Russ Dean Column

“I don’t know what we would have done without you.”




He was a golfer extraordinaire. He played professionally for a few years and then spent the rest of his career reading topographical maps, sculpting earth, designing golf courses around the country. He became an expert in fairway grass and loved perfectly trimmed greens, rolling hills, a well-placed sand trap. He worked with Jack Nicklaus and built courses in Hawaii and managed the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail in Alabama before making Charlotte his home.


Everyone who spoke at his funeral talked about golf – but the game was mostly just a metaphor for the kind of life he led, a life of dedication and hard work, of learning to read the weather and the lay of the ball, of love for the unpredictable game. They talked about golf, and they talked about his love for employees as friends, friends as family, family as all that really mattered. Even his three sons and his wife eulogized him, and their words made it clear that, amazingly, ironically, his legacy will not be all the golf courses he shaped, but all the lives.


I don’t play golf, so that was not my introduction to him. One of his sons married a young woman who grew up in our church, so we met him when my wife and I officiated her wedding a few years ago. Making it a bit more interesting, the sister of that bride is now my daughter-in-law, and the two husbands are as close as any brothers.


To deepen the connection even more, before we knew him, we knew his wife, the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Charlotte. The work we have done in interfaith dialogue made us friends a long time ago, so the other connections have been serendipitous, just more reasons to enjoy the relationship. She now treats us like part of the family. We couldn’t be happier. Last year we celebrated one night of Hannukah with them, and we are insisting it be an annual tradition. The Baptists and the Jews, enjoying potato latkes together. What could be better?


When this leader in the Jewish community eulogized her husband, she spoke words that need to be heard around this country. You see, her husband, the golf guru, was never Jewish. He was a good man, and came to know Shalom Park as his community, the synagogue as his spiritual home, even called the rabbi “his rabbi,” but, officially speaking, he was always a Gentile. That’s enough to make some Jews look askance at him (as some Christians always look at her), enough to keep her from getting executive jobs in some Jewish communities – but not in Charlotte.


Their interfaith marriage, and her community’s acceptance of that marriage, needs to be in headlines around our divided nation. Just as she had been accepted, he was welcomed, completely, within that community, even though he was an outsider. He was never one of them, but they always claimed him as one of theirs. And when he died, unfairly, far too soon, the community of their faith never hesitated to share all their love, to shower all the compassion for which faith communities are supposed to be known. Speaking with poise and passion, she said to her Temple community, “I don’t know what we would have done without you.”


And I don’t know what we would do without that kind of example of faithful faith.


In recent days, more often than not I am embarrassed by the way Christianity represents itself in the public eye. The world sees angry partisanship, xenophobia, arrogance, exclusivism. “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love?” Hardly. Instead of all of that, we need Jewish communities like this one, and Christian and Muslim and Baha’i and Unitarian and Mormon communities that live the example of the welcome and inclusion, the compassion and care that is the common calling of all religions.


“I don’t know what we would have done without you.” If only the nation could say that about the rest of us.



(Dr. Russ Dean is a graduate of Clinton High School. He co-pastors Park Road Baptist Church in Charlotte with his wife, Rev. Amy Dean, a native of Clinton and also a graduate of CHS.)


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