Thank you, George

George Schrieffer.jpg

Earlier today I got the news that George Schrieffer died. I was stunned and for a few seconds, I didn’t believe it. Surely not George. It didn’t seem possible. 
But of course it was possible. George was 85. He lived a very full and fulfilling life. It included investing in my own life in a way that made an immeasurable difference. For 23 years, including my teenage and early adult years, George was Minister of Education and Administration at First Baptist Church in Spartanburg.  He claimed that he was not much of a speaker or singer. I don’t think I ever heard him do either, so maybe he was right. (I at least enjoyed his Sunday morning announcements.) But he was an artist. A very good artist. So he put that gift to good use in numerous ways.

George Schrieffer was the first person I ever saw do a chalk drawing. No matter how many times I saw him do one, it was mesmerizing, entertaining, meaningful, worshipful and much more. For many summers, George would come do chalk drawings at 10-12 churches in Bell County, Kentucky as part of our youth group’s mission trips there. For a couple of summers during college I served as the assistant to our youth minister, Bobby Haley, thus extending my years of serving in Kentucky. 

During the summer before my senior year of college, we were already in Kentucky and George was supposed to come up about the middle of the week. His car was already packed when he got news that an aunt in Chicago had died and that he would need to go to Chicago for the funeral instead of coming to Kentucky.  For several days we had all been telling the kids we were working with about something very special that someone was coming to do at the end of the week. I worried that they would at least be disappointed and maybe even think that we were leading them on with the promise of something special just to get them to come to the Bible schools we were conducting. 

I expressed these concerns to Bobby and suggested that maybe I could do a chalk drawing at some of the churches to keep the kids from being as disappointed. Bobby asked if I had ever done a chalk drawing (a good question to ask). I told him that I hadn’t, but that I had seen George do one quite a few times. I readily acknowledged that I knew it wouldn’t be nearly as good as George’s, but it might be enough to keep the kids at our Bible schools from being too disappointed or thinking that we had led them on.  Bobby’s response: “You get it together and let me see it - then we’ll talk about it.”

I took that as a challenge. I found an easel and a big piece of heavy cardboard which I covered with white paper table cloths for a drawing surface. I bought some cheap Crayola poster chalk at one of the few stores in town.  To get a light source I removed a few ceiling tiles and went over a wall into the AV room of the college where we were staying. Kathy likes to say that I did my first chalk drawings with a stolen projector. I maintain that since I put it back, it was merely borrowed.  George used a color wheel for some cool effects, so I made a cardboard strip containing various colors of cellophane that I manually moved in front of the borrowed projector for a similar effect.  George did his drawings to soundtracks recorded by our Minister of Music, Ronald Wells, so I enlisted a good singing friend (Scott McClellan), broke out my guitar and an industrial strength stereo cassette recorder, and we recorded a soundtrack of cross-themed songs. Getting all this done took all night, but by morning I was ready to “audition” for Bobby. He just shook his head, smiled (laughed?) and said “I don’t believe it. Go to it.”  

Over the rest of that day and the next, I did chalk drawings at 11 different little mountain churches. They were very simple and crude, but God used them in spite of my very limited drawing talent. George heard about what had happened and as soon as we both got home, he began encouraging me to continue to do chalk drawings. Our church’s superintendent of building and grounds, Frank Mabry, had built George’s light bar that included both white and black lights. George had Frank build an identical one for me. George gave me enough of his professional chalk (much better than Crayola) to get started and told me how to order more.

I don’t remember how those first invitations came, but somehow I started doing chalk drawings all over the place. I did a lot of them for various college groups and youth groups and retreats and banquets and church services. During that senior year at Furman, I did a chalk drawing for the youth group at Taylors First Baptist Church, which probably helped them decide to call me as summer youth minister.  That turned into the incredible opportunity to stay on as full time youth minister, during which time I met and married Kathy.

The chalk drawings continued to develop and opened up all kinds of doors to minister in many different places and ways all across the country and in several other countries as well. Seeing how people responded to something out of the ordinary encouraged me to try and develop other creative means of ministry. A lot of what I’ve been privileged to be able to do over the years can be traced back in some way to chalk drawings that I probably would have never started doing were it not for George Schrieffer. 

George and I became good friends and stayed in touch over the years. When we saw each other we usually talked chalk drawings. There aren’t many people who could have the kinds of conversations we had.  We sometimes borrowed chalk from each other and sometimes ordered chalk together to get a better price. To this day I still can’t draw nearly as well as George did, so I’ve long tried to compensate by enhancing the drawings with a lot of special effects, dramatic lighting, great music, etc. that grew into a 16-foot trailer full of equipment, a four-hour setup, and the need for usually Ray Jackson to go with us to help set up everything. Numerous times George commented that as he got older, he kept trying to simplify his set up, but said I seemed intent on continuing to complicate mine. (His wisdom might have finally started to sink in as I’ve recently added a much simpler second setup.) He never stopped being an incredibly encouraging mentor.

For the record, George was much more than a great chalk artist. He was an outstanding minister of education and administration who served with great humility and a wonderful sense of humor and grace. Even more importantly he was a great husband, dad, grandfather, friend, etc.  (His daughter, Amy Haase, served on our summer staff and worked with for several years as a US-2 missionary when I was with the SC Baptist Convention.) He leaves a great legacy. 

I am sad because someone I loved died.  I am celebrating (through tears) because George Schrieffer’s life was well lived. I am blessed because he made a huge difference in the course of my life.