In November of 1972, I met the woman who, nine months later, would become my wife. Not long after our first encounter I was introduced to her brother. His name was Richard Aubrey Pond (1946-2016), although everyone knew him as Pepper.
It did not take long at all for me to realize that I really, really, liked this man.
My wife, Sally, was the third of four Pond siblings. Pepper was the second of four, born about four years ahead of her. Of the four siblings, Sally was the first to turn her life over to Jesus, a decision she made, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, in 1970.
These were days and times in which the Holy Spirit was moving in large, dynamic ways across our land. Many of us “baby-boomers” found ourselves in the midst of the “Jesus People” Movement, an era of millions of “new birth” experiences and the release of many gifts of the Spirit including miracles, signs and wonders, and healings.
Prior to this backdrop, Pepper grew up as a rowdy youth, a young man of passion, often wild and uncontrollable. He was so wild that his mother once remarked that she would be grateful if he managed to survive to the age of twenty-one.
Even as a child, Pepper’s rebellious ways manifested themselves in dramatic fashion. As a young boy of four or five, he climbed to the top of a telephone pole and refused to come down. His mother could not coax him, and the police and firemen on the scene were unable to persuade him to vacate his high perch. Finally, in desperation, his mother cried up to him. “Pepper, come down. Santa Claus is on the phone.”
HIs response? “What the h*#% is he doing on there?”
So, that was Pepper.
His wild, crazy behavior continued, and after managing to graduate from high school (his mom considered that to be a miracle in itself), he joined the U.S. Air Force and served four years, including a stint in Viet Nam.
Following his return, he remained a raucous young man, drinking and carousing, getting into trouble, and causing general mayhem. Little did he know that his life was about to turn.
Sally was still very young in her faith, but she had been so radically impacted by the love of God and the change that her new birth experience had wrought, that she desperately wanted her big brother to meet this same Jesus who had so completely upended her life.
She introduced Pepper to some of her new Christian friends. The gospel was shared, prayers were offered up, and Pepper began to realize that he was a man being hunted down by “the hound of heaven.” He tried desperately to escape, but found it increasingly difficult to break “the pull” toward the kingdom of God that he had begun to feel.
Everywhere he turned he seemed to encounter the God who would soon become his Lord. He went into a 7-11 to purchase some beer and on the glass door of the beer cooler he saw a yellow, smiley-face sticker that read, “Smile, God Loves You.”
Pepper slammed the door shut and, looking up toward heaven declared angrily, “A man can’t even get a beer around here!” and walked out empty handed.
And so it went, day after day, week after week, that relentless pounding, that slow drip of the call of God on one’s life that cannot be broken. One night in a dark, back alley, Pepper and God had a verbal wrestling match. Pepper knew he was losing ground in his fight to remain his own master.
Then one evening, Sally invited him to a Full Gospel Business Men’s Fellowship International meeting. The gospel was proclaimed. An invitation was given. Sally had closed her eyes, appealing to heaven on her brother’s behalf. Then she turned toward him, wanting to encourage him to take the step, but he was no longer in the seat beside her.
She looked toward the front and there he was, hands raised in surrender, praising the God of heaven.
And then, everything changed.
Well, not everything. He maintained his passion for life, but now that passion was re-directed toward the King and His kingdom. And that passion never faded on this earth until his very last breath.
Pepper was one of those rare kinds of Christians who actually walked out in faith and power the things he claimed to believe. When he entered a room, one could sense that the room had suddenly brightened. He carried within himself the life of Christ, the presence of God and the joy of the Lord.
Almost every conversation included a story of what God had been saying to him. He never lacked for a word or a thought that had come down from heaven and brought life to the hearers.
He became a walking witness for the gospel message, a proclaimer of truth, an evangelist in the truest sense.
He married Linda. They brought a son and a daughter into the world, and life moved on. They built a new home in Manassas and Pepper did a lot of the work himself.
One day, after the foundation had been constructed, Pepper was operating a Bobcat, backfilling the dirt around the foundation wall. The track on the Bobcat lost its footing and the machine slid into the wall, and with the impact, nearly severed Pepper’s finger.
Alone, he managed to extricate himself, climb up out of the hole, walk over to his truck, unhitch the Bobcat’s trailer with his one good hand, get into his truck and drive himself to the hospital, spilling blood all the way.
