This week I wrote a letter to the people of a church that I have not attended in more than twenty years. I attended there when I was a student at Ohio Northern University and I wanted to thank them for what they had done for me. Like many college students in small college towns, especially church kids who are living away from home for the first time, I tried different things. Since I grew up as a United Methodist, I tried the big United Methodist church downtown and there I met the basketball coach’s wife who taught the Sunday school class for college age youth. I liked it and I stayed there for a while. My problem was that I had joined the Army Reserve and the pastor there regularly preached on pacifism. There were some other topics where his beliefs and mine were simply not a good fit and sitting in church was often awkward and uncomfortable.
Next I spent a year or more not going to church at all. After a while though, that felt weird and I knew I ought to get back in the habit of going so I tried some of the other churches in town. There I saw many students and often professors who were regular members, but still no one greeted me and I felt distinctly unwelcome.
About that time, probably around 1986, I was working at the Station House Inn, a local pizza place and tavern to pay for my apartment and college bills. There, I had met Don Spar and a few of his friends who were regulars at the Station House. In the summer we water skied together, I met Don’s parents, and as winter turned to spring, Don gave me a message. Don’s mom had heard that I was spending Easter in town instead of going home and she told me that I was not going to spend Easter alone. I was commanded (as only mothers can do, even if they’re not yours) to come to church with them on Easter Sunday and then follow them home for Easter dinner.
Don’s family attended Sugar Grove United Methodist Church, a little country church in the middle of miles of corn and soybean fields well away from town. Church was nice but afterwards, as everyone was leaving, it happened. Several people had greeted me but here was one man, an old farmer, probably about 75, who saw me from the far side of the sanctuary. He made eye contact and from across the room and then made his way to me, carefully negotiating his way through several rows of pews, to where I was, all so that he could shake my hand and welcome me to Sugar Grove.
I don’t remember that man’s name, but I have never forgotten him (or Don’s mom). After that day, I attended Sugar Grove most every Sunday for the next two years until I graduated. I felt welcome and at home at Sugar Grove even though I was the only student from the University that went there. There were no university professors that attended there, nor any university staff people, just farmers and local residents… and me.
Sugar Grove United Methodist Church became one of those places in my memory where I recall God’s goodness. It is a place where I felt at home with the body of Christ even though I was far from my family. That experience also reminds me of the power of just one person. I never would have gone to Sugar Grove if Don and his family had not invited me. I’m not certain that I even knew that it was there before they invited me. As grateful as I was to Don and his mom for inviting me to church and Easter dinner, I’m not sure I would have returned and become regular in my attendance if it had not been for that one man. One seventy-five year old man saw me, from across the room, and decided that even though I was “just” a visiting student, that I was worth his time and effort. It was worth it for him to cross the room so that he could shake my hand and welcome me to Sugar Grove. Two minutes of effort on the part of one man, made me feel welcome and at home and is a memory that I will never forget.
Often people wonder if they can make a difference and I want all of you to know that that you can.
Never underestimate the power of one.