We’ll Never Forget You, John Gates

The kids in Sunday School proffered their feelings of sadness as we opened class.

“I’m going to miss Uncle John.”

“Me too.” Another agreed. “He was always so nice.”

“He called me his grandkid.”

“He always cheered the loudest for me. I could hear him yell my name…”

They were talking about John Gates.

John came into our lives through a simple act of kindness. He was attempting to trim some overgrowth in his yard one day and Curtis happened to be driving by. John had suffered a stroke and was almost complete paralyzed on one side. This made it extremely difficult for him to maneuver the clippers. Curtis and his sons jumped in and were able to make short work of the lawn care.

As they talked, Curtis learned that John was in need a of a lawyer. After years of making payments on his home, he was being told that the checks were not owner-financed mortgage payments as promised, but simply rent. Instead of turning over a deed, the owner wanted to turn him out. Unfortunately, John had been on disability for years and did not have funds to pay for an attorney.

So that was how I first met John; When the Bostic Law Group took his case. Which, I might add, we won. John was in tears when he thanked us for our help. He got to keep his home and we got a new friend.

In fact, John began showing up regularly at church. Despite his severe limp, he would work his way down to the front to sit with the Bostics whom he called, “his family.” He would often then often join them at home for lunch, chatting with Jenny as she would finish preparations. The stroke had left him to struggling some for words and stuttering a little bit, but that didn’t stop him. The man could talk.

I hung around some too and heard him share about his life and background. As best as we could put together all of the pieces, it appeared he had a rough upbringing and some even rougher adult years. In fact, it seemed that the litany of health issues that he dealt with were partially caused by years of drug abuse.

But despite whatever the challenges of life had been, he had kept his tender heart and sensitive nature. And in very little time, the whole church started becoming his family. I remember when Curtis and Jenny threw him a birthday party.

His first birthday party.

Most people thought he was turning 70, but in fact, he was only in his early fifties. And he was as excited as a kid. We were celebrating his first birthday party, but he was celebrating his first family. I remember watching him cry as we sang to him in the law firm conference room.

I thought Curtis was a little crazy when he suggested taking John to Disney World. That generally isn’t where you take fifty-somethings who struggle to walk (even with a cane), have one arm in a sling, have no children or grandchildren, and have frequent health struggles.

But John said it was on his bucket list. So we loaded up and went to Orlando.

And we had a grand time. Curtis rented motor scooters for John which helped him get around and helped all of us get in the “short line” everywhere we went. I felt mildly guilty cutting in front of the poor vacationers spending their whole day weaving back in forth in the long lines. Don’t worry, the feeling passed.

We even went to Sea World, and Stephen got John’s picture on the big screen during the Orca pre show. I doubt he ever forgot that.

One of my favorite memories of John was when I got assigned to a dessert contest judging panel with him and one other guy. After talking about his judging responsibility for days (and telling everyone not to tell him what dessert they were bringing), the time finally arrived for us to taste the huge spread of delicious looking pies, cakes, and cookies.

That’s when he announced that he was allergic to all nuts, berries, and chocolate. So…my apologies to everyone who entered that contest. It was rigged. Sorry.

I think having more to life than watching TV did great things for John’s health. He even seemed to be regaining some of the use of his paralyzed limbs. Weeks before the big day, he asked me to spot him while he walked to the front of the church one morning because he planned to do it without his leg brace. It was a huge deal to him as we paraded to the front—him carrying his cane and me carrying his brace.   It was a good reminder to me of the little things we take for granted every day, like two good legs.

Over the years, folks at church helped John in various ways. Jay and Anita brought him meals. Jenny drove him to the hospital a few times. Families like the Sterretts had him over for meals. People included them in their Thanksgiving and Christmas plans. Mary Lou helped care for his dog and would take him to Walterboro to watch the young people from church show horses. He talked all the time about how much fun he had watching them win ribbons.

John wasn’t just a on the receiving end of love and attention. He liked to “pay it forward” as it called it. He took an interest in all the kids at church, but particularly fell in love with the Remember Hope Children’s Home. He sponsored two girls in Burma faithfully, sending small gifts or funds for them to purchase new school uniforms. He was very proud of his efforts to procure hundreds of pencils, pencil sharpeners, and erasers with the help of the fine folks at the Dollar Store.

Last Tuesday, Jenny hosted another birthday party for John. Little did she know, it would be his last. It was Mary Lou who found him lying unconscious in his home a few days later when she stopped by to give his dog some meds. He passed away quietly at MUSC.