Doctors managed to save his finger.
So, that was Pepper.
Pepper worked for his Uncle John, the owner of Buhl Electric. He mastered his trade, looked forward to the solid career path ahead of him, and a very bright future. But something began to tug at his heart.
In 1985 (or perhaps ‘86), Pepper and Linda sold their house, the house they has just recently constructed, pulled up stakes, and moved to Long Island, New York. Christ for the Nations was their destination. There, Pepper devoted himself to the teaching and instruction, and began to prepare himself for a higher call.
Two years later, upon graduation, Pepper became a co-founder of New York City Relief. He moved his family into an old hotel under renovation in Elizabeth New Jersey. Two hotel rooms was all they had, one for Pepper and Linda, and one for Michael and Amy. We discovered their sparse accommodations when we visited them one summer.
You can read about New York City Relief by clicking on the link. But in a nutshell, it is a ministry to the homeless of New York City. In those early years, two busses, each retrofitted with a soup kitchen in the middle, a counseling center in the front, and a clinic staffed with a couple of nurses located in the rear, headed out from headquarters in Elizabeth and made their way to the homeless communities in Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and elsewhere.
Pepper made countless trips. He served food, directed the needy to the other services the bus provided, mingled, chatted, and befriended. But mostly, he simply listened. Listened and prayed.
Five years of his life he gave to this work. All the while tending to other important things like fatherhood, and maintaining his husbandly duties and responsibilities. Meanwhile, he touched hundreds of lives.
The time came for Pepper and Linda to move on to the next phase of their life.
Although Virginians, they elected to remain in New Jersey where they continued to raise their children, now well into their teens.
Pepper went back to work as an electrician and eventually launched his own company. They lived a modest life, but a good life, walking quietly, humbly with Jesus.
They found a church home where they served God faithfully for over twenty years and found ways to bring life and hope and encouragement to so many.
Pepper served as a deacon. He became fast friends with the pastor. Depending on where one might cross paths with Pepper, he could be found worshiping, praying, sharing a word, prophesying, but always, every day, allowing the life of Christ within him to spill out and touch others.
That was Pepper. Unstoppable. Unrelenting. Ever pressing forward.
And yet, even into his later years, some of his wild, raucousness would occasionally manifest.
Several years ago, Pepper and Linda moved into a small cottage (and I mean small) on a farm. Part of their rent payment included the care of the farm animals. One day Pepper found himself at odds with a stubborn ram. The ram would not follow his instructions. But Pepper would not have any of that. So he took him on. Imagine Pepper, at the age of 69, physically wrestling with a ram. Pepper lost. But the story exemplifies the tenacity of this wonderful, beloved man of God.
A few days ago, we said our final goodbyes to Pepper. The pastor, referenced above, closed the service with a few reflections about this man. He said that Pepper was probably his closest friend. He said that Pepper spent as much time at the church as most of the paid staff. He said that Pepper could be seen walking the church’s halls praying and doing small things to help keep the facility in good working order.
And then he went on to tell a story that I will never forget as long as I live.
One Saturday night, said the pastor, he was in his office, putting the finishing touches on his sermon for the next morning. It was late, probably close to midnight. He happened to glance out the window. There was Pepper he said, hiding behind a bush, in the dark of night, praying, not wanting to be seen.
That was Pepper. Man of God. Faithful servant of Christ. Friend to uncounted numbers. Father to many. Humble. Unassuming. Kind. Tender-hearted.
As the memorial service concluded, I noticed that two objects rested upon his casket. One was the U.S. flag, representing his military service to his country. The other object was Pepper’s tambourine, representing his unmitigated love of praise and worship.
In the hospital, as his strength continued to fail, Pepper maintained a positive, upbeat attitude. Breathing through an oxygen tube and very short of breath, he entertained the nurses, making them laugh. He continued to share the gospel, and prayed for them. They loved him.
So, that was Pepper.
My brother, you impacted the lives of so many. Mine included. I loved you like my own flesh and blood. You will be missed. You have left a hole in our hearts. But we know that your battles are now over, that you rest in the arms of our Savior, where we will soon join you. We will spend eternity enjoying the company of one another and the millions of others who, too, have received the gift of salvation and embraced the One who suffered the wrath of God so that we might be redeemed.
Well done, good and faithful servant!