It was around thirty-five years ago that I first met her in the small southern mill-town in which Judy and I were just starting our married lives after college. That day had a deeply profound impact that is alive within me to this day. We were on our way to be interviewed as the first teachers for a brand new Christian school that was going to start in just a couple months.
We took a right turn onto a dirt driveway. Surely this wasn’t where we were supposed to be, was it? On the left, at the end of the driveway, was the only house. Directly across from it was the small brick church. The building sat on a parcel of ground that was probably an acre or so. It was surrounded by trees with the old railroad tracks running right along the backside of it.
A school in that building! It’s not possible. Don’t you need a big fancy modern structure? Not something at the end of a dirt driveway with a dirt parking lot on an acre of land.
I didn’t know what to think. Here I was a Yankee deep in the heart of Dixie. I never experienced anything like this. The little downtown was like stepping into Mayberry where Andy Taylor was sheriff. I half expected to see Barney pull out his one bullet and load his gun. Maybe we could check the jail to see if Otis is there. -- It was all strange and wonderful at the same time.
We sat there in the church parking lot waiting for the Sunday evening service. (Can we just turn around and go home, please?) Finally someone arrived and opened the church. We got out of the car and walked up to the little parcel of grass before the main entry. The grass wasn’t anything special. Patchy at best. It sure could use a trim along the edges. Maybe they should invest in a good mule.
I stood there looking at the dirty white double door. Deep down in the pit of my stomach was an overwhelming sick feeling. This was going to be a nightmare. Let’s hurry up and get this over with!
But … as I opened the door and stepped inside that little auditorium — I knew I was home. I can’t explain it. To this day I can’t put words to it. I loved it. It somehow radiated a warmth that I could feel. Unexpectedly I was beside myself with inner joy.
We sat in a pew near the back waiting for the pastor to arrive. We met a few people and they were all so glad to see us … you know, with the warmth only southerners can express — “We’re so happy to have y’all.” Somehow you feel all wrapped up in a big warm hug.
After a short time Pastor Green came in the same front door and headed straight to us. He had a smile that said with every muscle in it that we were the most cherished people there that night. He was joy, love, humility and acceptance all in one brief moment. He held out his hand to shake mine and I noticed the index finger was gone from the knuckle up. What a handshake it was. I’ll never forget it.
We then met his wonderful wife Marcia. She is the sweetest thing you’ll ever meet. A soft spoken Proverbs 31 woman. It’s not an exaggeration to say she was/is almost angelic-like. Marcia is one of the most beautiful people inside and out that I’ve been blessed to know.
Pastor and I went back to his little office and talked before the service. It was like we’d always known each other. He asked if I wanted to preach the evening service. “No!!!” is what I wanted to scream. “I’m not prepared.” I said I’d be glad to. Can God bless preaching just after you lie?
I had less than ten minutes to come up with something. Looking through my Bible at underlined texts I found one in Luke and preached away for forty-five minutes. It was incredible. I couldn’t believe it was me. The people actually smiled, nodded and gave several hearty Amens! Yankees don’t do that you know.
By the end of the evening we were accepted into that wonderful family of God’s people. We headed home trying to take in the miracle of that night and all the wonderful folks we met. It brings me to tears as I type.
I owe a debt of gratitude to Pastor Green, Marcia and that little church. It literally shaped the rest of our lives to this day. Our marriage, years in ministry and kids are a product of that wonderful man, ministry and people.
Pastor Green is what you think a pastor should be and a whole lot more. He is the most genuine man of God I know. Even after all these years, when he heard I had cancer he called and prayed with me a few different times. That wonderfully soothing voice brought healing to the deep turmoil I was in.
Pastor Green, I love you.
What about Mrs. Inez Milford you’re wondering?? I had to give the back drop: a Yankee, in an almost forgotten little southern town, down at the end of a dirt driveway, getting ready to embark on some of the happiest and most important years of his life. It’s amazing the impact people can have on us.
And thus we’ll meet Mrs. Inez Milford …
next week …
PS: Though Coy and Luke pride themselves on being from “New England” they are both Southern born. A fact of which I am very, very proud and don’t let them forget :-)