My friend Larry died recently. I had not seen him in 25 years, but the news still came as a shock.
Larry may have been the most gifted young preacher in the 1960s and 70s any of us will ever meet. At the age of 27, he became pastor of the First Baptist Church of Biloxi, Mississippi. Something happened while he was there that changed his life forever.
A hurricane named Camille hit the Mississippi coast and left much of it as clean as a sidewalk. Within days, gifts of food and clothing from a caring nation were arriving in Biloxi by the truckload. Not knowing what else to do, the mayor ordered it unloaded and stored on the tarmac at the airport. Within a couple of days, it formed a small mountain, yet none of it was being distributed because the city leadership did not have a clue where to begin.
Larry went to the mayor and volunteered to direct the distribution of those supplies. His one condition was that he be put in charge, that he would make the decisions. And that’s how the people of Biloxi and surrounding areas got through those first few weeks after the worst hurricane in U.S. history to that time.
It’s also why the U.S. Jaycees named Larry one of their ten outstanding young men of America a year or two later.
Furthermore, that is how Larry came to the attention of the largest church in the state, the First Baptist Church of Jackson, when they started looking for a new pastor. At the age of only 31, Larry moved into one of the strongest churches in the south and the most influential one in Mississippi. Former governors sat among their deacon body, and within two years another deacon would become governor. It was a bully pulpit for a young man on the move.
As Larry began assembling his own staff of ministers to lead that church, I soon found myself a member of his team. I had been pastoring Emmanuel Baptist Church in the delta town of Greenville, and was invited to become minister of evangelism on the Jackson staff, a new position for them. What followed were three of the most eventful and educational years of my life.
Larry was so multi-dimensional that any number of books could be written on his life, even if the narrative ended by his 35th birthday. Which is about the time his ministry ended. His life became a tragedy, sad to say. And yet, it did not start out that way.
A Texan, Larry was raised in a non-Christian family. He loved to tell how he got started to church. The family had just moved into a new neighborhood and were unpacking boxes when a stranger knocked at the door. He identified himself, told how he taught young boys in Sunday School at the local Baptist church, and asked, “Didn’t I see a little tow-headed boy running around here somewhere?” His mother said, “Yes. That would be Larry.”
Larry said, “I had learned from my parents that the way to get rid of the church crowd was to agree with them. So when the man invited me to his Sunday School class, I said, ‘Okay. I would go.’ And I thought that was the end of it.”
The man said, “Sunday School starts at nine o’clock. I’ll come by and pick you up at 8:30.” “Fine,” said Larry, and promptly put it out of his mind.
On Sunday morning, a knock at the door woke Larry up. The teacher was standing there. He said, “Larry, it’s eight o’clock. Now you get some clothes on and eat some cereal and I’ll be back in 30 minutes to get you.” And he walked away. So, Larry said, “I got dressed and ate some breakfast and was ready when he came back.” That’s how it all started.
There came a day when the pastor of Larry’s home church asked everyone to go and stand by the person who had introduced him to Christ. Young Larry knew exactly where to find his Sunday School teacher, because he sang on the back row of the choir. But he couldn’t get to him. There was a line of men walking to him, men and boys of all ages, like stairsteps, all of them 10 year old boys when that man had knocked at their doors and invited them to Sunday School, just like he had done Larry.
Funny things happened to Larry. Like the time the secretary sent him to the wrong “Mrs. Sullivan” to comfort her after the sudden death of her husband. (It was funny only in retrospect.) Or, the time he baptized in the evening worship service, then re-entered the sanctuary with the giggles. When he stood to preach, he was still laughing. “Folks,” he said, “I’m going to have to tell you what happened or I’ll never get through this message.” After he baptized, he was getting dressed and the zipper on his suit pants broke. Now, Bill and Mickey Brunson were back stage helping with the baptism, and they tried to repair it, but were unable. Finally, Bill volunteered to let the pastor wear his suit. Larry said, “This is Bill’s suit, and I was just sitting here wondering what he is going to do.” Ten minutes into the sermon we found out. The front door beside the choir opened and Bill and Mickey walked in, Bill with a raincoat over his arm covering the front of his suit. The congregation and Larry fell out with laughter. When it died down, Larry said, “Bill, we’re all curious how you solved the problem.” Mr. Brunson was a always match for his pastor and simply said, “Curiosity is not one of my problems.”
Anyone who knew Larry in those days would tell you he was a gifted speaker and a brilliant man in a hundred ways. But one thing he did will forever tell the story of this talented, tragic figure.
Larry walked across the hall into my little office and said, “I’m trying to find our next minister of education. Do you know Bill Hardy up at Kosciusko?” I said I knew his son Barry who sat in the college Sunday School class I taught. Larry said, “He’s obviously a good man, and would probably do us a good job. But he’s a plodder, and I’m looking for a race horse.”
That’s all he said, but I recall it like it was yesterday. I recall it for two reasons.
Two years later, when I had gone to pastor the First Baptist Church of Columbus, Mississippi, and we needed a minister of education, I went to Kosciusko and invited Bill to join our staff. He stayed nine years and is still talked about there as the gold standard of Christian ministry. After that, he put in ten years as director of Christian education with the Baptists of Wyoming, then retired back to Mississippi where he led the partnership of the Baptists of that state with Zimbabwe and served area churches in interim positions. Plodder? Yeah, right. We should all be such plodders.
Larry, on the other hand, was a race horse. You know what they do, don’t you? They run a mile and two tenths, then retire to the barn to be pampered. At the age of 35, this wonderful and talented man resigned the church, saying he was burned out and needed to “go to the wilderness,” as he put it. Later, he was to try pastoring again for a year or two in other churches, but he was never the same.
I once had Larry up to Columbus to lead a city-wide conference that was well-attended and well-received. But we never spoke after that. He divorced his wonderful wife–to many of us, this lady had been the role model for how every minister’s wife should live and conduct herself–and he later remarried and moved to rural Alabama.
Occasionally someone would tell me they saw Larry in Birmingham. Not long ago, I asked a mutual friend for his address so I could write him and express my appreciation for what he had meant in my life. When I got home, the note was misplaced and I gave it no thought until two weeks ago when it turned up in my armoire. I laid it in a prominent spot so I would find it later, then went off to Nashville to the Southern Baptist Convention.
The day we returned home, Larry died. A heart attack, they said. And the funeral was Sunday.
I never wrote that note, never told him of my appreciation for him, and never thanked him adequately.
I asked a friend if he thought the Jackson folks might have a memorial service for Larry. “There are not that many left who remember him,” he said, “so I doubt it. And some of those who do still carry some anger toward him.”
Anger. I chose not go into possible reasons for their anger. I’m sure they have them. But I did not want to write about that. That’s all between him and the Lord, the same way my past and yours are.
We celebrate the gospel truth that the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from all sin. That’s I John 1:7, and it’s the best news I know.
Larry G. Rohrman was a great man in a hundred ways, and was used to bless my life, and I honor him for that. Nothing he did will ever change that.