Thursday, March 29, 2007
What was your ‘introduction’ to church?
Last December 2, which was a Saturday, I received a call from church friends back in my boyhood home of Cleveland, Miss., saying that their mother had passed away and the local minister was away caring for ill members of his wife’s family, so could I come over the next afternoon and conduct their mother’s funeral. I was glad to do so, except I could not conduct our morning service here and get to Cleveland in time for the service they had set (and announced in the newspaper).
So with some quick telephone calls it was arranged that the substitute minister going to Cleveland would come to Holly Springs and I would conduct both the Sunday service and the funeral in Cleveland. Both congregations would be surprised, but I felt that under the circumstances, everybody could weather the shock.
My Cleveland friends no longer lived there, and if I were ever to see them again, this would be the chance — not to mention all the other Delta folks I knew would be there for the funeral. I had grown up with Mary, Kim, Melinda, and Charles Glassco — Charles and I had been in the same class from nursery school through college. Their parents had been close friends and neighbors of my family. So, of course, I wanted to go.
Besides this, Nell Busby Glassco, whose service I would be conducting, had been my first Sunday school teacher. By chance I had happened to leaf through the “baby book” my mother kept in my early years, where she had recorded vital statistics, cute sayings, etc. In it I happened across the story of my first trip to Sunday school. I was two-and-a-half. Mama wrote, “I took Milton to Sunday school this morning. I got him settled and then slipped out. I stayed in the hall for awhile and didn’t hear him cry. When I went back for him, he was just sobbing! But it wasn’t long before he was asking, ‘When can I go back to Sunday school?’ And then little remarks crept out like, ‘You have to be quiet at Sunday school.’”
The next week Mama took me back and got me started pasting and coloring pictures. Next, and — I have to share the whole truth, Mama wrote — and I quote her words exactly: “Then I went to get a drink!” (I know I must have tried her nerves, but I am sure she meant a Coca-Cola—as Cleveland Presbyterians were not then so liberated as to serve more interesting refreshments at church before 12 o’clock!) “So when I came back,” she noted, “Milton was crying again, but the teacher said “he had done better, and on the way home he wanted to know where Mrs. Glassco lived.”
Mrs. Glassco, of course, was Nell, whose funeral — 52 years later — I had been asked to perform. How strange that I had been reading about her kindness in “socializing” me to Sunday school — not to mention soothing my anxious mother!
I record all this, not to bore you with incidents of my very ordinary childhood, but to remark that we so often pay little honor to those who help us through the “passages” of our lives — especially those that take place when we are young. Of course, psychologists say that these are formative and carry over consciously and subconsciously for years to come. They are supremely important, and yet — as in my case — if Mama had not written the story down, I was too small to remember.
But what if this preacher’s introduction to “church” had been negative? Would I ever have been writing a column such as this or doing the work that I do had not Nell Glassco welcomed me and made me feel at home in that old church that is so dear to my heart? I told the story at her funeral.
She did many things in life that were far more noteworthy, and we mentioned those things, too. But of all the things she did — and Nell was part of my church experience all my life in Cleveland — the kindness and skill she brought to bear on my behalf were surely the most important for me.
Never say that what you do in the kingdom of God is unimportant. In fact, I submit that the church’s most important (though not most visible) work is in the nursery, not in the pulpit. Jesus said, “Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” That is how that verse played out in my life. And because it happened this way I shall always be profoundly grateful.
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