Monday, July 24, 2017

The Visit

On a sweltering evening in the summer of 1955, my mother stood at the sink of her small kitchen in a tiny house at 414 Dick Ewell Avenue in Colonial Heights, Virginia, doing the dinner dishes. My older brother and older sister, Donnie and Linda, were involved in some sort of mischief in the cramped living room, getting on my mother's last nerve. It had been a long day, middle 90's and terribly humid with nothing but a couple of table fans to circulate the heavy air.  My Dad was struggling to make the rent payments working a series of sales jobs that required him to be on the road for long stretches. Now that school was out, she found it harder and harder to get anything done during the day with two kids under foot and newly pregnant with my sister Paula. I was still nearly three years away from entering the world, but my life was about to be dramatically changed by a faint knock on the screen door.

I have often wondered what might have happened to the Dunnevant story had what follows never happened. Suppose Mom had just stepped out to go for a walk. Suppose she had been at the grocery store. What if Nathan and Dora Radford had not bothered to go visiting that particular night?

Mom thought she heard a knock at the door but couldn't be sure because of all the racket Donnie and Linda were making, so she turned off the water and dried her hands on a dish towel and gave a closer listen. Three soft taps on the ill-fitting screen door with the hole in the bottom screen that let in every stinging fly in Chesterfield county. How many times had she asked my father to get that fixed? Mom went to the door in an ill temper, not in the mood for the Fuller Brush man or anyone else for that matter. Yes? Can I help you?

There was the cheerful woman who would become my mother's best friend, Dora Radford, with her plump face and bright eyes and a smile that exploded out from her like it had supernatural powers.  Her handsome husband Nathan just stood there looking like a movie star. She introduced herself and explained that they were in the neighborhood inviting people with kids to come to something called Vacation Bible School . . . Do you have kids, Mrs. Dunnevant?

Despite the heat and her foul mood, my mother found herself inviting the couple in to hear more. The prospect of having somewhere to take the kids every morning for a week sounded potentially heavenly. The Radford's church was in southside Richmond, nearly ten miles away. What in the world were they doing down in a poor neighborhood in Colonial Heights drumming up business? Not to worry, they could send a church van to pick up the kids. My parents didn't go to church. They had been a few times growing up in Buckingham County when they were kids, but back then...everyone did. They weren't hostile or antagonistic to church, just apathetic and exhausted by the time Sunday rolled around. But this Bible School thing sounded like just the thing to get the kids out of the house for a week during that dreadfully hot summer and maybe give my mother a break. She agreed to let them go, on the condition that she be allowed to come along the first day just to make sure that this Kingsland Baptist Church wasn't some sort of cult.

And that was it. It was as simple as that. That was the day that changed the trajectory of the Dunnevant family in ways great and small. Even though I wasn't even alive at the time, my life story was altered and consequently the lives of my children. It is a mind-numbing exercise to contemplate the vicissitudes of life. Sitting around pondering the random collision of people and events in life is a recipe for madness. Some believe in fate, others call it chance. I have come to believe in the divine appointment.

Because of a seemingly random visit that humid night 62 years ago, literally everything changed for one small, poor, insignificant family in a run-down neighborhood in Colonial Heights. My mother would wind up being captivated by what she saw that first day of Bible School. She would attend every day. Both of my parents would attend the family night service at the end of the week, their first time in church together in years. They started attending regular services, and an adult Bible study class together. Within months, both of my parents became Christians and soon couldn't get enough of the church. They went to every class that would take them. They met new people their own age who welcomed them into the fellowship of a dynamic church. They immersed themselves in the place and soaked up the words and teachings of Jesus Christ. It transformed their thinking and the direction of their lives. After several years of discipleship and personal and spiritual growth, my father (for the first and only time) heard the audible voice of God calling him into the ministry while driving his beat-up Plymouth down Jeff-Davis highway.

This calling was ridiculous on its face. Back in those days, becoming a Baptist minister required not only a college education but also a seminary degree. Needless to say, my Dad had neither, and the prospect of getting either with little money and 4 children seemed like a pipe dream. Nobody in my dad's family had ever attended college. Heck, my dad's father had been a sharecropper at one point. The whole idea seemed impossible, and many questioned his calling. You're sure it was the voice of God, Emmett? Maybe it was the fan belt!

But against all odds, my dad persevered. He enrolled at the University of Richmond, becoming a 38 year old freshman. He had to quit the best job he had ever had at Allied Chemical (confirming his madness in the eyes of some) and take a job at Reynolds Metals working the graveyard shift at night (11:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m.) and going to school full time during the day . . . with four hungry mouths to feed. He graduated on time and with honors. Then it was time to pack up his family of six in a Chevrolet Impala station wagon for the twenty hour drive to Louisiana to attend the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary for three years. All of us lived in a two bedroom campus apartment with a barely working window air conditioner. Within two weeks of our arrival, we were welcomed to our new city by a raging hurricane (Betsy) which flooded the place and filled the streets on campus with poisonous snakes and alligators. We weren't in Virginia anymore. 

My Dad became a Teamster, loading trucks on the docks where the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico meet. Three more years of graveyard shifts in tropical heat and humidity, which made the summers in Richmond seem like the Garden of Eden by comparison. I don't remember ever seeing Dad during the week in all the time we lived in New Orleans. But again, he graduated . . . on time and with honors. Soon he would receive his first church job as senior pastor of Winns Baptist Church in Elmont, bringing the family back to Virginia.

Before the visit, the Dunnevant family was part of an uninspired demographic in America . . . poor, rural, lower class, with no education and thin prospects for advancement. Some did advance, and spectacularly so, but most didn't. But on a steamy night in 1955, everything changed for one such family. My parents went on to have four kids, nine grandkids, and four great grandkids before they passed away. In total, eleven college graduates, four with Masters degrees, all long ago having escaped poverty and the other pathologies that poverty breeds. In his 45 years as a minister of the Gospel, at least a thousand others were introduced to the redemptive power of Jesus Christ, transforming their family stories, the ripples produced by a single stone on the water seeming never to end.

All because a bright eyed couple went to the trouble of making a visit in a run-down neighborhood on a hot summer night 62 years ago.