Thursday, January 22, 2009

Chapter 3: Papa was a Preacher

Charles was a new Christian, just like Edna, when he arrived at the Church of God Bible Training School in Sevierville, Tennessee. Also both of them had fathers who worked for the railroad. Albert C. Conn, Charles' dad, was a mechanic at the Southern Railroad Yard in Atlanta, Georgia. The Conn family lived in the Riverside section of the city, up near the Chattahoochee River.
They were members of Collins Memorial Methodist Church, where Charles served as president of the local Methodist Youth Fellowship. His mother, Belle, was what people called an "old time shouting Methodist," of the Wesleyan holiness tradition. Her children say that when she was a young woman, sometimes when the service got lively, she would "shout her hair down."
Albert, the patriarch of the family, was a good man who supported his wife and seven children in their church involvement, but he did not attend services much himself. Besides his work at the railroad, Albert's primary interest was in the Ku Klux Klan, and he was a leader in that organization.
In those days, the KKK was not exclusively a racist organization, but more a fraternity of men who considered themselves the defenders of all that was right in their own eyes. In other words, they were against anything and anybody who did not act, think, talk and worship in a manner that they considered appropriate. Among other things, they were anti-negro, anti-communist, anti-Jew, and anti-holy-roller.
As a child I heard many stories and read articles of how the Klan had terrorized Pentecostal believers in the southern United States. They were known to drag Pentecostal preachers out of their homes at mid-night, whip them with a lash, and leave them bleeding - sometimes dying. There were other occasions when Pentecostal churches were burned, or shots were fired into those churches while service was being held.
Charles was a very bright young man who had a way with words and a gift for public speaking. He studied anti-Communist literature and developed a talk in which he denounced the menace of Communism. Albert took his teen-aged son all over the Atlanta area to give his speech at Klan rallies. But Charles disappointed his father by never actually joining the KKK. He did not agree with everything he saw and heard at Klan meetings, particularly the racist ideas the Klan embraced.
Charles believed in human dignity for all people and stood up for what he thought was right. As a very young man he sometimes staged his own silent protest by sitting in the back of the bus with the colored folks, in spite of the criticism of his peers and the dismay of his father. This was a full generation before Rosa Parks, a black woman, refused to move from her seat in the front of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, which sparked the modern Civil Rights movement.
That was not the only way in which Charles rebelled against his father. He also decided early that he wanted to become a writer. He had a job delivering Western Union telegrams via bicycle in downtown Atlanta. After work, or whenever he could find a spare hour, he would go to the Atlanta Public Library, where he read and studied. In an effort to enhance his image as a writer he bought himself a satchel and had lettered on the side: "Charles W. Conn, Author and Poet."
Charles was only 16-years-old when he caught the eye of a remarkable lady, Willa Scott, who also spent much time doing research at the library. She was an older woman, and a journalist for the Atlanta Constitution. One day Mrs. Scott asked Charles if he would give her his address. She wanted to meet his parents.
Later that day, after Charles took the streetcar from downtown to Riverside, and then walked the last couple of blocks to his family's humble home, he was surprised to see Mrs. Scott already there, talking with his parents. Even before asking Charles, she wanted their permission to become his personal tutor, without charge, and teach him everything she knew about research and journalism.
Albert and Belle Conn were uncomfortable in the presence of this educated and refined lady. Her request caught them totally off guard. Being a writer was not what they had in mind for their son, but they gave their consent. For three years during the gloomy days of the great depression, when prospects for a college education were bleak, Willa Scott poured herself into her eager young student in whom she felt she had discovered a genuine talent.
Albert was an exceptionally intelligent man, and everyone in the community looked up to him as a leader, but he was illiterate, having never had an opportunity for schooling. He thought his son's obsession with books was foolishness. He wanted Charles to learn a trade that would be useful, like farming, building things, or repairing machinery. His son's unwillingness to join the Ku Klux Klan and his refusal to become a farmer or a mechanic caused Albert to despair that Charles would never amount to anything worthwhile.
Although Charles had been involved in the Methodist Church, he had never had a born again experience with God. As an older teenager he began to think more and more about spiritual things. His interest was piqued when a large revival tent was erected in Riverside and a protracted Pentecostal meeting was conducted there, sponsored by the 6th Street Church of God, which is today the well known Mt. Paran Church. At the conclusion of that revival, in 1938, the Riverside Church of God was established, and a church building was erected on Bolton Road, not far down the same street as the Collins Memorial Methodist Church.
Charles was drawn to the joyous worship style and spirited preaching of the Pentecostals. But for a matter as serious as his own eternal soul's salvation, he wanted to seek the counsel of men he considered God's top spokesmen in the city. He also wanted to hear it from more than just one viewpoint. So it was that early one spring morning he found himself riding the trolley into downtown Atlanta, with appointments to meet separately with the pastors of two of the largest churches in the city. They were Jesse Henley, a Baptist, and Bill Boring, a Methodist. Both of these good men took time to counsel and pray with their young visitor that he might receive the gift of salvation, but Charles felt no satisfaction in his heart. So he took the streetcar back home to Riverside.
