“Stories are light,” declares Kate DiCamillo through the voice of a gruff dungeon keeper whose soul is freed by one. They help us as a people remember who we are and why we are, and dream about where we are going and who we want to become. Last August, I spent a couple of evenings with Nathan and Amanda Perry collecting stories about their family, faith and Midtown. This interview is the first in hopefully a long series telling the stories of our Midtown Community Church family, faith and city.
The Perrys – Not as Funny as You Think They Are
Interview by Jennifer Tufts
“We had Foo’s for dinner,” confessed Amanda when she was more than thirty weeks into her first pregnancy and had decided there wouldn’t be many more opportunities to have a late dinner of frozen custard once baby girl Perry was born. Eating concretes for dinner may be the most impulsive thing Nathan and Amanda Perry have done in the last two and a half years while they have been busy growing their family – now up to a foursome, befriending their neighbors, and figuring out how to love Jesus in community.
We met up over Foo’s in their 100-year-old living room, where leaded glass windows and a plastic picnic style coffee table represent both the long history of the house and the youth of the family that now lives inside. Noelle, two is asleep upstairs and Selma, just four weeks old lies awake on her dad’s legs calmly listening to the Olympics. Selma seems to have that second born gift for being mellow.
Jen: So you have two kids now.
Nathan: It doesn’t feel like we have two kids.
Jen: It doesn’t? How does it feel?
Nathan: It feels like we have one kid and this baby.
Jen: Well, you do have a baby.
Nathan: Noelle seems like a little person more now with opinions and Selma is a baby. She’s either hungry or tired.
Amanda: Or has to poop.
Nathan: She spends a little time awake, but she doesn’t really do anything.
Jen: But you feel responsible for her, right?
Amanda: I do.
Nathan: It just feels different.
Jen: Do you want to have like six more kids?
Jen: I think the most kids in a family in our church is ten. Do you want to go to eleven?
Nathan: No, we’re not doing that. We’re not going to win the most kid contest.
Jen: Do you want to have more kids? You don’t know.
Nathan: It’s not a definite “No.”
Jen: I heard a reporter recently say she thought it was the crudest and most ridiculous question to ask someone, “Would you hope to have another person living inside of you.” Do you think that’s a really weird question?
Nathan: Huh. Actually, that’s probably the crudest thing you could have said.
Amanda: Get out.
Nathan: There’s the door. Close it gently.
Jen: It’s funny, though, right? Because people always want to know. You just had a baby four weeks ago, so how many more kids do you want to have?
Nathan: Oh, yeah. How many people have asked that question?
Nathan: Everybody asks that question. Yeah.
Jen: Don’t answer it then. Let’s protest.
Nathan: But let’s say at this point when we had Noelle and she was this age, it was way less definite that we were going to have another child.
Amanda: Really? I always thought we would have two.
Nathan: (Over Amanda) The way you talked.
Jen: You don’t want to have just Noelle and no siblings.
Amanda: Oh, jeez. She’d be really out of control then.
Nathan: Yeah and we wouldn’t realize it until later.
Jen: You’d realize it because we love you. She doesn’t seem out of control.
Nathan: You didn’t see her tonight. She was in pretty rough shape. She was very angry. She didn’t want to eat dinner.
Amanda: We had to send her to her room.
Nathan: She DIDN’T want to drink her chocolate milk; she DID want to drink her chocolate milk –
Amanda: She wants it in her Elmo cup; she DOESN’T want it in her Elmo cup. Then she just had to go to her room and be alone for a little while.
Nathan: And scream – “Mom, mom, mom?!”
Amanda: And when I tried to talk to her about why she had to go to her room because she was being not nice she just kept looking at me going, “You want to hold me? You want to hold me, mama?” I said, “No, I’m trying to talk to you right now.” And she cried and said, “You want to hold me? You want to hold my hand, Mama?” She’s a manipulator, that’s what she is.
Nathan: Yeah. I don’t know if that’s what Noelle is doing because she’s two –
Amanda: I think she’s learning how to do that.
Nathan: She is genuinely sad.
Amanda: Her feelings are very crushed by the “You don’t want to hold my hand.” I think that’s more due to the fact that there are other things that have to be held right now.
I asked mom and dad, both the eldest of their siblings what is was like to live in a house full of first borns these first five years of marriage:
Nathan: I never think about that. I think it’s easy to say “Oh yeah, that’s first born stuff.”
Jen: You think it is bologna?
Nathan: Not all bologna, but a lot of bologna.
Jen: Fair enough.
Amanda: But he believes in jinxing; let’s clarify that.
Jen: What do you mean? Like Voo-Doo?
Nathan: No. Like last night during the vault, they kept saying how it was just going to be impossible for the American girl to lose. I was like, “They’re going to jinx her.”
