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Aeternum vale: Pastor Ken Hutcherson's passing and the culture of judgment

Pastor Ken Hutcherson after years of battling cancer
Pastor Ken Hutcherson after years of battling cancer
Photo by: Katherine Ainsworth

At 6’1” and well over 200 pounds, he cut an imposing figure. He was the linebacker Atlanta’s own Don Hansen called “a jewel.” And when the Seattle Seahawks took him from the Green Bay Packers, Hansen approved, saying, “You’ll love him.” He played for the Dallas Cowboys, the Green Bay Packers, and the Seattle Seahawks before pursuing a full-time career in a field where he took even more hits than his football career ever entailed: evangelism. Those who truly knew him loved him, and those who did not know him? Well, they did not know him. Pastor Ken Hutcherson, known within his ever-growing congregation as “Hutch”, was a voice in the modern-day wilderness.

“Blue, green, grey, white or black; smooth, ruffled, mountainous; that ocean is not silent.” H.P. Lovecraft

In 1988, a shy, timid 9-year-old girl walked through the doors of Antioch Bible Church with her parents. Hutch had founded the church just four years prior. That first day, his sheer size and presence was immediately overwhelming, but within seconds it became clear Hutch had a heart of gold. Over the next 25 years, the little girl bore witness to the evolution of the church. When they met, Hutch began teaching her the “cool” handshake, a complicated series of gestures that seemed too hard to ever learn but too awesome not to master. And from that first day, he never forgot her name. Not when she moved out of state for college and to start a family of her own, not when she was away so long any average pastor would have long since forgotten her. Hutch always had one of his patented handshakes and a hug for the little blonde girl who was both instantly terrified of and enthralled by his size and charisma. That girl was me, and as a friend, parishioner, and writer, it is the moment I hoped would never come and never truly saw myself forced into: remembering Pastor Hutch.

When Hutch passed away, the LGBT community pounced on his death like a horde of starving vultures on a fresh carcass. The vitriol being spewed by the majority of those within the LGBT community is the kind of hatred typically reserved for serial killers and megalomaniacs. And while it is no surprise they would not be sad to see Hutch go, since he held such a prominent position against gay marriage through his Mayday for Marriage rallies, among others, it is sad to see they lack something Hutch had in his very marrow: class. It’s time for a good, old-fashioned come-to-Jesus moment, something I can and will do on my own, standing alone and apart from the congregation. Turning the other cheek, while a very respectable tenet of Christianity, also has its time and place. Now is not the time to fall silent, Antioch, but the time to stand up for the man who stood for each and every one of you on countless occasions with no thought for his own well-being.

Very nearly from its inception, Antioch’s mantra has been “black and white in a grey world.” This slogan speaks not only to the diverse ethnic congregation Hutch worked so hard to build but also to the duty as Christians – as members of the human race – to take a stand. Football defense player Hans F. Hansen once said “It takes nothing to join the crowd. It takes everything to stand alone.” Hutch hoped each member of his congregation would gain the strength and desire to stand alone.

Two decades ago, he stood in front of what was a relatively small gathering in the on-campus chapel at Northwest College in Kirkland, WA and gave the church some basic instructions. Churches had and have been falling apart at their very core for years, and certain responses are simply a reflexive action, he said. His example was the regurgitation of “Amen”, a phrase with great meaning churches around the world use so automatically they’ve all but forgotten its meaning. “Amen” is Hebrew for “so be it,” and Pastor Hutch felt it was being used too thoughtlessly. Members of his congregation, when they agreed with something said in church by any one of its pastors or parishioners, would therefore not parrot “Amen” but would instead come back with a resounding “Praise the Lord!” All those years ago, the calls of “Praise the Lord” were at first intermittent and unsure to church-goers used to the old standby, and Hutch would stand at the front of the church (for he rarely stood behind a pulpit) and call out “What do we say?” It didn’t take long for Antioch to yell a faith-filled chorus of “Praise the Lord!” Hutch had a way of inspiring not only his own church but others to strive for far greater heights not only in their faith but in their lives in general, for the two, he knew, are inextricably entangled.

"Honest disagreement is often a sign of good progress." Mahatma Gandhi

We had our differences of opinion. Pastor Hutch was firmly against divorce, and as a young woman who ended up as a divorced single mother, I was well aware I had done something he disagreed with. Hutch believed there was always a way to deal with relationship issues whether large or small. In my eyes, certain issues were beyond the pale. But even though I had taken a road not approved of by my pastor, I knew he still loved me. Sure, I knew his opinion, but I was also fully aware that I would always be welcomed with open arms by this man of God with unshakeable faith and unending love and loyalty.

"Hatred does not cease by hatred, but only by love; this is the eternal rule." Buddha

As a testament to his never-ending capacity for love, Hutch adored his wife and four children more than life itself. On more than one occasion, Hutch let the congregation know what his marriage was like: “She knows if she walks by at home…ooo! Something’s gonna get grabbed!” His sense of humor and obvious love for his family has somehow been overlooked by those who disapprove of his own disapproval of hot topics like gay marriage. The big, highly-trained dogs prowling his property helped to insure his family’s safety amidst the threats that included threats of death – all because he spoke up for what he believed was Biblically right. The media is obsessed with President Obama’s girls – an African-American family being portrayed as the second coming – and if any one person or group made the kinds of threats against them that have been made against Hutch’s family, there would be hell to pay. But when the threats are against a non-denominational pastor who stands against gay marriage and abortion, they’re okay. They’re swept under the rug, ignored, and even, sadly, portrayed as understandable and justifiable. It’s also worth remembering Hutch’s firm support of gun rights. And it doesn’t hurt to keep in mind the decades-long tradition of pro-football players, both retired and current, who attend Antioch. We protect our own.

