My Grandfather, the Pastor

I am different than my grandpa “Chuck”.  I am talkative and energetic and love to have a good conversation.  My grandpa has always been quiet and  reserved, preferring to read and study over talking.  Yet he’s always been a man to be admired.  With my grandma Judy He started the Grace Baptist Church in Birmingham Michigan in 1957, when my mom was 5.  He pastored that church for 57 years, until he retired in 2014.  Carie and I and our twins were able to attend the festivities that weekend, and I remember being so proud of my grandparents and their commitment to love on that community for so long.  My grandpa has always been much more conservative in his methods than I have been.  He attended and sat in my ordination council in the summer of 2003, and stayed for church the next day.  We had a band and a much more laid back approach to church than his home turf, so I was interested in his thoughts about the worship service.  I literally asked him what he thought in front of a table of family and instead of criticizing or falsely praising the service, he looked at me, smiled, and remained silent.  A few things I know about my grandpa Chuck, now 89.  First, he is a man of integrity.  And second, he never wastes a word.  He speaks infrequently, but when he does, it is usually the wisest thing anyone has said in the room.

A few days ago on a Facebook group, I came across an open letter to my grandpa, and would like to share it with you.  In an age where pastors are trying to be as cool as possible, may these types of letters become a normal compliment to those who may don a pulpit each week.  I don’t know the author or her story, but I appreciate her sentiments.

Dear Pastor Whitfield,
I grew up in an exceptionally abusive home. My parents were responsible for most if not all of it, not because they were the perpetrators but because they did nothing to protect or to care for me and my siblings. God had no hand in the horrific things that happened to me and my siblings.
Hunger was a HUGE issue for my family. As a young child, I learned if I wanted to eat, I had to figure out where my next meal was coming from.
So, as a young kid, I learned a few tricks:
Sad to say, theft was one of them. I stole to eat.
Deception was another means to get food. I would find a church and walk down the street knocking on doors. When the homeowner would answer, I would tell them that I was on a scavenger hunt from the church down the street and ask them if they had a piece of fruit, or a sandwich, or a can of pop. Anything that was in their kitchen, because whatever I collected would go to feed the hungry (this was not a lie-I usually was starving when I went to this extreme).
I would also go to the grocery store and fill my cart and eat some of the items in my cart. Then I would abandon the cart if I thought I could get away unseen or if I were feeling trapped, abandon it in the checkout line (claiming my dad was in the car outside with the cash to pay and would be right back).
But things changed for me. I found a church. I found a church where I found refuge. I found a church where I finally felt like a had a home.
That church was Grace Baptist Church. The Pastor was Charles Whitfield and his beautiful wife Judy Whitfield.
I came to them broken. I came to them flawed, hungry, afraid, lost, and Godless.
What I found was a place, a place where I finally felt safe.
A place where there were leaders and teachers who saw me not as a dirty, unkempt, unruly, irresponsible, and worthless piece of chattel I believed myself to be, but a child of God.
I was so damaged, misunderstood, and almost beyond repair.
The church, compassionate members and my youth group leaders were my salvation.
However, salvation can mean a few things.
First, I was saved from my inevitable earthly path of self-destruction.
Secondly, I learned of salvation and forgiveness for my sins from my Holy Savior. Although my deeply seeded damage would not let me really recognize this for decades.
I still struggle with the belief of God’s love. After all, if your own momma doesn’t love you, who can?
It takes an extraordinary person to love an unlovable child. Healing that child is almost impossible.
After years of therapy and reflection, I have discovered that nothing replaces the simple belief of belonging and being loved.
My lasting rock is the foundation built at my childhood church. Pastor Whitfield, Grace Baptist Church has been the reason I have been able to survive for as long as I have. Every day I marvel that God loves me, and it is a daily struggle for me to believe it.
Pastor Whitfield, I’m so sorry I broke the window in your office. I’m sorry I broke those two chairs and didn’t consider for a moment that I should pay for them. I am sorry that I gave nothing to the church but took everything.
But most of all, I’m so sorry for the loss of your wife. She is and will forever be an inspiration to me.
But know this, a lost and devastated child came into your fold. You welcomed her, you feed her, you nurtured her, you forgave her, and yet got nothing in return (I was an empty vessel with nothing to give but you never made me feel like garbage-I did enough of that on my own).
Please just know this. I will never forget how you tried to help my sister Diana by taking her to Corpus Christi.
I will never forget that the doors of Grace Baptist were open to me regardless of my misbehavior.
I will never forget you and your amazing wife for the rest of my days.
Thank you for your kindness. Thank you for your tolerance. I learned about God’s grace by observing you.
If I could lasso the moon and give it to you, I would.
Your reach is stronger than you could ever imagine.
With the utmost respect and love,
Laurie Harlan
Wouldn’t it be cool if the stories of our churches were littered with letters like this?

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