One of the greatest insights into my father came at Christmas 1998.
It was the first Christmas since my family had moved to Springfield and my brother, father and mother had joined us for the holiday festivities. It was at that time that I gave my father the movie, Saving Private Ryan on video tape which had been released during the summer.
Following our noon meal, we sat down to watch the film together. Those familiar with the film know that the first 30 minutes is a depiction of the D-Day invasion at Normandy and is rather graphic. It was obvious in watching that segment my father became very emotional.
Seeing this, my mother said, “Paul, turn off the movie. It’s bothering your father.”
But Dad insisted on watching the rest of the film. Two hours later, my father told me a story I had never heard before but one, I believe, helped me understand my father.
He told our family how he was called in along with seven or eight others to begin training for a mission. The mission was to chase after German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel (who was known as The Desert Fox) who was stirring up trouble in North Africa. Dad said about a week into the training his mission was aborted and he returned to his platoon. It was only later that he found out that the aborted mission was a suicide mission.
Dad was never more than a Private First Class in the U.S. Army during World War II but he was always proud of his military service. He was a chaplain’s aide, guarded prisoners of war and processed prisoners of war following German and Japanese surrenders until his discharge in early 1946.
Although Dad said he never thought about it, I believe that this experience explains my Dad’s passion for ministry. God had spared his life for a purpose and he threw everything he had into the ministry upon his return from the war.
He always talked about dying with his boots on. And for 49 years of active ministry, Rev. Eugene Black served the former Southern Illinois Conference. After taking a year off in retirement, he returned and served 14 years as minister of visitation at Mattoon First United Methodist Church. He would be quick to admit the end of both chapters of ministry was not his idea. He is quite proud of the fact he never sent a letter to Bishop David Lawson requesting retirement, saying, “Why would I request something I do not want?” And when General Conference raised the mandatory retirement age from 70 to 72 after his retirement, he asked Bishop Sharon Brown Christopher if that meant the conference owed him two more years of active service.
My mother has simply said that Dad was married to her for 68 years but he was also married to the ministry. The life that ended March 12, 2014 -- just a week shy of his 89th birthday -- left a legacy that continues to live through the lives that he touched.
Over the past two weeks, as nearly 300 persons gathered for visitation and the funeral service, many more joining us through cards and expressions of sympathy, I have heard stories of how my father made a difference in many people’s lives – many of them after he retired from active ministry. But I would say there were some guiding principles to my Dad’s life that made the difference in the impact he had on people.
Dad was a man of prayer. I do not know anyone that prayed like my father. His prayers reached the Gates of Heaven, as they were intimate, vulnerable and yet very bold. Dad discovered many years ago what Christian author Mark Batterson wrote, “One’s prayers reflect the size of one’s God.” Dad did not believe anything was beyond prayer except that which was outside the Will of God. And Dad took God at God’s word on that.
In 1990, after the birth of our son, Andrew, my wife Carolyn was facing gall bladder surgery. She had a lot of anxiety and my father prayed for her before she went into surgery. She said there was a calm that came over her after Dad finished praying.
And Rev. Ken Cox, in sharing at the funeral, told how he and Dad prayed for a woman with a severe skin condition and was healed at one of the services at Mattoon First UMC.
Dad connected with people. For a nine-year-old boy on a farm in Marion County, Ill., who felt inadequate when he was called into the ministry because he was shy, my Dad got over it! My Dad could make his rounds in a room better than a politician could with one slight difference. Unlike some politicians, when my Dad was talking to you, you had his undivided attention. He wasn’t looking over your shoulder to see if there was someone more important he needed to talk to.
It was through connecting with people that doors opened for sharing one’s faith. Dad was never presumptuous in his evangelistic efforts. He realized that before you could have opportunities to share one’s faith, you had to have a relationship – a relationship that showed your genuine care and concern for others.
Dad was committed to itinerancy. As a United Methodist, my father itinerated throughout his 49 years of active ministry, including to appointments where he wondered what a Bishop and Cabinet were thinking when they sent him there. In fact, after a fruitful ministry at Marion Aldersgate from 1957 to 1966, he was asked by a contemporary of his why he went there, telling him that he was asked to go there as well as two others and they all turned the appointment down.
“I went there because I was appointed there,” was his simple response. It was a vow he had taken at ordination and a vow he kept, even when it wasn’t convenient.
Dad invested in others. My father understood that hard work can only get you so far. To have exponential effect, you have to invest in others. Through the years, he mentored a number of pastors and was a source of encouragement in their calls to ministry. During his 49 years of ministry, 17 answered the call to ministry.
And for his grandson, who is in his first year of ministry as a seminary student, Dad was a guiding influence.
Son Andy had hoped his Grandpa would be able to stand with him when he was commissioned and ordained as a pastor. And although that won’t be possible, Grandpa will be there symbolically.
As we were preparing for visitation, Andy stopped by to see Grandma and she said, “Andrew! (he says Grandma is the only one that calls him Andrew) Come over here” where she led him to the front closet. In the front closet was a nearly brand new clergy robe his Grandpa had purchased just months before he was released from his duties at Mattoon First UMC. Although Andy stands two to three inches taller than his Grandpa, it was a perfect fit.
The robe became the linkage to a new generation of ministry and a way for Grandpa to be present at commissioning and ordination.
Tears came to my eyes as I thought, “the handoff is complete.”
In Saving Private Ryan, the old soldier who was saved by Ryan, although it cost Ryan his life, asked the question, “Have I been a good man?” It is a question that many ask at the end of their lives.
For those that gathered for the visitation and funeral and those who joined us in spirit, assembled to offer a resounding “Yes!” for one who gave everything he had for a ministry he loved and a God he served.
Read related story: Eugene Black named Cartwright Award recipient