By: Tom Bryant
(Originally published in The News-Gazette, June 22, 2008)
The biggest thing I learned in writing this story is that you find some of the greatest stories in the most unlikely places. I first met Pastor Winfrey, almost by accident, at a small “graduation” ceremony from a financial seminar, in his church basement, that I was writing an “event” story on for an introductory journalism class. He and I hit it off immediately and, as I listened to him, knew he had a great story to tell. I ended up writing a short profile piece on him for the introductory class and came back to him a year and a half later for the story in in Professor Harrington’s class. The rest, as they say, is history.
– Tom Bryant
Moses had his burning bush.
Saul had his light on the road to Damascus.
Ray Winfrey had his riding lawn mower.
Cutting grass can be a mindless, butt-numbing chore for a homeowner. For Ray Winfrey, who mowed for the Champaign Parks Department, it was job security. That is, until one late spring day in 1979, when his mowing went from mindless to mind-blowing.
“It was about 2 in the afternoon on a beautiful day,” he remembers. “Suddenly the mower had stopped, and I was on the ground. It was like I was in a daze, paralyzed. Out of nowhere, the Lord gave me this vision of what he wanted out of my life. He wanted me to start a church for the outcasts, those who’d been turned away everywhere else.”
Ray, age 41 then, got back on his mower, returned to his office, quit his job and set about building a church. Neither Moses nor Saul had an easy time of it after his call from God. The same was true for Ray Winfrey.
The sky outside is leaden, rainy and dour, but Pastor Raymond L. Winfrey’s office is warm and inviting, although more functional than fancy. He sits at his plain metal desk this Sunday morning, looking over his notes for his Sunday sermon that are kept in his Bible.
The 40 or so members of his flock at Crossroad of Life Community Church in Rantoul are in the sanctuary, preparing for the morning’s service and for Pastor Winfrey’s message. He can hear their muted talking and the deep thumm, thumm, thumm of Brother Tommy Jones’ bass guitar. He closes his Bible, bows his head for a silent prayer, then faces the biggest decision he has made this morning: Which robe to wear? Five robes, each a different color, hang to his left.
“There’s nothing magical about a specific robe for a specific Sunday,” he acknowledges. “I usually go with how I’m feeling that day.”
He’s feeling purple today. The robe provides a sharp contrast with his dark red shirt and tie. The stole around his neck, with the two gold embroidered crosses, marks him as God’s man. At 70 years old, he still stands tall and ready to preach.
“I know that I am exactly where God wants me to be,” Pastor Winfrey says. “That brings a lot of peace.”
The service has begun. He can hear the faithful singing the chorus of an old hymn: “I’ll fly away, oh Glory; I’ll fly away, in the morning.” He walks down the hall and into the sanctuary with little pomp and lots of circumstance. The circumstance is what has brought him to this place in his life.
Ray Winfrey couldn’t wait to get away from the farm outside Somerville, Tenn. Since he was 5, he had helped pick the cotton. Everybody helped, or the work didn’t get done. His parents were tenant farmers. They worked acres owned by the white folks down the road. The Winfreys planted, cultivated and picked the cotton every year. The hours were long and hard. At the end of the season, profits were divided unequally between owner and tenant. When he wasn’t in the fields, Ray was usually in school, in church or playing by himself.
“I was kind of a loner, I guess you’d say,” he recalls. “My youngest brother was always getting me in trouble, blaming me for something I hadn’t done. My mother always took his side. I usually just played by myself.”
School was a two-room schoolhouse 3 miles from home. Ray walked every day – there were no school buses in rural 1940s Tennessee.
“I guess we were lucky to have a school,” he says.
Every Sunday, the Winfrey family attended Pullman Chapel Baptist Church. Everyone was dressed in their best. Ray’s favorite memory from then is dinner on the grounds after the Sunday service.
“Man, that was some good eating,” he says. “Everybody brought their best food, and that usually meant lots of fried chicken. Man, that was good.”
Ray loved going to church: the music and singing, the Bible verses, the fiery sermons.
“I really loved our pastor,” he says. “He’d come in every Sunday from Somerville and preach, kind of like the old circuit-riding preachers. He was one of those preachers that you couldn’t help but listen to.”
One Sunday morning, when Ray was 5 years old, one of the old deacons in the church came to Ray’s mother and told her he had a prophecy about Ray: “The Lord told me that your boy is going to be a preacher one day.” Ray didn’t pay much attention.
“At 5 years old, preaching was the last thing on my mind,” he says with a grin.
When he graduated from high school, Ray was ready to leave the farm.
“There was no future on the farm,” he says. “I didn’t want to get trapped there.”
It was the 1950s and the North offered the promise of work. He moved to Champaign to live with one of his older brothers and soon landed a job with the City of Champaign Public Works Department and set about on a quite “un-churchly” life.
