McGowan’s Call, Rob Smith. Huron, OH: Drinian Press, 2007.
Summary: A collection of short stories and a novella tracing the ministry of a pastor from a small Ohio river town to a suburb of Dayton.
The life of a minister is probably one of the least understood of any occupation, or, in the language of this book, a call. The author was a minister for thirty-one years in the southern Ohio settings of this book. One has a sense of an inside glimpse into the life of a minister–sought in spiritual crises, often triangulated in church governance fights, always struggling with the congruence between the face he must present in public and his private life.
The book consists of several short stories set in an early ministerial assignment in Hatteras, a small industrial town on the Ohio River. The novella at the center of the book and concluding stories are set in a Dayton suburb and a much larger church–a typical career arc of an effective pastor.
The book opens with Davis McGowan’s arrival in Hatteras, and encounters with a homeless man in “a game of mutual respect between a local and an import.” Another story describes the loss of daughter who looked much like his own daughter in a tornado, and the small comfort he could offer with his presence and prayers. That weekend he goes to find his own solace on his boat.
The guy at the bait shop seemed truly disgusted that I would come to play on my boat when lives had been lost. I couldn’t argue. It was on my mind, too.Rob Smith, p. 24
This tension between public and private, who McGowan is and who he is expected to be runs through these stories.
“False Witness” is the novella at the center of this book. It centers around the death of Angie Fornesby, wife of Barker Fornesby, a rising executive. She was undergoing cancer treatments, promising at least a number of years where she would enjoy a quality of life. It was a bit tricky because she was also diabetic. In fact, that is what killed her, an overdose of insulin. Since both Barker and son Matt were trained and skilled in administering doses, this ruled out an accident. Barker’s not exactly forthcoming. He doesn’t readily produce an insulin log. An alert prosecutor also has picked up on a number of interactions between Barker and a hospital nurse. Davis had given an initial statement to investigators right after Angie’s death. Slater, the prosecutor, thinks he has enough to take a murder case to the grand jury. They subpoena McGowan, asking about his interactions with Angie. Not sure of what really happened but seeing where this was going, and the impact it could have on Matt, he gives false testimony that gets Barker Fornesby off. He discovers in the concluding story that he has made a lasting enemy in Slater.
In the same concluding story is one of the most finely written passages in the book, a description of a pastor living the call. McGowan has been called to be with a couple whose unborn child has died in utero. After a stillbirth is induced, McGowan holds the dead child, named Joshua, and speaks of how much his parents would have loved him. Then he goes to them.
“I held Joshua and called him by name,” he said.
Becky looked to Chad and then back to McGowan. “Was it awful.”
“He was beautiful,” said Davis.
“Am I silly, Dr. McGowan, to want to see him?” Davis glanced at Chad.
. . .
“You felt Joshua inside, and that little kick made you both think about the future in another way. Now that he’s gone, none of that will happen in quite the same way. You’ve lost a lot.”Rob Smith, pp. 161-162.
This is the noble, heart-wrenching work pastors around the world pursue daily, unappreciated until one is on the receiving end of that care. Much of it is unseen by most congregants, who are critical of sermon styles and have unreal expectations of the spirituality of these very human people, while also expecting them to fix the toilets in the building.
McGowan is neither unworldly saint nor worldly hypocrite. He loves to sail, loves his wife, and pursues his call with integrity while struggling with the tensions between public expectations and his sense of self. He is one who’d rather dress up in old jeans and hang around with the youth group than hob-nob with socialites. He wrestles with the ambiguities of doing what is right and merciful when it isn’t strictly the letter of the law. He incurs enmity when he does so.
Rob Smith has truly created an interesting character in a profession we often discount. He no doubt draws upon his own experiences to explore what it looks like to care faithfully for a group to which one is called, the beauty and the pain that goes along with this. There is an understated beauty in this writing that doesn’t overwhelm with spiritual profundity but draws one through the unpretentious decency of McGowan. And if you haven’t gotten enough of McGowan in this volume, there are three more: McGowan’s Retreat, McGowan’s Return, and McGowan’s Pass.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the author. The opinions I have expressed are my own.