Amanda: And they did.
Nathan: And they jinxed her. I don’t actually believe it happens.
Amanda: But you sort of do.
Nathan: But I sort of do.
Jen: It’s ok if you do.
Nathan: No, it’s illogical. It doesn’t actually happen.
Jen: You don’t have to be 100% logical.
Nathan: I’m not Spock.
Jen: If you were, you’d be like a mutant robot.
Jen: Or a Vulcan – except they don’t exist.
Amanda: Just like jinxing.
We move on – but not very far. Amanda does consider birth order and how it impacts their family. Both she and Nathan readily admit, between laughter that their strong opinions often lead them to a stand off. When they are both convinced they are right, their fierce competitiveness keeps either from conceding. While this means many arguments end in silence, they wouldn’t have it any other way – well, Amanda wouldn’t:
Amanda: I do think about birth order because I feel like there are a lot of couples that balance each other in certain ways and that’s one way that we don’t balance at all. We 100% both have the exact same quality that 100% of the time butts heads. So we pretty much just have to duke it out or just stop talking to each other for a while. That’s how it goes.
Jen: Does it feel tiring?
Amanda: It does, but when I was dating people, I was never attracted to the other type of personality – someone who was more willing to give, or willing to not argue back. I just felt like they were weak. The relationships I liked the most were the ones that were more conflicting. The ones where we just got along really, really well and it was just so easy all the time were boring, so then I ended up breaking up with them really quickly.
Nathan: It’s not like we don’t get along – that’s what you just said (to Amanda)
Amanda: It kind of is.
Nathan: We do get along.
Amanda: I think we have a higher percentage of not getting along time than some people, or it’s just more visible.
Nathan: Those people don’t have strong opinions. Well, I think that’s stupid to not have a strong opinion. There are too many people that won’t stand for what they think is a correct thing even though we probably do it to a fault over little stupid things.
I ask if laughter helps cut the tension when they are in a silent stand off:
Amanda: I think it’s hard for us to make each other laugh just because we both think we’re really funny and other people think we’re funnier than we think we are. There are lots of other people who think Nathan is really funny sometimes. He’ll say something and the room breaks into hysterical laughter and I’m like “Seriously?”
Jen: But really you’re just jealous that the whole room isn’t laughing at you?
Amanda: No, but then it’s the same way – I’ll say something and people will be like, “Hahaha.” And Nathan will be like, “What?” (sarcastically), but then I usually recognize I’m not actually being that funny.
Jen: What if you were being that funny?
Nathan: Both of us recognize that we’re not actually being that funny in the moment.
Amanda: People are perceiving that it’s funny, but it’s not actually that funny.
Jen: How do you know what is funny to other people?
Nathan: Well, yeah it is funny to them, but it’s just –
Jen: (interrupting) – but they are ridiculous?
Nathan: (over Jen) – not as funny as they think.
Nathan & Amanda: Yes.
Amanda: This is the darkness of our minds.
Something the Perrys never argued about was leaving the suburbs. They married in December 2007, and by April 2008 were looking for houses at the heart of the city. Midtown was not their absolute destination, but they were looking for a neighborhood with character, and neighbors who cared about each other. In August 2008, the Perrys bought a house in Hyde Park and put down roots that would anchor their family, their careers, and their faith to a specific place and a specific people.
Amanda: At that point too, I started thinking that I wanted to teach at an inner-city school. (She pauses to laugh remembering that short-lived experience) I didn’t want to be driving from Independence to an inner-city school and be totally removed from where my kids would be coming from. If I was going to teach at an inner-city school, I wanted to live at least somewhat close to where my students would be coming from, so it wasn’t just another mark against me – here’s our white teacher coming from the Whiteville suburbs to come teach us.
Nathan: Part of that is the same with church too – we could have easily gone to a church outside of our community, but it’s the same mentality. You want to be involved in a church in your community or you want to teach something in your community or do something in your community. We bought a house here. We’re truly vested here.
They think back through their house hunting process and notice God’s grace in preparing a people for them on this block. Amanda takes me on a virtual tour of their street from the living room, recalling names, jobs, family histories, heart breaks, and celebrations of the people living in houses up and down the block. Stories collected through simple acts – baking bread and giving it away at Thanksgiving, inviting neighbors over for dinner, and being present on the front porch.
Nathan kisses Amanda good-bye and encourages us to “have fun lady time” as he heads out the door to meet his brother-in-law for The Dark Knight Rises. Amanda and I crack up over the phrase “lady time.” Once we recover, I ask her about how she first came to faith and what her journey as a disciple of Jesus has looked like:
Amanda: Sometimes I feel apprehensive talking about it because it gets so fuzzy as far as when I was eight, I prayed the prayer, was baptized, my parents and I talked through what it meant to follow Christ.
