Episode #4 – “Just As I Am” by Jack Elliott
My Stepfathers path back to Church required the church to see his authenticity. A authenticity cultivated by a strong sense of right vs wrong, acceptance, and self-pride.
Just As I Am by Jack Elliott Episode 4: Remember When...?
Wednesday, May 17th, 1916, was the day he’d been waiting for – for weeks! For the first time ever, Everett was going to hear his dad preach. Excitement and anticipation provoked him to rush through his after-school chores. It was a warm, almost hot, late spring day on Everett’s family farm. Quickly, he did his chores. Pigs slopped, the three dairy cows milked, and the chicken coop was swept out. The heat in the chicken coop caused him to sweat as he hastily swept the tossed hay the chickens had kicked out of their nesting bins. As he swept the dust swirled. He could feel the airborne debris sticking to his skin, but there was no time to stop or worry about that now. He had to be down the road and over to the revival tent by 6:00 p.m.
Luckily, his mom was already at the revival meeting. She would have no opportunity to come inspect his work. By the time she’d go out to gather eggs in the morning, those hens would have made a whole new mess and his hasty work would not be noticed.
He ran out of the coop toward the water pump. He gave it a few hearty pumps and the well’s cool water flowed across his cupped hands as he made an equally hap-hazard attempt to wash his face and hands. As he darted for the road, he tried to brush the dust from his overhauls. That proved to be an error in judgement. His wet hands caused the dust to cake up and leave muddy streaks across his shirt and pants. No time to worry about that now. All he could do now is run the mile down the country road where the church folks had raised the revival tent. As he got nearer to the camp grounds, he could see a crowd had gathered to hear the famous traveling preacher.
Everett’s dad traveled by horseback throughout central Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. He was a preacher called by the Holy Spirit to preach the word. Somehow this man who had less than a sixth-grade education, had the charisma of a Hollywood actor. When he took to the pulpit, it was if the holy spirit spoke through him, using his body as a vessel to amplify the word of God and bring sinners to their knees. In his ten years, Everett hadn’t seen his father much. He was always on the road. The farm, and all of its chores, were left to his brother and his mom. But now, for the first time, he was going to hear his father preach. All the neighbors spoke of his father’s gift for speaking “the word” so he could not wait to finally hear it for himself.
The congregants were already singing “Blessed Assurance” as Everett snuck around to the side of the tent so he could maybe find a seat upfront. As he peered in, he could see men and women clustered together on wood benches set up like church pews. The men loosened their starched shirt collars and the women fand themselves with fans depicting the image of Jesus on the front and the name of the local funeral home on the back. He could see his father on the stage with a couple of other men and then he noticed an empty seat right on the front row. As the song ended and the congregation praised, he darted for the empty space and took his seat. A sense of pride washed over him as he watched his father walk up to the podium. Suddenly, his pride quieted as he looked up at the disgusted look that seemed to cover his father’s face. He looked mad.
“How dare someone covered in such filth enter the house of our lord and savior!” Everett was confused; he looked about to see who his father was talking to, and who could have brought such filth to this meeting. “YOU. YOUNG MAN! I am speaking to you!” His father yelled from the pulpit as he wagged his finger and pointed right at him. “How dare you enter the house of our lord and savior dressed like you came from the fields covered with freshly spread manure.” GO! Leave! Go clean yourself and dress yourself properly to enter God’s house. Shame engulfed him as he bowed his head and slinked out of his seat; he fled quietly through the slit in the tent, the same way that he had entered.
Everett did not understand what had happened. He sobbed as his body twitched from the pangs of rejection. He was humiliated. Then, just as he was about the reach the road for that long walk home, he heard the congregations singing, “Just as I Am.”
Everett said to himself: “Oh, so Jesus accepts them “just as they are” but not me. Me in my overalls. Well, screw them! If Jesus can’t accept me just as I am, then I don’t want anything to do with him either.”
For Everett, life went on. He grew up, got married, fathered three children, and worked hard at one job for nearly fifty years. His wife of thirty years died and after a respectful amount of time, he dated, and eventually married my mother. A woman, very active in her church.
One day as my mother was fulfilling her volunteer duties at Main Street Christian Church, the minister cautioned her to be careful as she ascended the stairs. Rev. Merriman Pointed to a banister on the grand staircase to indicate that it needed to be repaired. She let him know, that she knew just the guy. Her husband Everett. Her only challenge would be to convince Everett to go back into a church.
The following week she had persuaded Everett that since the banister wasn’t even in the sanctuary. He could slip in, make the repair and be out, in short order. So, he slipped in on a Monday morning, way before anyone handling any sort of “church business” would be there. Just as he was packing up his tools Rev. Merriman came in. The soft-spoken pastor praised Everett’s work just enough that it didn’t seem patronizing; to Everett, it felt sincere. They talked a little more, and then Everett let the minister know that the banister, in fact the entire walnut paneled staircase, needed to be refinished. Rev. Merriman’s response: “I trust you. Would you be willing…” And before he could finish, Evertt said, I have some stuff I need out in the station wagon. Let me go get it.”
For the next several weeks, Everett showed up to sand, re-glue, and refurbish every piece of “walnut” in the foyer and sanctuary. Many mornings, he and Rev. Merriman would just talk. Mostly about wood and how to properly care for such an historic building. Eventually, Rev. Merriman convinced Everett that he must come some Sunday, just so the church could properly thank him for all his hard work.
So that following Sunday, and for many a Sunday thereafter, Mother and Everett made their way to church. One Sunday, a young man was being baptized. On the way home, Everett asked my mother, if in order to “get into heaven” did you have to be baptized? She let him know that in our faith tradition; yes. But then she encouraged him to ask Rev. Merriman and she would defer to his answer. He did. And, during their conversation, Everett told Rev. Merriman about his father’s rejection of him when he showed up at church in his overalls. So just a few weeks later, Everett agreed to be baptized by Rev. Merriman. On one condition. He told Rev. Merriman, “I want to be baptized in my work clothes. I want to wear my overalls; covered in dust, varnish, and paint stains. I want to be baptized, “Just as I am.”
And he was. – Rev. Jack Jack Elliott
(c) 2022/2023 Rev. Jack Elliott. This essay corresponds with Episode #4 on the Remember When...? Podcast.