News of his death was no surprise. His wife of well over half a century had died months earlier. She had been his caregiver, and news of her death was unexpected. With his long-standing health issues, most people, including him, assumed he would go first. After she died, I understand he talked pretty directly to the Lord about his own heavenly home-going.
On Nov. 3, I noticed a text message from my brother Randy. It simply said, "I just heard that Uncle George passed away at 2 p.m." Family members who hailed from my hometown of Mt. Vernon in southern Illinois always called George and Florence Webb "Uncle George and Aunt Florence." I did; still do.
Some 50 years or so ago, Uncle George and Aunt Florence — actually my great uncle and great aunt — left town after responding to a call to ministry, just a few short years after making dramatic professions of faith. Off they went to Fort Worth, Texas, to pursue training that would prepare him to be a pastor. His education growing up had been limited. So he did some prerequisite work before entering Texas Christian University and then Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
He took on a mission pastorate in Fort Worth. I believe he began while still a student and stayed for more than 10 years. He had planned to serve the church even longer but made a fateful road trip to California to preach a revival as I recall.
On their way back to Texas, he and Aunt Florence drove into Holbrook, Ariz., a town of about 5,000 in Navajo County near the Painted Desert, looking for a Baptist church where they might worship on a Sunday evening. The doors of the church were open, and members were gathering to worship, but the congregation was without a pastor.
When the people learned that Uncle George was a pastor, they coaxed him to preach. (He probably didn't need too much encouragement.) He and Aunt Florence enjoyed the service, and then headed back to Fort Worth. That's when the calls started. Those Holbrook Baptists became convinced God was leading them to pursue George Webb as pastor. He turned them down but they kept calling -- for months. Finally, he and Aunt Florence became convinced these folks were hearing the Lord correctly.
They served in Holbrook for more than 10 years before moving to Mesa in their senior years. He became pastor of Brown Road Baptist Church, and later the Webbs planted Superstition Foothills Baptist Church in Gold Canyon. To his surprise, the Arizona Southern Baptist Convention elected him to serve as its president in the mid-1980s.
Like so many Christian servants, the resume doesn't begin to tell the story. Family revered my great uncle and aunt. What I discovered in visits to their churches in Fort Worth, Holbrook and Mesa was that they endeared themselves deeply to people everywhere they served. They stayed close to God, visibly loved people and enthusiastically invested their lives in others. They modeled a genuine Christian lifestyle and joy as well as any couple I have ever known.
By the way, before he left my hometown all those years ago, Uncle George became deeply burdened for my father, Bob — his nephew — who was certainly no believer. Our family did not even attend church, despite the influence of faithful Christian relatives on the other side of the family.
Dad and Uncle George grew up as brothers; my uncle desperately wanted Dad to become his brother in Christ. Dad resisted my Uncle George's witness but finally — "to get him off my back" — agreed to attend a revival service on the south side of town. Our family all went and stuffed a pew. It turned out to be a dramatic experience, one that changed our whole family for good.
The upshot was that we went home after services that evening with a Christian father who gave up tobacco products on the spot, began to tithe because someone said that is what Christians do and became — along with my mother, Vera, already a believer — great Christian influences, especially on their children. In fact, we kids began tithing on 50-cents-a-week allowances because that's what people who love God were supposed to do, along with reading their Bibles and praying every day.
In my own Christian testimony, I refer to Uncle George and Aunt Florence as my "grandparents in the faith" because they led my Dad to the Lord, and my parents in turn led my siblings and me to faith in Christ. My uncle and aunt often told me they prayed for me and for each member of my family every day. I counted on it.
Dad died nearly 22 years ago. I have tried to imagine the heavenly reunion that must have taken place last week. Surely heaven will never be quite the same. For sure, a lot of people and places back here on earth will not.