Thursday, May 9, 2013
The Preacher’s Corner
We owe gratitude to Sunday School teachers
Sunday School teachers are the unsung heroes of the Christian faith. Unlike choir members who sing before the congregation or ushers who greet at the door, Sunday School teachers work in out-of-the-way corners, at a time when many church members are still at home reading their newspapers.
Sunday School teachers are soldiers at the front, and I believe we owe them gratitude.
I remember my own Sunday School teacher, Mr. Carlton Ashford. Mr. Ashford ran the Ben Franklin Store in Cleveland. One of the original “five-and-dime” chains, it was filled with enticing aromas of popcorn and cashew nuts, crowded with wonderful toys children could look at and buy. There were signs all around: “Beautiful to look at, Delightful to hold, But if you break it: It’s sold!”
After Mr. Ashford retired from the Ben Franklin he sold Electrolux vacuum cleaners door to door. A born salesman, he mostly enjoyed visiting country people he’d known from his days at the store, but he sold lots of vacuums, too.
I had other Sunday School teachers, but I remember Mr. Ashford best. You see, he was our teacher the longest, and to that fact, there is a story attached!
It all began when Mr. Ashford took the fourth and fifth grade boys’ class at the First Presbyterian Church in Cleveland, Mississippi. We were not a big group, but as Sunday School teachers know, boys that age have a hard time being still.
I recall that in the spirit of “spare the rod and spoil the child” Mr. Ashford administered some judicious punishments to members of our class. We boys were wide-eyed that such a thing would be done, but we knew our fathers were just down the hall in the Men’s Class and could easily be summoned if we needed the same medicine. What’s more, we knew they heartily approved of Mr. Ashford’s discipline.
The plan, of course, was that a new teacher would take our group when “Rally Day” rolled around in September. However, as the years came and went, an interesting pattern emerged. A new, untested teacher would be assigned to our group, but after a few Sundays, Mr. Ashford would reappear, and he would finish out the year with us!
One year a lady who wore a hat and spoke primly lasted only a week with us. Mark you that at least two preachers emerged from that group, but I doubt even Mr. Ashford would have predicted this at the time. Mr. Ashford stayed with us until about eighth grade.
I must have learned a great deal about the Bible from Mr. Ashford, though the lessons now are blurred in my mind. I do remember, however, Mr. Ashford’s stories. He grew up in Tutwiler, Mississippi, where the little Presbyterian Church, linked with Sumner, Mississippi, in recent years had the distinction of being North Missis sippi’s smallest Presbyterian Church (with four members).
Tutwiler was a stop on the famous “Yellow Dog” railroad line, Carlton grew up and found his first job as a fireman on the locomotives of the Illinois Central Railroad, whose main freight line ran near Tutwiler. He told wonderful railroad stories, almost as if he were Casey Jones himself.
Mr. Ashford loved to tell our class about the time he brought the Night Special the 87 miles from Tutwiler into Memphis, and after detraining at Central Station, how he walked over to the Second Presbyterian Church, when it used to be downtown  near Central Station, and heard a revival underway. While the choir sang “Rock of Ages,” he stood outside the window in his fireman’s overalls and listened to the service, and as the mysterious Presbyterian doctrine of predestination would have it, young Carlton Ashford listened to the preacher and the singing of the choir through the open window. That night—about 1935—in Memphis, Tennessee, he gave his heart to Jesus, and so ever after this son of Tutwiler Presbyterianism was a church member and active worker in every useful way.
As soon as we were old enough, Mr. Ashford let our class take part in another of his church activities, the preaching services the Cleveland Presbyterians conducted on Sunday afternoons at Parchman. Parchman—officially the Mississippi State Penitentiary—is a landmark of sorts in the Mississippi Delta. There are no walls around this prison. It looks like any other big cotton farm, only there are barracks. Occasionally prisoners walk away, and then everyone in the Delta locks their doors and talks about the sordid types that are serving out their sentences there.
For years the Cleveland Presbyterians carried on a Sunday afternoon ministry there, and Mr. Ashford was the lay preacher. Two ladies, Mrs. Annie Fair Smith and Mrs. Mary Laura Barbour, went along to play an old snaggle-toothed piano. We boys would carry in refreshments and help with other small duties. The inmates sang gospel hymns lustily. I always marveled that even though they must have done something terrible to be where they were, they knew the old hymns by heart, for there were no songbooks in the big un-air-conditioned assembly room where we gathered. After the singing was done, we all settled back for one of Mr. Ashford’s sermonic expositions, which sounded much like the ones he gave to our Sunday School class.
The day I remember best was the time we accidentally left one of the younger boys behind. He lived to tell about it and was very proud of the whole incident.
Christianity can survive without the Sunday School. Nowadays we are sophisticated enough to think that once in a while we can step one foot off the straight and narrow and safely find our way back. But most of us learned what the straight and narrow is from places like the Sunday School.
What if we had not learned where the old paths lie? Most of the prisoners in our jails have no Mr. Ashford to show them the way.
Think about that next Sunday about 9:30 a.m., and while you’re at it, say a prayer of thanksgiving for your Mr. Ashford. 
 Few members at the posh Second Church now in such magnificent buildings on Poplar Avenue East in Memphis would remember or be glad that their church long ago was in the old neighborhood below Peabody Place near the railroad station in downtown Memphis. When they built that building at the corner of Pontotoc and Hernando Streets, they had trouble paying for it, and so in 1894 they had to get Dr. T.W. Raymond, the energetic minister-evangelist at the Holly Springs Presbyterian Church to come and preach for them to raise the needed money, which he did, and did most successfully—but I digress from my digression. This is the church at Pontotoc and Hernando, now Claiborne Temple.
 Carlton R. Ashford passed away February 12, 1998 in Cleveland, Mississippi, at the age of 91. He was buried from the First Presbyterian Church, where he had been an elder for many years.
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