For over 61 years Ray and Irene Jennings traveled the world
together and served many causes. This website is as a repository for his photos, notes, sermons, books and a variety
of materials that meant something to him and those he touched during his lifetime.
|Atlantic City, NJ. Waiting for the train. 1945
MY STORY: A Brief Account
“The Lord said, Jeremiah, I am your Creator, and before you were born
I chose you to speak for me, to the nations.” - Jeremiah 1:4 (CEV)
I resonate with the Prophet Jeremiah's story. My old well-worn King
James version renders God’s words to Jeremiah most colorfully: “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee;
And before thou camest forth out of the womb, I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.” I
have had much the same experience though on a much simpler scale. Before I had graduated from high school I had a sense of
call and a world view that set me on the road to a lifetime of ministry, mission, and theological endeavors.
Born in the Missouri Baptist Hospital, at age nine I was baptized and joined
the large Third Baptist Church in St. Louis, Missouri. After high school I attended William Jewel College, a Baptist
Liberal Arts School (A.B.), where I met and married my wife of 60 years. I earned advance degrees from two Baptist
Seminaries (Th.M. from Berkeley Baptist Divinity School - Now American Baptist Seminary of the West - and Th.D. from Central
Baptist Theological Seminary). I think I have earned the right to cite the little rhyme “Baptist born, Baptist
bred, I’ll be a Baptist ‘till I’m dead.”
My mother died when I was age seven and my father, to whom I was close,
died when I was seventeen and still in Maplewood-Richmond Heights high school. My Dad was “a man of sorrows and acquainted
with grief.” He was a quiet, peaceful man. He had lost a wife and three children before I was born. When my mother
died, my paternal grandmother became a central figure in my life. I often quote her witty wisdom.
I earned my school letter in forensics (speech) and enjoyed literature,
especially poetry and drama. I initially anticipated a career in art. All this was enhanced by the fact that there
was a small branch library between school and our home which I seldom passed without stopping to browse.
By the time I was in college Third Baptist Church had licensed me to preach
and, soon after, at the request of the Gentry Baptist Church in Gentry Missouri, which had “called” me to be its
pastor, Third Baptist ordained me to the Gospel Ministry. I was a bonafide “preacher” at the age of 20. Dr.
C. Oscar Johnson, my pastor, spoke of me as his ‘son in the ministry’ and on occasion referred to me as “my
Timothy.” He was an early role model and youthful hero of mine.
Now, 60 years later, at age 80, having served as a missionary for more than
a decade, been pastor of eight churches and served nine interim's (three in the Minister At Large program of the denomination), I
keep busy with supply preaching, and service on numerous boards and committees (The Seafarers Ministry of the Golden Gate,
The American Baptist Homes of the West, the Residents Council of Grand Lake Gardens where we live, the Pacific Coast Baptist
Association, the Council for Pacific Asian Theology - and others). Last year (2003) I was in a pulpit preaching twelve
times. When they were age four my youngest grandchildren (twins, now eight years old) found the word “preacher”
a bit difficult and they have dubbed me “peacher.” I love it.
My initial theological study was at Yale Divinity School and I did additional
study at Union Theological Seminary, New York, the International Christian University in Tokyo, and the Graduate Theological
Union, Berkeley California. This wider ecumenical exposure prevented me from ever becoming a narrow Baptist. These schools
contributed to the person and the preacher I am today.
In naming some of the scholars under whom I studied, I run the risk of being
accused of “name dropping.” I have been both fortunate and blest by the teachers I have had. Our first son
was named Leonard Kenneth. Leonard in honor of Dr. Leonard Duce, our college professor of philosophy, and Kenneth in
honor of Yale prof Dr. Kenneth Scott Latourette. I must name Dr. Emil Brunner whom I met, and studied with, in Japan. His
little book “The Misunderstanding of the Church” was a pivotal book in my formation. My principle homiletic
professor was Halford Luccock (the Simeon Stylites of Christian Century fame). To these I must add the numerous MITs (Ministers
in Training) who worked with me over the years. They were, indeed, valued mentors.
