This evening hundreds of people gathered in a baseball field just outside Austin Texas to remember our friend David Gentiles. It was an honor to present the eulogy. Blue Like Jazz was dedicated to David Gentiles, because David is the reason I am a writer. He was a remarkable human being, and there will never be anybody else like him. For those who knew him, we were truly blessed. And for those who didn’t, may the stories we tell about him inspire you.
I heard somebody say every life is a sermon, that every new day we preach a point. Maybe that’s true, I don’t know. It sounds like a lot of pressure to me. And the truth is I’ve been to a thousand or more church services and I can honestly remember the content of no more than three sermons.
But if it’s true a person’s life is a sermon, David Gentiles preached the best sermon I’ve ever heard. I’ll never forget him, or what he did with his life. David was a rock of a man and his sermon was love. His life and what it pointed toward will remain with me, and no doubt with many of you, as a foundation on which you will build your families, your friendships and your faith. It’s hard to imagine a sermon on love has ever been said better. I learned more about Jesus from David than any other person I know.
David was not a typical minister, though. I don’t think he liked preaching. He was my youth pastor when I was a kid and the only sermon I remember him giving was about the breastplate of righteousness and the shield of salvation. With each descriptive metaphor, David donned an article of baseball gear, and by the end of it he was dressed as a catcher for the Cleveland Indians, complete with a mitt and catchers mask. Then he asked us if we wanted to go outside and play baseball. I think he just wanted to play baseball.
In a culture where professional ministers are tempted to use people to build churches, David Gentiles used the church to get to people. The Churches where he worked were just buildings where he could bring us together. Sunday morning was a trick that got us in the room so we could share our lives. He didn’t care about buildings or salaries or status, he cared about us. That’s why hundreds of us have come today to fill this stadium, to say goodbye to a very simple man who never wrote a book or recorded an album, who never put his name on a marquee over a church, or sold his sermons on the internet. We are here because we have been loved personally by David Gentiles. For some of us, at some point in our lives, he may have been the only one.
A friend and I were talking last week and my friend said he didn’t know how David Gentiles could make so many people feel like they were his best friend. But I think the reason we all feel this way is because he was our best friend. He was the best friend we had. He was the most loving man we knew. He gave his entire life to us. How many times did he introduce you to somebody only to brag about you, to tell a story from your past that reflected the best of what you offer the world. This is who you were to David. You were his collection of baseball cards. You were his reason to celebrate life. He wanted everybody to see what it was he saw in you, a remarkable creature created by God, a reflection of God’s beauty.
It’s fitting then that we remember David here in a baseball stadium. If you knew him, you know how much he loved the game. It’s a complicated game where people work together to bring each other home, where teams strategize to usher individuals around lonely bases until they can be reunited with the people who are on their side.
Recently I was remembering with Jeff Luce the night we stopped by David’s house during the 1986 World Series. Jeff was visiting from Louisiana and a couple friends and I who had been playing tennis at a local park arrived, unannounced, as always, at David’s door. Little did we know we’d walked into the final innings of Game 6, perhaps one of the most well known game in the history of baseball. I’ll never forget what David said when the ball rolled under Bill Buckner’s glove and through his legs. While the rest of the country jumped onto their couches in frustration, no doubt unleashing the greatest collective utterance of profanity in the history of America, David sat down in his chair with his hands on the side of his cheeks and said “They’re so tired. They’re just so tired.”
His knee-jerk reaction was always compassion.
This love for the underdog, this belief in the marginalized was perhaps best symbolized in David’s love for the Cleveland Indians, a team he routed for both in their struggling seasons as well as in their struggling seasons. But David’s love for Cleveland was only a symbol of something deeper. It was a symbol of his love for the people of Haiti, South Korea, Mexico, Honduras and so many other countries where he was primarily interested in reaching the poor and hungry.
And his love for the underdog came to bless you and me, too. When David and I first met, I was going into Junior High. A friend and I would break into a house across the street from time to time, stealing change off a jar on our neighbor’s dresser. We were shoplifting fishing equipment from the local sporting-goods store. It was David that invited me to a book study at the church, early in the morning before school. We studied Calvin Millers The Singer, The Song and the Finale. Not too long after David asked me to write a guest column for the youth-group newsletter, a publication that went out to about fifty people, printed on the Xerox machine behind the church secretary’s desk. But it didn’t matter to me. I was published. David couldn’t have been more proud of me. When people ask today why I am a writer, I tell them about David Gentiles, about how if it weren’t for David, I doubt I would have ever been introduced to books, or started writing in the first place. I write today because when I was a kid it made David Gentiles proud.
