UNTO THE ENDS OF THE WORLD
He came from the hills of North Carolina where his father was a moonshiner. He and his four brothers were expected, as they grew of age, to make runs of moonshine for their father. His mother was a devout woman who loved her man and her sons, and though it was against her religion she appreciated the money that the moonshine brought to the family in these hard times. Guthrie C. Curtis was the youngest of the sons. Growing up poor and uneducated he was determined to get out of them hills and escape the poverty. His conversion to the Baptist faith at an early age disturbed his father and brothers but made all the difference for him. He had been saved by that old time religion. And he began to believe it and became uncomfortable with selling moonshine. To make matters worse he slowly began to feel the call to be a preacher. He was becoming an outsider in his own family. His mother was praying over him while his father and brothers were cussing his new faith. It was one thing to have religion, another to live religion. Religion was for Sundays, weddings and funerals, otherwise it had no business interrupting your life. His father told him that he needed to be out in the world learning how to make a living to survive.
But Guthrie could not avoid it. He was being called by the Lord God Almighty to preacherdom. His pastor told him if this was true he needed to leave these hills and get an education. God could use anybody but he could especially use an educated man. He only had to be sure he went to a bona-fide God-fearing college, otherwise Satan could corrupt his soul and he would become a false prophet. So Guthrie took this advice and headed to a Baptist college in Birmingham, Alabama at the age of sixteen. Now Birmingham was a rather big city in those days. One of the biggest and most prominent cities. The pagan god Vulcan of fire stood guard over her at night and day. Fortunes were being made in the steel industry and the loose morals of finance were creating prosperity for others. The god Vulcan held a blacksmith hammer in his hand to symbolize hard work but he was also scantily clothed and sometimes the fire from his work would impregnate the women around him, it was rumored. For a boy from the hills of North Carolina, Birmingham offered cultural opportunities and heaps more chances to sin than the hills did. But he was consumed with praying, and for the first time in his life he was learning and thinking. He loved learning. Some of the teachings challenged the gospel he had learned back home. But he would never venture far from the religion that had changed his life. In his view it had literally saved his life. Yet his education would leave a small door opened for others to have room to believe differently. So he worked as hard as the god Vulcan shaping himself into a man of God.
Somewhere along the line his faith consumed his life and he began a practice of never talking about anything without showing how it fit into the Christian faith. He did not believe in what he would call idle chatter. Some said this became his practice when he found himself temporarily caught up in the passions of fire with a woman of ill-repute started by idle chatter. So if you were in his presence for any length of time you would hear a sermon or two. It was a defense mechanism against being caught literally with his pants down and the fire of his loins enrapturing women.
If the topic were sports he could talk about good sportsmanship being Christ-like, or the discipline necessary to follow the gospel, or the battles waged on another field for our souls. If it was food he would talk about the temptations of desserts and Satan, gluttony as a sin (a sin he readily admitted he fell prey to often), or how sex for some was a sweet food where they devoured every morsel and then threw the carcass to the side. No matter what the subject was he had a metaphor or a story to illustrate the gospel. It occasionally became the practice of some of his more mischievous parishioners to try to sidetrack him. They would use arcane subjects that they thought he could never use as an example of the gospel’s teachings. And just when they thought they had successfully diverted or stumped him he would form a smile in the corner of his mouth and almost with a wink of his eye at them he would circle back to talk about the gospel.
He had a good sense of humor. Once right before he was to go out to the pulpit a parishioner with mentally illness rushed up to him and said, “Preacher the Lord told me last night in a vision that he wanted me to deliver the message today.” Stroking his chin Brother Curtis replied,” So the Lord told you this last night,” the parishioner nodded enthusiastically, “Well I was just now in prayer with God before I stepped out of here and he must have had a change of plan because he told me to go ahead and preach. I am going to have to go with the latest news from God.” He walked by the dumbfounded parishioner to deliver the sermon.
He was a physical preacher who even in his seventies could leap in the air to emphasize his message. He would point a finger, he would shout for glory, and the pulpit would creak from his pounding. He was also a pastor who was always there for every life crisis. He enjoyed the ministry because he enjoyed people and life. It attracted people to him. He kept a proud count of people who accepted the call to preach under his ministry; it was over thirty. He was a true believer.
His largest church was a small gathering that he grew into over a thousand members. But the church grew and wanted a more refined preacher. They needed someone with a doctor of divinity. And they began to challenge his basic belief that he preached Sunday after Sunday: the ground is level at the foot of the cross. Black or white, rich or poor, educated or illiterate, male or female, it did not matter because we were all the same in God’s eye. He would sing the children’s song “They Are All Precious in His Sight.” He would admit this was a hard teaching. He struggled with the equality of races and gender issues having been raised in the hills of North Carolina and doing ministry in the nineteen-fifties and ‘sixties. But ultimately it did not matter what he thought; it was what God almighty thought and God expressed his opinion in the Bible. “There is no Greek or Jew, female or male in Christ Jesus.” Even though members of his congregation were his best friends, they voted him out in favor of searching for a new minister.
His heart ached and he moved on. He took a job in a small military town in south Alabama. The church was smaller and he thought at first that it would be a lot easier job. He was going to live a semi-retired life. But as he would say God had other plans. The church he pastored was multicultural by accident. It was near an army base and there were few churches. He had black, Hispanic, Japanese, Vietnamese, Korean, and white members. The church had colonels and old sergeants and privates. It had young families and seniors. It also had people who lived in the trailer parks and homes that were mansions. It was diverse. His other church had middle- to upper-class whites and occasionally a black member. Here he found a church that had the appearance of equality but was class, rank, and ethnically divided. It was a challenge. His sermon about the ground being level at the foot of the cross was needed. And though people at this church accepted the truth, living that truth was tougher. He would spend the rest of his ministry trying to learn cultures he knew nothing of and mending fences he did not know needed mending. Because of past wars the Koreans and Japanese would hold separate Sunday School classes. Although the wars were long ago in a part of the world they may never see again, they carried the cultural and ethnic war with them to this little church.
When he asked them why they had to have separate classes they said because they spoke different languages. But when he attended the classes they were all in English. They had lied to cover up that they did not want to be in the same room with each other. Colonels would almost bark orders to enlisted parishioners to have them vote a particular way on some church matters. And some whites were uncomfortable with a growing number of blacks and Hispanics joining their ranks. He would laugh sometimes saying “I am a far cry from them North Carolina Hills.” He never felt overwhelmed by all this because he believed the gospel was able to penetrate every wall humanity set up. The Church and he were far from perfect in dealing with diversity but they struggled in the right ways.
He was always an encourager. He always insisted his ministry recruits receive the best education. His education had been important to him and he knew it would be to others. He was never bothered by the new-fangled theologies they brought fresh from the seminary to enlighten him. He would listen and encourage their digging deeper into the truths. Occasionally he would remind them not to lose the essence of the gospel, as he called it, but he never once challenged their new and developing ideas: that was always between them and God.
It is said that his preaching so hard for so long was the cause of his heart failure. His last sermon would be “God Was Not a Respecter of Persons.” He knew this to be a fact because a North Carolina hillbilly and moonshiner’s son could come to learn and love all the people of the world. He died in Alabama, not so far from North Carolina, but still he died a long way from the hills of his childhood home.