On a clear summer morning in 1987 I was a youth pastor still wet behind the ears as I drove a tiny Azuzu compact up highway 58 across what I remember as "Powell Mountain". As a Midwesterner from the flat plains of Illinois and Iowa, I had taken a position at an Assembly of God Church in Big Stone Gap VA. The landscape was alien. Huge majestic mountains blanketed in rich hard wood and conifers. Coal trains more than 100 cars long rumbled through the small towns making their ponderous journey beyond the mountains. The little towns of southwest Virginia nestle into the crooks and spurs of the mountains. As they take shape they send out tendrils of roads and buildings like the runners of a willful vine. In this part of Virginia no road is straight. Instead, roads are built along the path of least resistance. This makes them challenging to drive.... and arrestingly beautiful. You can be trundling along a narrow road with trees closing in around you, when suddenly the road bursts out onto a panoramic view so achingly lovely it will take your breath away. On that clear summer day I remember the view from the Powell Mountain overlook - pristine and magical and like nothing I'd ever seen before.
No less alien to me where the people. They spoke with a drawn out pace and drawl that I never mastered. The pace of life was slower and sweeter - not the hurley burley of Chicago where I had grown up. They were fierce in a way I had not anticipated - fierce in friendship and fierce in their love for God. And one of the fiercest was Mike Jenkins. He loved God with a passion. He was generous to a fault. His zeal was not the damaging, clannish zeal that exchanges love for power and self-worth. It was the zeal of a man who had lived for himself and found rescue in Jesus. He walked in gratitude and the love of Christ shown through him in a gentle radiance.
On this morning I was on my way to see Mike. He lived in between Big Stone Gap and Pennington Gap in a small town that I remember as "Dot". I could not find it on Google Maps so perhaps it's gone now - or perhaps I am mis-remembering. The town was so small I do not even recall what it looked like. But I remember Mike that day. He was a well-built man 8 years older than me. Tall, with long hair in faded blue jeans and a genuine smile. At the time I only barely knew him (I'd only been there about a month). Mike was a youth leader in our group and the only thing I knew about him was that he loved the kids and was willing, friendly and supportive of this new tenderfoot. I had traveled out to see his place and spend some time getting to know him. Although I did not have the sense to understand it at the time (I had yet to see myself through Jesus' eyes), Mike's story was partly my story and partly yours as well.
He began to share how he struggled with father issues and his view of God. He told of years of Drug dealing and addiction, trouble with the law, bad decisions leading to divorce and finally a hospital stay facing an amputation of his leg. God turned his life around at that rock bottom spot we all talk about but shudder to go through. So this man with the gentle blue eyes that crinkled (even then) at the corners when he smiled or laughed, had traveled a long hard road to find Jesus.
Is this always true? Does it always take suffering and consequences to make us accept his love for us? I'm not sure. I only know that the people I admire the most, like Mike Jenkins, have traveled a long road - and it is the traveling that seems to enhance the grace I see in their lives. Mike and I became friends. I was not a terribly good friend, thinking mostly about myself at that time in my life. But Mike supported me in every way he could during my 3 years in Big Stone Gap. When it came time for me to marry my lovely wife Ann, Mike stood for me as one of the groomsmen. He was steadfast as a leader too - a great example to the young lives in our church (including me).
Last week while traveling back from a church service where he was speaking, Mike was killed in a car accident. When I saw this news, posted on Facebook by his wife Denise, all my memories of Mike and Denise and Big Stone Gap and the youth group came flooding back. It is a world I left far behind some 23 years ago. Still, I remember Mike so vividly praying at the alter with our teens, and laughing over some joke or funny story. I guess I never realized he was still a part of my life - that his testimony and his life in front of me steadied me and had an impact. In later years he became an evangelist and by the look of the pictures on his website (mjea.org) he continued to cut a wide swath for the Kingdom of God both here in churches, youth groups and prisons, and even in Kenya. I was blessed to see it - but not surprised. Mike's heart was in tune with Jesus' heart and it led him true.
Of course my deepest sympathies go out to Denise and to all Mike's family and friends. He will certainly be sorely missed, and the impact of his death goes deep and touches all of us who knew him. I'm sure his homecoming was an awesome and joyful heavenly event. I'm praying that his family and friends will rest in the arms of Jesus during while they mourn. It's my fervent prayer that in the years to come the pain that is so near right now will fade into that dull, fond ache of remembering a life well spent, and a knowledge that we will all be reunited someday. I love you Mike.