Distinguished Alumnus Address (John R. Bean)

John R. Bean July 28, 1997

John R. Bean, entering class of 1951, received the Distinguished Alumnus Award from Alumni/ae Council President Ray Schultz at the Disciples Divinity House Luncheon at the General Assembly meeting in Denver. He was commended as an “exemplar of intelligence and integrity in ministry; leader of great effectiveness and insight. For your remarkable congregational ministry which enabled worship, education, the arts, and social responsibility to flourish together; for your influential guidance in matters of renewal and structural reform; for your advancement of ecumenism throughout the church; and for your persistent advocacy for human rights as a pastor, leader, citizen, and fellow human being.”

William Crowl, President of the Board of Trustees, introduced him:

“It would have been interesting to ask several people to introduce John Bean. John’s ministry has been so rich and varied that to hear his accomplishments would cause a person who did not know him to ask if all the people who introduced him were talking about the same person. The answer would be yes.

“For example, someone might have listed all the work John has given to the causes of justice, whether social or personal. John’s passion for justice work arises out of his conviction that as Christians we are called to be advocates for all of God’s people regardless of status, color, or background. In addition to his work at North Christian Church in Columbus, Indiana, and its multicultural membership, John served on the mayor’s Commission on Human Rights, was a member of the Advisory Board of the Council of Job Corps Center, served on the Board of Directors of the Community Action Project, the Board of the United Way, as Vice President of the Human Relations Council, and was a major force in forming the Council of Churches in Columbus, Indiana, that worked, among other things, to minister to the community through the Mobile Health Clinic and raised over $100,000 a year to help disadvantaged families.

“In 1989 John Bean received from the city of Columbus the William R. Laws Human Rights Award for outstanding contributions in the area of human rights. I could go on, but I think you get the idea of his passion for justice.

“Someone else might rise to list his accomplishments in the ecumenical field because John’s vision of the church encompasses the whole people of God. John has chaired the Indiana Regional Ecumenical Concerns Committee, served as the founding president of the Columbus Ecumenical Assembly, was Vice Chair of the Board of the Council on Christian Unity and Co-Chair of the Ecumenical Partnership Committee of the Disciples of Christ and the United Church of Christ. Again, I could continue to talk about John’s passion for the church universal.

“Another person would remind us that John’s work in justice issues, in the church, and in ecumenism has been grounded in the study and reasoned conclusions of theological inquiry. The congregations he has served have experienced a leader who had a deep conviction that the ministry of the laity should be an informed ministry and he invited his people to journey with him in study, reflection, and training. That commitment began at an early age for he was valedictorian of his high school graduation class, he won honors during his undergraduate education at Pepperdine University, and he completed a B.D. degree at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago and one year of work toward a Ph.D. While at the House, John served as Head Resident and later as Assistant Dean.

“In later years, John served on DDH’s Alumni/ae Council and on the Centennial Campaign Committee. He and Julie are charter members of the Sutcliffe Society. He also served on the Board of Trustees of Christian Theological Seminary.

“And there is more. Others would talk about John’s work in the church. He served three congregations, Chicago Avenue and Northwest in Columbus, Ohio, and North Christian in Columbus, Indiana. Northwest Christian Church was a new church start and John was the pastor who shaped the vision that still shapes the ministry of the congregation to this day.

“John also served on the regional staff in Ohio as the youth minister. And lest you think that with all I have been saving John walks on water, forget it. He can’t sing a lick. I know. I was one of the youth that tried to follow his leading of songs.

“John also served the general church in a variety of significant ways. He served on the General Board, chaired the Committee on Renewal and Structural Reform, and was Parliamentarian. He wrote the procedures by which we elect the General Minister and President and also wrote the procedures of the General Board and the General Assembly.

“Finally, other might talk of John’s devotion to his family, wife Julie, and sons, Mike and Keith. They have joined him and worked with him in ministry for these forty years. John’s friends are part of his family and he keeps in touch with all of them.

“To sum up, John Bean has been a humble servant of the church and one who has touched many lives with his integrity, vision, faith, and willingness to risk. It is my honor to present John Bean.”

Presidents Ray and Bill, Dean Culp, DDH staff and current Scholars, my friends:

I was graduated from Pepperdine College in 1951 with a major in religion and not knowing what to do with myself. Ralph Wilburn, Ph.D., Divinity School of the University of Chicago, said, “John, religion majors who don’t know what to do with themselves usually go to seminary at the University of Chicago.”

He helped me get a scholarship, and my pilgrimage had begun.

Arriving at DDH late at night and two weeks before school began, I could not get anyone to open the front door. I soon found the old Roosevelt Hotel at 63rd and Cottage Grove.

Have any of you spent a night at 63rd and Cottage Grove? No? I have always believed my experience at Chicago to be unique.

Those of you who join me in “the aging process” will remember the eleven hours of exams we had to take covering many fields in order to be admitted. If we flunked any area of study we were required to take make up as a special student. So I got to the test on biology. I had never had a course or read a text on biology in my life. How I prayed that God would guide my hand while checking those boxes on the multiple choice exam.

As was his custom, Assistant to the Dean Hawley called me into his office to review my scores. “John,” he said, “I am not at all sure you have been called to the Christian Ministry. However, I can foresee an outstanding career as a world class biologist.”

“What do you mean?” I asked. “I have never studied biology. Does a horse have a three-lobed, four-lobed, or five-lobed heart? I believe the horse I plowed didn’t even have a heart.”

