An 'Awesome' Tribute to Mullins

Suzanne Perez Tobias and Lori Lessner

September 28, 1997

They came by the thousands, in blue jeans, shorts and T-shirts - at least a few dozen with bare feet - to say good-bye to Rich Mullins.

About 5,000 friends, family members and fans gathered at Wichita State University's Henry Levitt Arena Saturday night for a service honoring the contemporary Christian artist's life and music and celebrating the God he worshipped.

Mullins, 41, was killed in a traffic accident Sept. 19 while on his way from Chicago to Wichita for a benefit concert. Mitchell McVicker, a friend who was riding with Mullins, remained in serious condition Saturday at a hospital in Peoria, Ill. He is conscious and able to move, hospital officials said.

The service opened shortly after 7 p.m. with a collection of Mullins' music, sung by the Praise Band and accompanied by an enthusiastic crowd.

"The world is not my home," they sang. "I'm just passing through. My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue."

Joining the chorus were Melanie and Chris Castleberry, who traveled with their five children from Houston to attend the service.

"This news was so devastating, but it's wonderful to be here with all these people who know how you're feeling," Melanie Castleberry said.

"We've wanted to come to Wichita for so long - to see the Keeper of the Plains and all those things Rich talked about - and we're finally here. I just wish so badly that this wasn't the reason."

People who traveled great distances from Indiana, Texas, Wisconsin and other states to attend the nearly three-hour service experienced a wide range of emotions Saturday evening from laughter to sadness, from pity to confusion about, "Why Rich?" and "Why now?"

Laughter had to be mixed with the tears, his friends said. Otherwise they wouldn't have made it through the service.

The spectrum of emotions was evoked by the personal stories told and the music performed. The Praise Band started out with slow Christian ballads then moved to the upbeat "Sing Your Praise to the Lord" that had many people clapping and standing. Well-known pop Christian singer Michael W. Smith, one of Mullins' many friends in the Christian music community, also sang in a surprise tribute.

Mullins was not the only one remembered. The audience devoted many songs to God, noting it was important "to remember who it was that made him (Mullins) great," said Sam Howard, a college friend who asked Mullins to be the best man at his wedding.

In the numerous eulogies, friends remembered Mullins as a man who sometimes wore jeans replete with holes and who never could seem to find his keys, his checkbook or his airplane tickets. On a serious note, they said, he was a man who consciously, excitedly and actively sought out God and helped others to find him where he had been all along, in their hearts. His poetry and his music were his methods for achieving this.

Zach Payne a fan who came from Tulsa, said that while Mullins' musical talents are important, he will be remembered in history for the bright theologian he was.

Payne's family was one of a few dozen who arrived to the service at least four hours early to make sure they could get seats. The arena seats 10,600, and people filled about half that.

Lawn chairs and picnic blankets dotted the grass in front of the arena about 3:30 p.m. Some people passed the time reading paperback books or listening to radios while kids doodled with Magic Markers. Others ate fast food and introduced themselves to fellow out-of-towners.

"None of us have anything in common except that we are believers meeting here to show our appreciation for Christ," Payne said.

Jon Hunsbusher's co-workers in Burlington, Wis., know he went to a funeral service this weekend in Wichita to pay tribute to someone he didn't even know.

"I can't explain it," he said. "When someone famous dies, sure, you feel bad, but not like this. It feels like I lost a brother. I felt so close to him even though I met him only briefly after a concert."

Also remembered Saturday by Mullins' friends and fans is Mitchell McVicker. A friend who was riding with Mullins when their Jeep flipped over, McVicker remained in serious condition Saturday at a hospital in Peoria, Ill. He is conscious and able to move, hospital officials said.

About 40 people helped organize Saturday's tribute, including band members who toured with Mullins, Wichita ministers, the Liturgical Dancers from Friends University and the Wichita Ballet Theatre.

Throughout the day, KTLI, 99.1-FM, a Christian radio station in Wichita, played Mullins' songs and reminded listeners of the upcoming memorial service.

Friends and fans who could not attend the service shared their grief in other ways, many of them sending e-mail condolences through the Internet or logging on to visit various Web pages.

At the service, anecdotes about Mullins' life were recounted in bits, with one friend likening the stories to pieces of a patchwork quilt. There were many to share.

This from Jim Smith, chaplain at Friends University:

Mullins had moved in with Smith and his wife for a short time a few years back. Not feeling quite at home, he took it upon himself to throw out the attic carpeting and remodel the entire room, maybe even add a Persian rug.

One thing about Mullins, though, is that he usually never finished anything he started because he couldn't stand the finality of it, Smith recalled.

If you ever see Mullins' video to "Hold me Jesus," Smith said, you'll know that it was shot in the attic that had no carpeting.

Pieces of a patchwork quilt.

Mullins was a private person who wrote a page of prose a day that no one ever read. One time he left a notebook full of personal musings in his studio. Rather than retrieving it, he asked a good friend to destroy it without opening it. That friend took it to a dumpster. Mullins' secrets now lie in a Nashville dump, under four of five years of trash.

The Indiana native and 1995 Friends University graduate had recorded nine albums and had more than 50 hit records in his career, which began in the early 1980s. A song he wrote, "Sing Your Praise to the Lord," became one of the biggest hits for Christian recording artist Amy Grant.

Mullins had been nominated many times for Dove Awards, Christian contemporary music's equivalent of the Grammy Awards.

Death was not a subject Mullins avoided. The first time he forced himself to "dig under a lot of the cliches of the Christian faith" and confront the fact that he is "going to be dead someday too" was when he wrote the song, "Elijah," he recounted in a publication in 1992.

It was his favorite song, which he wrote around the time his great-grandma died and John Lennon was shot. With "Elijah," he was sending a message that, 'You know, someday I'm going to die, and I want to die good," friends recounted at Saturday's service.

Coincidentally, just six or seven weeks ago, friend Andy Hansen had asked Mullins to sing "Elijah" at his funeral.

"Now they'll just have to play the tape when I die because we'll be singing it together in Heaven," Hansen said.

More pieces of a patchwork quilt, this time in the form of euphemisms Mullins coined. Occasionally, friends turned to each other during these moments and locked eyes or nodded their familiar with the stories.

The bachelor's take on marriage was that for people too weak to handle celibacy, God gave spouses. For people who couldn't handle spouses, God gave celibacy. He also believed that when you die, you are neither married nor single and should live your life in light of that.

"Your identity is something other than your marital status or income," a friend recalled him saying.

Another Rich on Rich: "When it's all said and done, everyone only has two things left to say: 'I forgive you' and 'Thank you.'

His thank you came Saturday night, when the tribute ended with thoughts of God and all he has brought into their lives foremost on people's minds, and thoughts of Mullins second.

Mullins always closed his pop music concerts with the audience singing God's praises. He was happy hearing that, not cat calls and hoots for an encore from himself.

Copyright 1997 by the Wichita Eagle

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