TRUSSVILLE, Ala. (BP)–Lou and Phil Neel’s 50th wedding anniversary became a celebration of Christ’s love for others when their family gathered on the Alabama Gulf Coast to assist summer missionaries with day camps, beach ministries and evening programs.
“Mom and Dad are not the kind you usually associate with teas and anniversary parties,” said their oldest daughter, Cindy Huguley of Pinson, Ala. “So we decided to get the family together and go on a missions trip.”
Since the Neels’ church, Deerfoot Baptist in Trussville, Ala., and missions work have always been important to the couple, Cindy figured a missions trip involving the entire family would be a great way to honor their parents’ 50 years of marriage.
For advice on where to go or what to do, Cindy called Woman’s Missionary Union and was directed to Delane Tew, WMU’s Volunteer Connection coordinator.
“Delane called around to see who needed help, then called me back with several options to choose from,” she said. “The opportunity to come to Gulf State Park, their beach ministry and evening programs just seemed to stand out.”
Volunteer Connection is a network that identifies needs and resources, both nationally and internationally, and matches them with qualified volunteers willing to serve.
WMU inaugurated the program in 1996, and so far approximately 1,400 volunteers have been used on a variety of missions-related projects. Through the VC program, individuals learn to extend their witness and ministry beyond themselves and their church to fulfill the Great Commission. A VC volunteer is classified as any Christian who has chosen to give time, skills and resources to meet a need in a missions setting.
After making contact with Charlene Buttram, the Baldwin Baptist Association’s interim director of missions, Cindy set about securing late-July reservations for their entire family at an Orange Beach condo.
“We had been praying for someone to come at that time,” Buttram recounted. “So their willingness to spend four days of helping out was an answer to prayer. Normally, we have a youth or some group scheduled, but at this particular time we didn’t have anyone. One of the things I’ve learned about resort missions work in Alabama is that you can always use extra help.”
Cindy, along with her husband, Ronny, and their three children, arrived early and met up with several other family members. The group was able to help the summer missionaries canvass the Gulf State Park campground, inviting children to the day camps, which were held each weekday morning at 10:30 at the park’s pavilion.
“Everyone we met was so open to our invitation to send their children down to the pavilion for singing, crafts and refreshments,” Cindy said.
Lou and Phil, who also live in Pinson, Ala., arrived the next day to be followed by brothers Mike and Rick, who reside near Birmingham, and another sister, Mary, who came from Miami, Fla.
Fans of Auburn University athletics will recognize the names of the Neel brothers as they were part of “The Amazins,” the 1972 football team that defeated the University of Alabama 17-16 on two back-to-back blocked punts. Even after 27 years, Auburn people can tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing as they listened to the game.
Cindy played tennis for Auburn during her four years there, with Mary opting to play tennis for Samford University in Birmingham.
Tennis also is something Lou and Phil participate in each morning with a group of seniors from their church. Athletics, they say, helps keep them active and involved in the community.
Everyone in Alabama who has ever seen a cartoon caricature of “Aubie,” Auburn’s mascot, has seen an example of Phil Neel’s work.
“I developed the ‘Aubie’ character many years ago, while working as a cartoonist for The Birmingham Post-Herald,” Phil said. “I’ve always tried to use my artistic talent for the Lord, whether it’s by entertaining children with sketches of ‘Aubie’ or ‘Big Al,’ the elephant mascot of the University of Alabama.”
Cindy said the children who attended the Gulf Coast programs were fascinated by her father’s cartooning ability, and many would ask him to draw something on their paper plates.
But it was the entire family’s involvement in the missions activities that made the trip special for Phil and Lou.
To see their kids and grandkids stand up in front of a crowd and tell them about what the Lord meant to them was one of the best presents a couple could ever receive, they said.
Cindy said she couldn’t talk about the influence of her parent’s love without praising the Lord for his love as well.
“I don’t want us to sound like Ozzie and Harriet or the Brady Bunch,” she said, “because we’re not. Our family has had its share of problems and heartaches like anyone else.”
Because Phil always worked an afternoon shift at the newspaper, a lot of parental responsibilities had to be performed by Lou.
“Mom’s an incredible lady who has been given the gift of hospitality by the Lord. She really loves to do for others,” Cindy said.
Her husband, Ronnie, who is a Royal Ambassador leader at Deerfoot Baptist Church, said his father-in-law’s influence within his community could also be measured in the number of lives he had touched by coaching youth baseball games, just as his mother-in-law was known for the meals she prepared for others.
“There never was a ball team that Phil was involved with that didn’t know what his top priority in life was, and that is his love for the Lord,” Ronnie said.
As approximately 50 day campers arrived at the pavilion to sing to the accompaniment of Cindy’s guitar, take part in crafts under the supervision of a summer missionary and Lou, and then enjoy refreshments that were handed out by the entire Neel family, Phil did one more “Aubie” for an Auburn fan.
“Age is not a factor with missions work,” he said as he sketched. “Just your desire to be used. When we look back at the photos of this trip, we’ll be able to recall a blessed time that we were able to spend in the Lord, and after all, that’s what truly counts in life.”
More information about Volunteer Connection can be obtained from Delane Tew at WMU, P.O. Box 830010, Birmingham, AL, 35283-0010; phone, (205) 991-4097; or e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sims is a correspondent for The Alabama Baptist newsjournal.