If you felt I was excited about becoming Chaplain for the Fire Department, you guessed correctly. Some of my fondest memories have the GFD imprint on it. Firefighters are, understandably, some of the best cooks (and eaters) in the world! At the time, we had sixteen stations in Greensboro, three shifts, 365 days a year. And they invited me to have lunch on a regular schedule with them! If I counted correctly, that was free food (good, and lots of it), at least once a week for forty eight weeks! I taught those guys how to play table tennis in “off hours,” and chess. They may dispute who the teacher was. But, “legend in my own mind” that I am, there really is no doubt!
The first official responsibility I had, as Chaplain was to offer an invocation at the organizational meeting of a newly formed union of Firefighters. Right. Now, I didn’t fall off the turnip truck coming into town a couple days ago. I know about Unions and Management. But I had this feeling in my Church that I was Pastor of the entire body. Those who liked me. Those who didn’t. I was their servant. Same thing about the Department. I felt as if I belonged to all the Department, “labor and management.” They’d asked me to be their Chaplain. So I went. And offered the invocation.
In all honesty, there wasn’t anything noteworthy about that. And no fist fights broke out in the meeting hall that night. One young fellow, particularly, stood out and was recognized as the “honcho.” He could get stuff done. The infant organization elected him right away as their new President. Somewhere about that same time, “higher-ups” in the administration recognized some talent and started courting and cultivating it. Before long, the young ‘firebrand’ was tapped for leadership, and rose steadily in the ranks of the Officers until he held the top office: Frank Jones, Chief, GFD! That night was the first time I met him.
At the meeting that evening I was introduced to a lot of the Firefighters. Another whom I remember didn’t really “stand out” immediately. In fact, I can’t even remember for sure whether he introduced himself at the Oaks conference room that night. However, the next day was Wednesday and I went to my study as usual to prepare for the mid-week service I’d be conducting later that day. Somewhere about mid-morning, the telephone rang, and on the line was a gentleman who said he’d met me the night before. At the Union Organizing meeting. He told me he was Ted Weeks. And he wanted to talk. He really wanted to talk with me. Could I arrange that sometime soon? Although he sounded concerned and convincing, I didn’t know at the time just how concerned he was.
I said, “sure,” and we met about an hour later at a local Ice Cream parlor.
He would not be insulted if I told you he looked bad. Really bad. Used. Tired. He really looked beaten down. Big old barrel chest. Frazzled. That’s it. He looked frazzled. And unkempt. Worry creased his brow and was evident in his voice. With what looked like a Fu Manchu mustache, he looked the part of an “old timey” motorcycle gang member.
We got a booth in the back and he ordered a milkshake. I wasn’t too concerned in those days about my waistline. I really liked hot fudge sundaes and we sat for a while, just talking. It became apparent almost immediately that Ted’s interest wasn’t in the milkshake. He needed to be free to talk and he didn’t need to be doing that in a public place. So I suggested that we go for a ride.
I don’t really remember where we went, how long, or how far we drove. But Ted opened his heart to me that morning. By his admission, he was in a deep mess. His world was caving in. Drinking had taken him by the snout and was leading him around. My Father was an alcoholic, so I didn’t need to ask details. As he wept freely at times, he didn’t hold back any punches. He was at the edge of losing his job. He was about to lose his family (Pat later told me she had her things packed, and she and little Tim were edging toward the exit.). Beyond that, he’d lost himself. He said that himself, clearly, unmistakably.
After a while we found ourselves out in the parking lot at the Church. I said, “Ted, it sounds to me as if you need to let Christ into your life. Is that right?”
He said, “Yes.” So we went then into the sanctuary, and sat down front in a pew. As clearly as I could, I told him about how we’d all sinned. Every one of us. And there wasn’t a thing we could do about that problem. The path we’d chosen was going to lead to death, sooner or later. Not just physical death. Spiritual death. But Jesus Christ had taken our guilt on himself when He died on the Cross. And, if we believed that, and asked for forgiveness, he would save us. He would forgive us, clean us up, and make us new. That was why people called this transaction being “born again.”
He said he believed what I had just told him. We knelt and I led him in a little prayer, since it didn’t seem like that was his ‘shtick” at the time. He was a pretty quick learner, and soon he said some things on his own. We said both said “amen” and got up.
Before he left, I asked if I could tell him a couple more things which would help “seal” his decision. When he said “o.k.,” I told him God doesn’t usually have “secret agents” or undercover disciples. Christ wants us to make public declaration of our loyalty. I had a hunch someone had been praying for him. He hadn’t just popped into my life by accident. Assuming that was the case, I suggested that he call that person and tell them what he’d just done. It would serve two purposes: (1.) It would probably thrill the person who’d been praying for him, and (2.) It would be a pretty simple, effective way of confirming in his own mind the decision he’d made. It was a very simple way to “fix” it in his own mind.
The second suggestions I made was that, as soon as possible, he should go find himself a good Church, and get involved. Learn what it is to worship, and grow. Learn about “fellowship” and Bible study. That will be good for you, but it will also be an encouragement to others who try to follow Christ. We need each other.
With that thought and prayer, I went back to my study to finish preparation for the Mid-week prayer and Bible Study. At the time, it didn’t occur to me that the tragedy of Jesse Gray’s death would set in motion a chain of events which was beginning to unfold that soon after the accident. Sure, I’d probably quoted Romans 8:28 sometime during my attempt to minister to heartbroken friends and family. And, very frequently I quoted Joseph’s statement in Genesis 50:20 in funeral services I conducted or when I tried to help anyone who was dealing with hardship which seemed to have no reason and certainly no good outcome. But, at that time with tragedy still fresh in my mind, I could see no connection between what had happened to my friend, Jesse, and what was taking place right in front of me, before my very eyes.
Little do I know.
God’s servant, your friend, brother, and fellow student ~donkimrey