My Calling

This year marks the 25th year that I felt called to the ministry. I am very grateful to one man in particular, for his witness to my life: my old pastor, Palmer Garner.

He was an ordinary pastor, Brother Garner, the sort of pastor you would expect a Methodist bishop to send to McGehee.

McGehee was unprepared to face the present, much less the future. The Civil War hung like a heavy shroud on this declining railroad town. Less than 100 years before, Yankee soldiers had unceremoniously marched through our swamps to Vicksburg. To our eternal shame, no significant resistance was offered, except a brief unsuccessful skirmish at Boggy Bayou.

A pastor distinguished only by his mediocrity, Palmer Garner seemed committed to irrelevance.

McGehee called its pastors deferentially “Brother.” Brother Garner was about six feet tall and wore gray polyester, wide-lapel suits. He often wore penny loafers with optimistic shiny Lincoln Head pennies stuck in the top of each loafer. On Sundays, he sported penny loafers with attractive leather bells protruding from each ear of Lincoln. They silently jingled with each step he took.

His breath always smelled of juicy fruit gum. He was trying to hide his cigarette breath?everyone knew that he smoked Pall Malls. He would drive to Halley, the next town, to obtain cigarettes so no unscrupulous store clerk would reveal his secret. Most Methodists were willing to forgive this wickedness, positioned slightly lower in the hierarchy of probity than movie-going but slightly higher than chewing. Brother Holland, Brother Garner’s predecessor smoked pleasant-smelling pipes and everyone fervently hoped that Brother Garner would switch but we more or less tolerated this serious infraction. Besides, everyone knew that Presbyterians were practically immoral because their pastor smoked lightly filtered Kents and drank California Chardonnay. The Baptists did nothing?they were pharrisees?although once an unscrupulous Baptist youth leader impregnatedd the head cheerleader at McGehee High School. The Episcopalian pastor wore bright pink shirts with a clergy collar and drove a foreign car. Everyone considered the Episcopalians to be anarchists or communists but there were so few of them that it did not matter. There were so few Roman Catholics that most they were a foreign sect.

Brother Garner was married to a nurse who faithfully attended church and sat in the third roll front, right side, behind 88 year old Mrs. Rapp who hardly knew where she was, and right in front of Mr. Mays, our wayward truck driver who rarely attended church. This seemed about the best place for a preacher’s wife–behind the most celebrated scion of the church and ahead of the most reprehensible reprobate of the church. She could draw sustenance from one and beam benevolence on another.

Brother Garner’s boys were proper preacher kids. Their shoes were always shined. They attended all church functions?including the women’s auxiliary club.&nbbsp; They rarely spoke and when they did they spoke in perfect, complete, grammatically correct sentences, avoiding all evil colloquialisms and slang.

Brother Garner dutifully remained irrelevant. That is to say, his sermons always concerned vitally important subjects such as “Sanctification” or “Soteriology.” Despite the fact that desegregation was fracturing our fragile community and some or our neighbors and relatives were warring with the Army Reserve units at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, Garner was warning us of “immoral thoughts.” Most of us had not had an “immoral thought” since Elvis Presley played in the old VA gym.

The only redeeming feature of Brother Garner’s sermons was that they were mercifully short. They allowed us to get to Lawson Cafe’s hickory-smoked pork ribs before the Baptists!

We never liked Garner’s sensitivity. It seemed so effeminate–un-Christian, really. Someone suggested that Brother Garner was a Yankee and part of that was true. Even though he was from Cotton Plant, Arkansas, his mother was from Massachusetts?which might have explained his strangeness. ; Mrs. Herren, the high school senior English teacher, acted the same way. She too was from Massachusetts. Herren met and married Mrs. Herren when he was soldiering up North during World War II.

In short, Brother Garner was an incorrigible sentimentalist, and while Southern ethos was full of tradition and veiled sentimentalism, we fiercely hid our true feelings.

For instance, when Mr. Bubba Sinclair tried to kill himself, no one expressed surprise or shock. Bubba was the richest man in town. Of course, he was an Episcopalian and an alcoholic. His family owned the only remaining antebellum plantation. The family grew nothing, worked at nothing. They were old money. The Sinclairs had earned their money when Bubba’s great-grandfather, Marlboro Sinclair, returned form the War (i.e., the Civil War) and purchased most of Desha County. The Missouri Pacific, when it expanded southward, was obligated to make old Marlboro very wealthy. The Sinclairs did nothing with their money, of course, but spend it and by this time the Sinclair genus had just about run its course.

Suicide an act was expected of an unstable person whose alcoholism had brought dishonor on his family and town. The only thing that bothered us was that he failed. Such a noble action demanded resolution, and we perversely expected Bubba to act like a man and finish the job. Although we never said anything to him, he knew what was expected and he finally did it.

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