Picture: Sunday evening, 11/1/14 at my Pastoral Installation Service for First Southern Baptist Church, Bellflower
I remember that Sunday Morning in September (2014) like it was yesterday. I’m standing in the front row as the congregation stands to sing. Al hugged me and whispered in my ear, “No matter what happens, brother, we got your back.” Was someone going to physically attack me? No. But Al knew what I didn’t. I was preaching at First Southern Baptist Church (in Bellflower, Southeast Los Angeles). The church would have a meeting immediately after the service to vote on whether to call me as their pastor. I sensed tension. Al knew there was. Not physical attack, thankfully. But there would be spiritual attacks that day and in the months to come. Al knew that. And now I knew, no matter what happened, Al had my back.
And he did. Whether it was receiving godly or godless criticism, he was praying for me, encouraging me, smiling at me, and telling me how thankful he was that God sent me to pastor our church. Al was a deacon the Lord knew his local church needed: willing to serve, slow to complain, working for unity, yet not lending an ear as fertile ground for unedifying back talk.
He had my back in other ways as well. He was a faithful church member. He made his presence and attendance at church meetings a priority in his life. I could count on seeing him on Wednesday evenings and Sunday mornings and evenings. His consistent presence gave me constant courage. Showing up is more than half the ministry so his ministry excelled. Not only his ministry to me but his ministry to the rest of our church fam. He applied the sermons. He and his wife Jean were making their way through reading the whole Bible from Genesis to Revelation for the first time in his life. They were in Deuteronomy. He would talk about texts and details he never read before and how interesting and edifying it was to read God’s Words with his wife. He was in love with Jean, his wife of 53 years. He would always speak glowingly of her. With a twinkle in his eye and a smile he couldn’t contain he’d say to another young husband in our church, “We have to be the two luckiest guys in the church. We both married the woman of our dreams.” He challenged me by his example to be a better husband.
On Mondays we’d have breakfast at Denny’s. He loved his biscuits and gravy. But he wouldn’t do it without me. He wanted that dish often. I did too, but I wanted both of us to be more health conscious. So I made a deal with him that we should only do it on the first Monday of the month. I always hoped he’d forget. But, without fail, on the first Monday of the month, he’d give me the look with a grin. I’d nod and say, “Alright Al, let’s do it.” I’m glad I didn’t turn those Monday breakfasts into discussing my pastoral agenda. I was tempted to. But God led me to just shoot the breeze with the brothers and discuss whatever they wanted to bring up (which often led to church matters, but not always).
Al was with me in the trenches as we sought to reform our Los Angeles Southern Baptist Association. He even brought Jean to one of our infamous and contentious quarterly meetings! He was in disbelief with what he saw from pastors in the November 2014 meeting. He was equally resolved to pray, encourage, and support me as I led our church to take actions to help reform the association. Eventually God brought about our much needed change. This happened, in part, because Al had my back.
Al and I talked about many things. My favorite topic was his dad. My question was always the same, “What can I do as a son, given my current responsibilities, to relate to my dad in ways that I won’t regret when he passes away?” I see this fear of regret forthcoming if the Lord takes my dad first. Al would always tear up when talking about his dad. He was clearly Al’s best friend and mentor. He encouraged me to enjoy the moments I have with my dad as much as possible. He taught me that I’ll never completely heal from my dad’s passing.
No one greeted others as warmly or with as much love as Brother Al. He was gifted and called by God to greet members and visitors who came to our Sunday gatherings. The love of God from heaven above would fill Al and be channeled through him to those he talked to. And Al would always have more to say so the conversations never got awkwardly silent.
Al was one of the most enthusiastic members pushing me to move the church toward health. He gave his opinion when he had one and then would often say, “Whatever seems good to you, brother, is ok with me.” He knew our church’s desperate situation. He saw the danger our church was in when many members missed it. We still have a long way to go, but these first 17 months have gone better than I imagined because Al was willing to stand with me in criticism and in pushing forward in hard situations when it was the right time. This is true of many members, but it is still worth saying about Al specifically: First Southern Baptist Church would not be as healthy as it is right now, and on the trajectory toward health that it’s on, without Al. I can give many more reasons for this but this blog post is already getting too long and I have 2 more things to mention.
We would pray for our members weekly at our pastor-deacons’ meeting. In our last meeting, on March 14th, in our prayer rotation Al prayed for a young married couple in our church that just recently came back. He paused. He sniffled. Then, wiping a tear he said, “Lord, thank you for bringing them back to our church. I just missed them so much.” I was stunned. I know Al loved our members. I knew he cared more than most. But tears of gratitude that God brought a couple back as active members? Wow. I was blessed, humbled, and rebuked all at the same time. God met me in that moment through my brother.
Lastly, I want you know that Al, like his wife, was constantly marked by gratitude. “In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you” (1 Thess 5.18). He would mention in almost every prayer he prayed, at Monday breakfasts, Monday pastor-deacon meetings, or Sunday night prayer meetings: “Father, thank you for our salvation. And thank you for our wonderful church family.”
Thank you brother for all you’ve done for the glory our Lord Jesus and for the final salvation of the many. Your labor was not in vain (1 Corinthians 15.58). We, who are in Christ Jesus, will see you sooner than we realize. I will take the gospel torch you carried and faithfully run my course. See you soon, dear brother.