While I have given away thousands of books in recent years (To Eastern Baptist
Seminary, American Baptist Seminary students and the American Baptist Historical Society.) Among several bookcases of
books I have kept, I have one tall book case of volumes written by my professors and friends. These will be the last
of my books with which I part. They are the raw material of which my mind and heart is shaped.
I remember my first sermon. I was just out of high school and a freshman
in college. An older student who spoke regularly at the local Odd Fellows Home asked me to take his place for one Sunday
afternoon. I did, eagerly. Now, in retirement, and myself a resident in a retirement community, I have recalled
that sermon more than once. I chose a text from Genesis (Chapter 1, verse 18). It is still marked in my well worn King
James Bible which I have treasured all these years. It read “And the Lord God said, it is not good for man to
be alone.” My creative exegesis of that verse was, I’m sure, the worst exegesis I have ever voiced - but
I made the simple declaration that God was with each member of that aging
congregation. The text, of course, is an explanation of the creation of Eve. The sturdy structure of the brick building which
housed the Odd Fellows’ Home is also still present in my mind, as are the physical plants of each of the many churches
I have served across the years. I love Church buildings, cathedrals large and small. More than once I have pondered the
fact that my first sermon was preached outside a proper church building. This was probably the beginning of my continuing
lifelong lover’s quarrel with the organized church. The ecclesia of early Christianity produced the organized churches
but, I believe, the Church is fundamentally, an organism, not a organization. My Th.M. thesis was written on “The
View of the Church of Kanzo Uchimura,” founder of the MuKyokai (Non Church) movement in Japan. It was published
by the Japan Christian Literature Society (KyoBunKan) under title “Jesus, Japan and Kanzo Uchimura.” My Th.D.
dissertation was “The Development of the Christian Witness through Christian Higher Education in Japan with Particular
Attention to the Post-War Years (1945-1957) and to the Work of American Baptists.”
The first church I pastored had a profound impact on my understanding of
the Church. It was a non-denominational (multi-denominational?) congregation in a farming community outside Cameron, Missouri,
fifty miles from our college town. Calling itself the “Prairie Town Community Church,” it was a “half-time”
congregation, meaning that it held “preaching services” only twice a month. Church membership was unique
- you simply had to provide the information that you were a member of another church and wanted to worship and witness with
your neighbors. The church met in a small white abandoned school house visible for miles on the lush prairies of northwest
Missouri. I was given the offering each week but guaranteed a minimum of $15 a Sunday. I learned early that Christians
of diverse traditions and very different opinions can bear a united witness in their community.
Then came Gentry. The Gentry Baptist Church was a small Southern Baptist
congregation fifty some miles northeast of Cameron and, when these hardy farmers gave me a call, they were only a “quarter
time” congregation but, shortly after I arrived, it became half-time. This meant I was preaching every Sunday at
one or the other of the two congregations. Three years later when I left Missouri, to go to seminary in New Haven, Connecticut,
Gentry’s attendance and stewardship had reached the point where the church called a full-time pastor. This was
probably my most “successful” pastorate. While the people were warm and friendly they held to some rather
narrow Baptist positions - and yet the sense of being part of the family of God was evident.
The congregation had not observed the Lord’s Supper in more than 25
years. The reason was simple: One faithful member, an immersed-by-choice Methodist lady, who taught the young people’s
Sunday School Class, had not been re-immersed when she was received into church fellowship. Her baptism was considered
“Alien Immersion” and the congregation could not bring themselves to bar this beloved member from Communion and
so they quietly discontinued serving Communion. They held their fellowship to be of more value than participating in the rite
I determined to observe Communion and, in a burst of irritation and creative
exegesis, I told the congregation that Christians had been commanded by Christ to observe Communion “in remembrance”
of Himself, and that by not observing Communion, we were refusing to “remember” Him. Our last Sunday morning
at Gentry we celebrated the Eucharist. Irene and I purchased a communion set as a parting gift. The ‘unimmersed’
Methodist turned Baptist partook, and no one raised an objection.