When I was 13 and a burgeoning artist, horses were my favorite subjects. Pastor Hutch’s true-black Appaloosa stud was a wonder of power and beauty, and he gave me photographs to practice my craft. Many hours later, I had produced an oil painting with two images: a head shot and a full-body image of the breathtaking stallion. And although I had some talent, I was no Thomas Kinkade. Even so, Hutch hung the painting in his church office and thanked me honestly for the gift. Years later, the painting remained. At about that same time, the world-famous horse trainer John Lyons came to town for one of his seminars. I attended every moment of every day of his seminars, taking copious notes and reveling in a moment where I was able to pet Lyons’ own Appaloosa stud, Bright Zip. But it was the Sunday morning at the end of the seminar that thrilled many attendees: cowboy church service right there in the freshly turned dirt of the arena. And presiding over our cowboy service was Pastor Hutch, in full western regalia. He had another pastor take over that day’s service at Antioch and spent his morning in the dusty arena talking to our ragtag group of horse lovers. Anyone who saw him in his tooled cowboy boots and ankle-length black duster would never think him anything but an average, red-blooded American.

"Political correctness does not legislate tolerance; it only organizes hatred." Jacques Barzun

Hutch was not about his race. As a black – yes, black, not African American – man raised in the deep South in the 1950’s and ‘60’s, he was surrounded by racism and hatred from the day he was born. He admits to growing up with a deep-seated rage against whites he did not overcome until he was born again. He openly admitted that prior to being saved he was displeased with the non-violence of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, methods. In fact, he told the congregation more than once he originally began playing football as an outlet for that race-based rage. But he did overcome it, and with time he built one of the most ethnically diverse churches in the country. He often said he is not an African American, because he had never been to Africa. Hutch saw himself as “an American that is black.” He had no patience for political correctness but preferred to tell it like it is. He preached for a New Testament church, preaching the Bible as it was written, not as if it was open to interpretation. Not as if he could simply leave out the parts he didn’t like. And when it came to men in power and the color of their skin, he had just one thing to say: “The President of the United States, if you remove his blackness, then just ask the question, is he a good President or is he a bad President for the United States? Just remove the blackness and make that decision.” Just remove the blackness. That’s what Pastor Hutch wanted: a world where there was no black, no white – just men with or without honor.

The mainstream media failed monumentally in painting an accurate picture of Hutch. Yes, he was a staunch advocate against gay marriage. He was against abortion. He was pro-gun. He wasn’t terribly politically correct. He challenged people to leave their comfort zones. When Trayvon Martin was shot by George Zimmerman, he remarked that he’d never heard of a “white Hispanic” before, and made it abundantly clear what he thought of those who were “living black and just can’t help themselves.” He said of Al Sharpton that when you remove his blackness, there is nothing left. But he was a family man, a man of virtue and standards. And once Hutch was in your corner, he had your six.

Hutch passed away on December 18, 2013, from prostate and bone cancer. At his request, services were delayed until after the holidays – a typical Hutch move. His absence at Antioch is more than an empty space. His death leaves a void that cannot, will not, be filled. All churches have their fair share of politics, in-fighting, and, yes, intolerance. And at Antioch, the tie that bound everyone together, despite the rest, the proverbial glue that made everything work, was Hutch. With Hutch’s passing, the ties that bind have been altered to a damaging level, and the church will never be the same.

He is mourned by many. Rush Limbaugh gave a stirring on-air eulogy, remembering their years of friendship and the day Pastor Hutch married Rush to his fourth wife in 2010. Yes, that’s right, he performed a fourth wedding ceremony. Glenn Beck tried to make it to the Pacific Northwest in December before Hutch passed and just barely failed. Beck fought back tears as he recounted his own memories of the controversial pastor. In 1988, only football fans knew his name, but when he passed a quarter of a century later, Hutch’s name had gained nationwide recognition. And those who loved him were not only those within the Christian community. Eli Sanders, a gay writer at The Stranger, also spoke fondly of Hutch, saying, “I will miss him.”

We will all miss him. And perhaps those of us who both felt and received the full spectrum of his beliefs – love, support, and stern disapproval – will miss him most. For regardless of anything else, Pastor Hutch let you know you were loved. That is a rare gift and not everyone in the Christian community manages, and this writer speaks with the weight of experience on her shoulders. We mourn the passing of a pastor whose capacity for love will be forever unparalleled. May he walk with angels. Plenus annis abiit, plenus honoribus (“He is gone from us, full of years, and full of honors.” Pliny).

"There is no need for temples, no need for complicated philosophies. My brain and my heart are my temple; my philosophy is kindness." Dalai Lama

Author's Note: The point here is to see both ends of the spectrum. Passing judgment weighs heavily in the Church, and it is all too easy to respond to such judgment in kind. Consider people from both sides; there are two sides to every coin, and sometimes it's the tail you focus on. Learning not to be judgmental is a talent woefully in need of learning inside the Church in general, but also outside the Church body as well. I speak separate from the congregation; I am speaking as one from without, and asking anger to be set aside in these matters.

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