On Thursday evening I heard my cell phone ringing and when I picked it up and saw that Harry Wooten was calling, I just knew what he was going to tell me. It's not that Harry doesn't call regularly, but it was an odd time of day for such a call. So I made sure to sit down and he soon told me that Ray had died that afternoon. And I cried and spent the evening sending condolence messages and texting with other people who loved Ray. And participating in that double grief we all experience in 2020--the loss of the person and the loss of what would be the fitting response to their death. For in normal times, I'd already be in Dallas and there would be a mass gathering of progressive and moderate Baptists to honor a legend.
I first met Ray Vickrey twenty years ago. He was twenty years into his tenure as Senior Minister at Royal Lane Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas and I was freshly out of grad school, a new Associate Pastor in my first position at Rolling Hills Baptist Church in Fayetteville, Arkansas. The two churches were part of a larger group of Baptist churches in our region who had for many years been gathering together to do youth camp together because these churches were more moderate and progressive than many other Baptists around them. The Southwest Baptist Youth Camping Association formed a tightly knit group of clergy who gathered through the year to plan and then for the week in the summer to host camp, and I was a new member of this fellowship. But Ray was the senior figure of the group, treated almost with reverence.
Ray didn't attend all the planning meetings but when he showed up for the minister's meeting at camp, everything changed. Other pastors, themselves highly opinionated people sometimes serving larger churches, quieted down and showed their respect to Ray. But Ray didn't demand this treatment, in fact I'd come to learn how amused by it he was. Ray himself was unassuming, never thrusting forward his own ideas, often remaining reserved, and only speaking on occasion, but when he did, everyone listened. As a 27 year old I had no idea what to make of what I was seeing. I sometimes found it funny while also finding it compelling, what was going on here?
In my memoir I introduce Ray this way,
He had been a champion runner in college and retained the trimness and vigor of a much younger man. His bearing was both authoritative and charming; he smiled broadly. He was over six feet tall with bright white hair that was always perfectly combed. Distinguished is an overused word, but the word fit Ray.
Ray was a respected Baptist statesman. He had endured the Eighties-era fights in the Southern Baptist Convention and was a leader in the moderate and progressive camp. Other ministers treated him with deference and sometimes awe.
You can read about his athletic exploits here. I remember him talking about how he should have gotten to the Olympics, but I fail to remember what prevented that.
So, over a couple of years I casually got to know Ray, but got to know Harry Wooten even better. Harry was Ray's colleague, the Minister of Music at Royal Lane, and Harry and I hit it off rather quickly. It helped my relationship with both men in that I was friends with Tim Youmans who has served with the two of them at Royal Lane when Tim was Youth Minister there. I had befriended Tim when we both lived in Shawnee, Oklahoma. Tim vouching for me, paved the way for my relationships with Harry and Ray.
Then, in 2002, when Royal Lane was looking for a new youth minister, I was surprised and honored when Harry called and said he and Ray wanted to hire me. But I wasn't looking for a job and hadn't been in my current one very long. I told him no. And told him no again a second time later. And then that autumn he called again. They were struggling with finding the right candidate and he and Ray were convinced it was because I was that person. Just come to Dallas for a weekend, let us show you around, then make up your mind. I finally agreed to that. Before I left for the weekend I had decided I didn't want to move again so soon. And I was particularly ready that if they put on some hard sale, I'd be able to easily say no.
But that's not what they did. What they did was give me a foretaste of what was to come. The three of us just hung out, eating and drinking and talking. Sure, they showed me around the church and told me their visions for it, but there was no hard sale at all. They did set up an interview with the committee, though they seriously downplayed that ahead of time. We spent the afternoon drinking beers and then they brought me (a little tipsy I might add) to the interview and suddenly I was in a room with fifteen people!
Driving back home to Fayetteville, I knew they were right, that I was being called to Royal Lane. And, so, a few months later after tearful goodbyes in Arkansas, I moved to Dallas, a town I'd always thought represented everything that was wrong with America. And there everything in my life would change.
The first half of my memoir records in detail the affects of living in Dallas and how during that time I came out of the closet as a gay man, so no reason to go into all of that here.
Serving at Royal Lane will always been one of the high points of my career. There was a special alchemy between Ray, Harry, and I. We were not simply effective colleagues, we were dear friends. So much of our work was done while sitting at a table together enjoying fellowship, often with some visiting friend of Ray's. Our favorite place was the Bavarian Grill, a great German beer hall surprisingly located in a Plano strip mall. When we were doing it up right, we’d arrive after the lunch rush for our own late lunch of trout, red cabbage, spinach, and pretzel rolls washed down by Warsteiner Dunkel. After lunch we’d smoke a cigar and then eventually order Black Forest cake and coffee for dessert. We’d usually leave about the time the dinner crowd was beginning to arrive. Sometimes we’d actually plan an entire season of worship during one of these outings. Other times it was just fellowship.
