In the course of my spiritual journey, I have had the privilege of listening to some of the best preaching in the world delivered by some of the most wonderful men I have ever met. I wish I could testify that with my hearing, I have always sought to obey the challenges and heed the warnings of these great men of God. There were certainly times I listened with a hungry heart, but also times when I was either a seeker living in disobedience or a believer with a cold and uncaring attitude. The first 36 years of my life I would characterize myself as being in the seeker category.
When I was 12 years old on Easter Sunday, I walked down the aisle at First Baptist Church, El Dorado and asked to be accepted into membership of that great church. While it is true that I wanted to please my parents which I did; it was more significant for me at the time that I do exactly what my good friend Richard (Bussey) Crawford had just done. I was soon baptized which to my understanding at the time, forever sealed my standing as a Christian and gave me the assurance that I would spend eternity in heaven with all the saints before me.
My church attendance was regular when I was living at home because I wanted to be with my buddies, most of whom were also members of First Baptist. During my college years, my attendance was very sporadic, and I was not at all satisfied with First Baptist, Fayetteville because I thought the pastor was too harsh in his condemning attitude towards the sinful behaviors common among college students. I was more comfortable with the First Methodist Church, but was still only an occasional attendee there. It was important to me that I could report to my parents that I was attending church somewhere. In medical school in Little Rock, I was even less inclined to receive any spiritual training with the oft-repeated excuse that “I was just too busy.”
When I moved to Atlanta to begin my internship training, I had drifted so far from any spiritual emphasis in my life, that I never considered church attendance until I met a beautiful young woman named Cathy Young from Fort Lauderdale. On my first date with her she told me how important faith was in her life, and I decided to take her to church the following Sunday. I definitely wanted her to believe that faith was also important to me despite the fact that my actions to this point were just the opposite. I can’t remember the church we attended, but it might well have been a Baptist church. My attention and focus were on her and not on any preacher.
At some point in our dating relationship, it was suggested to us that we might enjoy attending the Second Ponce De Leon Baptist Church on Peachtree Street because of the unusual preacher there. His name was Dr. Monroe F. Swilley, and we discovered he had been pastor of that church for over 20 years. There were two things unusual about him. He had the courage of his convictions, because in 1957 when racial tensions were escalating all over the South, he joined with 80 other Atlanta ministers to sign the Manifesto on Racial Beliefs. This document clearly stated their collective opposition to racial segregation and violence and admonished all Atlanta residents to obey the civil rights laws in implementing integration. This was a very brave action for these men in those times. The second thing unusual about him in particular was that he regularly preached wearing a cutaway tuxedo. I had never seen a pastor wear such elegant attire. As I recall, he had grey spats on his black shoes.
My parents were eager to meet Cathy when she and I became serious in our intentions to marry, and they scheduled a weekend trip to Atlanta from El Dorado. One of the activities that Cathy and I planned for all of us to do was to attend church to allow them see and hear this extraordinary preacher that “wears a tuxedo.” As we took our seats at the beginning of the service and the pastor appeared, Pops said, “Why that’s ole’ Monroe!” I said, “Pop, do you really know him?” “Of course I know him, he’s one of the Swilley boys from El Dorado!” I was stunned at this revelation but not too surprised since I already thought that Pop knew just about everybody. Following the service, we made our way to the front and Dr. Swilley immediately recognized Pop and they had a reunion of sorts. Of course Dr. Swilley had no way of previously connecting me to my El Dorado heritage.
Knowing that Dr. Swilley was from El Dorado perhaps caused us to attend church more regularly following our meeting and introduction, but a real and lasting spiritual change came to both Cathy and me years later. We now know and understand that faithful church attendance does not make one a Christian. It is based entirely on a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. One doesn’t need to have a pastor that wears a tuxedo, although that is unique. One does needs a faithful preacher of the Word of God, and also one who has the courage to tell everyone, even college kids how to rightly live.