It’s not much of a tale, but it’s about one Christmas that stood out for this preacher. I had lived in Tilton only a few months, serving my first “called’’ and full-time pastorate at the United Church of Tilton. The start of work was not auspicious. The new church building had been completed the year before, with a lot of volunteer work from the congregation. There were only thirty-some members, and the Sunday School participation continued to be much larger than the worship attendance, as it had been for years, for worship began at 8 A.M., when families wanted to sleep in, and the people were accustomed to having a part-time pastor who served a larger church somewhere else, so the early hour was the only time that their pastor had been available. The new parsonage had finally been finished so my family—my wife and two small children—could move in. Our second car, “Sam,” had burned up with an engine fire, so we were back to having one car to share between my wife and myself. The youth group, built around the sports enthusiasms of the previous part-time youth worker, had fallen apart.
The leaders of the congregation were eager to encourage me, and they somehow had faith that we could make this new organization self-sustaining with a truly community-serving and Christ-centered purpose. There were few traditions, although we built on some that had begun in each of the fore-runner congregations that merged and began anew with their thirty combined members. We observed Advent with the lighting of Advent candles, collected gifts for the Delmo Community Organization, went caroling at nursing facilities and the homes of shut-ins, and prepared a children’s musical program for the Sunday School. In worship, the Sunday before Christmas, when all the singing, preaching, and praying was over, the congregation presented me with a gift.
Don Dunavan was one of the sturdy deacons, chief at the fire department, busy creating equipment at one of the local machine shops, raising four children, caring for his elderly mother, always available at church for jobs that needed doing. He came riding down the aisle on a bright red Schwinn bicycle. “We understood that you needed some transportation to do your visiting around town, so we bought you this bicycle. From now on, you will be known in Tilton as the peddlin’ parson.”
Visiting with people in the town, finding needs and filling them, had become my primary occupation. The bicycle became my main mode of transportation. I did a lot of cold calling, getting to know people and what they were interested in, talking about the church’s new start and hopes to serve the needs of the community. For the most part people were receptive. When I heard of someone wanting to talk, or a problem that had arisen for anyone, I made a contact and arranged a visit.
One man, Albert Cox, lived by himself, had no family, and had never had a relationship with any church. He didn’t have any interest in taking part in any group either, but he did like the idea of a church that would respond to people’s needs and try to serve the town. He hadn’t known any preachers before, he said, but he welcomed me into his home, and we talked about ways things could be improved for people’s lives. He was concerned about the town cemetery, which had fallen into disuse and decay, without a supervisory board to take care of it, and about the youth not having Scouting or recreational organizations to channel their energies. He had a lot of good ideas, though he wasn’t ever comfortable joining with other people in trying to implement them. Still we were able to find ways to work on them.
Years later, when Albert died and I was long gone from the community, his will designated his estate (a half-million dollars) in equal parts to a historical museum for the town and to the United Church of Tilton to be used for a community fellowship hall and gym. When I returned to the church thirty-five years later, I learned that I was remembered for three things—being a peddlin’ parson who visited people in the community, running a school-outside -the-walls activity program for youth, and visiting Albert Cox.