There was one dissenter who declined to participate. Our custodian,
who lived next door to the church and fired the stoves each Sunday, would not partake. The father of one of our deacons
he was a member of New Friendship Baptist, six miles east of Gentry. He held that Communion was a local church ordinance
and only members of a specific local church should be served. While “Closed Communion,” as Missouri Baptists identified
it, is not widely practiced today, the issue of inclusiveness is still a Baptist bone of contention.
Our Missouri adventures were followed by ministry as Assistant Pastor and
Youth Minister at the First Baptist Church of New London, Connecticut. In addition to learning a new hymnody we learned
that Christians could hold bazaars and serve Clam Chowder suppers to raise money for the church.
This was followed by two years of “deputation” in which I traveled
constantly, promoting American Baptist overseas mission. Then came our tenure of mission service in Japan (1950-1960). We
taught at Kanto Gakuin University in Yokohama, I was the Chaplain of the University, helped found and taught at a fledging
Baptist Seminary - and oversaw an Audio Visual Program for Japanese Baptists.
Returning to the U.S. in 1960 we served as pastor of First Baptist Church
of Ottawa, Kansas and Bible Professor and Chaplain of Ottawa University. At the church we managed to pay off a new Educational
Building built under Roger Frederikson, my predecessor. Then came a two year spell as Director of the American Baptist World
Mission Campaign, first for Minnesota and Chicago then for out-state Illinois. I was instrumental in raising a million
and half dollars. The principal lesson of these “wilderness years” was that I did not want to spend the rest
of my life as a fund raiser.
In the pastorate we wondered if the phone would ever stop ringing; as a fund raiser
no one called! (Except my supervisor asking, “How much money have you raised.”) From fund raising we returned
to the pastorate: First Baptist Church of Berkeley, California, for seven years during unrest and riots. The church operated
a Coffee Cellar and a free food program. We ministered to young people from all over the U.S.A. Crowded Telegraph
Avenue next to the University of California became ‘my beat’ and I don’t believe I ever felt as much like
a pastor as I did in Berkeley - with a clerical collar and constant community involvement.
Then to First Baptist Church of Syracuse, New York, a church with a 70 room
hotel and a huge Gothic building. I had always wanted a church with an endowment. Syracuse had one but didn’t
want to spend it. I managed to get the hotel into the black after decades of losing money. We spent endless hours trying
to plot a future for the church without any final conclusion.
Next I was called to the National Baptist Memorial Church of Washington
D.C. - another large building with a small congregation facing an uncertain future. It was related to the American, Southern
and Progressive National Baptist denominations. The “memorial” in its name referred to the Baptist heritage of
religious liberty which the church honored more by its name that by actual practice. It had done some very creative
things in its neighborhood the previous decade but in the years just before my pastorate membership had declined and it was
looking for a new ministry. We managed to initiate an annual lecture series on religious liberty but my ministry was
largely sustaining the aging membership.
In several of my pastorates this was, somehow, a common thread. They
were old churches with declining memberships, looking for their future, but not willing to venture forth on a new path. These
were churches afraid of the future and seeking to return to their past. I touched and strengthened individuals but, in
retrospect, I must confess I believe I failed to attain the goals I set for myself. Each post has been different. Each
has opened a door to the next. I await at least one more transition.
Valley Forge, our national ABC headquarters (“The Holy Doughnut”),
was my last stop in my active ministry. For more than a decade I was the Director of Communications for International
Ministries for the Division of Communication (DIVCOM) ABC-USA. (Later titled Reporter/Analyst.) I wrote news releases and
articles for the news service and for The American Baptist Magazine (TAB). Half way through my 12 years at DIVCOM I was
named editor of Input, an occasional newsletter for professional church leaders. I had a happy time writing, playing
the role of the Devil’s Advocate, traveling the world. I had no administrative responsibilities - for which I was
In retirement since 1988, I have served as interim pastor to eight congregations:
Roundy Memorial and Immanuel in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Poquonnock Bridge in Groton, Connecticut and, in California, the First
Baptist churches of Chico, Oakland, and Berkeley, and at Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church in Oakland. I was a long term (five
years) interim at the Moraga Hills Community Church just over the hills from Oakland. I did a year of ministry as chaplain
at Pilgrim Haven, an American Baptist Homes of the West retirement community in Los Altos, California. Experience as an institutional
Chaplain was a good example of my shifting between church and para-church service.
