In Tennessee and Georgia, and probably in every pocket of the country, are people whose lives were touched by the life of Dr. Wallace Cleveland McGill, who died early Wednesday morning.
Anything I say in this space is only a pale echo of what those people could tell -- and probably did tell once they heard of the longtime pastor's death.
Dr. McGill was never my pastor, though he pastored me on a number occasions, whether it was as officiant at the graveside service of my aunt (a woman he never knew), the minister for the marriage ceremony of my oldest nephew and his wife, as a speaker at various church services (when he was an active pastor) or in conversations where my chair was pulled alongside his.
To the general public, he had been pastor locally at Oakwood Baptist Church in Chattanooga, Flintstone Baptist in Chattanooga Valley and East Ridge Baptist.
To me, he was my sister-in-law Laura's father and a gentle man whose stories were legion, whose humor was plentiful and whose faith was deep.
Just recently, as I sat in a St. Elmo restaurant, a woman told about the love she and her family had for Dr. McGill. He had officiated at both her father's and her grandfather's funerals.
When he preached at her father's funeral a few years ago, she says, she thought he looked weak and tired. And he was. But, she says, when he got up to speak, he was thorough, he was funny and he said all the right things. Her mom, she says, will never forget the job he did.
Over the years, whenever we met and caught up, Dr. McGill would ask about the newspaper, and I'd ask about the Baptists. We had a number of conversations about the conservative and moderate branches of the Southern Baptist Convention.
It was from him I learned the history of the modern conservative Baptist movement and why he did not share all of its beliefs. Indeed, it was at the moderate First Baptist Church in Chattanooga that he placed his membership -- and continued to share his gift of teaching -- after 60-plus years of ministry.
It was fitting, then, that his obituary noted he "was recognized as a progressive Baptist leader mindful of opportunities to minister in innovative ways. An avid reader, he felt it was essential to be attuned to the role of the church in the community and how best to be a beacon of hope and ministry."
Several years ago, I believe at an estate sale, I came across a 1974 history of Oakwood Baptist Church by J. Eugene Lewis and purchased it for a small price. In it is a description of Dr. McGill who, then young in the ministry, came to the Bonny Oaks Drive church in 1960, an era when church growth was burgeoning in the country and his gifts could be fully realized.
I like the way it describes his effectiveness:
"The sermons of the Reverend McGill remain unique in the annals of Oakwood. While homiletically perfect, grammatically and structurally beautiful, yet profound and ever faithful to the Christian message of the love of God in the hearts of men, each sermon was a treasure until itself. Spiritual needs were met in the old way but rarely with such literary eloquence. ... Always appropriate in times of joy or sadness, his sermons will remain a part of the Christian character of all who were privileged to hear him. Yea, even Christians of other denominations expressed profound appreciation for his messages and declared that few clergymen ever achieve such eloquence with the traditional Christian message of our Baptist forebearers."
As one of those "Christians of other denominations," I say, with the chorus of those he touched in every pocket of the country, "Well done, thou good and faithful servant."
Contact staff writer Clint Cooper at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6497. Subscribe to my posts online at Facebook.com/ClintCooperCTFP.
Clint Cooper is the faith editor and a staff writer for the Times Free Press Life section. He also has been an assistant sports editor and Metro staff writer for the newspaper. Prior to the merger between the Chattanooga Free Press and Chattanooga Times in 1999, he was sports news editor for the Chattanooga Free Press, where he was in charge of the day-to-day content of the section and the section’s design. Before becoming sports ...