The Faith of Rev. Cleavant Derricks

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Rev. Cleavant Derricks was an old man when I met him. Or so I thought. His frail health made him seem much old than his sixty-something years.

I was 14 when I sat on the floor of my sister’s living room in Nashville and listened, entranced, as Rev. Derricks and Daddy talked about Jesus, the Bible, and church songs they loved.

There they sat, turned to face each other, their knees touching. Daddy’s arm rested on the sofa back while Rev. Derricks’ hand rested on Daddy’s arm.

They represented the black and white of God’s warriors — not just in skin tone but in how they interpreted the scriptures and how they stood firm on the word of God. It was right or it was wrong. It was God or it was not. They saw no gray areas.

Daddy’s green eyes glistened with tears and his lip trembled slightly when Rev. Derricks told him the story that inspired the writing of one of Daddy’s favorite hymns, one we sang regularly in our tiny, white clapboard country church.

He had always loved music, he explained. From as a small child, he had sung and made up songs while he did chores around their home outside Chattanooga. When he grew into a teenager, America was approaching the Great Depression yet his parents were able to scrape together five dollars a month to send him to a nearby Conservatory of Music. One day, his mother had come to him in great sorrow.

“Son, I’m sorry but we just ain’t got five dollars this month. You’ll have to miss school until we can get the money together.”

As I watched Rev. Derricks, he shook his head remorsefully and looked down at the floor momentarily. “I was so angry. So mad at God. I couldn’t understand how He’d let me down like that.”

The young man carried his pain to the movie theater where he worked, sweeping the floors. “As I pushed that broom, I cried out to God for help but I also told Him how upset I was. Music was the only thing I cared about and He had taken it away from me.”

As Cleavant Derricks prayed and swept, he noticed that a chewing gum wrapper had stuck to the broom. “In my anger, I lifted the broom and shook it furiously to get rid of the wrapper.” Still, it clung to the bristles. A few more times throughout the course of cleaning, he tried to shake it off but it refused to let go.

When he finished sweeping, he was plenty aggravated as he grabbed up the broom and, annoyed, jerked off the paper.

“It wasn’t a gum wrapper,” the preacher said quietly. “It was a five-dollar bill.” Stunned, he held it until he realized his prayers were answered and his schooling would continue. “I looked up to the Lord and, weeping, I said, ‘Just a little talk with Jesus will make it right.’”

Cleavant Derricks would later answer the Lord’s call to preach. It took him to a little African-American church where the congregation was so poor that they could not afford songbooks. Rev. Derricks wrote a letter to the Stamps-Baxter Company and sent three songs he had written. He asked, “Would you take these in exchange for songbooks for my congregation?”

For the cost of a dozen or so songbooks, Stamps-Baxter captured the rights to what would become three of the most valuable copyrights in gospel music history: “Just A Little Talk With Jesus,” “When God Dips His Pen Of Love In My Heart” and “We’ll Soon Be Done With Troubles and Trials” — another of Daddy’s favorites.

“I didn’t write ‘em for money,” the preacher said humbly. “I wrote ‘em for my Lord and Savior.”

Today, we can be comforted by Rev. Derricks’ continuing truth: Just a little talk with Jesus will make it right.

[Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of “What Southern Women Know About Faith.” Visit www.rondarich.com to sign up for her weekly newsletter.]