Pastor Winfrey walks slowly onto the platform at the front of the sanctuary after the opening prayer. He moves like John Wayne, his body cocked to one side and his gait carrying a slight hitch in his get-along. His thick, curly hair has a lot more salt than pepper these days, and his graying mustache stands out against his dark skin much more than it used to. He is just over 6 feet tall and slender, but his robe makes him seem larger and more imposing than he is without it. The full sleeves give him an almost angelic quality.
The congregation claps in time as Sister Mary Square plays the next song and they sing with conviction another old hymn: “O, how I love Jesus.”
“When I moved to Champaign, I was footloose and fancy-free,” Ray says. “No one could tell me to do anything. I could do what I wanted – and I was going to. I started drinking pretty heavy and womanizing. I never did any drugs or anything like that, but I was into some gambling.”
That pattern would haunt Ray for the next 20 years.
When he met and married Joan, the womanizing stopped – but the drinking didn’t.
“I never missed a day of work because of my drinking,” he says. “I just became what they call a functioning drunk. I’d drink at night – sometimes all night – and work the next day. I’d drink for six, nine, 12 months at a time, feel guilty and stop cold turkey.
“The DTs were the worst,” he recalls. “They’d usually start within 24 hours. They’d last about three days. It felt like there were things crawling all over me. I’d hallucinate and think I’d see things that weren’t there. One time I really scared my wife. I kept yelling at a dining room chair thinking it was a demon.”
“He never was a violent drunk,” says Joan, Ray’s wife of 36 years, “but I never knew what would happen when he’d try to sober up. I always tried to protect the kids from what was happening – not because I feared for their safety but because I didn’t want them to see their father like that.”
Ray would usually stay sober for five or six months, then fall off the wagon. Although he was at work every day, Ray’s boss let him know something needed to be done about his drunkenness.
“He told me to take a week off and think things through,” Ray says. “He let me know that if I didn’t stop drinking, I’d probably lose more than my job.”
Pastor Winfrey sits quietly on the short pew a few feet behind his daughter Regina, who is “working the pulpit,” as she usually does on Sunday mornings – leading the singing and calling the faithful to worship. The congregation has called this 200-seat building home for the past four years. It is one of the chapels on the now-closed Chanute Air Force Base. Its high, peaked ceiling and brightly colored stained-glass panes create a perfect mood for worship. Pastor Winfrey and his congregation went through six other church buildings in their first 11 years. Some were nice, some not so nice. But, when God provided this chapel for them, it was just perfect.
“I feel like the Word of God is just burning inside me all the time,” Pastor Winfrey said earlier. “When I get up to preach, I just have to let it out.”
This morning, the fire isn’t apparent yet, but the warmth is. He smiles at several people in the pews, returning their silent greetings. He rises and walks solemnly to the pulpit as Sister Square plays the introduction to the slow hymn, “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior.” It is time for the altar call: an invitation to anyone and everyone to ask for prayer – no questions asked, no explanations needed.
One young woman rises from her pew and walks forward. In front of the pulpit and before God, Pastor Winfrey and the congregation, she bows her head. As if in response, another woman rises, moves to the altar beside her fellow sinner, and clasps her hand. Two young girls arise and join them, continuing the human chain of bowed heads and held hands. The singing is low but full of emotion.
Pastor Winfrey extends his large hands out to the edges of the pulpit, supporting himself and seemingly the weight of the needs of those standing before him. He prays as the words of the chorus hang in the air like a heavenward prayer:
“While on others Thou art calling, do not pass me by.”
Ray Winfrey’s personal altar call in 1975 was quite different.
“I took the week off like my boss told me,” he says. “I knew I was at a crossroad. I wrestled with it for days. Finally, late one afternoon, in desperation I ran down to the basement and fell on a pile of clothes and bawled like a baby for over an hour. I pleaded with God to forgive me. There on that pile of clothes, I surrendered everything to God. I haven’t had a drink since that day.”
A close friend, on hearing of Ray’s experience, suggested he go to the hospital in anticipation of the DTs that were sure to come.
“I went and checked myself into the hospital,” Ray says. “The nurse kept telling me that, when I felt the DTs coming on, to tell her and she’d give me something. I was there for three days – and nothing, no DTs. God delivered me. It was a miracle.
“I started going to church every Sunday and reading my Bible every day. I became a deacon in the church. Looking back, God was preparing me for his plans. I had no idea that four years later he’d meet me on a lawn mower.”
Pastor Winfrey is getting ready to preach the Word. Bibles are open and ready as are receptive hearts and minds. Instead of starting his sermon, though, he starts singing a cappella in his strong tenor voice, accompanied by Brother Jones’ bass: “When I was lost, when I was lonely, I came to Jesus ..”
