The Union County Fair was a highlight of my childhood summers in a small town. The smells of hay, manure, cigarette smoke, and apple pie filled the air. The lights of the midway at night were hypnotic and you could see the river from the Ferris wheel. I was a big city boy from a very early age. What I entered into the county fair was a depressing oil painting called, “Pier Post with Seagull.” I was thrilled when I discovered I had won a blue ribbon, only to be let down by the fact that mine was the only entry in the category. My friends, however, were Future Farmers of America. If you were in the FFA you got a very nice blue corduroy jacket with the emblem stitched in gold. The other advantage of being in FFA was that you got to spend overnight at the fair. Willard Evans would bring his cow to the fair. I would drop by and watch him comb it and feed it and then tell me he was spending the night in the livestock barn. He wanted to make a good showing before the judges. Livestock of every type filled the cavernous barn: pigs, cows, rabbits, and chickens. I am very afraid, to this day, of chickens.
I cannot think of the Union County Fair without thinking of Nancy Sanburn. The story is only apocryphal, but I knew her well enough to know that it was mostly true. As the story goes, Nancy had been with her son, Sam in the livestock barn. I am not sure what animal he was preparing to show, but the story does not depend upon my memory. It came time for Sam to show before the judges. Evidently, he gave a poor showing. The judges rated him very low. Upon hearing his score, his mother stormed to the judges table and began shouting at the judges regarding their incompetency. A judge stood to defend himself and Nancy Sanburn socked him in the eye. The ending of the story has several possible outcomes, but the most likely was she was escorted from the arena as her son and the livestock looked on in horror and shame.
Nancy Sanburn was the meanest Baptist I knew. Our paths only crossed because she became cross wires with the town’s only Baptist church. She withdrew her membership and moved her entire family, a son, two daughters, and a son-in-law, to my church … The Evangelical Methodist Church. On one hand she was warmly welcomed. She tithed. She taught Sunday School. And it increased our attendance by five people. On the other hand she was downright mean. Our pastor was a young, energetic man with a lovely wife and several small children. We paid them next to nothing. At one point the pastor had to get a part time job at a gas station. At our annual all-church meeting Nancy stood up and asked for the floor. “I am concerned that our pastor’s children are too well dressed for school. The Bible tells us that we are to be modest in our appearance and chaste in our dress.” (A side comment: I cannot imagine Nancy Sanburn ever being chased in a dress!) Needless to say, our congregation was horrified. They dearly loved our parsonage family. The pastor’s wife sewed much of the children’s clothing and at one point had to feed her family with government cheese and peanut butter. Nancy Sanburn’s days at our church were numbered.
I, however, had my own personal encounter with Nancy Sanburn, the meanest Baptist I have ever known. I was an intensely spiritual child. I received what I determined to be a call to preach at a very early age. So by the time I was in high school, I was teaching Sunday School and preaching at small churches in the countryside. My junior year, I volunteered to be the Sunday School Superintendent. The Superintendent led the opening exercises and singing, as well as ordered the curriculum and held an occasional teacher training. There were not a lot of people in line for this position. I assumed I was appointed by default. Nancy Sanburn had other ideas!
Nancy Sanburn had informed the church board that I was too young for such a position and if I were appointed she would leave the church! “Don’t tempt me,” the pastor muttered under his breath. However, my father saw it as a “learning opportunity” for me in dealing with difficult people. “I want you to go to Mrs. Sanburn and convince her that you are the man for the job,” he told me. I was dumbstruck. I was afraid of Nancy Sanburn. No, I hated Nancy Sanburn. My father saw me as Daniel and was willing to throw me into the lions’ den. “You talk to her. Please.”
I found myself driving out to the Sanburn farm. I was sick to my stomach and on the verge of throwing up. When I pulled in to the driveway, I noticed a man out in the field. He was a sullen and sad man, it must have been her husband. It hadn’t dawned on me that she had a husband. I knocked on the door and she opened it. I peeked around the corner for lions. There were none. “Come in and sit down,” she said as she wiped her hands on a dishrag. “I know why you’re here and I don’t have much time. There are a lot chores to do.” I made my case for being Sunday School Superintendent. I was polite and articulate, two my greatest strengths. She paused and looked me up and down.
“Let me ask you a question and you tell me what you would do in a certain situation. Let’s say you took the Sunday School children on a picnic and as you walked through the park you came upon a couple tussling under a blanket. Upon closer inspection to discover they are copulating.” Now at this point I grew faint for several reasons. First, I had just heard an adult women say the word, “copulating.” Second, I had to visualize two people having sex under a blanket. I had never had sex and the thought of a naked woman terrified me and the thought of a naked man tantalized me. Third, I had to come up with a response for this absurd situation. I had been to a thousand or more church picnics and at no time was there any copulation, by strangers or church folk.
My first response was to try to guess what her response would have been. My inclination told me that she would rip the blanket off the couple, exposing their nakedness. Then she would have railed at them like a Pentecostal preacher, “Thou partakers of all things unclean. How dare you partake in these vile and disgusting acts, not in the privacy of your own home, but in God’s creation exposing your wretched acts to the eyes of these innocent children! Look children, these two people are copulating their way to hell! Let it be a lesson on how disgusting is the naked body. ” And she would drive them out of the park as God had driven Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden.
But upon thinking about it, I should not go that direction. I was tempted to say, “What I think I would do is distract the children by feigning epilepsy or calling out, “Children, look the other way. We are going to have a race and I will give five dollars to the child that makes to the far side of the park first.”
