My mother, who died in 2014, graduated from John McDonough High School in New Orleans in 1940. At the time, it was an all-girls public high school. She remained close to many of the girls who graduated with her, and she never missed a high school reunion for the next 60+ years. And then the reunions stopped. The time came when the number of the 1940 graduates still living had dwindled to less than five. My mother said that they decided that reunions had become too depressing, too much of a reminder of what, and who, was gone.
I thought of my mother when I read a Facebook post last week. It almost seemed nonsensical. A friend posted a short item of the passing of a mutual friend, Paul Stolwyck. It was a shock. I didn’t know he’d been ill. Over the next few hours, I learned what had happened. He died from a brain aneurysm. No warning, no sign, just a collapse.
I met Paul when we attended First Evangelical Free Church in St. Louis, back in the early 1990s. He was an assistant pastor and enormously gifted in preaching. He’s gone to DeSmet Catholic High School in St. Louis, the same high school my oldest son graduated from.
Paul knew everyone, and everyone knew Paul. He was outgoing, among the first to spot a new face in the room. He liked people. He could find common interests faster than almost anyone I’d ever known. He was fun. He’d challenged you. He’d say provocative things, like “Ninety percent of missions is simply showing up.”
He had a heart for missions, and he and his family eventually left our church and became missionaries in Hungary, based in Budapest. They were part of the denomination’s Central European Mission.
It was Paul who had the idea for what was, at the time, one of the most unusual short-term missions teams ever proposed: a communications missions team. The Central European Mission needed help in communicating what they were about, what their missionaries were doing, and what need and opportunities they had. Paul knew enough about the people at our church that he suggested a team of three people. A guy to manage the trip, a guy to do the filming, and a writer.
I was the writer.
It was a new idea for a short-term team, and a lot of people at the church were cool to the idea. One person, however, championed us, and she occupied a key position in church missions. We got the green light. The plan had been to go in late September of 2001, but 9/11intervened. The trip was rescheduled for May of 2002.
The itinerary was packed. We’d arrive on a Saturday, attend church and tour Budapest on Sunday, and then leave Monday morning for Prague and then Dresden. We’d return via Prague and Brno and spend a day with the staff and other missionaries in the office in Budapest. With travel and filming / interviews, we were looking at 14-16 hours a day.
Paul met us at the airport in Budapest, and we stayed with Paul, his wife Carol, and their children, and Paul took us on the city tour on Sunday. And it was Paul who told us that “it had been decided” to change our itinerary, and we would also have to travel to Erfurt, Germany, because of a pastor ministering there following the deaths of 13 people in a school shooting. It was an unexpected side-trip that ended up changing my life.
Paul and his family eventually returned to the United States and settled in Greensboro, North Carolina, still deeply involved in missions. But we stayed in touch. Facebook helped. Paul would occasionally send an email. He asked permission to use some of my poems in sermons. He talked about my novels. He did one of the things he could do so well, and that was to encourage. I can see him now, his glasses propped on his head, talking earnestly about a Bible passage or a theological point, or just about anything.
And that laugh he had. It could be sudden and loud, startling you the first time you heard it and catching the attention of anyone within 30 feet. But it was endearing at the same time. It was the laugh of a man who loved life.
And now he’s gone, in the blink of an eye. I want to say it’s way too soon, and it is, by my earthly standards. I feel diminished by his death. But I feel enriched by knowing him and calling him a friend.
And I’m confident I will hear that laugh again one day.
Top photograph by Warren Wong via Unsplash. Used with permission.