Learning from the faithful legacy of my grandparents
There once was a certain kind of evangelical Christian I felt free to scorn.
In 2010, I planted a church in the inner city of Cincinnati. It was growing rapidly. At the time, the coveted demographic for urban church planters was millennials, and we were attracting them in droves. With a combination of contemporary worship, ancient liturgy, and theologically rich preaching, I thought we had cracked the code. Having successfully planted a church in a challenging, urban cultural context, my sending organization flew me around the country to share my success stories and train younger planters in “the way it’s done.”
Things were going well, but a spirit of elitism began to infect us. There was no one to correct us because everyone was in on it. On occasion, I would make fun of conservative, uneducated, backwoods, KJV-only, fundamentalist Christians. People like this lacked the theological sophistication and cultural insight I had acquired while doing campus ministry and studying at seminary.
I knew these “fundie” Christians well because I grew up around them. I came from the hills of West Virginia. Appalachian, born and bred. But I had moved on. I was better than them. I was more learned and cultured than them. I had “seen the world” and they hadn’t.
I would not have admitted this at the time, but deep down, I felt superior to my hometown people and their “country religion.” The success of my own ministry was at least partly driven by a desire to separate myself from them and prove that “I’m not one of those fundie Christians.”
But over time, something began to dawn on me: I was standing on the shoulders of giants. My own grandfather, “Popo Curt,” was one of those country preachers. He provided for his family by working a physically demanding job in a steel mill his whole life. His family was poor, but he did what needed to be done to take care of them.
Popo Curt had only received a 6th grade education. He didn’t know how to read or write very well. On his 45-minute commutes to work, he would listen to the KJV bible on audio cassette. Up and back, every day, listening to the Bible. King James! Scripture got under his skin.
My mom told me a story once. When he was filling out paperwork or writing something and didn’t know how to spell a word, he would try to remember where that same word was used in his KJV Bible. Then he would look it up to see how it was spelled.
My great-grandfather was the same. We called him “Popo Gallie.” He’d only received a 3rd grade education. He planted a church deep in the hills of West Virginia and constructed a building for it on his property. He ministered there for many years, always preaching from his KJV Bible.
Popo Gallie lived to be 102 years old. He was healthy and energetic to the very end. He was a simple man with a sharp wit, charming smile, and warm sense of humor. During the Great Depression, he built a house for $450. He and his wife lived there for the rest of their lives. In his 90s, at Christmas time, he would take fruit baskets to the “shut ins” of his church who were much younger than him. He married his wife, “Momo Mary,” when she was 14. He was 22 at the time. He loved her and remained faithful to her until her death in September of 2006. They enjoyed 74 wedding anniversaries together.
Every summer, the extended family would get together to celebrate their anniversary with a picnic. These memories hang in my mind like Momo Mary’s home sewn curtains. Everyone would come to celebrate and feast on fried chicken, corn bread, potato salad, and Big-K cola. Momo Mary would sit on her front porch swing and gawk over whichever great, great grandbaby she’d get to hold. Popo Gallie loved standing back, astonished at the crowd, and reciting a list of all his descendants that traced their ancestry back to him.
Sometimes, Popo Curt would preach a little. Then Popo Gallie would preach a little more. They called it “testifying,” but everyone knew what it was. It was preaching. A crowd was gathered, someone would ask them to pray or say a few words, and the next thing you knew, church broke out. A guitar or two was always close at hand. I had an uncle that played banjo.
In my office, I have this framed poem that Popo Gallie wrote on September 1, 1928. It’s a poem about his call to ministry. He remained faithful to that calling for the rest of his life. He never really retired, but he did slow down. The Lord took him home on July 1st, 2011. He stayed true to the Lord and to his calling for 80 years.
And here I was, three or four years into my new church plant, attracting a few hundred people, feeling like I’d accomplished something. Feeling superior to men like my grandfather and great grandfather. So I repented. I repented of my arrogance. I repented of my self-righteous attitude towards “that old time religion” that sustained my grandparents who had so much less than me. I repented of looking down on faithful, older Christians who had passed on a legacy to me.
I share all these things because my arrogance was cultivated in an evangelical subculture that produces a spirit of elitism. I wanted to ascend the ladder and achieve notoriety within that subculture. But I have learned that that subculture is actually sub-Christian.
Elitist Christianity cannot survive the rigors of hard discipleship. But my grandparents did. And they handed me a legacy to follow. There are many points of doctrinal disagreement that I would have with my grandfathers. But they had a form of battle-tested grit that would outclass their less rugged peers. These were men who endured hard lives and suffered. And they’d learned how to suffer well with contented hearts. These are the sorts of men that deserve our respect and admiration. Men who finished well and stayed true. Men of whom the world is not worthy. These men have now gone home to be with the Lord, but by God’s grace, may their legacy live on. I want to follow in their footsteps.
*Image Credits: Michael Clary