Remarks about the Rev. Dr. William Fletcher Rogers, Jr.
Born March 12, 1912
Passed Away Wednesday, January 30, 2008
Memorial Service of February 10, 2008
“My Peace I leave with you. My peace I give unto you. Not as the world giveth give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled neither let it be afraid.” John 14:27
As many of you know, this passage served as the text of one of Will’s sermons. The sermon was entitled “Peace.” I love the theme of that sermon. Will began by telling of when, early in his ministry, he and Agnes were preaching in the open countryside in southern Brazil. As he was finishing his sermon, he could see dark clouds forming and a huge storm rolling in across the plain. Mounting their horses, Will and Agnes then raced the 25 miles back home. They rode at breakneck speed, the sky getting darker, the wind and the first drops lashing down, lightening, in Will’s words, “playing leapfrog across the sky.” But, in the midst of anxiety, the growing storm, they arrived safely. And then, Will’s point: “Peace,” Will said, “is going at a gallop in the midst of a storm.”
So here we are, aren’t we, you and I, our hearts in our throats, dabbing at tears. “Peace is going at a gallop in the midst of a storm.”
Many of you could recite the details of Will’s life. Raised in Glendale. Son of a mill worker. Nicknamed “Ducky.” Brilliant. Graduating with honors from the Citadel and, years later, favored again with an Honorary Doctorate from there. (By the way, I asked Uncle Will once about the award, thinking he should hang it on his wall. He was proud of it, sure enough, but kept it along with all other such citations hid away in a suitcase. I thought that curious. “The degree,” he said, “is like the curl of a pig’s tail. Pretty, but it doesn’t make any more hog.”) After the Citadel, Will planned to enter Medical School in Charleston but was called to preach instead. He attended Asbury; and then, Emory. By 1939 he had graduated from seminary, been ordained, and was waiting for an appointment to the mission field.
And this is where the story gets really interesting, even mysterious, as concerns God’s plans for human lives. For as part of Will’s preparation for missions, God sent him to Nashville so he could meet Agnes. The way the administrators at the Board of Missions thought, they were sending Will to Scarritt College to take courses to prepare for life overseas. But we have the blessing of hindsight, don’t we? Agnes was attending Peabody, and the two met in the library. Sister Sarah was the one who introduced them. That night Will walked Agnes home from the library. He did so every night thereafter. And Agnes says, “The walks kept getting longer.” Within two months Will proposed.
They were married in Brazil by Agnes’s father, Bishop Dawsey, August 22, 1940. Will used to describe that day in one of his sermons entitled “Fear.” People would laugh until it hurt when Will preached that sermon, describing in his gravelly voice, for instance, how he used to drive his old Chevrolet on the dangerously muddy roads in the interior of Brazil. “The secret was to go faster and faster,” he would say, “and never use the brakes.” Really, though, the subject of that wonderful sermon was about making decisions in the midst of fear. And to his wedding with Agnes: Will said he bought a $15 suit for the wedding and had his shoes half soled. He got a $1,50 tie that looked like it cost a dollar fifty, and he bought a $2.00 shirt that looked like a $1.00 shirt. He came down the aisle and he was scared. The Bishop put Agnes’s hand in his, and Will was even more scared, wondering how he was going to look after her. “I can’t even look after myself,” he thought. “How am I going to look after Agnes?” And then the vows: “I, William Fletcher Rogers, Junior, take thee, Agnes Sanders Dawsey, to be my wedded wife, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer (and here Will would always get a laugh from the congregation by saying that he could have left out the richer part), for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part, according to God’s holy ordinance; and thereto I pledge thee my faith.” Will then would continue the sermon by saying that the last thing he said at night, and the first words he spoke in the morning were to Agnes. “Honey, I love you.” And that as promised, Agnes had been with him “for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health”—a constant companion. The decision to marry Agnes, he then affirmed, had been an easy one really. Knowing her was like the whipped cream on a pie. And the other responsibilities he had been afraid of on that day? The five sons were like the sweet strawberries; and the daughters-in-law like heaping more strawberries on the pie; and the grandchildren and great-grandchildren made the pie even sweeter.
As most everyone here can attest, Will was a great preacher and evangelist. Over the years he served charges in South Carolina and on the mission field in Brazil and the Caribbean. On the mission field, Will and Agnes started many churches. How many exactly is hard to tell, but there were many. One of their ideas of ministry was genial, I think, and apostolic in its origin. They were appointed to a charge where the preceding minister had worked very hard for 7 years to build the congregation. But after 7 years of work, the church boasted a membership of 35. So Will and Agnes did something different. Once a congregation was established with 100 or 150 people, they would raise money, buy property, and build a chapel. Will then would make the rounds preaching in these mission churches. When Will and Agnes left after a few years, instead of 35 members there were more than 35 Methodist churches and chapels in that town. Later in life, the north Brazil where there is tremendous poverty, Will and Agnes practiced another great idea. Instead of setting up work in a safe area, living in a missionary compound, so to speak, they moved into the most desperate areas. There they set up residence and became part of the community. People from all different stripes came and went from their house. Will and Agnes trusted in God, and the people from their dangerous neighborhood looked after them and kept them safe. Most often, Will preached at least once a day. No telling the number of lives touched by the power of the gospel.
In their life of ministry, Will and Agnes always worked as a team. Neither has ever had a calling card just with his or her name. They were always “Will and Agnes.” (And Jesus sent them out two by two.)
As I’ve been speaking, you no doubt have been filling out my biography with your own stories about Will. Will thought that one of the ways—perhaps the most important way—we come to know Christ is though other people.
