Meet my friend, Dr. Ronald J. Fowler. He will be on the Crossings stage on October 29 as he guides our discussion on racial reconciliation. To say I am excited is a gross understatement. For 42 years, he served as the Senior Pastor of the Arlington Church of God in Akron, Ohio. In 2009, he led an extremely successful pastoral transition as he passed the baton to the Reverend Dr. Diana Swoope, the first and only female pastor to serve the church since its founding in 1917. The church not only thrived under Dr. Fowler’s leadership, but has continued to thrive under the leadership of Dr. Swoope.
Dr. Fowler was a longtime friend of my father, Dr. David Grubbs. Dad was leading a great church in Dayton, Ohio, and Dr. Fowler was a frequent guest in our home and congregation. As a young teenager, all I knew about Dr. Fowler was that he was a highly respected leader in the state of Ohio and a very treasured friend of my father. When my father died, Dr. Fowler was one of the first phone calls I received. When I arrived in California to be with my family and prepare for the funeral, Dr. Fowler was there.
I vividly remember receiving a publication many years ago that featured Dr. Fowler, giving well-deserved honor to him for extraordinary leadership in the city of Akron, as well as the state of Ohio. He has been a bridge builder. He led the initiatives in the sixties and seventies that brought peace and respect to both black and white citizens and leaders. Even today, he serves as a key leader and founder in an initiative known as “Love Akron”. He most recently served as the special assistant to the Jewish president of Kent State University. He often makes his way to the Ohio State University football games and has a permanent seat in the president’s box where he enjoys the game before heading to the sidelines where he is a welcomed hero to the players.
He is a respected and trusted leader in our Church circles, having served on almost every board and committee in existence. It was my privilege to join the Board of Trustees at Anderson University many years ago. Dr. Fowler was the Chairman of the Board. This great man and friend of my father became my friend. He has no idea how much he has impacted me, influenced our church, and changed our perspectives on many things.
It is a great honor to tell you that he is now a member of the Board of Elders of Crossings Community Church. When he can’t fly in for the meetings, he is present on a huge TV screen in our boardroom and participates as if sitting around the table with us. We love this man.
Not one to sit idle in retirement, he continues to serve on various boards, serve Kent State and Ohio State University, assist Dr. Swoope, his pastor, as needed, and serve our church as a Board member. He founded a ministry called “LETS” (Leadership Enhancement Training Services). Through the ministry of LETS, he mentors, encourages, and inspires dozens of African American pastors around the country. He occasionally gives me the privilege of spending time with some of these fine men and women.
He is married to Ella Joyce Fowler, a woman Kim and I have come to love and adore. They will celebrate 56 years of marriage in December. Kim and I have been honored by their presence in our home. Those are cherished moments never to be forgotten.
My father grew up in the cotton fields of the South. My grandfather was the pastor of two small churches at the same time and sold Watkins products to make a living. When we would visit my grandparents in South Carolina, we would spend the day with grandpa J. D. Grubbs making his rounds. Most of his customers were not white. And many of his customers, both black and white, were poor and could not pay him for his products. Grandpa seemed to be able to overlook that “payment problem” and leave the products along with an interest-free credit line.This seemed to cause grandma Inez some concern.
I was privileged to speak at the annual gathering of our African American congregations and leaders a few years ago. After speaking, we gathered in the beautiful dining room of what is called “Zion’s Hill”, a gorgeous 100-acre property in the hills of western Pennsylvania. Zion’s Hill has been the gathering place for some 400 congregations for the past 100 years. I go there most every summer in August, whether speaking or not. And among the thousand or so gathered there, I am one of the few white-skinned persons in the crowd.
One year, after I spoke, sitting in the dining room with my friend Chuck Myricks, an elegant and elderly lady was walking toward our table. Chuck, the director of the organization and longtime friend, warned me about the lady headed to our table. He said, “Marty, sister so and so will often critique our speakers. Be prepared for some correction.” I braced myself.
She arrived at our table and approached me with a question. “Were your grandparents J.D. and Inez Grubbs?” I replied, “Yes ma'am, they were.” She said, “Me and my mother cleaned their house.” I replied, “You must have the wrong Grubbs in mind. My grandparents were poor and could never have afforded a housekeeper.” She said, “We didn’t charge them anything. You see, Marty, your grandfather made sure us black folks had our own church. And we tried to serve them in any way possible.” I was stunned. And then it occurred to me, perhaps it was Grandpa Grubbs who demonstrated to my dad the unconditional love of people regardless of skin color or finances or status.
My parents welcomed some of our country’s great African American educational, theological, and civic leaders in our home as I was growing up. We were told to have our best manners for these distinguished guests. It never really occurred to me that most of these great leaders were not white. They were friends of my father. They were professionals, people of notoriety in their cities. The air around our dining room table was filled with deep respect and appreciation. Not just anyone could have the privilege of these men and women at their dining room table. And one of those frequently sitting at the table was Dr. Ronald Fowler. Others who would find their way to our table … Dr. James Earl Massey (Detroit), Dr. Ben Reid (Los Angeles), Dr. Ed Foggs (Indiana), Dr. Marcus Morgan (Chicago), and Dr. Sam Hines (Washington, DC).
Having no knowledge of the racial tensions of the sixties, it never occurred to me we were different. And we weren’t. And we’re not.
Dr. Ronald J. Fowler has agreed to sit with me on the Crossings stage on Sunday morning, October 29, and help our church be a proactive and compelling voice of reconciliation in our city. There is no better man to walk with us through this endeavor. And who would have ever believed that one of my dad’s friends would be one of my friends, and in some ways, step into my life when my dad stepped into heaven.
You can’t make this stuff up. Only God could pull all this off. And quite frankly, I will tell you that I think God was just showing off when he put this great man and his wife into the life of Marty and Kim Grubbs.