David Plaster died at the age of 60, March 6th, 2010. His was a life well lived. During his life he accomplished much: Masters of Divinity, Masters of Theology, Doctorate in Systematic Theology, Academic Dean and Vice President of Grace College and Seminary, Moderator of the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches, Senior Pastor (Millwood Chapel, Etna Green, Indiana; founding pastor Valley Grace Brethren Church, Armagh, PA; Community Grace Brethren, Warsaw, Indiana; Grace Brethren Church, Worthington, Ohio). As a direct result of his leadership, many people throughout the country, and the world, were impacted by his life. But, out of all the things he worked at and had a hand in developing, I know the most treasured roles he filled were of Husband, Father (and Grandfather), and Mentor. His example, his understanding mind, and loving heart served to guide many young men, and I was one of them. Although he died almost 8 months ago, he is still often on my mind, and I needed to write. I needed to tell people about what a wonderful man he was, and I needed to say goodbye.
The Grace basketball team was traveling on winter vacation playing games and a tournament out in California in January 1997. We were in sunny Southern California, practicing in the arena of a basketball “Mecca” of sorts, Pauly Pavilion, the practice was intense as we were preparing for a tournament. I don’t remember what incited it–perhaps a rough play, terse word, hard foul, who knows–but Bert Mclaughlin my teammate did something to set me off. We got in a fight, pushing, screaming, and throwing punches. After we were separated I stormed off the court to the locker-room (actually I think the coaches ejected me). I stood there all alone fuming, unable to settle down, punching the lockers.
I wasn’t doing well, that’s an understatement. Inside I was dying. I did well at hiding the turmoil inside, but I was reaching a breaking point. All the crisis and baggage in my life were rising to a climax. I didn’t know who I was, what I came from, or why things happened to me in the past, and I had no one. I had no one because I couldn’t trust anyone. Everyone that was close to me had in some way harmed me to the core. In January 1997, I was rushing, snowballing towards destruction. I couldn’t keep it together anymore. It was just a matter of how it was going to look when it all exploded out.
Standing there in that locker-room, I wanted out. I was done. I wanted to escape. In a daze I noticed an emergency exit in the locker room. How nice would it be to just walk out, walk away from it all. If there was ever a place to get lost, to run away, it was in L.A. I wasn’t a minor anymore, I could start a whole new life starting out on the streets. I wouldn’t have to fight anymore, I could just go, I could just let go…Somehow, I made it back to school.
I was surprised to hear Dave Plaster’s voice on my voice-mail when I returned to school. I couldn’t believe it. He was short and stout. I was tall and athletic. He was an intellectual teaching Theology, I wasn’t that intellectual and I had to take the class because it was required. He seemed ‘geeky’ to me and I was a ‘jock’. There was really nothing we held in common, other than the fact he liked following the basketball team. Just before leaving on the basketball trip with the team I had visited my sister at Christmas. At that time in my life she was the last person I could trust, so I dumped some ‘baggage’ on her. She more or less freaked out, though she held it together for me so I didn’t realize it until later. She had asked me if there was anyone at Grace that I felt that I could talk to. After thinking about it, I mentioned his name. I had never spoken to him, only seen him around campus and lurking at basketball games and basketball events. I had him in class but sat way in the back and successfully avoided any interaction. But, despite there being seemingly no commonalities between us, there was something about him. There was something real and genuine about him. As it turns out, my sister called him while I was away.
I didn’t return his call. A couple of days later I got another message from him. I didn’t return that call. Then, one day while I was in my dorm room, he called again (this was before the days of caller ID in the dorm rooms). I actually had to talk to him…ohh nooo! Now I had to go see him, so I agreed to meet with him one time. His persistence paid off. I was dying inside and desperate, I was wanting to reach out to someone, anyone. By God’s grace he brought Dave into my life, for some reason I decided to keep trusting him, to keep meeting with him. Eventually, the relationship that was started kept going and he became the most important person in my life. He was the hands of God in my life, lifting me out of the muck and sludge, guiding me through the morass that was in my soul.
To understand the impact Dave had in my life you need the context, where I had come from. I had come from a broken family. My parents divorced while I was young. After a slew of custody battles and many tumultuous heart-rending situations (that’s an understatement), the courts finally settled that I, along with my three other siblings, would live with my mother. Eventually, the two oldest siblings went back to live with our father (we were about 4 hours apart) and I wouldn’t see any of them for almost 10 years. This wasn’t an amicable separation, so you can imagine the impact this had on a young boy. Being a working single mother was difficult for my mom. She was gone a lot and even when we were together she was absent, her mind was elsewhere. I know now that she loved us, and still does, and that she did the best she could, but we not only grew up without a father but we practically grew up with out a mother as well.
