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Sunday School


by Todd Robert Petersen

Previously unpublished, this story appears in Petersen’s collection “Long After Dark” available from Zarahemla Books.

The woman who miscarried two weeks ago reminds these people that “no one ever promised them a rose garden.” And the man with prostate cancer says, “Amen,” then feels strange about it. To him it feels like he’s attending the revival meetings from what seems like a past life.

The woman who’s husband no longer comes to church closes her scriptures but leaves her finger in the book, marking Peter’s second epistle for later. She thinks how nice it would be to touch the corduroy of her husband’s thigh, to glance over at his razor-nicked face and see that he has finally come to know that the best things in this life will carry over into the next. For years now she has taken to praying only for the poor and the infirm who do not tear a hole in her heart the way he does.

The young man who looks like he has cerebral palsy drops his pencil, and a girl who was raped on the night of her junior prom picks it up and hands it back to him. They are the same age but haven’t spoken in years. Last week, he told the congregation that when he was ten his father beat him and his mother with a golf club and left them for dead. His mother is alive, but the young man comes to church alone now. By the time he makes it home, she has lunch on the table. He eats it alone, staring out the kitchen window into the dirt yard.

The unmarried pediatrician with one breast asks a question about grace, and the man whose son shot a convenience store clerk in New Mexico can only shake his head and say that it’s a gift. “A gift,” he repeats, looking at the congregation, members of which sit stiffly in their folding chairs. “It’s bleak sometimes,” he confesses, lowering his head. “There are days I want to lie down and quit. But something won’t let me do it.” He looks over at his wife and smiles sheepishly. Her eyes are sunken and dark. She has tried to dress them up with cheap eye shadow, but it only brings her shame into relief. By noon she’ll be directing the choir as they practice for next Sunday.

And by Monday she will have slipped from their thoughts like a coin into a dish. In a week, her appearance again in the church building will surprise them, the vacuousness of her expression reminding them that their lives aren’t as rotten as they could be. She has no idea that her misery is giving them hope. They will never bring it up. Church is not a place for burdens such as these.

Editor’s note: comments open to everything, including sentence-level edits

4 Responses to Sunday School

  1. annegb

    I have mixed emotions about this essay. Not about the quality of the writing, but the content. It is true that many people are living lives of quiet desperation and we keep that from each other in Sunday School. I fake it all the time.

    I can’t put my finger on exactly what bothers me, but I recently watched States of Grace and felt the same way. I don’t think tragedy is necessarily realistic or art. Assaulting peoples’ senses with non stop sadness and getting them to feel a deep emotion isn’t the same thing as good writing or movie making. Both this essay and States of Grace made me feel the same way.

  2. Todd Petersen

    Hmmm, this is an interesting comment, and an important one, I think. I know it’s going to sound unbelievable, but almost all of these situations were drawn from real people in wards, one ward in particular. I won’t say which one, but it was an important ward for me and my growth in the church.

    I did change the kind of cancer from testicular to prostate. That was the kind of cancer I had while I was in that ward. I did make up the girl who was raped on her junior prom, or rather I moved her from one part of my life to another. She was actually a student of mine, and she wrote about this rape for the first time 15 years after it happened in a class I was teaching, and I read that essay while I was on a plane in a lightning storm in the middle of the night somewhere over Texas. I started crying in the darkness of that plane. Everyone else but the flight attendant was asleep.

    I guess this whole story grew from a conversation I had with a friend of mine who was a bishop in a university ward in Seattle for eleven years. He said that it was sometimes overwhelming to look out across a ward, knowing all the sorrows, all the trials, all the pain, all the sins. He said that it gave him a taste of the atonement, enough to know that human beings are not cut out for that kind of labor.

    It let him know that God was with him in the calling, and without God, he’d blow apart.

    I felt much the same way about States of Grace as this commenter. I have so much respect for Richard’s talent and for his desires, and for his frustrations, which are many these days. I thin

  3. annegb

    I was mentally going around my Sunday School and I could come up with some pretty sad things, as well, because I know those people so intimately. I’m so not with the Pollyanna picture, but as I was contemplating, I realized that many of those in the room had surmounted their tragedies. I’m not one of them, but, for instance, our Relief Society president. Her father was an alcoholic, beat her mother, her mother eventually started drinking as well.

    She has a brother who is a polygamist and serving time in prison for sexual abuse. She had a son who struggled with drug addiction and a daughter who was almost killed and badly scarred facially in a car wreck.

    BUT she has overcome those things, and she finds peace joy and contentment in life.

    Some in the room are struggling with current heartaches, others have overcome them. I think that’s how I would round out your story. You could tell about me and how I had a key to the Presbyterian Church for AA meetings! I felt the spirit clearly there.

    One thing I thought Richard Dutcher was trying to show is that comfort, even redemption, is not found (at least in this life) only in the church. I think he was trying to show that Christ is the one who saves us and He loves Episcopals and Catholics as much as He loves Mormons. Good people exist everywhere. I think he went too far with the tragedy, but still.

    I leant his movie to my son-in-law and daughter the movie and my SIL said his mission wasn’t anything close to that.

  4. JKS

    I really like this. Everyone has a story, and most people have tragedy in their lives.