My coffee was half-cold the first time Clinton Davis sat down.
I was in the Natchez Coffee Company for a favorite pastime: reading, writing, drinking coffee, listening to that acoustic/Hawaiian version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” and hoping that no one interrupted me. For twenty years, I had lived in cities, where I could easily fade into crowds. After two years as a pastor in a small, Mississippi town filled with friendly folks, I began to see that “fading in to the backdrop” wasn’t easy. At the town’s one coffee shop, people would come over to visit.
While I’ve become more open to such interruptions, on that day, I sighed and tensed when a man I barely knew invited himself to the table.
Clinton walked in carrying a stack of catalogs under one arm and a cup of black coffee in the other. I had been introduced to him at a recent party, and we’d had a brief conversation. I don’t remember a lot about that first conversation — except that he talked a lot about being an Episcopalian.
I slipped my white ear buds out to make small talk with him. I thought that when I put the ear buds back in that he would leave. He didn’t. I went on reading and writing and listening to that guy named Israel who sang the Wizard of Oz song. Clinton went on perusing.
For the next few months, Clinton either began following me or developed an excellent taste in food & drink. I chose to believe the latter. I would run into him at my favorite restaurants, and both of us became regulars at the coffee shop. We always conversed, some days more than others, and I discovered that he was well-versed in theology. Truth be told, though, I don’t remember much about those initial conversations with Clinton. I was too preoccupied with something else.
When I met Clinton, I was in my final year of preparation to be ordained as a United Methodist minister. There were forms to complete, essays to write, and deadlines to meet. I had completed the first round of paperwork, and the second round was due at year’s end. I had been excited, focused, and inspired to finish the work into which God led me.
But then, some events happened that caused me to question my calling. I wondered if I really did want to serve as a minister in the Church. I asked myself if I could continue living in the pain and heartache that I was experiencing. While I confided in family and a few close friends my sadnesses, I initially shared with no one the depth of the doubt. I simply held on to the paperwork and wondered if I would mail it after all.
Doubt is a funny thing. I wrote a post about it earlier this year, a reflection on this same, hazy time period in my life. It’s hard to put into words the way that doubt can overpower the mind, the way that it can paralyze you, the way that it can cause you to forget the good because you’re so consumed with the possibility of bad. That’s where I was regarding my call as a minister — when the doorbell rang.
A white, styrofoam “ice chest” was under the mailbox, and the UPS guy yelled “Happy Thanksgiving!” as he drove away (did I mention it was a small town?). The return address was Paula Dean’s then-famous food company. I tore the tape off to reveal a frozen, fully cooked, well-spiced turkey breast. I grabbed the top of the chest to find a note that simply said:
“Blessings on you and your ministry. Happy Thanksgiving from Mr. Clinton Davis.”
Clinton? The theological guy with the catalogs? Sending me a turkey? I guess the turkey was for sale in one of his catalogs…..
I took the turkey inside and showed the card to my parents. We all said variations of “Wow” and “How kind” before I spoke the truth: “He has perfect timing.”
It was on the day of Clinton’s unexpected gift that the fog of doubt slowly began to lift. I held on to the Paula Dean card for a long time with the incentive, “Well, if this person I barely know has faith in my ministry, perhaps I can do this after all.” Before long, though the pain was still present, my vision became clearer. I mailed the last of the ordination paperwork. I threw away the turkey card because I finally believed what it said: God had blessed my ministry, and God had blessed me to do the work of ministry.
With time, Clinton became a dear friend. We began meeting for lunch regularly, instead of just running into each other frequently, with the turn of a few heads. Clinton was almost 80, I was not yet 30, and he had lunch frequently with various female friends. It was a perfect scenario for puzzled, overly-curious onlookers! A bright attorney and academic, he helped me with my sermon research, telling stories about all the places he’d visited in the Holy Land. In return, I tried to help him figure out his cell phone. He eventually learned to send a text message.
Two weeks after I was ordained in 2010, Clinton underwent surgery for a cancer recurrence. Though he recovered from that procedure, the cancer returned earlier this year. He gradually grew weaker, and the treatments no longer worked. He was placed under the care of hospice. I went to see him. I thanked him, again, for the turkey, the card, and his friendship. We talked on the phone after I returned home. He asked what my sermon was going to be, and I told him, “Paradise.” We talked about Jesus’ final conversation with the man crucified next to him, the passage for that upcoming Sunday, and he told me about visiting Calvary. A few minutes before midnight on Christmas Eve, I received word that “light perpetual” had shone on Clinton, and his days on earth were done.
God offers us gifts all the time.
Sometimes we don’t see them. In the two years that passed before I met Clinton, we were likely in the same restaurants often, but I had never noticed him.
Sometimes we don’t expect them. A turkey from an acquaintance was the last thing I would’ve predicted to pierce the darkness of doubt.
When they heard the king, they went; and look, the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stood over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were filled with joy. Matthew 2:9-10 (Common English Bible)
How grateful I am that God’s light, shining through the unexpected gift of Clinton, led me to where I needed to be. Where might God’s light be leading you? Through whom might God be leading you? Perhaps it’s time to pay attention to the person sitting right in front of you. I’m glad that I eventually did. And I’m especially grateful that he sat down that day.
all good things to each of you,
Read more from Darian Duckworth at her blog.