KANSAS CITY, Mo. (BP)–Bashfully basking in the accolades of family and friends, a great man stepped down from the pulpit of a tiny rural church in Maywood, Mo., on Sunday, June 4.
By the time the special service at South Union Baptist Church was over, we had sung “I’ll Fly Away,” “Precious Lord” and other old-time gospel favorites. We heard the bell in the church tower toll 70 times to celebrate Jim’s recent birthday. We prayed together and listened as Jim read Philippians 4. We witnessed him giving one last invitation to the great hymn “I Surrender All.” The time of rejoicing and reminiscing ushered out an era of ministry spanning more than 50 years and several states.
This former teenaged poker player, whose mother first attended school in an Ozarks backwoods building staffed with a teacher from the Home Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, now uttered only the apostle Paul’s letter to the church in parting. His obvious love of Jesus and of his extended family members in the pews spoke of a genuine conversion and call to ministry in a time when journalists and preachers appear to be at opposite ends of a spectrum.
The tears and expressions of both family members and friends usher in a new era of uncertainty, however, for this great journalist, mentor and friend. Those weeping were not oblivious to Jim’s plight. Only the very young missed the bittersweet nature of the day’s events. They did not see Jim’s sometimes far-away look, witness his careful maneuvering, nor sense the confusion that comes and goes like the tides.
Choking back my own tears, I saw it very clearly for the first time. Some day, this man who is closer to me than my own father will cease to exist. But I know the timeless truths he taught me will live on.
Jim is my mentor. He taught me how to write by encouraging me to think. He didn’t just go over grammar, but he modeled the process. In the ’80s, I followed Jim around press rooms and listened in on conversations. I watched him wield his tape recorder like a shield and his keyboard like a sword. As his assistant, I sorted documents, transcribed tapes and learned more about the Southern Baptist Convention than I ever wanted to.
Sprinkled, like sugar, were careful words of wisdom. “God loves everyone, Joni. Even people with whom you disagree.” More than his words was his attitude. Always gracious. In fact, it grieved me to hear him maligned, misjudged and sometimes downright slandered over his careful reporting.
“Some people didn’t like what I wrote,” he recalled sadly at his retirement service. “To love one another you cannot beat each other on the head!”
Jim has rightly divided the word of truth in more ways than one. Sometimes it was most unpleasant for him. Many times I watched him struggle with how to tell the truth without intentionally hurting anyone. I used to wonder how he could stay so focused and so much above the fray. Then I rationalized that he must be so at peace with God about his role as a journalist that he leaves any misgivings with our Savior.
Jim never traded the favor of man over that of God. A respected speaker and talented writer, Jim pastored many churches on his journey and penned millions of words. He can still make crowds laugh with delight when telling an old coon story or one about a dog throwing up at the side of a porch. His gifts never sought their place in SBC elected positions, nor did he ever serve on a board — but God knows the contributions he has made to Southern Baptist life.
God has plans for Jim. They might make people wonder, like when he took over this tiny church in rural Missouri. Or printed books banned initially by the Baptist Book Store. Or courageously covered both sides of the controversy in that series, “The Truth in Crisis.” Journalist and preacher. Preacher and journalist. Like his daughter Celia, who said to those assembled for the retirement gala, “My dad will always be a preacher,” I have a word to add. Jim will always be a thinker and a writer, and his legacy will live on through my students and I. May we be found worthy. Happy writing Jim.
Hannigan is a high school journalism and English teacher from Kansas City, Mo., and a graduate of Hannibal LaGrange College in Missouri. Hefley, who has authored hundreds of books and articles, is the former writer-in-residence at Hannibal LaGrange where he teaches a writing class.