Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Minister of Belonging: A Tribute

Robert and Jonathan--on of the last photos of the two of them taken shortly before we moved to Wisconsin

Jonathan Wilmore, a dear family friend, died yesterday. He was one of the oldest living people in the United States with Gaucher's Disease of his type and he died peacefully in his sleep three days after his 30th birthday. I am so glad that he got to celebrate a milestone like 30 on what would be his last birthday and it fell on such a great date--12/12/12.

Our family first became acquainted with Jonathan, or "Johnny B" as he was commonly known, when my husband, Robert, was serving as a youth minister at Parkview Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, LA. Jonathan had recently completed a laity leadership course at another local church. When it came time for the award ceremony, Jonathan was told that they would just give him his certificate---no need to walk across the stage and be acknowledged. Why? Who knows? But it hurt Jonathan, he came to our church, and a mutual friend asked Robert if there was a place for Jonathan to serve in the youth ministry.

Johnny B working with Hurricane Katrina refugees

Youth ministry games
It is rare to find a photo in which Jonathan isn't flexing or...

...arm wrestling. He was always in awe of his own muscles and strength. He would drop and do push-ups on his knuckles and arm wrestle anyone, anytime.

So here's what you need to know about Jonathan. Because of the Gaucher's Disease, he was short. Actually he had long legs, but he had some skeletal problems and severe spine curvature which significantly diminished his overall height. He wore bilateral hearing aids and had some significant vision problems which resulted in several eyes surgeries and coke-bottle glasses. Jonathan talked...a lot! And loudly. Oftentimes, the filter from his brain to his mouth didn't function very well and he would say whatever popped into his head. He was impulsive. He didn't always think about consequences. He had some fears and anxieties, especially a fear of heights. And did I mention that he was loud?

But here's the thing...

Jonathan was loving. He was innocent. He adored people and fed off of the energy of crowds and human interactions. He was winsome. He had a great sense of humor and was a big fan of practical jokes, particularly when he wasn't on the receiving end. Jonathan was joy personified. As I have seen people post of Facebook and Twitter about him, as well as personal messages and calls we have received, Jonathan's circle of influence has mentioned how much Jonathan taught them about Jesus. Jonathan loved each and everyone of us. And he taught us how to love, even when it was inconvenient and uncomfortable. I'm sure that Jonathan had days when he was in pain--bone pain, pain from infusions and transfusions, pain from surgeries and procedures. However, I can't think of one single time when I ever heard him complain. Ever.

So, Robert created a job for Jonathan--The Minister of Belonging. This wasn't merely a title. Although Jonathan wasn't getting paid, this was a hardcore volunteer position. Robert created a job description and (flexible) hours. Jonathan's biggest responsibility was welcoming all of the youth on Wednesday night and at other events. He also helped plan and set up. He even went on hospital visitation. Yeah, Jonathan really liked the ladies and was a big hugger. Because of his height, his face was usually chest level with the teenage girls, so Robert had to talk to him a time or two about side hugs and verbal greetings, but that was Jonathan. All of the youth loved Jonathan. He attended most events, was their biggest cheerleader, and loved to be in the midst of all youth activities.

Robert and Jonathan about to go on hospital visitation. Johnny B thought it was hilarious that they accidentally wore matching shirts

And then at the hospital, they met a woman with a green striped shirt, so Jonathan insisted on getting a photo with a random matching stranger

Jonathan became an important ex-officio member of our family. Although he was too old to be our son (in his early 20s when we first met him and we were in our mid-30s), he still functioned as a big brother to our two boys. This relationship was complete with wrestling, arguments, annoyances, tattling, and other brotherly type shenanigans. Because Jonathan's birthday is December 12 and our youngest son's birthday is December 13, they even had a joint birthday party one year at Jonathan's request.

Me and my three "sons" at the Bayou Bonfires in the River Parishes. On this particular night, we visited relatives of one of my co-workers who had an open house. We lost Jonathan briefly and found him helping himself to the buffet of complete strangers :-)

While Jonathan was exuberant and fun, he was also exhausting. When going with him to the mall or the hospital, he was terrified of heights and was totally unashamed of asking to hold a hand. One of my favorite photos (that unfortunately I can't locate), is of Josh, Jonathan's pastor, holding hands with Jonathan at the mall. Two heterosexual guys, one in his 20s and the other in his 30s, holding hands in the mall because that's what you do when someone you love and care about is scared. Jonathan pushed us all beyond the boundaries of "proper behavior." And sometimes Jonathan's unabashed good intentions would result in socially inappropriate actions or (loud) conversations in public. He was always receptive to learning though and would take the gentle instruction of his friends in stride. 

When Robert and I learned about Jonathan's death last night we cried, then we began to laugh with tears streaming down our faces as we recounted "Jonathan stories." We talked about him needing to hold Jesus' hand in heaven ALL the time because he is scared of heights. We smiled, thinking about Jonathan being the ultimate Minister of Belonging in heaven now. We laughed, wondering if he would try the patience of Jesus at times and if he would be hugging all of the women.

As a believer in Jesus Christ and one who knows that Jonathan was a believer who lived out his faith in everything he did, I know that Jonathan is free now. I know that he is not in pain. I know that he has a new body that can hear, see, and move perfectly. I know that he is at rest and perfect peace. But that doesn't mean that it doesn't hurt those he left behind who love him. 

He left a grieving mom and other relatives, as well as many friends. We moved to Wisconsin almost 5 1/2 years ago and I haven't seen Jonathan since that time. However, we'd have occasional Facebook conversations. We are probably going to Louisiana in May when Robert graduates with his D.Min. and I fully anticipated getting to see Jonathan then. Now I won't. That sucks! Even though he hasn't been a presence in our daily lives these past few years, knowing that he isn't around anymore makes me very, very sad. I cried last night and off and on throughout the day today. Fortunately I can grieve with hope knowing that for Jonathan, to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (II Cor 5:8).

Jonathan, you were so loved by so many. You impacted every life you touched in significant ways. You showed us the face of Christ. You have been a bright star in our lives. I am so very grateful for the opportunity to know you and spend time with you. You taught Robert and me such important lessons and I am thankful that our boys had the privilege of knowing you as well.

The poet Emily Dickinson once said, "My friends are my estate." 
You died a very wealthy man.


  1. Wonderful post Ms. Pam, Charlie and I had a similar conversation of "Jonathan Stories" when he called to tell me the news.
    -Logan Williams

  2. Beautiful Pam!! He was amazing!! Thank you so much for posting this!! God Bless you and Robert and the boys!! Miss you!!