The Early Birds

~ It felt very important to me a couple of weeks ago to jot down this Sunday routine…one of my favorite times of the week ~

As we pulled into the church parking lot, I saw her walking swiftly down the street toward the church, her Bible tucked beneath her arm.

Her hair is as white as snow, thick and curly and cut in the shorter style of most of our senior adult women. She is trim and petite, and always put together.

She is my friend and her name is Della.

Della almost died this year, and spent many months recovering at home. Every Sunday morning following her hospital release, I looked for her. When she didn’t walk through the darkened sanctuary where the kids and I waited to say ‘hello’ to her as our paths crossed week after week after week after week after week, my heart felt bereft and I wondered if she could feel how much I loved and missed her.

But, thank God, she is doing well and is back with us, and as her journey toward the church building caught my eye, I smiled and hopped out of the minivan to greet her.

The plucky thing is so spry and sure-footed, she made it into her regular side door before I could chase her down; but I knew I would see her inside and I entered into the front entrance of the church I love, ready to greet the “early birds” who show up 30-40 minutes early every Sunday morning.

It is the same every week…

In the first room to the right, I stop in to say “good morning” to Paula and Virginia, who catch up with one another in their domain, our church library. Paula has white hair with specks of grey, vintage spectacles and a vintage shirtdress for every Sunday, always topped with vintage costume jewelry like my Granny had in her special jewelry box. She has the most uniquely beautiful soprano singing voice, and if you close your eyes during her solos, you can imagine a young girl on the stage rather than an elderly lady. Paula and her husband, Jay, used to keep me in the church nursery when I was a baby, and so it was with great sentimentality that I released Gideon to their Sunday morning care when he was an infant. 

And Virginia is a dear woman, also with snowy white hair and glasses, but partial to jewel-toned polyester pants with printed silk button-up shirts. She and Paula have been taking care of the church library for as long as I can remember and nearly every week, Virginia recalls the time that she looked down and saw a young and painfully shy Mrs. Gore (Miss Jackson, then) with her chin on the library table, huge and solemn eyes looking up in hopes to check out a book without uttering a word – it warms my heart that we share this piece of history together, and that it means as much to her as it does to me. She and her husband, Kenneth, have been beloved friends to me for many years. They have no children and I would give anything if they could really understand how serious we are when we call them “family”.

Speaking of Kenneth, I usually go straight from the library to see him in the fellowship hall, but it is a long walk and I usually pass several other friends along the way. Miss Jessie, one of our African American members, has a different head of hair and a different style of dress every Sunday and she is always there by the church office looking for her class’s roll sheet, a stack of bulletins already in hand. I could fill a book with her interesting outfits, and even more books with her funny characteristics, but what I love most about her is that she loves my children and chases them down for some lovin’ every Sunday morning. Sometimes they scream and cry, but sometimes Rebekah surprises us and kisses her right on the mouth and I get a good chuckle. I sit behind Jessie in “big church” and spend most of the sermon finding quiet and unobtrusive ways to wake her up from her loud snoring. Sometimes I cough. Sometimes I drop a hymnal. Sometimes I laugh a bit louder at the pastor’s jokes than I normally would. Her medicine makes her sleepy, so she really can’t help it…plus it makes me feel useful. The jobs of a pastor’s wife are varied and amusing, for sure.

Kenneth, Virginia’s husband of 64 years, is always stationed by the back door where he has been greeting our members for years. If he is standing, I know he is feeling particularly good, if he is sitting I know that his legs and back are giving him trouble and he is due another steroid shot, and if he is gone, I know that he is home sick. I hate it when he is gone. But most usually, there he is, and I sit with him in the small pew by the door and see how he has been faring for the past week. He always makes over Baby Betsie, he always gives Gideon “five” and he always allows Rebekah to rifle through his shirt pocket, pulling out his comb, his pen and his glasses case before putting them back where they belong. Without fail, he wears polyester pants and a short-sleeved button up shirt, and is often sporting a large veteran ballcap on his grey head of hair. No matter what is going on in his life or with his health, he is chipper and kind, his personality a carbon copy of Virginia’s. While we talk about health or the weather, my heart is bursting with gratitude that I get to call this man my friend and brother.

After about five minutes with Kenneth, I head through the backstage doors, entering the sanctuary at the front and walking to the back where I usually run into Della. She always looks my babies in the eye and exclaims over their church clothes or over their growth spurts, smiling and talking with a voice that always captures me with its indefinable quality. I feel just sure she could be an audiobook narrator, but she just laughs when I tell her so. She has worked her whole life, cooking and scrubbing, raising a family, tending to her late husband, cleaning the church…so such a silly notion would never have crossed her mind! Della is…beautiful. Slight in stature, but so very strong. Funny and quick-witted. Kind. A true woman. A true lady.

