A letter to Greg Dell

November 20, 2016

This letter is a report to the Community United Methodist Church 2016 Charge Conference from Rev. Robert Harman, the Senior Pastor who welcomed Greg to his first appointment in Naperville, IL beginning in June of 1970. Published here with permission of Rev. Robert J. Harman.

Dear Greg,

I received a request the other day for my annual report to the Church Conference at Community United Methodist Church in Naperville. I cannot think about CUMC today without a filter named Greg Dell.

In 1970, the Pastor Parish Committee decided it was time to request the appointment of a full time associate pastor. Superintendent Clarence Ploch called saying that he hoped we would consider Greg Dell, a deacon looking for his first appointment upon graduation from Duke Divinity School. It was close to annual conference where appointments were to be made when the committee received your paper work, conducted an interview and informed Superintendent Eugene Wykle of the decision to accept.

You arrived with wife Jade in a sporty red Ford Mustang, and moved into a hastily rented apartment on the second floor of a house conveniently located near the church and overlooking Central Park. The major piece of your portfolio was to be a youth minister, but the congregation soon learned that you brought a maturity beyond your years and excelled in leadership gifts that would quickly win the confidence of young and old. You were disciplined about your work observing regular office hours, always completing tasks efficiently and taking Fridays off. Bob Schroeder and I hoped you would become a handball partner for our early morning games in the small court at Merner Fieldhouse, but our tutelage didn't take all that well. But you became a pliable candidate for developing a team approach to pastoral duties. We jointly taught confirmation classes, membership classes and study groups. We shared the responsibilities of pastoral calling, counseling and officiating at weddings, funerals and baptisms. We preached from the standard lectionary, the weekly lessons of which we read together no matter who was preaching. Your comfort in the pulpit, your deep insights into the meaning of the texts and relevance of your contemporary application of the texts were simply amazing. But it was your compassion for others that soon led you into controversial commitments, like offering counseling for women in the church and community experiencing troubled pregnancies and making very public your support for Democrat George McGovern for president.

Your vocal advocacy for the ministry of the church to be inclusive of all persons regardless of their sexual orientation began at CUMC. That led to your celebrating same sex unions later in your ministry that became the subject of a formal complaint and church trial that suspended you from ministry for one year. I remember the outcome of the trial reported in an article in the New York Times that featured a picture of you, Jade and Jason in a loving embrace. Members of CUMC also remembered and stood beside you personally and publicly as you strongly maintained that your ordination vows required serving all members of your parish. You practiced the mantra Open Doors, Open Hearts, Open Minds long before it became the branding theme for United Methodist Communications. You used the outcome of that trial as a stimulus for successfully organizing a growing national church constituency to support changing restrictive and prohibitive policies aimed at homosexuality.

I was present at Broadway Church in Chicago on that Sunday when you were conspicuously absent from the pulpit and the congregation learned of your diagnosis with Parkinson's and your pending disability status. How stunned we were that we would not be hearing you preach again whether from the pulpit or standing in the well of the chancel, always without any notes, eloquently interpreting the sacred writings for our life journeys. How could this dreaded disease silence your strong, articulate and prophetic voice so quickly? During periodic visits and lunches together with our colleagues Dick Tholin and Jim Will, you informed us in great detail about the treatments you were receiving that promised only to slow the debilitating progress of the disease without any promise of changing its terminal course. We stood in awe of your every expression of grace under pressure as we witnessed the symptoms taking their toll.

When you and Jade moved to North Carolina to be near Jason and his family, Jade picked up communicating your thoughts via email. She wrote about your joy in being with family, about decisions that had to be made regarding your continuation in residential care, submitting to hospice, and then transitioning into your final rest. She wrote to me on Sunday, October 30 that she was holding your hand and singing Amazing Grace, your favorite hymn as you took your last breaths. I reminded her that it was almost the eve of All Saints day when the church universal would celebrate all those who have heard their Master's words, "Well done, good and faithful servant."

You are beyond reach but not our love and admiration. Rest in peace dear brother.

Robert J. Harman