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An unforgettable friend

While I think of him often, at this time of year I think even more frequently of a friend, now deceased, who is unforgettable.

Duane Gibson was the longtime pastor of First Baptist Church in Des Moines. During the 1990s I read about him in Des Moines Register stories about the extensive work of his congregation in meeting social needs in the community. Duane was instrumental in his congregation’s construction of two large homes for the elderly in downtown Des Moines.

Fast forward to 2008 and I’m working for The Salvation Army in Des Moines. Duane’s name came up as a prospect for a position on the organization’s advisory board of directors and one of the officers asked me to recruit him for that position.

Fortunately, Duane agreed to serve and we quickly became friends. Duane loved coffee even more than I do so we frequently met for coffee – sometimes at a trendy coffee shop and, other times, at a nearby McDonald’s.

I have three wonderful younger brothers but Duane, about five years my senior, became the “big brother” I never had. He had grown up in the projects in Chicago in the home of a single mother. He was raised in a Roman Catholic home, at one time had a Jewish step-father, and as a teen came under the mentorship of a Baptist pastor in his

neighborhood.

After serving in the U.S. Army Duane attended Bethel University and Seminary in St. Paul where he met his wife, Carolyn.

Upon graduating from seminary Duane served a church in Toledo, Ohio, until he was called to First Baptist of Des Moines where he served for nearly a quarter century.

By the time he joined the Salvation Army advisory board Duane was retired.

As I got to know Duane I was amazed at how he related to others. The man was so empathetic hurting people quickly recognized his heart. On any number of occasions in restaurants and coffee shops waiters, waitresses and even folks sitting at nearby tables shared their hearts with him. Duane listened intently and often prayed with them on the spot.

During our coffee visits and lunches I observed that many younger wait staff knew and obviously loved Duane. He told me he had married many of these folks. Duane explained that some young people did not have a church home but wanted a Christian wedding ceremony. Some pastors would not marry them, Duane said, but “if they want a Christian ceremony I will work with them.” He went on to explain that this gave him an opportunity to share his faith with them.

Duane’s childhood exposure to Catholicism and Judaism had warmed his heart to both faiths. Some of his best friends in Des Moines were Catholic priests and Jewish rabbis. I met a number of them while enjoying coffee or lunch with him.

His best clergy friend, perhaps, was Father Jim Kiernan who became my friend, too. When my wife died unexpectedly in 2013 Father Jim, now deceased as well, cared for me like a member of his own congregation.

Having grown up with black friends in the Chicago projects, Duane was also close to African-American pastors in Des Moines. He helped me better understand and appreciate our black brothers and sisters.

The most important thing I learned from Duane was his vision of God. God is much bigger than any of us mortals can understand, Duane told me, and we limit God when we try to stuff Him into the boxes of our denominational dogma. “Don’t limit God,” he counseled.

In November 2010 Duane was diagnosed with liver cancer which took his life just three months later. In those three months I spent a lot of time with Duane and the man who taught me so much about how to live taught me how to wrap up my time on earth and prepare for eternity.

Duane passed away in February 2011. His lovely wife and ministry partner, also a cancer patient, died four months later.

I had known the Rev. Duane Gibson for just three short years but his friendship and witness has had a lasting and profound impact on my life.

Duane went to his eternal home ten years ago next month. I miss him. A bunch.

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