January 24, 2021

Following the Footprints of the Love of My Life

Dozens of sympathy cards have filled my mailbox since the death of my wife. Dean was the love of my life. We met in the first grade at age 6. I fell in love with her when we were 15, married her when we were 20. During 68 and a half years of marriage, we were inseparable.

As the years passed I was often amazed at her incredible memory. She recalled a moment in December when the two of us stood warming our hands beside a steam heater in Mrs. Melton’s first-grade classroom. “You had on brown corduroy pants,” she said. Such recollections always blew my mind.

I mention memories because many sympathy cards invite the recipient to find comfort in “the precious memories you shared.” While a sympathy card is a poor substitute for a hug, it is still a good way to express compassion for a grieving friend. And the virus pandemic has outlawed hugging.

Like winter days, some sympathy cards are better than others. My favorite of all the cards I have received is the one that has these words on the front:

A Journey Remembered

As some people journey through life,

they leave footprints wherever they go –

footprints of kindness and love,

courage and compassion,

humor and inspiration, joy and faith.

Even when they’re gone,

we can still look back

and clearly see the trail they left behind—

a trail bright with hope

that invites us to follow.

These are indeed days of remembering the journey through life I shared with Dean. Friends help me recall sacred moments. Our friend Jill recalled a time brainstorming with Dean and me, following our return from a trip to Zambia, when Dean said, “How am I going to feed the poor in Africa? Well, I can start by selling my fine china.” And she did that – along with her expensive silverware! In recent years she stopped paying someone to fix her hair. When I questioned her about this decision, she said simply, “I can fix it myself and have a little more money to help the poor.” I never raised that subject again.

As I follow the footprints of the trail Dean left behind, they lead me to the New Walk of Life Church in west Montgomery where many poor people live. We were 85 when we first saw this small church. Pastor Ken Austin invited me to preach there for him one Sunday in August of 2017. Dean went with me, always praying for me to “do your best when you lift up our Lord Jesus.”

The church was old and in such poor condition that we had to enter from the rear of the building. Rain coming down through a leaking roof had rotted the floor inside the front doors. The one bathroom was no longer usable. The congregation consisted mainly of children and teenagers.

I had no idea what kind of sermon was needed that Sunday but the Lord led me to preach a simple message: “Don’t quit. Don’t give up. Stay the course and the Lord will help you.” Later Pastor Ken confided in me that the message was for him. “The bus was broke down. The worship leader called to say he would not be there. I had to sweep the church that morning myself and chase the cats out. I was ready to throw up my hands and quit. I had been trying and failing to revitalize that church for 15 years, and the church was in ruins. But when you began preaching, the Lord God almighty said to me, ‘Don’t you dare give up on what I have called you to do!’ And that day I decided not to give up!”

After the worship service Pastor Ken and his wife Thomasina invited us to go up the street to have lunch in the Mercy House, a marvelous ministry of the New Walk of Life Church. I found Dean at the front entrance looking in the gaping hole of the church floor. When I walked up, she looked at me with fire in her eyes and said, “We have got to fix this!”

I was stunned. I had done what I went to do; it had been a preaching assignment for me. I was ready to have lunch and go home and get in my recliner. But there stood my woman, telling me we had to repair this church. And I knew she meant business. She had the same look in her eyes the day we stood on a vacant lot in Lusaka, Zambia, and said to me, “We must build a home for Catherine on this lot!” Two years later Catherine had a home on that lot because Dean had persuaded her beloved Frazer Sunday School Class to provide the money for a home. Today Catherine, who is single, is raising two orphans in that home.

Like a bulldog, Dean refused to let go of the need to fix that church. She invited other people to help and at their first meeting, they decided to call themselves “Dean’s Army.” Within a year that army raised the money not only to fix the floor but to remodel the entire building, and the house next door, which is now a Pathway House equipping people with skills to create a better life. They even took down a huge tree in a nearby vacant lot and turned it into a parking lot.

To sum it all up, Dean’s Army infused new life into the New Walk of Life Church.

In the days to come, with what time I have left, I plan to follow Dean’s footprints, on a trail bright with hope, and do what I can to honor her legacy of helping poor people who are trying to find their way to a better life. I am not trying to organize an army but I could sure use some company along this trail. + + +