I have always loved stories, which makes me especially grateful that my faith tradition is filled with them.
One such story, from the Hassidic legacy, was told by Rabbi Moshe Lieb Erblich, who is also known as the Sassover Rav. He told of entering a tavern in his Ukrainian village and overhearing a conversation between two peasant drinking buddies.
One said to the other, “You know that I love you.” His friend responded, “Do you know what hurts me?”
The first one replied, “What kind of question is that? I just told you I love you, and you ask if I know what hurts you?” The response was, “If you don’t know what hurts me, how can you say you love me?”
I joined the board of Interfaith Alliance in the 1990s and wound up before long on the search committee for our first permanent executive director. We hired a minister with an eclectic background named C. (for Curtis) Welton Gaddy (1941-2023). He had been a rising star in the Southern Baptist Convention until they swung hard to the right, and he refused to follow.
I was impressed with his profound commitment to the guarantees of the First Amendment but at least as much by the variety of books he wrote on worship, Scripture, awe, conscience and, remarkably, addressing depression in the clergy. Welton became my teacher and friend, helping me to fulfill the instruction of Jewish tradition to find someone who could be both.
Over the years, I watched Welton take on the emerging movement of right-wing political Christians – led especially by Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson – uniquely qualified to do so because he knew their hearts from his own experience. He knew that the great blessing of America was its wide embrace, something he learned from Jesus but understood was not proprietary theology.
When confronted with something unfamiliar to his Baptist sense of the world, like Muslims, lesbians, female pastors and a Yankee rabbi, he did everything in his power to engage and connect. Unfailingly, he found first common ground, then common cause, then common grace.
In the process, he helped to shape this country to protect the rights to worship, love and even disbelieve in profound ways. He was comfortable at the proverbial 30,000 feet but insisted on keeping his feet on the ground by pastoring his beloved Northminster Church in Monroe, Louisiana, and ministering to the dear people he met everywhere he went.
One of them was me. He reassured me at some low ebbs in my confidence in America and the welcome it extended to my people that lots of folks like him were on our side. His passion and compassion never flagged, even though he faced challenges that most of the outside world never saw.
He and his wife Judy lost one of their two children as an adult, and try as he might, Welton could not lift the weight from his heart. I was privileged to spend time with him, clergy-to-clergy, brother-to-brother, father-to-father to speak to the dark night of his soul in that unimaginable circumstance.
There were some things Welton never got. He mangled more names on “State of Belief,” the radio program he hosted weekly, than a printer with a paper jam. He wore wool slacks when we went to the ballgame. He could never fully parse the distinction between Jewish religion and peoplehood that defined that community.
And he never got the meanspirited pronouncements of public figures who claimed to be adherents of a religious tradition. In his own life, he knew the importance of love, even in pronounced disagreement. He never, ever understood how anyone who affirmed the image of the divine in every human being could diminish that image in the name of faith.
The Sassover Rav was open to wisdom from two peasants who had never set foot in a synagogue. Truth is truth, and a child of God is a child of God.
Whoever you are and whatever your spiritual life, however you see the world and whomever you love, Welton Gaddy loved you.
And I can tell you from knowing him for all these years, if you were to ask him if he knew what hurt you, he would respond with his courtly accent, “Why yes, I believe I do.” And he would be right. And you would be comforted.
Make him your teacher.
Editor’s note: An Interfaith Alliance news release about Gaddy’s life, work and legacy is available here.