July 4, 1998, is a date that will live in infamy in the annals of Lennox Valley. Let’s look back at the events that led up to this remarkable date in Valley history.
The daily talk radio show, "Renderings with Raymond," is as good a place to begin as any, I suppose. It had been only 17 months since Raymond Cooper hatched his plan to use his celebrity to weasel his way into the mayor’s seat in the upcoming election. With each passing day, listeners became more enraged at Raymond’s favorite source of controversy, the dastardly actions of the Federal Reserve System. These actions, he claimed, were solely responsible for the soaring price of eggs.
Around that same time, the good Lutherans of the Valley called "Brother Jacob" Gehrig, direct descendant of Lou Gehrig, to serve as their first associate pastor. Not long after, following his attendance at a church growth conference at a Methodist "mega-church" in Kansas City, Jacob felt his heart strangely warmed and was led to begin the Valley’s first "contemporary" worship service. Having no drummers or electric guitar players in the congregation, the weekly 8:30 a.m. service made do with a keyboard player from the local junior college. Brother Jacob is perhaps best known for his habit of preaching in bare feet. He once explained to his congregation of 15-20 weekly attendees it had something to do with Moses and a burning bush.
1997 was an eventful year in Lennox Valley, as it was also the year that Claire Lapella moved to town, although hardly anyone knew it at the time. Claire moved to the Valley to be with her "soulmate," Jay Molley, who, eight months later, did as soulmates often do, leaving her to be with his new soulmate, who lived up the road in Springfield.
In May of ‘98, desperately feeling the echoing emptiness, Claire picked up a copy of Lennox Valley Hometown News, dated Oct. 15, 1997, which had been lying underneath a copy of the Lennox Valley phone book for seven months. That’s when she learned of the First Baptist Church Annual Men’s Breakfast and Turkey Shoot. As one of only six vegetarians in all of the Valley, Claire was chagrined by the thought of Baptist men traipsing around the church grounds, shooting innocent turkeys. The fact that women weren’t invited made it that much worse.
Of course, the biggest news among the good folks in 1998 was the appointment of the first clergywoman in the history of Lennox Valley. Sarah Hyden-Smith became the pastor of First Methodist Church in June of that year, and life in my hometown hasn’t been the same since.
Who knew that so many puzzle pieces would come together on one extraordinary day? It was on July Fourth that both Claire Lapella and Raymond Cooper awoke, unbeknownst to each other, in their respective homes earlier than usual for a Sunday morning. Both residents of the Valley were planning to attend church for the first time as adults, but for different reasons.
Claire, while still plotting her upcoming protest at First Baptist Church, had heard of the new pastor at Lennox Valley Methodist Church. In a moment of desperation, feeling the growing loneliness of a woman whose soulmate was gone for good, Claire made the fateful decision to quietly slip in among the Methodists and see what this Sarah Hyden-Smith was all about. Claire was grasping for hope, and church seemed as good a place as any to find it.
Raymond’s reason for attending church was a bit less noble. Coming to the conclusion that he must be a faithful member of a church to win the upcoming election, he realized that the clock was ticking and July Fourth was to be the day he took the membership plunge. After much "prayerful thought," a phrase he would repeat often in the coming weeks, he selected the contemporary service at Lennox Valley Lutheran Church.
It would be a performance to be retold time and again over the coming years.
Each week, "The Good Folks of Lennox Valley" chronicles the happenings of a fictional American small town.