Tattooed on Our Lives:
A Tribute to Brother Julian Cunningham
Life is full of interesting and peculiar people, but some people walk this earth living 5 lifetimes in one and are felt long after their life passes here. My mom once told us as children not to get a tattoo as it was a “permanent reminder of a temporary feeling.” I can’t think of a better word to describe Brother Julian Cunningham – my Papa J – than to say he is tattooed on all of our lives that knew him. He is a permanent reminder of a temporary fellowship here on earth. For me, I can’t imagine myself in a place in life where something won’t remind me of him, spark a memory, or bring back some of his wit and wisdom. Many have known him longer than I have, but I feel privileged to be thought of as family by him and his. He and his dear companion of almost 70 years – our Granny Bea – treated me like one of their own grandchildren, and my relationship with many their natural grandchildren is like I have with my own natural cousins. For better or worse, we are family, and for all that comes with it, I wouldn’t trade an ounce of it for the gift that it has brought my life.
It’s hard to describe why certain people click the way they do. Some might say Papa J and I clicked because we’re both rascals, and you wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. Some might say Granny Bea and I clicked because we’re both Texans and think very similarly, and you wouldn’t necessarily be wrong there either. However, no story about Papa J and his clan can begin without the thing that clicks with us the most: God’s kingdom here on earth. No enterprise on this earth meant more to him, and his life is filled with moments, sacrifices, and high joys in trying to be the best ambassador for Christ and His bride that he could. Nobody who lived around him, bumped into him in the community, etc. ever made it out without being invited to church. Riding with him to church one morning, he rolled his window down while going through downtown Plant City, FL and hollered, “Hey follow me to church, and you’ll see a miracle!” On one occasion when I was invited to preach a meeting at his home church of Little Union, he called me just a few days before and said, “We got the fish ready for the fish fry, you get the manna ready, and we’ll feed their bellies while you feed their souls.”
Volumes of books could be written on his various military careers alone. A true patriot of this great nation, Papa J broke in to the Special Forces for his second military career at an age when most men were getting out of such a grueling command. A little over a year ago at his 90th birthday, it was apparent how special he was when his friends from that portion of his service showed up who were decades younger than he was. While he was very proud of his service, it was not the selfish pride of having done things that most men never would or could. He was proud of this nation, thankful for God’s blessings upon it, and felt a gratitude at being able to do his part for her. A decade ago at his 80th birthday, I remember telling him, “Papa J, you’ve made your fourscore years. You’ve obviously got a measure of strength according to Scripture.” He looked at me and said, “Son, I don’t know. I just can’t do it like I used to.” Chuckling, I said, “It’s about dang time!” Sitting here, I still can’t believe this old soldier has been removed from our ranks.
His sharp wit and seasoned wisdom were not only rich but unique. He had a way with words that rivalled any comedian coupled with an understanding of God’s word that made his funniest moments worthy of a re-examination because he generally was teaching something in that funny moment. The first time he heard me preach, I was a young sprout not even ordained yet. Right before the preaching portion of service where I was going to preach, he stood up before the association and said, “Me and Bea’s from Florida, and right now, there’s a hurricane barreling right towards our house. I want the whole house to pray for our folks that God would have it take a pass some other way.” Talk about pressure before a sermon when I wasn’t even ordained! When that service was over, he came up to me and said, “Thank you!” When I wondered what he was thanking me for, he held up his phone and said, “I asked folks to pray, and your sermon was like a prayer for my soul. That’s thing’s done took a curve down there. Gonna miss us completely.” The next time I saw him – at a different meeting in a different state – his first words to me were, “Your preaching got any better yet?” Looking back, he encouraged me in being blessed to speak but also spurred me to grow and get even better. Of course, when he asked me that, you all know what Granny Bea said…”I’m gonna hurt your face…”
Like many men of his generation and disposition, he was plain spoken and opinionated. In the person of someone less spiritual or not as devoted to kingdom of God, a personality like his could have been full of self-promotion. In his person, it was someone who would stand and fight for what was important. My natural father said about another special man in our lives – Brother Alfred Cothren – who was cut of the same cloth, “I’m sure glad he fears God, cause he ain’t afraid of nothin’ else.” That describes Papa J perfectly. His devotion to God kept other things in check, but his devotion to God also gave him courage against all other things. Maybe one exception would be Granny Bea! He told me many times, “Son, watch them eyes. When her black Comanche eyes dance fire, it’s over!” No, he wasn’t perfect, but he was genuine and full of integrity. His mistakes were not those of malicious intent. His foibles were not those from a corrupt core. Like all of us, he dealt with the old flesh, but his missteps from my perspective were from the best of intentions, and I hope when I meet my end here in this life that it could be said of me that I had half the courage and integrity that he had.
