Kurt Tillman – A Tribute to Don ‘Bubba’ Church (1934-2020)

This is how I last saw Don Church, in 2016, at Wheaton College

That Don Church (‘57) matriculated at Wheaton College in the fall of 1953 is something of a miracle. And the miracles continued to grow in size and impact throughout the remainder of his 85 years on this earth.

Shortly after his graduation from Wheaton and marriage to Ann Stromberg (’56), Don began doing a series of tasks around the Athletic Department for his former coach and mentor Harv Chrouser. What began with sweeping the floor of Coray Gym and scouting football games grew into a 35 year career as a coach (football, track & field and cross country) and faculty member in the Physical Education Department.

Along the way, Don and Ann had three sons, David (’81), Andrew (’84 and Thomas (’86). For 18 years Don devoted his summers to work at Honey Rock Camp. Beginning in 1968 he led multiple track and field teams to compete in Mexico, Africa and behind the Iron Curtain. He also launched a number of international initiatives at the college, including the Faculty Mission Project, the European Summer Study Program and the Timothy Project, that significantly deepened Wheaton’s engagement with the Global Church. Don’s status at Wheaton evolved from tenured faculty to treasured teacher, coach, mentor and catalyst.

Why do I suggest that all of these circumstances can be characterized as miracles? Because Don was severely dyslexic. All of his life he struggled mightily to read. His grades at every level of school hovered barely above the minimal requirement to pass grade levels or graduate. Don often said that until his dyslexia was diagnosed in his 30’s he simply believed that he was stupid.

By God’s grace, Don’s struggles gave him a deep empathy and compassion for the circumstances of others, be they students, faculty, staff, internationals or anyone else he met. Also in his 30’s Don grew to more profoundly realize that he was a beloved child of God.

For many, an encounter with Don felt like an embrace from the Father. In conversation, his curiosity and enthusiasm would build, his eyes would shine, his eyebrows would start to arch, and his Kansas drawl would grow excited. Inevitably his exhortation would end with “you know God is good, he REALLY loves you”.

Most of us believe that last sentence is true, but for many of us it is difficult to let that theological conviction fully infuse our daily lives and experience. For reasons I still can’t explain, that truth seemed to pervade Don’s every waking moment.

I believe Don’s greatest gift was that of encouragement. It is a humble gift, but Don used it faithfully to open the eyes and hearts of others to the miraculous love of God.