MEMORIES OF MY BEST FRIEND AND MENTOR, DR. ROBERT E. FOWLER

By William Dwight McKissic, Sr.

FOWLER

I sometimes process grief by writing.

Most persons who read this article never met, or heard of my best friend over the past 33 years, Rev. Robert E. Fowler. I encourage you to read the entire tribute though, because I assure you as I unpack memories of our friendship and his mentorship in my life, at some point you will be encouraged, enlightened, and ministered to, in a manner worthy of your time investment. You will also be ministering to me, as you help me celebrate and memorialize the life and legacy of Bob Fowler.

A familiar name flashed across my cell phone caller ID, at 11:23 a.m. yesterday, specifically Vance Pittman, a well-known SBC pastor in Las Vegas, Nevada. After exchanging the pleasantries of the morning, Vance informed me that news was beginning to circulate in Vegas that our mutual friend, Bob Fowler, also a Vegas pastor, passed. Vance knew the depth of my friendship with Fowler, so he assumed I might know. If indeed true, he wanted to gear up to minister to his family. That was the first inkling of knowledge that my dear friend may no longer be “tabernacling” among us.

The thought of that possibility overwhelmed me. I wanted to immediately get off the phone with Vance to seek confirmation before I allowed my emotions to spin out of control. In our less than two-minute conversation, I told Vance I would call him back, when I learned more. Before our conversation concluded with the traditional goodbye’s, another call was coming in. This call came from another pastor, a Southern California pastor and mutual acquaintance/friend of Bob Fowler and mine, Rev. Weaver. I had not talked to him in 5-7 years or so. Early in the conversation he made it known that he was calling to console me relative to the home-going of my dear friend, Pastor Fowler. I wanted clarification, so I asked him was this simply a rumor or was it true that Bob Fowler was dead. He said, “no reverend, it’s not a rumor; it’s the truth.”

I lost it. I didn’t even bring the conversation to a close. I threw my cell phone down on the carpeted floor and fell down and balled like a baby. My wife picked up the phone, and I assumed, closed out the conversation with Pastor Weaver.

Denial is the first step in the grief process, I learned in seminary many years ago. After I collected myself many minutes later, I told myself, it can’t be true. Maybe I did not hear Pastor Weaver out. He may even be confused. I reflected on the fact that twice in the past rumors circulated in certain pockets of the Black preaching community that I passed, about 12 or so years ago. I actually answered the church phone when two friends called to confirm my death and were shocked that I answered, because it was publicly announced in a church in New Jersey that I had passed. I also remembered hearing an announcement of a man who had passed at the close of a revival meeting where I was visiting; and it was misinformation. The man had been hospitalized, but remained alive. Based on those two experiences, I was hoping against hope that Pastors Pittman and Weaver were mistaken, or had been misinformed. I decided to dial Fowler’s number, no one answered.

I then remembered that the last time I preached in Las Vegas for Pastor Fowler I had an unusual experience as I was dismounting the pulpit, on my way to my seat. I literally inexplicably fell to the floor, head first. I did not faint, because I was fully cognizant of what was happening. My legs just gave away, and I could not muster the strength to erect myself. I heard the congregation give a collective gasp. Several men rushed to pick me up from the floor and helped me to my seat. They encouraged me to go to the hospital, but I refused. As Bob was driving me back to my hotel after the service, I received a phone call from Rev David Wade of Mesa, Arizona. He said, “Dwight, I heard you fell tonight, are you alright?” I then asked David how did he get the news so quickly, I had fallen less than 15 minutes before he called. He said, “I got too many friends in Vegas for something like that to happen, and I not be informed.”

Aha, as I thought about that, my mind said, call David Wade. He would know for sure if Fowler was dead, so I did. When David answered he said, Dwight, I just got some of the worst news in my life, Bob Fowler died this morning. By then, I knew for sure it was true. I had to give up my denial. My son and daughter-in-law came to console me. My wife had sent the message to my kids. Other calls from around the country began to come in. I made a few phone calls. We were all in stark disbelief that Dr. Bob Fowler, pastor of the Victory Baptist Church of Las Vegas for 24 years, had passed.

I want to share several memories of our 30+ year friendship that I trust will somehow be an encouragement to your life and ministry.

Bob and I both pastored in the Tarrant Baptist Association in the Ft. Worth area, where we met in the mid to late 80’s. We were often the only two Black pastors who regularly attended the TBA weekly meetings, therefore we forged a natural affinity. Bob was single at the time, and I was honored when he asked me to be the best man in his wedding to Joyce, whom he remained married to till his departure early Tuesday morning. Bob and Joyce were gracious and kind to Vera (my wife) and our four children who were just above toddlers then. They were always willing to babysit on several occasions, and even during one or two times when we were out of town a couple of days. My kids affectionately call him, Uncle Fowler, to this day.

