I had few peers.

What I mean by that is that not many people did what I did. Not in the same town. Not when I was doing it. But Bob Edwards was doing it when I was and in the same town. Except he did it as a layperson, and for the Catholics. And all that time we celebrated a warm sense of collegiality, and still enjoy a long-lasting friendship, if at a distance. That’s why I count him as one who has been a spiritual and vocational guide along my path.

I really don’t remember when we met. I think I had met his predecessor at the Communications Office of the Catholic Diocese early on in my official capacity as the Presbyterians’ local radio-AV guy. (That’s AV as in Audio-Visuals.) When he left for other work, Bob Edwards came on the scene, and somehow or another, we found some commonality in our media ministries. For one thing, our offices and studios were within blocks of each other in the Fan District of Richmond. We also had an openness to ecumenical cooperation, and, of course, as the “odd ducks” of our respective church structures, we found some comradeship in interpreting our work.

Eventually, we teamed up to co-host a weekly, five-minute religious news program titled, appropriately enough, “Religion in the News.”  We taped the show on Thursday or  Friday afternoons, usually with Bob coming by my place to record. We’d both cull some news stories from various religious new services, add some local items if we had any, and use a number of actualities from a National Council of Churches source called “Ecumedia News.”

There were only two stations that carried the thing. If we had time, one of us would mail the tape to our Fredericksburg station, and one of us would drive it up to the Richmond outlet. There were weeks, though, when we ran late and one of us would have to drive the hour up the road to Fredericksburg to drop off the tape  at the station. What a waste of time for a five-minute Sunday show in a small market. But, we were so darned responsible.

If that religious news show sounds dry, well, maybe the content was. But we had a ball putting it all together. I think I still have a reel of outtakes, and I’m willing to sell them. To Bob. “This is Bob Edwards…” “…and I’m Jeff Kellam, with ‘Religion in the Nude.'”

Whenever we met to produce that feature, the best part was sharing the joys and frustrations of our jobs, our outlook on the world at large, some news about our families, and conversations about the churches for which we labored. At the time, I worked alone, without a secretary, so it was very good to have someone fun and safe to talk with. We commiserated about our small budgets and we traded dreams. We laughed alot! Week by week, I looked forward to Bob’s visit.

When cable TV arrived in our area, we explored the public access possibilities and worked through the confusion of three different cable systems serving Richmond and surrounding counties. One system especially encouraged our providing them a weekly program, and offered us production and editing time. Bob and I joined with a local Episcopal priest (Bill Sachs, for the record) to produce a weekly show called “Passages.” Sometimes we all worked together, sometimes two of the three of us, sometimes solo. We’d make copies and drive the show around to the other systems.

The experience was invaluable for me, and finally led to my establishing the Video Education Center at the Presbyterian School of Christian Education. Again, though, it was the ecumenical networking with Bob Edwards that made the project a delightful endeavor. The primitive production values, the equipment that often failed us, and the fact that no one actually watched  the public access channel — all that faded away when we considered the value of working together creatively… and as friends.

While Bob stayed planted at the offices of the diocese, my workspace moved from a church just down the street, to the PSCE campus. I think the cable TV and radio news shows faded away as changes took place in local media. But Bob and I stayed in touch, because, as I said, we were the only ones doing what we were doing in the same place at the same time. Until I felt that pesky call to pastoral ministry, in Vermont of all places.

I recommended that my last radio program in Richmond be turned over to Bob. Frankly, I don’t know if that ever worked out. I have a vague recollection that a weekend announcer Mike Blacker took on the show, just to fill the time slot, and though I’m sure Mike did a great job, that long-time Sunday morning slot lost its ecumenical religious focus, something Bob would have kept going until the “out-of-towners,” the absentee landlords of the broadcast industry, would strip away the last vestiges of public service time.

In these 40 days of Lent, I know that Protestants and Catholics alike would hope to focus more time on spiritual discernment. Discernment. I don’t know that I had any idea what that concept was until I learned it from Bob Edwards at a short retreat he planned for members of his local “Catholic Communications Commission.” It really wasn’t in vogue for Presbyterians back then. But I was very impressed with how the process of discernment worked as Bob’s committee chose its chairperson.

I’d served on any number of boards and committees in our churches, and when it came to finding a chair, my,  how the discussion turned to arm-twisting, cajoling, and often lame excuses. But at Bob’s retreat, after some reports about the past and goal setting for the future, Bob said we would move into a time of prayerful discernment to choose our next leader. I knew I was safe, since 1) I was new to the commission, and 2) I was a Protestant. But in silence, we prayed, and then folks wrote down on slips of paper the name of the person they felt God was calling to this office. 

See the beauty of this process? One, prayer. Two, listening. Three, discerning. And four, choosing.  And when the process was over, and the name announced, how could anyone complain?  It was an act of the Spirit. Done. And I was in awe.

Of course, it didn’t change the way elections took place under my watch using my denomination’s Book of Order, but I learned that to be still and pray, to listen and discern, the Spirit had more of a chance to guide than if my best guess stood in the way. And, naturally, the process of spiritual discernment works way beyond the election of committee officers. Sometimes the process leads to life-changing decisions or newly discovered directions.

When I discerned my call, or the Lord’s call to be more precise, to pastor a small church in Vermont, it meant pulling up some deep roots in Richmond, along with putting many miles between myself and the friends and colleagues with whom I had worked and played.  Saying goodbye to Bob Edwards was among the most painful farewells.

Whenever I go to Richmond now, and it isn’t as often as I’d like, I try to meet Bob for breakfast at the Bob Evans Restaurant close to his home. We’ve even stayed with him on the last two trips. The linens are clean, his cat is friendly, and our conversations are as if  life hadn’t skipped a beat. Plus, it’s so cool to have him drive me around in his Town Car.