The first conversation I ever had with Larry Doggett came because he was a professor at the college I’d chosen to attend. I didn’t know anything about him, but recognized his last name. And because he seemed kindly and approachable, I walked up to him after class and said, “Hello Professor Doggett, my name’s Derek. By any chance, are you related to Tim Doggett?” And Larry said, “Well kind of, he’s my son…” At that time Tim and his family were in the Congo, where Larry had worked for nearly 25 years prior. We talked for a few moments, then at the end of the conversation Larry said something that I’ve carried with me… “Don’t try to impress me by becoming a missionary. Be who God wants you to be.”
Then over the next 17 years, we moved from professor/student to colleagues to friends. In that time, I’ve heard Larry tell stories of being in the Congo and having to flee because the war shifted a number of times, carrying only what was most important to him. I’ve heard him tell the story of his daughter in law saving his life in a plane crash a few dozen times. I’ve heard him talk about the painting that sat in his basement that “one of the Africans” did with house paint; a copy of which Larry presented to the President of Burundi. I’ve heard Larry mention in passing on his way to other topics that he was responsible for taking the first printing press into the Congo.
And yet, he told me all of that without any of it coming across as bragging. I had to get details on all of those events that to most would be life redefining from other parties. Larry would mention those things, but only because that’s how the story went…he wasn’t trying to impress anyone. (I’ve said for years that the only reason his name isn’t in history books is because he didn’t want it to be.) The only time I heard Larry brag was when he talked about his wife, his kids, or his grandkids. I said to his wife today that every time Larry told me a story about Africa, he included the words “…and NANCY…” In a world where we all want egalitarianism, a man in his 70s/80s always went out of his way to point out how strong his wife was and how much he leaned on her. That’s something.
Larry signed my ordination certificate when I “officially” went into ministry. A lot of people can say they’re in ministry because of Larry Doggett… I’m fortunate enough to have it in writing. Larry told me he was proud of me on a few different occasions. I’m glad to say I also made it clear to him that I considered it an honor to call him “bwana.” He called the people he particularly cared for “bwana.” I knew that was his habit, so the first time he did it to me, I was so touched I failed to ask what it meant. It’s Swahili. The only colloquial definition I’ve found is “master” or “sir.” Apparently it’s also sometimes used to refer to “God” when uppercase. Regardless, it seems to indicate a show of respect from the person saying it. Larry didn’t brag about much…but that he called me “bwana” is something I’ll brag about for the rest of my life. And I’ll wave my ordination certificate around while I’m doing it.
Larry also used to punch me in the shoulder as hard as he could at infrequent but recurring intervals. He sometimes did that to people he cared about too, if he thought they could take it. I’d seen him do it to others before he did it to me, so I was prepared the first time it happened. And prepared for the smile and laugh that came with it. He never announced it. I’d be standing there talking to someone else, and Larry would saunter alongside me, just outside my field of vision, and punch me in the shoulder. I don’t really have anything else to add about that. But it used to happen.
I have told Larry a couple of times that I’m honored to call him my friend. He was humble about it. Almost dismissive. I think he found being praised a little embarrassing. But I told him how much I thought of him more than once. Larry knew I respected, appreciated, and celebrated his accomplishments on the mission field and also here in the States. Aside from the fact that we didn’t see each other enough in these last few years, I have no unresolved issues with Larry Doggett, and I’m very, very grateful for that.
Larry Doggett passed away early Monday morning. His funeral was today.
The funeral wouldn’t fit in a mortuary. It wouldn’t fit in a church auditorium. It took place in the gym of the college where Larry worked up until the end of his life. But even that didn’t contain it. There were also phone calls from colleagues of Larry’s from Africa that played over the sound system. There were prayers in English, Spanish, and two different African dialects. There wasn’t room in the whole COUNTRY for the people mourning Larry today. As his granddaughter pointed out, there were people on “at least 6 of the 7” who mourned with us today.
One of Larry’s daughters spoke briefly and asked all of Larry’s family to stand. It’s a large family, but comparatively made up a small percentage of the room–there were hundreds of us there; one family member posted on Facebook that the estimate was around 700 in attendance. She then asked that if there were any who considered themselves spiritually part of Larry’s family to stand. If anyone of the hundreds of people there were left seated, I think it must have been that they didn’t hear the question. She got pretty much the whole room on that one. Her name is Jenny. She serves and lives in Mexico. She’s the first member of the family to recognize me, walk over to me, and give me a hug. We hadn’t seen each other in probably ten years. I hugged several Doggetts (and spouses, etc) that I haven’t seen in ten years today…and each of them were kind, generous, and welcoming. Must run in the family.
It was a beautiful service. There were sad moments and also happy ones. There was some congregational singing…but little of it was sad and teary as you’d imagine of a funeral. The songs were of the “I’ll Fly Away” variety for the most part–complete with people clapping along on the wrong beats. It was in some ways a joyous event. The family made it clear from the start that they did not wish for it to be called a funeral. They wanted a celebration. Larry’s wife preferred the phrase “Larry’s HOMECOMING.” That’s such a strange concept for anyone outside of the Christian faith. And also for some of us who are in it. But if they wanted a celebration of Larry’s life…they got it. Yes, there were tears in many eyes…but they were tears because Larry lived a life that earned the celebration; while we were sad to be there, we were happy to give it to him.
When I heard that Larry had died, I was sad, but content in knowing there was no unfinished business between us. I only had happy stories. I was carrying that with me all week. I was happy to have known him. Then walking in today, I was half way to the door when I felt the weight of knowing that Larry would’ve been the first person to welcome me if he knew I was there. He’d come over, call me “bwana,” punch me in the shoulder, and make sure I was comfortable and welcomed. And it hit me that he wouldn’t be doing that today. I walked a little slower, then made it into the room, a little unsure of how I was going to do with it. Then I found others who I knew, and we all had happy stories. And we all greeted EACH-OTHER and made sure we were comfortable and welcomed. And it was all okay. Larry wasn’t there…but he was…
I’ve said that I didn’t have unfinished business with Larry. And that’s a good place to be. There was, however, someone there with whom I did have unfinished business. A LOT of unfinished business, dating back probably a decade or so. We’d been in the same room a few times over the past ten years, but avoided one another. There have been events where we’d both be present, and when we’d make eye-contact one would head for the nearest exit. We made eye contact today and in a moment that I can only think Larry was helping to orchestrate, my thought wasn’t “where’s the door?” Instead I was struck with just one word… “Enough.” I walked over to the person with whom I’ve had 10 years of anger and hurt, stuck out my hand, and said, “I know the last time we spoke it wasn’t pleasant. For my part, if anything I said or did made anything hard for you or your family, I am sorry. Life’s too short to keep carrying it.” Within a few moments, we were hugging. I went today to bury a friend…and while I was at it, I got to bury a hatchet. A burden was lifted today.
And maybe that’s the best representation of Larry’s legacy I can offer. Larry always pointed people toward reconciliation; with God, with one another, with their own past… Larry wasn’t there today…but he was… And I think he was probably happy.
I will miss Larry Doggett. But I’m so glad we met.
Thanks for everything, bwana.