August 12, 2021

WATCHING AS HE CHANGED

It was always a special occasion when Arley went to church with us!  In this photo, my smile and his suit and tie (with his hat tossed up into the bush behind) indicate just such an occasion.  Harriett always admonished me to be on my best behavior when he was with us, and not to call attention to the large bill he dropped into the collection plate. 

But he obviously had some personal wrestling to do with God. He had lost his mother as a boy and had a traumatic childhood, struggled to support a large family, almost died of the typhoid fever that killed his teenage daughter Mildred, and watched his wife Alta die two years later of “a broken heart.” The words he heard from the church brought little hope or comfort.  He much preferred to spend his Sunday mornings riding his horse Jesse over the hills near home.

His three sons and other daughter often felt the brunt of his inner turmoil when he displayed his anger.  They were all too glad to see him marry again, and thought Harriett was a good influence on him. He called me his “little chicken” and I thought he was the kindest, most loving strong man in the world.  His heart seemed to have softened. 

He continued to avoid church, calling most of the members “hypocrites” and declaring that all preachers were “lazy.”  Then when I was about eight, a new preacher who was married and had five children came to town.  Arley was shocked to learn that this preacher was hard working and made a big vegetable garden to feed his family. That was something Arley could respect and he began attending services more often. 

Soon a door-to-door salesman sold Arley a large Bible and he quietly began reading it. Although I’d heard others say my father used to drink heavily, I’d never seen him do so.  One day he brought in a case of beer and slowly worked his way through it as he read the gospels and Acts and the psalms.  Almost every evening I’d find him sitting in his big rocking chair, reading, weeping and drinking another beer. I could see something was happening within his heart. 

That October he had a talk with his gardening preacher friend and asked him to baptize him.  His conversion was obvious to one and all.  From that time forward, he was a new person—experiencing forgiveness and peace at last.  Instead of avoiding church, he loved the fellowship and generously helped with a major renovation of the building.  He contributed what he knew best how to do—getting new pews built, constructing a new pulpit and communion table, and chairs for the podium. 

This photo shows young Ernest Clevenger standing at the pulpit Arley built for the Athens church, with the dark green baptistry curtain behind him.  A few years later, Ernest conducted Arley’s funeral.

When I was living in South Carolina, the Athens church built a new building and was disposing of the old furnishings.  The minister Tommy Irons had grown up in the church when we were there and he asked if I would like to have the communion table.  I was delighted and he brought it to South Carolina in a U-Haul trailer.  It now sits in my Florida room here, with an old mantel clock that also belonged to Arley.  

The final two years of his life were very difficult for all of us.  He was partially paralyzed by a stroke and spent most of the time in a wheelchair.  As long as he could, he still went to church services and continued reading his Bible.  He died at home several days after a heart attack on this date in 1953—two months before his 64th birthday. I still miss him.

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