A year ago, after four decades in the ministry, Columbus native and Richmond, Virginia, resident Jim Lavender became a professional storyteller. Many of Lavender’s stories are rooted in his small-town upbringing in a place called Possum Town, Mississippi. Lavender performed at this weekend’s Possum Town Tales Story Telling Festival at the Rosenzweig Art Center.
September 23, 2017 11:12:57 PM
All his life, even before he was stapling posters on telephone poles advertising upcoming Ringling Brothers shows and B.B. King concerts for his Uncle Dave, Jim Lavender wanted to be in the circus.
After years of supplication, that opportunity finally came when Mr. Felt, the headman at Ringling Brothers, called to offer him his dream job -- ringmaster. Lavender, tears running down his cheeks, said no.
What he didn't quite yet know, but would soon discover, is he would be at the center of a circus of his own creation, one that involved a church and a ministry that included, not coincidently, 200 orphaned circus animals.
Lavender, a Columbus native, was in town over the weekend telling stories at the Possum Town Tales Storytelling Festival presented by the Columbus Arts Council.
His stories are rooted in a place and time when you bought your groceries at Pennington's ABC or Big Star, went to the "picture show" at the Princess or the Varsity and when the circus came to town, the elephants swaggered down Main Street (on the way to his Uncle Dave's fairgrounds).
Lavender was diagnosed early on with dyslexia, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and as mildly autistic ("Enough to live in a bubble," he says). He was painfully shy.
"I was too shy to tell J.C. Shelton down at the Cream Bowl what flavor ice cream I wanted," Lavender said. "He offered me half a gallon of ice cream if I would just say hello."
Lavender's first grade teacher at Franklin Academy, Josephine Emery, a friend of his mother, took Jim on as her project, tutoring him through high school.
"She brought a little red hen to class the first day just to teach me how to spell "hen" and "egg," Lavender said.
"I loved that woman," he said. "She got me through high school."
Hyper sensitive to his learning "disabilities," Lavender rarely spoke to his classmates. An English teacher at Lee High told him he would never go to college. He holds three college degrees, one of them from Duke Divinity School.
His mother wanted him to be a doctor. He told her he wanted to run the merry-go-round at the circus.
"No you don't," his mother said.
A short, disastrous stint at MSU put his mother's medical-school fantasy to rest. About that time, Lavender received a letter postmarked Dogpatch USA. It was from Al Capp, who was interested in hiring Lavender to work as Li'l Abner in his Arkansas theme park.
They met for an interview in Memphis. When Capp asked him to read a script, Lavender said he couldn't. "That's OK; you're fine," Capp said. "All you have to know is how to pick up a live girl."
At his first performance in front of an audience of 2,500 as he prepared to put a beautiful live girl on his shoulder, Lavender's overalls split leaving him wearing little more than an athletic supporter.
"From that day on, I was no longer shy," he said.
After Dogpatch, Lavender emceed music concerts for two years. Then in 1973, while driving his red convertible on the outskirts of Chicago, he felt the need to pray, so he pulled over and knelt by the side of the road.
"God told me he expected me to become a preacher in the Methodist Church," Lavender said.
"When you hear from God, it's not a voice," he said. "It's a very clear awareness. There is no doubt about it."
While at Duke Divinity School, Lavender met and married his wife Avis.
After a stint as an assistant pastor, Lavender was sent to organize a church in Richmond, Virginia.
Over the years Lavender had been a circus "groupie," and as such had made friends with performers, trainers and support people. His circus friends warned him that all preachers are the same. Do something for the kids, they said. Boy, did he.
His friends started sending him animals that could no longer be used in the circus. He and Avis moved to an 18-acre farm outside of Richmond. The farm became an animal sanctuary. He made the decommissioned circus animals part of his ministry. "Big friends for little people," he called it.
Lavender had a lion and a lamb, a baby bear, rabbits, a 40-pound rat named Buddy, a baby kangaroo he took to a Methodist convention, spiders as big as dinner plates, a cheetah. Twenty-seven big cats and bears total.
In addition to children, Lavender focused on the "unchurched." He had two pole dancers singing in the choir; there were Mafia members in the congregation.
Last year, after 40 years in ministry, Lavender, now 63, retired from Discovery United Methodist Church in Richmond's West End, the church he founded. The animals were sent to sanctuaries.
The transition to professional storyteller seems to have been a smooth one. "Every preacher is a storyteller," Lavender said. "I've been telling stories my entire life."
"I don't do social justice stories," he said. "I just want to help people breathe deep, relax and feel better."
There is something different about Jim Lavender; I'm not sure how to describe it. An aura, an inner glow. His eyes are bright, clear; he smiles easily. A conversation with him, while not always linear, is cohesive and enlightening.
"From the time I was old enough to process things, I knew I was going to be different," he said.
That assessment was echoed by one of his parishioners in a June 2016 Richmond Times-Dispatch piece on the eve of Lavender's retirement:
Carolyn Blaylock of Henrico met the Lavenders in the early days of the church. Blaylock said she will miss Lavender's loving nature most.
She added that there will be a void come Sunday.
"He's just a fantastic person. A real inspiration to everybody. Just a loving person," she said. "You just always feel like he loves you. He's rare."
Postscript: Saturday evening after I had finished the column, I ran across the street to the Rosenzweig Arts Center where Lavender would be performing to fact check a detail in this column. He had one more story about Josephine Emery, the first grade teacher who had been so instrumental to his success.
"You know I went to see Miss Josephine when she was on her deathbed; she was 99 or 101, something like that. You know what she said to me? 'Jimmy, what does the A sound like?'
Birney Imes is the publisher of The Dispatch. Email him at [email protected]
Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.
1. Editorial cartoons for 12-18-18 NATIONAL COLUMNS
3. Froma Harrop: May you be healthy and covered in 2019 NATIONAL COLUMNS