An Unlikely Optimist

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The Reverend Eugene Cason loves a good joke.

 

Whether he’s the teller or the listener, Cason is generous with his appreciative laughter and wide grin.

And perhaps this felicity is what one would expect of a former stand-up comedian.

But it’s not what one would expect of someone who’s lived through the hardships that Cason has endured — the death of loved ones, a difficult divorce and even homelessness.

Growing up on Oak Street in Columbia, money was tight for Cason and his 11 siblings.

“Sometimes you didn’t know where your next meal was coming from,” he says. Cason’s father, Jesse, worked three jobs and sang in a gospel choir while Cason’s mother, Ernestine, cared for the children and waged a silent battle with depression. Cason acknowledges that life wasn’t perfect, but “it was fun, it was challenging. We had a loving, close relationship with each other.”

Then in 1966, when Cason was only 11 years old, Ernestine died suddenly of a massive heart attack. Her absence left a gaping hole in Cason’s loving family.

As an adult, Cason would also lose his sister Darlene and his nephew Dallas Eugene to brutal acts of violence: Darlene was found murdered in a warehouse in Kansas City in 1999, and Dallas Eugene was beaten to death in Columbia two years later.

In 1992, Cason went through a devastating divorce from his wife of ­­­more than 20 years. “I lost everything,” he says simply. “Everything.”

He became homeless, seeking shelter for the night under an office desk or in abandoned cars. Even in those dark times, Cason insists, “I always heard God telling me, ‘It’s gonna be OK.’ ”

It’s this spirit of survival, this refusal to give up, that has propelled Cason through life’s trials.

“Even when things are bad, they’re good,” he says. “I don’t wear my troubles on my shoulder.”

Cason’s optimistic attitude has accompanied him through many twists and turns in life.

As a young man, he moved to Denver and began working as a limousine driver for companies such as White Dove and Star Limo. In his 30-odd years of driving experience, Cason chauffeured the likes of Peter Jennings, Peyton Manning and Annabel Bowlen, wife of Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen. He says his “contagious personality” was a hit with clients.

“I found out that my gifts were comedy, humor, encouraging and motivating people,” Cason says. So he took a five-year turn as a traveling stand-up comedian based out of Denver.

“I loved comedy. I wrote, and then the rest of the day was free until the evenings. Nobody’s your boss but you,” he says. “I was in a different city every night.”

Much to Cason’s consternation, nightclub owners told him that he was funny but acted like a preacher.

It wasn’t until his marriage unraveled that Cason turned to the ministry, first for personal support, then as his own calling. He worked as a nondenominational lay pastor and a televangelist on stations such as DayStar in Dallas and WTJR in Quincy, Ill.

In 2007, Cason returned to Columbia, which he calls “my biological home.” He continued giving inspirational talks at local churches and appearing on regional Christian television stations while working at grocery stores and hotels to make ends meet; by the next year, Cason was ordained as a minister at Columbia’s All People’s Missionary Baptist Church. He continues to minister through televangelism, relief preaching and motivational speaking.

Though he recently underwent triple bypass heart surgery, even this could not keep him down for long. His sunny outlook, faith and true friends have helped him through every situation.

“People don’t hold each other up as well as they used to,” he says. “But if you have people who love you without asking for repayment, those people you never forget. They will get you to the other side.”

Cason’s children often call for advice from their indomitable father. He tells them, “You can be anything you want to be. Put pedal to the metal.” This is a lesson he learned from his own parents when he was a child, Cason says. “We didn’t have a lot, but we were taught to love, honor, and repent when we made mistakes — then get on down the road.”

When friends and family members seek Cason’s guidance, “I always take them back to the thing that I resorted to: the Bible. If that doesn’t work, then I don’t know what to do. If that doesn’t work, we’re all done.” He pauses, a smile spreading across his face. “But it always works.”

Those who know Cason find his steadfast optimism noteworthy. Carolyn Chaput, Cason’s friend of 10 years, says, “I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone to walk so faithfully and consistently as him in the midst of deep darkness. At one time he was living in a warehouse and had only cold water to bathe, and no matter what he just keeps his faith.”

Jeff Kaup, Chaput’s son-in-law, has known Cason for 17 years.

“I’ve never met anybody like him,” Kaup says. “He’s extremely positive, extremely upbeat. He kind of scares people sometimes because they don’t know how to take him, but he’s the same in private as he is out in the public. He’s the real deal.”

When Cason’s not offering spiritual support to others and shaking things up in church (“There are a lot of dead people sitting in all of these churches,” he jokes), he’s busy dreaming big. Cason aspires to found a mental health hospital in honor of his mother’s struggles and to begin a limousine business with branches in Columbia and Denver. “I just want to make sure that I do something that blesses other people. We’re all servants, we’re all gonna serve, but you want to be a good servant,” he says.

That’s exactly what makes Cason so unusual. Though he could have retreated within himself several tragedies ago, he chose instead to focus on helping others and seeing the humor in life.

“I’ve weathered the storm,” he says.

And he has.

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