Chapter 1 -- The Committee Meeting
Leach Street Presbyterian Church grew large, as so many southern churches did, in the 1950s. It added a wing for a pre-school, then a fellowship hall, and finally a gymnasium. The original structure dated from 1879, when large beige stones and square towers were deemed the only style for proper worship. The Leach Street sanctuary nestled comfortably among its dozen or so oak and pecan trees, and until the church’s membership became avid addicts of modern air conditioning, the annual church picnic was held under the trees’ approving branches on an expansive lawn. Then the church ladies moved the event into the fellowship hall, and except for the little boys who insisted on eating their hotdogs under a spreading magnolia tree, the congregation lost both the ambience and friendliness of the grounds. For decades, the congregation’s newly baptized babies had cooed in its grasses, its children hid and sought among its box shrubs, and its teenagers sneaked kisses in the shadows of its high walls. Soon they strolled soberly up its red, carpeted aisle in pairs, gazed at the rose window’s twinkling light on the minister’s white head, and took their sacred vows. Within a year or two, each couple began the cycle anew, and thus Leach Street Presbyterian expanded its membership by using the method that is gently called “family evangelism.” Unlike other southern churches, now dwindled into empty wings and rusting gyms, Leach Street reached so prominent a size in so few years that it catapulted past the recent decline in church attendance, and now has an active membership of over 350, with 200 faithful worshipers. The buildings are paid for, the pastor has salary enough to satisfy his wife’s need for shoes and has bought his own home, and the old church manse is used to house Leach Street’s associate pastor, Mr. Reginald Heeler.
A mere assistant at so large a church ought not to be mentioned so early in our narrative, but Mr. Heeler is worth noting. He is an up-and-coming young man, lately from the elevated seminary in Atlanta and fresh from his first slim work in a country church. Mr. Heeler feels his upward movement. He stands tall and strides quietly through the streets of his new town, nodding to parishioners in a somber way. His dark, wavy hair endeared him immediately to the young women of the congregation. Mr. Heeler is not a fussy man, but he is meticulous about his clothing. He begins each day with a suit, greets the afternoon with a change into a sport coat, and invariably relaxes into his evening with a golf shirt and a pipe. He has never played golf but feels the shirts give the right impression and may prompt an invitation. He is an ambitious man, with a gleaming eye and a ready handshake. And although, dear readers, I cannot approve entirely of his ladder-climbing tendencies, I must concede that Reginald Heeler is not a greedy man. He is not a lecherous man. And in spite of his one flaw, a twitch that makes his left eye wink involuntarily, the maidens of Leach Street are safe from him for the present. He has one desire, and that is the pulpit in the sanctuary, complete with its ancient Bible, its black robe and the mystic sunlight streaming through the rose window. But Mr. Heeler is a patient man. He is happy in his post. Knowing that he sleeps each night beneath the rafters that once sheltered the snoring patriarchs of so grand a church as Leach Street, gives him satisfaction. Indeed he and the present pastor, Dr. Cloudee, share a driveway with only the slimmest of grassy patches between their homes. Both men feel the proximity keenly.
The remainder of Dr. Cloudee’s staff at the church consists of humble, hard-working folk who desire to serve God’s kingdom. Their diligence has produced the increased population of his flock. They mow the grass upon which the babies loll, and clean the carpet upon which the young couples process. They type their pastor’s sermons and fetch his coffee. He appreciates particularly his director of music and worship, Mr. Shrilling. He and Dr. Cloudee meet almost daily to discuss the music. And although the pastor may not resonate forth the truth as an Apollo, his musical assistant in these holy services has the gifts of Orpheus. Indeed, when the sermon is likely to reduce a few worshipers into light slumber, and yes, even deeper thralls of rest, the mighty Orpheus at his organ can rescue them from the bonds of reverie and return them to the land of the living. The power of the organ, dear readers, with its four manuals, forty stops, and ranks of pipes above Dr. Cloudee’s head, is greater far than one elderly voice, albeit enhanced by the helpful knobs in the sound booth. Dr. Cloudee and Mr. Shrilling have yet to reach a truce, much less a partnership, in their efforts. However, all their battles, alliances and out-flankings I cannot now discuss, for more urgent matters at the church occupy us today. The presbytery committee on Posts and Appointments is hasting to the church facility for a special called meeting. Dr. Cloudee is handing each member in through the side door. He has received news that Jeremiah Jones, our friend, president of the local Presbyterian college, clings to life by a thread at the county hospital; an undiagnosed heart condition has leveled him, and he is not expected to live. A year earlier, his medical status would have mattered little to those who pace the halls of Leach Street Presbyterian and its placid grounds, except as a sad piece of community news. A year earlier, the church and the college were members of separate and unaffiliated denominations, although merely five blocks apart. The denominational merger, a reconciliation of theology (if not of minds) had overcome all opposition at the synodical level, and one united Presbyterian body emerged. This awkward union was now four months old. In the process, the larger clan of Presbyterians, of which Leach Street was a prominent member, had unwillingly adopted the smaller clan’s twin educational institutions. Our dying friend, with whom we are barely acquainted, presided over one of these two.
