The Sermon on the (Tennis) Court

CLP Eden TournI know we all count our children as a blessing but we are really blessed if the time comes when our children become our teachers; teaching us things about ourselves and how to “be” in the world. Well, let me go on record and say that I am REALLY blessed! Many of you have seen this picture of Clarke on Ruth’s page but let me share the story and lesson behind the picture.

Considering all that she is involved in, Clarke has maintained a solid B+ average for the past couple of years. She is a member of the student council, number 3 seed on the varsity Tennis team at her school (15- 20 hrs per week practicing) and she’s just 15 years old. Let me go on record and say I was doing NONE of that when I was 15 (16,17, 18, 19 or 20)!

This was her first tournament of 2015 and only her 2nd tournament since moving up to the 16yr & under category but in this particular tournament, though she signed up for 16 & under (16&U) there was only one other 16yr old who signed up along with her. So the tournament officials said, “well we can just let you two play your match then you can just play with the 18 & under (18&U) bracket, too”.

Well, the USTA folks gave the “OFFICIAL” official word which said Clarke and the other young lady would have to make a choice: either they stay in the 16&U group, play the one match and whoever won just that one match would take home the trophy OR they could enter the 18&U group and play the tougher competition where the players were much more advanced. In fact, the #1 & #2 seeds in this particular 18&U tournament were High School Seniors who had already been accepted to college and offered full-ride tennis scholarships (they were signing the following week). Clarke knew these two girls because they just happened to also be the #1 & #2 seed at her school where she is the #3 seed. In fact, they were the very reason why Clarke was seeded #3! But there were five other 18 yr olds (and the other 16 yr old) Clarke had never seen and didn’t know standing between her and the 18&U trophy.

So, play one match where there’s a 50% chance of winning the 1st place trophy and 100% of coming home with SOME hardware (though most of it is plastic now) OR play with the much stiffer competition where there is just a slim chance that she would come home with even the 3rd place trophy? After a “quick” call to her coach/ mentor/ grandfather figure/ friend and Godsend to us all, JW Quick, Clarke decided it was better to play the tougher competition and more matches for the experience rather than play one match for the trophy. So she entered the 18&U tournament much to the dismay of the 16 yr old who was now forced to play 18&U or go home. Since Clarke and this girl were the youngest and originally signed up for 16&U, they were paired to play each other first.

Clarke was a little rusty but in a little more than 90 minutes, she got through that match (split sets and a tie breaker) victoriously. She had about the same amount of time to rest and get something to eat before her next match. Now, had Clarke decided to play 16&U, we would have been on our way home with the 1st Place trophy! But Clarke chose to play 18&U.

Her next opponent was the #2 seed who happened to be her teammate from her high school Tennis team. She was an aggressive player, strong and athletic like Clarke and she had a few more years of experience than Clarke. At times like these, we have grown accustomed to hearing and saying, “oh well, anything is possible”, but I knew the likelihood of Clarke’s winning was slim. In fact, we all had just watched this #2 seed obliterate her first opponent in half the time of Clarke’s match without even breaking a sweat. We could only hope that Clarke’s defeat wouldn’t render her feeling distraught or hopeless.

Clarke played some of the best tennis I had seen her play to date. Her serves were fire! Her overhead shots had gotten so much better and her placement was spot on! Passersby and parents of other children who had already lost hung around just to watch the battle of these two titans of tennis (cue theme music from Rocky).

Clarke in Swing

Clarke lost consecutive sets (7-5, 7-5) and most of those games went to multiple deuces or she lost by a point. It was a great match to watch even though Clarke lost. We’ve taught Clarke that losing isn’t the end of the world but how you lose makes all the difference in the world. She was exhausted but Clarke had left all she had on that court. With first and second place now officially out of reach, Clarke was to return on Sunday to vie for 3rd place.

The next morning Clarke could barely move, her entire body ached but she got up and got herself together. Her opponent lost to the #1 seed the day before in split sets and a tie breaker; yet another worthy and more experienced opponent. From the outset of the match it was easy to see that Clarke was stiff and needed some time to work the soreness out of her muscles and the kinks out of her gameplay. On any other day I believe, without a doubt, Clarke would have beaten the young lady but fatigue began to set in midway through the first set. Clarke would lose the first set in a tie breaker.

As the second set began, I was amazed that Clarke still had enough power to serve some untouchable zingers but she had more trouble keeping her forehand in play on this day than the day before. The second set got lopsided early. The score was 4-1 and Clarke seemed to be completely spent; I thought she had given up … but I was wrong. Clarke came back … 4-2 … then 4-3 came quickly. Her opponent won another game and it was 5-3 but then Clarke kept coming, pulling strength from some place deep within her… 5-4 … then 5-5! Her opponent won the last two games for a second set final of 7-5 but it sure wasn’t easy; so now the door had closed on 1st, 2nd and 3rd place trophies for the 18&U tournament.

