In my early days in Richmond as a young adult, I was looking for a church home. Having grown up the son of a Southern Baptist preacher and having entered my studies at the University of Richmond intending to follow in my father’s footsteps, I wanted to root myself in the familiar. Richmond was new to me. Though I had spent four academic years here, the world surrounding the UR campus was largely a mystery. I had been out, but had no car of my own and my focus was campus life – literary magazine, school paper, Baptist Student Union, a campus rock band, the campus radio station, plus I worked part-time at the Virginia Baptist Historical Society/University Archives for quite a few semesters. Existing on Federal grants otherwise, my needs were met on the beautiful campus.
Despite being largely insulated from the ‘real world’, campus life was a step up from the much smaller world I had known growing up in the church. My early life was separated into ‘us’ and ‘them’ – the ‘saved’ and the sinners. Any interaction with other people automatically included an evaluation of whether or not the person was going to heaven. If not, it was my duty to show them the way to eternal life.
At some point, I could no longer sustain the worldview of my childhood. I had grown too much and my eyes were opened to a life far less judgmental and limiting. Saving souls into an amorphous future nirvana also became less a priority the closer I came to leaving campus. I needed a job and actual, substantive support for my ministerial pursuits was nil. I I had decided, then, to go into Secondary Education. It was late in the academic cycle and the program was in the midst of being revamped, so I ended up having to spend an extra semester after I normally would have graduated to take part in student teaching. I had passed the National Teacher’s Exam my senior year and my momentum was high. Until I met Margaret Gunter.
Student teachers are paired with ‘cooperating teachers’ who essentially turn over their class for a semester to the student teacher. There is a collaborative relationship that needs to exist between the two individuals. Mrs. Gunter and I never established this relationship. Instead, she insisted on teaching her classes for the first two weeks of school, while I continued a redundant program of ‘observation’ in the other English classes of Douglas Freeman High School. Never mind that the bulk of my practical training up to that point had included copious amounts of observation.
I had been gung ho to get into the classroom. My colleagues, fellow student teachers, were reporting their exciting first days of classes and their experiences. Meanwhile, I was still taking notes on pedagogical techniques.
I never did regain the momentum. I dropped out (passing) and moved to Ohio to spend time with my estranged father, who I had not seen for more than a few hours at any time during my four years of college. The backstory there is that he and my mother divorced as I was finishing up high school and after he was essentially defrocked by the Baptists he was blackballed in Virginia, moved to Pennsylvania and joined the Church of the Brethren. Plenty more could be written on that subject, but it would fill a book.
After nine months in Ohio a second gestation of sorts in my developmental life, I returned to Richmond, primarily in the hopes of reestablishing a relationship with my ex-fiancee at the time (scratch fiancee – we were instead ‘engaged to be engaged’). Yet another story.
Meanwhile, I still felt that joining a church would be a first step to perhaps an eventual move to the ministry, once I got on my feet financially and socially. What I had found during my student teaching experience, besides having a less than cooperating teacher, was that teaching also requires at least a baseline financial stability, plus a social network/support and stability that is difficult to achieve being away from family and friends. Yes, I had college buddies around, but they were in the same fix I was in.
Alone and eager to find friends, I joined Derbyshire Baptist Church. The roommate of an old college girlfriend (not the ex-‘fiancee’) and her family were kind enough to provide my transportation when I first started going to the church, since I was still without a car each Sunday.
After I had taken my first full time job with a ‘head hunting’ firm and got a car, I was able to go on my own. Feeling more settled and sensing enough similarity there with the homogenized world I had grown up with, I decided to join. I was looking for roots wherever I could find it. One Sunday, then, during the ‘invitation’ section of their religious ceremony, I ‘went forward’ and there it was. I was a new member.
Pretty soon, I received a call in my one bedroom efficiency apartment on Grace Street. It was from a man who identified himself as representing the church. We struck up a conversation and he quickly learned that I was new to Richmond, had only started temping (full-time), and was basically in start-up mode. I was 23.
He informed me that there was an opportunity in the church for someone in my situation. It seemed like it was perhaps a ministerial opportunity. I had applied for a youth minister position at another church in the area. Ironically, one of the pastors there knew of my father, and had even gone to seminary with him. Small world. Unfortunately, the association did not help. I was hoping that this experience with Derbyshire would go better.
We met at Aunt Sarah’s pancake house, for lunch. The whole episode is chronicled in detail in a journal entry I made at the time (prior to blogging, we did things like writing in notebooks to ourselves but nobody ever read them, so blogging was invented). Rather than rergurgitate that entry here, I will summarize: the guy was an asshole Amway salesman. And if I ever meet the sonofabitch in my life again, I will rip his eyes out and stuff them down his fucking throat. Except he won’t have the opportunity to gain any nourishment from his occular diet since I will have concurrently ripped out his jugular with my bare hands, which will make it somewhat difficult to swallow I am thinking.
Oh, did I mention that was not a particularly pleasant experience?
Yeah, well, after about five hours of a heavy sell job where this poor excuse for a biped (not a human by any means) explained his background in the defense industry and other such ‘important’ connections and promises of meeting girls at Amway meetings, I took some of his tapes and literature and agreed to consider the ‘opportunity’.
The first stop on my way from this meeting/sales pitch was to the Boatwright Library on the UR campus. As a lifetime member, I had access to do some research, so I hit the stacks and after a few hours of reading, I found little about Amway that indicated it was anymore than a multi-level marketing scheme. My parents and other family members had been sucked into Amway in the early seventies, when they were following any new trend that happened to come their way. They abandoned it before I was even in First Grade. So, I was already quite skeptical, but when you are young and looking for an opportunity you consider that perhaps things have changed.
I did not have much respect for the company after my research. But, even so, I popped one of the tapes he gave me into the cassette player of my car. The more I listened, the more I was unimpressed and, in fact, incensed that I was stupid enough to not walk out as soon as the guy started opening his little folder showing the true nature of his ‘opportunity’. Of course, having gained a terrible reputation over the years, they were no longer calling themselves ‘Amway’ but instead ‘Quiztar’.
I rolled down the window as I was driving down Patterson Avenue back to my apartment. I yanked the cassette out of the player. Normally, I believe littering is reprehensible. In this case, I believe I made a mistake, but I am simply reporting what happened rather trying to gain any absolution – I hurled the cassette out the window into the median, accompanied by obscenities, etc. You get the drift.
When I got home, I called the kind gentleman who had offered me such a wonderful opportunity and told him very simply never to call me again. And I have never set foot in a Baptist church since.
The reason this dark chapter in my history occurs to me is that the times Dispatch has a story today on the front page of their Business section on ‘Tips to avoid pyramid scheme’ and it links to www.pyramidschemealert.org which has an article linking Amway to Blackwater (the infamous U.S. contractor in Iraq tied to the GOP, darklord Cheney and his minions, and, of course, to the current bogus POTUS). That’s at this link here.