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Innerviews: Minister finds 'life-giving' outlet in writing

Chip Ellis
In his home-based office at the Town House Apartments where he moved three years ago with his wife, Bridget, the Rev. Lawton Posey writes columns and commentaries for Charleston newspapers and other publications. He's currently doing research on hymnals.
Chip Ellis "I am totally deaf. ...
Chip Ellis ... I hear through a cochlear implant ...
Chip Ellis ... that sends signals into my inner ear."
Courtesy photo At age 2, Lawton Posey was living on a dairy farm on James Island in the Charleston, S.C., area.
Courtesy photo In his early 30s, as a pastor at the First Presbyterian Church in Welch, Lawton Posey discovered he had a rapport with young people.
Courtesy photo This church portrait of Lawton Posey was taken at age 40 as pastor of the Norview Presbyterian Church near Norfolk, Va. "I was in my prime," he said.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Rev. Lawton Posey spent 20 years ministering to his flock at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church. For 12 of those years, as a hospital chaplain, he also tended to the emotional and spiritual needs of patients and families at Saint Francis Hospital.

He wasn't called to the ministry by a lightning-bolt epiphany. It just kind of happened. God's work quietly found him along the way.

Local newspaper readers know him better as a prolific contributing writer of book reviews, spiritual essays and editorial commentary covering everything from bygone days to politics.

At 77, retired from the pulpit since 1999, he remains an engaging conversationalist, a philosopher, a deep and progressive thinker.

The serenity, the relaxed, comforting persona, reflects a preacher more attuned to one-on-one pastoral care than rousing Sunday morning sermons.

Few know that he is totally deaf. He thanks God -- and his surgeon -- for the cochlear implant that revived the ability to communicate.

 

"I was born in Charleston, S.C., in 1935. My dad was managing a dairy farm on James Island. My birth certificate says I was brought to the Holstein Farm. It was owned by a Mr. Lawton, and that's how I got my first name.

"After my father and Mr. Lawton ended their business relationship, Dad floated around in a number of jobs because it was a kind of a second Depression in the late '30s.

"When the war started, he got a job as a uniformed civil service fireman for the Charleston naval shipyard, and we began a period of stability. He worked there for 16 years. Mother continued to teach.

"When I was about 6, I used to listen to a radio program sponsored by the Star Gospel Mission. The minister was a Methodist and had a booming voice. I remember thinking he was pretty neat.

"I also on occasion went to the Episcopal church on the island. I remember one day wrapping a piece of bathroom tissue around my neck like a preacher and looking at myself in the mirror. But I wasn't that attracted then to being a minister.

"About 1944, we left the island and moved to North Charleston. We started going to a church that was started Dec. 7, 1941. They met in a residence. It was a time of change. The congregation was very progressive.

"I was a piano student. My teacher thought I had real possibilities. But I developed a big interest in science and loved taking chemistry and decided I would go to Davidson College and major in chemistry.

"I did OK, but I knew in my heart I would never be a chemist, mainly because I had a weakness at math. And here my mother was a math teacher.

"I told my music teacher I didn't think I was going to go on. I told my chemistry professor that I had switched my major to psychology. He knew I had no future as a chemist.

"I had outstanding psychology teachers who inspired me, particularly Dr. Workman. He never forced me to think about being a minister, but he happened to be trained in ministry.

"He saw that I might have some kind of counseling career. By then, I had declared myself a candidate for ministry. I think I did that at my mother's urging because I would get half tuition.

"The ministry thing evolved with me. I was searching for myself, for what made me tick. I applied to Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, and it was a wonderful experience. They had young professors with good training. My junior year, I was hired as a Bible teacher by Ginter Baptist Church and, surprise surprise, I was paid to teach. I needed money.

"My first pastoral charge was on the Eastern Shore of Virginia across Chesapeake Bay. I was 26, and I was in charge of two 100-member congregations. Both had a lot of life in them. I was there five years.

"My hearing was beginning to decline. I had measles when I was 6 and lost all the hearing in my left ear. It would have been nice to have had some counseling in dealing with hearing loss, but it wasn't available.

