During 25 years of delivering sermons, Woodbrook Baptist Church's Associate Pastor Greg Cochran always included a message to the youngest congregants of the church about his own childhood in Six Mile, S.C. that included adventures with his friend, Clifton.
He never repeated one of the stories. In fact, there were so many stories that people began to wonder if Clifton even existed.
It turns out he does. Clifton Alexander drove all the way from South Carolina to the church at 25 Stevenson Lane in Towson to surprise Cochran on Sunday, Sept. 8 for a celebration of Cochran's 25th anniversary at the church as well as Cochran's gift for working with youths.
"Even I didn't know if Clifton was real," said Cochran's 17-year-old son, Josh. "I know we'd get Christmas cards, but I thought they were from paid actors."
Pastor Emeritus John Roberts noted that the best way to clear the room for a fire drill was for Cochran "to tell the legend of Six Mile," (population 553, as of the last U.S. Census), which Roberts said he had heard so often he could recite it by rote.
Cochran is 51 now and living in Anneslie. He has been married for 20 years to the Rev. Carole Jackson-Cochran, a chaplain with Seasons Hospice. In addition to Josh, the couple has a daughter, Lara, 15.
Roberts noted that when the church hired Cochran in 1988, he was single, nice-looking and had more hair. At least one member saw him as a way to increase enrollment.
"He thought he'd be a babe magnet for Goucher" students, Roberts said.
Carole Jackson-Cochran said she met her husband shortly after he started at Woodbrook. "You guys got him before me," she said. "But I came right in behind you."
Throughout his years at Woodbrook, Cochran has been lauded for his guidance of Woodbrook's nationally accredited pre-school, the Woodbrook Early Education Center, and its Sunday school program, as well as its youth program for middle and high school students.
He is now working part-time. His official title may be associate pastor for children, youth and spiritual formation but the kids all call him "Mr. Greg."
"He is one-of-a-kind, a treasure" said Gail Evans, who chaired the celebration committee. "He encourages an active, involved faith and looks for opportunities for the youth to impact their world. It's not just his leadership. It's the love and compassion he has for all the kids — they can talk to him."
"He listened," recalled Sarah Cumbie, 25. "Children are people, too, and what they say matters."
Cochran said he is not the "rah rah" kind of youth minister that speaks at rallies and significant events, noting he'd be happy to be in the back row of the church on Sundays. More important are the discussions that take place in a hallway or the parking lot and remembering what his own teenage years were like helps him to relate.
"With teenagers, it's really about listening to them, as well as being honest about your own personal experience and making yourself vulnerable," he said. "I get as much energy from them as they get from me."
Rev. Jack VandenHengel performed a song he had written about Cochran entitled, "The Picture of a Friend."
Charlie Knott, 17, who is studying film at Carver Center for Arts & Technology, created a video for the celebration, by asking those who know Cochran to say one word that would describe the associate pastor.
Answers included compassionate, homespun, supportive, smile, creative, fatherly, mentor, amazing and — bald.
"He has been there for me my entire life," said Gilman junior Wyatt Heritage, 17. "He is the most gentle and kind and patient person I'll ever know. He's as much a part of Woodbrook as the building itself — he's like the foundation there."
"No one had a good middle school experience," said Evans' son Mark, now a junior at Capitol College. He looked forward every week to the Sunday evening youth group that Cochran runs. "It's a nurturing, caring environment because of Greg and everyone there is a friend."
"You have had a profound impact on the church and beyond", Westbrook Pastor Rev. Dr. John Ballenger said to Cochran on Sunday. "You are beloved because you love so well. We are blessed to look back on 25 years and grateful to look ahead for another 25 years."