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Thursday, September 5, 2013

Iconic Figure Dies

Robert is dead. We do not have exact details, but we heard it was his heart. Rumors and hearsay have clouded the issue. We think the service is Saturday at St. James. Lots of people "have heard" but nothing is set in stone.

Robert was, in simplest terms, an icon. He was a bald headed black man, often seen riding his bike on the streets of Collierville, and just as often biking down Poplar Avenue in Germantown (some thirteen miles away) all the way into Memphis (a thirty mile jaunt). A priest friend of mine who worked in the city was familiar with him. He was as close to a street person as Collierville has. How, you may ask, was such a man an icon? He constantly spoke of God, Jesus and faith. I always saw Jesus whenever I saw Robert. He was a witness to Jesus as well as one of the "least, last, and lost" through whom Jesus is present. Robert was a sign of Jesus among us.

I am not sure exactly when I first met him. I had been here for a while, maybe a year. I know he attended an evening service once, it was dark as I saw him walking off. I called out to him; I try to show hospitality to visitors and a black man stands out in our little church. He simply lifted an arm to wave, without turning back, and continued on his way. (That lifted arm was a gesture which, aside from  his smile and laugh, I most associate with Robert. I saw it many, many times)  It was many months later that he began to appear more regularly. He would show up at Sunday services, always late, and then became a regular at MP (morning prayer). I wish our members came as often as Robert did. This has all been going on now for at least eight years. As his comfort level increased, he began reciting his own long prayers during the appropriate time in the period for petitions near the end of the MP service. His prayers would sometimes go on and on, but I always felt convicted by his love of God and simple faith (though often it was hard to discern what he was saying, beyond a string of religious words and indistinguishable syllables).

For much of his time among us his mouth was a collection of empty spaces and gaps. His wide face and large ears, coupled with that toothlessness often appeared thoughtful and pained. It is  hard to know exactly what took place inside that head. As I said, he often talked but was never totally clear. However, his visage could also explode with delight and his laughter and big grin indicated he had a sense of humor, even if at times he seemed to be the only one in on the joke. He laughed much of the time and interacted with people here like an old friend. Even when those people had never met or seen him.

In time he came to know the names of many of our staff. We regularly gave him food at parish functions (he always managed to appear at such times). He also was beneficiary of countless donations from kindly parishioners who provided him his daily bread. In addition, our more official ministry to the needy gave him gift cards to local establishments. These gifts were measured, he did not receive something every time. It is the nature of a small church's outreach to deal with demand which outstrips supply. [Memphis has lots of poor and needy. A million dollars could disappear in a matter of weeks.]

When my kids were young and we were driving places they would recognize him. Before we knew his name we simply referred to him as "the walking man." On a few occasions we gave him rides and fed him. The kids learned to have affection for this man who was so different from most of our friends and neighbors. One day Madison suggested that we buy him a bike. I thought it a great idea. The next time we saw him he had a bike. Somehow the idea must have been shared by others, who acted first. A couple years ago he was riding that bike and was hit by a car. He was airlifted to the Med. Somehow he survived. I remember the first time he came back, in the same good humor, proclaiming his faith in God.

While Robert was hard to understand, most of what he said had to do with love and God. He was simple. His words were challenging. I can still hear him walking, repeating over and over "Yes, Lord!" He often told me "I don't boost and I don't brag" (the word boost always struck me) and then he proceeded to talk about God. He called me father, many people do, but he always added "Son and Holy Spirit." He seemed incapable of using the word Father without mention of the Trinity. At communion he never said, "Amen." He would just repeat, over and over, "thank you, Father, thank you." I think he was addressing me, but I hope it was God.

Robert's gratitude to God seeped out of him. One parishioner wrote an amazing reflection on trust. This man shared with me that the only word he ever understood that Robert said was trust. In a recent, harrowing experience, this same man said every time he was worried about something he brought Robert to mind, and his message of trust. That same man's experience of God's hand at work reinforced how sufficient trust in God could be. Robert  had so little, trust in God was his only option. That is why he became as icon. He was an example of trust.

Robert had another side, he was no angel. I know he was arrested for shop lifting, and probably numerous times for vagrancy. He would disappear for weeks at a time, perhaps to serve time. Some years ago he showed up with a mouth full of teeth, compliments of the dental department at the penal farm. Sometimes parishioners had a negative encounter, on a few occasions a request for cash got more aggressive. He was on his best behavior around the church, but he got around and when he met parishioners elsewhere they did not see the "same" Robert all of the time. So what, we are all flawed. Would I expect a man living as Robert did to never have a bad day? I have my own collection of faults and failings to confess.

Robert attended our church, the Roman Catholic church, the Methodist Church and the Baptist church each Sunday. He also came here on Saturdays. This is what I have heard for sure. I would guess there were others. He could disrupt a service when he began clapping and talking out loud "Yes, Lord! Amen!" On occasion I would have to say "Robert, please be quiet." I do not preach with notes so my train of thought gets derailed. Others would be distracted. The week before last he showed up in church in a pair of pajamas. As always, they looked nice and neat. His constant change of clothes were one of the mysteries about him. Last week, he was in suit and tie. Several people told me when I announced his death that they had talked to him and he was quieter than usual. He had eaten his plate of food quietly by himself. I did not see him except in passing. I was dealing with a good bye to our three retiring staff. Little did I know a fourth was also making his last appearance.

