After hearing about the recent death of retired First Presbyterian Church minister Ben Haden and seeing all the nice tributes from Roy Exum and others, I thought back to the one and only time I had the opportunity to interview him.
It was in 1997 while I was still working for the Chattanooga Free Press.
I went back this week and found the article, which I was asked by the editors to write on the occasion of Mr. Haden’s 30th anniversary at First Presbyterian.
As I began reading the now-yellowed piece of newsprint, what jumped out at me were all the insightful direct quotes I found from him about the life of a Christian or minister.
For example, at one point the admitted workaholic said about his job, “The best place for a mediocre person to hide is the ministry,” he said. “He can goof off. But if you are conscientious, it’s as hard a job as I know.”
Later, he admitted that being the minister of a large Chattanooga church did have some demands on his time. “You never get it all done in one day,” he said. “There’s no way to plan death. There’s no way to plan emergencies, and you are constantly recalculating your priorities throughout the day.”
But what I most remember from that time of 16 years ago interviewing him at his favorite place to eat breakfast – Wally’s on McCallie Avenue – was a direct action, not any direct quote.
As soon as he sat down with a warm greeting, all he wanted to do was inquire about me. He wanted to know how I was doing, how my family was, and, as he prayed over the eggs and dry toast he had ordered, he asked for blessings on the entire Shearer household.
And he had just known me for five minutes.
To this day, I have never forgotten that kind Christian gesture, and I have even tried to be mindful of that when conversing with friends, family or strangers.
I have interviewed a few people over the years who immediately want to start talking about themselves or their accomplishments. I even have a few acquaintances who, during casual conversation, want to start discussing immediately the accomplishments of their children or grandchildren.
And I guess I am guilty as well of letting people ask me questions about my life before I inquire about them.
But Mr. Haden let me know he was most interested in me at that moment.
Before then, I of course had heard of Mr. Haden. While at Bright School in the early 1970s, I remember a few students and our sixth-grade teacher, Janet Reeve, discussing his mesmerizing sermons from the Sunday before during breaks in the learning.
And then when I was living in an apartment while at the University of Georgia in the early 1980s, I remember occasionally watching a Sunday afternoon rebroadcast of his sermons on an independent Atlanta station, perhaps Channel 46, and being proud to see a fellow Chattanoogan.
I think I even remember seeing one or two people in the choir whom I knew or recognized.
After coming back to Chattanooga and going to work at the Free Press, I of course became quite familiar with him, due to the fact that several newspaper executives and other staff members attended First Presbyterian. I quickly learned not to put “the Rev.” before his name in news articles, as was done with other ministers, because he did not want to be put on any kind of perceived pedestal.
By the time I interviewed him that day at Wally’s, I had started attending again my childhood church, Red Bank United Methodist, which no doubt had a few subtle Christian theological differences with a Presbyterian Church in America congregation like First Presbyterian.
But I did not even think about that as we sat and talked. I remember that he apologized for arriving for the interview a little later than expected because he had to make initial contact with a prominent local family whose elderly mother had just died.
Instead of mentioning what she or her family had accomplished, all he talked about was the woman’s character, calling her a fine, sweet and wonderful woman.
As Mr. Haden continued eating his dry toast, I remember that his words of wisdom were just as basic, but also thought provoking. A man who entered the ministry relatively late, he recounted his mother’s dying wish that perhaps her experience of suffering in the hospital had some greater purpose.
After continuing to think about the comment and not being able to get it out of his mind, he said he later became involved in a church in Kingsport for the first time in 11 years.
And during a trip to Russia/the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War, when the practicing of Christianity was outlawed, he felt God warmly calling him to be a preacher, he said.
As we continued to talk, I remember that I could occasionally see his somewhat serious demeanor that was often a trademark of his sermons, which never seemed to mince words. This was especially true when I followed him back to his office because he wanted to give me a couple of Christian inspirational books.
While at his office, I asked him if he was planning on retiring anytime soon, and he quickly told me that, when he did decide, he would first have to tell the lay leadership of the church before divulging such information to a reporter.
But the vast majority of the interview was one of much warmth, including in his kind manner around his regular waitress at Wally’s.
I felt honored that I had a chance to view up close this man who had inspired countless people from a distance via the pulpit and through his “Changed Lives” radio and television ministry.
I especially remember being struck by what he said regarding how blessed he felt he to be serving as a minister at First Presbyterian.
“Sometimes I’ll go into the sanctuary at night and I think of all the guilt that has been forgiven, the marriages that didn’t end in divorce, the divorced people who have gotten new starts, all the sins that have been forgiven, and all the love that has been practiced, and I’m thankful to have been a part of it,” he said.
I was thankful as well to have had the opportunity to interview him that one time. The experience touched me as a journalist, as a person, and as a follower of Christ.