I remember him so well. Richard……….nondescript, uneducated, stinky, and often unwelcome Richard. Our paths crossed because Richard attended the same church where I grew up and where I worshipped. Our paths also crossed because God ordained it to be so. God ordained it to be so………so that I would learn a lesson. It was a lesson best taught by the method that God loves to use – the weak things of the world confounding the mighty.
Richard was a very short little man. I often think that he was our version of Zaccheaus there in Princeton, West Virginia where I was raised. Richard didn’t have much education and he was also very simple minded. Today I’m sure he would be classified as being developmentally delayed, at the very least. Yet he had served our country in World War 2, returning to Princeton when his time was up. I remember hearing the story of how Richard wanted to help build the parsonage for our pastor at Johnston Chapel Baptist Church. The men decided that Richard could dig the sidewalk, and so they used twine and little posts to outline the walkway that Richard should dig. As Richard dug, his shovel cut the twine and it veered off to the side……..and Richard continued to follow the twine with his digging. I’m not sure if the men let Richard dig anymore after that or if they found another safer job for him to do.
I remember Mom and Dad loading us five kids into the old station wagon and then leaving for church. We never missed a service unless we had a fever or were throwing up, or maybe if blood was involved. This was in the day of services every Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night, and anything in between. This was also in the day of revival services that lasted at least a week, and sometimes longer if the Spirit led. There were mission conferences, too, as well as other special services thrown in here and there. The Kings did not miss church. If Dad was working, then Mom loaded the station wagon and off we went.
I loved going to church, but I always dreaded that drive up Thorn Street because often we would see him………..Richard, standing on one of the corners of Thorn Street, not far from his house. Richard, standing there waiting for a ride to church from one of the church members that he knew would drive by in our little town and see him, and offer him that ride. Richard, whom I was sure never, ever, ever took a bath. The smell was just awful! We kids would strain our necks to look ahead to see if he was still standing there, hoping against hope that some other family had come by before us and picked Richard up. If we saw him, we would beg Mom or Dad not to stop for him………..to let someone else have that privilege on this day.
But no……..Mom and Dad would always stop for Richard. He would hop in our already crowded car and immediately we would be assaulted by that odor. We girls learned a trick. We would take a small purse-size container of perfume and try to hide it in our hand as we held it up to our nose. Or at least have some perfume on our wrists that we could sniff in the hopes of blocking out that smell. I’m not sure what John did to combat the odor but at that point it was each King for himself. If no one was able to give Richard a ride, then he would walk to church, regardless of the weather……and that was probably a five mile walk.
Richard would talk, talk, talk. He had a very fast, clipped speech. I can still hear him make a comment and then say, “Isn’t that right? Huh? Isn’t that right?” Then he would laugh and launch into something else, and ask again if that was right. If he wasn’t talking, he was making a clicking sound with his tongue, as if he was getting food out from between his teeth. He probably was, since I also doubted that Richard ever, ever brushed his teeth……….which just added to his unique smell.
At church, Richard would lean up on the pew in front of him and talk to whomever was sitting there. His eyes would dart between the people as he rapidly talked, and clicked his tongue, and laughed, and said, “Isn’t that right? Huh? Isn’t that right?” The large church helped to spread his odor out some and keep it from being as strong……….unless you were the fortunate ones who were sitting in front of him and with whom he decided to engage in his mostly one-sided conversation. Needless to say, when I was older and had the opportunity to sit in front of Richard……….I tried to find another seat.
Richard, though, was good at math. I remember how that always surprised me. On Wednesday nights, four men would count certain sections of church and then give the number to the pastor out loud as they were called upon to do so. Richard almost always added those numbers faster in his head than Preacher Jimmie could do on paper, and he was usually right. Amazing indeed! And also amazing was the fact that Richard loved the Lord in his own simple way and was one of the most faithful church members that I have ever known. I don’t remember seeing Richard carry a Bible and don’t know if he could read, but he knew his Bible.
Time marched on. We King kids grew up, went to college, married and had our own lives. Mom and Dad both eventually retired from their jobs. They continued to be active at Johnston Chapel, enjoying the freedom to spend more time visiting the sick and those who were shut-ins. Among those that they cared for, none stood out more to me than their continued care of Richard. He had aged, of course, and time had taken a toll. Richard was not only feebler, but was also dealing with the ravages of cancer.
I know that others helped with Richard, too, but Mom and Dad did a great deal for him in his old age. They helped him find a better house to move into, and then helped him move his meager belongings. They were shocked at what they found as they cleaned his house. Such filth was hard for them to imagine! And there in his closets and throughout his house were stacks of Christmas presents that church friends had given him over the years, still wrapped and unopened. Inside were clothes and toiletries that he surely could have used over the years, but when questioned about it Richard said that he didn’t open them because he didn’t need anything. Mom and Dad bought him clean clothes and new things, but Richard still preferred his old belongings and his old way of living. Mom would take him home-cooked food and encourage him to eat better than he was. She and Dad bought him a small refrigerator to keep his food from spoiling, but Richard refused to plug it in because he didn’t want to waste electricity.
Dad helped Richard obtain his VA benefits, and then made sure that Richard started going to the proper doctors at the VA hospital. He took Richard for many of his doctor appointments. This was no easy task in many ways, but none more so than just the pure embarrassment of being in a public waiting room and doctor’s office with poor smelly Richard. Mom and Dad tried countless times to teach Richard and to urge Richard to use better hygiene, but I don’t know that Richard ever took it to heart. Dad would explain things to the doctor, but the people around them that they encountered must have wondered about Richard and about Dad. Eventually Richard’s cancer became more complicated than what the local VA hospital could handle, so Dad took him to the nearest major VA hospital………..in Richmond……….a six hour trip one way. Twelve hours confined in a car with Richard, as well as the time at the doctor appointments. The smell……..the constant talking……….the clicking tongue. Yet Dad just smiled and did what he knew that God would want him to do………..to take care of this little unwanted and unwelcome man.
When Dad tried to see if Richard qualified for any other assistance such as Medicaid, it was discovered that Richard had money. In fact, he had too much money to qualify for any government help. Richard never offered to give Mom and Dad, or anyone else, any money for the things they did for him. They wouldn’t have taken the money anyway. That was not the motive. A brother that no one knew about showed up at Richard’s death, and Mom and Dad walked quietly away from any further involvement……..but not before they gave Richard one of their burial plots since he didn’t have anywhere to be buried.
Mom and Dad didn’t want any public acclaim for what they did for Richard. They just loved the Lord and they let the Lord’s love fill their hearts and direct their actions. I know at times their service to Richard was tiring, was frustrating, was annoying, and very thankless. Yet Mom and Dad, and the others who served Richard, did so because they lived out their faith and they believed Jesus when He said, “When you do it unto the least of these, you do it unto me.”
Dad is with Richard in heaven now. I sometimes try to imagine it, the two of them together up there. Both have new bodies and are totally equal physically and mentally. Did they hug when they saw each other? Are they ever beside each other as they sing and as they worship? Richard doesn’t smell anymore and Dad doesn’t have to explain him to anybody, or be embarrassed. I wonder if Richard still talks fast, and does Dad still smile patiently at him? I doubt it, but it’s fun to think about.
And we kids are left with not only memories, but more importantly, we are left with a real example of selflessness that my parents demonstrated. They loved the unlovely in more than word…………they loved also in deed. I know that each of us has taken this lesson to heart in our own lives in various ways. But I doubt that anyone could be any more kind and any more patient than my sweet parents were to Richard.
I can’t wait to see Richard in heaven! I’ll give him a hug……….and no perfume bottle needed!