The Sunday before Thanksgiving, we went to a funeral for a dear old man from our church. I wanted to write out a few more thoughts, for posterity or something, but I realized that these reflections would need to be framed by a fair amount of context. So, again, at the risk of being autobiographical ...
I started at Georgia Tech in the Fall of 1995. Having grown up in church, I knew that I needed to find a place to worship. New to Atlanta, I had no idea where to start. After a fairly uncomfortable experience with a cult-like group my first week at school, I ran into some folks from First Baptist Atlanta (they were much nicer than the cult guys). Around the same time, the college pastor back home put me in touch with Campus Crusade, and the first people I met from that group happened to worship at First Baptist. So, the first church I visited in Atlanta was FBA, which was conveniently located mere blocks from Georgia Tech.
Attending a Baptist church was fairly uncharted territory to me. I grew up in the United Methodist Church. (As a sidenote: I discovered in college that the UMC has a reputation for being a bunch of flaming liberals. Amazingly, I never knew this while growing up! I think my ignorance is due to the fact that my parents' church is part of the conservative Confessing Movement within the UMC.) I had visited a few Baptist churches before, and Dad grew up Baptist, but mostly, all I really knew about Baptists was what I heard in jokes told from Methodist pulpits. But, the unknown turned out to be pretty cool. The college department at FBA was really big and very diverse -- now, they truly did have a good program going, but the walking-distance proximity to campus certainly didn't hurt! Charles Stanley's preaching was pretty good, and there were plenty of great things going on within the life of the church (including a vibrant outreach to internationals). Somehow, I managed to get involved playing guitar with the college worship team, which was also a good experience. So maybe this Baptist thing wasn't such a big deal.
Then it happened. By the time I arrived, FBA had already opened a campus in the northern suburbs of Atlanta. Dr. Stanley began splitting his time between the two locations, and then he began preaching exclusively up north. Like most urban areas, the population of Atlanta had shifted away from downtown, and FBA ultimately decided to abandon the downtown location during my sophomore year. Although the new site made more sense for most of the congregation, the college ministry was left in a crunch. We had always realized that the closeness to Tech (as well as other nearby campuses) provided a great opportunity, and leaving did not seem like the best option. Unbeknownst to me, key folks within the college group were already scouting out the area in search of a potential new church home.
One morning, the college department had a special guest from a nearby church. His name was Tommy, and immediately, he seemed like a pretty interesting guy. He recounted his experiences from the Navy during WWII, and how they led to his conversion to Christ. His church had stayed downtown in the midst of the exodus to the suburbs, and he had a tremendous passion to see a Christian presence at Georgia Tech and the surrounding area. His church was also dying out, quite literally. He extended an invitation to the college students to become part of his church once the doors of FBA's downtown location closed for the last time. Most of us took him up on the offer.
West Merritts Baptist Church was like nothing I had experienced before. Despite the denominational differences, First Baptist Atlanta was very much like my parents' church: it was a megachurch, complete with a semi-famous preacher, televised services, and no shortage of activities, ministries and outreaches. WMBC, however, was tiny and traditional. I'm not even sure where to start in describing it. Maybe with the name, which didn't make any sense, as the church was on State Street. (I later found out that the previous building was a couple of miles away, on Merritts Avenue.) Just prior to the influx of the college group, the congregation consisted of a couple dozen or so elderly individuals, with a handful of younger folks thrown in the mix. Worship music was accompanied by either the organ or piano. The entire building was fairly simple, and the sanctuary was sparsely-adorned, although a copy of the old-school "Church Covenant" was prominently displayed. The existing congregation had unwavering commitments to several Baptist distinctives (official or otherwise), including baptism by full immersion only and total abstinence from drinking. Any form of dancing was also viewed with suspicion, if not complete disapproval. Talk about culture shock.
However, my initial impression to WMBC was immensely positive. Tommy and his wife Marlene were just two of the many surrogate grandparents who warmly received our ragtag group of college students. To ease the transition, our college ministry director stepped up as the interim pastor of WMBC, and the director of international ministries joined the staff of WMBC to continue outreach to the campuses. First Baptist blessed the transition and provided a great deal of resources to help us get started. These were not without peril, though. I very distinctly remember how scandalous the introduction of a drum kit to the sanctuary was. But overall, the existing WMBC congregation was willing to adapt to many of the changes that we brought into the mix. And to our credit (at the risk of bragging), the worship leaders tried to strike a balance by keeping many of the older hymns beloved by the congregation, while still playing songs for college students. We were doing "blended worship" way before it became trendy!
I am still impressed by how willing Tommy and Marlene (and others, too) were to accommodate us. Not only did they tolerate these new guitar-driven songs, they learned them and sang them with gusto. They truly supported the mission of the church, even when it challenged their preferences. Out of their love for the students, they embraced many changes. Yet, and I appreciate this more and more now, they were steadfast on certain issues of utmost importance. The Gospel of Jesus was the core thing around which everything else must revolve, and the Bible provided the standard by which all things must be evaluated. These foundational tenets were not up for debate. Tommy supported evangelistic efforts in countless ways, and one of his sons is a missionary to places as remote as Tanzania and the Ukraine. Tommy was also a longtime member of the Gideons, driven by a desire to get God's word into as many hands as possible. Even in areas where he drew the line differently than others, it was refreshing to see a man willing to stand firm on principles rather than surrender to a fuzzy form of "tolerance." Tommy knew how to distinguish between beliefs that were open for discussion and ones that were necessarily inflexible.
Tommy loved his church. When the church moved from Merritts Avenue back in the 60's, Tommy was part of the planning and construction of the new building. He had over 40 years of PERFECT Sunday School attendance. He served as a deacon (which, in Baptist-speak, really means "elder") for over fifty years, as chairman for almost all of them. Pretty much every time the church doors were open, Tommy was there. He and Marlene also faithfully visited the infirmed and shut-in from our congregation, often planning their vacations to incorporate visitations into the itinerary. For a few years in the recent past, we referred to our church as "West Marrieds," and Tommy and Marlene certainly went to a lot of weddings in that span. Countless activities in the life of the church were graced by Tommy and Marlene's attendance.
There are many other aspects of Tommy's life that I could recount. Like the many church work days (before his health really began to decline) where he worked so hard that he made the college kids look like lazy bums. Or the way he and Marlene would keep you at their house until midnight, playing dominoes after dinner. Or how he would always proclaim that "the good guys won yesterday" during Sunday morning announcements following a Tech football victory. Or the hand-made stools that he built for each couple from our church as a wedding gift. Or how he loved to play golf (even in his declining health, he managed to play a round when he and Marlene came down to south Alabama for our wedding three years ago). Or how he loved to sing about his Savior, with visits to Tommy and Marlene's frequently involving the breaking-out of their old set of hymnals.
The list of my own recollections could keep going, and that would not even scrape the surface of the memories held by the great number of folks who knew Tommy much longer and more intimately than I. His funeral truly was the celebration of a life well-lived in God's service, and the ceremony was overflowing with family and friends who have been deeply impacted through the years. It was also a proclamation of the Gospel that Tommy so deeply believed and lived. (Tommy had even expressed his wishes that his funeral take place on a Sunday, and in God's providence, it did.) As our pastor remarked, part of our mourning at Tommy's passing comes from the knowledge that we can no longer make new memories with him. However, we do not grieve as those without hope, and instead, we entrust his soul to his Creator, who will one day make all things new. Until then, our memories of Tommy serve to encourage us and provide us with an example of someone who truly sought to honor his Lord in every aspect of life.