Tampa Bay tear jerker: A ‘former’ Baptist pastor?

The following is a picky little post about a story that kind of got under my skin today. It’s a human-interest story that, on one level, is about sports.

But it’s not really a sports story. Please keep reading.

No, it’s a tear-jerker piece from The Tampa Bay Times about a dying man who is clearly a serious baseball fan and, to some degree, he is a serious Christian believer. Maybe. You can’t really tell.

This story is one or two words away from being a normal, clearly written news report. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why the Times team elected — in a crucial sentence of the story — to be so vague. Maybe it was just a mistake. Maybe someone just did take the story very seriously.

Here is the top of the story. Can you spot the vague word that got to me?

Harry Cummings sat in his wheelchair by the dugout and took it all in.

“Is that home plate?” asked the 80-year-old Spring Hill man who doctors say has only weeks left to live. “It doesn’t look that far from here to hit a home run.”

Cummings is dying from kidney cancer. The former Baptist preacher says he is ready to go when God is ready to take him. But Sunday he had some living to do, thanks to grandson Jeremy Via and the Tampa Bay Rays, who arranged for a pregame tour and meet-and-greet with players.

Yes, I am the son of a Southern Baptist pastor. My dad was a Baptist preacher until the moment he died.

What, precisely, is a “former” Baptist preacher?

I have known some ex-Baptist preachers. They were former Baptist preachers. The implication is that they either left the ministry, left the faith, joined another faith or some combination of the above.

Of course, I have known many, many retired Baptist preachers. They are still Baptist preachers, even if they have left full-time work in a church.

The point is that they are not “former” Baptist preachers.

So what is Cummings? Is he an ex-Baptist preacher or a retired Baptist preacher?

The story never tell us. The copy desk used the one word that really doesn’t work. Why?

It is clear that Cummings remains a man of faith (and baseball). The transition from the “Devil Rays” to “The Rays” is discussed, for example.

Cummings watches every Rays game on television and has followed the team intensely since its first game in 1998. But before Sunday, he had never been down on the field at Tropicana Field. He’d never met a Ray.

His favorite is Ben Zobrist, the All Star who is vocal about his Christianity. As Zobrist approached, Cummings got up from his wheelchair and stood at his side for nearly 10 minutes as they talked about baseball and their faith.

“A fellow Christian,” said Zobrist, putting his arm around the frail man with a ready smile who had once played catcher in Little Genesee, N.Y.

And at the very end, there is this benediction:

The Rays provided four tickets in the plush Hancock Bank Club with free food and beverages for Cummings; Via; his brother, Garrett Helton, 15; and their mother, Celinda Jones, 54, who is Cummings’ daughter.

It was a memory that everyone will hold onto in the difficult days ahead, Jones said. “God, family, Rays,” she said, reciting the family motto as she watched her father talk baseball with Rays manager Joe Maddon.

When it was time to leave the field, Cummings’ white Rays hat was dotted with player autographs. And he had met, touched and laughed with the men who he roots for every day.

“It keeps your mind off things,” Cummings said. “But I know where I’m going.”

It’s a nice little story. What did it gain by leaving the status of this man’s vocation and calling muddled? What was gained by leaving that point vague?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Geoff McLarney

    It is a good question. I wouldn’t have thought Baptists would have an idea of orders or indelibility that would make it inappropriate to use “former” if someone changes churches and/or careers. As an aside, is the equation of the pastoral office and the preaching office a Baptist thing? As a seminarian I notice that non-church folk use the word “preacher” as a generic term for clergy a lot and I wonder if they pick it up from America TV.

  • Pamela B. Zohar

    It reads to me like he’s retired from preaching. so he’s a former preacher (he used to preach) and now he isn’t preaching. I guess I don’t see any ‘vagueness’ about that. But I grew up around Baptist and Church of Christ folks, and preaching is a job, which may also be a ‘calling’, but they don’t mean it is some kind of special ‘holy’ position that a person is in for life. It is more like a job. Poorly paid, but a job, from which a person can retire.

    • tmatt

      There’s no way to know that. Why not use the precise word “retired”?

      • Pamela B. Zohar

        He’s 80 years old. I read ‘former’ as ‘retired’ and I think you are seeing ghosts that aren’t there. If he used to work as a bricklayer and the story said ‘former bricklayer’ would we be having this conversation?

  • Darren Blair

    My question – would the term “one-time Baptist pastor” have been any better?

    • Richard Mounts

      Good grief, no! If anything it’s even more confusing. I, too, assumed “former” meant “retired” but I see tmatt’s point. Then I’m a Catholic and like Geoff above I wonder if ordination in the Baptist (Southern?) Church implies for the ordinands the same things it does in the RCC. Whether it does or not, should a journalist cover that if he/she uses the word “former?”


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