When the news came last Sunday of James Dunn’s passing, I spent an hour or so lying in the hammock on the back porch, reminiscing and thanking God for a friendship that began sixty years ago when we served as youth directors of neighboring churches in Weatherford, Texas. Many will write about his accomplishments as director of the BGCT Christian Life Commission and later as director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, but there may be little mention of the powerful impact that he had upon the lives of students and young adults.
My son, Drake, is one of the many who have been positively influenced by the life and ministry of James Dunn. Upon learning of James’s death this past week, he wrote his young adult children the following email, which I quote by permission:
“James Dunn was a friend of mine as a child and as a young adult. He was, and has been, a strong and solid friend of our family for sixty years. He is one of the truly great men whom I have known in my life, and one who has truly influenced American policy and lawmakers for the past 30 years. Strangely, I think you will find that he is not one of those typical ‘churchy’ people that you might expect in Baptist life. In fact, James blustered in the face of the traditional Baptist church . . . and chose to represent individual freedom of religious thinking over any and all church doctrines and church dogmas. He was in fact a true maverick. . . . And one whom I loved and respected very much.
“HE . . . is one of the reasons that I have never fully tolerated or accepted the traditional trappings of the ordinary church. And I am hopeful that he would be proud of that. He always challenged me to think as well as act. He always demanded that people think and ask questions rather than simply accept the answers of a preacher or a church. He believed that every man has a ‘right’ to speak to his God as he sees and relates to him . . . And that no Government or individual had the right to dictate or interfere in this right.
“Regrettably, I think that there are very few James Dunns left in the world today . . . And I don’t know if any of you will be as fortunate as I have been to know this one.”I believe there are legions of people like Drake who would express similar words of appreciation for their friendship with James Dunn and for the rich contribution he made to their lives. How fitting that, upon his retirement from the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, he returned to the role in which he began his ministry, that of teaching students. Wherever he has served, from Weatherford to West Texas A&M, from the Christian Life Commission in Dallas to the BJCPA in Washington, and most recently at the Divinity School at Wake Forest, James Dunn has positively impacted the lives of students and young adults and motivated them to become more devoted followers of Christ, and this may be his greatest legacy.