My grandfather never owned a Bible. In fact, he could not read. He never attended a church, didn’t sing any hymns and never prayed – out loud anyway.
He also seemed to have a certain contempt for preachers. Although he never said directly, I got the idea Grandpa had encountered some of the less savory from among God’s anointed. Someone, in the name of Jesus, had really done a number on him. When he was told I was planning a career in the ministry, he sent for me.
“Don’t do this,” he practically begged. There was real pain in his voice. “Preachers are parasites. They live off other people. Can’t you find honest work to do?”
I tried to explain to him about a sense of the presence of God. I talked to him about having a calling and a desire to help people. But I could tell he was unconvinced. Finally, after it was clear I would not change my mind, Grandpa said, “Well, if you are determined to be a preacher, try to be like Buster.”
I don’t know if that was his given name or a nickname picked up from childhood. In fact, I never even knew his last name.
Buster was a bootleg preacher who didn’t have a regular church. He preached wherever he had opportunity. He would hold forth on front porches, from the back of pick-up trucks and, in one bizarre incident, in the produce section at the grocery store.
His message was always the same: “No matter what you have done, or how bad you have been, God loves you anyway.”
But it was not his preaching that Grandpa admired. Buster was a perennial do-gooder. One day he would be at the nursing home playing his banjo and singing off-key to delighted residents. The next day he was painting stripes on a bumpy patch of asphalt so kids from a poor neighborhood could play basketball. One Friday night he kept an old drunk from going to jail. He convinced the deputy that he would personally see the man home and keep him off the roads.
Buster was a hero of sorts to a small group of thrown-away people he knew and took care of. My Grandpa was one of them.
“If you can be a preacher like Buster, then I guess it will be all right,” Grandpa told me. “Buster is the salt of the earth.”
I suspect Grandpa did not realize he was quoting from the Bible. What irony. An illiterate, non-church-going preacher-hater, not aware he was using Scripture to praise a self-made holy man. But he knew what he knew. Buster was salt of the earth as far as Grandpa was concerned. And Buster’s special saltiness managed to ingrain itself into the heart of that gruff old man I loved.
There are many well-meaning folks around these days who think the best way to share the Scriptures is by putting them on display in classrooms or courtrooms. My grandfather was of a kind whose life was untouched by such displays. He was brought near to grace by a bootleg preacher with a salt-of-the-earth approach to ministry. It turns out that even the biblically illiterate know the real thing when they see it.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.