I recently said “good-bye” to my dad until I see him again in glory. Now another formative figure in my life has entered heaven’s gates. I first met Mr. Byrd after my family moved to West Virginia from Alexandria, Virginia. My family was attending a Presbyterian church about an hour from our home, which made it hard to be involved in anything other than Sunday morning services. A friend at school invited me to youth group at his church. His name was Jayson Byrd, and his dad was the youth leader at West Milford Baptist Church in West Milford, West Virginia. I was a quiet, socially awkward thirteen-year-old who was struggling to find my way in a new place, and so I gave it a try. The next 6 years would change the direction of my life.
I would go on to attend youth group at West Milford for a few months before our family made the switch in churches and we began attending that church. While I would now disagree with some of the practical theology elements of that church, its impact on my life cannot be denied. The youth group welcomed me as a skinny, shy, awkward teenager, and gave me a place of security. Every Sunday morning in Sunday school and every Wednesday in youth group, Mr. Byrd opened the Bible. He did not have formal Bible training, and I’m sure there was hermeneutical refinement that came with time, but I knew that when I showed up (and we were the type to family that if the church doors were open, we were there), that the Bible would be opened.
Mr. Byrd challenged me to grow more comfortable in my own skin, whether in the youth group, or on the middle school basketball court, where he was our assistant coach. His encouragement, though clumsy at times, played a big role in my emotional and social development as a teenager.
Youth group was also where I began to learn to serve in the local church. Every fifth Wednesday night, Mr. Byrd would load us all in the church van and we would head to the local nursing home to do a service. I learned how to stand in front of people and share my testimony, lead singing, and even share short devotionals there, all while beginning to understand what it means to care for and minister to the most vulnerable among us. Having been around many youth groups since that time, I have only recently begun to appreciate how rare that focus on service is. Youth group was where I also preached for the first time, and a fire was lit that has never gone out. The Byrds had a beautiful property that they would use for a children’s overnight campout during the Summer. One year, Mr. Byrd asked me to deliver the message. I know that I spoke on Jonah, and that I probably was pretty content-weak, but it was the first in a growing number of sermons that I pray have gotten better over time with work and experience.
When I entered high school, “Mr.” Byrd became “Coach” Byrd again, this time as my high school track and field coach. He pushed me to learn hurdles, and to be faster and stronger than I had been before. We had many good memories during long days at track meets, but one in particular stands out. For three years I ran on the 4 by 100-meter Shuttle Hurdle Relay. It was probably my best event, and definitely my favorite event. I was not a superior track athlete, and relays became my best opportunities for placing in meets. My senior year, we had a pretty good chance of qualifying for States. At least, we did until one of the members of our team was declared academically ineligible. He was replaced by a freshman who was splitting his time between track and Show Choir, and just didn’t have the split time to get us where we wanted to go. In an attempt to make the most of the situation, the rest of us on the team wrote a letter that explained our desire to resign from the team, since our hopes of States were pretty much shot. We signed it and put it on Mr. Byrd’s desk along with our track jerseys and went to class. Coach got back to class and found our note and immediately came and pulled us out of band class and asked us about quitting the team. He got pretty emotional about it until one of our team members mentioned to him that it was April first. That took a few minutes to sink in, but once it did, we were promptly chased back to class with a plastic baseball bat that Coach Byrd had handy. As retribution, he entered all three of us in the 3200 meter race (2 miles) at the next meet. Being a 200/400 guy, that turned out to be the longest two mile race in the history of high school track.
One last memory to share. The picture at the top of this post is from a trip our youth group took when I was in high school. Our church planned the most ambitious missions trip/youth activity I’ve ever seen. We took several weeks to drive from West Virginia to Colorado to spend a week at the Wilds of the Rockies Christian Camp, help run a major youth evangelistic event, and see a bunch of stuff along the way. We slept in churches and campgrounds along the way, often resorting to sponge baths or solar showers. By the end of the trip we were tired, about to kill each other, and had seen God work in our lives. We did door-to-door canvassing in St. George, Utah, ran a “Cola War” in Fruita, Colorado, and ministered in several other places along the way. We also got to see some things that I may never get to see again. One of the highlights was stopping at the Grand Canyon and hiking to the bottom of it. I was reflecting on another photo I have from that hike of the group of us after we got back to the summit. So much is represented in that picture. Much brokenness is represented there, including my own. Some are in vocational ministry while others are serving faithfully in local churches. All are trophies of grace and represent a legacy of faithfulness from the leadership of that church. They were not perfect. I think Mr. Byrd would have been the first to admit that. But they pushed us to be faithful and to serve in a mission bigger than each of us. We were not always the most receptive kids, but our leaders never gave up on us.
Now Mr. Byrd is in glory. He is mourned by his family but remembered with gratefulness by so many. His body, broken from injury and a past car accident, is now pain-free. He is in the presence of his Savior, and we will one day be re-united. Until then, I am grateful for his ministry to me, and his love for so many awkward teenagers over the years.