I BELIEVE IN MIRACLES: FAITH SURVIVED
J. Grant Swank, Jr.
The demons crawled the church walls. Now I knew what the missionaries were talking about. They said they were attacked by devils on the mission field. Sometimes it was a witchdoctor. Other times it was the invisible spirits. But devils they were. And those agents were after blood.
SINNERS was “painted” with shaving cream in letters 10-feet high across our American church parking lot. That’s what welcomed me when returning home from visiting a parishioner in the city hospital. SINNERS. That one word was meant for my parsonage family. We evidently were tagged as the “sinners.”
Another day my wife and I drove back from shopping. As we walked to the front door of the parsonage, we saw the bottles. An array of liquor bottles lined up in front of the door jam. We don’t drink. They weren’t our leftover liquor bottles. Somebody or some persons had lined them up where we had to pass in order to get into the house.
The phone rang. I looked at the dresser’s lighted digital clock. It was 3:30 in the morning. I lifted the receiver. “You’re going to die.” Click. You’re going to die? It was a female voice.
I looked out my church study window. I saw the church custodian — a woman — running from the church to the fellowship hall. I thought nothing of it. She was simply in a hurry. Another day I walked by the same window. There she was again — running from the side door of the church toward the fellowship hall entrance. Running. She was simply in a hurry, I reasoned again.
I learned that Linda was not in a hurry when going from the church to the hall. She was running from me.
I noticed that when I was in the church, she was working in a directly opposite part of the building than I was. And when possible, she left the church for the hall. You see, she informed others that I was filled with the devil; therefore, she could not be near me. Not even my shadow.
Linda would come to worship. She sat with her husband. During the entire service, they glowered at me. As soon as the service was over, they left immediately, rushing for the door. She let others know that I was filled with the devil.
Another night, the phone rang. I looked at the digital clock. It was 2:30 in the morning. I lifted the receiver. Heavy breathing. More heavy breathing. Click.
We drove up northward to Wiscasset for the day, visiting another pastor and his wife. Upon our return, I noted black wires strewn across the parking lot between the parsonage and church. Hanging wires. Sure enough. When I lifted the phone inside the house, no connection. Someone or some ones had cut the phone wires. We had no way to communicate by phone to the outside.
One Sunday I had preached the sermon and pronounced the benediction. While walking down the sanctuary’s side aisle to shake hands with worshipers at the church’s front door, I saw Fran and his wife, Barbara. But what I noted in particular was that Fran was holding a tape recorder. Recorder? It was not customary for parishioners to bring tape recorders to worship.
I learned that Fran was recording my sermons in hopes of finding something demonic. He then could take the “evidence” to the district superintendent. How long he had hidden the recorder in his place in the pew I did not know.
I noted that after services, Jim clustered with a group of men around their cars parked alongside the church building. The men were part of the growing antagonists. Could one of them have sketched SINNERS on the parking lot hardtop? Could one of them have placed the liquor bottles at my front door? Could one of their wives called to my phone in the middle of the night? Could one or more of them have cut through the phone wires?
Of course, we had the phone company repairman put wires back in place. We had service. Then still another night, mid-morning actually, the phone rang. “You’re going to die.” Click. Not too original, I thought.
One day my wife and I were visiting an ill parishioner. When leaving her apartment, Jean, a neighbor who also went to our church, ran into her yard. I turned quickly in her direction, listened up and heard all sorts of nasty words. They were directed at us as we walked toward our car. She kept screaming. Then finally she walked back into her apartment, disappearing. But of course she and husband appeared once again Sundays in church.
Jeff had been quite the Bible student. I appreciated his intelligence. So it was with surprise when I got in the mail a caustic letter from his professing Christian father informing me that I was not of God. The father attended a companion congregation in our denomination. I had always thought him to be a friend. He had glowing remarks to make regarding the various seminars I conducted. He had been one of the most enthusiastic loyalists to those special gatherings.
With his father showing his real colors, Jeff and wife sent me their own caustic letter. Dominoes fall down together when pushed in the same direction.
Jim kept corralling the grumbling cluster after services — sometimes downstairs in the hallways, sometimes outside by their automobiles, other times in the back lot behind the church. Mike began joining the cluster. That was especially disappointing. I had thought more of Mike than giving into those making dissension.