In the hallway once again, I pass many friends, sometimes stopping to chat, sometimes waving and smiling as we head to our respective classes. Miss Sharon. Miss Nettie. Miss Erma. Love them all.

Then I shake hands with one of our only widowers, Mr. Titsworth, and talk about the weather and what he’s growing in his garden and I always remember the time he pulled over to a garage sale to see if they were selling any vintage plates I could use for my wedding reception. “I wasn’t sure if  you’d like what they had, so here…take this instead.” he said, before handing me a $5 bill. My heart melted on the spot and it still does everytime I see him. He is a good man and our church would not be quite right without him there.

Before long, one of my most beloved friends breezes through the front door. Kate, a widow of 10 years who never ages a day, is one of the most smartly-dressed women I know. She walks every day and has a body to prove it, but what I admire most about her is her work ethic. A country girl who moved to town after her husband died, she keeps most of our church clean (for free) and knows how to help someone without asking.  She loves to read cookbooks and has a cackle that you can hear for miles. When I see Kate, I always think of her husband, Calvin; they were one, and now they are half of one. But she has been so strong and brave and she calls my husband “Pastor Chris” and asks him to pray for her when she needs it. I admire her humility as she submits to one so much younger and inexperienced than she. But then, all of these friends do. They have made our ministry and our life an absolute joy.

Linda is next. She has been teaching 4- and 5-year olds for what seems like an eternity, and it is no small thing to me that my own son is in her class now. Although she recently had to have her foot amputated due to complications with diabetes, she is never, ever down, finding joy and adventure in every single situation – her eyes disappear into crinkles when she smiles and her deep tenor singing voice ministers to my soul. She is dear to us. So dear.

Then comes Joy, one of the most meek and faithful women I’ve ever known. Every Sunday, she is there early to teach her young Sunday School class. Every Monday, she mails out a letter to each of her students. Every Wednesday, she teaches another children’s class. And through it all, I have never heard her complain or gossip or make a negative comment…she quietly goes about her work with gladness, week in, week out, years coming and going and passing. The more I grow and take note of the world outside of my own, the more I admire her…

Before long, the younger crowd starts to show up, rushing in with children in tow, and the  Sunday morning pace picks up as the chatter grows and moves into separate Sunday School classes, children running and squealing through the hallway, Cheerios being distributed in the nursery, roll sheets being filled out and turned in to the church office. Sunday morning has officially begun…

But I know I’ll see my early birds next week.

9:00 sharp.

Me and Kenneth, friends forever.

8 thoughts on “The Early Birds

  1. This post brought tears to my eyes. It was like stepping back in time as you described these people. These are some of people that poured the foundation of my faith and most likely prayed over my family, Falls Creek and mission trips. Oh how I miss the smallness and familiarity of a country church. Thank you for the reminder. 🙂

    • HOW I loved reading this comment! It means the world to know that these folks are so fondly remembered and that they impacted your life – you honor them with your memories. And come worship with us some Sunday – they would be thrilled to see how God has blessed your life!

  2. How we need early birds in our lives!!! You are so lucky to have so many in your life for as many years as you have. What a precious life God has given you and what a precious way you have of looking at it and living in it. Thank you for this glimpse inside your world with these special beautiful “birds”.

    • Thank you, Ms. Terri! We have been so blessed in our church body with people like them. Thank you for appreciating them with your comments and honoring their beauty. I don’t know what I’d do without them all.

  3. This is the part of your life that I only read about in your posts – it make me so proud to be your friend. These people are just as lucky to know you as you are to know them. Since most of the early birds mentioned may not read this, you should print out your post and give it to them! They are famous now!!! Love you, dear heart!

    • So sweet! How I wish that you could live next door to me and we could walk to church and take care of the Early Birds together! 🙂 At your suggestion, my Mom printed this off and gave it to several of those mentioned. They loved it! Kate said her head nearly grew off her shoulders after reading her section! Thanks for the suggestion. Love you, friend!!

  4. Love your description of keeping Miss Jessie awake. Yes, a pastor’s wife’s duties are myriad and varied! Tell those early birds who know me that Bro. Shawn gives them his greeting and blessing. So neat to “see” those familiar faces again through your writing. Thanks!

    • Oh, I certainly will! They all still speak of you and Cheryl so fondly – you guys were such a blessing to our church.
      And I’m sure Cheryl could write a book about all of the things she’s done over the years – we live a colorful life, don’t we?

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