Reeltown, Alabama—the high school parking lot is slam-packed with cars. People are parking on the grass, trucks park over at the fire department. I find an open space on the school lawn.
My wife and I enter the gymnasium. It’s loud inside. There are four hundred people seated at cafeteria tables. There is enough fried chicken in this room to short-circuit the U.S. government.
Local ladies tend to the crowd, dressed in aprons. High-school girls with pitchers refill sweet tea, young men with football jerseys gather empty paper plates.
This is a fundraiser for Wallace Mann.
You’d like Wallace. He is a country preacher in this community. And in this world, there are two different kinds of preachers. Country preachers, and everyone else.
“Brother Wallace always made the rounds,” said one man with white hair. “Do you ‘member when country preachers used to make the rounds? No, you might not, you’re too young.”
As it happens I once I worked as an assistant to a preacher who made “the rounds.” He spent four days each week driving to hospitals, standing at bedsides, visiting nursing homes, holding hands, or taking out trash for an elderly man who couldn’t get out of his recliner.
“That’s what Brother Wallace would do,” the old man goes on. “He did it every week without fail before he got sick, he made the rounds.”
Mister Wallace is positioned near the stage in a motorized wheelchair. ALS has taken its toll on him. He is not able to move like he used to. Sometimes, just talking wears him out.
Miss Ann feeds him with a plastic fork. His family is seated around his table. He is wearing his high-school colors.
“Oh, he loves Reeltown football,” says his wife. “He used to play here, you know. He tells everyone he was was defensive guard. He used to guard the the bench.”
That gets a laugh out of a few people.
Ann has been with Wallace since she was seventeen.
“We were young when we met,” she says. “He used to drive mules when I was a girl, he’d ride them past my house, I loved looking at him, I knew I wanted to get to know him.”
Their first date was sitting on a porch swing, talking. Fifty-eight years later, they’re still continuing that same conversation.
Mister Wallace’s wheelchair faces the gymnasium stage. He can’t see how many people are filing into the room behind him. They enter by the hordes.
After supper, various people take the stage and speak into a microphone. Mostly, they talk about him. It’s a moving evening, listening to everyone talk.
The ALS hasn’t affected Wallace’s ability to blush.
After a few raffle-ticket drawings, a talent show, and door prizes, someone asks Mister Wallace if he wants to say a few words.
You bet your life he does. No preacher in the history of fried-chicken suppers has ever turned down the opportunity to “say a few words.”
A hush falls over all four hundred people. His wheelchair moves toward the podium. His daughter wheels his oxygen canister behind him. His wife turns his chair to face the audience.
Clapping begins. Then, a standing ovation. A loud one.
Soon, the walls of the gymnasium are ringing something fierce. His blue eyes turn red. His wife holds a microphone to his mouth, but he can’t find words to say. It takes him time to pick the right ones.
This could be the only time in history a preacher has ever come up short on words.
“Oh my,” he says, “I didn’t think this many people were here.”
His voice is Alabama, his hair is snow, his heart is a continent. His lower lip trembles, his eyes are strong.
He is the sort of man most wish they could be, but are simply not built for it.
“I have contributed so little to this world in my short life,” he says. “I’m jest so humbled.”
When his speech is over, people form a long line to speak with him. I am standing in this line. People shake his hand, kiss his cheek, and hug his neck.
Some thank him for visiting their ailing mothers. Others want him to know how much they appreciate his help when they were at rock bottom. Everyone has something to say to him.
All of a sudden, I realize what I am seeing.
Though Mister Wallace is in a wheelchair, though he is unable to move much more than his left hand, though ALS is brutal on a body, and though every day is a fight, he will always be a country preacher. And these will always be his folks.
And nothing can stop him from making his rounds.