“That may be,” he said. But John, on that biology exam you made one of the highest grades ever made in the history of the University of Chicago.”

LESSON NUMBER ONE: God knows a lot about biology. And God answers prayers!

Two points of some pain: One, I began my field work with the Cornell Avenue Church of Christ. And two, never having been to a dentist in my life, I had some catching up to do by going two days a week to the Northwestern Dental Clinic.

One Friday after having two teeth extracted, I returned to DDH to find a message: the minister at Cornell Avenue had been called out of town and I would have to preach Sunday morning.

Fine. James Luther Adams had just given what I still regard as one of the finest lectures I have ever heard—“Can We Follow Jesus Today?” That’s a great topic. I’ll preach on that.

LESSON NUMBER TWO: Do not ever preach on “Can We Follow Jesus Today?” when you have just had two teeth extracted. It can’t be done.

Elder McCorkle came by DDH that afternoon to tell me I had been fired. And he added that I didn’t need to come calling on his lovely daughter Mary Alice anymore either. “Mary Alice,” he said, “wants to date young men who can, and do, follow Jesus.”

Enter Ben and Ann Burns. While they did not provide a substitute for Mary Alice, they did welcome me into one of the most redemptive and empowering communities of faith one could ever experience. Further, much as any other faculty, it was Ben and Ann who taught me how to worship. If there be any poetry in my soul, it was Ben who put it there. Thanks be to God.

FACULTY. May I witness to what faculties like these mean to Christian Ministry? Coert Rylaarsdam and Amos Wilder. Bernie Loomer, Bernard Meland, Daniel Day Williams, Daniel Jenkins, and Jaroslav Pelikan. Wilhelm Pauck, James Hastings Nichols, Sydney Mead, and Gerald Brauer. Seward Hiltner and Ross Snyder. James Luther Adams and Al Pitcher. Joachim Wach. Preston Roberts.

Glad I am that no one had to work so many hours, that scholarships were adequate, so that these were blessed years unmatched at that or other times.

1. I came to Chicago from a congregation made up of four families, and we were convinced we were the one, true, restored New Testament Church. I left this seminary a passionate believer in the catholicity of the church, the inclusiveness of the people of God, and I embarked on a ministry dedicated to the faith that “all are one in Christ.”

This was, and is, a seminary that requires students to lean in addition to conventional disciplines the major social, economic, and political systems. It was expected that we would encounter and learn to appreciate the varied racial and ethnic majorities and minorities, and that we would be prophetic about the issues of class. The redemptive would encompass the humanities, the psychological sciences, and the themes of art and literature. Let it be confessed that we were even required to sit down and listen to great music. A passionate believer in the catholicity of the church.

How this equips us for ministry! In preparing these remarks, I reflected on the congregation I served for twenty-five years, the North Christian Church in Columbus, Indiana.

Across the twenty-five years, we received members from thirty-two different nations. I do not mean “the second generation descendents of.” I mean the original thing. Thirty-two nations. And that doesn’t even include those from the Republic of Texas.

I recall one Sunday we received five families into membership: Finnish Lutheran, German Reformed, Austrian Roman Catholic, Rumanian Orthodox, and a Disciple family from Illinois.

That day we dedicated a child, Friederik Giorg Pettschnigg. My lips read the standard liturgy of dedication, but my heart kept asking, “What’s a kid like you doing in a place like this?”

World economy. Global community. The catholicity of the church. The inclusiveness of the people of God. This place put substance in the proclamation that “all are one in Christ.”

2. My major in the “History of Christian Thought” bestowed a vision that included doing the business of the Christian Church,” and the wisdom of shaping the public witness of the church on justice issues.

Coming to Denver. Come and See. Seven Reasons to Come to Denver. Doing the business of the Christian Church or shaping the public witness of the church on justice issues are not even on the list! Representative democracy, free and open discussion, rational decision making—these are the values I have learned to cherish.

That church is not necessarily led by the Spirit which chooses never to take a public stand nor to make an imaginative decision. Neither is it less divisive to leave decision-making to the bishops instead of involving delegates from the whole church.

Seven Reasons to Come to Denver. Absent from the list: the business of a church searching out its future; the corporate proclamation of the righteousness of God. How times have changed.

The History of Christian Thought took me out of a narrow Restorationism and led me into a dynamic, living community seeking to be found by a God incarnate in Jesus as it ministers in an ever changing world.

3. Finally, I would affirm again what I stated during our capital campaign. The Disciples Divinity House of the University of Chicago becomes in a very real sense a “Primary Community of Faith” for many who enter here. For these moments I give great thanks:

  • Dean Blakemore, who taught me that a narrow doctrinal sectarianism can be transformed by embracing both reason and experience in Christian theology.
  • I cannot stand here without telling you how I rejoice that these have entered my life: Phil Bane, Gene Peters, Charlie Brown, David Kagiwada, Gene Rutledge. Of the thirteen members of my class, these are the six who passed away.
  • There have been mentors: Ben Burns, Bob Thomas, and that beloved Barton Hunter, who preached from one end of our land to the other that the church ought to receive, and make incarnate, the righteousness of God.
  • Colleagues and friends, often distant, but always dear.
  • And today. This day.

Contrary to Dean Hawley’s initial judgment, what you have done today gives confirmation that my Call to Ministry may indeed have been an authentic expression of God’s grace. Thank you very, very much.