I don’t remember many details about what people said to me during that fourth week of April 1980 when my father passed away. But I will always cherish a comment from my mother acknowledging the honorable legacy my father left for my sister and me.
Our father was unique. “Stuff” didn’t really matter to him. A car was just a way to get from point A to point B. His house was a home, not some kind of status symbol. For dad, people were the most important. Full stop.
Just a few years before his death at the tender age of 36, our family got in the car and drove off to the mountains of North Carolina. We drove on winding roads until we found our designated gravel road, then we drove, albeit more carefully, until the gravel turned to dirt and finally ended at the edge of the forest.
With the confidence of a man on a mission, Dad pushed his family out of the car, tapped his white cane he was learning to use following his recent loss of sight, and led us into the wooded area. Eventually, after a short hike, we arrived at a small house, no more than a cabin, where we were greeted by a family whose situation epitomized the poverty that exists deep within Appalachia.
Turns out Dad had hooked up via citizen band radio, which was popular in the late 1970s, with a man and his family who lived pretty much off the grid. Dad wanted to shake hands with his new friend. Nothing was going to stop him – not dead-end dirt roads, not rocky terrain, not even his blind eyes.
As we walked towards the dilapidated house, my sister and I felt rich in comparison. Even though we lived in a 600 square foot mobile home ourselves with minimal luxuries; we realized we had more than this dear family ever imagined. None of this mattered to Dad. He was here to see his new friend.
This is the legacy of dignity that our father left us. Dad’s hardcore interactions like the one we shared on this day trip instilled a legacy in his children that stays. No matter who the person is, what they have or don’t have, Dad believed that every person had dignity. We will always be grateful for Dad’s lasting legacy in our lives.
Recently. I had the privilege of interacting with a small group of people for whom, like dad, the legacy is paramount. Like many churches, Bethany Baptist Church has struggled to grow in recent years. Even though just six years ago the church had three separate ministries sharing its campus, holding more than 500 worship services and serving more than 11,000 meals to the needy each year at its south campus in Gastonia, things had exchange.
An aging congregation, changes in the community and other factors prompted Bethany to do what Dad had to do more than once in his life. They had to face difficult decisions. The few remaining members of Bethany realized that their legacy would be far more important than just memories of the way things were.
Every church has memories. Every church can reflect on the “good old days”. Unfortunately, many are looking back rather than forward, at the risk of jeopardizing their legacy on the altar of the past.
Bethany didn’t ignore the harsh reality that their season had been sweet, but their season was over. After six decades, the time had come. Instead of giving up and walking away, Bethany chose the legacy.
They reached out to Gateway Gaston, which has collaborative relationships with hundreds of places of worship and nonprofit organizations. This partnership has given them the opportunity to direct the proceeds of their real estate sales to valid organizations that serve our community for the greater good.
Yes, Bethany’s decision to face reality and preserve her legacy means her building was sold, but it also means her legacy lives on in the lives of a predominantly Latin congregation who were thrilled to buy and to reuse the property.
This means that another local ministry will benefit from Bethany’s financial donation and can continue to meet the needs of our city’s most economically marginalized citizens. This means that another nearby church will receive a monetary donation so they now have the opportunity to focus on growth and not just survival.
Likewise, the legacy means people living with addictions will receive scholarships to help them heal, and a sixth local ministry will be able to repair or even replace vehicles that are essential to their good work across the county.
Perhaps most exciting is the $130,000 seed fund Bethany has provided to ensure that our community stops talking about just serving the homeless and finally establishes a sustainable daytime shelter for those who don’t have no place to find relief from street life.
Yes, Bethany’s legacy will live on in other churches who decide to follow their leadership in facing the reality of their declining circumstances, and choose an enduring legacy for the common good of our community and the Kingdom of God.
R. Dwayne Burks is the director of Gateway Gaston and a resident of Gastonia.