MAXWELL:  I shall miss this man of quiet dignity

4/9/1995- Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper

 

Chances are, you probably have never heard of Robert Albert Bentley. He was my grandfather, and he died a few days ago at age 87. We buried him in Crescent City, where he spent all of his adult life. Whenever I think of this old black man, I am reminded of parts of W.H. Auden’s poem, The Unknown Citizen:

“He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be

One against whom there was no official complaint,

And all the reports on his conduct agree

That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint,

For in everything he did he served the Greater Community. . . .

Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:

Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.”

Yes, grandfather was “free” and “happy.” In this cynical age, I offer his modest achievements as a vignette into a life conducted honorably, with quiet dignity and with unshakable religious faith.

Born in Tampa in 1908, he never attended public school. He learned to read and write in classes a pastor’s wife taught evenings at a nearby Pentecostal church. He was a bright child and the pastor liked him, letting him do chores and run errands. The pastor and his wife had no children, so they unofficially adopted grandfather, who stayed at their home some weekends and traveled with them to revivals and to meetings.

The church and the “word” were grandfather’s life. Soon, the church paid him a small salary for his efforts. He became an ordained minister when he was 16, a year before the pastor was transferred to church headquarters in Nashville. After the pastor left, grandfather became a laborer on the railroad, traveling for many years across the state, laying and repairing tracks. On a trip to Crescent City, in northeast Putnam County, he met Lillie Mae, my grandmother, who was a maid for a rich white family.

A month later, he quit the railroad, moved to Crescent City, married and became a fruit picker. A year after he joined a local Pentecostal church, he became its pastor. Shortly after that, headquarters sent him to a bigger church.

Life with grandfather was an unending revelation. I came to live with him when I was 4 years old, after my parents separated. I lived with them off and on until I was 16 and went off to college.

At 5 every Sunday morning, he, grandmother and I drove from Crescent City to St. Augustine, where he pastored the Church of God By Faith. It was an uncertain, three-hour drive in the late 1940s and 1950s. The pitch-black roads had potholes and were just wide enough for oncoming vehicles to squeeze by. During rain or fog, the trip was harrowing as our Model A’s dim headlights led us into an impenetrable grayness that made me believe that God had damned us and was ushering us through the very gates of hell.

When we arrived, two or three deacons always greeted us. Once inside the spotless sanctuary, we forgot the hazards of our voyage. The choir, accompanied by piano, guitar and drum, burst into song and hand-clapping that made the whole congregation “feel the spirit.” Somewhere among the pews, a member would break into a “shout,” a holy dance. It was infectious. Soon, dozens of others would start “shouting” and waving arms.

Morning service followed Sunday school. Grandfather’s sermons were wise and earthy. They inspired “testimonies,” when members shared deep spirituality. Some spoke of “blessings” and “miracles.” Others told of intimate pain. When service ended, our family went to a designated home for lunch, supper and relaxation. We were royalty.

Grandfather repaid his hosts with decades of dedication. He did not receive a salary, had no church-owned car and did not live in a parsonage. We lived in a wood-frame house nearly 100 miles from St. Augustine. His parishioners, none of them wealthy, gave him a small portion of the weekly collections. The most he ever received at one time was $15.

During the week, he picked citrus and grew vegetables on a two-acre plot he worked by hand. And he regularly used his own money for church expenses. I cannot count the times that a homeless person, an estranged spouse or a runaway child slept in my bedroom or on the living room floor. One winter, after a family of six lost their house in a fire, he let them live with us free-of-charge for three months. He was forever visiting a home or hospital to comfort the sick. When someone ran out of gas or broke down miles away in the middle of the night, grandfather would hit the road.

How we survived financially, I will never know. He was a preacher because it was his “calling from God,” his “mission on this here old earth,” he often told me when I failed to understand a new sacrifice. For every hardship, he received untold blessings, he would say.

But nothing fulfilled grandfather more than the outpouring of fellowship during Sunday night services. The women: They wore their sweetest perfumes, their finest dresses, their fanciest hats. And the men: Dressed in their dark suits, starched white shirts and shined shoes, they imagined themselves as kings.

The atmosphere _ the “shouting,” singing, praying, testifying, clapping and “praising” _ was electric. It was a grand celebration to a God who protected them from “Ol’ Jim Crow.” It was a renewal of faith, a time when families rededicated themselves to love and personal responsibility. Grandfather, in self-taught eloquence, ended service with the words: “Families that stay together in harmony are families what honor the Lord.” Or: “God helps them who help themselves. Help yo’selves, bothers and sisters, so you can be close to God and prosper.”

Robert Albert Bentley was an “unknown citizen,” a good man who “served the Greater Community.” For that reason, he was “free” and “happy.” I hesitate, however, to call him a “saint,” even “in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word.”

There is nothing else to say about him, except that I shall miss him _ this man whose deeds were a living monument to the contents of his soul.

Bill Maxwell is an editorial writer and columnist for the Times.