He worshipped differently than anyone I’ve ever known. I know that word “different” can sometimes make Old Baptist pause or cringe, but friends, if you look up the definitions of Primitive Baptist language like “moss back,” “deacon deluxe,” “pillar,” “father or grandfather in Israel,” etc. a picture of him would have served as an adequate definition. What made him different were things I’ve never seen anyone else do, and I’m not sure I ever will. Most people of his disposition can be very vocal in church. Other deacons of his generation would be your loudest “ameners.” Instead, he would point and sometimes wave his hand in affirmation. At times, he would wait for eye contact before saluting as a measure of affirmation. Most people who enjoy a sermon will tell the preacher “I enjoyed it,” “love you,” “the Lord blessed you,” or something like that. Papa J would give you the “ok” sign in the handshake and say “just right” before hugging your neck. I’ll miss those open, warm, and hearty embraces in handshakes.
What made him most unique in the way he worshipped was his willingness to talk about things that most people shy away from. If something needs to be said, he didn’t mind saying it. If something needs to be done, he was ready to get after it. Money can be a taboo subject sometimes in churches, but he would stand up in front of an entire Florida Fellowship Meeting and say things like, “I’ve got good news. We’ve got preachers here from six different states, and we’ve got enough money to take care of all of them. Course most of it’s still in your pockets.” On another occasion, he said, “Folks, we’ve got 15 preachers here from different parts of the country, and we love ’em all. But, if we don’t get enough money together to get ’em home, they’re gonna be living among us in our homes, and we don’t love ’em that much. So, let’s get enough together to get ’em home!” While extremely funny in delivery, he didn’t mind taking on the difficult tasks. Like the good old solider he was, he endured hardness in ways I can’t imagine. He lived through church troubles and strife that would have jaded lesser men. He endured cruel reproach that would have soured less spiritual souls. His desire for the good of Zion was paramount till the end.
He adored our family. There wasn’t a child, grandchild, or anyone else that he didn’t want the best for. Yes, the family’s not perfect, and he never pretended that it was. However, his love for his family was not built on emotion or peace. Like the love we should reflect from the character of God, his love was borne in action and service. Yes, we still sit around and tell the funny stories of how he and Grannie Bea met (she was a waitress in a diner when he came in with another girl on a date), we talk about how he ditched her to go fishing right after they were married much to the hurt of not only his face but also her dishes! However, there’s not a member of the Cunningham family (including this adopted Conley) that doesn’t know the love of Papa J through both the “Papa’s” embrace as well as the “Sarge’s” charge. We’ve all been embraced and charged, and like a tattoo on my soul, I intend to carry him and the spirit of his character all my days.
The Cunningham family and Little Union Church are entering a new phase. No one is around that remembers life without him. After 91 years on earth, one might think that goes without saying, but his presence was not just a product of his years but of his tremendous impact. However, as memories have flooded back to me over the last few days since his passing, I think often of another of his famous expressions: “one more time.” What would he want, and more importantly what would he expect? Even though he’s gone, he would expect us all to go to church one more time. He would expect us to gather and embrace one more time. He would expect a big family breakfast hollering “table” before spinning the Lazy Susan one more time. He would expect a fish fry one more time. He would expect all the things he taught us to be put in practice one more time. I hope to do all these things again, even though I won’t do them with him. However, friends, I expect to be with him one more time. When that happens, that one more time will never end, and he and I will be able to embrace in a way we never could here. Sarge is at rest. Papa is in peace. I’ll see you one more time.