I met Bill sometime in the early 1980’s in a side office on the second floor of Hudson Taylor Hall, the main building of the U.S. Center for World Mission. Bill had come down from the Bay Area to explore the possibility of joining DataServe, a newly formed IT agency in the service division of the USCWM. He was interviewing various staff members, and somehow, he found me.
At that time, the USCWM was only three years old. Founded to finish the task of world evangelization among the unreached or “hidden” peoples, it attracted visionary Christian volunteers who came with faith, dedication and high ideals. But the USCWM was a maverick upstart with a grand vision that greatly outstripped its budget, a highly questionable business plan, strong-minded leaders whose philosophies conflicted with managers, old school missionaries working alongside young people with little or no work or ministry experience, everyone with their own human frailties.
Working at the Center was a little like blasting into space in a hypersonic aircraft. Lots of people couldn’t handle the G-forces and ended up throwing up before the X-plane left the atmosphere. Some moved on after a short stint to work with other mission organizations. Others left full time ministry altogether, frustrated, disappointed, or disillusioned with organized religion. With such a high turnover, longer term staff used to say that if you could last six months at the Center you had it made.
I had already worked at the Center for two years when I met Bill. I felt it my role to give prospective staff a realistic perspective, to dispel any rose-tinted illusions about life there. But I didn’t have to worry about Bill. Bill already had a secular orientation and a natural skepticism that inoculated him against a presumptuous faith that could be harmful to self or to others. He had faith, but he was not naïve. He believed in God, but he never confused himself or anyone else with God. He had clear eyes and a strong rational bent. But though he sometimes talked like a cynic (and more on this later), he walked like a man of faith, and that is what he was.
One of the first things Bill did after he joined DataServe was to share his love of the outdoors with his new friends at the Center. My first backpack trip, easily the most beautiful hike I ever made, was a three-day trip that Bill organized: Big Pine Lakes on the Palisade Glacier: seven glacier lakes high in the eastern Sierra.
Our group was three single women and Bill. None of us knew each other very well. For Linda C. and me, it was our first trip carrying anything on our backs. There were relational difficulties, funny in hindsight because we all became close friends in later years.
We took the North Fork Trail, hiking the switchbacks in the blazing afternoon sun. Liza W. was way ahead of anyone on the trail. Linda C. was next. I trailed last. Bill, the scout leader, cheerfully brought up the rear. At one point on the trail, I asked no one in particular, “How long is this going to be?” Behind me Bill said, “Well, you see across that meadow? And the waterfall at the far end? On top of the waterfall there is a bridge. The trail is nice and wooded there. A mile from the bridge is First Lake. We are camping at Second Lake!”
I have the most precious memories of Fifth Lake, waking up just before dawn to the smell of hot chocolate Bill had made, and watching the moon nestle itself down like a lustrous pearl between the peaks of Temple Crag, all splashed with pink. “I think I shall never see this again.”
We had hoped to get to all seven glacier lakes. But the clouds were turning dark higher up, and Bill realized we had to get down the mountain before the rain began. So we came down the mountain, singing songs through the golden aspen woods.
It was on this hike that I recognized that quality in Bill that forever characterized him to me: Joy. Later I came to appreciate his deep love for family and culture, which was nurtured in the outdoors. “Land of my high endeavor, land of the shining river, land of my heart forever.” To this day, whenever I hear “Scotland the Brave” I think of Bill.
Bill was exceptionally knowledgeable. Being a librarian, I have many friends who love knowledge, and I treasure them. Bill was like the World Book Encyclopedia. His knowledge base was full of organization, outlines, clarity, and pithiness. Yes, he could go on and on about the workings of a topic, until one would say, “Okay, okay; I get it already!” But I learned a lot from him.
I learned about food from him. He taught the librarian how to appreciate the Joy of Cooking as a reference tool, not simply a book of recipes. Being ethnically Chinese, I grew up eating and cooking Chinese food. But it was Bill, not my mother, who taught me that the best way to make fried rice and any Chinese dish flavorful was to add a little chicken powder. To this day, that is what I do! Bill taught me how to peel a banana the way his mother taught him. I paid him back by teaching him how to eat a ripe persimmon, which totally grossed him out.
