The young preacher pulled into the driveway. A small white house. Windows with blue shutters on either side of the front door. There was no other vehicle in sight except an old pickup that he could see in front of the shed out back. The hood was up. It had front tires but no rear ones. A small tree was growing up through the bed of the truck. It looked as if it had been painted several different shades of green and red, and maybe black, over the years. All of it was faded and rusted.
He stepped out into the cold and closed the car door behind him. He stood for a moment trying to decide if he should knock on the door or not. Maybe he had driven out here for nothing. Maybe there was no one home.
Wet behind the ears, he was trying his best to stumble his way through what he thought he was supposed to be doing. What he was hired to do. But in this small Tennessee mountain town he wasn’t given all that much direction.
One of the Deacons had told him, “We just need somebody to preach for us on Sundays and preach over us when we die.” That was the extent of the job description.
If it were not for some of his training and the advice he got from his mother, he might be out hunting on a day like this. A cobalt blue sky. A slight breeze. Though he stood perfectly still, in his mind he could hear the winter’s fallen leaves crunching beneath his boots. Scanning the treetops for the twitch of a squirrel tail.
But here he stood. His mother had told him, “You be sure you visit the old folks. The ones that can’t make it out to church anymore. The Book says to look after the widows, and you don’t want to forget them.”
He stepped up on the small concrete porch. One rocking chair. A small table with a flowerpot. Plastic red Geranium. An old newspaper on the table beside the plastic plant. The door mat read WEL OM.
He knocked. He could hear movement. The doorknob jiggled and he could hear someone fiddling with the deadbolt on the inside. The door opened a few inches.
“Afternoon Miss Mabel. My name is John. I’m the new preacher in town and I’ve come by to introduce myself and see how you’re doing.”
The door opened wider. Miss Mabel was medium built woman who stood at a little over five foot tall. Thin white hair drawn up tight in a bun on the back of her head. She was wearing a floral print dress with just a hint of lace at the shoulders and at the end of the long sleeves. An apron. A pair of horned rimmed glasses set on top just above her forehead.
“Oh goodness!” She was a little unprepared for visitors. She was barefoot. “I’ve heard we had us a new preacher. I’m so glad you came to see me. Come on in. Come on in and let’s sit down for a spell.”
When John first thought about ministry as a calling, he had visions of great things. Leading a vibrant church. Expansive building projects. Being a mover and shaker in the community. Sought after as a speaker for the local Rotary Club, and eventually on the platform at the national convention. Writing books that would inspire the evangelical world. Being recognized as a giant in the pulpit and as a man of influence across the brotherhood. These were the preachers he admired.
“Would you like some fresh lemonade? I just made a pitcher for lunch.”
She motioned and he took a seat next to the fireplace. She took a piece of coal from the bucket and put it on the grate, then shuffled off to the kitchen.
The house was rather dark. Curtains drawn. Only one floor lamp next to what he assumed was her chair. A spittoon on the side table. He could hear the floor creaking as she piddled in the other room. He took the glass from her hand and she eased down into her chair.
“You lived here long, Miss Mabel?”
“Nearly 70 years right here.” She took a pouch of Beechnut tobacco off the table next to her and stuffed a golf ball sized chew in her left check. “I grew up just down the road across the creek. Got married when I was 17 and been right here ever since.”
The young preacher was suddenly aware of what an odd couple they were. Him just barely not a boy. Her older than his grandfather, whom he thought was ancient.
“My, my, you’re a young one. Good looking, too. You can’t be much older than 19.”
He grinned trying to hide his aggravation. He hated it when people thought he was just a kid. But his genetic makeup and smooth chin was misleading. “No m’am. I’m 24.” He felt stupid for pointing that out.
The visit went on for what seemed like most of the afternoon. They talked about the folks she had outlived. Her husband who had passed twenty years earlier. The days back when she taught Sunday School and played piano. About how much the times had changed. About how lonely she felt and how she had always wished she would have had children of her own. About how she had loved on other people’s children her whole life and how she wondered where they all went and what they were up to these days.
It got quiet. She pulled a tissue from the pocket of her apron. “You’re the first person to come visit me in a long time other than the boy that brings my groceries. The last preacher was here two years and I never even met him.”
“Yes m’am.” He didn’t know what to say.
“You know what you have to do, don’t you?”
He wasn’t sure where this was going. “What’s that?”
“You gotta love people. Nothing else matters. Folks around here can be hard to deal with, especially for a young preacher like yourself. But if you’ll love ‘em, and I mean genuinely care about them, no matter who they are or what they’ve done, they’ll embrace you and forgive you and stand with you. To hell and back if necessary.”
He was struck by the blunt simplicity of her comment. It stirred something inside him. Unaware of it at the time, he was about to rethink his whole life. He was amazed that this woman could do that. He was amazed that he had been with her for nearly two hours, and she had not reached for her spittoon, not even one time.
When they stood to move toward the door, she reached up to hug his neck. “Thank you for coming by to see me. I mean that. Don’t be a stranger. Now, go find somebody else to love on.”
And for the next 40 years that’s exactly what he did. Right there in the hills of Tennessee. No conventions. No books. No national platform.
Just a man and the people who loved him back for sticking with them through thick and thin.
Well done, young man. Well done.