He can walk without his leg brace now. And he doesn’t need me to spot him.

John didn’t leave behind a lot by way of worldly possessions, but as Curtis went through his things he found what was perhaps most important to him—letters and cards written by members of our church over the years. I’m so glad he didn’t die a lonely old man with nothing to do but watch a TV set. He died a member of a huge, loving family.

The next day, I sat with some friends who were explaining to me why they didn’t go to church any more—just watched a service on TV. I thought about Charleston Bible Church and the incredible way this body of believers welcomes and loves others whether or not they can pay it back or “pay it forward.” I thought of our meaningful worship, solid Bible teaching, and practical encouragement for godly living. These folks are missing out.

I told them I loved my church and a little bit of why, but I didn’t say enough though. Or perhaps I said too much.

I can sum up my feelings about church in two words: John Gates.

I Give You My Heart

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One of the many gifts I received from the kids (others included custom jewelry and original artwork).

So I just got back from Burma.  Yes, I still call it that.

I get excited when we break through the clouds to see the rice fields  dotted with golden pagodas.  As much as  you can get excited when you’re brain dead and saddle sore from 24 hours of travel.

Burma is fairly homogenized–80% Buddhist.  Yet diverse–there are over 250 languages.  It has breathtaking views.  And ugly slums.  It’s GDP per capita is well below the poverty line (about the same as Syria).  Yet, there are the very rich.  In fact, I was shocked that the Rangoon airport is now home to high-end retailers such as Bolova, Swarovski, and Dolce and Gabbana–a sign that Burma (where we couldn’t use plastic of any kind up until a few years ago) is rapidly changing.

Some things needed to change.  Decades of violence, persecution, and poverty.

And a few memories I want to hold on to forever.

Time won’t permit me to do more than scratch the surface, but here are a few snapshots from this recent trip.

Long Drives.  Long Days.

We waited several hours for our pick up ride to Hope.  There’s nothing quite like spending four days in travel for five days in country…and then spend the better part of the first day waiting for a ride.

My “to do” oriented mind took a little while to adjust to new pace.  But I really had no choice.  And before long, I was loving how I lose all concept of time in Burma. I can go an entire day without looking at a calendar or a clock.

I spent a lot of time driving around in the back of a truck last week.  And a lot of time just sitting with a kid on my lap.  Or walking around holding little hands.

I did nothing.  I loved it.

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The Joys of Hard Work

A lot of hard work was done while we were there.  Just not by me.

The official purpose of our visit mostly centered around the finishes for Hope Children’s Home, the facility Remember constructed in 2015.  We have been investing in the lives of about 60 kids from difficult (or non-existent) family situations over the past several years.

The men on the team worked diligently on woodworking, plumbing, and electrical needs.  I love how they incorporated the kids into their work and started teaching them valuable trade skills.

And then in the evenings, they would join in and play, sing, and strum guitars with the whole bunch.

They even wore the “man skirt;” Longyi.

New Clothes.

When we arrived, I couldn’t miss just how grungy some of the kids looked.  Especially the little ones.  They have neat, clean school uniforms, but on days when they are off, anything will do.  And I mean anything.  In fact, it doesn’t have to be clothes; tattered pajamas work just as well.  Not only would the fashion police have locked them up permanently, but during this “dry” season, the dirt had no respect for their laundry efforts.

I was especially taken with one of the youngest little girls.  She was making do with a tank top that was so ill fitting, the neck line hung halfway to her waist.  In the modest culture,  she made up for the lack of fabric by wearing a fleece jacket with a broken zipper.  She tried to hold it closed but it was eighty something degrees, and beside that, it’s hard to play frisbee while holding a jacket closed.

I was kind of surprised since we have brought and bought the kids clothes recently.  But then,  I’m still learning about how things unfold at Hope.  So we made it a point to at least get some new shirts for all the younger girls.  Not trying to leave anything to chance, Anita and I brought them inside and had them each change into their new shirt.  But soon as we sent them on their merry way, they changed back into their old shirts.  Maybe they were saving the new ones.  Maybe they were too young to care.  But we weren’t clothes heroes this time around. Kinda funny in a way.

Mind you, I did confiscate the ill-fitting tank top.  And I have no regrets.

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Yes, they’re all girls…Keeping their hair short is typical until they are deemed old enough to take care of it.

 

Learning Names.

I’ve been to Burma ten times.  And I’ve learned about ten names.  Maybe.

