My friend Rod died last week and his life will be celebrated in Charleston, South Carolina. He came a long way to get to Charleston. We will not be there to celebrate him as we are in the Dominican Republic. Not a bad place to be at any time, but especially a good place for reflection.
Rod was born in Wichita Falls, Texas in 1938. That made him two years my elder when we met in Abilene, Texas in 1958 at what was then Abilene Christian College. He played an important part in my education. We sold Bibles together in the summer of 1960 and he encouraged me to buy a new Plymouth Valiant, one of the early compact cars built to be sold in the US. I had no business, buying a new car, but a friend of his was a dealer and the price was modest. I drove the car into the ground in 1967 after graduate school at Yale.
More importantly Rod encouraged my relationship with Jan Cothran. He and Jan sang together in the ACC a cappella chorus and he knew her family. Her father scared him.
In 1960 we sold Bibles in Kansas and North Texas. Both regions gave me new eyes with which to view the world. In Texas near Vernon I discovered the roots of my family and had the experience of being called by my family name when I knocked on the door of a former neighbor to my grandparents, Henry Robert and Minnie Randolph. When someone greets you with “You are a Randolph.” And then takes you to visit the site of the former Randolph home place, only trees marking the spot, it is a formative experience. Rod understood that.
Jan thought of Rod as the older brother she never had and it was with Rod that our lives began to intertwine. We celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary last May.
Rod became part of a team that established a new church plant on Long Island; New Yorkers did not know Jesus had a southern accent. Time Magazine announced their plan in 1964 with a story headed “The Campbellites are Coming”. Their team was led by Dwain and Barbara Evans and Rod and Pat Spaulding were stable parts of an evolving effort to broaden the religious landscape of New York. A whole church landed in New York’s unsuspecting suburbs and the experience gave everyone involved a life changing moment. The congregation in West Islip engaged an alien culture with a new take on Christianity. The congregation lives today and played an important part in mediating the impact of Superstorm Sandy on its neighbors.
If the Greatest Generation won World War II, it was a fearless generation that tried to win the peace that followed. They rode the social unrest that marked the 1960s with what ever tools they brought to the struggle. Rod had an ability to help people think about what we now talk of as core values and he used the church as a redemptive tool and when the tide shifted he developed other skills not far removed from those cultivated in selling Bibles in Kansas and Texas.
Rod didn’t know what he didn’t know when he came to New York, but he learned fast. After West Islip he led an urban ministry project that grew out of a summer program called Camp Shiloh for a time and then landed with the Memphis Public Schools in 1972. He worked through the difficult days of integration and moved on to Charleston, SC in 1983. He retired from the public school system there in 2005.
We lost contact after the move to Charleston. It is amazing how quickly 40 years can pass. Our paths had gone in different directions, but the values we shared shaped who we became. We were Christian and held that the world could be a better place if the Social Compact actually worked. Rod worked to make things happen in the world of race and class. He knew the human side of the religious world and hoped to see its better inclinations come to fruition. He was often disappointed.
As I said, it is a long way from West Texas to Charleston, but he shaped and touched many lives along the way. Jan and I are grateful that he was our friend. We cannot sing the hymn Fairest Lord Jesus without thinking of Rod: “Son of God and Son of man; thee will I cherish, thee will I honor; thou my soul’s glory, joy and crown.”
We meant to get to Charleston, but when we contacted Pat she told he was in the last stages of dementia. Son of God and Son of Man could not be more appropriate. Forty years goes too fast. Remember that I told you so.
Robert M. Randolph
Chaplain to the Institute
Robert M. Randolph
Chaplain to the Institute