By Brad Hicks
Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he? — Clarence Odbody, ASC, to George Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life
I stopped praying for Doug this week. Of the five friends of mine who died last week, I was closest with Doug, who we called “Gumbo.” He was from New Orleans. Gumbo had been on my prayer list for over a year, from whenever it was that I first found out that he’d been diagnosed with a late stage of cancer. A couple weeks ago, Gumbo also contracted Covid-19. In the last three weeks, I had also put on that list my friends Karen, Jeff, and Jon, who had all been infected with the coronavirus as well. I had been praying for all four of them, sincerely interceding for healing of their bodies, for peace and comfort for them and their loved ones, for wisdom and skill for the medical teams, and, ultimately, that God would let them live on Earth a while longer. They all four died between Tuesday and Saturday last week. Also, on Friday last week I read on my Facebook newsfeed that another old friend, Rob, had passed that day, finally surrendering to a prolonged bout with ALS.
Five friends: Karen Jones, Doug “Gumbo” Songy, Jeff Conant, Jon Shrader, and Rob Marshall. I’ve had my share of friends and relatives die during my lifetime, but never, never, five in five days. I’ve told friends over the last few days that I wish I could just break down and wail for an hour or two. I feel the sorrow, but I want an outlet to release it, to cleanse my innards, you know. I cried a little the moment I realized that Gumbo had no need of my prayers any longer, and I cried when Karen died last week, mostly thinking of how hurting her family must be right now. But my tears thus far have only reached a hair beyond my lower eyelids, just momentary weeps that only made my eyes sting for a few seconds. I need a face-buried-in-my-pillow howling cry.
But crying isn’t really enough. That only makes me feel a little better and does nothing for these friends or their families. I want to do or say something in gratitude, in memoriam. Is there really anything I can do for them, except grieve and remember … and move on?
Move on. How cold and un-honoring to my friends that sounds. I told my friend, Traci, a couple nights ago that after awhile, I’ll likely just forget these friends and tuck away forever my memories of them. Not uncommon, right? But, you know what? Not really acceptable either.
I write. And I can use my writing to do, to be, to say anything I want. And I want to write about these five friends. I want to honor them with a few stories of remembrance, short memoirs of how they intersected my life. Indeed, each one made an impact on me — some deeply, others ever so slightly — and in different ways influenced the person I’ve become. Published written words can last forever, and so I’ll write.
I haven’t seen any of these five friends for years, but each one, when we were in each others’ orbits, in our spheres of friendship and influence, planted seeds of themselves in me; by their examples, their words, their love, each left a unique mark. This is a good thing for all of us to remember. Our lives don’t intersect anyone’s, no one walks into our world or ours into theirs, by accident. I believe those collisions are the providence and sovereignty of God, and it would be wise and generous of us to pay attention.
I’ll start by telling you about Karen. I was 16 when the Jones family came into my family’s lives. We had just started going to church, would’ve been 1977 — First Assembly of God, in my hometown, Richmond, Indiana. To this day, that first church experience for me was the most loving and friendly I’ve ever had. It seems like families were always inviting us over to their homes for some kind of get together. The kids in the youth group were close to one another, and my brother and I were always invited to do things with them. I was a high school kid tripping all over my sins and, frankly, didn’t want to go to church. We were not a “churched” family, and our foray into this new life — after a full life of good Hoosier heathen living — was wholly, holy other!
The Joneses were one of the families at First Assembly who were relentlessly loving in their pursuit of me and my family. Denny and Karen Jones were dad and mom to five kids, the three middle ones were in the youth group. I remember doing active things with the Jones boys a lot, whether it was rafting down the creek a couple miles from their home, playing basketball on their driveway, or playing volleyball in their yard. Karen was an abiding presence of quiet strength, always in the background making preparations for when all of us kids would come inside; snacks or drinks waiting for us and sometimes a full meal.
