My year old son’s name is Sawyer.
Although often asked, he is not named after the slick-tongued con man on LOST. He is named in honor of a couple that, besides my parents, was essential to my development as a Christ-following young man.
I grew up in Dyersburg, a rolling-hilled West Tennessee farm town. Those of us who went through our congregation’s youth group during the 90s experienced youth ministry as “Jerry’s Kids.” That is, Jerry and Kathy Sawyer, who were our youth group leaders.
What made the Sawyers such a draw for me was not the keen sweater vests trending in the 90s youth ministry circles. Jerry had his own style, opting out of the trends, wearing SAS shoes instead. As I arrive into my mid to late thirties, those shoes look more and more appealing!
His mode of transportation was also not the attraction. In fact, true story. Jerry had a 19-something-or-other model Ford pick-up fueled by hopes and prayers that miraculously helped it arrive at its destination. It was accessorized with bullet holes and a moderately rusted exterior. My friend, Chris, who was also in the youth group, once drove the truck around the neighborhood. While driving down the road the stick shift stuck, the glove compartment blew open, and green fluid poured into the floorboard. A legendary youth group occurrence.
As a young guy who grew up on a struggling farm, this was more important for me to experience than I could know at the time. Embedded within that season of my life was a desire to serve in ministry and also a desire to pursue a steadier financial life for myself. As you could guess, those two goals may at times be at odds.
Now I’m a minister who influences my family, college students, and others whom I am probably not aware. For better or worse, college students and my family follow me as I follow Christ. This seemed to be the way of Paul’s ministry. We all follow someone as they follow Christ. We must choose our trail leaders wisely. I’m confident my teenage self did so. Jerry and Kathy constantly lived out Philippians 2 for me. “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus…” Paul requests.
My wife and I now have two children and realize the challenge of balancing church with family. Jerry and Kathy have four children and at that point in my life frequently opened their home to a significant number of energetic teens in their lives. We needed their spiritual space and time and time again they provided it. Jerry and Kathy bent low in service to us. They could have made more money and had nicer things but they committed to loving, teaching, and serving our youth group.
I also remember drilling Jerry with questions about faith and relationships in class and on youth trips. I was so thirsty for answers. Jerry made me feel like questioning our faith was a strength, not a weakness.
Kathy always asked how my life was going. When I talked with her I knew I mattered. This was and is important for someone who has and does doubt himself at times.
I don’t recall all the answers Jerry gave me or all the questions Kathy asked about my week, but when I think of them the Maya Angelou quote rings true, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” When I think back about them, I feel I was with a couple that was with Jesus.
The Sawyer’s influence abides in the faith of “Jerry’s Kids” as well as in the name of my son, Sawyer, whom I pray loves God as much as these mentors did.
To read more of Rusty’s writing visit his blog at www.rustywoods.com
Rusty is husband to Rachel; father to Elliot and Sawyer; Scooby Snack provider to their dog, Samwise Barkley Woods.
He loves this world because he believes God made it worth loving. He loves its vivid colors, its vast and various terrains, its grandeur. Therefore you’ll find him jogging its Memphis, TN trails, snap-shotting its scenery, or eating its delicious Buffalo Chicken Quessadillas when he can.
He studied some books heavy in weight and theology at Harding School of Theology and is now a Master of Divinity from that great place. This degree title sounds like one from Hogwarts, but he assures you, he is no wizard with awesome powers…yet.