People could tell Clarke was tired but marveled at her comeback, especially those who had been there a day earlier. They were still talking about Clarke’s grueling match from the day before! She had earned the respect of perfect strangers and imperfect friends.

As we were leaving the manager of the tournament stopped Clarke, shook her hand and said, “You played some great tennis out there and I’m sorry we don’t have any hardware for you to take home after all your hard play in the 18&U tournament…”

“Thanks”, Clarke replied.

“… but technically”, the tournament manger continued, “you did beat the only other person who originally signed up for the 16&U tournament. So that means you won 1st Place in the 16&U group. And, Oh, by the way, and the points you earned playing the 18&U will be applied to your 16&U ranking”.

He picks up the trophy we didn’t know existed and hands it to Clarke. My exhausted, defeated young titan’s face beamed with an outrageous joy that couldn’t be contained. Though she didn’t get what she had hoped to get, her hard work and discipline had gotten her something more than she expected.

The lesson I learned from a 15 year old? Keep pushing. Regardless of how much you practice … no matter how hard you’ve toiled and it doesn’t seem to be working out in your favor … keep pushing. Employ all the gifts God has given you. In this case, quite literally, “the last was  first”… and all the points she lost by not choosing to enter the 16&U tournament were restored for having the courage to take on the bigger, more difficult challenge.

Funny, I never thought I could attend “church” on a tennis court… with my 15 year daughter as the preacher … living The Word right in front of us all. Now, had Clarke decided to play 16&U, we wouldn’t have even been there that day! But Clarke chose to play 18&U and we all were blessed… I hope you were, too.

The Day I Almost Met …


3 GenerationsWhen Grandpa died, most of his books and writings went to my father and after Dad died, most of the books and writings went to his younger brother, Al, and I got what was left over. Some years back I found two letters among my grandfather’s collection. One was in a small envelope, the type that usually holds personalized handwritten memos of thanks or congratulations. The other was included in Grandpa’s Souvenir Anniversary & Retirement Program. I remember the letters being almost poetic in their flow and perhaps that’s one of the reasons Grandpa kept them. He recognized not only Taylor’s talent as a gifted writer and theologian but also his commitment to God’s Word and God’s people. Taylor was some 23 years Grandpa’s junior and I am sure each saw a bit of themselves in the other. You notice the mutual respect and admiration between these two men of God in their salutations, “my old and dear friend” and closing , “Cordially, as ever, Gardner Taylor”.


From 1926 to 1938, my grandfather, Rev. Dr. Porter W. Phillips, Sr. was pastor of the Brown Memorial Baptist Church in Brooklyn, New York. One short mile away from Brown Memorial was Concord Baptist Church of Christ where Rev. Dr. James B. Adams was pastor and about 15-20 miles away was the Rev. Dr. Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. at Abyssinian Baptist Church, in Harlem. They were three dynamic preachers ministering to a diverse city through the Great Depression, to a New Deal and beyond. A change of leadership was on the horizon and a new generation of “Joshuas” was waiting in the wings.

In 1938, Grandpa would go on to pastor what became Carrone Baptist Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where he pastored for 47 years before retiring in August of 1985, after leaving his mark at Brown Memorial Baptist Church. Under my grandfather’s 12 year leadership the church grew in membership and finances helping to set the stage for Rev. Dr. George W. Thomas who went on to grow and lead Brown Memorial for 35 years.

In 1937, Rev. Dr. Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. faded into the background as his son, Rev. Dr. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. burst onto the spotlight at Abyssinian Baptist. Little more than a decade later, Concord Baptist Church of Christ would call a 29 year old and, no less dynamic, Rev. Dr. Gardner Calvin Taylor, to help heal and lead the church through the fire both literally and figuratively for the next 42 years.


GCT Church Map
Though Grandpa had left the area, New York was still near and dear to his heart. Having served as Secretary and eventually, President of the Baptist Minister’s Conference of Greater New York and Vicinity, Grandpa remained close with the ministers in the area. Grandpa had also written a book entitled, “W.W. Brown, Host”, a biography about the life of this former slave, mentor and founding pastor of the Metropolitan Baptist Church, also in Harlem (about a half mile from Abyssinian). It is in this context that he and Dr. Taylor’s “mutual admiration society” began to flourish but what cemented their bond of friendship was a trip to the Holy Land in 1947 just prior to the beginning of Taylor’s tenure at Concord Baptist. The ship set sail for about one month and my grandfather nearly met his death traveling to follow in the footsteps of the one to whom he had dedicated his life. He fell deathly ill on the voyage and though he had lost a tremendous amount of weight he was revitalized almost as soon as he set foot on the land where his Savior once walked. I can only imagine the conversations they had and the witness they shared on such a life changing trip.

After my dad’s death in 1993, I began to pour through his journals, books, letters and writings as well as those of my grandfather and uncles. I began paid close attention to the iconic names I read in the worlds of politics and religion and their relationship to members of my family.