In one of our TBA meetings, as Bob and I were seated together waiting on the meeting to begin, the guest speaker for that day came in, walked by our table and began to dialogue with us. He was touted as “The Billy Graham of Australia,” so we were all eager to hear him. Bob and I only knew who he was because of his Australian accent. He reached out to shake our hands and asked us, “Do you speak English?” Bob and I assumed he was joking, so we simply politely laughed, while he stood as if he was awaiting an answer. He then repeated the question. Bob and I recognized then, that his question was a serious one, and we then gave sort of a clumsy answer, “well, yea, yes.”

Bob nor I thought the gentleman was being racist in his question, but as far as we could tell, as he worked the room, shaking hands, we do not think anyone else was asked that question. We could only conclude that he thought maybe we were the American equivalents/counterparts of the Australian Aboriginals, who do not (as a rule) speak English. I mention that because that incident occurs over 30 years ago, but Bob and I would revisit that incident at least annually, because it documented to us, we stand out in a majority White setting; and upon meeting people in that context, there are assumptions about you, that you usually simply are not privy to–maybe some good, maybe some bad. Clearly, we were the “others” in the room. We never forgot that lesson. We were even thought of as speaking a different language.

When Russell Dilday was being voted out as President of SWBTS, by the trustees, Bob and I were summoned early that morning to go to the seminary and join a protest with other pastors to the firing of Russell Dilday. Rev. L.B. George, a highly respected Black TBA pastor and the first Black moderator of the TBA, asked Bob and I to join the protest.

Pastor George’s requests presented a dilemma for us. He assumed we supported Russell Dilday, but he never asked us, if we agreed with the protesters, he just ordered us to join in. That is often a common practice as to how seasoned, senior, respected Black preachers, relate to younger, up and coming, aspiring Black preachers. The protesters were singing “We Shall Overcome,” the mantra of the Civil Rights Movement.

Bob and I thought that song was inappropriate for that occasion. We also had mixed feelings about Russell Dilday. We liked him personally. He had even invited me to preach in chapel at SWBTS in my early 30’s. But he was being painted as a theological liberal and one who rejected inerrancy. Bob and I philosophically agreed with the “conservatives” as opposed to the “moderates” in the SBC. We wanted to honor Rev. L. B. George though, by complying with his request to protest. So, we stood there with the protesters and sang, halfheartedly with our shoulders slumped. Later, Pastor George and Pastor Charles Wade told us that they sensed our not being fully with the program and our hearts were not in the protest. We apologized to them, explained our conflicting emotions and asked for his understanding and forgiveness. They were gracious to us, and we remained great friends until Pastor George passed. I still remain good friends with Charles Wade.

Bob was later asked to serve on the old Sunday School Board (if my memory serves me correctly, which was the forerunner to Lifeway, I think) and some 12-15 years later, I was asked to serve on the Board of Trustees at SWBTS, the very board that fired Dr. Dilday that day. That was one of the saddest days in the history of SWBTS. In hindsight, I believe Dr. Dilday was greatly mistreated. His book, “The Doctrine of Biblical Authority,” is crystal clear that he is not a theological liberal; and he holds a high view of Scripture. His book was even published by the SBC’s, publishing arm. I honestly believe the never-ending unrest and bickering in the SBC is rooted in the unrepentant acts of mistreatment of Dr. Dilday. Ken Hemphill followed Dr. Dilday. He and I became friends. I respect him immensely. He also invited me on several occasions to speak in SWBTS chapel. Bob Fowler and I throughout our friendship would also revisit our experiences at SWBTS the day Dilday was unceremoniously fired.

Bob was pastoring the Eastland Street Baptist Church in Fort Worth at the time. Eastland was once a predominately Anglo SBC church; but by the late ‘80s, it had become predominantly African American. Bob was the second AA pastor in their history. While at Eastland Street, Bob’s Church and Cornerstone where I pastor, partnered together to construct a church building in Lebowa, South Africa, in the late ‘80s, while Mandela was still in prison. Members of both churches spent 15 days there holding VBS and doing construction work. That was a wild and wonderful experience. Too much to unpack now though.

Bob and I invited Pastor Lionel Malebono, pastor of the South African congregation, to Texas. While the three of us dined for breakfast at Denny’s, Pastor Malebono, literally started crying. Bob and I did not understand his tears. We thought we had unintentionally offended him, somehow. He finally explained to us that he was crying because that was his first experience being served by a White waitress. And for her to treat him with dignity, respect and call him “sir,” and clearly interact with him as a servant, it was an historic, unprecedented moment for him. He thought he would never, ever know what that experience was like. Therefore, experiencing the reality was quite dramatic and emotional for him. Another 30-year marker for Bob and me.

Bob’s dad was 16, when he was born. He did not know him. Later, his mother married a wonderful man, whom Bob loved dearly and he never experienced father deprivation except for the brief period before his mother married and blessed him with a wonderful stepfather.

At age 32, having graduated from SWBTS with an MDiv, and pastoring in Fort Worth, Bob became intrigued with the notion of meeting his biological father. He hired a lawyer to search for him, with success. The lawyer after two weeks gave Bob a man’s name, address, phone number and other biographical data, and told Bob, it is a high, high probability that this name is your father.

