In Memoriam: William H. (Bill) Hopper, Jr.

A dear friend of mine died this morning.

From San Gabriel Executive Presbyter Ruth Santana Grace:

It is with deep sadness that I share the news that the Rev. Bill Hopper has passed away. He died early this morning. As you know, Bill dedicated his life to the ministry of the Church of Jesus Christ as a missionary, executive, pastor, leader and much more. He will be deeply missed. I am confident that the heavens opened to receive him as he crossed over from this life to the next; I am equally confident that God’s voice was heard echoing, saying “This is my servant and son, in whom I am well pleased.” We will let you know of plans for his memorial service once we have them. Please pray for his family as they make this journey – may they experience the hope of the resurrection and the love of Christ through friends and family.

I got to know Bill a number of years ago when I was working at Westminster Gardens, a local retirement community which was then exclusively for those who had served the Presbyterian church as missionaries, ministers, or some other capacity under the denominational Board of Pensions. Bill was the president of the Residents’ Association then and I was serving as the Director of Communications, so we worked together on several projects. As we got to know each other, I shared with him that I am a lesbian; he shared with me that one of his and his wife Mollie’s three daughters is also a lesbian. Since then I have spent quite a lot of time with Bill. Despite the fact that Melinda and I are the age of Bill’s daughters, and Bill was of an unknown-to-me age at least as old as my own parents, I always felt that we were friends. Check that: I knew that we were friends.

When Melinda and I legally married in 2008, it was in our church, and Bill and Mollie (who preceded him in death) were among those who gathered to witness the occasion and to rejoice with us. This meant and still means a lot to us.

Always a gentleman, Bill was born and grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. His father was a Presbyterian minister who was an eloquent preacher. Bill was a PK–a preacher’s kid–so there were certain expectations of him, some by his family, others by his friends. Many PKs rebel in some way: Bill’s way was in a socially acceptable one; Bill loved baseball.

As a kid, Bill would listen to the Birmingham Barons on the radio. He was a big fan of his home team. The radio announcer for the Barons was Bull Connor–who would later become in many ways the face of the racist, segregationist, Jim Crow South. I don’t know what Bill’s father’s theology and politics were, but when Bill found out about Bull Connor and what he stood for he stopped listening to the broadcasts. (I’m no Dodgers fan, but I’ve listened to the voice of the Dodgers, Vin Scully, for much of my life. It would be hard to say, “No more,” and turn off that voice forever.) Bill’s love of baseball continued, however–something that he and I shared. But his love for justice and equality and all things progressive were far greater–something else we shared.

Bill served as a missionary in Iran and Pakistan. Although the political leaders of those countries have changed since then, much of what we read now was true then. The three daughters lived their formative years in Iran, with one of them having been born there–they express remorse that they can never return to the land of their childhood. Bill contracted a powerful form of malaria in Iran, which cut their service short in order for him to return to the United States for medical treatment. He served the church in other ways for a few years, but he and Mollie felt like they needed to return to the mission field, so they got and assignment in Pakistan; they served there until his malaria returned. As Ruth said above, he served the church at every possible level: from the mission field to the local church to presbytery, synod and General Assembly. For a number of years he led the commissioner training prior to each year’s GA–something vital to the success of our then-annual conventions.

Well into his retirement, Bill and former PC(USA) Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick–a colleague, neighbor, close friend and tennis partner–decided they would write a book together. I played a small part in creating that book, What Unites Presbyterians: Common Ground for Troubled Times, so I know that Bill did much of the heavy lifting, while Cliff read the chapters and made suggestions and corrections. It was a good collaboration, and one they enjoyed, so they wrote several other books together after that. Something special about Bill, though, was that he wasn’t one who only associated with people who held the same theological and/or political views. Bill was a friend to many people regardless. Bill was the embodiment of grace.

Bill was active in the Witherspoon Society (now part of Presbyterians for Justice), More Light Presbyterians, the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, and was a supporter of That All May Freely Serve. He encouraged me, prodded me, helped me, and occasionally gently guided and tempered me in my work with those groups and for those same causes. Bill was an ardent supporter of women’s ordination and service, of racial and ethnic civil rights, and of many other causes. I don’t know if anyone will ever know his full effect on the world though, because he was so modest about his own contributions.

At the same time, he had a great dry sense of humor, and was a wonderful conversationalist and story-teller. He had a deep, somewhat gravelly voice and that Alabama-Kentucky accent which was so easy to listen to. He delighted in sharing stories about his children and grandchildren in way that I loved to hear.

Even though I know that he’s now rejoined with his life and life-ever-after partner Mollie and other friends and family members in the presence of the Christ who he served and loved in life, I will miss him a lot. I am proud that he was both a friend and a mentor, and I am a better person for having known him. Thanks, and God bless you, Bill Hopper.

* * * * * * * * * *

I forgot to say something important! Bill was one of the few people I know who liked fruitcake. A long-time tea-totaller, he even liked the booze-soaked ones. Every year someone would likely give me a fruitcake for Christmas (or I’d rescue one from someone else), and I’d make sure that it went to Bill. He’d have a tiny sliver every day for months–and would enjoy it immensely. If someone gives me a fruitcake this year I’ll make sure to have a tiny slice and think of him.

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