Recently I have posted memoir pieces of my years in seminary:
- Professor von Waldow: the German Tank Commander
- Dean Mauser and his secretary
- The Great Seminary Hoax of 1986
I took the school year 1988-89 off in order to be a student pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Virginia City, Nevada. Over the years since, I devoted much time researching and writing the history of that congregation on the Comstock Lode. This is a short memoir piece of my time there.
“Matt, why do you want to join this church?” I asked as I slipped tea.
We had just finished eating and were sitting on the floor on mats, like Jesus and the disciples at the last supper. A low table stood between us. On it was a Chinese hot pot, a ceramic teapot, a bowl of rice, plates, cups, and chop sticks. It had been an interesting meal. Matt told me he once had a Chinese girlfriend who taught him how to cook. I wondered if she used frozen vegetables. There was no crunch to the vegetables in the stir fry. The dish was soggy. It wasn’t terrible, just not very appealing. I kept my thoughts to myself. I was curious as to his interest in joining a church that was a 30 minute drive away.
Matt had been waiting for the question. He pulled a Bible off a bookcase behind him. I took the Bible to be a good sign. Then he opened it and read a passage from 24th Chapter of Matthew’s gospel, about stars falling from the sky. Now I wasn’t so sure the Bible was a good sign. I had no idea where this was going. Setting the Good Book down on the table, Matt began telling me how the earth was going to soon shift on its axis. This would make it appear as if the stars are falling from the heavens.
My mind was spinning. This was not anything I had been taught in seminary. When he paused to catch his breath, I asked, “What does this have to do with you joining our church?”
“I’ll get there,” he assured me.
I poured myself another cup of tea as Matt continued his discourse.
“You know, the Carson Valley used to be under the ocean. There are places you can find shells embedded in rock.” He pulled a fossilized rock from his bookcase to show me.
“Yeah, it may have once been under the sea,” I quipped, “but that was a few years before our time.”
“It’s going to happen again,” he said.
“What’s going to happen?”
“This is going to be the ocean again.”
Matt went on explain how, when the earth shifts 15 degrees on its axis, the sea would rise. The coastlines would be wiped out with tsunamis. The valley would fill with water.
As he continued on with his monologue, I looked out the window. The Sierras were silhouetted by the setting sun. Looking at those magnificent mountains while listening to Matt ramble on, I visualized what he was saying. It could have been a scene from a bad horror movie. A large tidal wave, at least nine thousand feet high, breaking over the top of those peaks. The thought of it was ludicrous. I had to bite my bottom lip to keep from laughing. But then, I understood.
“I get it! You’re telling me that you want to join our church because Virginia City is soon going to be an island amidst a vast inland sea.”
“Yes,” he said, smiling as if he had finally broken through. “Carson City will be under a thousand feet of water.” He started giving me the layout of areas of the country that would be above water or below it. It didn’t seem to make sense that places like Carson City, at an elevation of 4000 feet would be below water and other places a lot lower would remain dry, but none of this made sense.
Yet, in a smug way, I was glad to know I’d be safe in Virginia City. Come summer, I could sun myself out by the mine tailings, as waves lapped at my feet. There might be still a few nice days this fall. Would I have time to pick up some sunscreen on my way home, I thought to myself, in case I don’t make it back to Carson City before the flood. I began to make a mental list of things I’d need: a lounge chair, beer, flip-flops, some more beer…
I had to force myself to focus back on what Matt was telling me.
“Where did you get all these ideas?” I asked.
“Mostly, but also Nostradamus and from talking to a friend.”
I didn’t want to meet this friend.
Next, he pulled a book of Nostradamus from the shelf behind him, turned to a marked page and handed it to me to read. Whoever thought Revelation was hard to understand had obviously not read Nostradamus.
Unable to make any sense out of what Matt was saying, my mind began to drift into survival mood. I needed a strategy to escape from this apartment. I wanted to be back in the real world. Into what time warp had I moved? I’ve yet to been in Nevada a month and discovered it to be a state where people think it’s a good idea to put rabid bat in a pitcher of beer and then drink it. And there was the woman at K-Mart who believes Ronald Reagan is the Antichrist. According to the news, the bubonic plague is making a comeback. And now there are those (or at least two of them), who think the earth is going to tilt in a new direction.
Matt had first worshipped with us the previous Sunday. He came into church a little late. My first impression was that he’s middle-aged, a little overweigh, a little disheveled, but a nice guy. After worship, when all were enjoying coffee and catching up with one another, Matt stayed back from the crowd. I went over to introduce myself. He told me his name and said he wanted to join the church. It seemed a little strange, this being a small church, to learn he wanted to join the fellowship in the same breath that I learned his name.
“Great,” I said, “let’s get some coffee and meet some people.” I introduced him to several members. He was polite, but standoffish and appeared uncomfortable. It was when I suggested we get together and talk about the church membership that he invited me to dinner
Matt was a special case. But then, Virginia City had plenty of special cases. He did join the church, although he never moved to town. Nor did the impending flood occur. Everyone in the congregation thought his ideas were a little weird, but welcomed him. For the rest of my time on the Comstock, Matt taught me an important lesson: “there are those who need the church more than the church needs them.”