During my half-century and a little change on this planet, I have been a member of 12 churches. I was a member of one of them twice. I moved away and then came back.
Each one of the churches had a pastor, and I have fond memories of all of them.
Church has been a part of my life since I was born. As soon as I was a few weeks old, my Mama signed me up in what was called the Cradle Roll. Nobody uses that term today, but it worked for me. I have had successes and failures in this life, but the constant place of refuge and strength has been God’s church.
For the past 14 years, Bill Coates has been my pastor. Next week, he will celebrate 15 years in the pulpit of First Baptist Church of Gainesville. He has been my pastor longer than any of the others. I don’t know whether that requires prayer, sympathy or forgiveness. The best I can offer is a heartfelt thanks.
What’s really great about Bill is not only is he a great pastor, but he is a great preacher. He has a head full of snow-white hair, earning him senior citizen discounts before he turned 50. It gives him an air of distinction.
But when he speaks, it is an aw-shucks voice honed on a simple, frame house at RFD Route 2 in Kershaw County, S.C. It is a voice that speaks from the heart of a boy raised by God-fearing mill workers who took their baby to the Cradle Roll department at Thorn Hill Baptist Church. It is also a voice speaking from the experience of successes and failures in life. His life has taken him to the mountaintop and in the valley, and he talks freely about both.
But it is a voice that on any given Sunday may quote Shakespeare, Gandhi, Faulkner, Graham or his grandmother. Both seminary training and a doctorate in English literature from the University of South Carolina temper his well-chosen words.
In the summer of 1998, Bill Coates answered the call of First Baptist to become its pastor. Seeing South Carolina in his rear-view mirror did not come easy, but Gainesville has become home to Bill and Claire, his wife of 37 years. They met 39 years ago at Coker College in Hartsville, S.C. She would follow him to Southeastern Seminary at Wake Forest, where they both earned their masters degrees.
He makes no bones about his wife’s role in his ministry.
“She’s everything,” he said. “She does not seek attention, but I know she is there.”
Claire Webber was everything Bill was looking for, aside from the fact that she was a Methodist.
“I didn’t think my grandmother, Nan, was going to get over that,” he said.
Not only did she become a Baptist, she became a Baptist preacher’s wife, which generally means life can take some unpredictable turns.
Bill is also a great pastor. He has been there for me when I grieved, but also when I celebrated. A decade ago, he officiated at the Sunday morning wedding of my wife, Allison, and me. So far, so good.
He has a wonderful sense of humor and puts up with my periodic abuse.
When we have traveled, I have introduced him to strangers as my heart surgeon, the governor of South Carolina (not the one who “hiked” the Appalachian Trail), a TV weatherman and any number of noted theologians.
His favorite story involving me was when we went to see an ailing church member who was recuperating at a Catholic hospital. I showed up wearing a clerical collar, which will get you a better parking place at a Catholic hospital.
Unlike the other 11 pastors in my life, Bill Coates has become one of my dearest friends. I am not alone in that distinction. He and Claire are beloved by so many in this community from First Baptist and many other churches.
I showed up at First Baptist on a Sunday morning in 1999 and couldn’t imagine being anywhere else. I was at home.
The first 15 years have been wonderful. I hope the next 15 are just the beginning.
Harris Blackwood is a Gainesville resident whose columns appear on the Sunday Life page and on gainesvilletimes.com/harris.