Tears for the Life of Jenny Sooter

The Dire Consequences of Rigid Religion

Election year 2004 is upon us. As the news media starts to drop other stories and the frenzy begins, the idea of what important news we may miss due to this political preoccupation gives me pause.

What aren’t we hearing about that’s more important than the latest round of endorsements?

A different election year

One storythat fell through the cracks during the 2000 election debacle hit close to home for me.

Lost among the recounts and court battles of November 2000, I had to do a fair amount of online digging to even pull up the local press coverage, finally unearthing a headline at the Kansas City Star web site: “Northland church grieves deaths of pastor’s wife, daughter.

The write-up was a simple one. Mary Lee Sooter, 56, had shot and killed her daughter, 24-year-old Jenny Sooter, before turning the gun on herself in the downstairs hallway of the suburban Kansas City parsonage of the Eagle Heights Baptist Church. Husband and father, the Rev. Tom Sooter, was next door in the church fellowship hall, leading a men’s prayer breakfast.

Jenny Sooter and me
I knew Jenny Sooter back in high school. Our families were acquainted, and she attended the Eagle Heights Christian school, a “sister ministry” to the Tri-City Baptist Church, whose high school I attended.

As juniors and seniors, our
schools often combined for events and chapel services when well-known evangelists came to town. These were those fabled Midwestern K-12 church schools that make Footloose look like Fire Island. Far more concerned with haircuts and hemlines, the state of one’s soul was touted as the ultimate focus, when in reality it was of much less value than the outward, legalistic conservatism that one projected via clothing that adhered strictly to the dress codes.

The ways to lose your soul
As I searched through the news accounts and police reports from my desk in Los Angeles, I felt a knot form and then explode in the pit of my stomach. Detective Andrew Dorothy of the Kansas City police department told reporters on November 6, 2000, that “[Mary Lee Sooter] had scriptures written out beside her bed” and she talked in her notes about how she hated the rebelliousness of her daughter.

I called my dad from my office that day and he informed me that Rev. Sooter had been planning to resign for weeks due to his daughter’s desire to leave the church and move out of their family home. “You see, son?” Dad said. “This just goes to show you that we are all capable of unspeakable evil when we take our eyes off the Savior.”

I wanted to scream at the sky and throw the phone to the ground. “How can you watch this happen and miss the point?” I wanted to yell. “Mary Lee Sooter didn’t ‘take her eyes off of God’ and then shoot her daughter! Her eyes were so full of God that she was blinded to the difference between shooting her daughter with a gun in north Kansas City in 2000 AD, and the ancient Levitical law that ordered rebellious sons and daughters to be stoned to death at the gates of the city.”

But I didn’t yell. And I didn’t scream. I just quietly hung up the phone and sat at my desk, and cried.

When religion hurts
I weep for you, Jenny Sooter; not only for your death, but also for your life. I sat with you in those same pews. I heard those same sermons. I shook in the same fear of a vindictive God who would send me to an eternal punishment for renting the wrong movie, wearing the wrong clothes, listening to the wrong music, or sleeping with the wrong gender. And finally, I too saw the holes in the logic of the violent dogma we were brainwashed by, and I made an escape.

I mourn the life that you will never know, Jenny—free from floral-print dresses and constant fear. I wish that I had been there to help you pack your boxes into your car and move them into your new place. A place where there were fewer straight lines, and more windows with different views of the world, and other colors on the walls besides black and white.

Tears drawing from the NIEHS web site of the National Insitutes of Health.