Life Stories

LIFE STORIES: Quincy pastor pulls optimism from tragedy

The Rev. Timothy White during an interview with a Herald-Whig reporter at Trinity United Church of Christ on Monday, Jun. 18, 2018. White did his first sermon when he was 16. | H-W Photo/Jake Shane
By Herald-Whig
Posted: Jun. 25, 2018 8:45 am Updated: Jul. 5, 2018 10:09 am

QUINCY -- The Rev. Timothy White has a knack for finding a lesson in life's darkest hours.

Through the devastation of the Flood of '93, he found a love of community service and was instrumental in forming the Quincy Area Partnership for Unmet Needs. Through the death of his wife, Susan, he found himself able to connect on a deeper level with grieving members of his congregation.

White is tall and broad-shouldered -- his stature eliminates any doubt he played defensive tackle for Elmhurst College, a Division III football program. He grew up in Belleville and through high school, was active in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

"That kept in perspective what's important," White said. "When you're a jock, the cool thing to do is often stray off the path and do things you shouldn't. Fellowship of Christian Athletes kind of kept me on the straight and narrow."

Baptized as an infant, White grew up in the church -- his mother was a Sunday school teacher for 26 years -- which constructed the foundation for his adult life. His call to the pulpit came early, about age 14, he said. On Lay Sunday, when he was 16, he delivered his first sermon, an analysis of Micah 6:8.

"It was intense, one of those moments that confirmed I was on the right track with God's plan," he said. "It was a very large church, and the service was broadcast on the radio. I was literally talking to thousands of people."

A desire to help others drew White to the ministry. He studied theology and physical education -- his parents were adamant that he have something to fall back on -- at Elmhurst College near Chicago before going to Eden Theological Seminary School in St. Louis.

"I was an introvert when I was younger, but I kind of evolved into an extrovert in seminary school," he said. "I came to the conclusion that, if I wanted to be successful, I needed to put myself out there all the time."


Flood of '93

The summer of 1993 was an odd one, White remembers, not unlike this one. Intensely hot weather was offset by random storms that rolled in quickly.

After the 500-year flood gained national attention, Trinity began receiving checks from people across the country. In 1993, Trinity received $100,000 in the mail, unsolicited; $200,000 from the Illinois Conference of Churches; and a $25,000 from the United Church of Christ -- all meant to benefit those impacted by the disaster.

"I had to figure out how to be responsible with all that money," White said. "That sort of pushed me into the realm of community service."

When the flood was over, the community still faced many daunting, longterm recovery issues. White helped form the Unmet Needs Committee, which met weekly for two years to solve problems in the recovery effort.

"I think the committee really enabled our region to recover from a major, national disaster," he said. "We realized the need was greater than anyone could address on their own, and suddenly, it became important for us to work together."

The committee disbanded after two years. In 1997, the committee reconvened with the intent of addressing the issue of poverty in Adams County, becoming the Quincy Area Partnership for Unmet Needs. There are 18 churches and 20 social service organizations involved in the partnership, and since it began more than 20 years ago, it has allocated more than $500,000 in Adams County.

White has served on the boards of the Cornerstone Foundation for Families and Quincy Family Planning, served as president of the United Way of Adams County, and chairman of the Quincy Family YMCA's annual campaign. He organized the Quincy Ministerial Association to block a white supremacist group and in 2002, received the Joe Bonansinga Community Service Award.

He recently received the Illinois Conference of the United Church of Christ's Chalice Award, which recognizes those who have demonstrated exemplary leadership and made a significant impact on the ministry.

"I was kind of scratching my head, wondering why I got it," he said. "I haven't done anything other than what I've been called to do, but at the same time, I felt honored."


A New World

White has written and delivered sermons for 33 years, 28 of which have been spent at Trinity United Church of Christ. When he goes back through his earliest sermons, he can see how much the world around him has changed.

When he first entered the ministry, his sermons focused almost entirely on telling the story of the Bible. While the practice is still important, he said, his approach has evolved to present ideas in ways that are applicable to people's lives.

Each Sunday, before he sits down to write his pastoral prayer, he checks the news to see if a tragedy has occurred that he needs to include in the prayer. The practice is the result of his having missed the Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016.

"It's more important to talk about the issues that are shaping our society," he said. "We live in an information-driven society, and if your faith isn't intersecting with the information you're getting every day, then your faith isn't going to be helpful to you when the crisis hits."


Grieving in a fishbowl

Susan died of cancer in 2006 at age 44, leaving White to care for the couple's two children -- one was 16 and the other 11. The couple had been married 20 years.

"It was probably the most difficult time of my life," he said. "I grieved in a fishbowl."

The visibility of his role as the leader of Trinity United Church of Christ, and his involvement in so many social service organizations, made the grieving process more difficult.

"I felt like I had to get it right, because you're the example for everybody else," he said, something he accomplished by "being committed to being authentic and real."

A special education teacher, Susan was loved by the Trinity congregation, and congregation members grieved along with White, often mentioning Susan in conversations. Although it may have kept the pain in the forefront of his mind longer than necessary, he said those conversations proved helpful and made him feel closer to the congregation.

He also feels that he was able to successfully navigate the choppy waters of single parenthood.

"I think there are a lot of wounded people walking around in the world," he said. "I wanted my kids to be healed from the biggest hurt of their lifetime, and I think they are. That's probably my greatest accomplishment in life."