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A Tribute to James R. Adams

It was sometime in 1996. I was at a meeting with a group of other clergy and scholars in Southern California.  I was honored to be included in this group of approximately eighteen people, most of who were well known in their respective fields and endeavors. We were there to talk about forming a new Christian organization that might inspire and help empower mainline churches to respond to the growing influence that the religious right was having on public policy and programs in our governments at the time. I believe there was a second agenda. It was the assumption that if more churches got involved with what were largely social justice issues, they would begin to thrive again. There was also some talk about presenting a more informed, and possibly new terminology for the Christianity that we were going to represent.

In our next meeting I asked if we were ever going to discuss the theological and Christological foundation of this new organization. After all, Christian scholarship was going through a period of de-construction and it seemed to me that if we were going to be effective in the public place, possibly effecting public policy, we should have some clarity about what we believed. In other words, what would be the basis for our actions? Was it biblical? Which part of the Bible…Leviticus or the Prophets? Was it because Jesus instructed us to do these things? Who was Jesus? Was it because we had direct instructions from God? And what do we mean by the word “God?” Or are we simply compassionate, secular humanist.

Everyone looked at me like I had stepped of a space ship. Finally after several minutes of near silence, the moderator suggested that I write a paper and present it to the group at the next meeting. It is probably no surprise that when I gave my paper, it was not well received. I even had a response that I would call hostile. I was not devastated but I was disappointed.

There was a tall lanky man at that gathering, I did not recognize, sitting off to the side of the large conference table, quietly observing the exchange. I thought he was a visiting professor from one of the nearby Universities. Unlike some of the other attendees, he was not wearing anything that would suggest that he was clergy-just the same funky blue plaid sports coat that I would see for ten more years and grow to love.

After the meeting was over, this same man walked up to me and handed me his card. Yes, it was Jim Adams, President of The Center for Progressive Christianity. I did not know it, but this was a turning point in my life. One long letter, packed with information about the new organization he was heading, a follow up phone call and the course of my life had been changed.

For the next ten years, we worked together to build a viable organization, along with some of the most dedicated and interesting people I have ever met. We could not possibly have been two more different kinds of personalities. I grew up as surfer dude from Southern California where it is almost always warm, casual, and people there tend to be very open. Jim once noted that California is where a lot of nuts come. I don’t think he was talking about almonds and walnuts. Jim’s roots were in Nebraska farm land with hard winters and where people tend to be private. I grew up in an area that had one of the fastest population increases in US history, where “getting ahead” was part of the culture. Jim grew up in wide open spaces of Nebraska prairies where cooperation was requirement for survival in a sometimes harsh life.

I tend to be an idealist and Jim was a realist. I like new ideas and have been called iconoclastic; Jim was reflective and loved tradition. I get bored with details; Jim reveled in them.  Well you get the idea.

But over the years those differences became nothing but interesting points of conversation and I grew to have a deep respect for this man-a respect that eventually turned into love. I believe the feeling was mutual. Jim was a humble, unassuming man who it seemed, in spite of himself, quietly changed people’s lives everywhere he went. I never heard a judgmental word come out of his mouth and you can imagine he had some pretty nasty people confront him over the years. He was a teacher by example, was open to suggestions and never felt the need to be in control.  And it almost seemed that in spite of himself, he accomplished some amazing things.

I think it is important to note that in 1994 when Jim and his friends started TCPC the term “progressive Christianity” was not being used anywhere in the world. Rev. Rex A E Hunt, Founding Director of The Centre for Progressive Religious Thought, in Australia, told me that in Australia they had used the term for a publication they published in the 1960’s. Its use died after the publication ceased to existence. Today as you know scholars, theologians, clergy, historians, newspapers, and others use the term like it has been around since Constantine’s time. I find that amazing…..

Maybe one of the most important and lasting contributions Jim made was his determination to take this movement international. Jim help initiate and organize Progressive Christian organizations in Britain, in Canada, in France, and Ireland, and he helped create partnerships with progressive, liberal organizations that adopted the term “progressive Christianity” in Australia and New Zealand. We are still in regular contact with the leadership in all of these groups. We share materials, resources and speakers for our conferences.

At one point, when Jim informed me that he planned to “re-retire” in a year, this time from his volunteer job in which he had worked at tirelessly for over ten years, I was very sad. I knew I would miss him, and I assumed that the organization might not continue without him. Although I was getting ready to retire from my church, I had no interest in getting caught up in something that would keep me so busy. Six months later at the end of a phone call he reminded me that he was still planning to retire in six months. When he sent out a letter to the entire board three months later letting us know that he still had no plans for the future of TCPC and he would soon retire, I reluctantly picked up the phone and said; “Jim what would you think if I volunteered for the job.” He laughed and said, “I was wondering when you were going to call me.”

Among other things, Jim understood boundaries and he never seem to let his ego get in the way of letting someone do things their way. From the day I took over the leadership of TCPC and for the last six years, I never once received a phone call from Jim, unless I had called him first. I did not get one suggestion, not one criticism, not one clarification and…not one complement.  After all, we have increased our mailing list by 500 percent, and we now send out 11 newsletters a year instead of three; we have increased the activity on our website from 2,500 unique visitors a month to 40,000 a month. We have increased our income by 300 percent and we now have 4 employees…and nothing.

Recently I was talking to a very close friend of Jim’s who had called me to let me know about Jim’s death. We chatted about a lot of things and I finally asked him how Jim felt about all the changes at TCPC. His friend said, “Oh he talks about it all of the time. He just loved what you are doing and he was very proud of you.” I was so touched I got tears in my eyes but could not help but chuckle. I realized that for Jim, even a compliment might have been misinterpreted as judgment. That was classic Jim.  I loved him and I will miss him.

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