Ray grew up in a working class area of Houston. He attended Baylor University, where he excelled as an athlete and student. He was there when Waco's downtown was destroyed by a powerful tornado. He rushed downtown from the university and helped rescue people, pulling them from the rubble. His early ministerial career was ended by a divorce, at a time when Southern Baptist still opposed divorce. He became the director of the alumni association at Baylor and in that role cemented relationships throughout the state (more on that in a moment). Then, in the late seventies, he was called back to the church, pastoring a large singles ministry at FBC Richardson. Then, in 1981, Royal Lane called him as pastor, where he served until 2008.
In the 1980's Southern Baptists would undergo a huge battle as the fundamentalists took over the denomination. Ray was a voice of reason and moderation in those battles, but standing on the right side of questions of biblical interpretation and the role of women in the church. And so he was one of the leaders as new splinter groups of moderates and progressives formed in the 1990's.
When you attended a denominational meeting with Ray, you needed to be prepared for something. When your group decided it was time to leave the convention hall to head to lunch or dinner, you had to decide that a least a half hour before you planned to eat, because it would take you at least that long to get out of the convention center. The reason is that everyone wanted to talk to Ray. I personally would find this irritating, which is why I'll never be that person. But Ray handled it with grace. Pastors were constantly coming up to him to talk. More than once I'd hear some small town Texas pastor say, "Ray, I've been looking for you. I really need to talk to you about something." And then pull him aside. Ray had spent decades at the university and in church work cultivating relationships, and he was a deeply and wide respected and admired man.
I was glad to know him more personally. As funny and wise and more rebellious than the public role suggested.
One of Ray's great gifts was his ability to form deep friendships. His close friend the Rev. Kyle Childress published an article in The Christian Century in 2004 about Ray and their close group of friends. They call themselves "The Neighborhood." Six pastors who for years gathered twice a year for a week at a time to be friends and supporters of each other. Try as I might, I've never been able to replicate this in my own relationships.
But even beyond this gang, it wasn't unusual for some friend of his to drive or fly to Dallas to spend time with Ray when they needed wisdom and advice, and Ray would bring that person along for drinks at the Bavarian Grill.
When the moderate Cooperative Baptist Fellowship was beginning to discuss and argue over what to do about gay people, Ray hosted conversations for people to talk. He encouraged a more inclusive church, but never stepped out radically. Royal Lane and slowly and quietly acquired gay members who were promoted into positions of leadership. Years later, when the Baptist General Convention of Texas somehow finally figured this out, then they expelled the congregation.
One of the most important things I can say about Ray Vickrey is that he didn't fire me. I think I completely surprised him one day, when during staff meeting, completely out of the blue, I just said, "Ray, I'm gay." He seemed at a rare loss for words at first. It took him a couple of days to formulate a response. This was the early Aughts in a Baptist church in Texas, when it would have been so easy and so typical for me to be done with ministry at that point. But that didn't happen. Now, if you've read my book, you know that the next few months were a struggle for me and for my colleagues. This sure wasn't what Ray expected in the final years of his ministry, and I did things that didn't make it easy for him. But we remained despite those difficult months, we remained friends. He was present at my wedding to Michael in 2009 and was so very excited when I called to tell him about my call to Omaha. It is safe to say that Ray is one reason I'm still in ministry 17 years after coming out.
Ray and I were so different in temperament. He thought I was too open, that I shared too much, that I expressed my opinions too often. He was more reserved, quiet in meetings, kept his personal thoughts for close friends. I've always recognized that his temperament was the source of his power and the respect and admiration with which he was treated. I've always been somewhat envious of it, while also know that I'm not that person, as much as I might want to be. And so he remains a mentor and a model, but in some ways the ideal I can never achieve.
What a blessing for a young minister to work with Ray and to learn from him. He was quite fair and balanced but brooked no nonsense. If someone caused trouble in the church, Ray had no problem making sure that person knew they should leave and not let the door hit them on the way out. That was an important lesson to learn. So many other lessons run through my brain--how to cultivate relationships with congregants, to make short hospital visits, the proper concern a pastor should have for stewardship and finances, how to develop a staff that works effectively as a team, how to have fun while working, etc.
Most importantly maybe was this set of lessons. He often said that ministry was not a difficult job, and he was annoyed at those who viewed it that way. He had grown up around oil refinery workers and knew that was a difficult job. A minister should set clear boundaries and take lots of time for themselves and their family, which was more important than the job. In fact, it was the pastor's job to model not overworking because too many congregants overworked in their professional lives, to the detriment of themselves and their families. And no minister should not everything about their church. If you knew were the scissors were kept in the fourth grade Sunday school classroom, you were headed for burnout. I believe I have absorbed all of these lessons and also done my best to pass them along to my Associate minister.
Alzheimer's took Ray in the end. It was a long, slow decline. With hindsight, I was clearly there as it was beginning, though none of us knew it at the time. It was a shame to see such a keen intellect who had cultivated relationships with so many people lose much of that in the final years. On my most recent visits to Dallas I was encouraged not to visit, as he wouldn't know me, and I decided I didn't want that experience of my friend.
On Thursday after I got the call from Harry, I kept picturing my last visit with Ray, fittingly at the Bavarian Grill. And I remember his charming smile and his big laugh and the light that radiated from him.