By T.R. Robertson
For nearly two years, from the first Monday in September 2004, until the first Monday in June 2006, I made a weekly trip from the Mizzou Christian Campus House to the Missouri state prison for women in Vandalia, Missouri in the company of campus minister Roy Weece and an ever-changing group of students and CCH alums.
Roy was always the driver. No one ever considered asking if he’d rather just ride along and let someone else drive. After decades of driving a succession of white VW beetles for hundreds of thousands of miles to hundreds of speaking engagements, Roy preferred to be at the wheel. The habits developed from those solitary hours on the road stayed with him.
On the Road with Roy
Between conversations in the van Roy would get this look in his eyes that told you he was lost in thought. He might be mentally piecing together a sermon or memorizing Scripture.
Roy had memorized a good portion of the Bible. He often recited extended passages while preaching, a practice guaranteed to grab the attention of the audience.
But by this time in his life the chapters, verses, and phrases were filed away somewhere in his mind. His no-longer-young brain cells were less reliable in faithfully retrieving what he had stored.
And yet his recall could still show itself in unexpected ways. One night, driving home after dark, Roy asked if I’d ever heard Ed Bousman on the radio. I said I had. Bousman had been preaching on the radio for decades, broadcasting on a powerful station that could be heard throughout the Midwest.
I expected Roy to launch into some tale about Ed Bousman, whom he probably knew; but instead he launched into song.
God is just a prayer away,
Meet him each hour night or day,
His ear is never closed
To your care and woes.
He sang the entire song, all three verses. All those late night Sunday drives, returning to Columbia from the latest speaking engagement, had obviously afforded him numerous opportunities to listen to Ed Bousman sing his theme song. I can picture Roy alone on some highway, singing along with the radio week after week.
On Mission with Roy
One Wednesday evening in 2004 Roy put his hand on my shoulder and said, “I need you to do something for me.”
There are hundreds of Campus House alumni who know from experience what that was like. They all have stories of the day Roy asked them to do something—something they weren’t at all sure they were ready to do. The request always came with an expression of his absolute confidence that you were ready for the task. In my case, he was inviting me to help with the prison ministry.
Roy was already involved in prison ministry prior to moving to Columbia to build the Christian Campus House from the ground up. He continued it there as one of his bedrock principles for campus ministry. Each resident of the campus house was required to participate in a ministry each semester: hospital ministry, nursing home, dorm calling, and several others, including prison ministry.
“I’ve noticed,” he said during one Monday conversation, “that among the young people who were raised in the church, the ones who are less likely to wander from the faith when they get to college are the ones who were involved in active ministry during their high school years.”
One Monday night he brainstormed with me about an upcoming preaching assignment. He had been asked to do four sermons on the topic of the most ignored Scriptures in the Bible.
“Of course,” he said, “the first one I thought of was obvious.” I nodded my head, knowing what he was going to say: “As often as you have done it to the least of these,” he quoted, “you have done it to me.”
“So many people have told me that’s not where their talent lies; they do other things. But how can you ignore that Jesus says you’re one of the goats if you don’t care for the least of these?”
One week I told Roy about a book I had just read. He replied, “I’ve heard of it. Why don’t you tell me about it? Then I won’t have to read it.”
So I did, going into some detail about the author’s stories of a movement among some Christians to essentially dispense with the traditional large church gathering and simply be involved in evangelism and ministry and other aspects of a faithful walk, with their only assembly of the saints consisting of small groups.
Roy’s response was simple. “Sounds like they’ve got it right.”
I offered that perhaps they were being a bit too extreme in completely dismissing the value of the traditional church.
“The church is important,” Roy said, nodding his head. “But it sounds like they’ve got it right. There’s no substitute for just doing what he asked us to do.”
In the School of Roy
Over the course of those Mondays at the prison, Roy taught us the principles we still use in prison ministry today.
Roy preached to the prison audience as he preached to every other audience. He focused on the basic principles of being a disciple. He fleshed out those teachings with great stories, just like Jesus did. He painted a picture of a Christ-filled life far beyond anything they had ever imagined religion could be. These women who had seen the worst life can offer were captivated by the abundant life he showed them.
He welcomed questions from the inmates, a practice that always held the possibility of truly off-the-wall and unexpected topics. His replies were always aimed less at serving up a specific theological answer than providing some sort of teaching (related in some way to the topic) that would be of most use in discipling the prisoners.
But first he would look to the rest of us on the ministry team and ask if one of us wanted to take the question.
From the first day he introduced me to key staff at the prison, telling me to be sure to build relationships with them, because they could make the difference between success and struggles in the prison bureaucracy. He also reminded us that the staff was also part of the field we had been sent to harvest.
Truth be told, Roy considered every person he came across to be someone placed in his path by the Lord. If we stopped on the way home so he could get a double cheeseburger, the McDonalds workers and customers were opportunities for him to plant gospel seeds. The clerk at the gas station, the stranger at the next gas pump, the truck driver in the parking lot—every one of them needed to hear the Word as they passed Roy on their way to someplace else.
Roy would soon leave the campus ministry. I don’t say he retired, because that was not a word he ever wanted to be used about him.
“I don’t see anything in the Bible,” he said more than once, “about anyone retiring from ministry. Do you?”
But leave that particular campus ministry he did, about two years after that tap on my shoulder. Very close to one year later, he left this world.
The last trip he took with us to the prison came after he had already left the Campus House. He drove all the way up to Columbia from Joplin, where he then lived. Then he drove with us to the prison.
He came back up that one last time to participate in one more baptism night at the prison. More than 100 offenders crowded into the chapel to watch while we baptized more than 30 prisoners. Between each baptism he would recite a verse about baptism and briefly explain its meaning. Then he would look to the next person in line.
“Come to Jesus,” he said.
After two hours, the night’s mission complete, he again took the wheel and drove the van back to Columbia. We said our quick good-byes and he got behind the wheel of his car and drove out of the parking lot to begin the long drive back home.
The next Monday I climbed into the driver’s seat of the van and drove the prison ministry team to Vandalia. Seven years later, Mondays still find me following in Roy’s footsteps, as he followed in the steps of Jesus.
T.R. Robertson is a freelance writer in Columbia, Missouri.
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