They are just hard.  They are all different, yet all the same.  So…foreign.

So this time, I tried.  Really tried to learn their names.  I didn’t get them all, but you can see I had good teachers:

 

American Isn’t All Bad

Two words: look closely.

wires

 

The Second Plague

So, just to give you some context on this one, I hate frogs.  They are spiders, snakes, and mosquitos all rolled into one for me.  There is something about croaking sliminess that jumps that I prefer to live with out.

So here you go:

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Yes, that is a frog on the toilet paper roll.

Croak.

But that wasn’t the worst. Here’s the moment that could have made you rich if you had it on video:

I was in the girls’ dorm where we were trying to do a bit of a makeover on the bathroom.  I tried to demonstrate for the little girls how to take a shower in the inside stalls–instead of the outside cistern.

Since my Burmese is rather, uh, limited, I was relying heavily on charades to explain to them what and how while fully dressed in one of the stalls.  I thought I had a rapped audience until one of the girls’ interrupted:

“Teacha…Pappa!”

I looked where she was pointing in time to see an enormous frog perched on wall inches from my nose.

So the demonstration ended rather abruptly into giggles as I jumped out of that stall faster than was probably necessary to avoid being eaten alive by the slight green monster.

Curious George

One of the boys asked me to read to him and I promised I would after dinner.  Then I promptly forgot.

But he didn’t forget.  After dinner, he sought me out with Curious George in tow.  We settled down in the library and I read the book.  Then another.  And another.  And another.  And another.  A small group listened attentively through eight full Curious George books.

The craziest part: they couldn’t understand a word.

They listened attentively through page after page of Curious George randomness in a foreign language.

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These kids are so different.  So much less saturated in media and entertainment.  So much more willing to engage in simple games–bubbles, Frisbee, or hopscotch.  They love to laugh, love to play, love to give, love be affectionate.

Mind you, they are still kids.  Still under construction.  Still in need of discipline.   Teaching.  Parenting.  But for everything I could teach them, there is something they could teach me.

They are lovely in a way that their mug shots just don’t communicate and in a way that made me absolutely fall in love.

Dirty Faces

One more story that I just have to tell.  The little ones and I were entertaining ourselves by making music videos.  It was good fun all around.  But we got to one particularly cute song and I accidently messed up the settings on my phone and it turned out like this:

Again, using charades, I tried to explain to the little crowd of girls (and boys who had joined) that their faces were washed out and we needed to re-tape.  I kept trying to demonstrate until the light bulb seemed to come on for one of the girls and she began urgently explaining the problem to the other kids.

“Sorry! Sorry!”  They all chorused and went running off.

I was completely surprised to see them all rush to a tub of dirty dishwater and vigorously scrub their faces.  They were still apologizing when they got back until I was the one in tears apologizing.

They thought I was telling them we needed to redo it because they were dirty.  They thought I didn’t like runny noses and crusty eyes.  But it wasn’t that at all.

I need to learn Burmese.  I love these people

Evening Devotions

After dinner, the kids had devotions.  They play guitar and sing beautifully.  They especially love to sing into a microphone being blasted through a needlessly large amp cranked up enough to make an airliner need earplugs.

Some songs they sang in English including:

This is my desire
To honor You
Lord, with all my heart
I worship You
All I have within me
I give You praise
All that I adore
Is in You

Lord, I give You my heart
I give You my soul
I live for you alone
And every breath that I take
Every moment I’m awake
Lord, have Your ways in me

[Hillsong – I Give You My Heart Lyrics | MetroLyrics]

I don’t know that they understand the lyrics completely.  Maybe none of us do.  But I know this: I want them to understand.  I want them to mean it.  And if a passion for Christ can be shared, I hope we understand and mean it well enough that we can share it with them.

And I hope it requires a few more trips.

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After praise and testimonies from the team, we prayed together.  In fact, they had our team gather and they surrounded us and prayed for us.  All sixty of them.  All at once.  It was my turn to not understand a word.  But it was the most beautiful sound.  Sixty young voices lifted in heartfelt prayer for us.

I cried.

And if you were there, you would have too.

There you have it.  I’ve taken several thousand words and I’ve barely scratched the surface.  But it’s the best I can do in a single blog post.

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And to all of  you who sponsor these kids or to gave to the construction of Hope, so many thanks!  Maybe, one day, you can come and get your own fresh cut flowers, original artwork, and custom jewelry.  And maybe you can be part of passing on a passion for Christ that enables us to sing together: Lord I give you my heart…have your way in me.