Sunday’s church visitor

The cars continuously rolled into the parking lot of the church. Just like a parade. One after another. Each one carrying a familiar face or family — except one.

The Cadillac with out-of-state plates turned into the parking lot slower than the others in the procession. The fact that the car was much older and much dirtier caused it to stand out like the sore thumb of an apprentice carpenter who had walloped himself with a hammer.

The driver was directed to a parking space in the middle of the lot and the car slowly pulled in between two pickup trucks.

The car door soon creaked open , the driver slowly unfolded his more than 6-foot frame from the front seat, stood next to the Cadillac and looked carefully at the collection of shiny white, blue, gray, black and red vehicles. His well-worn cowboy boots were as dusty as his car; his dark blue suit had seen better days; his years-old fedora was a bit too small for his head; and the man’s face, when he looked up from the ground, appeared twice the age of his car.

But as the man made his way across the parking lot at a pace reminiscent of molasses running up the hill in January, it wasn’t his worn, deep-lined face; scraggly thin beard; and deep-set grey eyes that were most apparent. It was what the man was holding.

Clutched in his left hand was a Bible that had long ago lost its newness — one that was now tattered, ripped in some spots and in others held together with an assortment of tape. The man walked slowly toward the door, shuffled really, his hand squeezing the Bible and holding it close to his heart.

When the man was greeted at the door and welcomed in, he made his way to the sanctuary and stopped, carefully surveying the limited seats available. Numerous sets of eyes, young and old, watched the newcomer — until the pastor suddenly appeared next to the man, said a few words and then led him to the front row.

The man sank into the seat with a soft thud, removed his hat and put the Bible in his lap. He never looked left or right — though there was nobody near him. For the next 90 minutes, despite the handful of ups and downs for prayer and song, the man barely moved. His eyes closed tight during the pastor’s prayer, his hand slowly caressed the Bible during the sermon — giving a hint as to how the word BIBLE had been erased from the cover — and his lips barely moved during each of the praise and worship songs.

During the fellowship portion of the service, several in the congregation approached the man and extended a hand — which he eyed cautiously before accepting the brief handshake. His hand, covered with thin, see-through skin and a patchwork of blue veins, was cold but the grip was both bony and firm.

When the service came to a close, the pastor came to the man, spoke a few words, smiled and helped the man to his feet. The two led the way to the front door, followed by the rest of the congregation — but the regulars held back a moment while the pastor and visitor spoke softly. The pastor put his arms around the man’s slumping shoulders and hugged him, and then watched as the man made his way across the parking lot to his old Cadillac.

Every eye near the door was gazing out to the parking lot, and it was silent as they watched the Cadillac slowly back out and then drive away.

Each of those eyes now turned to the pastor, silently waiting for him to reveal all they wanted to know about the visitor. As the pastor raised his hand, the questions began … Who was he? Where is he from? Why did he come here? Does he have family here? What did he say to you? Will he be coming again?

And then, from somewhere in the back, a small voice was heard above all the others. The young boy, who couldn’t have been more than 10, blurted out — to the immediate dismay of his parents — “did you see his falling-apart Bible?”

As the small crowd looked back at the boy and his parents let out a a “shhhhhhhh” in perfect harmony, the pastor spoke up.

“Folks, the man was just passing through and was led here for today’s service,” he said quietly.” I told him it was a blessing to have him join us and I wished him safe travels.

“And yes, young man, I did notice his Bible,” the pastor continued. “And I even commented on it to him before he left.”

It didn’t appear the pastor was going to reveal what he had said to the man about the Bible … until the young boy once again spoke up, saying, “what did you say?”

The pastor smiled, looked at the boy and said, “I told him that a Bible that is falling apart obviously belongs to someone whose life is not.”

The congregation that day went home to ponder the pastor’s sermon — as well as the much-stronger message at the front door.

W. Curt Vincent can be reached by calling 910-862-4163.