SIMPLE TRUTH: Following Jesus in outreach

Published 9:26 am Thursday, December 6, 2012

By Charles Christmas

Last Friday, I picked up a copy of the Shelby County Reporter. A front-page article by our own Emily Etheredge flooded my mind and heart with priceless memories of one of my dearest friends, Coach Richard Gilliam. Louise and I had only known Richard and his wife, Ola Faye, about four years when he was taken out of our lives. I felt that my life and my church had suddenly been robbed of an irreplaceable possession by his untimely death.

I am not an authority on his life story, but I know enough simple truths about him to write with confidence that Richard was an example of what to include in my series of articles on “Living Beyond Our Ability.”

His earlier coaching job was at Verbena High School. There, he not only won many games and influenced many young men for good and God, but he also won the heart of a new teacher and former Chilton County Peach Queen, Ola Faye Pierce. As a husband, he always referred to her as “my beautiful bride.”

His coaching career continued at Calera, Montevallo and Briarwood high schools. The tenure at Montevallo High School spanned 21 years from 1972-1993. Three years ago, following Gilliam’s death, their football field was named Coach Richard Gilliam Field. Tena Niven is the Montevallo High School girl’s volleyball and basketball coach. She also played high school basketball for Gilliam. Commenting on the football field being named in memory of her former coach, she said, “That is how much of an impact he had on all the students and athletes while he was here at Montevallo. Coach Gilliam was one of the most respected coaches to coach at Montevallo, and his influence even spread into the Calera community.” One reason for the students’ respect was that not one of them ever heard a word of profanity fall from his lips. He was not a “faith without works” person, but rather a person of faith with works to prove it.

Once, a male student at Montevallo approached Gilliam and asked, “Coach, would you tell me how to be saved?” Coach was ready to do so, desired to do so, and did.

As I write this article, I have within reach the recent book by Bobby Bowden, Florida State’s outstanding Christian football coach for 34 seasons. The title of his book is “Called to Coach.” Bowden was Richard’s football coach when he played at Samford University. Any book about Richard Gilliam would need to be titled “Called to be a Christian Coach.” Yes, indeed, his influence was widespread in Calera, his residence for many years. There, his wife, a gifted and accomplished pianist, served the Lord as the keyboard artist for their church. The couple served as godly parents, and Richard served as a Bible teacher, deacon and a leader in outreach activities and personal evangelism. Then, finally, the couple’s residence and service to Christ returned to Chilton County.

For some reason, my pastor asked me to preach in a Sunday evening service in which Richard was present. My topic came from the central passion of my heart. I chose the subject, “Following Jesus in Outreach,” using Matthew 9:35 and the following verses as my reference. I appealed to those present to respond to the need, example and command of Jesus by making a commitment to be involved in outreach. Coach came to the altar and said to me four simple words: “I can do that!” And “do that” he did, as our church and our faithful me well know. Right away, he went with me to visit another retired coach against whom he had competed in former years. Richard shared his personal story of how he had come to know Christ and that he wanted others to also have this life-changing relationship with him.

Very soon, Richard became the Outreach Director for the church and continued in this priceless leadership ministry until noon of that sorrowful Saturday of his death. That very morning, he was participating with a small group of his brothers in Christ, handing out gospel tracts at traffic light stops in downtown Clanton. I can rightfully say that doing outreach, being a witness and sharing his faith were the very last things he ever did. Now, you know why I felt so deeply that I, and our church, had been robbed of an irreplaceable possession.

Even as the Lord welcomes his exemplary servants home, he continues to build his church and do his work. Moses was dead, but God would continue his work through Joshua. Jesus was dead, be he would continue his work through his disciples, the church and you. Richard is dead, but God will continue his work through any or all of you who will sincerely commit your lives and vocations to Jesus Christ, and to serve him wherever you are.

May our response be like that of the good coach: “I can do that! With God’s help, I can do that, and he will help me to live beyond my ability.”

Reference verses: Ephesians 3:20, Hebrews 3:19, Hebrews 11:1-6, Joshua 1:2 and Joshua 1:5-7.

—Charles Christmas is a religion columnist for The Clanton Advertiser. His column appears each Thursday.