We are all characters. Surely someone thinks of us and chuckles. The tone of our voice, the shape of our body, the color of our hair, our mannerisms, our mistakes, the way we laugh, there is something about all of us that makes us memorable. When I write about the characters that made up the early cast of Lantana Road Baptist Church I do not mean to poke fun or demean. Trust me, as I write the paragraphs I smile, often chuckling about the way we were. I confess that in many ways I too am a character in the plot of many. I have been laughed at and am a big part of many exaggerated stories told. There are plenty of impersonations of me. I do not mean harm in any of this. I mean only to share the characters of my story, some of the people who have made it interesting. People who still make me laugh.
The first minster of music I served with was still considered a young guy, but he was still several years older than I. Not surprising since I was still young enough that insurance would not allow me to drive Baby Blue for two more years. If the pastor planned an outing, according to State Farm he still needed a chaperone. Though our music minister was still a young fellow, he would soon surpass what Southerners generally consider "marrying age", thus he was incessantly pressured by the church, but remained a bachelor with no prospects. He always smiled but never looked me in the eye. I never could figure him out and he never figured me out. He wore thick glasses and had a distinct cadence to his speech that made him curious to hear. No matter the rhythm of the song, he directed everything as if it were in 1/1 time which worked well for the normally sluggishly performed 4/4 hymn. But that would not do for me. I wanted something with speed. I wanted the choir to sing something that wasn’t in the hymnal. He tried, but beating time in 1/1 for the typical hoot nanny Southern Gospel number made him look like he was trying to fan out a fire rather than trying to start one (which is what I wanted). Once the song service ended he would sit in the center of the front pew for a breather. He would open his Bible and stare at the floor, again, not once did he ever look me in the eye. Every few minutes he would do the most curious thing I will never forget. Ever slowly he would raise the index finger of his right hand toward his face, carefully taking aim at his thick glasses. The motion was methodical, calculated, as if he were a sniper with only one shot. Eventually his finger would make it to his glasses and with his eyes crossed he would press them back against his face. I never laughed though I found it funny. I just preached. I think I was a total aggravation to him, which is not my intent. It would not be long until he quit and I would take my rookie lap at another typical pastoral duty, search for staff.
Just behind our music minister sat a Vietnam Vet named Cliff. Cliff’s wife died several years before I arrived. The deacons told me that after she was gone Cliff was never quite the same. He rarely bathed, was a heavy smoker, and constantly drank coffee. He wore the same suit almost every Sunday and emanated an odor that I would liken only to the French Quarter of New Orleans in the morning. He had a terrible sore to the left of his nose that never healed. He would pick at it constantly as I preached. If he was not picking at his sore Cliff was giving himself a manicure. I’m not sure where he smuggled it all in, whether in his pocket or his Bible, but Cliff would have a nice set of metal tools that allowed for him to not only trim his nails but also file them. His nails were thick which meant that when it came time for his manicure I would have to ramp up my sermon to overcome the incessant clicking and popping of the clippers conquering Cliff’s nails. Each severed shard of nail would leave his hand like a bullet. Some of them landed near the pulpit, many in his Bible, others three rows back, and the rest only God knows where. A year or so into my ministry the head deacon and I were finally allowed to visit Cliff’s home. He had been stacking newspapers throughout his house since the day his wife died. There were hundreds if not thousands of them in massive piles. The piles formed a maze of catacombs from the kitchen to his living room and back into the bedrooms. It was one of the saddest things I have ever seen. Cliff was eventually taken to a permanent VA care facility. He died a few years later a forgotten hero of a conflict that victimized many men America failed to appreciate.
I have lots of favorites throughout these first 15, but one of my all time favorites is Steve Delozier. Steve lived with his widowed mother Ivalene. Ivalene was a seventy something year old Southern Belle with all the charm and cooking skills. She was a transplant from Knoxville who lived on Lake Tansi. She was the queen of the rose. She was gentle but opinionated, soft spoken but pointed, frail but full of fire. Steve was probably in his fifties. He was short with grey hair and a manicured mustache. He had a distinct look about him. His mind never left childhood. Steve either liked you or he was done with you, forever. The good news is that Steve liked me. Ivalene had us over to eat often and to take a ride on her pontoon boat. Steve would talk our ear off. There is no way I can mimic his tone and voice in writing, but he began every statement with either “You know what”, “I tell you what”, or his favorite, “You won’t believe it.” Every morning he walked down to the boat dock to feed the fish and every Sunday he would tell me what he saw.
“Brian, you won’t believe it.”
“You won’t believe it. I saw a big one, right over there.” Though we were standing in the gravel parking lot of the church Steve would point to the right or the left as if we were standing on the dock and I could see what he saw three days ago.
“Are you serious Steve?”
“It was huuuuuge, bout like ‘at.” Steve would give me the dimensions with his hands. He would then shake my hand and crush it. Steve was weak in mind but God gave him an incredible amount of grip strength. Very few of the ladies in church ever shook hands with Steve, but we all heard his fish tales.
So there we were in God’s mower shed, burning hot; me preaching and everyone listening to a bad sermon on an even worse sound system. I was the 23 year old clueless preacher with a thick Georgia brogue. On the front row the music minister took cross eyed aim at his glasses. Cliff gave himself a manicure. Steve patiently waited through my sermons with his arm around his mother but always looking left. Uncle Roy and Aunt Geneva listened proudly to their nephew preach. After 45 minutes Uncle Roy beginning to grow nervous that I would never finish and that he wouldn’t have time to fish. Jenny, the now former pulpit chair listened to what I had to say, probably wondering what in the world she had done. The kids who came in on Baby Blue fidgeted and fumbled the whole service like all church kids do. To the left were Bob and Edie Petty. Edie knew far more about the Bible than I did. Bob was a huge man with some health issues but somehow still managed to work long hours at Ace hardware. Edie’s job was to check the facts of my sermon and to keep Bob awake. I never managed. There were others, Donnie and Carrie, Jenny and Samantha, Melanie and Donald, Roy and Teresa, Clay and Bobbie, Sherry and Rodger, Josh, Keith, Phyllis, Renee and Charlie, Bud and Wilma, Jeff and Debbie, Matt, Sheena, Helen, Mary, Lavanda, Clint, Adam, L.B. and Lorene, Bruce and Denise, Connie, Jason, Crystal, Mary Jo, and another Betty or two. I know I am surely forgetting someone, but in those early days there were not many more of us there from week to week. We were a comedic cast of worshipers in God’s mower shed, but something was happening. God was honoring something in and about this rag tag cast. It was not long until I figured out what it was. The congregation’s eldest member and statesman was about to tell me. L.B. McClain paid me a visit.
I was about to find out what God (and everybody else) was up to on Lantana Road.