Instead, I said matter-of-factly, “I suppose that I would instigate a policy that all church outings involving children should have at least two to three adult sponsors, depending upon the size of the group.” She had no retort or rebuttal, other than, “You are far too young and inexperienced for such a position.” In spite of her protest, I became the Sunday School Superintendent of the Evangelical Methodist Church. I led very few picnic socials, but occasionally while at the park I would look at lumpy blankets in the distance thinking that perhaps it might be …
But that was not the worst thing that Nancy Sanburn did. It was because of her I found myself at the Union County Fair in a small tented area telling children they were going to hell. Let me back up.
I am not sure why, but theology is still important to me. I grew up a Wesleyan. First, at Hendricks Methodist Church, and then my father felt that the cigar-smoking-wife-divorcing minister of that church had become too liberal we set out to found the Evangelical Methodist Church in La Grande, Oregon. As followers of John Wesley, we believed that spiritual perfection of possible in this life. Nancy Sanburn was a Baptist and a Calvinist. As a follower of John Calvin, she believed that we are destined to sin daily in word thought and deed. She treated that as a promise must be kept.
Child Evangelism Fellowship was Calvinistic. Their view was that if a child could be coerced, excuse me, led to accepting Jesus Christ as their personal savior, that child would never go to hell. The converse was then, also true. A child who did not go through the specific act of AJCAYPS (accepting Jesus Christ as your personal savior), they would spend eternity in hell.
Nancy Sanburn had convinced our pastor to allow Child Evangelism Fellowship to, “… train our youth as child evangelists to work at the Union County Fair.” He agreed, after all who wanted to visualize small children burning in hell? Our training consisted of learning to tell the story of the Wordless Book. This book had five pages with no words, only solid colors, arranged in a fashion that helped you “tell the story.” The first page was black and represented sin and the punishment of death that God must impose upon it. The second page was red and represented the blood of Christ which God required as “payment” for our sin. The third page was white and represented the “righteousness that God imputed to people who AJCAYPS.” The fourth page was green and represented growing up to be good Christians. The final page was gold and represented heaven, a place where sin “can never be.” I know that this is horrifying, but it gets worse.
The Community Pavilion at the Union County Fair allowed merchants and organizations to create a booth. The Elks had a booth, the radio station had a booth, John Deere Tractors had a booth, and Child Evangelism Fellowship had a booth. Their booth was brightly painted and featured balloons, and candy, and me. The booth also featured a small “private” tent into which small groups of children were ushered. There were actually lines of children waiting to go into the tent! Once in the tent we gathered them close, as if telling them a great secret. In hushed and reverent tones we led them through the Wordless Book. Our CEF teacher, however, had us add a bit to the story when we got to the golden page. “Heaven is a wonderful place. How many of you would like to go to heaven?” Hand shot up. “But remember the black page?” Heads nodded sincerely. “Sin cannot enter heaven. Sin will be punished by spending eternity in hell.” Jaws dropped. “Imagine putting your hand in a bucket of burning coals. Imagine holding it there for hours, Now, imagine holding it there for ETERNITY.” Some of the smaller children began crying. But wait, if you AJCAYPS you can go to heaven when you die. We led them in a small prayer, there were no agnostics or atheists in our small town, and everyone repeated the prayer. They left the booth jubilantly, ready to enjoy the fair to begin their lives of lying, cheating, swearing, drinking and gambling, carousing and such. They had bought the “fire” insurance.
After I had done that for an afternoon I quit. I told my supervisor that this was wrong and I would have no part of it! I went to the parsonage and talked to the pastor. He agreed that we should pull our support of the Child Evangelism Fellowship booth. I think he knew that in doing so, Nancy Sanburn would leave the church. We would be down five in attendance, down in financial support and short two Sunday School teachers. But he also knew that we would be down in hypocrisy, bitterness, anger, and self-loathing. It was a fair trade.
In revisiting this story I have decided write a Wesleyan version of the Wordless Book.
“Children, I am giving you each a Wordless Book. In fact, the pages are entirely blank.”
“That ain’t a book,” a Baptist child would taunt.
“You are going to make it a book! However you are to remember one thing.” At this point I would lean in and whisper, “God is on every page. Go ahead and look.” The puzzled children looked through the empty pages.
“I don’t see God on them pages,” an atheist child smoking a cigarette would retort.
“It may take time for God to appear. But your only responsibility is to color in a page every day. Maybe one day you will be happy and fill the pages with sunshine and rainbows. Perhaps the next day you will be bored and only fill the page with one black line. Yet, on another day you may be broken-hearted and fill the page with your tears. There may even be days when you are filled will rage and draw down so hard on the page that it rips and tears. Just remember as you fill each page, God is on that page. And when you become older, much-much older, start at the beginning of the book and look at each page. For some of you, God will become clearer as you turn every page. For others, they will see only what fills the page, they will only see themselves. Remember, there is no heaven and there is no hell, only the here and the now.”
“Horseshit,” replies little Nancy Sanburn. “I’m going to heaven and y’all are going to hell. Now give me my goddamn lollypop, or I am going to sock you in the eye!”
Regrettably, Child Evangelism Fellowship exists even today. You can by the Wordless Book online.
As I reflect upon my book of blank pages that I have filled over the years, indeed there are many pages filled with dirt, blood, and tears. I have noticed that some of the pages are even ripped out and I am surprised at the number of pages that I did not bother to fill. And as l set the book aside I am struck by the fact that God is on every page, no matter how imperceptible. God is there as clearly as the endless sound of crickets on a summer night at the Union County Fair.