Jen: What did you talk about? At that time when you were eight, did you feel like “this is real and I’m making a genuine decision?”
Amanda: I think I did, but I I don’t remember my actual thoughts. I remember more what was happening – I remember Vacation Bible School. I remember talking to the pastor and thinking, “Ok, I want to do that.” I remember my friend was there doing it too and that definitely played into it. I remember after that following up with my parents. I talked through it with them and then getting baptized and talking through the process and what it meant, but I don’t have a lot of strong memories of feeling one way or another, except feeling really embarrassed before getting baptized because everyone was watching me. I felt so nervous.
Jen: What were you nervous about?
Amanda: I don’t know, everybody staring at me and the whole process of being dunked under water in front of a large group of people and wearing a white robe that was going to stick to me while I got out of the water. I remember feeling really uncomfortable with that. There were more feelings focused on myself and not really on “I’m making this decision for Christ.”
Jen: What do you mean there were more feelings focused on yourself?
Amanda: A lot of the thoughts and feelings I remember are more like, “Oh, my friend is doing this. Maybe this is a good idea. Ok, my parents are talking to me like this is really important, so maybe this is something I should do. Ok, I have prayed a prayer and made a decision and now I’m going to get baptized, but I feel really nervous about that.” It was more about myself. I mean, I was eight, so how much as an eight year old can you think of all of those other things as well? After that, I feel like I was pretty much in the same routine as prior to – go to Sunday School, go to service, do all those things every week. There wasn’t a person in charge of discipling me or a specific mentor that I had or anything that was really done differently from before I had made a decision. I think I kept expecting there to be some big moment where I feel like a totally new person and life has changed and everything is so different. But really I felt a lot the same. That same routine happened all the way through high school. Eventually I was taught I should have a quiet time and I should commit my life to something.
Jen: What does that mean?
Amanda: So many people were like, “I want to be in the ministry. I want to be a missionary.” And so at one point when I knew I wanted to go to medical school, I was like “OK, I want to go to medical school, but I’m definitely going to use it for medical missions.” I made that decision because I thought it would help affirm my faith and affirm the decision that I made. I thought it would make it more real.
Jen: You had doubts about your faith?
Amanda: I always wanted to feel so inspired or so driven towards Christ, but when I wasn’t feeling that way, when I was feeling indifferent or mediocre, then I would start to doubt wondering if when I was eight years old, did I really made a commitment to Christ or was I just doing it because my parents thought it was a good idea and my friend was doing it? Was there ever really an actual commitment there? Or when I rededicated my life, was that my actual commitment? In my mind and in my church growth experience, it was always so emphasized that giving your life to Christ is this one specific moment when you pray this one specific prayer and that’s it, so anytime I doubted that one specific moment as being genuine, everything fell apart.
Jen: It sounds like your discipleship experience wasn’t like, here’s something else to love about Jesus, but instead here’s something else you can do to hopefully be enough for Him.
Amanda: Sure. Here’s something you can do in the youth group or here’s something you can do to point your future to following Christ by your career and your commitment at a missions conference. Those were the things that were going to make my faith more real.
Jen: Do you feel differently now?
Amanda: I had to come to a point where I could accept who knows what happened on those couple of days when I was eight years old? Maybe that really was the point where I came to faith and to Christ and that’s great. I have been working out my faith since that point, but maybe it wasn’t that moment. Maybe it happened at another time when I was just praying and it wasn’t anything special and I didn’t have a huge, crazy emotional reaction. I don’t remember when that time was, but I believe that it happened.
We take a minute to wipe tears, refill our drinks and ultimately end where we began the evening – talking about Amanda’s kids and how they have helped shape her faith and given her courage to believe Jesus loves her and is wildly for her:
Amanda: It was hard for me to picture God’s unconditional love before I had kids. That was the biggest analogy for me. Noelle is two years old and she really drives me crazy sometimes. Sometimes I just can’t even stand to be around her. I just want to be like, “Go away. Everything you are doing is driving me nuts. None of it is helpful and none of it is what I’m asking you to do and none of it is even how you’ve behaved in the past, so WHY are you acting this way?” And then ten minutes later, I’m putting her to bed and she’s lying on my shoulder and I think, “Oh my gosh! How could I ever love anything any more than this?” And then I think about how Christ feels even more of that for me. It’s just CRAZY, crazy, crazy, crazy to think about that. When I do the exact opposite of what I know he wants for my life and just think about myself all the time – even when I do that, he is overjoyed for me to lie on his shoulder and totally rely on him. He says, “I’m going to love you and that’s the end of the sentence, paragraph and book. I’m going to love you.” That’s really, really amazing.