This article first appeared in the January/February issue of Orion magazine.
The last time I thought about the possible crimes of a Methodist minister, I was a teenager. The minister in question was the one who sent shivers of Holy Spirit zinging through the pews of our church every Sunday. The accusation: adultery. More or less simultaneously, charges were leveled at my school principal over an incident involving an undercover drug agent, and the president of the United States was revealed to be surrounded by burglars and plumbers. Thus were the heads of my church, school and country laid low.
The lesson I took from all this was that trails of corruption invariably lead to the Justice Department and that the coverup likely involves school board members and deacons. And Jesus is no Deep Throat.
There were two places to go from here: nihilism or biology. I chose biology. With unifying principles and enduring beauty — pollination, photosynthesis — the study of life seemed a trustworthy place to plant my flag. Au revoir, Methodist Church.
I was thinking about all this as I sat, forty years later, at the trial of Methodist minister Gary Judson (age seventy-two), whose fate I had come to care deeply about. I had a front-row seat in the courtroom in the town of Reading — which is tucked among the Finger Lakes and Riesling grapes of upstate New York — when the reverend walked down the aisle. Slowly. As though to present the weekly offering.
We give Thee but Thine own,
Whate’er the gift may be;
All that we have is Thine alone,
A trust, O Lord, from Thee.
But the table before him was a judge’s bench, not an altar, and the white-haired judge who stared down from it demanded, with no benediction, a plea to the charge of trespassing at the Seneca Lake Compressor Station.
“Guilty,” said the white-haired minister who stared back up. Whereupon a substantial fine was levied. And then the clerk asked — I am not making this up — “Visa or MasterCard?” and the surrealness of the question triggered a call and response among the assembled onlookers.
“I’d like to pay his fine, your honor,” called out a man from the back.
“So would I!” called out another standing by the door.
“You cannot all pay,” groused the judge. But wallets appeared from pockets everywhere — including those belonging to congregants outside the overflowing courthouse who had been watching the proceedings through the window and who were now jimmying it open and passing twenty-dollar bills through the crack.
A minute later, a pile of cash amounting to twice the fine was being counted and stacked in the front row. No collection plate needed.