It was still early in the day, about 11 am, and Charles was the only person on the streetcar other than the driver. As he rolled along the city streets, Charles called upon God quietly and personally, once again asking Jesus to come into his heart. Telling of the experience more than 60 years later he said: "The glorious flood of peace and joy that overwhelmed me, alone on a streetcar, was like an infusion of new life that has been with me from that time until now without question or regret." It was May 1, 1939. One week later Charles attended a service at the new Riverside Church of God where he received the Baptism of the Holy Spirit with the initial evidence of speaking in other tongues. He was now a Pentecostal.
Soon after his conversion Charles felt God was calling him to preach, so he gave up his ambition to become a writer and began making plans to attend Bible School. That fall he packed his bags, and with a tearful kiss and hug from his mother and a handshake from his disappointed father, he caught the train for Tennessee and the Church of God Bible Training School.
It was on his first day at B.T.S. that Charles fell head over heels for Edna, but it took her much more time to make up her mind about him. Charles was almost two years younger than she, and Edna had many other suitors. It required more than a year of constant focused pursuit from Charles before she finally came to love him too. They made plans to marry and enter the ministry together.
Charles began his ministry as an evangelist, traveling widely, mostly by bus, from Georgia, to Ontario, and Louisiana to Iowa. Edna became his willing partner and wholehearted supporter. Those early days were difficult, having no home of their own, and staying with pastors and church members in the towns and rural areas where they ministered.
Nine months after the weddomg their first child, Philip, was born in Decatur, Alabama. Soon thereafter, Charles accepted an appointment to pastor the Church of God in St. Joseph, Missouri, housed in an ornate old Methodist building much in need of repair. The congregation was small, and the people were not a good match for the fledgling pastor. In their mind he was too bookish, and he couldn't even play the guitar. At least the parsonage offered a somewhat stable environment for the birth of their second child, Sarah. After 18 months in St. Joseph, Charles asked to be reassigned, and was moved to the tiny town of Leadwood, Missouri, on the other side of the state, about 60 miles south of St. Louis.
Charles and Edna's ministry was "fruitful" in Leadwood in more ways than one. Not only did the good folks there embrace them with open arms, but the nursery department exploded with growth. Five months after their arrival in Leadwood I was born, and then eleven months after that came Paul, replacing me as the baby of the family. Within the next two and a half years, Sharon and Raymond were born.
It was a snowy winter evening when I came into the world, in the back bedroom of the small parsonage next door to the church. I weighed in at 11 pounds and 10 ounces, Mother's biggest baby. On top of being nine months pregnant, Mom was also down with the mumps on the day she gave me birth. Perhaps that was a factor in my being born hard-of-hearing, although it was several years before that defect was discovered.
The Leadwood church was a strong one, especially for such a small town. About 200 people attended Sunday Services, and my earliest memories include thinking that I was the favorite of everybody in the church. I was a happy child and church people called me "the baby with the million dollar smile." Sister Limp and Sister Jordan would fight over which one got to hold me during the service, and sometimes one wouldn't come if it was the other's turn to keep me.
When I was in my twenties I went back to Leadwood to preach. Sister Limp's daughter laughed as she told me of the church feud I had caused between her mother and Sister Jordan. She also gave me a framed picture of myself as a toddler, which she said sat on the mantle in the Limp house for many years, before her mother passed away.
Dad thought he had given up being a writer in order to become a minister, but it turns out he became both. He began writing articles for the "State Paper" of the Churches of God in Missouri, and soon his talents were discovered by Alva B. Harrison. Sister Harrison, the widow of a Presbyterian minister, published a youth magazine called the Lighted Pathway. After her husband's death, she joined the Church of God and moved to Cleveland, Tennessee, to be near the Publishing House. Her magazine was adapted by the Church of God and became the official youth publication for the denomination, with Alva B. Harrison continuing as editor.
Dad often wrote articles for the Lighted Pathway, and also began to write for the Church of God Evangel, the official organ of the church. When Sister Harrison's advancing age caused her to retire from the editorship of the Lighted Pathway, Dad was invited to Cleveland to take her place. His new job description included not only being editor of the Lighted Pathway, but he was also over all Church of God Sunday School and Youth Publications. As a young child, I was very excited about moving to a new town. Both Dad and Mom were so attached to their church family in Leadwood that they were reluctant to leave. Mom told me that as far as she was concerned, Leadwood was the center of the universe.
Dad initially turned down the offer for a position in Cleveland. However, my parents both believed so strongly in our denominational system that they decided any appointment made by those over them in the church was surely the will of God.
The local grocer in Leadwood was also sorry to see our family go. We were his only customer who bought grits. Our growing family, now with six children, ate lots of grits, and he stocked them especially for us. When we moved to Tennessee, he packed up all he had on hand and sent them with us. We were on our way to the Holy City: Dad and Mom in their old Plymouth, six energetic children, a few suitcases, and a year’s supply of grits.

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