by Tom Darin Liskey
If you compared Buddy Burch’s Christian ministry to the high-flying evangelism so prevalent in America these days, you’d probably conclude that his was a flop. Burch and his wife Lydia rarely had a head count topping more than ten in the storefront church he pastored near a brake repair shop in Waveland, Mississippi.
Unlike the financially well-oiled megachurch-malls dotting the country, the members of Burch’s mixed congregation, mainly poor blacks and whites, had to dig deep in their pocketbooks for a Sunday offering. More often than not, the loose change and crumpled dollar bills these salt-of-the-earth kind of believers tossed in barely covered the bottom of a collection plate.
Yet Burch was not into that hard sell religion of pledges and fund raising. He just didn’t believe that it was his job to admonish people over money. Burch had realized long ago that the people who came to his small church gave what they could, and he’d always trusted God for the rest. That was no stretch for a couple well into their sixties living off a fixed-income and disability.
The Sunday offerings were usually enough to cover the light bill and other expenses, and Burch never drew a salary from the funds. To help make ends meet, he would park his pickup on the side of the road to sell firewood from the tailgate.
There was one irony never lost on Burch where he served as a pastor in the tiny Gulf Coast community he called home. Before “getting saved” as a young man, Burch was an unreconstructed racist who believed whole heartedly in segregation. That is until the night God spoke to him. And he would tell you, he didn’t like what God had to say.
Burch was at a revival when a preacher from Jamaica took the pulpit. The way Burch described it, he sat in the pew of that little church fuming like a smokestack on a fast-moving locomotive. He just didn’t think it was right for a man of color to be preaching to white folks, God or no God.
He only stayed seated because his Cherokee wife urged him too. She liked to hear the preacher’s message delivered with a soft Caribbean lilt.
Once the preaching was over, Burch stood up to bolt from that church. That is until God whispered in his ear. It was the first time he heard God speak to him. But there was no great revelation or epiphany; no answer to life’s biggest question. What God uttered was a simple command: “Hug my son.”
Burch stood there in the aisle of that church, dead in his tracks. He tried to shake it off, but the command came again. Firm, but simple: “Hug my son.”
Burch turned around and looked at the revival preacher. His voice was shaky.
“Sir, I don’t know you, but I need to hug you,” he recounted later.
That’s what he did. He embraced the preacher from Jamaica. And what had been until then an impregnable edifice of race-hate crumbled like dust.
Burch was never a freedom rider during the civil rights movement, yet while the fight to dismantle segregation in the South raged, Burch found himself drawing in African American churchgoers to his services like never before. At one point Burch received threats for preaching in black churches. Was Burch color blind? No, but there was love. A love so compelling that it was tangible. He’d shrug off any hint of praise for doing what he did by taking the message of Christ to black churches.
“I went where God said to go,” he said once.
I had met the Burch family through my mom when I was about four or five. My mother played piano in a Southern Gospel group, and she crossed paths with Lydia Burch in the small world of roving tent evangelists. The two women became fast friends early on, and Lydia would often spend a week or two with us in the summers. Buddy, when he wasn’t pastoring, would come up with her. I ended up going to college in Mississippi, and I drew close to the Burches at a time when the world around me—and inside me—was opening up.
This was the South and I, like most of my classmates, grew up in church. I saw some of my friends’ faith eroding as they pondered scientific theory, but the history and literature that I devoured blasted away the old dust of religion I had grown up with, revealing a new bedrock of belief.
I didn’t find the answers to life I was looking for in the dusty fossils of Darwinism or in political theory. My mind was feasting on Faulkner and O’Conner. I saw faith revealed in Rembrandt's hues, in Johnny Cash’s lyrics, and in Fyodor Dostoyevsky's writing. For the first time in my life I began to see the grain beneath the varnish. The more I saw, the more I wanted to scratch that lacquer away. The arts opened my eyes. Faith became my iris.
My college, the University of Southern Mississippi, was only an hour’s drive north from the Burch household. I’d often drive down to visit them on the weekends with the excuse of doing laundry. What I really wanted to do was talk to Buddy and his wife. When I came down for a visit, sometimes Buddy would load lanterns and gigs in his truck and we’d fish for flounder in the tidal shoals of the Mississippi Sound.
But most of the time Buddy and Lydia and I would sit at their kitchen table while I waited on laundry. I chain smoked and talked about my dreams and my hopes. Instead of browbeating me for my lofty, if not footloose ambitions to see the world and write, they encouraged me.
“Follow your dreams, son,” Buddy Burch would always tell me. “Money will follow.”
Once, when I was facing a steep learning curve in my college courses and I was close to dropping out, Buddy Burch prodded me on with this advice: “An education is something they can never take away from you.”
Some may have frowned on the stark content of my writing, but they were proud of me for following the muse.
“Truth,” Lydia would tell me. “Speak in truth.”
I knew book-smart believers brushed Buddy and Lydia aside as backwoods bible-thumpers. True enough, Burch and his wife were foot-washing Christians who could barely pronounce the jumbled consonants of Biblical Hebrew, but the Word of God to him was sacred, and he treated it as such. He savored every tittle of scripture as if it were a wonderful and redolent vintage, something miraculous.
Later in life, as a journalist in South America and in other parts of the world, I met presidents, ministers of state, economic leaders, and the executives of some of the world’s largest companies. And yet, for someone who never made it past middle school in the hardscrabble South, Buddy Burch always loomed large in my mind and heart as a wise man.
Even more importantly, Burch and Lydia showed me something pretty wonderful. That an extraordinary God is often seen in the most ordinary people. Because in the end that’s what they were, ordinary and imperfect people who had the capacity to love God’s vagabonds.
Tom Darin Liskey spent nearly a decade working as a journalist in Venezuela, Argentina, and Brazil. He is a graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi. His fiction and nonfiction has appeared in the Crime Factory, Driftwood Press, Mount Island, The Burnside Writers Collective, Sassafras Literary Magazine, Hirschworth and Biostories, among others. His photographs have been published in Roadside Fiction, Iron Gall Press, Blue Hour Magazine and Midwestern Gothic. He lives in Texas.