At 0615 I stood facing the open gym door at the University of Windsor, Ontario. The affixed sign announced in bright red marker “Moving One Step Beyond Your Fear.” I took a deep breath and propelled myself toward the group of people nervously chatting in the center of the large room.
The Annual Phoenix Performing Arts Ministry Conference attracted a lot of eccentric people with myriad talents. Most worked in youth ministry or at parochial schools across the nation. Priests, monks, nuns, rabbis, ministers and lay educators made up the bulk of attendees. For one relaxing week each year, away from the judgmental eyes of our congregations, we explored the arts under the guise of “enhancing our skills for youth ministry.” Classes included storytelling, clowning, puppetry, dance, magic, group building games, juggling, music and anything else that seemed fun. I taught the tightrope class. But all that paled compared to the one about to begin.
In true artsy fashion, the 0630 class began at 0640. Father Bob Kloos of the Cleveland Diocese gathered us in a horseshoe. He stood at the opening. Near his feet was a lit candle. He picked up a barbeque-tool-sized metal rod by its wooden handle and checked the other end to make sure the white gauze ball wrapped around it remained secure. Then he slipped the ball end into a metal can with a narrow opening, pulled it out slowly and flicked the rod behind him to remove excess moisture. No one spoke as he moved the rod toward the candle. In an instant, the ball ignited, sending a flame almost two feet into the air. As he held the rod straight up in his right hand, he reached into the fire with the fingers of his left. He wiggled them for us to see the flames clinging to the tips, then made a fist. The flames disappeared. Next, he held out his left hand. Gently, he did a touch and go on his palm with the ball. Fire danced for a moment on its surface before he rolled his fingers one by one to cover it. Then he turned his hand over to make sure it was out. Father Bob smiled as we stood awestruck. Bracing his feet fore and aft, he leaned his head back, held his breath, stuck out his tongue and repeated the touch and go there. A small flame flickered until he retracted his tongue to extinguish it. Then, for effect, he swung the flaming implement in an arc behind him. The swoosh of fire cut through the air. In one motion he pulled it forward and up, then turning the torch downward, plunged the ball into his open mouth and closed his lips around it, careful not to touch the heated metal rod. In a moment, the flame disappeared and a whiff of smoke curled through his smile as he removed the torch and raised his head.
“That’s how you do it. And by the end of the week, if you choose to, you’ll do it, too.”
Several people around me headed for the door.
“See you folks at breakfast,” he called after them.
Father Bob divided those remaining into groups of six. A few experienced fire-eaters stepped forward to claim their half dozen, each taking a spot in a different corner of the room. I ended up in the priest’s group.
“Eating fire is really cool, but that is not the sole purpose of our class. We are also here to learn to address the things that frighten us. You just watched me go through fire tricks of increasing difficulty. If I handed you the torch and told you to eat the fireball right now, who would do it?”
No one volunteered.
“The things we fear are like that. If we focus only on the end game, the most difficult part, it will overwhelm us to the point of inaction. But if we break the challenge into manageable steps, we will probably meet it.” Father Bob wet the torch and touched it to the candle. He reached inside the flame, squeezed the ball with his fingers and displayed the flickering tips. “Who wants to be first?”
Two days later, on my 28th birthday, I swallowed the torch. The second-degree burn on the roof of my mouth didn’t hurt until I drank orange juice later that morning. Father Bob called the burn a badge of courage.
“Will I get a burn every time I eat fire?”
“You think I’m a masochist? Of course not. Bumps, bruises, or in this case, burns happen when you do anything difficult for the first time. You are unsure, so you hesitate. You are inexperienced, so your technique is less than optimal. With practice, you will learn to do it well and safely. Then that badge of courage turns into something else.”
“A badge of stupidity, because you knew better, but chose not to do it.”
By week’s end, I mastered Dragon’s Breath, a trick in which one sets one’s entire mouth on fire and lights another torch from the flame. And I no longer got burned.
My next trick was to let my congregation know what I had learned without getting a different type of burn. Since they had approved the conference for continuing education purposes and had no experience with a fire-eating pastor, they responded with amusement.
“Pastor Laura, you will be the entertainment for the senior citizen luncheon next Wednesday, so get your torches ready. We want to see this.”
For a first performance, it went well. Except for the fire alarm, which went off soon after I lit the torch.
“Better do your thing before the fire department arrives,” an octogenarian advised. Since the station was only a block away, three guys in turnout gear caught the finale.
