A Sunday School Teacher and a Bottle of Coca Cola
By: Major Frank Duracher
If there are any Sunday School teachers out there who sometimes wonder if all their efforts to teach unruly kids might be in vain, Richard Li of the Richmond Citadel Corps has a message for you. He expresses this same sentiment to the faithful teacher of his childhood and teen years, Carolyn Gregory.
“My grandmother brought me and my four brother and sisters to The Salvation Army, which is right across the street from where we live,” Richard says of his earliest recollection of coming to the corps when he was only three.
About the time he turned ten, Richard was in the Sunday School class taught by “Miss Carolyn.”
“She was teaching us about different gods— Roman gods, Greek gods, Egyptian gods,” Richard recalls, “and, of course, the one true God of Israel, Jehovah.”
Carolyn skillfully presented how many cultures of the world often had a god for everything: the sun, war, love, and so forth.
“But then she asked me, and it seemed directly, ‘So which god do you believe in?’”
He says his answer to her was plain and logical, “Well, based on what you’ve been teaching us all this time, I choose Jesus!”
Richard calls his response that Sunday morning long ago to be his “Choose Jesus Moment.”
“I had been going to camp every summer by then and made some professions of wanted to accept Christ into my heart—but that question put to me by Miss Carolyn was seminal for me. That was the moment when I realized that He is the only way to God!”
Also by this time, Richard was becoming immersed in music.
“We grew up very much into brass band and that locked me in,” he says. “There’s a community behind Salvation Army musicians and our music.”
Starting out on cornet, he began learning to play through participation in junior band, camp band, and finally the corps brass group on duty every Sunday. He’s worked at summer camp every year since the tenth grade, and this summer will fill in as a volunteer at the Potomac Division’s Camp Rappahannock (formerly Camp Happyland).
“Later in the corps band, we had a need to fill the Eb Bass part, and so I took that up. All brass horns between cornet and bass are essentially the same, but I like Eb best.”
He also adds that he “dabbles in trombone,” especially while standing at a Christmas kettle post because, “playing a trombone there looks very cool!”
Many corps officers who’ve come through Richmond Citadel recognized in Richard a potential candidate for Salvation Army officership. But for this young adult, it was during the time of Captain Timothy Jo that “sealed the deal for me—and it happened quite unexpectedly.”
Up to that time, Richard admits he was a “hard sell” to finally admit he was called. But three confirmations eventually got him off the fence.
“I first told the Lord that if He got me through college debt-free, I’d go,” Richard says with a chuckle. He finished a Bachelor of Science Degree in Applied Mathematics at Virginia Commonwealth University. Of course, he was debt-free.
“Then there were all those ‘signs’ at every youth councils, but I didn’t want to make such a lifelong commitment on just a feeling.”
However, the third confirmation came silently and surprisingly: “I was on a kettle stand that Captain Jo had placed me, and it was an unusually warn December day. Someone brought me a cold bottle of Coca-Cola, and when I noticed what was written on the bottle, I was floored!”
That was when the Coca-Cola Company was in the midst of a marketing promotion that placed one-word messages on their cans and bottles (love, nursing, friendship, etc.).
“The word on my bottle was: CAPTAIN,” he marvels.
“That was it. I thought, Okay, Lord, You finally got through to me!”
Richard Li plans to enter the Evangeline Booth College in Atlanta in 2024 as a member of the Keepers of the Covenant session of cadets. He kept the bottle as a reminder and a possible family heirloom in the future.
All this harkens back to the faithful teaching and Christian example of Miss Carolyn. She shows tough love for all her kids, and watches them grow from childhood through teen phases, and even still in young adult years, as with Richard. She led them in Sunday School, Corps Cadets, and presently is the Corps Sergeant-Major (CSM).
Richard has a message he wants CSM Gregory to read for herself in this article: “I want to thank you for all you have done to win me to Christ and to help bring me to the ultimate conviction that God has a definite plan for me as an officer. If you’ve ever doubted whether you’re making a difference in someone’s life—don’t!”
Richard says that Carolyn may not reach the vast numbers of people in the world like, say, Billy Graham.
“But you reached me. I wouldn’t be here without you!”