Armed with that information, he caught a plane to White Plains, New York, and registered in a hotel a couple of blocks from the man’s address. He then called the phone number, got the man on the phone, and began to ask him a series of questions, trying to confirm the man’s identity to see if it matched the information provided by the lawyer; and it did. As Bob was interrogating the man, he interrupted Bob and said, “you must be my son. I have wanted to connect with you for a long time.” As Bob listened to the man’s answers, he started to realize that he was talking to his biological father for the very first time in his life. Unlike me, Bob Fowler is not emotional. But, hearing his father’s voice for the first time, brought a river of tears to his eyes. I had never thought to give God thanks, or to appreciate and value the voice of my father. I simply took it for granted. But I began that day, as Bob called me from New York and told me the story, to regularly give God thanks for my father’s voice. Bob gave me permission to share his story many, many years ago. I have done so many times, because if you are blessed to have been raised by your biological father, learn to value and appreciate his presence and voice.

Fowler was called to pastor the St John Church in Lawton, Oklahoma in about 1993. He honored me by having me preach his installation service. In 1996, he was called to pastor the Victory Church in Vegas, where he remained until his death.

Interesting story how he was called to Victory. A San Diego pastor, Dr Timothy Winters, invited me to preach three nights at his church surrounding my book, “Beyond Roots: In Search of Blacks in The Bible.” I had a scheduling conflict and could not make it. Fowler, helped me research the book, and checked a book out of the library at SWBTS entitled, “Noah’s Three Sons: Human History In Three Dimensions,” by Dr. Arthur C. Custance, published by Zondervan Press. That book was the major extra-biblical source that informed my book. When I asked Fowler, if there were any Blacks in the Bible, he said, “I don’t know.” But he sought to help me answer that question and helped me tremendously with research, freely given.

Consequently, I recommended Fowler to go and speak in my place in San Diego, for Dr. Winters. Dr. Winters accepted him, loved his preaching, and later recommended him to preach at Victory in Vegas in view of a call. The rest is history.

Because Bob pastored the largest African American Church in the state of Nevada, politicians flocked to his church. The State Attorney General and many prominent politicians are members of his congregation. I have preached there on many occasions, and the reigning Republican Senator Ensign, at the time, was worshiping there. He loved my message and stayed around to chat. Senator Joseph Liberman was at his church one Sunday, and he is a practicing Jew. Bob asked him permission to share the gospel with him. Senator Liberman said, under one condition: “You cannot use Scripture from the New Testament.” Bob said, “fine,” and gave an exposition of the Gospel of Christ based on Isaiah 53. The Senator did not accept Christ, but he told Bob that he appreciated learning about Jesus in that passage.

Bob was still pastoring in Fort Worth in 1994 when my mother passed. His schedule would not allow him to attend my mother’s funeral; but, he and Rev. Lee Hill, his understudy, drove to my father’s home in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, two days before the funeral, to sit with and comfort my father.

My father, also a Baptist pastor, loved to travel to National Baptist gatherings, with Bob and me. Daddy would have been proud of both of us, as we mounted the lecture stage together this past September in New Orleans, Louisiana, at the National Baptist Convention to lecture on Church Growth and Development.

In November, this past year, I was preaching at a conference in Los Angeles. Bob drove down from Vegas to support me and hang out for a couple of days. He affirmed me and my message in a manner way beyond anytime in the past. I did not realize that would be the last time he heard me preach in person.

Bob and Joyce maintained a house in Fort Worth, and often he would preach for me while in town. Cornerstone absolutely adored him.

Obviously, I could tell many other stories about my friendship with Bob Fowler, that has impacted my life like none other. Let me conclude with this one. The last time I saw Bob was in January of this year. He came to town with his wife to visit family, and to check on three investment properties that he owns here. While in town, he spent a day with Vera and I. We had a Systematic Theology III class that morning; he came with us. He also wanted to experience SWBTS again, and we had a blast, sitting in class like teen-age boys, as we were whispering to each other regarding Dr. Madison Grace’s great lecture. Afterwards the three of us enjoyed a hearty breakfast. It was a very special time. I had recommended to Dr. Paige Patterson to invite Dr. Fowler to preach in chapel at SWBTS a few years earlier. Dr. Patterson invited him. I attended chapel that day and was so blessed to hear my friend preach. Fowler recently completed a DMin in Church Growth from Biola. He also earned a DMin from Tyndale Theological Seminary. Bob Fowler was my theological, exegetical and ecclesiastical mentor, in addition to being the best friend I have ever had.

I am going to miss my friend. I am awaiting the details regarding his funeral services. I have not traveled since the virus outbreak. But, if The Lord says the same, I am going to Vegas and love on my friend’s family and congregation. And, I want to go on his turf and bid him farewell. I need that for closure and healing. Thank you for sharing my grief and listening to my long story. I pray that there was something said that was inspirational and a blessing to you! More importantly, as Bob would have it, I pray that this tribute glorified our Savior and Lord.