Fourteen years ago the Lord began to work on my heart about leaving the church I had begun in rural Pennsylvania. I was not frustrated with my people or my work, but I was frustrated with our church's location. After two different churches contacted me unsolicited asking me to consider candidating I sought counsel from some older pastors. Following their advice, I began to pray that the Lord would send me to an area with more people. I asked God to keep it east of the Mississippi River so that we might be within driving distance of our families.
Thirteen years ago I picked up the phone one September day and for the first time I heard a voice say, "This is Bob Heath in Chicago." He was 68 years old, and had been at his church for 23 years. A recent severe disappointment in the church combined with a ministry no longer in its heyday forced him to ask some hard questions. The answers included a transition into a different kind of ministry for himself, and a phone call to me.
Thus began a relationship between him and me that was unique to us both. I pastored the church to which he and Nancy had given their best years, decades of their life. He loved these people and this work in a way that is impossible to explain to anyone who has not been a pastor. Such a love is a curious combination of a mother to a child, a groom to a bride, and an entrepreneur to his dream. Now he had stepped aside and another had assumed his place. In turn, I sat in his office, counseled his people, preached in his pulpit, and lived in his house. Only now all of those things were (temporarily) mine. In choosing which things to leave alone, which to adjust, and which to expand I passed judgment on 23 years of his life. I was powerless to go back in time and change anything. He simply had to trust the Lord that I would build on his life's work and not tear it down.
I respected him from the moment I met him. His carriage and service here brought it out in me instinctively. Through these thirteen years that respect only grew. You see, there were only two men alive who understood all that it meant to pastor an independent Baptist church on this corner of this great American inner city – Bob Heath and myself. Through the years I gradually came to the deepening conclusion that what he and Nancy accomplished here was nothing short of amazing.
At his passing many family members spoke of his love for them, and many ex-members spoke of his ministry to them. But only one man can speak of his pastoring with any deep knowledge. That man is me. And I want you to see the Bob Heath I see because my view of this amazing man is totally unique.
When Pastor Heath arrived at Maplewood in 1981 the church was probably at its lowest point in its history. Spiritually, it resembled a bunch of inbred cats fighting vigorously in the monthly business meetings over whether to purchase a new vacuum cleaner or not. Disproportionately elderly and white in a neighborhood that was neither, it unknowingly faced demographic oblivion. He told me one time that a dozen of these "saints" voted against him in every business meeting for years no matter what it was that he was proposing. In his 23 years he buried nine of them leaving me to only have to deal with the three remaining. Bickering, fussing, cliquish, white, resistant to pastoral leadership, used to running pastors off in fact – they ran into a buzz saw when they ran into Bob Heath. Only two men in this church's 125 year old history have pastored it longer than five years – him and me. And I would not have been called here if he had not already been here first.
I have pastored 19 years. I have scores of pastor friends. My father was a pastor for 38 years. It is incredibly difficult to change the culture of a church, and to do so without splitting it or killing it. He did. When he came it was allied with Moody Church. He led it to be loosely aligned with Hyles-Anderson College. When he came they had zero concept of personal evangelism. He developed them into a vigorous soul winning institution. When he came the church was debilitated with mutual indecision. He transitioned them to follow him. When he came the church had no outreach. He pushed and prodded and shamed and drove them into running so many buses and bringing in so many children there was not room enough for either. Somehow, he took a fossilized, hidebound, feuding declining church and turned it into a thriving evangelistic machine.
It is well worth noting that he did all of this in the middle of a great American city. We are not in a suburb; we are smack in the middle of working class Chicago. Within one mile of our church building there at least 150,000 people, including thousands of gang members, tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants, and a socially and politically liberal culture that is both deep and wide. Independent Baptists fled American inner cities in the 1970s with the vigor of a man being chased by a Siberian tiger. Their lily white congregations sold out and ran for the supposed haven of the suburbs leaving the decaying inner city to spiritually rot. To their everlasting credit, that generation of Maplewood's members did not. To Bro. Heath's everlasting credit he worked it with everything he had until he made it work. Today our church is an incredible exception to a rather nasty rule – we are a conservative, traditional, ancient inner city church of clear denominational affiliation that is growing. In fact, our church's biggest problem at the moment is space, the lack of it I mean. None of that would be remotely true without Bob Heath.
Along the way, he dealt prudently with the finances. He expanded the footprint of our building by adding a foyer and two offices. He led the church to purchase an unattached parking lot a block away. When he handed me the keys he also handed me a healthy bank statement, two buses, three vans, six city lots, a church building, a parsonage, and zero debt. I cannot possibly express how helpful that is to the succeeding pastor.
Week after week, month after month, season after season, year after year, he shoveled the snow, scrubbed off the graffiti, repaired the vehicles, dealt with the city, counseled the troubled, handled the crises, cast the vision, motivated the workers, preached the sermons, and in the face of opposition within and without led this church forward for the cause of Christ. And he did all of this without the hint of a breath of scandal. He was compassionate. He was firm. He was consistent. He was sacrificial. He was aggressive. And he was right.
How do you measure a man's life? Surely part of that measurement must include his work. And from the perspective of the man who knows that work better than any other man living I measure it as a grand life. Two thousand years ago our Saviour said, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. (John 12.24) On April 9, 2016 Bob Heath died, and went to his reward. But the truth is that Bob Heath died many years ago. He died to himself, and his lifelong dreams and ambitions. He died to leisure, good living, and the peaceful pace of his Southern rural upbringing. Instead, he gave his life away. And in the process he rescued, nay, practically resurrected an evangelistic independent Baptist church in one of America's great inner cities. And it bringeth forth much fruit.
On behalf of the past, present, and future members of Maplewood Bible Baptist Church in Chicago I thank Bob and Nancy Heath for their decades of ministry among us. At the risk of a premature announcement I feel absolutely confident in asserting that he heard his Heavenly Father say, Well done, thou good and faithful servant. (Matthew 25.21)