As many of you know, James Dunn passed away just three days ago, on July 4th. He was truly a giant in Baptist life, and, whether you know it or not, he probably touched your life too. Through his work at the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Libert he fought tirelessly for the separation of church and state, protecting the religious liberty of all Americans. Though the BJC continues to fight to protect that same freedom, his work was monumental in shaping the public and religious landscape we live in today.
But he also touched many lives personally, which had at least as great an impact. My own contact with James Dunn was usually indirect: I probably only spoke with him a handful of times, most often on the phone and to connect him to Brent Walker or to Holly Hollman while I was the (self-appointed) Chief Intern at the BJC. And yet, strangely, James Dunn was indirectly responsible for a considerable amount of my current happiness.
My first connection to James Dunn was when I was 11 or 12 when he came to speak at my father’s church at the time, Gloucester Point Baptist. It was the first time I heard of the BJC, but mostly I remember that we had him over for Sunday dinner after church, when we spoke for some time about drumming, of all things. I was in the band and had just gotten my first starter drum kit. We talked about the drum rudiments I was practicing—paradiddles and flamacues. According to my father, he was able to connect with most people at church just that way. He was genuinely interested in people and had a charm that wasn’t put on. (During that visit he also, apparently, ate so much seafood at the local festival, the Guinea Jubilee, that he made himself sick. He still managed to speak again that night, though.)
Though my father played the biggest role in putting the idea of interning with the BJC in my ear, it was that small connection that stuck in my memory when I was 22 and looking for something to do with my life. That internship brought me to DC. Because of the BJC, I met Holly, and because of Holly, I eventually came to Ravensworth. All of these things have meant more than I can say, and changed me very much for the better. And of course, if I hadn’t been in DC, I might not have married my wife or had my amazing children. I don’t know who I’d be if I hadn’t met James Dunn, but I like the way things turned out.
The way he connected with me and with so many others, deeply or casually, is a testament to the power of living a life full of both conviction and kindness. I can’t claim a deep relationship with James Dunn, but I can say that the world would be a better place if there were more Baptists like him, and that it will be poorer for his having left it. And I can also safely speak for many, many people, when I say that he won’t be forgotten.