I’ve always been quiet. My natural temperament is one of introversion. Social settings have not always comfortable for me, especially large ones. As a young teenager a lay leader in our church profoundly impacted my life and he never knew how much at the time.
Many others my age have said the same thing. While this man was an excellent Bible teacher (I still remember some of the things he taught us, fifty years later), for me, his greatest influence wasn’t as a teacher.
His influence came from his heart, the kind of person he was.
His name was Gabby Dickerson. His real name was Alton, but everyone called him Gabby. He wasn’t a pastor or on the church staff; he was a mail carrier, but he had the heart of a shepherd and he genuinely loved and cared for us. And we all knew it.
This good man mentored me in what it meant to be a Christian in a crucial time of my life. He reached out to me, though I was quiet and often on the periphery. He made a difference in my life and I am debtor to him.
I wrote down a few of the reasons that Gabby influenced me.
First, Gabby enjoyed life. He took God seriously, but he didn’t take himself too seriously. He was able to laugh at himself. Whenever you were with him you had a lot of fun. He was cheerful and smiled with his eyes.
He was interested in people. Even teenagers. That’s not easy for some people. He knew your name and took time to talk to you. The majority of adults never did that in my teenage years. Maybe it was because they have forgotten about what it was like in those years or they thought a certain personality was required. But Gabby seemed to remember the weight of what it was like to have acne or other adolescent pressures. I think this was one of the reasons he was effective at teaching us the Bible. As he applied the truth it came alive – because it was something we could use that week.
Gabby was consistent. I can’t remember him being moody or angry. He was positive, steady and predictable, all the years that I knew him.
These qualities (and others) made him like a magnet to teenagers like myself in the early to mid-1970’s. I’m so grateful God allowed our paths to cross during that season.
He and his wife, Margrette, (she also had a tremendous influence on my life), would occasionally invite a group of kids into their home after church on Sunday evenings. A favorite memory is after most everyone had left, my dad, Gabby and Arnold (the guitarist) would start playing and singing. They loved to especially do a silly song, “The Battle of New Orleans”. They laughed and everyone that was in the room with them.
I never drive by Hastings Road without remembering the simple times I had as a teenager in the Dickerson home as a teenager with my family and other friends. It was pure joy.
When I went to college in 1976, I pretty much left home, except for occasional visits and during the summers. After I got married in 1979, I rarely got to attend my home church, Paula and I were serving in other churches, out of state.
Years later my wife and I moved back to Alabama and I discovered that my friend, Gabby, was seriously ill from brain cancer. I had not seen him in a long time, in over ten years. But I loved him and I was indebted to him. I was the Senior Pastor of a church by then and God had used Gabby to shape my life and help me to get to that place.
I made a few calls, found out what hospital he was in and went to visit with him. When I walked in his room, he was sitting up in his bed, the same kind smile. Margrette was in the room with one of their daughters. She told me the tumor had affected his speech and he couldn’t talk, but he understand everything. I wasn’t sure if he would remember me after not seeing him for a long time, “Gabby, I’m Rick Johnson, do you remember me?!” He nodded and smiled.
I had prepared some things I wanted to say. Words of gratitude. Remembrances of fun times. Encouraging and hopeful words. At the funny things he smiled and nodded. I had asked God to help me not to cry. I knew it would probably be the last time I saw him (it was), and I knew he had no idea how profoundly he had influenced my life. But I tried to tell him.
When I finished, I asked him if I could pray with him. He nodded. I laid my hand on his shoulder and prayed for one of my favorite people.
It was time to go. I told his wife and daughter goodbye and then turned to Gabby and again I affirmed my gratitude for him being a mentor in my life and helping me to be in the ministry. I concluded, “I wanted to tell you how much I appreciate it and that I love you”. He hadn’t said a word because he couldn’t’, but when I told him I loved him, he opened his mouth for the first time and he spoke. In a soft voice, my friend said, “I love you, too”. That was a special gift from the Lord for me.
A few weeks after that Gabby passed away to Heaven. He was 54.
Someone may be reading this that feels like that they are not making a difference because they don’t have an official position. You may feel like you’ve never mentored anyone in your life. You may think because you haven’t been in front and or taught a large class that you haven’t made a difference.
I would disagree. If you have a kind heart and have been genuinely interested in other people, have been filled with God’s joy, and been optimistic about life, you have mentored and impacted more than someone that has had a position of influence, but has not has any of the above qualities.
I love Gabby Dickerson. God used him to change my life.
He was a great man, not just to me, but to a lot of young people. I learned value of caring for the individual and being real. That carries more weight than you know. Keep on caring and showing up. Learn their names and be interested. Invest in them one on one. One day they will carry the torch for you.
And if it’s possible, take some time and let them know that they lit the torch for you.