Bill was a mechanical genius, a miracle worker to those of us not so gifted. Much has been said about this by others.
Linda and Bill had both been part of Z-Volk, the fellowship group that grew out of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church. Not long after Bill joined DataServe, Linda moved down to Pasadena, where I met her. I remember being impressed by her spiritual depth, empathy and compassion for others. And her sensibility. She was already Bill’s best friend. They were very compatible. She had a deep love and respect for him, understood and accepted him better than anyone else, and she was committed to deepening their relationship. The odds seemed to be better than not that she would be the woman he would marry. I don’t think Bill realized this at the time, but eventually he came around. As a single man Bill was a wonderful person. But as someone during the memorial service observed, he seemed to come to his fullness and become everything he was meant to be after he married Linda Eldridge.
A caring heart
Bill had a way of making every person he knew feel exceedingly valued. I knew I was not the only one who felt this way. Perhaps it was his ability and willingness to be transparent and to share his heart with us. He was genuine and honest about his thoughts, feelings, shortcomings, failures, hopes, accomplishments and joys.
Even though he married and became a father, and moved away to Colorado, Bill still had enough time and interest to stay in contact with his single friends. For me it might have had something to do with the fact that I was a financial supporter, but it was more than that. I have supported others for years who rarely took the time to communicate with me. But whenever Bill and Linda were in the Bay Area, they would take the opportunity to connect with me. I always felt happy and blessed when they did.
On one of their visits we all went to the San Francisco Bay Model Visitor Center in Sausalito. The Bay Model had no water in it that day, so it wasn’t visually inspiring. But the boys were still in grade school, and they ran excitedly all over the place. It was fun to see Bill as a father. Another year Bill and Linda invited me to his parents while they were visiting for Christmas. When the boys were adults, Bill and Linda would visit by themselves. Or maybe just Bill himself on occasion. Like many others I was delighted when they decided to move back to the Bay Area.
Helper and Catalyst
Bill always used to say he was not a specialist, but had just enough information to be dangerous. This was very true, because he wouldn’t just sit there with that information, he would act on it. He could be helpful, too helpful at times. And he could be catalytic without even trying. (Example mercifully omitted here. 😉)
Optimism and Hope
Last week I was weeding our library collection, and came upon a Stephen Colbert quote that made me think of Bill.
Don’t be afraid to be a fool. Remember, you cannot be both young and wise. Young people who pretend to be wise to the ways of the world are mostly just cynics. Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt or disappoint us. Cynics always say no. But saying “yes” begins things. Saying “yes” is how things grow. Saying “yes” leads to knowledge. “Yes” is for young people. So, for as long as you have the strength to, say “yes.”
In the 1980’s Bill belied these words. He was wisdom in youth, a wise old man in a young man’s body. He was exceedingly rational, clear-eyed, intellectually rigorous and honest. But he was no cynic. His very presence at this fledgling, upstart Christian mission organization was a sparkling and resounding “Yes!” He was constantly learning and growing, stretching his boundaries, constantly optimistic, constantly hopeful.
“Yes” is not just for young people; it is for young spirits. The older Bill got in years, the younger and more sparkling he seemed to become in spirit. He seemed always to be finding new ways to say “Yes” to God, to people, and to life.
I remember my last, hour-long phone conversation with Bill last fall. He was excited about the second trip to the Camino de Santiago he and Linda would be taking, this time as hosts at a hostel along the way. He spoke of his clear sense of calling to share his faith with travelers whose secular language and worldview were so native to him. I was excited for him, and for Linda as well. Bill was in no way done with living or with serving God and his fellow humankind.
That is really the way to go, full of passion for life, with battles to be fought, and goals yet to accomplish. As John Wooden said, “Players with fight never lose a game, they just run out of time.” But here lies the great comfort of Bill’s faith – that when the clock stops, it is followed by victory and glory, purchased by the blood of Christ almost two thousand years ago. And we will have plenty of time to enjoy that. Amazing!
“And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.”
With each year heaven is dearer. This year Heaven will be splendid — because Bill is there.