For me the best time of the year is autumn. The church sits in a valley and the pine needles and leaves, roll down the driveway and pile against the perimeter fence in back. Birds and squirrels rummage through the pile, collecting bugs and nuts. On alternating Saturdays, one of the Deacons would come by to blow and bag the autumn collection. For a few days, the birds and squirrels go elsewhere to shop for their groceries and the sweet smell of mowed grass, weeds, and late blooming flowers fill our little valley.
An assortment of nuts returns with the leaf debris. Sometimes I will walk the ground, and pick pecans from the debris. Squirrels accompany me on this meditation walk. They dart about lifting up leaves and checking to see if the pecan trees are dropping their fruit. This is the best time of year!
One Thursday as the setting sun colored the western sky orange. I was picking up pecans that had fallen on the churchyard. Daniel rode a shiny mountain bike into my comfortable little valley.
“Pastor Richardson,” he shouted and rode closer. “Pastor Richardson, can I go on the trip with the other youths?”
I knew Daniel because his sisters were members of the church. He seldom came to church services. But, his younger sisters are regular participants in youth activities. He climbed off the bike and stood less than a yard in front of me. His body and bike blocked my forward movement and access to the scores of pecans lying near the fence. The squirrels were stuffing their cheeks and running up trees with their harvest. They would stop on a branch, look down, and laugh.
“If we have any room, you can. You will need twenty dollars and it must be ok with your mother,” I said, dryly to him. Maybe now he would move so I could get back to harvesting my nuts. There were still enough pecans in front of me to fill up my Braves cap.
“Cool,” he said, then stuffed his pockets with pecans and rode off.
Sullenly, I hoped that he would not get the money or permission to go on the trip.
Daniel did not stir within me a desire to be a caring and understanding pastor. He mostly moved me to stand taller and smile less. My intention was to let him know I was the alpha dog in the pack. The twenty dollars or his mother’s permission, I thought would save me from saying no to him. He is not disrespectful to adults, nor did he bully the children. However, he is older than my youth group, whose ages range from twelve and under. I did not want the additional task of monitoring his behavioral quirks on this trip.
Two weeks later as I was mopping the floor in the fellowship hall, Danny stopped by. “Here’s my money,” he said, knocking and entering the closed door at the same time. “And this is for my sisters.” He playfully slapped the money in my hand and walked over to the water cooler.
As the day of the trip grew closer, my anxiety level was rising. Two of the chaperones had to drop out. I was scrambling to find replacements. The day before the trip, I had to speak with Danny about the language and loudness of his music when he was on the church grounds. He debated with me until I told him if he brought that type of music on the trip, he would not be allowed to go. My attitude had reached the testy stage. That night I asked the Lord to make this a fun and safe trip for the children.
He heard my prayer.
When I arrived at the church at six-thirty that morning Daniel and his sister were waiting. By seven-thirty, we were traveling up I 75 to the amusement park. More than a few times, I turned around to see if Daniel was behaving appropriately. He was either asleep or looking out the window. At the park, some of the children would not turn me loose, but Daniel came to my rescue. He rode with them on rides and helped me keep them all together. After lunch, we talked about his future. He wanted to join the Air Force and work on planes. We talked and ate with all the other children hanging on. I was glad he came. On the return trip, he sat beside me and I thanked him for his help.
After the trip, he began coming to church regularly. He helped the Deacons with chores and joined the choir. Sometimes he would ask about a book I was reading, his questions were so insightful that I eventually loaned him books. We talked about him attending a Bible college after graduation.
Fall had come again and we were picking up pecans off the yard when he told me he had enlisted in the Air Force. I looked long and deep into his eyes and then place a hand on his shoulder and prayed that God would protect him. (I’m going to miss him.) Afterward, I poured my pecans into his bag and we went inside the church to help the Deacons.
For Christmas, I got a card from Danny. He included a note about how he was doing. He ended the note by saying I was his pastor. I closed my eyes and thanked God for calling me to this church.
(I wrote this in 2008 and Danny came by to visit me in 2017. He was married with a child, living in Virginia. We talked and he reminded me that wherever he goes, I’m still his pastor)