It’s a typical Sabbath morning at our church. Members of all ages and backgrounds are arriving. The only difference this week is that I am stationed near the door as a greeter, a new experience for me.
I’m not the only greeter this morning. As always, Everett Palmiter—or “Uncle Ev,” as he is affectionately known—is in the lobby welcoming children to church. Each child gets a personal welcome, a kind word, and the opportunity to choose a sticker. I know the routine well because my 8-year-old gets a sticker from Uncle Ev each Sabbath. Every week this man personally teaches my daughter that church is where she is wanted and loved, and every week she skips off to Sabbath School with a sticker on the back of her hand as a reminder of her own belongingness.
Today I watch Uncle Ev in action. Children begin arriving early, and Uncle Ev is ready for them with several sheets of stickers. The little ones all know the routine and run to greet him.
During a lull Uncle Ev sidles up to me and confides that he has been welcoming children to church for 30 years. I am stunned. Thirty years? But there is no time to ponder this.
More children stream in: “Good morning! Do you want a sticker?”
It is such a simple ritual but profound in its constancy. Uncle Ev isn’t young anymore, and sometimes his long trucking days catch up with him. Yet here he is every week as predictable as opening prayer.
Sabbath School is in full swing now. If someone took a tour of the children’s department, they would find a sticker on the back of each dimpled hand: This child is loved. So is this one. And this one. They belong here.
Uncle Ev edges up to me again. “They are all my kids, you know. It doesn’t matter how old they get; they are always my kids.” He points across the parking lot to a little sidewalk I had often wondered about, a pathway leading nowhere. He describes a trailer that used to sit there years ago when the church was smaller. “I taught earliteens out there,” he says, and squints in that direction as if seeing it as it once was. “Yup. Every last one of ’em is still my kid.”
The door opens, and a young unsmiling woman enters the lobby. Before I can extend a hand in greeting, Uncle Ev jumps forward and envelopes her in a hug. “Hello, beautiful girl!” he says, exhibiting the same enthusiasm with which he greeted the littlest child. She is no child, though, for the sweetness and vulnerability of childhood are obviously long gone. It doesn’t matter to Uncle Ev. He sees only what is before him: the essence of a beautiful soul. He sees one of his kids.
My breath catches in my throat. I am humbled by this man’s simple but profound ministry. I am grateful for it, because I have a daughter who receives the same treatment. As I stand there fighting tears an echo comes threading its way forward from the past.
I was an eighth grader in a small church school in another state. Skinny and tall, painfully shy, I wore braces on my teeth, complete with headgear that my dad affectionately called a kissing guard. I was mortified by the term, convinced no one would ever in this lifetime want to kiss me. To make matters worse, my hair was a frizzy mess. My mom called it a mop—an apt description—and determined to tame it. One day she got ahold of me while my nose was in a book and gave me a much-improved short haircut. Twice, though, I was mistaken for a boy. I felt utterly unattractive.
One morning I arrived at school to find a note in my desk: “Hi, pretty girl! Have a wonderful day!”
Pretty girl? Me? I felt warm with pleasure. The note had to be from Nancy. She and her husband were a childless couple, outgoing and fun, and for a season of their lives had adopted the entire church youth group as their own. They also did occasional repairs around the church. Nancy liked me. My straight-as-a-stick figure and frizzy hair were irrelevant. My shyness was simply enveloped in her warm acceptance. Sabbath after Sabbath I was enthusiastically welcomed to church. Just like Uncle Ev’s kids, my inner self was treasured and loved.
I stand in the church lobby remembering this chapter from the past. In a flash it zips forward in time and merges with the present. I feel for a moment that I am a single speck in a joyful, glittering galaxy, and that I am being swept along in a sea of unknown matter that I cannot perceive but that holds my very being together. How many Uncle Evs and Nancys have I bumped up against in the swirl of life? How many encounters have I forgotten that shaped my world and infused me with God’s love? How many people has God used to bring me here to church each week, worshipping Him with joy?
Proverbs 22:6 is so familiar it is almost a cliché: “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it” (NKJV).* How true these words! I cannot forget even the things I cannot remember. They are embedded in my psyche as surely as God put them there by the hands of my fellow travelers: parents and Sabbath School teachers, Pathfinder leaders and academy staff. The hugs and smiles that welcomed me into the family of God, the undeserved grace I was given, the time spent teaching me the principles of the Bible—these along with the simple fact of being accepted as a child and a youth have given me a bedrock of belongingness on which to build a firm faith. How can I ever thank those of you who make a lifetime of loving God’s kids? More important, how can I be sure to pass on the legacy?
Like many church members, I could easily fill this space airing grievances with God’s people: the hurtful words that should never have been spoken, the conclusions that were hastily reached, the attitude of condemnation that occasionally rises to the surface of a congregation like a skiff of slime.
Why are we so outraged by the inevitable hurts that come our way? Do we really expect to walk into church and find a group of people who never misunderstand us and never make mistakes? It’s unfortunate that the church sometimes gets blamed for these painful chapters when in reality it is the enemy using us against one another with every dart in his arsenal. I’m convinced that for every moment my feelings have been hurt, there are a hundred more moments I have been uplifted and carried by grace, propelled into God’s arms by large and small encounters I have mostly forgotten.
God loves us through other people. It is the Uncle Evs and Nancys, the church members and schoolteachers, the pastors and classmates, the dedicated parents, the energized youth, the elderly widowed, who reach out to His children and love them into His fold.
Whoever you are, however you serve, thank you for the smiles you bestow, the grace you extend, the picture of God you place on the felt board each week. It isn’t just a Bible story. It isn’t just another teen barely acknowledging your greeting in the hall. When you find a way to befriend a young person (or an older person, for that matter), you are building the house of God brick by brick, Sabbath by Sabbath. All over the world you have brothers and sisters touching the lives of God’s kids in a million ways.
While we travel to camporees and prepare VBS crafts, while we build schools and map out a course, God is doing His best work right under our noses, sometimes by our very own hands. Our children receive gifts they may never recall, may never even realize have been handed to them. But no matter where they go or how far they wander, they cannot depart from those treasured gif
ts of acceptance and love.
I smile as I watch the young woman walk away, her step a bit lighter. I am inspired by Uncle Ev’s ministry, suddenly aware of potential on all sides. I can hear the words echoing through time and space, winding upward as sweet incense before the throne of grace: Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.
* Texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Karen Sullivan Williams teaches in a Seventh-day Adventist elementary school in Apison, Tennessee. She and her husband, Greg, have four children.