A life well lived
"This is how much God loved the world: He gave His Son, His one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. Anyone who trusts in Him is acquitted" (John 3:16).
By Bishop Robert E. Hayes Jr.
A few days ago I lost my best friend, my mentor, and my dad. It’s painful when you lose any one of those three, but when all of them are embodied in one person, the loss is threefold—and much, much more.
Most of you didn’t know Robert E. Hayes Sr. He was one of 11 children born to Edward and Marie Hayes in deep East Texas in the 1920s. His father was in the first generation of African-Americans following slavery to receive a college degree, graduating in 1901. Edward Hayes entered ministry in The Methodist Church and preached until his untimely death in 1933.
The story is told that on his deathbed he summoned young Robert, one of seven sons, and asked him to follow his footsteps in ministry. Robert obliged.
Six years later, Robert enrolled at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas—the same school his father had attended. His mother could not afford to send Robert to college, so he worked his way through school as a janitor.
He returned 30 years later as that college’s president, and he served there for nearly 20 years. Such was the drive and tenacity of my father.
As my life unfolded, I wanted most to imitate my dad’s life and ministry. When I was 6 years old, he was asked to start a new church on the north side of Houston. I vividly recall that time. He knocked on doors, walked the streets, and gathered people in living rooms, giving birth to Pleasantville Methodist Church. On many nights my sisters and I were dressed in our pajamas to accompany my dad and mother to those church meetings, because the long ride home would penetrate far into the night. That church still exists and has the proud reputation of having sent out many young men and women into ministry.
At age 10, I peered into the window of my dad’s office at Trinity Methodist Church and watched him prepare his sermons. Every now and then he paused in his typing and made hand gestures to his imaginary audience in the pews. As a teenager, I went with him when he made his rounds as a district superintendent.
Oh, how he could preach! He took a congregation in the palm of his hand and lifted the people up, all the way to heaven, then brought them gently back to earth. His command of the Scriptures, coupled with his wit and humor, had entire audiences laughing aloud one moment and crying uncontrollably the next! His deep bass voice thundered as his hands and fingers swirled through the air, then ended in a soft whisper as he concluded a message.
Each worshipper thought those sermons were personally meant for him or her. People still remember messages he preached 25 years ago.
His persona was not limited to ministry. Robert also was a consummate people-person. When he walked into a room, he viewed everyone in that room as a person of interest. I watched him closely as he weathered the difficult years of the civil rights movement, never becoming bitter or surrendering to the hatred and injustices heaped upon him. He was at ease in any setting. He disarmed people with a smile, and he always left them with a word of hope and encouragement.
Rudyard Kipling wrote, "He never lost the common touch," and that describes Robert Hayes Sr. He grew gardens wherever he went. He loved getting his hands dirty as he watched things grow. If a task needed doing, he would be the first to roll up his sleeves to complete it. He loved his family intensely, and he never forgot his humble beginnings.
He believed strongly that education was the key to unlock the future, and he spent his life making sure his children and others went to school. There are young men and women all over the world who owe much to this man, yet all he ever asked in return was that they pass on to others the gift of education.
On July 17, 2004, my relationship changed with my dad. When I walked down the aisle at First United Methodist Church in Corpus Christi, to be consecrated a bishop in the Church, he was by my side to present me for examination.
It was one of the biggest moments in his life, and mine, too. Ministry in The United Methodist Church had come full circle for him—three generations of it—and I know he was savoring that moment for his father, himself, and for me. I thank God that he and my mother were alive to witness that.
He had such respect for my new position that, during our nightly phone calls, he no longer referred to me as son or Bobby. He called me bishop, and he made all my nieces and nephews call me Uncle Bishop! You can imagine them teasing me about that.
To say I will miss my father is an understatement. We talked over the phone and visited as often as we could, but there are so many more things I wish I could ask him now.
Across all my years with him, I did not know how he was preparing me for the days he would no longer be with me. Now in his absence, what I most appreciate from him is what he taught me about life, death, and resurrection. Robert Hayes Sr. helped his son to understand that God conquered death through the gift of His Son, Jesus Christ!
My dad made sure the cornerstone of my faith was built on the understanding that if we believe, although we die, yet shall we live. I know my father is alive in the Spirit at this very moment. I am content to live in the promise and hope of the resurrection, which tells me I will be with him again. Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory!
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