Karen was a lover of Scripture, which greatly influenced my mom, who, in turn, influenced me in no small way. (I inherited my mom’s love for the Word of God, if inheriting that kind of thing is possible.) Karen was one of the first examples to us of what it meant to be an authentic Christian, gentle but strong, friendly but determined, a woman who earned the love and respect of her husband and children by being true to her beliefs and by simply being the redeemed human being that she was. Many people’s introduction to church and to Christians is all too often a disappointing one. Not ours. My family and I are grateful for the example, witness, and generosity of Karen Jones and her family.
Doug “Gumbo” Songy was one of my best friends in college. We met at the first college I attended, Evangel College (now University) in Springfield, Missouri, in 1979. I don’t remember much about Gumbo’s family or church background; I only know that when he came to Evangel, he was ready to cut loose from whatever ties he felt bound by at home. Gumbo had a larger than life personality, a magnetic charm; he was a jokester, always laughing, and everyone liked him. And Gumbo wanted to party. The one tie that he didn’t abandon was the only one that, in the end, truly matters — his faith in God demonstrated by love of others.
My own faith was very young. I enjoyed sports and partying in high school, and with my family at home now recently “churched,” and the gospel making deeper inroads into my belief structure, I had well-meaning intentions to “be good” when I decided to attend a Christian college. But I wasn’t quite strong enough yet to not accompany Gumbo and, surprisingly, quite a few others, on frequent wild nighttime outings. Without belaboring this fact, the thing I remember most about many of those outings is the theological discussions Gumbo and I would have and the inevitable guilt we both felt (and talked about, often in tears) when we were under the influence. Never mind the sudsy or smoky atmosphere of our talks, a deep bond was shared between us for the four years we both attended Evangel.
My relationship with God strengthened toward the end of my second year at school. This provided me with some internal fortitude that I needed to stop partying and get my priorities in order. Gumbo couldn’t find the same fortitude. When our time was over at Evangel in May 1983, we only saw each other one time after that, which was in about 1995. I visited him after the tragic death of his first wife. At that time, Gumbo was also wrestling with addiction, but our conversations were still pocked with talk of faith and God. After that visit, Gumbo and I texted or talked by phone from time to time, and I know that he never lost his faith or denied God, but he was battling inner demons his whole life that he couldn’t wrest away. He was diagnosed with cancer a little over a year ago, and his texts to me were teeming with Godspeak and requests for prayer. He knew that he didn’t have long to live, and two weeks ago, when Gumbo contracted Covid-19, his body was so compromised that he had no chance at all of survival. I haven’t felt as close to many friends in my life as I did with Gumbo. He was a Dynasty brother (our Evangel friends know what that term means) and a friend who said things to me that made me sound like I was a much better person than I really am. He believed in me and made me feel that I mattered in his life. It’s rare to find friends like that. Gumbo has left, and the world is missing a big lovable personality who practiced unusual loyalty to those he loved.
Jeff Conant was also a Dynasty brother at Evangel. I believe he was only at the school for one year, but I can say that Jeff did have an impact on me in the short period of time that we were on the same dorm floor. Jeff was a large guy from Pennsylvania, with curly hair and an infectious and kind of mischievous smile. He was older for an undergrad student, I believe, and more mature than most of us. His studies were important to him as was his faith in Christ. He had played some college football, if I remember correctly, and since our dorm floor took our intramural football quite seriously, we were happy to have him on our side. I was the quarterback on our team, and Jeff was one of our offensive linemen (so in that respect he was quite literally my protector). To me, Jeff was an example of a guy who could be extremely competitive in a sports contest and keep his class and composure even while violently knocking defensive linemen on their asses. For the brief time that I knew him, as I now think about it, in Jeff I saw a balance of purposefulness, humor, confidence, and single-mindedness. I knew he was at school for one reason, to quickly finish his degree and then get on with life. And get on with the business of living he did. He was married to the same woman for 35 years, and they had a loving daughter who called her dad her best friend. Jeff and his wife youth-pastored in the 1980s and ministered to hundreds of young people, and he owned an insurance agency for over 30 years. Just a solid, steady, faithful, loving man. I am a better man for having been able to observe Jeff’s life for a few months in 1982.
