August 1, 2020
FBC Tallassee pastor Derek Gentle meets Travis the camel, one of the ‘guests’ at a retirement celebration held July 15 in Gentle’s honor. Gentle retired Aug. 2 after 24 years as pastor. (Photo by Grace Thornton)
By Grace Thornton
The Alabama Baptist
When Beth Baldwin came on board at First Baptist Church, Tallassee, in February, she never would’ve guessed a dromedary would be her pastor’s first request.
“He said, ‘The first thing I want you to do is find an event to have a camel,’” said Baldwin, director of preschool and children’s ministries.
Derek Gentle had been serving as the church’s pastor for 24 years, and he had “never been able to get a camel here,” Baldwin said.
So why did he want one? Gentle had his reasons — he felt like if children could get up close to the animals, food and other things that they read about in Bible stories, it could help close the gap between real and imaginary.
In other words, seeing a camel would help bring the Bible to life for them.
“The Bible has a lot of figurative language, and understanding the ideas of sheep and shepherds in real life can help them understand those Bible concepts,” Gentle said. “Kids are hands-on learners, and I wanted them to have these kinds of experiences so they ‘get’ it.”
In the past, he and other leaders of First, Tallassee, have found different ways to try to make that happen. A church member who had served as an agricultural missionary in Africa once taught them about what it means to be a shepherd. And for Vacation Bible School a few years back, church members built a working olive press.
But the church had never quite been able to get a camel there, and the clock was ticking — Gentle was planning to retire at the end of the summer.
Baldwin and Julie Reynolds, the church’s secretary, were determined to make it happen. They got online and tracked down Travis the camel in Auburn, and they got him on the calendar.
And on July 15, Travis and a few of his friends — a donkey and three sheep — showed up at First, Tallassee, for one of Gentle’s send-off events.
“This is the preschool and children’s version of a going away party for him,” Baldwin said. “He wanted an event with a camel, and he got one. We added in all the food and kept letting it grow a little bit.”
What it grew into was a come-and-go outdoor event for families where they could pet and feed the animals and try a sampler platter of foods from Bible times — fish, lamb, pistachios and other nuts, olives, figs, dates, homemade bread (both leavened and unleavened) and pomegranates.
Brandon Fomby, student minister at First, Tallassee, said after the local newspaper picked it up, the celebration became an outreach event too.
“We got so many outside people asking about it, contacting us,” he said.
And even though Gentle would’ve loved to have life as “normal” and COVID-19-restriction free in the weeks leading up to his last Sunday — Aug. 2 — he says hosting a camel, seeing the kids’ faces and building relationships with the community isn’t a bad way for him and his wife, Sheila, to close a long chapter at First, Tallassee.