On Tuesday morning, April 23, my very good friend, the Rev. Dr. Bob Edgar, passed away. Bob was 69. Since 2007, he served as the head of Common Cause, a government accountability organization. Bob was a United Methodist pastor, a former Member of Congress, past president of Claremont School of Theology, and general secretary of the National Council of Churches of Christ, USA (NCC). He was a beloved husband, father, and grandfather. He was in excellent health. I assumed I would be in touch with him at least until he was 90 and I was sure he would outlive me.
A rare and special kind of friend
I came to know and love Bob during his tenure as the NCC general secretary. We worked closely with one another and traveled around the world together. Bob also served as a mentor and advisor to me. Each of our many phone and face-to-face conversations was simply a continuation of the previous one. It is rare and special to have such a friend.
Most of all, like many others I was drawn to his irrepressible optimism and hope. Bob took many slings and arrows for his prophetic stands, but he never let it get him down. He suffered fools gladly! He always carried a stash of large business cards and handed them out to everyone - from children to kings to presidents and prime ministers. I think half the world had his cell phone number. He was always accessible.
A calm leader under pressure
Bob had the ability to remain cool and calm under great pressure and was capable of exercising good judgment in a pinch. In late December 2002, Bob and I traveled to Iraq on a peace mission. We were part of a U.S. religious leaders delegation that included Bishop Mel Talbert. We traveled there at the invitation of the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC), which arranged our schedule.
Once we arrived in Baghdad, we discovered that Saddam Hussein’s people were attempting to foist their own agenda on us. This largely consisted of sightseeing expeditions. As we stood in the crowded lobby of the al-Mansour Hotel, suffering from jet lag and fatigue, at a moment of great tension Bob reviewed the Iraqi government’s proposed agenda, handed it back to them, and said quietly that we would stick to the original plan drawn up by the MECC. Needless to say, this did not please Saddam’s representatives, but they backed down.
Bob and I stepped out arm-in-arm together to try and stop the war in Iraq from happening. I thought then and still think now that we were correct in our judgment. We not only went to Iraq together, but also to Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Egypt, Germany, the Marshall Islands, and Vietnam. As general secretary of the NCC, Bob was always our delegation leader.
These journeys were long and tiring and included daily meetings that ran from early morning to late night. Bob never exhibited fatigue or irritation. Whether we met with kings, presidents, prime ministers, archbishops, imams, rabbis, doctors, teachers, or children, Bob treated them the same. He absolutely loved children.
A lasting impact
All who know Bob know of his penchant for puns and bad jokes. He possessed an endless store of them and could derive a silly pun from the most mundane matters. There were those who rolled their eyes and expressed irritation with this trait of his, because they felt it was less than dignified, but many of us appreciated his lack of pretence.
In my experience, for the most part, we do a poor job in The United Methodist Church of celebrating those who have served Christ, particularly those who have done so in a distinguished manner. Bob Edgar was a distinguished servant. I hope this reflection - along with the countless remembrances from family, friends, fellow colleagues, organizations, and public officials - helps to highlight the profound and lasting impact of Bob Edgar's servant leadership.
I will miss him terribly.