“He is the most sincere and loving man I know,” Rachael Wright, a
member of the Crossroad flock, had said before the service “He doesn’t try to hide his past in any way. In fact, he talks about it a lot. No one can come up to him and say, ‘I’ve done this and such. How could God forgive me?’ He just tells them what he’s been through.”
“I’ve known Pastor Winfrey since before he was a pastor,” said Brother James Square, a trustee at the church. “He has always been one of the most humble men I’ve ever known. Even now, he doesn’t accept any pay from the church – never has. He trusts God to provide for him and for this church.”
In the sanctuary, the entire congregation is now singing along, expressing what they’ve all had to do to get where they are: “I came to Jesus, I came to Jesus.”
In hindsight, quitting his job after his calling on the lawn mower in 1979 was probably not the smartest thing Ray Winfrey ever did.
“I was ready to slap him upside the head,” Joan remembers. “He came home and told me about this vision he’d had and how he’d quit his job. I didn’t handle it very well. All I could think of was, ‘I’ve just quit my job to start a day care. How dare you do this to us. What are we going to do?'”
Ray recalls Joan’s reaction with a smile: “I came home and was all excited about what had happened that day; I’d had an encounter with God. She gave me a million dollars worth of grief about what I’d done. She wasn’t happy at all.”
As it turned out, the million dollars worth of grief was just the down payment. The day Ray quit his job started a downward financial slide for the Winfreys that would not ease for two years.
“If it could go wrong, it did go wrong,” Joan says. “We went through a lot of lows before there were any highs.”
The Winfreys had purchased a home in Champaign in 1977. Without Ray’s income, the house went into foreclosure, and they lost it in 1980. Ray, Joan and their youngest daughter, Regina, who had just started high school, were forced to move in with friends in Rantoul. The Winfreys’ cars were repossessed. Rantoul has no bus system, so they had to beg for a ride or go without.
“That was rough,” Joan says. “I was most concerned about Regina.”
“At first I was upset,” Regina recalls. “I had to leave all my friends and go to a new school. Rantoul wasn’t that far, but we couldn’t afford for me to be calling or driving. It was tough, but I was a daddy’s girl, always had been. Because of that, I think I was a little more tolerant. I think what bothered me the most was not having money to get new clothes and do things like my friends.”
Despite the rough times, Ray tried to recruit people to start a church. But his efforts all ended before they ever really got started.
“One time, I invited several people who said they were interested in starting a church over to our place,” Ray says. “No one showed up. No, one man showed up an hour late saying he had to wait for his favorite TV show to end. I thought, ‘This will never work.’ I went out and sat in my car and just sobbed, feeling like I’d failed. The Lord said to me, ‘It’s not time, Ray, be patient.’ That brought such peace to my heart, like a burden had been lifted.”
While Ray found peace, Joan was upset. But she was also secretly jealous of the new fire that seemed to burn within Ray.
“I thought at times, ‘How come he got a call from God and I didn’t?’ I eventually came to understand that God was working on me through Ray’s calling. If God had called me then, I would have said, ‘No way!'”
“I had no way of knowing then that it would be another 14 years before the church would get started,” Ray says. “God used that time to make sure I would be faithful when it did get started. We needed to pay the bills; so I found another job. It just wasn’t the right time.
“The mistake I made after the incident on the lawn mower was thinking God wanted me to start a church right then. I wasn’t working on God’s timetable. I was totally committed to him and to his plan, but the timing was all wrong. He still had some molding and making to do in me.”
Finally, in June 1993, all the pieces came together.
“God let me know it was his time,” Ray says. “I had recently been offered a church in Indianapolis, but the Lord told me that wasn’t where he wanted me. Several people had said to me, ‘Count me in if you’re still planning to start that church.’ The Crossroad of Life Community Church was started with just seven members. It was a small start and we’ve had some ups and downs, but here we are, 15 years later, still moving forward in Him.”
Has the church developed the way he thought it would?
“No, we don’t have any outcasts in the church right now,” he says. “But the Lord knew we’d need a faithful core of people to deal with outcasts when they came. It’s still our vision for this church.
“Back on that lawn mower, the Lord showed me what he wanted of me. Here I am 30 years later and almost 70 years old, knowing that I am exactly where I am supposed to be and why I am supposed to be here. Not many people can say that.”
Pastor Winfrey begins his sermon standing sedately behind the pulpit, but the more fire that gets out, the more animated he becomes. He prowls the stage like a young lion, slapping his hands together, raising and lowering his voice, punctuating his words by pointing a long finger, raising his hands high.
“Our topic today is influence: those you influence and those that influence you,” Pastor Winfrey intones with passion. “Be careful which ones are which. You’ve got to be strong, knowing God is with you, no matter what those around you may say. Faithfulness to do what you know is right is what God is looking for in you.”
And from the Crossroad faithful rises a chorus: “Amen.”