It did not take long for word to get out on the youth ministry circuit about the local fire-eater. I performed for retreats, youth gatherings, even the district conference. The local Sweet Adaline Choral group even convinced me to perform for their circus themed spring concert, although the bright red tights trimmed in silver put me way out of my comfort zone.
“We are in costume. You must be, too,” the parishioner who volunteered me said. She neglected to divulge that she had invited half the congregation. The teasing continued for a week.
When I interviewed a few years later to be the senior pastor of a church twelve miles away, they already knew about my “hobby.” They also didn’t care about the tightrope I rigged in the front yard of the parsonage. We had the best youth group in the area and that brought many new members to the church.
One afternoon I received a phone call from one of those new members. “My daughter is in 2nd grade. She told her class, ‘My minister eats fire, and yours doesn’t.’ The kids didn’t believe her and she came home crying. Would you be willing to do it for her class?” The following week a group of 2nd graders and their families filed into our sanctuary for the field trip to see Emmy’s minister eat fire.
In 1994, the bishop sent me to a church in Connecticut to grow it like I had done in Wappingers Falls. I don’t think he knew what that meant. Shortly after I arrived, a reporter from the New Haven Register contacted me to do the obligatory “new pastor” interview that gets used as fill for the middle of Section 2, next to the worship service announcements. During our meeting, he asked if I had any hobbies. He called the next day to say his editor wanted him to return to take a picture of the “fire eating minister.”
I agreed. If it accompanied the article, maybe people would read about our church and the opportunities for worship and fellowship we provided. He posed me in front of a print of Warner Sallman’s Head of Christ. In order to get a better shot, I had to hold the pose longer than I knew I should, and I got a badge of stupidity for my effort.
The next morning, the phone interrupted me as I dressed.
“Is this the fire-eating minister?”
“Spike, you are not funny. I am getting ready for a funeral. What do you want?” Spike was the chair of my personnel committee. He also had a wicked sense of humor.
“This is not Spike, whoever that is. This is W___ and you are on the air.”
“Whoever you are, how do you know I eat fire?”
The announce continued, “Folks, this is great. She doesn’t know yet. Pastor Bender, you are on the cover of the New Haven Register; you and Jesus, and a tall flame coming out of your mouth.”
On the way to the funeral, I stopped at a gas station to buy a paper. There, above the fold, was the photograph with the caption “Holy Smoke.”
“Holy shit!” I got back in the car with several copies in my hand. At the funeral home, I could see another one sitting under the deceased’s son’s chair.
When the service concluded, he came up to me with the newspaper. “Will you please sign this? My Dad would think it really cool to have been eulogized by a fire-eating minister.”
The Associated Press picked up the story. The next morning my phone began ringing and didn’t stop for two weeks. Radio stations across the country called for interviews, a few immediately. Others made appointments to call back for specific times. MSNBC was one of those. They made an appointment, but called back a few hours later to ask if I would mind switching times.
“Fine with me.” This was an odd amusement. I didn’t care.
“Good, because your slot was the only one Frank Sinatra could make. He’ll be glad you were willing to change.” Amusement took a turn for the surreal.
A parishioner on a business trip in Korea called his wife. “What is going on at church? Armed Forces Radio announced that the new minister of Great Hill Church in Connecticut ends every service by blowing fire over the heads of her parishioners.”
She couldn’t wait to tell me and could barely control her laughter as she did. “I told him not to believe everything he hears.”
The local Episcopal priest called next. “Paul Harvey talked about you on today’s broadcast.”
“What did he say?”
“You probably don’t want to know.” I agreed and thanked him for the heads-up.
A few radio stations wanted me to eat fire on the air. That’s like mime on the radio. I refused those silly requests. One station in California pulled it off in jest, though, and it was funny. It aired on the San Francisco “Drive by the Bay” morning show. A friend who lived in the area recorded it for me.
One morning I received a call from an administrator at Yale Divinity School. “We at Yale have been trying to get Jesus on the cover of the newspaper since 1701 and you’ve accomplished it. Brava!”
Another call came from the Activity Director of a nursing home. “My seniors saw your photo in the paper and have been bugging me all week to call you. They want me to invite you here so they can see a young woman eat fire.”
“I’m not that young.”
“They are all in their nineties.”
“Okay, I’m young and I’m game. When do you want me there?”
The first thing I noticed when I entered the lounge area where the seniors were waiting was the sprinkler system. “I’m not sure I should do this. If I set off the sprinkler, you’ll get wet.”
