Dr. Cullen I.K. Story (July 26, 1916–November 29, 2008) had many soubriquets: son, husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, pastor, “doctor of the church,” scholar, Princeton Seminary professor, author, multi-linguist, and transcriber of the Dead Sea Scrolls, to name only a few of the highlights of his life.
To me, he personifies the magical word, missionary.
Our long-time minister, well into his golden years, decided to retire, so our church council arranged with the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. Board of Foreign Missions, for an interim for the Beech Presbyterian Church near Weaverville, North Carolina. Then-Mr. Story and his wife were on a two-year sabbatical from duties in Lebanon and would be with us for one year. He would serve two churches, three miles apart, so he must have had a car, but I have no recollection of it. He was an intrepid walker.
We kids in the Beech community knew all about missionaries. They were exotic human beings who went to places we couldn’t find on the classroom globe, and did miraculous things for heathens.
And a real, live, honest-to-goodness missionary was coming to our little church!
We were in alt and waited impatiently for this mysterious person to arrive. We didn’t consider ourselves heathens—we attended Sunday school and Bible school on a regular basis, including awards for perfect attendance—but we expected an amazing giant of a man who would perform miracles. What we got disappointed us.
An ordinary man.
So, okay, ordinary in appearance but, surely, he would perform miracles.
That poor man couldn’t have done anything wrong if he wanted to. We kids watched him the way a hawk watches chickens. We would then gather on Sunday morning and tell each other what we’d seen him do.
Five gravel roads led out from the center of the community. In those early weeks, Mr. Story walked up one side of a road, visiting every house, and down the other side visiting every house doing whatever needed doing. He didn’t distinguish between the Presbyterians, Baptists, and no-church people.
He hung laundry on clothes lines. Our fathers didn’t do that! He took laundry off clothes lines. Our fathers didn’t do that either. We couldn’t even imagine them folding diapers. Mr. Story did! He rocked crying babies to sleep. Our dads called for somebody to do something. He shot hoops on garage door basketball goals, lifting the smallest so they could play too. On and on, our Sunday morning stories went. Finally, the day came when I had a story.
Mom had laundered the slipcovers of our living room furniture and was in the process of stretching them back on the furniture when Mr. Story knocked on the door. She’d finished the sofa and was ready to thumb-tack the ruffle around the bottom of a chair, leaving one chair to do. She started to get up and said she’d fix coffee. I stood there, wide-eyed and determined not to miss a thing. He told her not to bother about coffee. He picked up the final chair cover, stretched it on, and plopped himself down on the floor to attach the ruffle. Wow! He hadn’t done that for anyone else!
Many years later, when now-Dr. Story was in the news for helping translate the Dead Sea scrolls, I asked Mom if she remembered the incident. Oh, yes, she remembered all right. Then, as Paul Harvey used to say, she told me the rest of the story. As soon as Dr. Story left our house, she took the cover off that chair and put it on the right way!
Cullen Story, possessor of multiple academic degrees, tenured university professor, extraordinary speaker and teacher of exotic languages including Ugaritic and Coptic along with Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, and Arabic, was not above spending a year shepherding probably fewer than 500 people in two rural communities in the mountains of North Carolina performing the ordinary duties of ordinary people.
Did he perform any miracles? I don’t know. I do know he instilled in us kids the importance of local missions—doing ordinary things for ordinary people when and where we see the need. Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these, my brethren, ye have done it unto Me (Matt. 25:40 KJV).
I have no recollections of hearing Cullen Story deliver a verbal message even though we rarely missed Sunday morning services. However, I think of him when I hear the adage “actions speak louder than words.”
As the years pass, I continue to remember how blessed I was and am to have experienced my childhood acquaintance with such an extraordinary ordinary man.