In late February during my eighth-grade year, a citywide church meeting came through Colby, Kan.
The evening meetings featured a 6-foot-5 preacher, a former NFL defensive tackle named Bill Glass.
Speaking to all five kids, my mother laid down the law, like she rarely did. We all would attend each night of the week-long church meetings. No exceptions. She cornered me and said, “You’re going to have a chance to walk to the front and make a decision. Just like we see when we watch Billy Graham on television.”
During the meetings, I waited until Thursday night to leave my seat and walk to the front as the towering football player-preacher called people to come to the front of the high school gym to “make a decision for Jesus.”
Weeks later, I was baptized on Easter Sunday, along with a church friend. There was no sheltering in place that Easter. My mom invited the grandparents to celebrate with an Easter dinner and the whole neighborhood for an Easter egg hunt. Before leaving the church building the day of my Easter baptism, the pastor handed me a baptismal certificate. Mom placed it beside the white-frosted Easter Bunny cake sitting on a bed of green-dyed coconut.
A few days after our baptism, my friend told me he was joining his dad’s harvest crew for the summer. He wanted me to come along. That meant spending two months traveling from Oklahoma to South Dakota to harvest the wheat crop.
My parents were reluctant, but they finally relented. They figured because my friend’s dad was a church leader, he would look after me. My name was added to the rag-tag crew of 10 men — a few college boys and a few seasonal hired men in their 40s and 50s.
So, a 6 a.m. on an early-June day, I threw my duffel bag in the bed of a pickup and jumped in the cab, along with my red hair, my voice that was beginning to change and my peach-fuzz face. All day long, our caravan of trucks and combines lumbered 350 miles south through Kansas. By late-afternoon, the convoy crossed the Kansas/Oklahoma border. Within minutes, the procession pulled into the farm yard of the first customer.
The crew immediately began unloading and preparing the equipment, using 5/16th-inch combination wrenches and tools I had never seen. One guy yelled at me, “Get me that grease gun sitting on the header.” I never had heard of either. Mostly I chewed my fingernails and watched.
That evening, the crew made a fire and drank beer. The boss was in the middle of it all. I wanted to go back home and play summer baseball with my friends. When my friend and I went to bed in the camper we shared with his dad, it smelled like beer.
I had brought a Bible and a devotion book that was given to me the night I walked to the front at the revival meeting. One of the crew members saw me with them the next morning and said, “Hey buddy, you’re not going to need those this summer.”
Though I finally got the hang of the job, I daydreamed about playing baseball. I just wanted the summer to be over. One day in late July in northern Nebraska, one of the college boys crashed and totaled one of the trucks, nearly killing himself, and landing himself in a Valentine, Neb., hospital for several days.
The boss drank way too much that night, as he tried to figure out what to do next. Even with his son sitting next to him, he got surly with me.
“You know, Follis,” he said, “you’re the first kid who has ever worked for me that I couldn’t teach to do this job.”
I froze but said nothing.
Mercifully, the wheat-harvest season ended in South Dakota in early August. The crew headed back to Kansas. When the boss dropped me off at my home, he said, “Total up the hours you worked this summer and give it to me. I’ll settle up with you.” He had never mentioned that before. Grabbing my bag out of the back of his pickup, I muttered goodbye and walked into my house.
Twelve years later and newly ordained into the ministry, I was invited to return home and preach. The old harvest-crew boss was there that day. I hadn’t spoken to him for years.
After the service, he came up to me, stuck out his hand and said, “I never thought you could do it.” When I saw his weathered hand, I knew he needed love and forgiveness as much as I did. My hand lifted from my side and stuck to his. Giving it a strong shake, I smiled and said, “God bless you, sir.” He smiled back, nodded and walked out the door.