You can imagine then the difficulties that would arise as we went through adolescence. Putting it mildly, there were fireworks in the house. During my sophomore year of high-school a local adult took me under his wing. He saw the situation I was in as a young man and reached out. He became a mentor, and more than that, during those crazy times in high-school he became like a father to me. The summer between my Sophomore and Junior years of high school my mother moved us to another city for work. She had been commuting for awhile. This move was catastrophic for me. It removed the only support I had. Just a few months prior, the relationship between my older sister and our mother exploded so I didn’t see much of her anymore. I went from a Christian school to a huge public school of at least 2500. I went from a support network that included Christian friends and their parents, my teachers (who were instrumental in my life), and this relationship with my mentor to….nothing. I was alone with my mother in a new town, not knowing anyone and not having a church. It was a recipe for disaster.
Although we moved about an hour and a half away, this friend of mine kept visiting me, calling me, counseling me and guiding me. The relationship between my mother and I quickly deteriorated. She put the blame on him and obtained a restraining order against him. Then things just fell apart. Fortunately, at about this time one of my older brothers, who we hadn’t seen in a long time, got married, needed help, and came to live with us. This provided a respite; all our turmoil was put on hold. During this time it was proposed that I move back and attend school at my old high school for my senior year. My mother, after much deliberation, decided against it.
A month before school started my friend told me he could help me go to the courts and make it happen. I was visiting my father that summer for the first time in years, he said he’d help. With my father’s help, which was important from the court’s perspective, I successfully petitioned the courts to emancipate myself from my mother. For the remaining few months before I turned 18 I had mandatory visits with her, they didn’t turn out well. We ended up not talking for almost 4 years.
My senior year of high school was amazing. I was independent. I had a car. I was working as a waiter. I had a lead in a play. I was the star on the basketball team. I was able to go and do things with my friends I was never able to before. It was an unforgettable year. But, little did I know, there was a ticking bomb under the surface of this man and his family. I had some conflict with his wife, even some intense conflict, but it was nothing like my old life and the conflict in that. I didn’t realize that almost all of this man’s attention and affection had been turned to me. She didn’t hate me, but it was as if she hated that I was there, stealing all that attention and affection from her. You can see where this is going. After graduation, right before I was to leave for college, the church’s youth went to a conference. The night before it started, I woke up in the middle of the night to find this man’s hands down my pants. He sexually assaulted me. I was in a fog. I couldn’t tell anyone. He was an authority figure. At the conference he eventually took me aside and apologized, and that’s that, right?
This man, no, this father-figure of mine, betrayed me to the core of my being. I went off to college almost immediately after that conference. Come Thanksgiving I had no where to go. I hadn’t gotten to know any friends well enough yet to be invited to their house, I didn’t feel comfortable enough yet to go to my real father’s place, and my mother wasn’t talking to me…I had to go back to his place. Nothing happened other than having to act as if everything was ok and as if nothing ever happened. But, that was the last time I would ever go back there or even see them (on purpose) until I confronted him years later with Dave by my side.
There is so much more of the story to be told, but this gives you an idea where I was at when Dave came into my life. I still don’t know why I trusted him and confided in him, other than that it was an act of God and that Dave was just that sort of man, a genuine man of God. Of course, looking back, I can see that our relationship was always on ‘a trial basis’, I still always had my guard up to one extent or another. I couldn’t let him too close.
He never saw it that way. He was all in from the very beginning. He seemed so strange to me at times. He was always so glad to see me. Why? It was as if he was proud to just associate himself with me. I’d see him in the gym after a basketball game, eyes just beaming. I’d see him in the hall between classes, eyes just beaming. I’d see him at church, eyes just beaming. He always looked forward to the next time we’d see each other. Why? I can see his finger wagging in the air right now laughing and saying, ‘You can’t get rid of me!’.
Almost every Wednesday night for about 4 years we’d meet together at 9:00pm in his office. With no real agenda, at least none detected by me, we’d just talk. It was in these 1 hour, frequently 2 hour, and at times longer “get-togethers” that Dave guided me through the mine field that was inside of me. I was so confused. I didn’t know who I was, what I came from, where I came from. I was confused about my sexuality. I was confused about my past, my present, my future. I was asking about God, who He was and why He would allow these things to happen…I never asked those questions out loud, but Dave would answer them, not with theological arguments (we rarely ever talked about “Theology”), but with what he did and who he was. There were moments when I would weep like a baby as I tried to talk of past hurts and there were moments of anger at those who had hurt me and at God for allowing it. He usually would give me a big hug after each of our meetings, one time I remember refusing it and refusing any hug from him for several weeks. He understood. Oh, how I wish I could give him a huge hug right now.
