This story appears in Gary Lloyd’s book, Valley Road: Uplifting Stories from Down South. Get it here.
I’m not a big believer in the accuracy of first impressions, but I have one perfect example of it being true.
I was in junior high, and beginning to get involved with the wrong crowd. My friend and I were forced into a Wednesday night youth get-together at church, events I never attended. My friend and I concealed our skateboards in the trunk of my mom’s car, and our plan upon arrival at the church was for one of us to distract her while the other retrieved them. That didn’t work. Moms know all.
Our plan to skip the event and skate around the urban area surrounding the church was foiled. We were sent to participate with the other teenagers. Bummer.
We sat off by ourselves while the youth director spoke of the evening’s plans. He was tall, in his mid-twenties, with a goatee. He broke us into groups and told us we’d be driven all over the city in a church van. Our goal, he said, was to do as many nice things as we could for people. We went to a nearby Walmart, and our group members helped people stash their bags of groceries into their trunks. We offered to buy a Hot Wheels car for a whining toddler.
It was, dare I say, fun.
I think that night helped me, and my friend. I got more involved. I played for the church basketball team that the youth director coached. He even let me coach in practice some. I tried to implement variations of the triangle offense, used by those legendary Chicago Bulls teams, and we failed miserably. When I turned an ankle and had to miss our next game, I sat next to the youth director on the bench and helped coach. We won, and our best performer that night, who I tried to motivate and advise, picked me up and ran around the court after the game. What a feeling.
During college and my early years in the real world, the youth director and I didn’t keep in touch too often. We talked on Twitter mostly, about the disappointments of the Atlanta Braves, about the NCAA Tournament, about the never-gonna-happen potential for a Dreamland Bar-B-Que to open a restaurant a bike ride away from our homes. The youth director battled cancer during all those years. I wish I had been around more.
After a long battle, the youth director died in 2015. He left behind a wife and three daughters. I went to his celebration of life at that same church I rarely wanted to go to as a teen.
As I walked into the sanctuary, I was handed a service program. Scheduled were readings from Psalm 42, Ecclesiastes 7, John 14 and Matthew 6. In large letters above the youth director’s name, it read, “Be the Change You Want to See in the World.”
I hope he knows that I’m trying.