"Those five years were very happy. The people knew how to put up with young fellows who had all kinds of things to say about social conditions. Also, people were looking to see racial issues on the Eastern Shore undergo some change.

"My next pastorate was in Alleghany County, Va., not far from White Sulphur Springs, in a town that had been a mill village where iron ore was dug out of the mountains and refined. The town was highly stratified. The people on the hill where the church was were the managers and superintendents and were in the better houses.

"I was there two years and nine months. I tried not to be miserable, but living in a small confined village was tough. There was something that didn't click.

"I was looking around when a doctor's wife in Clifton Forge called me about going to Welch. The First Presbyterian Church there had a lot going for it. It was a beautiful building with a huge parsonage.

"I enjoyed life there, but it was also tough because of stratification of the community -- people who worked in the mines and other industries and people who owned businesses and practiced law and medicine.

"There was another Presbyterian church that was the labor church. Later, First Presby all but disappeared because it relied on entrepreneurs and teachers and doctors.

"I was there six years. Some excellent things happened. One was my relationship with youth. One young woman said, 'When you came to Welch, you were 32 and the youngest minister in town, so we trusted you.' Even kids who weren't members came to First Presby.

"As time went on, I could see the glory days passing. Mines were closing. One year, 12 teenagers left our church and went to college and became doctors and things, and they weren't coming back to fill the empty seats.

"I was getting deafer. I was in school in Tennessee taking special work in hearing impairment when a church in Norfolk called about an interview with Norview Presbyterian, a 425-member church in a gorgeous building in a semi-suburban area. I was there five years. I was the church pianist and organist, too.

"Next, a friend called and asked if I wanted to come to Charleston to be minister at Grace Covenant on the West Side. That was 1978, and I served that church 20 years. For about 18 months, I was a staff member of the Greenbrier Presbytery and traveled to troubled churches and ministers. I enjoyed that.

"I retired in '99. I thought I was OK as a preacher but, mainly, I was a pastoral care person who visited people. I spent 12 of those Grace Covenant years as staff chaplain at Saint Francis. I was working all the time. My doctor told me, 'The ministry will consume you.' And that was true.

"For five years after I retired, I traveled all over Southern West Virginia filling in for preachers. I've been all over the place.

"About 2005, I became critically ill with meningitis and nearly died. I couldn't travel anymore. I was invited to become a tutor to lay ministry students in the Episcopal Church. I read their papers and fussed at them and encouraged them. I did that for three years and did it all by email.

"I started writing when I was in second grade. I was writing a steamy novel. It got up to 23 pages. In high school, I wrote a couple of essays. When I went to seminary, I started publishing because they had a journal there. I started writing for local papers and magazines. I still write. I've probably written a couple hundred pieces.

"Writing has been a life-giving thing for me. I write for both newspapers. I do lots of book reviews and topical pieces. It's been fun. I need an outlet.

"I am totally deaf. I hear through a cochlear implant that sends signals into my inner ear. When someone talks, I'm hearing something similar to speech. That's a marvel.

"I lost hearing altogether in '98. I can still hear simple music, but music is pretty much lost to me. I have it in my head though. Bridget has to put up with me singing old-time evangelical hymns while I work in the kitchen.

"The first day of activation of the implant I could hear. It was joyful. The audiologist said, 'What can you hear?' I could hear him perfectly. Bridget dissolved in tears. We had communicated through sign language and finger spelling and a laptop. The doctor who operated on me in Huntington is on my saint list.

"I try to be philosophical about it. I inherited that from my father. He lived to be 94. His philosophy of life was, this happens and that happens, and you go on to the next thing.

"Every now and then I get a little blue about what I've lost, but look at what I've gained. Before, I couldn't sit and talk to you. It was very hard living with no hearing. Deafness cuts you off. Unlike blindness, people don't see your disability.

"When I was younger, I thought, 'What have I done to cause all this?' Now that I'm older, I realize things like this just happen. Most people deal with something."Reach Sandy Wells at sandyw@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5173.


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