I knew Jon Shrader from the next college I attended, Rockmont College (now Colorado Christian University) in Lakewood, Colorado, from 1983-86. Kind of quiet, but really, more, just a man of few words. Academically brilliant, he went on to become a medical doctor, serving many families through his own practice in Clovis, New Mexico. I remember Jon was Dr. Barb Wilken’s prize student, as she was Rockmont’s lone biology and science teacher. Good basketball player, friendly, wise beyond his years. An old soul, really, who could also relate with anyone. I also knew Jon’s family, attended church with them at Believer’s Christian Fellowship, and I met weekly in a small group with Frank and Jean, Jon’s dad and mom, for a couple of years. Jon had two older brothers and five younger siblings. The five younger — four sisters and one brother — all originally from Southeast Asia, were adopted by Jon’s parents in the 1970s, when the U.S. became a sanctuary for refugees from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. Jon was an example to me of steadiness, and because I knew his dad and mom quite well, Jon was also living evidence to me of just how impacting good parenting can be. A lot of Jon’s emotional intelligence and quiet confidence, I knew, were instilled in him by his parents. Being able to watch how Jon and his family interacted with one another with love, consistency, and thoroughly informed by their Christian faith, has served as a helpful epistle for me that I’ve often reread in my heart’s eye.
Rob Marshall, owner and operator of Road Home Productions, was a business acquaintance at first, then we became friends. I came to Colorado in 1983 to work for a small local Christian publication called New Life Magazine. I wore several hats: I wrote articles, did some of the layout and design, and sold ads. Road Home, Rob’s Christian concert promotion company, was one of our advertisers. My boss handed the account over to me, which means he handed over Robbie Marshall — the most intrepid, audacious, devil-may-care, enigmatic Christian misfit in Denver — to me: Me, 22 years old, seemingly naive and idealistic, fresh out of conservative evangelical Christian college. Me, in my sport coat, khakis, and (probably) a tie. Rob in … anything but that. Me, with my … well, you get the picture. I didn’t think Rob liked me at first. Maybe he didn’t think I liked him either. But after a couple of sit-downs in his ramshackle of an upstairs Colorado Boulevard office, festooned with records and cassette tapes, posters, and all manner of CCM paraphernalia, we got to know one another a little better. Turns out we shared a similar faith and concern for people and we liked a lot of the same music. Rob saw that I wasn’t as idealistic and naive as my get-up suggested, and I began to understand Rob’s cynical outlook as a sideways expression of a deep concern that he had for a church that often misrepresented Christ to the world. Rob and I became friends for the next few years that our lives were entwined with infrequent business meetings. We respected in one another — and, I believe, came to enjoy — the brotherhood we shared in Christ. I envied and desired a quality in Rob that wasn’t a core attribute of mine, which was to not give a rat’s ass about what others think of how you look or dress, of what you read or say, of who you hang with, what you read and believe, or the music you listen to. Rob embodied a certain courage with this attitude, all the while without it being something reactionary against anything. Rob was just, plain and simple, being Rob with Jesus living in him. That, more than anything else about him, left an indelible impression on me.
These five were wildly different personalities, but they shared one essential thing. They were all in their own ways followers of Christ. They were Christians. So, the sorrow I feel for the loss of these friends is not despairing or hopeless. Far from it. These friends who are now gone from here are in a place where they’re experiencing ineffable joy and glory overflowing, of which “the half has never yet been told,” so the old church song goes. Their passing into a far better life is their gain, but it is certainly my and those who loved them’s loss. I know, them’s isn’t grammatically correct, but I like it. I write. And I can use my writing to do, to be, and to say anything I want.
So … In memoriam, Karen, Gumbo, Jeff, Jon, and Rob. I’m grateful for each of the legacies you left and for what I gained from knowing you. And grace and peace! To me, to my now happy friends with whom I’ll be reunited soon, and to all of us who remain in these shadowlands longing for our Home, where prayer becomes eternal praise of death’s Destroyer, and death itself is but a distant memory.