“Suffering is a very private journey,” said the Reverend Jimmy Allen, who should know. He was seated at a library table in the basement of a small gray clapboard chapel tucked in the piney woods of Georgia, far from the wealthy and powerful churches he once served in Texas, before his terrible ordeal began. “Suffering has come early and often to our family. We’ve had so much suffering that I’ve developed a special radar for it. Now I see it coming from a long way off.”
I had known Allen for twenty years. Once he had been roly-poly, a big man with a large, enduring laugh, the kind of laugh that exists for an eternity in memory. Now, at 65, he was forty pounds thinner, and his hair, swept off his face, was solid white. His glistening blue eyes looked like two polished stones resting underwater. I stared into them and mentally calculated his losses.
In the late seventies he had been the president of the still-moderate Southern Baptist Convention, the leader of 17 million Baptists. Then the convention was taken over by fundamentalists, and his moderate views were out of fashion. The church he pastured here in Big Canoe, set in a hilly forest about seventy miles north of Atlanta, was not even Southern Baptist but ecumenical.
Far worse are the private afflictions of his sons. Skip, 38, is a homosexual who tested positive for the AIDS virus in 1987. And Scott, 36—the hope of the family, the one who followed in his father’s footsteps and became a Southern Baptist minister—has seen his life torn apart by AIDS. Scott’s wife, Lydia, became infected with the AIDS virus from a blood transfusion she received in 1982, just before the birth of their first son, Matthew, who got the virus from her. Lydia died from AIDS last year, and another infant son, Bryan, who also contracted the virus in his mother’s womb, died in 1986. Matthew, now ten, has thus far survived. Allen’s eldest son, Michael, lives in San Antonio and did not want to be interviewed for this story.
Not only did Jimmy Allen’s denomination reject his theology and politics but his church rejected his family in its time of greatest need. Last September the New York Times reported that five churches had discouraged Scott Allen’s family from attending worship services. How could something this horrible happen to such an innocent, righteous family?
“The greatest blow was the failure of the churches to welcome Lydia, Bryan, and Matt,” said Jimmy Allen. Nervously, he crossed one leg over the other, then repeated the motion in reverse. “I did not think the church as an institution would go so far as to deny the touch of Christ to innocent children.” His face was raw and open. Like a close-up photograph, in which every cruel detail is enlarged. Angst poured from his red and swollen eyes. His tears were transparent, his grief unmasked. “Life,” he told me, “does not come out even.”
To most of us, Bible stories seem arcane and remote, far removed from modern life. We think and sometimes say, “What does this have to do with me?” One story that isn’t remote but recurs generation after generation is the story of Job, a Hebrew poem written at the beginning of the fifth century. The central question of Job—Why does God let good people suffer?—is a question all of us are doomed to answer for ourselves.
Job is a good man who becomes a target of a heavenly power play. God’s adversary—Satan—claims that Job is good only because God allows him to prosper. To prove Satan wrong, God allows him to take everything from Job. Job loses his seven sons and his three daughters, he is visited by plagues and boils, and he loses all of his money. Three friends come to comfort Job but instead tell him that he may deserve what he’s getting. At first Job is silenced by grief, then he maintains his innocence, but finally he demands to know, Why me, God? His quarrel with God raises all the great questions about life and death that have been debated for millennia. What is the nature of good and evil? Is there divine justice? If the wicked and the good both suffer, why have faith?
In the end of the poem, God answers Job by appearing to him in the form of a whirlwind. “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” God asks. Unable to understand God’s ways, Job must be content with this answer to his suffering—this marvelous vision. “Therefore have I uttered that I understood not, things too wonderful for me,” says Job.
Jimmy Allen is the modern Job in a family of Jobs. He and his family have reenacted Job’s long internal argument. When God tested every member of the Allen family by killing children, covering Jimmy’s progeny with the modern-day equivalent of boils, and taking from all of the things they loved most—including their comfortable ideas about God—not one of the Allens took it lying down. Like Job, they all protested. And like Job, they were met with God’s immutable ways. After all, it was God who told Job, “I am going to ask the questions.” This story is about Jobean answers in the nineties, given by a family whose members have found different meanings about life, death, and faith through their own suffering.
All children of preachers grow up reacting to what their fathers decide is the will of God. Other fathers have regular jobs with regular bosses, but the work of preachers is dictated by the ultimate invisible hand. Other children grow up knowing that their destiny is influenced by concrete factors, such as how much their parents earn in a given year. The boundaries of the lives of preachers’ kids are ethereal. Where they live, where they go to school, who their friends are, every facet of