Maybe it was because he was from Western Nebraska and I was from Texas. Maybe it was because I was born on February 12 and he on the 13th. More likely it was because we were both pretty goofy. But whatever the reason, Al Henderson and I became fast friends in the fall of 1985.
We were first year students at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. And even though the atmosphere there was decidedly scholarly and reverent, I would regularly hear a hearty, “R-r-r-r-u-f-f!” from across campus. That would be Al barking at me (yes, barking at me) to get my attention. Let’s just say it was effective. He never failed to get my attention or anyone else’s who was within earshot. It was also contagious… at least for me. Because, in spite of my initial hesitation, I was soon barking in reply to my buddy… across a seminary campus. He was so dang joyful, so full of life, so… goofy. He drew me in.
Al and his wife Kris, as well as their three children, became extended family to us. We loved them and they loved us.
God, in His wisdom, chose to separate Al and me after the seminary; much like a wise parent separates two children who will only get each other into trouble. He was called to be a pastor in Northwest North Dakota and me to Central Michigan. We both got busy with ministry and life. We didn’t talk often, but whenever we did, it was like we had seen each other just last Tuesday. He usually called me (he was more faithful about that than me) and I always knew it was Al on the other end because when I answered the phone there was a deafening, “R-r-r-r-u-f-f!”
In fact, the last voicemail I ever got from Al consisted of one word: “R-r-r-r-u-f-f!” Translated, it meant, “Hey buddy, this is Al. Give me a call as soon as you can. Love you! Talk soon.”
That was the last voicemail I ever got from Al because on October 2 he was murdered outside the church he served in Fort Dodge, Iowa.
I don’t want to talk about how Al left this world. I want to talk about what Al left this world.
Al left many, many experiences of God’s love that were the evidences of God’s love, especially for the first responders of Fort Dodge, Iowa… people who would have otherwise been unsure. What do I mean?
Al had a family to love – and he did… mightily. Al had a congregation to love – and he did, mightily. But Al also had a group of men and women outside his family and congregation which he knew needed someone to mightily love them, too – the first responders.
Many of them did not know or trust the love God already has for them. They did not know or trust that God had already sent His Son for them, too. So Al took it upon himself to love them and be the way through which they would experience God’s love. God’s love was felt by these men and women because Al loved them with it. And because they experienced God’s love through Al, the experience of God’s love became the evidence of God’s love for them. Al was tangible proof.
The following excerpts and quotes were taken from a recent article in the Fort Dodge newspaper. I figured the first responders themselves would do the best job of expressing what Al’s love meant.
When the law enforcement officers and firefighters of Fort Dodge were facing grim situations, they had the Rev. Al Henderson to lean on for support.
“He was just a selfless person,” Mayor Matt Bemrich said.
Fort Dodge Fire Chief Steve Hergenreter echoed that sentiment, saying “He just kept showing up in times of trouble.”
For Fort Dodge Police Chief Roger Porter, Henderson was a calming presence. The first time Porter met Henderson was about 10 years ago when Porter was a patrol supervisor. Henderson rode with Porter in his squad car as he patrolled the streets of Fort Dodge. “He rode with us a lot. He was always there to help out and ride with the officers and get to know them. The first time I met him he got in the squad car with me and we just talked. He wasn’t there to preach, he just wanted to be a listening ear. When I felt I needed to talk to someone I felt I could go to him. He was that person you felt comfortable going to. Sometimes he helped without you even realizing it. He saw the good in everything.”
Assistant Police Chief Cory Husske was able to write how he felt about Henderson. His statement was read by Sheriff’s Deputy Amy Stringer during a vigil for Henderson Thursday night. Husske wrote, “We’ve suffered the devastating loss of someone that was not just our chaplain. Pastor Al Henderson was our friend, confidant, coffee companion, voice of reason, our brother on the blue line, our greatest cheerleader, and sometimes he was simply the ride-along partner you didn’t know you needed until he got in with you.”
He added, “For 10 years Pastor Al selflessly invested the hours that it takes to slowly break down the unique and stubborn walls that we unintentionally build around ourselves as first responders. Over the years, he officiated some of our weddings. He baptized some of our children, and in some cases, he did both. He was there during some of our greatest victories and celebrations. But perhaps more importantly, he was there for us during our times of struggle, defeat and mourning. Many know him as the man who spent a few hours in your squad car so that you could get some things off your chest. For others, he was there when you needed help coping with certain things burdening your mind. But for all of us, he was there to guide and replace whatever we laid on him, with faith, prayers, and comfort in our hearts. And now, as Pastor Al would say, God Bless.”
My buddy, Al, helped first responders experience God’s love which to them was the evidence of God’s love for them. This is what Al left his community.
And you can do it, too. For, you see, like Al, you have the love of God in you. You also have people around you who do not. They have not yet experienced God’s love and therefore are left unsure of God’s love. But you can be the way they experience it and become the evidence for it. Just show up, get in with them, spend some time, listen, care.
That was Al’s secret. He kept showing up where love was needed. He kept investing the hours that it takes to slowly break down the unique and stubborn walls that people unintentionally build around themselves. It’s pretty simple if we simply do it.
Al showed us what can happen when we go to be with a person who needs someone to care. A first responder. A next door neighbor. An at-risk kid. An elderly person who has been forgotten. Who has God already placed nearby to you? How can you show up?
You don’t have to sell anything or convince anybody or control the conversation.
The people who need the evidence of God’s love need the people who have God’s love to bring them God’s love.
It’s not how Al left this world but what Al left this world that I hope we remember and emulate.