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.