are very brave, and believe deeply men who profess to speak for God can and should be held to a higher standard than the rest of us, we pursue our case, not because we’re going to get anything out of it (by that time most of us have realized that the financial, emotional, social and spiritual costs of this path are going to beggar us), but because we hope that in raising our voices we will remind other ministers that with great power comes great responsibility.

And if we do, we learn that we are “angry,” “vindictive,” “shrill,” “carrying things too far,” “insisting on our pound of flesh,” “being unchristian,” “giving the Lord’s Work a black eye.” We are reminded that we are to forgive those who sin against us, that no one held a gun to our heads while we were in those seedy hotel rooms, those back seats,those back rooms among the cleaning supplies, plungers, and discarded Morning Watch books, or god help us, on those desks. We know that. Most of us spend a lot of time wondering if we do share responsibility for the destruction of our own lives. We wonder if we did dress inappropriately. We wonder if we inadvertently sent a “come-hither” message. We wonder how it happened that we started out serving God, and ended up servicing a minister.

We don’t know, because abusive ministers are smart. They don’t pick the strong, happy, emotionally healthy women as their victims. They pick those of us who have failed. who know shame, who have bad reputations, who believe we are damned, who have grown up being victimized by other men of God. They pick those of us who believe we are nothing, and are so pathetically grateful to discover that we are something after all that it takes us far, far too long to discover that we were never nothing, and that what we have become is killing our souls. They pick those of us like that, and then they use the power of their “God-given” positions to use us. And because we have grown up in a system that has taught us that we are nothing, that we have no right to determine what happens to our own bodies, that we bear all of the responsibility and none of the power in sexual matters, we let them. And we wonder if it’s our fault.

Why does it take Carolyn so long to realize that David Terrell is not going to “do right by her?” The mystery is that she is able to know it at all. I hope she’s doing well.

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This week I read a book that has me thinking. It’s Holy Ghost Girl, by Donna M. Johnson. I read it on Kindle, mostly late at night, curled up with the larger of our two family cats, Lilo. The story can be loosely summarized as “God Joins the Circus.” Or rather, “God’s Kids Join the Circus.” (And no, I am not committing sacrilege; I’ll explain this.)

The general story goes like this: When Donna Johnson is just three years old her mother, burned by an unfortunate experience with Sin in Hollywood, returns home to her Pentecostal roots and finds religion in a big way. And there the story might have ended, had tent evangelist David Terrell not come to town. Donna’s mother decides that God and David Terrell need her to play the organ for them on the “sawdust trail.” She packs her children, three-year-old Donna and one-year-old Gary, into their aging car and joins the caravan of old cars and trucks who traveled with Terrell and his family, setting up a “big-top” style tent, lining up thousands of chairs, serving as assistants and security in the charismatic services, and helping those who wish to be healed to the front.

Terrell bases his message in the Pentecostal tradition, though that affiliation becomes increasingly strained as the years pass, and so earmarks of charismatic worship–things like speaking in tongues, heavy reliance on emotional appeal, and healings are ever-present.

What is also present is Terrell’s obsession with the women who join his traveling ministry to serve God, and wind up servicing “Brother Terrell” instead. Early on, Johnson’s mother becomes Terrell’s mistress, and for many years is convinced that he is trying to “do right by her” and the young daughters they have together, even as he is living and having children with other women as well. Ultimately, Donna and Gary find themselves left with a succession of virtual strangers, while their mother continues to travel with the tent evangelist.

The book is a good read, but perhaps the greatest strength of it is Johnson’s refusal to allow for easy answers. While a story like this lends itself to caricatures–it would have been easy and understandable for Johnson to present Terrell as a monster–she doesn’t do it. Instead, she presents a nuanced, complex story of a childhood lived in a world populated by people who all too often find themselves unable to live up to their lofty ideals; a world where a mother might love her children, but lose sight of them in her obsession with a minister who is all too willing to use his position as God’s messenger to exploit those around him. Love and abuse are ever-present. Terrell forces his wife and mistress to travel in the same car and live in the same house–and yet treats both his own children and his mistress’ children with great love. For Terrell, telling “nigger” jokes is acceptable, even while he risks Klan violence by preaching to mixed audiences.  He fasts to learn God’s will, and then takes poor folks’ last dollars to power his fleet of Mercedes and finance multiple homes. In Terrell’s world, healings are sometimes faked, and sometimes real, and showmanship and tricks are sanctioned in the name of soul-winning. In that world, the one constant is the immense power generated by a combination of personal charisma, fear, guilt, religion, and deliberately stoked emotions, all wielded by a minister who has become conflated with the God he professes to serve, a God who is sometimes love and sometimes terror, a God who requires pain and money as His due.

Ultimately, the teenage Donna is married off when her mother decides to move to a secret location (Terrell has run afoul of the Internal Revenue Service). Donna objects to the move, and increasingly finds her path diverging from the charismatic tent evangelism that has formed the backdrop for the only home she knows.

This is not a story of redemption, but it is a story of great love–while it is difficult to like Terrell in light of the trail of destruction he leaves through the lives of those closest to him, Terrell’s two children, Donna and her brother Gary become true “family” to each other, with all that entails. Indeed, when Terrell’s “secret children” from a number of mistresses are revealed it is Terrell’s son Randall who welcomes them to the family. It is Randall who offers love and acceptance.

In the end, Holy Ghost Girl is a study of the power of love, the love of power, and what happens when the two become intermingled. It’s a thought-provoking read, particularly in a world where extremism, showmanship, and spin are increasingly being regarded as virtues. It is a book that demands that readers respond in nuanced ways to complex people–and a powerful reminder that absolute adherence to absolutes is a dangerous path to follow. Mostly it’s a book that perfectly captures the paradox of fundamentalism. I recommend it highly.

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True Confession: I’ve had Brenda Peterson’s book Duck and Cover! on my Kindle for months–actually, I had the book before I had the Kindle. She gave me a Kindle copy as a “thank you” for tweaking her book cover a bit. So I had the book and for some reason I just never got it opened. Well, I finally did this afternoon as I was waiting for The Boy to drag himself out of the weight room after his “Burst and Explode” or some such thing training–it’s supposed to keep him toned and ready for football practice this summer, which will keep him toned and ready for the football season, which is a mere–what?–ten months away? ish? Around here we take our football very, very seriously, even though we win surprisingly seldom for all the work we put into it.

Anyhow, there I am outside the weight room with only my Kindle for company, and I’m housecleaning on it, taking off the read books, and the moron tests The Boy loaded on and insisted I take (I failed both of them), and wondering what I should read next when there, buried behind the second moron test, was Duck and Cover!

It seemed appropriate after the weekend we just had–snow and freezing rain enough to shut down school for two days–so I opened it up and by the bottom of the first page I was remembering why I loved I Want To Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here On Earth, the first book of Peterson’s that I read. It’s her voice. Her writer’s voice, I mean.

She writes lovely, tight, evocative prose full of hidden shadows and deft humor that grows not out of facile word plays but out of idea plays. And she can capture a character in dialog like nobody’s business. Take, for example, her comment that the Virgin Mary was merely “God’s vehicle” to get Jesus into the world. The speaker then goes on to note that she considers her own red Dart God’s vehicle as well, but she certainly doesn’t get all offended if someone speaks of it in disrespectful terms.

There’s more. There’s much, much more, and I’m only into the third chapter. If you love good writing, read Brenda Peterson. Start with Duck and Cover! You can get it here. I’ll do a full review later, but you should go grab a copy of your own. You really, really should.

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