In 1966, I spent the summer with Will and Agnes before entering college. One Saturday afternoon, the cousins and I were discussing the War in Vietnam. At that time, there was a lot of optimism about that war. And the cousins and I were pretty much agreeing that we needed to stop communism before it got here—you know, seriously buying into that domino theory of world politics in vogue during those years. Well, Uncle Will came into the room, listened to our discussion for a little while, and said, “If we were serious about helping the people of Vietnam, we would send missionaries instead of soldiers. Some would die, no doubt, but in the end we would see real change. For God changes hearts and thinking.” At the time I was respectful, of course, as were my cousins. But in my mind, I poo-pooed the idea. Force seemed the better alternative. That was 1966. As you know, the war wore on and by the time I was graduating from college my brother Sonny was in Vietnam, and I wasn’t so gung-ho about what we were doing there anymore. And I’m here to testify that after many more years I’m completely convinced that the real power to change the world is to be found not in bombs or destruction but in the power of the gospel.
“God loves you, I love you, and you can love others too!” Boiled down to its essence, that was Will’s theology. It is wonderful the way Will and Agnes would hug people and tell them they are precious. Dixie once confided to me that before meeting them she had never heard people called “precious.” Precious, rather, was a word she associated with inanimate things—like precious stones and gems. Oh, but that changed! We got a pet, and Dixie called her Precious. Dixie is a very loving person. She will put her arms around you and hug you. But she says she learned how to hug from Will and Agnes. And I catch myself calling people “precious” often. “God’s love is contagious,” Will would say.
Like “precious,” the word “festival” entered my vocabulary through the influence of Will and Agnes. While early in my career as a Professor at Auburn University, I also served a circuit of churches. The minister had left suddenly the previous year. There had been accusations and a bitter split. Especially one of the churches was a troubled church. To this day, I’m not sure of all the reasons, but there was too much unhappiness in that congregation. And so not knowing what to do, I asked Uncle Will to come and preach a series of sermons. The church and I had no money to pay him, but of course he came anyway.
Now one of the sermons he preached that week was entitled “Festival.” And the point of the sermon was that our religion should not be drudgery and responsibility but be like a festival. In the sermon, he told of his and Agnes’s decision, already in their seventies and living solely on their pension and Social Security, to go to the great city of Belem in northeastern Brazil and open Methodist work there. Will described their work in Belem with the abandoned street children living off the garbage piles, the smelly sewers, dead rats—and how sick Agnes was, staying up all night coughing . . . and how beautiful she was at age seventy with 30 dirty children hanging onto her. He said of Agnes, “that painting would have been a masterpiece.” And then he got to the point of the sermon: “What a privilege it is” he said, “to do God’s work.” Sharing love is always a festival.
My church that seemed so unhappy changed after Will visited with us that fall. Or maybe I changed. Anyway, there was a revived spirit with us—and it lasted. It was soon after Will preached that the people of the church bought Dixie a new dress and me a new suit. The suit was brown, quite stylish for those days. And even years after it was out-of-style and I had gained too much weight to wear it, I kept it in my closet as a firm reminder. Today we are struggling with Will’s death. But even days like today are festival days for those called Christians.
To Will Rogers, death wasn’t an end, but a transition to something better. It’s like the baby coming out of the womb or a butterfly escaping its cocoon.
One of my favorite sermons by Uncle Will was the one he entitled “Blessed Art Thou Among Women.” He began the sermon by recalling how the angel appeared to Mary before Jesus was born, telling him how greatly she had been blessed. And then, Will masterfully, I think, juxtaposed that blessing with the events of Mary’s life: A teenager, pregnant, but not yet married. Preparing to give birth, but no place to stay except a stable. And then, she received the news that Herod intended to kill all male babies, especially hers. The flight to Egypt. Later, Jesus’ rejection by his hometown. His suffering. His terrible death. And at each point of emphasis, Will would repeat the angel’s words, “Blessed art thou among women, the Lord is with thee, thou hast found favor with God.”
The great point of Will’s sermon was that Mary was blessed, because she gave her best to God. Blessed doesn’t mean to be devoid of suffering. And then toward the end of that sermon that I like so much, Will told of a missionary named Ethel. This was someone he really liked, who turned her house into a hospital and did so many wonderful things. Her home became a haven. But Ethel, he reminded us in the sermon, gave up so much from her own life to help others. She gave up modern conveniences. No running water. No refrigerator. She was a foreigner in a foreign land, far from mother and father and the womb of kinfolk. And then, when she was in her forties, while on furlough from the mission field, Ethel was diagnosed with cancer. Instead of spending her last years in well-earned comfort, she chose to return to the mission field where she died in 1948. I said this was one of my favorite sermons. And if you are family, by this point in Will’s sermon, sure enough you had a knot in your throat, because you realized that Ethel was Agnes’s mama, Grandmother. “Blessed are thou among women.” And then, Will would finish by telling of his visit to her grave 10 years later. No one knew he was going. A distant city. But when he reached the gravesite, there was already a candle burning there—10 years later. When you give your best, the impact continues long past death.
Over the last few months at Brooks-Howell, Will saw angels. “What did they tell you?” I asked. “What is the next life really going to be like?” It’s an adventure into something better, if we can imagine that. And for Will so many are already there with open arms, waiting for a hug. Sweet Sammy. Ethel. And brothers and sisters, and parents, and thousands, all saying, “Welcome home, Ducky.” Or in Portuguese, “Bem Vindo.” And in a twinkling, we’ll be joining in the great festival too—you and I.
And meanwhile, Will’s spirit flames brightly in our lives. We praise God for this great truth.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house, there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.” (John 14:1-3)