In 1971, our little country church had to find a new pastor. Our previous minister, Reverend Hawley, had served faithfully for eight years, but one drizzly Sunday in May he stepped into the pulpit to inform us that with deep regret he was moving on. He felt a call from God, he said, and after much prayer and reflection he decided that it was God’s will for him to make a change. It was obviously one of God’s more convienent directives, for a week later Reverend Hawley packed up his family and drove the 23 miles to nearby Gretna, Virginia and its larger, more prosperous congregation.
Truth be told, not everyone was sad to see Reverend Hawley go. His nearly hour long sermons posed severe challenges to attention spans and posteriors, and it was not unusual for his homilies to be drowned out by the loud growls and gurgles of stomachs in dire need of lunch. But the fact that he moved to Gretna was considered by several congregants an in-your-face sort of move. The Gretna Hawks were our arch rivals in high school football, and now it would likely be Mr. Hawley’s voice bellowing out the pre-game prayer over the school’s P.A. system. We hadn’t beaten the Hawks --who seemed to get bigger and more athletic every year-- since the Eisenhower administration, and Pastor Hawley’s turncoat defection was seen as a symbol of the squad’s irresistible and continuing dominance. Didn’t those snobs in Gretna have enough advantages? Now they had to steal our preacher too. We may not have wanted him, but we sure didn’t want THEM to have him.
Over the ensuing months. our church tested out a number of possible replacements. There was a frail, ancient gentleman from Emporia whose vibrant and handsome resume portrait turned out to be off by several decades. Although his trial sermon was delivered in a weak, quivery voice, it at least made sense for the first ten minutes or so. Then he seemed to lose his train of thought and began to recount a trip he’d taken to Miami Beach as a child. While I personally found this digression interesting, it was a story with no apparent relevance to those seeking Christian inspiration.
Thinking we should go in the opposite direction, our next applicant was a wet-behind-the-ears, newly minted graduate of the seminary in Raleigh. Again, his audition went reasonably well in the early going, but he slowly began to work odd, nonsensical words into his monologue. The pattern increased until by sermon’s end at least fifty percent of his verbiage consisted of strange guttural yowls and yelps.
After the service, several congregants approached the young man to inquire as to the origins of his exotic oratory. Beaming, he announced that since his boyhood he’d been blessed with the gift of tongues and that he simply had no control over it. He said that today he believed that he’d been speaking an ancient Summerian dialect, but he wasn’t sure and, frankly, since it was a gift from God, he’d learned that his ability was not to be questioned or examined too closely. He then uttered a loud “Wila-huw-tu-croom!” for emphasis.
The following Wednesday, the Search Committee convened to discuss the young man’s application and a lively debate erupted. Several members pointed to his charismatic outpourings as evidence of the young man’s deep connection to God. But my father, the committee chairman and ever the pragmatist, was not convinced, and admitted he found the candidate's esoteric speech “creepy”. My father ultimately won the day with a brilliant assertion of logic, asking the committee to imagine the young man conducting a somber funeral, complete with weeping spouse and children, and suddenly breaking into a spasm of gibberish. After a few moments of sober reflection, the committee agreed with my father and resolved to submit the young man’s resume to the church’s growing circular file.
My father, who was a tender-hearted soul, hated writing rejection letters and suggested that the trial sermons be put on hold until a truly worthy candidate emerged. He asked each committee member to imagine the ideal minister, and pray that God help them find a person with those exact qualities. Immediately, Uncle Larry proclaimed that the perfect preacher would have at least three large boys of high school age who knew how to block and tackle. And if one of them could also throw a tight spiral 70 yards, so much the better. While his comments evoked a few chuckles, they were made only partially in jest, as the local football team had suffered an abysmal season, their only win coming against the perpetually inept Bulldogs of Brunswick High.
Uncle Larry’s description proved prophetic when a few weeks later my father got a long distance phone call --a very big deal in those days-- from a man in Raleigh. He identified himself as William Willis, and inquired if the minister’s position at our church was still available. He said the he had been a seminary instructor of the young man who had recently been rejected, and had heard about the opening from him. My father liked Mr. Willis’ personality and cool, clear diction on the phone, but the idea of another one of those unconventional Raleigh preachers made him queasy. Respecting Mr. Willis’ long distance bill, my father cut to chase:
“Well let me ask you this, do you speak in tongues or anything like that?”
Mr. Willis, suppressing a chuckle, told my father that he was familiar with the young man’s “unique qualities”, but that his approach to preaching the gospel was generally more traditional and from a less dramatic perspective. He then explained to my father that he had served as a career chaplain in the Army, and during that time had been stationed all over the world. Recently retired, he took the teaching job at the seminary as a sort of transition while he figured out what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. He had found education unsatisfying, and was looking for a small country church where he could “reconnect with the basics.”
My father then made it clear that the position was far from lucrative, and that a man with a family might find it hard to make ends meet. Mr. Willis responded that he was not concerned about the money, that his Army pension would help “fill in the gaps,” He then stated that he was married with two children: a 15 year old girl who was a straight A student and a 17 year old boy he and his wife had adopted in Panama. The boy played quarterback for a high school in Raleigh and was hoping for an athletic scholarship to Wake Forest University.
My father was ready to sign Mr. Willis on the spot, but decided that, in the interest of prudence, he should ask Mr. Willis to come and preach a trial sermon the following Sunday. Mr. Willis responded that he would be delighted, and then gave my father the the title of his sermon so it could be printed up in the bulletin. My quite excited father told Mr. Willis that he was looking forward to Sunday’s sermon, and he would make sure the church would be filled for the event.
“I’m excited too,” exclaimed Mr. Willis. He then went on, “Now there’s a few things I’ll need. If you guys could get me a couple of big snakes and maybe a virgin that would be great.”
To which he quickly added, “I’m kidding Mr. Anderson,”
to be continued