In 2001 I was surprised by a heart attack and that seems to have brought
my interim career to a halt. Churches don’t seem to want to take a risk. I feel that I still have something to
offer. In many ways I believe I would be a better pastor now than I was before.
As I write this I am keenly aware of my faults and failures. I have made
mistakes and missteps. But I am more aware of God’s grace and delightful sense of humor. What else would have prompted
God to be present in me and work through me? Each paragraph of this story could be expanded to a chapter.
One final and necessary thought. In this document I have mentioned Irene
several times. The truth is that, without her, very little of what I have written could have been written. She went to
William Jewell College to train to be a missionary. When we began to talk of marriage I told her she would need to become
“a missionary to Ray Jennings.” She became just that. In Japan she did as much missionary work as I did but for
these sixty years she has been my main stay. While I am retired she has been the secretary of Oakland First Baptist - for
sixteen years. She raised our children and now shares the care of grand and great grand children. It is “our”
family but she was the head of the house. I was “on the road” much of the time and she made that possible. We
have two sons, two daughters, eleven grandchildren, three great grandchildren. More on the way. (As of 2006 it is 5 great-grandchildren.)
While my energy flags, Irene’s seems to grow. Irene is a musician.
She sings and plays several instruments, especially the piano. At odd hours. She glides her fingers across the keyboard from
one song into another in her own unique style. As I write parts of this she is playing. I think I should call her “my
accompanist.” She has been the facilitator of my ministry - and full of surprises.
One of my colleagues and her husband honored me with an alcove on Memory
Lane is Green Lake, Wisconsin, a favorite place of our family. She enshrined one of my sermons (“Kissing Frogs”)
and then added “Effective pastor, teacher, missionary, interpreters of ABC missions, creative writer, articulate spokesperson
from Baptist distinctive, advocate for and mentor to women in ministry, and warm friend to his American Baptist colleagues.”
Those are all things I have striven to be and for which I still strive.
In 1989, shortly after I took initial steps toward retirement, I penned my own “Epitaph.”
is any celebration of my death, I hope it will be read.
Dig me no grave;
Build me no ornate crypt;
Mingle my ashes with earth;
Fling them to the winds I have flown
To far flung places
on this globe;
All “home” to me.
Sing me no dirge;
Craft no glib obituary;
Remind those who have loved me
Of the themes that moved my life;
Love of Church, a world
The oneness of humanity;
A few choice friends, family ties;
Shed me no tears;
Squander no time in mourning;
Rejoice in my translation;
my now-found freedom;
Free from all past limitation;
Free to travel without luggage ;
Free from hellos or goodbyes;
Free to write sans
Free to sing, off key or not;
At home with God.
When mortal life has left this
I’ll revel in eternal life;
I’ll know as
I’ve been known;
See what long I have but visioned
I’ll work and not grow weary,
no night, no deadlines;
I’ll travel unencumbered;
Write and sing without reserve,
My Lord alone to satisfy;
My Lord, my judge.
“So Job died, being old and full of days.” - Job 45:17
“Then Abraham gave up the ghost, and died in a good old age, an old
man and full of years....” - Genesis 25:8
Appended: Irene’s poetic life story titled: “Images from
My Life” will appear soon on her page in the "Ray's Descendants" section of this website.
Note: This document was written for Dr. James Chuck’s Book Group at
the American Baptist Seminary of the West, April 2004, as part of a project funded by the Lily Foundation. The writer once
considered expanding this into a book length document for his family. Although he was able to do some work on the project
his life ended before he could complete it. Other family members will attempt finishing the work he started, therefore, the
family reserves ownership and the right to review/approve any editing. Irene Jennings can be reached by Email: firstname.lastname@example.org