The Director shrugged her shoulders.
A gentleman sitting in a wheelchair to my left spoke on behalf of the group. “Listen, honey, we didn’t get to be this old by worrying about a little water. Just do the trick.”
As I set up my gear, he spoke again. “We ain’t gonna be able to see it done from that high up. Can you do it on your knees?”
Although I had never tried that, I agreed. At least I would be farther from the sprinklers. Around me, twenty wheelchairs formed a tight circle as their occupants leaned forward to peer down my throat. Thankfully, the only thing that doused the fire was my spit.
A woman who hosted a television show at a Hartford, CT contacted me. Would I give an interview and then eat fire on her program? I agreed, but on the drive north from my church, I had misgivings. If she wasn’t as nice as she seemed, she could make me look quite foolish, and this interview was local enough for my parishioners to see.
For forty-five minutes, the interviewer, who turned out to be a devout Jew asked me questions: What are the educational requirements for United Methodist Clergy? What college and seminary did you attend? Tell me about the ordination process. How are clergy assigned to their churches? Tell me about your current congregation. All the questions presented me as an educated professional. She ended with, “I understand you have a unique hobby which has served you well, especially in youth ministry. Would you mind showing our audience?” The interview made my parishioners proud.
* * *
Shortly before I turned forty, I left parish ministry and join the Navy. Report time was 1700 at Naval Base Newport, Rhode Island. At 1630 I stood in front of the open door of King Hall. Inside I could see a group of clergy nervously chatting. First step: walk through the door. Second step: Introduce yourself. Third step: Follow the directions given to you. Don’t think about the enormity of this life decision. That would be overwhelming. Just take the next step.
In true Marine fashion, Gunnery Sergeant Johnson arrived at 1645. At exactly 1700 he shouted, “I am a United States Marine. My job is to kill people. Your job is to take care of me. If that bothers you, now is the time to leave.”
No one moved. “Alrighty, let’s get you signed in.”
A few weeks later, the Course Director at the Chaplains School stopped me in the passageway. “I hear you are a fire-eater. I’ve arranged for you to do it for a gathering of the Naval Academy Prep School students on Sunday. You have your gear with you?”
“My torches are in the trunk of my car so I don’t have to explain them to Gunny during room inspection.”
“Good planning. You just might make in the Navy.”
Note to self: Never tell a secret to another chaplain.
A few years later, as I was checking in to my second duty-station, my sponsor informed me our CO required all his officers to give him a bio, including both personal and professional details, for his review. Since the CO was about to retire, I figured this was a formality. He would never read it. So, before I hit print, I added “Hobbies: Genealogy, fire-eating and cross stitch.”
Early the next morning I stood in front of the CO’s desk explaining what this “fire-eating thing” was.
When I finished, he smiled. “My grandchildren would love to see this. Would you do it at my retirement party?”
Every officer in our command attended the shindig at the CO’s house. Many senior officers from around the base attended, as well. When it was time, they pressed into one side of the living room to give me space to “entertain the children.” After lighting my torch for the first trick, a voice from the crowd called, “Hey Laura, what fuel do you use?”
I gave my standard answer. “Fire-eating is dangerous. I don’t want you to try this on your own. If I told you what fuel I use, I’d have to kill you.” Hearing no other comment, I completed my routine.
Afterward, General Mike Lehnert came over to tell me how cool he thought it was. “Sorry I asked about the fuel in front of the kids. So, what do you use?”
“Sir, I can’t tell you. The real danger is not burning yourself but setting your lungs on fire. Without training, you could kill yourself. I promised my instructor I’d never to tell anyone.”
“Good on you, chaplain.”
And that is how I survived threatening to kill a Marine Brigadier General.
It would have been fine if the issue stopped there, but it didn’t. My new CO called me into his office. “I was at a meeting with General Lehnert. He recognized me as your CO. Then he told this story:
Chaplain Bender was in Guantanamo Bay when I was Commander of the Joint Task Force in charge of the terrorist detention camp. If I had known then she was a fire-eater, I would have asked her to meet every plane full of detainees and eat fire in front of them. Then I could have said, ‘This is what my female chaplain can do. You still want to take on my Marines?’”
My CO could barely control his laughter as he spoke. I couldn’t control my grin. I’d been playing with fire for years, but really, it had been playing with me. In a career filled with helping others through sadness, pain and difficulty, it had been the rare amusement that had helped me move one step beyond it all and connect with my quirky side. Some days that is enough.
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