Etched Memories

George Rowe

I saw him at a distance.

I had not seen this gentleman before. I wondered if he might be a new resident or just a visitor. Our paths actually crossed in front of a local business and extending my hand to him I said, “Welcome to town. Just visiting, or a new resident?” He smiled and said, “I’m not sure. Right now I am definitely a visitor but time will tell if I become a resident.” We were about to move on when he said, “By the way, my name is Neil (not his real name but defiantly a real man) and you are?”

I wasn’t sure how to respond and simply said, “I’m George. The folk in town call me Pastor George.” He took a step back and surprisingly said, “I’ve been in town for just a week and I have heard about a Pastor George. We will need to get together.” Giving me his phone number I simply said, “Yes, we will need to get together.” I had no idea where this innocent and first meeting would eventually lead.

About a week after our initial meeting I received a call from Neil. “Hello! Pastor George here.”

A slight hesitation and the voice on the other end said, “I need to speak with you. Can we meet for coffee or will I come to your office?” I hesitated for a moment and suggested that we meet at a local coffee shop and get to know each other. I had absolutely no idea what to expect.

Neil wasn’t hesitant or bashful about sharing his past and confidently said, “Pastor George, I know I can trust you.” For about an hour he talked about his life from early childhood to the very present. The various cycles of life brought him satisfaction at times and total devastation at other times. He made a lot of money and he lost a lot of money. His alcohol and drug addictions left him emotionally, spiritually and economically scarred. At times his body language was in total revolt as memories of the past were regurgitated and shared with a Pastor he hardly knew. I said very little but listened a whole lot.

Over time we were able to build a trusting relationship as I led and pushed and persuaded him to hold on to hope and believe that his life was not wasted. He moved passed much of the hurts and disappointments of what he called, a wasted life, and signs of real progress was noted.

I was thrilled to see Neil attend our church one Sunday morning. I gave him a firm handshake and did my best to make him feel welcome. He became a regular attendee of the church and his past seemed so far away as he continued to make progress.

Neil still had some real issues to get past and when the wall was too high to climb I would get a call.

The phone rang. It was almost midnight. “Pastor George?” I knew it was Neil. “Pastor George. Please, can you come by. I am sick, drunk and at the point where life means absolutely nothing to me.” Within minutes I was at his place and when I entered his house he almost jumped into my arms and wept in an uncontrollable manner while his entire body was shaking and trembling as the stench of alcohol filled my nostrils. I was able to calm him down, prayed with him and the next morning took him out for breakfast.

Following a Sunday morning service at our church one of the ushers presented me with what looked like a tear drop piece of silver with the words, “I love you,” written on it.

I made some inquiries and found out that the “gift” was put into the collection plate by Neil.

The next day during some counseling I asked why he would have placed the “gift” in the collection plate and I offered to give it back to him.

His response was simply but profound. “I wanted to give a gift of money to the church because of all the support I received from you and your congregation. I had no money but I wanted to give something. I have been carrying this for many, many years. It has a lot of sentimental value. I want you to have it in appreciation for your help and for encouraging me to believe in myself.”

I was stunned. Could not speak. While I did my best to control my tears, they still ran down my face. He noticed and reaching out he shook my hand and simply said, “I love you Pastor George. You have been like a father to me and I will be eternally grateful.”

My friend eventually left out little town and I had lost contact with him but I often thought of him. About two months before this article I received word that Neil had passed away. I was absolutely and totally shocked. I had a million questions about how and why. I felt lost. My friend was gone. When I learned about his passing I went back to my office and holding the “gift” I reflected and being flooded by many memories I simply bowed my head and prayed a simple prayer. “Thank you God for Neil and the positive impact we were able to make on each other.”

I have carried that tear shaped piece of silver for many years. In fact, I keep it on my office desk and often use it to start a conversation or illustrate the commitment of love. I would like to think that Neil is somewhere in Heaven and looking down he would be mindful of our relationship and simply say, “George, thanks for everything. Remember to enjoy life because the sun is always shining.”