One time when we were together I was talking about my future, whether or not I should teach physical education, or coaching, or sports management, or something else like that. He sat there listening to the things I liked to do and such and then said, “You can be a pastor,” with a straight face. I busted out laughing, “WHAT! No way, I could never be one of them.” Those people are important people, they’re leaders, have a relationship with God I could never have! He stuck to his guns and reiterated it saying amazing things about me that I couldn’t believe of myself. He blew my mind by saying those things. I said, ok, maybe a youth pastor, he said maybe, but I can see you being a pastor one day. I dismissed it as talk from a crazy man, but the seeds had been planted. And these were the seeds: God is good. God will heal me. God has a plan for me.
As you can imagine, my relationships with my mother, my father, and that ‘friend’ were all important themes in my life. He helped me get back in touch with my mother and begin that relationship again (and that was not an easy road). He helped me navigate through all the feelings and issues I had with my father and how to start that relationship anew as I was coming into adulthood (and that was not an easy road either). He helped me wade through all the muck and slime that was left on me from that ‘friend’ of mine. I mentioned one time that I thought I needed to confront him. Dave thought it was a good idea but didn’t push me. He knew I had to do it in my time and said he would always be there and ready whenever I decided to. Eventually that time came, 10 years after the incident, Dave was by my side. The plan was for me to say my bit, what I had prepared to say, I would then leave the room and Dave and another friend would continue talking with him and follow up. Dave was my voice, he was my defender.
After Tara and I left Winona Lake I’d call him from time to time and talk about stuff. Slowly, as time passed, those phone calls and emails became fewer and fewer. I don’t do well at keeping up with long-distance relationships. Every time I’d get back in touch I’d be so apologetic, saying things like, “I’m so sorry for not keeping in touch, I feel horrible that I haven’t kept in touch more often.” He’d respond by saying something like this, “Brian, I’d love hearing from you more often, but it doesn’t matter, I love you and nothing is going to change that.” But the kicker is, he’d say it without any guilt or shame in his voice; he never made me feel bad about it. He never made me feel bad about anything, missing a meeting, interrupting in the middle of a busy day in the office, anything.
God brought Dave into my life at the most crucial moment. Dave was a gift from God to me, to all of us. And Dave gave so much. I would not be the man, the father, nor the husband I am today without Dave having been in my life. I would not be where I am doing what I’m doing today without Dave. While Dave was still here I understood how important he was to me, I named one of my sons after him, but I didn’t grasp all that he had done. Moving overseas, being a missionary, and learning a new language is an insanely intense internal experience. You have moments questioning your worth, your ability, your intelligence. It hones in on the most minute issues in your life, in all your relationships, and magnifies them all. The level of difficulty of being a husband, father, friend, and teammate is ratcheted up exponentially.
When Dave died, a flood of memories started coming back to me, the things he said, the things he did, who he was. It was during one of the most difficult times I’ve had living overseas, I could hear him say, like he said on a number of occasions, “Brian, I’m proud of you, I love you.” It has so much weight in my life because Dave knew me, he knew practically everything about me, other than my wife there wasn’t anyone who knew more about my past, about my hurts, about what I struggle with. Hearing him say that about me gave me, and continues to give me, hope and confidence. It was as if Christ were saying that to me. Dave had given me one more thing: he had given me a real voice to hear; he had given me a real example to look at, and not just hear and see Dave, but hear Christ saying and being that to me. I have a flesh and blood example to look back to–I know Christ loves me because Dave did.
Dave would say to me, “You’re one of my own.” He is my spiritual father and his legacy continues to be lived out through my life. The people Tara and I touched while living in Philadelphia, the youth and men we are getting to know here in the shanty-towns of Argentina, all are directly connected to the life of Dave Plaster. Most importantly, I look at my sons, I don’t know what path God has for them but I do know the kind of man, the kind of husband, and father, I need to be for them. His impact will be felt for many generations to come.
Thank you Dave, we miss you, we will never forget you.
Other Places On-line to read about his impact:
FaceBook Group “Mentored by David Plaster”-lots of stories
Here’s a much better link http://www.fgbcworld.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=659