The Rev. Delles Ray Howell set out last Sunday morning with a suit and a Bible. Mr. Howell drove east from Monroe into the rising sun, cutting through the cotton fields to Archibald. There he turned south on Route 425, and when he could see the silver cylinder of the grain elevator, he knew he was coming into Wisner.
At Ezell's One-Stop, the only place open downtown, he made a right onto the two-lane county road. One more mile along, past the pecan trees and the crape myrtles, Mr. Howell pulled up to the tidy sanctuary of New Light Baptist Church, his destination not only for this day but, he increasingly realized, his entire life.
For nearly all of his 60 years, he had been a man of Sunday rituals, if not the ritual of worship then the ritual of pro football. He had performed before multitudes in the Superdome and Shea Stadium, putting in six seasons as a defensive back with the New Orleans Saints and New York Jets. At least every week or two, he still has the same dream about his college coach, Eddie Robinson at Grambling, telling him that training camp is starting and it's time to measure up.
These days, Mr. Howell measures himself in a different arena. At New Light, he serves a congregation of 150 and oversees an annual budget of less than $15,000. His own salary is $450 a month. Amid all the grim examples of life after pro-sports careers -- bankruptcies, brain damage, arrests and, for the former Tennessee Titans quarterback Steve McNair, murder apparently at the hands of a lover -- Mr. Howell in his country church embodies humility and purpose.
On this particular morning, members of his congregation sat before him with their Bibles in zip-up cases and their dueling sets of cardboard fans, one provided by a candidate for judge, the other from a local mortuary. The women wore hats with swooping brims, the men had cufflinks and collar bars, attire that elevated them from the week's toil dressing catfish or harvesting sweet potatoes, two jobs that were still around.
Mr. Howell stood in the pulpit and the ushers with their enamel badges lined up in the aisles. Jermaine Tolliver, the church pianist, struck the first chords, and without prompting the congregation sang, "Soon and very soon, we are going to see the King." The pastor, too, knew the words and melody from long memory.
"It's a fitting culmination to a life of walking with the Lord," Mr. Howell said of his ministry a few days later. "I was baptized at 8 years old. And through my high school years, my college years, my professional career, the business world, I never left the church. This is the most exciting time of my membership in the family of God. I look back and see how the Lord has prepared me."
He started regular Bible study in the mid-1970s while with the Jets. One of his instructors was the Brooklyn pastor Herbert Daughtry. When Mr. Howell's playing days ended, he returned to his hometown, Monroe. He and his wife, Sheila, a teacher, raised six children, and he started a second career in municipal government, ultimately becoming the head of the parks department.
Rev. Delles & Sheila Howell
Meanwhile, he reconnected with his boyhood church, singing in the choir, training to become a deacon and wrestling with an insistent call.
"It's something that's pushing you, urging you to go a higher level," Mr. Howell recalled. "It's that still voice within you, the Holy Spirit talking. It gets so strong you feel you're having some kind of anxiety problem."
For seven years, while overseeing the parks department, he attended seminary part-time at night. After being ordained in 2006, he retired from the department, knowing that the pension would help subsidize a minister's salary. And in May 2008, at an age when many other men are thinking of Social Security, he accepted the call to New Light.
As the worship service proceeded last Sunday, so much looked so satisfyingly familiar. Nettie Brown read the announcements about birthdays, sick members and a coming revival. The sisterhood handed out donations to the needy. Vernon Creecy, recovered from surgery, was in his pew for the first time in two months. Johnny Ray Lewis, a deacon who had moved to Dallas for a job a year ago, told the congregation how good it felt to be back.
Mr. Howell, though, could see beneath the veneer to the challenges. The sick list was so long in part because the congregation was so old, with maybe two-thirds of its members above 65. Mr. Lewis has gone to Dallas because so many jobs around Wisner were drying up. (The town's poverty rate was nearly 40 percent in the 2000 census, and that was, comparatively speaking, a boom time.)
The pastor worries incessantly that there are not enough children in the church. When he began serving a year ago, the Sunday-school class did not include a single one. He went door to door appealing to parents and grandparents, and he made the pitch week after week from the pulpit.
"The most surprising thing," he said, "was the number of unchurched people in Wisner. In the Bible Belt, you think all the churches would be packed out to the point you put out chairs or had standing room. But the same kind of trends that have affected the city church affect the country church. You'd be surprised at the level of drug traffic and drug lifestyles in rural areas. These lifestyles all contribute to empty pews."
On this morning, though, the pews were filled. Two dozen children had attended Sunday school. Though the worship service ran three hours, with 55 minutes of it Mr. Howell's sermon on Matthew 24, nobody hurried to drive home once it was done.
"Even when your football career is over," Mr. Howell said, "you keep putting on your uniform and playing the game. Because you're playing in the most important game in life, more important than the Super Bowl. God never promised you wouldn't have rough sides and valleys and stumbling blocks. All God promised is to never leave and forsake you. So, as a Christian, you keep suiting up."
Source: New York Times