Needless to say, the presbytery committee on Posts and Appointments was unhappy to find itself in the thankless position of choosing a president for a college of little significance. Its annual budget ran not a half million a year! It claimed fewer than 300 students. Still, the job must be done. A college near the end of its year must not be without a leader. They met secretly, however, because the man did yet breathe, and unwilling to seem too hasty, or too eager, they sat with Dr. Cloudee in the inner sanctum of his session room.
“How shall we proceed, gentlemen?” Dr. Cloudee asked. “Whom do we know who could fill this post?” He picked at his clean fingernails and then drummed his fingers on the oak table.
“It is hardly an important position,” noted the gentleman on his right, who sported the red vest of the Covenanters. “Nobody knows about this little college. Any retired pastor would do.”
The young and energetic pastor across from him disagreed. “We can hardly assume that the college will remain as it is,” he began. “Now that it is joined with the SPSNAAC, its future may be bright. Why, they anticipate a 4% growth this fall!” He wore a deep green vest, with a bright silver thistle pin on its breast.
The SPSNAAC, dear readers, is the Scottish Presbyterian Synod of North America and Canada. In less formal circles, it is known simply as SNACK. SNACK is the larger, younger, and more dynamic of the denominations.
“Our joint denomination should nurture the college and seminary along,” the young enthusiast continued. “The proper choice for this post is a man with vision and spirit.”
Dr. Cloudee rumbled. “But surely our own institutions will absorb them, brothers. I imagine in only a few years, Hezekiah College and Strong Seminary will both merge with their larger, sister institutions in Atlanta, our own schools. How can we ask any rising man in the denomination to assume a temporary post at a dying college?” Dr. Cloudee was speculating, of course. He’d heard no hint of such plans from Jeremiah Jones.
From the names of the schools, you may gather that the founder of the brotherly denomination, now defunct, was an upright and well-regarded man. Hezekiah Strong lived in the misty crags of Scotland many centuries before. His rugged rebellion and ringing voice against tyranny birthed a little band of believers. It grew to a clan of Christians, and named itself the Scottish Northern Association of Reformed Covenanters, or SNARC. In the New World, he lent half his name to a little college, and the other half to a little seminary.
The committee members interrupted each other, stuck to their guns, altered their positions, and generally so confused each other that no one seemed to know how to come to any resolution. Dr. Cloudee was concerned. Many of the gentlemen seemed intent at least in filling the post. The best he could do was to delay that assignment for the near future. If he delayed effectively, it is possible the college would gently fold its ancient doors during the summer, and send its students to richer pastures in Atlanta. The college grounds, which could easily be adapted to suit some of the needs of Leach Street Presbyterian Church, were most lovely. “The college soccer field across the street from our gymnasium is particularly fine,” he had often thought. Dr. Cloudee rumbled deeply in his throat. The table silenced.
“Gentlemen, no action can be taken now, while the current president remains in such a tenuous state. This meeting is at best preliminary. Since I am here on the scene, unless anyone objects, I will notify the committee of any changes in the situation. We will meet again at a later date.”
The meeting adjourned. The young member left first, twirling his thistle pin and unsettled in mind. Delay and indecision were always abhorrent to him. But Dr. Cloudee lingered with three of his old friends, classmates from seminary days. His comrade in the red vest clapped him soundly on the back.
“Golf next Saturday, James? My knee’s on the mend, and I think my swing is back!”
“Yes, indeed,” Cloudee replied. “Next Saturday. 7:00. I'll reserve the tee time. Don’t be late.” The other men agreed to join them. James Cloudee locked the church doors and strolled to his home two blocks away on Ivy Lane. Well he knew that if anyone asked, he could say that the committed had met promptly, discussed the matter thoroughly, and were considering options. “A very satisfactory afternoon,” he thought.
An irritating buzz vibrated against his leg. He slapped at his thigh in alarm, thinking a diabolical hornet was after him. Then sheepishly he dug into his pants pocket and extracted The Nuisance. His secretary Hilda had insisted that he carry this hand-held plague, a cell-phone.
Dr. Cloudee opened the phone, and holding it in front of his face, yelled into it, “Hello?”
The quiet voice that answered him brought ill news. Jeremiah Jones, the college president, had died.
Copyrighted by M.K. Christiansen
Copyrighted by M.K. Christiansen