Way back in the summer of 1992, I went to serve as the senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of Winchester, Virginia. That’s when I met the family of Butch and Eva Gates. The first day in my office, Eva called me and asked me to officiate at a marriage vow renewal service that she and Butch wanted to have. At that point, they’d been married 25 years and thought they’d celebrate by repeating to one another their marriage vows. “Isn’t that sweet,” I thought, and I imagined showing up at their house and with a few people standing around the living room, I’d lead them in repeating the old wedding lines.
Boy, was I wrong.
No one on planet earth knows how to celebrate better than the Gates family! Yes, we were at their house, but so were about fifty other people, along with grilled food, chilled food (and drink), music, dancing, and lots and lots of laughter. Eva embraced me, Butch rammed a cold beer in my hand (yes, this Baptist layman rammed a cold beer into his pastor’s hand – he was no conventional Baptist!) and after about an hour of preliminaries, we gathered on the lawn with all those friends circling us and we repeated vows. At the end, when I re-pronounced them husband and wife, an ear splitting cheer exploded from the crowd and the music crescendoed again.
Then in 1994, Eva and Butch accompanied me to Mexico City on a mission trip in cooperation with the Virginia Baptist Mission Board and the Baptist Convention of Mexico City. As she translated, I led between 8 and 10 Bible studies every day for two weeks and preached two sermons. Butch went everywhere with us, adding spirit, humor, and frequently, prayers. After we returned to Virginia, I was privileged to celebrate their three children’s weddings, births of grandchildren, and just about any other excuse to throw a party. As I said, no one celebrated better than the Gates Tribe!
A few years ago I returned to Winchester to participate in the memorial service for Butch who’d died too early. Indeed, though it was a bit more subdued than other parties, the Gates Tribe still knew how to gather and celebrate the life of one fantastic man. And through those years and all those life events, I grew to love the Gates family. Getting to know them was one of the greatest blessings of my life as a pastor.
And now, it’s a huge joy to work with Eva again. She saw my appeal to my Spanish speaking friends and volunteered to do translations of our material here at the Support Team Network. Each time she sends a Spanish document to us and each time I correspond with her, I feel joy in my heart. I thank God for the way life has brought me such fantastic long-term friends, of which Eva is among the best!
Thank you, Eva Gates, for your friendship, your love, your embrace over the years, and for the work you’re doing for us here at UAB. Our gratitude, and especially mine, goes very deep.