[Warning: Rather long post. Sweet story. Likely to cause some misty-eyed reading. Grab a tissue, a cup of tea and join me, won't you?]
In 1981, two frightened young adults moved to the mountains of NC. Their assignment was to pastor a little church of thirty settled souls tucked away in a valley called Hazelwood. (Don't bother looking it up. The town was eventually absorbed by the larger adjacent town when the last "old timer" passed away.)
The second Monday morning after their arrival, the pastor took his youthful zeal and single-handedly began a door-to-door campaign. He was intent on letting the neighbors know this church was ready to meet their spiritual needs. He returned home at lunch time with shoulders slumped and heart heavy having knocked on every door in the surrounding few blocks.
Again and again he had encountered one of two responses. "That's a church?! We thought it was a masonic lodge." Or "Yeah, that's the church where the pastor ran away with the secretary." Never mind the huge cross on the front of the building. Never mind that the aforementioned incident had occured 25 years before.
But the young couple knew how to encourage themselves in the Lord. Sunday after Sunday they trudged on. They sang from the restrictive list of ten songs most comfortable for the inexperienced pianist. They coaxed the dying furnace into heating the building one more time. They greeted; hosted; sang; preached; cleaned and smiled at even the most surly of members. Week after week they worked to build relationships with the people entrusted to their care.
Most of the congregation were at or near retirement age and the few younger women found the pastor's wife a bit odd. She was a little too bubbly for their liking. They deemed it unnecessary to include her in their circle of friendship. So she became more and more isolated.
The couple had been given the use of a rather ramshackle home on the church property. To their left lived a single lady who frequently complained about the barking of their little dog. Mrs. Sally Thomas* was very involved with her own church. She made perfectly clear that she strongly disagreed with the doctrine held by the church the young couple pastored. She was a formidable lady, indeed.
One morning an unexpected knock came on the front door. Another older neighbor, with sparkling blue eyes and curly red hair met the pastor's wife with a smile.
"Hello," her voice was gentle and her accent told of having lived in that area her entire life. "My name is Nell Cagle. I live in that house across the road. I've baked an apple pie for you." She brushed off the appreciation of the young girl and declined her offer to come in for a visit. After only a few more sentences exchanged, Mrs. Cagle turned and walked back across the street.
Over the next few months, Mrs. Cagle would periodically reach out to the couple. "I've made beans and greens for dinner. Would you like some?" "My son came for a visit and we couldn't eat all this cake. I brought you a couple of pieces." When she found out that peach was the young pastor's favorite fruit, she suddenly began making peach preserves, peach pies and of course, peach cobbler.
The couple became as comfortable in her tiny living room and kitchen as they were in the homes of their own parents who lived hundreds of miles away. Mrs. Cagle was a poet and an excellent seamstress. Her creative handiwork was the livelihood for the dear lady who had been abandoned by her husband and left to raise a son alone. Despite all the pain of her life, she held tightly to her joy and peace.
Eventually, the young pastors received an answer to their prayers for a child. The wife hurried across the street to tell Mrs. Cagle their happy news. The next week, their neighbor was on the porch with a big white box wrapped with a huge bow. The wife carefully unwrapped the box. She squealed with delight when she pulled out a stunning, custom made maternity dress. Crafted of light blue fabric sprinkled with delicate white flowers, it fit her perfectly of course.
When the pastors finally brought home their baby girl from the hospital, Mrs. Cagle was one of the first invited to hold her. She beamed with delighted as though the baby was her own grandchild. And of course, she brought over dinner.
The couple pastored that church for nineteen months then moved on to another assignment. Saying farewell to Mrs. Cagle brought more tears than any other farewell with their move. Through the years when they would go back to that little valley, they made it a point to stop and visit with Mrs. Cagle. She always had a warm hug and a big smile for them.
Just this week, the couple returned to visit Mrs. Cagle. It had been five years since they had been in that area. A new neighbor gave them the sad news that she had passed away two years ago. Frank and I got back into our car and swiped at the tears stinging our eyes.
Yes, we were the couple who moved to Hazelwood as 22 and 24 year olds. Of all the relationships we worked so hard to develop and maintain, it was dear Mrs. Cagle we stayed in touch with the longest. She was the one person who reached out first, never asked for anything and always offered a word of encouragement.
I never again saw Mrs. Thomas* after we moved away. But my sense of loss at the passing of Nell Cagle was deep, genuine. Few people in the world ever knew her name. She viewed herself as rather small and insignificant. But her kindness impacted us for a lifetime.
Perhaps you are one of many reading this post who view yourself as Mrs. Cagle saw herself. Unknown, insignificant. Maybe you wonder if your life and contributions make a difference at all.
The answer is, YES! You are probably impacting people in ways you could never fathom. Keep caring. Keep offering friendship and kindness. Keep looking for the best in others. You will find what you look for and you will reap what you sow.
Mrs. Cagle could never have imagined her story encouraging more than a few dozen people at best. But here she is still impacting people even after her passing. All because she wanted to be a good neighbor.
May I encourage you to stop waiting to do something grand. Choose to do the little things well and watch what God will do with your efforts.
Did Mrs. Cagle's story resonate with you? Do you have a similar story? We'd love to read about it in the comment section.
*Sally Thomas in not her real name.