A Tribute to J. Randolph Taylor


Joseph S. Harvard
Pastor, First Presbyterian Church
Durham, North Carolina

Covenant Network Luncheon
214 General Assembly, Columbus, OH
June 17, 2002

Those who have preceded us have placed us on their shoulders so that we can see better where God is leading us. Many of us caught the vision for the church from Randy Taylor.

I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to pay tribute to this man who served as an outstanding mentor and dear friend for me and many others. Randy died on January 4, 2002. He was born in China, the son of missionaries from the Presbyterian Church. He received degrees from Davidson College, Union Theological Seminary in Richmond and the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. That is a Presbyterian pedigree if I ever saw one!

He loved the Presbyterian Church and served congregations as pastor in Washington, Atlanta and Charlotte. He ended his career in theological education as president of San Francisco Theological Seminary.

That tells about the places he served. What he did there was to be a preacher, a teacher, a pastor and a prophet. Randy had a vision of the church as an agent of God’s reconciling love and justice in the world where all are welcome and encouraged to use their gifts as in the service of God’s Kingdom. Arline Johnson Taylor, Randy’s spouse, shared this vision and worked hard with him to make it a reality. They were a great team.

During the racial conflict of the 1960’s, Randy organized The Fellowship of Reconciliation, a group of progressive Southern Presbyterians who worked for justice in the church and in society. This group also stood by ministers in crisis who came under fire for taking a stand during the civil rights struggle. Randy had a vision, and no matter how difficult the odds, he worked to make it a reality. He is an inspiration for us at this crucial time.

When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, Randy was pastor of Central Presbyterian Church in Atlanta. As a friend of the King family, he went immediately to the King home when he got the news. He also called the mayor of Atlanta, Ivan Allen, and said, “We have a problem, Mr. Mayor. We are opening Central Presbyterian Church to house and feed as many people as we can who are coming from all over the world to Dr. King’s funeral. We need 900 cots and blankets.” It was a sign of how the city should respond to this tragedy, and the cots and blankets were delivered.

Randy had vision, commitment and a great sense of humor. It has been reported that a colleague extremely conscious of his self-importance was pontificating at a Presbytery meeting. (I’m sure nothing like that ever happens in your Presbytery.) Randy watched as the man strutted back to his seat, and then remarked to the person sitting next to him, “There, but for the grace of God, goes God.”

Randy listened to Scripture. He believed that Jesus was serious when he prayed that the Church be one, so that the world might believe. He worked tirelessly against huge odds for the reunion of the Presbyterian Church. After more than 120 years of division, it seemed impossible, but Randy kept at it. And in 1983, the reunion took place, and Randy was the first Moderator of the reunited church. What a wonderful moment for Presbyterians as a result of Randy’s commitment to God’s vision.

His doctoral dissertation, which became a book, was titled God Loves Like That. Randy sought to make the reconciling love of God a reality in the church and in the world. He was persistent in pursuing this reality, even in the face of huge odds and even in the face of defeat. He believed that a just and loving church is God’s will. Surrounded, as we are, by this witness who lived a faithful life, let us run with perseverance the race before us.

Thanks be to God for the life and witness of Randy Taylor.