Retired pastor Neal Jones extols the virtues of handwritten letters.
By Ken Garfield
Forty-nine years ago, Neal Jones heard a whisper from God: It’s fine to pray for people, the Lord told him. But while you’re at it, why don’t you drop them a note as well?
Nearly a half-century and thousands of handwritten notes later, Neal is still at it. With paper and pen, the retired pastor reaches out to family, friends, neighbors — even people he barely knows. Lost a loved one? Just home from the hospital? Moved in next door? Most any chapter in a person’s life will stir Neal to share best wishes in longhand.
Forget texts and emails. “Mechanical stuff,” Neal calls it. He’s out to warm the world one stamp at a time.
What about you? Ready to pick up a BIC pen and do the same?
Neal and his wife, Betty, are both 93 years old. They moved to The Cypress of Charlotte from Falls Church, Va., to be closer to their daughter, Caroline, and her family, husband Kevin and granddaughters Anabel and Leighton. Neal served as a pastor for most of his life. His final stop before retiring was Columbia Baptist Church in Falls Church. It was there at the bustling suburban Washington church that Neal began to see the Sunday morning masses as more of a mob than a community. How can you love people you hardly know? With the Lord nudging him, he began writing notes. The “habit,” as he calls it, has become central to his theology: To develop a strong vertical relationship with Christ, you must build a strong horizontal relationships with people here on God’s good earth.
Being a glass-is-half-full kind of guy, Neal sees his penmanship — or lack of it (“hieroglyphics,” he calls it) — as a plus. “The way they have to work at reading it makes it more personal.”
Back in his heyday, Neal wrote 40 or so notes a day, that estimate coming from his son-in-law, Kevin. Today, Neal isn’t sure how many he writes, but it’s a lot. He’s been recruited to send out notes on behalf of Leighton Ford Ministries, gratis, of course. As I shared in the November issue of SouthPark magazine, Leighton recently formed a ministry partnership with his son, Kevin. Yes, the Kevin who is Neal’s son-in-law.
Neal’s notes cover a lot of ground.
He’s written to neighbors at The Cypress, the sprawling retirement community in the SouthPark area. “We are privileged to live here together,” he wrote. “I want to thank you for your prayers. I’m praying for you, too.”
He wrote to a neighbor whose husband died unexpectedly from a heart attack. He enclosed a leaf in the envelope to symbolize the enduring beauty of God.
On a recent morning when I visited Neal, he shared a note he had written to a woman involved in prison ministry. “This comes with a keep going full speed word. I pray for you today…Sic ’em.”
Neal and I are both mature (i.e. old), but we’re not naïve. We realize that many 20- and 30-somethings who prefer reading the news on their iPhones might snicker, as if to say: “Haven’t handwritten notes gone the way of flip phones and newspapers?
Well, guess what, whippersnappers?
One survey found that 87% of millennials (ages 23 to 38) value handwritten notes more than other means of communications. And 81% of people of all ages believe a handwritten note holds more meaning than a high-tech alternative. Alas, we’re all pretty much out of luck: Another survey found that the average American home receives a letter once every seven weeks.
With Neal as our inspiration, let’s resolve in this new year to change that. Know a family member, friend or colleague who’s going through a rough patch? Anyone out there need a word of congratulations, sympathy or support? Do you feel moved to reconnect or reconcile with someone who’s meant the world to you?
Have at it. SP
Ken Garfield is a freelance writer whose columns and stories appear regularly in SouthPark magazine. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Better yet, drop him a note at 4317 Park Road, Charlotte, N.C. 28209.