As I grew older, whenever possible, I would seek them out and introduce myself. I met some success with the likes of Rev. Dr. Wyatt T. Walker, former Governor of the State of Virginia, Doug Wilder, former Congressmen Julian Bond and Walter Fauntleroy and Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr. to name a few. They were good friends and colleagues of Dad’s. I even “met” Dad’s mentor, Rev. Dr. Samuel DeWitt Proctor, but the meeting was overshadowed by the fact that he was delivering my father’s eulogy and while I am sure it was beautiful, for me, it was all a blur. However, my father’s only sister, Marie and her husband (my uncle and first Black President of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA), the Rev. Dr. W. Sterling Cary, knew Dr. Proctor quite well and were kind enough to secure for me an autographed copy of his last book, “The Substance of Things Hoped For: A Memoir of African-American Faith”, while taking him to the airport after a visit to Chicago.


I am more than certain some couch time and even a rookie therapist would explain my efforts to meet these iconic servants as an attempt to connect or reconnect with my father and grandfather or my uncles who have gone on before me. Somewhere in my subconscious lives the notion that if I can physically touch those who worked “in the vineyard” and shared space with my loved ones … if I could share space and time with those who fought all the battles necessary for me to grow strong enough to fight my own … if I could physically touch those who touched those… who touched me so deeply … if I could continue to uncover more about them then perhaps I could discover more about me.

Just a few short years ago I was excited to learn that two good friends of my father’s and mentors to me, the Rev. Dr. Alfred C.D. Vaughn and the late Rev. Dr. Harold A. Carter, Sr. periodically travelled to Durham to visit with Dr. Taylor. I had asked that they let me know the next time they go to visit and they told me they would but I was working in Greensboro and the times they came I was either out of town or engaged in meetings I had no authority to reschedule but as fate would have it, about a year ago a series of events led to my working in Durham, N.C. and while that put me in the right city, I still had no clue as to where Dr. Taylor actually lived. Out of respect, I felt I needed the introduction of my mentors before I went barging in to see Dr. Taylor. Rev. Vaughn said, “Wendell, his body may be worn down but his mind is still sharp as a tack! Just go on in there and tell him who you are and who your grandfather was. I will have my wife call you with the number to his place.”

You know, life has a way of moving at breakneck speed while we are so busy meeting, planning, coordinating and organizing. We are so busy, “getting ready to … commence … to begin … to start” working on something that time and opportunity will often pass us by and all that was once “right on time” becomes “too late”. I had been asked to lead a revival during Holy Week at Heritage United Church of Christ in Baltimore. For those of you who have never had to lead one, a revival is a lot of work! In the midst of working on that my spiritual father and the pastor who licensed me to preach, the Rev. Dr. Howard Allen Chubbs, lost his battle with cancer. It created a huge void in my life but I still had to prepare for this revival that was now a little more than a week away.

I was honored to be given the opportunity to take part in Rev. Chubbs’ Homegoing service and I thought I would now need the robe I had been meaning to buy for years but procrastination had outsmarted me at every turn. I did attempt to place a rush order but they would need more time than I had to deliver, so I checked to see if I could borrow a robe from some local pastors. One pastor, who collects robes like my Dad collected crosses, came to pick me up and take me to his church to try on a couple. On the way from my job to the church to check out the robes the pastor points and says, “Gardner Taylor lives in that building right there”. The convalescent home was less than three miles from where I worked. I had passed the building going and coming to work for over a year! I was in utter disbelief but pleased that I finally knew where this great man was located. I got the robe and thanked the pastor as he dropped me back by my office.

I should have gone to visit that day … but I didn’t. I needed to get through Rev. Chubbs’ funeral and the revival before going to see the great Gardner Taylor.

A week passed and with the funeral now behind me I went on to Baltimore to visit with Mom and finish preparing for the Holy Week revival. On the first night of the revival, the always supportive Rev. Vaughn was in attendance and I told him, from the pulpit, I had finally found where Dr. Taylor lives and that it was only about 3 miles from my job and that I was going to see him as soon as I got back in town, which would be Easter Monday. I finished the revival on Wednesday, continued to enjoy visiting with my mother on Thursday and left to return to Greensboro on Friday afternoon. Easter Sunday was bittersweet as it was the first Easter in almost 50 years that Rev. Chubbs wouldn’t be there but just a few miles away, God was busy making preparations.

After rising to go to church on Easter Sunday morning and having dinner with his wife that evening, Rev. Dr. Gardner C. Taylor went on to join that “great cloud of witnesses” on Easter Sunday evening. On this particular Resurrection Sunday not only did Jesus rise to be with The Father but He took Gardner Taylor along with Him. In an interview with Charlie Rose in 1999, Dr. Taylor said almost prophetically, “poetry must insert itself at times where prose will not speak”. Now, tell me, how poetic is that?

Well done, good and faithful servant, well done!