Jerry Varnado is a great American. He was born in Jacksonville but moved to Valdosta before being irrevocably damaged by living in the midst of so many Florida Gators. Jerry played football at the University of Georgia -- hallowed be thy name -- and was a member of a Bulldog team that was SEC Champions and won a Cotton Bowl victory over Donnie Anderson and the Texas Tech Red Raiders, officially making him one of my childhood heroes.
Jerry graduated from UGA and UGA law school, and then became a practicing attorney. Later, after a life-altering experience, he felt the call of God and decided to answer that call and become a minister. Jerry Varnado -- football star, scholar and lawyer -- finally made a preacher. He graduated from the Candler School of Theology in 1985 and has been serving the Lord ever since.
I met Jerry and his beautiful wife Beverly three years ago, during a session of freshman orientation at UGA. Our paths have crossed on a few occasions since and I have enjoyed getting to know Jerry and Beverly and have come to realize that we all have a lot in common. Beverly, in fact, is a writer, too.
Now I told you that to tell you this. Jerry Varnado has bestowed upon me a high honor. He has invited me to deliver this Sunday morning's message at his church, Rays United Methodist, in Bishop. It is always an honor to be asked to speak to any group of people -- but to be offered the pulpit on a Sunday morning is high cotton, indeed. And to top it all off, this Sunday is homecoming at Rays and that means that after the service they will be having dinner on the grounds.
Now that really struck a chord with me.
I was raised in the Methodist church in Porterdale. We always had homecoming in the fall -- on the first Sunday in October. I am pretty sure they still do. We, too, had a guest speaker on homecoming Sunday -- sometimes a former minister and sometimes a member of the laity, but the highlight of the day--as I am certain will be the case at Rays UMC -- was the dinner on the grounds that followed the preaching.
You talk about some precious memories!
The words "dinner on the grounds" create an image of a slower lifestyle and a simpler time. There was no Wendy's or McDonald's or Captain D's back then and as far as I knew the closest Chinese restaurant was in Peking. We ate at home, seven days a week, and there was no running out to eat after church on Sunday. We ate well every day but on those special days when dinner was served at the church -- those days when all the women of the community cooked their very best dishes and spread them out on long tables covered with red and white checked tablecloths -- well, those days were just a little slice of heaven right here on earth.
The women would leave church early to get the tables ready and the smells that came through the open windows of our little brick church would tempt a bishop to pronounce the benediction early. Our visiting preachers might have been tempted to cut the message short but they never did. Homecoming attracted unusually large crowds and every preacher we ever had seemed to have more to say the more people there were in the house to hear him say it.
The wait was almost intolerable, but the meal was always worth the wait. So much good food! We had casseroles made from scratch, fried chicken and roast beef and ham, pickles and relishes of every description and every fresh vegetable known to man. There were always large tubs of sweet tea and fresh-squeezed lemonade to wash everything down with and a big kettle of Brunswick stew, cooked all night over an open fire by Homer Hill and the other men of the church. I am pretty sure I am bordering on gluttony just to think about the desserts. There were cakes and pies and cookies and brownies and churn after churn of homemade ice cream.
Glory! What memories are conjured up by the term "dinner on the grounds."
Of course I am older and wiser now and I have learned that the message is more important than the meal on homecoming and on every other Sunday, which makes the honor of being invited to speak at homecoming even more significant. There would have been a lot less pressure if I had been merely asked to bring a pork roast or a plate of deviled eggs.
I pray that I am up to the task. As I said, Jerry Varnado is a great guy and I wouldn't want to let him down. Him nor his boss, either, come to think of it.
Darrell Huckaby is a local educator and author. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. For past columns, visit www.rockdalecitizen.com or www.newtoncitizen.com.