His mother got him ready to go in a neatly pressed but slightly threadbare white shirt and dark pants and the only shoes he owned, freshly polished yet with a hole in the sole filled with cardboard. She combed Johnny's hair and gave him a final look just as she heard a car door close and saw Pastor Willis stepping up on the porch.
"Good morning, Mrs. Markham. I see you have Johnny all spit and polished this morning," he cheerfully said. "Are you ready to go, Johnny, Sunday school awaits."
Johnny kissed his mom, shook hands with the pastor and they were off. During the twenty minute ride into town, Pastor Willis made a mental note about Johnny's need for some new clothes. He himself was somewhat concerned about the response to Johnny of some in his congregation, but he made no advance plans as he wanted to see their reaction and his sermon would also deal with it. He wanted to help Johnny and eventually more kids in need while also teaching his flock a lesson that would strike home.
Arriving at the pretty little white clapboard church set back from the road among old oaks, Johnny saw parishioners of all ages headed to the community building next to the church. Mr. Willis told him that's where Sunday school was held and that he would introduce Johnny to his teacher. Dropping him off, he asked the teacher if she would escort the young man to church and he would take it from there.
Pastor Willis looked in on Johnny during the class and saw that he was very shy and stand offish. The others were largely ignoring him, but he remembered that kids are usually like that initially and can be cruel to strangers. Miss Wilkins, the teacher, made numerous attempts to get Johnny to participate but he just looked lost.
As the pastor was reviewing his sermon notes in the study next door to the sanctuary, Miss Wilkins knocked and said she was taking Johnny to the sanctuary. Grabbing his sermon notes, the reverend accompanied them to the sanctuary, took Johnny by the hand and walked him to a seat near the front. He knelt beside him and said, "Johnny, I will be right up there at the pulpit. And I'm going to introduce you to the congregation. Just watch and listen and you'll catch on."
As the organist began the prelude of Christian music, Pastor Willis stood at the pulpit and watched the crowd file in. It looked like it would be a full house. He paid attention to the reaction that people had to Johnny and was taking mental notes. And to his chagrin, he noticed that with the exception of Mrs. Singleton, a devout and good older parishioner, no one came over to speak to young Johnny. In fact, she sat down beside him and gave him a hug, which brought a great grin. She said she would "show him the ropes" of the service and then she winked at the pastor. She had lost a son in the war and the pastor knew that she would step in as if Johnny were her own son.
Mrs. Singleton was the only one who sat in that row, or the ones immediately in front and behind. It was almost as if the poor boy had the plague, but it was somewhat playing out the way the pastor feared and he would use it as part of his message shortly.
Following some beautiful hymns, a prayer and the offering, Mr. Willis began his sermon entitled "Loving Others". He focused his remarks on Jesus' command that we love others as we love ourselves and then moved to the Lord's point about "suffering not the little children". And this is where he became somewhat emphatic with raised emphasis.
"My friends, we are tasked with serving as missionaries for Jesus in all that we do", he opened. "Just like the Apostle Paul and the other great early church teachers, we are expected to extend the flock and help others find Christ. And no where is there a bigger need that right here in the valley where so many are so much less fortunate than we and need love and help. And this especially applies to the children who did nothing to cause their plight."
He spoke to Johnny and asked him to stand saying, "This is Johnny Markham, folks. He's the son of a man and woman who are going through difficult times do to no fault of their own. And young Johnny just wants to be able to smile and have some fun again, but it is hard to do so at times like these. So God expects His people, us, to step up to the plate and get busy to make their life better. Not through a hand out but a hand up, and with prayer and concern."
He motioned Johnny to sit and continued, "I'm sure you are aware, but Ms. Singleton, truly one of our kindest and most saintly members, went right up to Johnny when she saw him and sat down with him and made him comfortable. Yet look around you, not only did no one else walk over and speak to this handsome the young man, no one sat within a double arms length of him. And I guarantee you that he noticed and it did not make him feel accepted."
Pastor Willis then went on to complete his sermon, speaking about kindness and love and finishing by walking down to Johnny's pew and hugging the young boy close while tousling his hair, eliciting a big grin. And then he walked with Johnny to the door awaiting goodbyes following the final hymn.
Pastor Willis was happy to find that his words had made their mark as everyone stood in line to meet Johnny and say some kind words. And on the way taking Johnny home he stopped to get him an ice cream cone. He told him that he needed to realize that when you change the routine for people it usually creates some problems but that things would look differently for him after this and in a much more positive way.
Little Johnny looked at the pastor and said, "But that's okay, Pastor, 'cause they are just sinners like me. They're just learning."
At that point he realized that young Johnny understood humanity much better than most boys his age or, for that matter, much better than some adults. And he also realized that he understood the message of Jesus; we must be able to forgive and forget and move on. We must let others grow in wisdom as we do so ourselves.
When they got to Johnny's house, John, Sr. came to the door and asked how things had gone. They all talked and the decision was that the whole family would accept the offer of a ride next week. Big John told his wife she could use a little break from her chores to spend with the Lord; he knew she missed church and though a fresh start in a new church might be a great idea. Pastor Willis said he would follow up with them later in the week and his spirits rose.
That night at the end of his busiest day, the Lord's Day, he decided to use the Markhams as an example for what he wants to discuss with the church council on Wednesday night. This would be the start of his effort to grow the church where it was needed, among those who needed spiritual nourishment and maybe even a little bootstrap right here in the county.
Pastor Willis fell asleep that night with a slight smile on his face. He had opened the door to a big challenge and he just prayed that he was big enough to handle it. He'd soon find out.
Next: The Church Council Meeting