Dr. Jeremiah Jones sat at a back table in Cracker Barrel, nursing his cold coffee. Outside the window, past the chained rocking chairs, Atlanta in December was damp, dreary, and gray. Dr. Jones was a man out of his element, under the shadow of the big city’s sky scrapers and away from his home town’s shady oaks. He was from Greenfield, Georgia, a few miles up the road. Across the room, two kids played checkers, and Dr. Jones turned when one of them let out a “whoop!” of victory. His heart felt the dreariness of the weather, not the victory of the checkers champion. The three men with whom he’d shared his table were gone after a grueling two-hour meal, and he took time to ruminate on their meeting. He found himself shaking his head in dismay. He was unwillingly at the center of a swirling whirlwind of church politics. On this dreary December day, the swirl was a mere dusting up of words, but still, Dr. Jones did not like it.
He knew he’d lost the argument, and in the end he’d lost his college. As its president, this was his last-ditch effort to argue with the higher-ups for its value, its necessity, its life. Dr. Jones was not a clever man. He was, at heart, a conciliator, a friendly man. Friendliness was no help to him here, in the arena of church politics. No one but these four men from Cracker Barrel now knew that Hezekiah College was in its early death throes. It was a heavy burden for Dr. Jones to bear. He’d been at the college for thirty-four years, first as an admissions representative, then as a fund-raising publicity man, and finally as its top administrator. Dear reader, he had done a fine job. A bachelor, Dr. Jones had thrown himself into the school’s success, nurtured its faculty, coddled its students, stroked the egos of its donors. Nurturing, coddling and stroking were his best skills, not aggressive defense and political maneuvering. He’d made his earnest case; what more can one simple man do?
The waitress sidled up to his table, slapped the ticket by his coffee cup, and asked, “You want a warm-up?” He nodded. She poured.
“And some more cream,” he asked.
She smacked her gum in reply and strolled to the kitchen.
These men were strangers to him, Christian brothers sent to deliver the verdict privately. “Henchmen,” he thought. They did not know the college, did not know Greenfield, his little town. He thought of the shady streets, the azalea-dotted lawns. The elderly friends who’d given generously to endow the school – how would he explain that their money, their loyalty, would be absorbed by strangers? Now he would participate in the demise. Two years, they’d given him, two long years of slow death. They wanted to do this thing quietly, and they needed two years to transfer students slowly, win donors cautiously. He was the key, they said – he would be the gentle hospice nurse, a comforter but in the end the friend who deals the death blow. He felt like a pawn.
Only days before, larger decisions by denominational heads had engulfed his world. Two like-minded Presbyterian denominations joined their strengths, a new denomination was born, and Presbyterians across the South were caught in a flood of celebration. But all changes, and especially political ones, have casualties. Hezekiah College would soon be a casualty. He was not man enough to challenge these heavy waves of change. Another man, another president, possibly could fight the good fight and save the school. Dr. Jones felt his inadequacy. He knew this was his battle, and he was already losing it. There was nothing left to do but preside over the funeral of his precious school.
For a moment, he wondered what he would do for himself. He was near retirement, but not near enough. Too old for a career change, too old for the mission field. Too young to move in with his sister and tend rose beds. He’d never set aside money for a house, or even saved for a rainy day. The college didn’t pay much, but he’d never needed much either. He rotated his coffee cup slowly, peering into its black depths. How many years since he’d felt this uncertain? Already he sensed the cords that tied him to his familiar place loosening, letting him go.
“God will have a plan,” he mumbled to himself. “He always has a plan.”
“Um hm,” the waitress replied, and plopped two creamers on the table.
The rain stopped as Dr. Jones drove back to Greenfield. He came to no conclusion about his future, made no plans. He did decide to keep his counsel to himself. No one in Greenfield would discover the fate of the college yet, if he could help it. Two years was a long time; perhaps God would intervene somehow. His pale palms gripped the steering wheel, and he pursed his lips. Keeping secrets is lonely business, but Jeremiah Jones was used to being alone. As he drove down College Street in the late afternoon, the live oaks of his yard arching grandly on his left, he saw the spire of the Presbyterian church on Leach Street, pointing heavenward. Above it, holding up the sky, was the brightest rainbow he’d ever seen.
Copyrighted by M.K. Christiansen
Copyrighted by M.K. Christiansen