When I found out David had passed, I grieved the fact I wouldn’t have him to turn to whenever I do something good. He’s the first person I want to tell, because he never reprimanded you for bragging, he only laughed and squinted his eyes and told you you did good. I never knew how much that meant to me until it was taken away.
And I’m not alone. If you look closely, you’ll find David thanked in innumerous books, you’ll see his name in the liner notes of CD’s. David didn’t like the spot light, Instead, he was a spolt-light that shone on the people around him. He lifted them up. He was their biggest fan. He believed in them when nobody else would or could.
I confess I often wondered why David never wrote a book of his own. He had enormous talent and a heart that networked effortlessly amongst the marginalized and the powerful alike. He could have sold a million books. I’d talk to him from time to time about these things and he’d smile and say he might have an idea or two, if he only had time to get around to it. And what was he doing with his time? He was showing up the concerts by The Daylights or Andy Davis, he was promoting the new Bob Bennet record or gathering up a group to go out to Billy Crockett’s ranch for a show. He was sending me Grace Pettis’ CD’s or telling us about Rick Diamond’s new book. He was too busy shining the spotlight on everybody else to bring any attention to himself. I don’t say this because David would want us to feel shame or guilt. I say this to say thank you. Thank you David for believing in us, cheering us on and even showing us the way. And thank you for giving us a perspective on love worth writing about, and a friendship worth dedicating our work to.
But all along, David was the one creating the great work of art. Perhaps he didn’t know he was doing it. All the great artists are hardly aware of what they are creating, or that they are creating at all. They lose themselves in their loves and passions. I confess I spent time wondering whether or not David was getting robbed. I watched him give his life away. I watched him live in rental houses, drive old cars, house people without charging them rent. I watched him wear the same work-boots day after day and I wondered why he didn’t use that incredible ability to make people comfortable to sell something. Who wouldn’t have bought a house from David Gentiles? He could have been a rich man.
I know now what I was secretly wondering was whether or not love could win. I was doubtful that a person who didn’t comodify his experiences to barter for status would leave this world with any status at all. But it’s obvious today that all along, David was right. His intuition was right.
The whole time David was building us. We are all he cared about. Us. Bringing us together, introducing us to each other, shining a spot light on our gifts and our talents, on our hurts and our needs so that this community of common humanity could find in each other the love for which we were bartering. I don’t know how David Gentiles saw through it all. There seemed to be little fog in his world, there seemed to be clarity.
It should be said, however, there was a hierarchy in David’s love. His girls were first. I remember visiting him here in Austin a couple years ago. We were at a Chuy’s restaurant not far from here, and he was asking questions trying to catch up on my life. We started talking about relationships, about marriage. I asked David, quite seriously, whether the hardships he’d encountered in his own marriage were worth it. David got very quiet and his eyes started to water. Tears rolled down his cheek and he brushed them away. He looked at me and spoke in a voice that neared an ultimatum. There is nothing I would change, He said, Nothing. There is nothing I wouldn’t go through to have the girls in my life.
Ariele, Hannah and Cala, it needs to be said publicly what you privately know to be true, that there may be no father who loved his children more than your father loved you. Only the God who mysteriously defines love and is love could keep him from your future, from your weddings, from the birth of your children. David has left for you a foundation upon which you will build your lives, and an army of men who, though even collectively could not account for your fathers affection, will continue his devotion.
Perhaps without knowing it, he was saying something central with his life. He’d found a home at Journey, another brother in Rick Diamond. He’d found a pulpit from which to preach a sermon with his life. His source text may have well been Galatians Chapter Five.
“But the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control.”
I can’t think of a person through whom more love grew, more joy at your walking through the door, more peace with a simple life, more patience within the chaos that follows broken people, more kindness in the face of injustice in Haiti, more goodness as he cared for his daughters, more gentleness as he listened to your troubles, or more self control at the sometimes awkward and worldly institution of the church.
His sermon, then, was Christ. It’s clear now. Like Christ, he created the church to get to people. He never wrote a book. He leaves behind no home, and few possessions. His passing was untimely and seemingly unjust. He spent his life ushering people home, standing in as a father, a shepherd, a brother and a friend.
It’s our only comfort, then, that David and Christ are together now. They have everything in common.
David Gentiles, we love you. We are so grateful for you. We will see you soon. Thank you for pointing us home.
**If you would like to contribute to a fund helping with the various needs for David’s daughters, or for the coming David Gentiles Foundation, you can find out more here.