"If it weren't for him, I wouldn't be in the ministry."
"Me, too," said the voice on the phone. "If it weren't for McCoy, who knows where I'd be now."
I was talking with the Rev. Héctor L?ez, Central Pacific Conference Minister, about the Rev. Charles McCoy, who had just died (on Nov. 3). In the early '60s, Hector and I were seminary classmates at UCC-related Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, Calif., where McCoy taught ethics.
"He was the first one who ever told me I had gifts, except for my parents," Hector said. "When I was having problems with Old Testament and New Testament, one day I told McCoy that I just couldn't do it. 'Of course you can,' he said to me. 'You haven't been prepared for this, but there's no doubt you can do it.'"
While Hector was struggling with biblical studies, I had doubts about even being in seminary. I dropped out, with an eye toward enrolling at the nearby University of California.
Enter Charles McCoy. Somehow he convinced a ragtag bag of seminary malcontents—including the two of us—to meet one evening a month in his home. We also pledged to attend chapel services and discuss a book each month. For the next year and a half we read scripture, Shakespeare and science fiction, Albert Camus, Nikos Kazanzakis and Graham Greene.
Then some of us took a year off. I served with the Iona Community in Edinburgh, Scotland. Hector worked in a juvenile hall in Los Angeles. A third person interned in campus ministry in Raleigh, N.C. A year later, we all returned and, once again, McCoy gathered us in his home. This time he offered us a challenge: instead of going our separate ways once we graduated, why not organize a group ministry? That was the beginning of the West Oakland Christian Parish, an inner-city ministry that helped mainline urban churches become involved in such issues as housing, police brutality, public education and health care delivery.
As I learned at his memorial service, we weren't the only ones McCoy assisted. "He helped me appreciate my ability to analyze social issues," said one former student. "Then he loaned me his robe for my first sermon." Someone else had wanted to change careers and go into ministry. "Charles told me, 'I'll do what I can,'" he said, "and that opened the door to seminary and to the rest of my life."
Usually I am unaware of my own gifts until one of two things happens. Either I notice that I can do something that others cannot, for example, play an instrument by ear. Or, someone names as a gift an ability I have taken for granted. "Anyone can do that," I protest, until someone shows me otherwise. Without that affirmation, I might never recognize my gifts and employ them.
Jesus enlisted followers by recognizing gifts for ministry in persons who thought they were destined for other work, for example, fishing or collecting taxes. In the same way, Charles McCoy recognized God-given gifts in others and challenged us to use them. Just as important, he also never let us lose sight of the greatest gift, the good news that God sent Jesus so that we all may have life and have it abundantly.
In this season of gift-giving, I am grateful for gifts God has given me and for persons such as Charles McCoy who have called forth my gifts. These people, too, are gifts. Their lives remind me to live their legacy by making my life a gift to others.
The Rev. W. Evan Golder is editor of the national edition of United Church News.