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Harris Blackwood: Farewell to ‘aw shucks’ pastor, more friend than preacher
Harris Blackwood
Harris Blackwood

I write my columns each week by Thursday. I’m writing this one on Monday and I already know that a part of me does not want to go to church Sunday (Aug. 19).

In fact, I wish that I would fall into a deep sleep and wake up around noon and find that everything I don’t want to happen today was just a bad dream.

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My friend, Bill Coates, is retiring. If he were Bill Coates who worked at the bank or a factory or some business in town, we would have a party and give him a gold watch or something. We would clap, have cake and go home and say what a nice event.

But this is the Rev. Bill Coates, the pastor of First Baptist Church. Through the close of business today, he is my pastor. He is my accidental pastor.

A little over 20 years ago, I was living with my aunt in Alpharetta for a time. I joined a church over there, which is a good thing to do. A few years later, I bought a house in Forsyth County that was so close to Gainesville that it had a Gainesville address.

About 18 years ago, I woke up too late to make it to Alpharetta, but I thought if I hurried, I could go to First Baptist in Gainesville. I wanted to hear the “new” guy. I love how in the church world, someone can have a job for two years and he’s still the “new” guy.

Coates is the preacher who fits you like a comfortable sweater. He has a way of verbally wrapping his arms around you and charging your spiritual batteries with sufficient power to get you through to next week.

We hit it off immediately. A letter I wrote to Time magazine complaining about low-flush toilets impressed him.

He has an “aw-shucks,” self-deprecating style that makes you understand that he is just as human as you. No, he does not say “thank you Lord for this great opportunity that thou hast given me,” when he hits his finger with a hammer. He is impatient at stoplights, hates Atlanta traffic and loves good food, good wine and good friends.

Once we went to a meeting in Augusta, which is also home to our major medical university. We were in a restaurant and I told the waitress that he was my heart surgeon and moved my heart from near my shoulder to the place it should be. I’ve introduced him as the governor of Georgia (not the current one) and the governor of South Carolina (not the one who got lost chasing his girlfriend).

I took him to a taping in New York of “The Late Show with David Letterman” (raise your hand if you have taken your pastor to the taping of a late night variety show). I took him to a Broadway show about a stage mom and her daughters (I’ll just stop there).

We ventured to Trinity Church in lower Manhattan and he found a red Parament for the altar table. We took it from the church store and went to the front of the New York church to see how it might look in Gainesville. He bought it.

When my now wife and I started dating, Bill invited us to several dinners with friends. A little while later, he would marry us on a Sunday morning after the early service. By a message in the church bulletin, he invited everyone to come. We opened the door to find 400 friends waiting on us.

He has baptized three of our children. He was among the first to reach out to us when our house was destroyed by fire. He came back and dedicated the new house with family and friends present.

He was there for support when my brother died.

In recent years, I have visited with a friend in New Hampshire, who makes maple syrup. In earlier times, they brought buckets of maple sap down the hill in a pair of buckets with a yoke that went over the shoulders.

I think in recent years, Bill Coates has two buckets full of burdens carried by a heavy yoke. Being a preacher is not easy work and folks tend to unload their unwanted pains of life and just walk away leaving them for you to carry.

I get a sense that he is ready to lighten his load a bit.

Jesus said it this way, “Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”

No, I don’t want to see Bill Coates leave that pulpit and it won’t be easy. The last time he was just Bill Coates, church member, was just out of high school.

But, it is time for me to leave my selfish needs for spiritual battery charging and help him find the right combination that will lift his shoulders and cast away all that heavy stuff.

I hope he wakes up one morning soon and finds that a yoke that is easy and light has replaced it.

Harris Blackwood is a Gainesville resident whose column publishes on Sundays.