Growing up in Southern Appalachia, I was reared on what the mountain and foothill people called Jack Tales. Stories involving a young protagonist who finds himself in a world that sounds familiar but is filled with the unfamiliar.
Jack’s adventures drew the exceptional out of the places where his feet would tread, coming in contact with giants, witches and wild animals in need of subduing for the glory of a king. On summer nights, I would lay in bed beside my Great Aunt Minnie as she’d recite Jack’s doings.
Years would pass before I learned these stories were written down and collected in numerous books. And while I appreciate all manner of written words, the Jack I knew wasn’t limited to the space between a dust jacket; he thrived in the oral tradition. Where his escapades could be heard in the voice of another. That’s where Jack truly came alive to me.
Years later, I would meet another Jack who would do the same.
I heard stories about Jack Causey before I met him. His presence made its way down Highway 421 into Eastern North Carolina toward Campbell University, where I was dipping my toes into the Cape Fear River and congregational ministry. His name was one of many bombarding me as I prepared to attend my first gathering of Cooperative Baptists.
My introduction to the Fellowship and the sort of Baptists who called it home starkly contrasted with those I knew growing up. Those preachers and pandering prophets who would work their blood pressure up to a boiling point during a sermon and whose faces would match the red carpet in the sanctuary. I didn’t know Baptists could be anything else.
Along came Jack. Our paths first crossed in a hallway, someone guiding my attention and hand into his affable sphere. We exchanged pleasantries, and I couldn’t help but notice how different we must have looked beside one another. I in my burgundy fedora and black ensemble. Supporting a bushy beard, chain wallet and tattoos.
My appearance was loud, abrasive and certainly not the norm. A black sheep in the fold if ever there was one, but Jack didn’t seem to mind; he held my handshake like an old friend. Like he expected to see me there.
“My grandfather would have described Jack as being no bigger than a cake of soap after a week of washing.”
My grandfather would have described Jack as being no bigger than a cake of soap after a week of washing. I thought the same, too, but was caught off guard as soon as he spoke. A prominent, looming voice erupted from such a bijou frame. One as smooth and alluring as a radio disc jockey.
I kept waiting for him to tell me I was the 10th caller and winner of a pair of tickets to a show at the Orange Peel. Holding his gaze, he looked the seasoned pastor. A steam-pressed suit to accompany a meticulously tied tie, a uniform that usually would have left me skeptical. Yet he permeated a pastoral presence. I wanted to confide the personal five minutes after meeting him.
I took him up on that unspoken offer the following morning when I filed into a large conference room with other young clergy and questioning seminarians to discuss our foggy futures. Jack’s wisdom and practical advice would fill me up better than the meager continental breakfast that day.
As things were winding down, I talked with him one-on-one about my next steps. Listing my concerns about stepping down as a youth minister at my then-current church to move to Winston-Salem to attend Wake Forest School of Divinity. He listened more than he spoke, letting me pour out my uncertainty. When I grew quiet, he finally chimed in, citing names, connections and resources wrapped in a warm smile, conveying it would all be OK. It was the kind of prayer I needed.
“He listened more than he spoke, letting me pour out my uncertainty.”
Jack was right; things did turn out OK. In the coming months, my path crossed with leadership at First Baptist Church of Statesville, and I interviewed for the position of minister to students. Shortly after, I drove up to meet the congregation during a Wednesday night meal. There, in between the welcomes I was receiving, I heard a chummy voice calling my name. Looking up, I spotted Jack.
“Dr. Causey, what in the world are you doing here,” I said, surprised.
“Oh, I wouldn’t have missed this for anything,” he said.
He introduced me to his spouse, Mary Lib, and we chatted another minute or two before he stepped aside to allow a growing number of eyebrow-raised parents to have their chance at putting me through an inquisition. Soon enough, I’d find out from others about Jack’s tenure at FBC Statesville and how he led the congregation through the controversy of the fundamentalist takeover in Southern Baptist life.
During the three years I served the people there, countless parishioners and members of other faith communities would regale me with stories of a man who never seemed eager to talk about himself. I saw this firsthand.
Jack surprised me one morning by popping into my office to invite me to lunch. Sitting down at a high-top table, we passed condiments and stories back and forth while we tried to figure out the most acceptable way to down the massive hotdogs we ordered. He told me of his life before Statesville — when we weren’t wiping chili and gobs of mustard off our faces. I heard about his stints in South Carolina and my old debauchery stomping grounds of Greensboro.
As the lunch window stretched, our conversation turned almost entirely to me. Jack, tossing out those big open-ended questions, bidding me to open up like a fine wine, I spilled a hefty amount of my journey all over that table. Jack would nod, laugh and affirm me that day in a way only a person with a big heart for others can.
“Jack would nod, laugh and affirm me that day in a way only a person with a big heart for others can.”
With an early afternoon beginning to slip away, we prepared to depart from one another. Insisting on paying for my lunch, I lost the battle to my undersized opponent in getting the check. Victorious in my defeat, he scooted his chair back, telling me as he did for what must have been the 20th time, “Justin, I’m just so happy you’re here in Statesville.”
I’ve lived long enough to know when a string of words is hollow. When an expression slips past the tongue like a reflex, with little thought or care put behind it. I may not have known Jack long then, but I was sure as hell of one thing as I waved goodbye to him and headed to my car: He meant what he said. I could take his words to the bank.
Over the next few years, I was privy to a few more hotdog sit-downs. Other times, I’d come in to find Jack talking with the senior minister’s secretary or another staff member. Some days, I’d come around a hall corner and think he must have just left because the air seemed a tad lighter and tasted sweeter.
His dynamism of spirit seemed a permanent fixture in the building and not a lingering ghost invoked by others to keep things as they’d always been. Not every minister can give such a gift to those who follow them. Especially one granted the title of pastor emeritus.
When I left Statesville to accept a senior pastor position in Vermont, a piece of Jack tagged along with me. The Jack and Mary Lib Causey Scholarship provided me aid when I sought support to obtain my doctor of ministry degree.
Jack’s reach, not only to me but to so many like me, I’m sure, is more expansive than I’ll ever know. Voices describing their own “Jack Tales.” Told by those who knew him well and those like me who were lucky to be known by him.
I thought of such things on the morning when I heard of his passing. I thought, too, of my last year in Statesville and those Wednesday night meals where he and Mary Lib became a set of faces I could count on seeing in the church’s Fellowship Hall.
And I can remember, on more than one instance, finding myself behind him, waiting in line to be served. Leaning over his shoulder, I’d tell him, “Jack, you know, I’m just so happy you’re here in Statesville.”
I hope he knew just how much I meant it.
Justin Cox received his theological education from Campbell University and Wake Forest University School of Divinity. He is an ordained minister affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and enrolled in the doctor of ministry program at McAfee School of Theology. When not spending time with his spouse and daughters, he can be found writing and baking late into the night. He currently resides in New England with his family. His thoughts and reflections are his own.