The mid-morning phone calls kept dittoing themselves. Staccato staccato staccato. Like sharp sounds in the night season. Finally we had them traced. Sure enough, it was who we thought it was. Not good. We had the police visit her, warning her to discontinue the harassment.
Bob turned on us. But not until his wife discovered him in liaisons with other women. Interestingly enough, when his wife found out what was going on at work, in parking lots, on business trips, she bonded with him against us, the parsonage family that had worked alongside her throughout her investigative journey. Dysfunction can magnetize dysfunction on occasion.
All the while, we were dealing with an adopted teen son out of control: drugs, sex, runaway, then criminal acts that sentenced him to several years in federal prisons. He had finished off his relationships at the Christian school, the public school and left me with homeschooling him. But that obviously was not the cure to his yen for trouble.
Life was a bit stressed out throughout those several years. Finally, the ones who concluded I was of the devil logged their nonsense complaints with the district superintendent. This is the man who in 1991 was told by another pastor that I had said concerning the superintend, “We’ve got to get rid of him.” I had never said that. That was a lie manufactured by another minister. But the superintendent believed the lie, never finding out the truth by asking me about that statement.
From the lie-moment onward, the superintendent sought how to get rid of me. When he received the bogus complaints from parishioners, he filed them as ammunition. He left the district for another position out of state. But the pastor who followed him in the superintendency had disagreed with me about a matter. A young couple from my church asked to use his church facility for their wedding and reception because our building was not large enough. That pastor told them they would have to pay $400 rental. He then told me I had to support him in that figure.
I disagreed, telling him it was not realistic. The couple had little money. They could not afford that. Further, in our denomination it is a custom to share facilities without charge. Now this? That man never let me forget the fact that I would not bow down to his dictate. When he came into the superintendency , he followed through with my ousting. He and his district board showed up unannounced on a Sunday evening, interrupting me conducting a prayer meeting, to announce that I had 30 days to vacate the parsonage, lose my salary and health coverage and leave that pastorate.
The cluster had got its way. The devil had climbed the walls and outside the walls. My wife and I were left housing in an old trailer, substituting teaching without health coverage and paying over $500 a month for temporary health insurance. Our furniture was stored in friends’ houses, garages, basements, attics and backyard sheds.
Since that devilment, Jim was found dead in his camper bed one summer morning. Mike died. Jean died. Barbara died. Bob died. The woman who was the middle-of-the-night threatening caller as well as the one who cut the phone wires and deposited the beer bottles died. The one who spelled SINNERS on the parking lot died.
Many in the “men’s cluster” pulled out of faith altogether, their children having lost hope in anything Christian. Sunday mornings the church building is still begging for bodies — and that’s years after the devil set up shop to undercut my ministry.
Through all of those attacks, my teen daughter agonized, especially when seeing adults turn against God and her parents. I felt so sorry for her. She was born into the pastorate. She never asked to be a minister’s child. One by one, she was betrayed by those whom she once loved and thought they loved us. One by one, she saw the vacant sanctuary slots.
She cried. What was going on? Why were some of her close teen friends no longer close? How could adults hold church office, testify publicly in services, and act like they did? What was the men’s cluster all about? Why did Jean scream at her parents? Why did Linda say her father was filled with the devil? Why had the district superintendent held a lie as true for all those years without investigating what was real? Why had a pastor charged $400 for rental, then pressed her father to agree to such madness? Why? What was church all about if this was what it ended up to be? Who were Christians anyhow?
As my wife and I went off to the trailer in the woods—what I came to call “God’s Tin Can”—my daughter went off to college. It was good that she did. It gave her another place to be. But she went for counseling in order to deal with the betrayals. I kept praying for her, that she would keep the faith. Above all, we could not lose faith in God. After all, He had not brought on the betrayals. The demons had set up house in our church, as they have done so in many churches these days.
God proves Himself, sometimes immediately and sometimes over time. At this point in our lives, we have a beautiful cottage in Maine and a lovely country home in Nova Scotia. We have our health, especially our health of soul. We have a son who’s served his time, is married and the father of two precious children. We have our daughter, happily married and teaching in a Christian school. She kept the faith, wiser than prior.
It’s been a miracle over time.