Monday, March 1, 2010

A Friend and a Gentleman

Sunday, February 7th, 2010 my dear friend Marion Black passed away after a prolonged battle with a blood condition. Husband and father, Marion was laid to rest in South Carolina. I met Marion while volunteering with the Christian Appalachian Project in southeast Kentucky in 2007 and 2008. He is a man of such integrity, faith and inspiration that I will try to relate some of his influence into words for the betterment and lightening of the heart of you, dear reader.

The bright and scorching summer of 2007 in southeast Kentucky had burned away and the leaves were mostly dried and crunching underfoot. As December rolled in, so came the rain and the gray, with a dull cold that crept into your feet inside steel-toed boots. Jesse, Laura, Monica and I were stalled on a drawn out, tired project; rehabbing a particular home for months after half a dozen set backs, some bad luck and looming dread of going into the home day after day. The job was an hour from our home over the winding and narrow roads of the Appalachians. As the air cooled and froze - a light drizzle coated our trucks as we made the long journey. Our former beloved crew leader (Ross man the boss man) had retired months earlier and we lacked the necessary construction knowledge. We did our best, but were floundering and failed to gain traction. That is, until Marion arrived.

Marion and his wife Shirley arrived on a Saturday afternoon to our fair camp. Our volunteer house rested atop a gentle Appalachian hill with a green valley and the road below. The valley would often hold the mist of the morning and a small stream flowed next to the road. It was soft and snow covered in the winter and peaceful and alive in the spring. Marion and Shirley parked their RV in the valley below our home and set up their camp where they would stay for the next 6 months. They came up to the house to meet all of us and introduce themselves as they would be our crew leaders for the coming months. Marion had a way of calming those around him. I always attributed this to his ability to radiate and reveal the peace of Christ, a deep and satisfying peace that scatters worry and dread. When we recounted to them the horrors of the past months at the dreaded job they listened and smiled slightly, as if they knew something we didn't. "Well," Marion said, "We should have the job done by the end of week after next." We stood slack-jawed and aghast for a moment. "Two weeks! No, surely not, we'll be on this job for at least 6-8 more weeks." But in his gentle and reassuring way, Marion recounted, "Two weeks. Before Christmas we'll be done."

The following weeks, sure to Marion's word, we swiftly progressed toward the goal. Marion was a master craftsman, having been a contractor for many years. He and Shirley would travel to many locations, rebuilding homes, and acting as living witnesses to the Gospel and the commands of our Lord. Not only was he a master craftsman, but also a master teacher. Like any skilled teacher, he took the attributes that were greatest in you and accented them and molded them into useful skills of his craft. He took the time to teach you that which was important but still left room for you to make mistakes - which you would soon correct and thus master the task. We accomplished as much in those 2 short weeks than we had over the previous 2 months. It was truly astounding what we were capable of with Marion leading us in battle, astounding that is to everyone but Marion for whom everything was going according to plan.

The day before we were to break and travel home for Christmas, Marion, Jesse and I ventured to the job one last time to tie up some loose ends. As we left for the last time we were satisfied to be sure - but more relieved. We stopped at the local gas station and bought some Ale-8s (of course). We drank them in the truck on our way home and ate pecans Marion brought up from a grove near his home in South Carolina. We were the kings of the land for a day, returning to our home like conquering heroes. Feelings of disbelief accompanied accomplishment for Jesse and I, but Marion's quiet satisfaction led us to believe he had done this before - many, many times.

After we returned from Christmas, Marion and Shirley continued to lead us through the long stretch of winter in Kentucky - through many jobs and many treacherous situations. Through that time, Marion imparted his craft, wisdom and quiet inspiration as well. He was never loud or boisterous, always collected, instructing, compassionate and reassuring. As the days drew on, our confidence grew until the point where we were diving head first into jobs with reckless abandon... and to mixed results. At the end of each task, Marion would be there to share in our marvel and amazement at a task well done or to instruct and gently correct our missteps.