It is not unusual for street people to become familiar. In the 1980's there was a long haired man many called Jesus, who walked the midtown Memphis area. There was another guy, more scarey, who talked to himself. In more recent years a large black man with a loaded grocery cart wandered the same environs. Most of these types are non-social. Not Robert. I think I know why his brain was diminished, I know he had a wife and kids from a time when his function was higher. Perhaps he became a better man when he lost it all and was reduced to the marginal existence which I saw the last decade. Whatever the case, it is God to judge, not me. I do know I will miss him, even if there were times when i avoided dealing with him in my busy day. I always knew that Robert was an icon on Jesus. A reminder of the total abandonment to trust in God. The constant repetition of thanks and praise. The constant declaration of God's glory.

Collierville will be a less magical place without him. He added something, which ironically is more than can be said for many of us white-middle-class-and-successful types who are busy with so many "important" things. Rest in Peace Robert. Thanks for all you taught us. May you enjoy the fullness of God's presence in eternity.


  1. Thank you.
    It is really difficult to capture the power of this man's life. The fact that a in so many ways "peripheral" figure like him has generated so much interest (he has blown away our highest face book traffic ever)is a sign of the Holy Spirit at work.

    1. A couple of weeks ago (this is Chad, by the way), he gave Gracie a medal of Saint Anthony unexpectedly when he was coming down the isle for communion.

  2. Chad!
    I saw the "address" and thought it interesting that Reinhardt lived so close by!
    Robert used to put money in the collection basket from time to time. That may have been the most amazing thing to me.

    1. Yeah! Long ago I thought it best to invent a German persona when making wry and and occasional contrary comments on YouTube videos and the like. I guess that stuff comes from the German-half (mom's side) of my personality anyway. (The Scots never act that way, right?)

      That is amazing that he still gave. Ever seen the movie Radio with Cuba Gooding Jr.? Robert reminds me a little of Radio.

  3. I also knew Robert and gave his a ride to a black church here in Collierville after he had attended our Baptist church. Once I saw him stranded with a flat tire and carried his bike and him home in my truck. I prayed for him often after he had told me about his family problems and that his wife would not let him come home. Often he went forward to the altar and sometimes at inappropriate times.

    One Sunday night he responded to an altar invitation at an appropriate time and a staff went and knelt beside him. I was earnestly interceding silently for Robert and felt that the staff was an answer to my prayer. The custom was for anyone who went to the altar to be escorted to a counseling room for private ministry. The staff member got up with Robert and escorted him toward that door but instead escorted him out of the sanctuary and building.

    The next Monday morning the Lord inspired me to go directly to the pastor and tell him how this appeared. I met him in the parking lot and the pastor immediately defended himself and the church with the words "we do care for blacks here" I said in agreement that I was sure he did but that the impression left by this act was that blacks are not escorted to the room for counseling. I was perhaps over zealous and I did say if that had been a white person they would have been escorted to the prayer room as occurs on a weekly basis.

    The pastor told me, "Charles, you don't know Robert and his condition." I replied, "what does Robert's condition have to do with God helping him?" Sunday morning the pastor had preached a terrific sermon extolling the greatness of Christ "If Christ is perfect then Christ is sufficient" I had scribbled those words on a piece of paper and it was still in my shirt pocket. I said, "pastor you said this morning, if Christ is perfect then Christ is sufficient."

    I dropped to my knees on the asphalt and with tears in my eyes told the pastor if Jesus could cast all the demons out of the demoniac of Gadara surely He could help Robert. But your staff member just escorted him out the door!

    I witnessed many other times this kind of action and one thing I was able to successfully put a stop to was the assigning a staff member to sit with Robert in the sanctuary to keep an eye on him.

    1. We have an altar call at St. Andrew's-Communion or Holy Eucharist. I invite you to join us. Baptized believers are welcome to take communion with us.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Charles, thanks for that witness and thanks for your friendship with Robert. He attended many Collierville churches didn't he?

    I believe that whatever demons (literally and figuratively) impacted Robert over the years, Jesus proved to be sufficient! I was called by the Commercial Appeal and the Collierville Herald about Robert. Both are doing stories about him. Jesus is glorified. Amazing...

  5. I always thought of Robert as Jesus in our midst. He was sometime nettlesome, but he was faithful. I look forward to seeing what the papers print. I do not subscribe to them except to the CA by internet. Please save you copies for me to see.

  6. I know that I and my family are not the most faithful in attending service, but upon meeting Robert at our very first service there I knew in part that is where we needed to be...

    1. Robert was an example of Abundant Life- God's grace comes down to us, we send glory up to Him and we send mercy out to others. May we dare to live as faithfully as Robert.