Over the coming months, we could tell Marion was not quite at his full speed. Many days, especially the cold ones, we tried to pay special attention and to care for he and Shirley as I'm sure it was quite uncomfortable to be out there. He soon after told us that he had some blood tests in South Carolina during the Christmas break but that everything was OK. But, we tried our best to take care of them and they certainly took care of us.

In one particular case, my then girlfriend (now my wife) was down for a visit helping on a project putting in 10 windows in the home of an elderly couple deep in the hill country. Living as a volunteer has its financial... setbacks and Marion knew this fact well. So when we finished our day on the job, my wife and I were to venture on a date (probably to the McKee Dairy Queen). Marion tried to slip me 50 dollars so we could have a proper date, with a slight smile and the twinkle of his eye. I tried my best to refuse, and suggested instead that he and Shirley accompany us to the wonderful ambiance of the Dairy Queen. They agreed and we had a wonderful lunch. Particularly wonderful for my future wife and I was witnessing the path which we would soon be embarking on, the path of a loving, enduring Christian marriage. But then, Marion and Shirley had been acting as an example since we met them and their witness was a powerful one.

As we drew closer to workfest (the 3 week period when college students would come and work for alternative spring break), our excitement grew - excited for the newness of spring that was budding on the forest trees and forest floors, excitement to meet the college students ... Most of all, we were excited for all of the other crew leaders to come in who would be leading the college students along with us. Most of these characters are retired contractors who come from around the country and have been coming to workfests for years. So, its a reunion of sorts.

One of my fondest memories was accompanying these seasoned bruisers to Grayhawk building supplies. Each sauntered around the store, searching for unique supplies for their workfest jobs and jawing with the locals - to reintroduce themselves to the area. Then, they pulled out their seasoned wallets and paid their own money for the supplies, as they often did so as to alleviate some of the costs. Jay, one of the more ... colorful crew leaders pulled out his wallet and Marion pulled some loose change out of his. "See," said Marion, "that's the difference between me and Jay." Jay replied, "Would you get off my back big boy!" with exuberance. It was hysterical. And you could tell that the camaraderie and fellowship found here is rarely found elsewhere and added to the special nature of those weeks we spent together for workfest.

What are the finest lessons I learned form Marion? First would be to always conduct yourself as a man of Christ; compassion, virtue, hard work, perseverance, patience - holiness - are all within reach but take a tremendous amount of prayer and real spiritual work. Second would be to always be calm, collected, and professional even when things are the most hectic on the job. Even when we would mess things up horribly, Marion would always be calm and that helped us to correct the problem much faster. Third would be to strive for a vocation and to share your vocation. This can often yield tremendous benefits for those you share with - which you can never truly anticipate. Finally - sacrifice and the importance of sacrifice. Sacrifice transforms and is special in that respect. Quite profoundly, though not unexpected for the Christian, giving up so much can give us so much in return. Marion was a man of Christ, and Christ sacrificed his life.

We know now that Marion was spending time with us when it was very inconvenient for him - when he was sick and when it was cold and dreary in Kentucky. We know now that he probably didn't feel too great on some days. But, in Shirley and his wisdom, they decided to spend months with us - a bunch of kids who knew nothing about construction. He decided to take the time - to take the time to teach us his craft and his way. He truly did give himself - sacrificing so profoundly. He was a man of tremendous character and faith - an inspiring man. His lessons, faith, and influence will remain with us always.


Anonymous said...

May he rest in the peace of Christ!

Christopher J said...

Marion sounds like he was a great man. May he rest in peace!

Sharon Black Yarbrough said...

Andy, I'm Marion and Shirley's daughter, Sharon. I can't tell you enough how special your words were about my parents, and especially about Daddy. I was truly blessed to have such a great man as my earthly father, and I only hope that my life will reflect his in many ways. There is a tremendous void in my life and in the lives of my family that will never go away; however, knowing that he was welcomed into the presence of our Lord with the words, "Well done, my good and faithful servant!" is beyond comfort. Thank you again for making me smile and cry as I read your blog.

John said...

One of the things that I value most about you is your incredible ability to illustrate Christ in our humanity. Marion sounds like one of those men whom exemplify "the glory of God is man fully alive". He is in my prayers.