Above photo: The Rev. Junius Dotson, right, pictured with the Rev. Kevass Harding in a December 2015 magazine photo session. (Photo by Jeff Tuttle)
My friend, the Rev. Junius Dotson hoped he would have more time to produce a series of inspirational columns that we – I was his editor – could string into a book. He thought his cancer diagnosis might cause people to drop their guards just enough to hear his message of grace and salvation.
There would be grief related to his grim prognosis, but he saw transformative opportunity in that grief. He saw the sun and the Son in all things bleak.
“God is still good and can be trusted,” he said in one of his last communications with me.
Culminating in 2020, Junius spent months at a New York negotiating table where the United Methodist Church denomination ultimately split. As general secretary, he lobbied along with others, on behalf of an international network of children in schools, orphanages and hospitals dependent on church funding.
Through heated internal debates that spilled into public view via the news media, Junius held out hope for fleeing denominational leaders to see the person behind the color, the souls behind LGBTQ labels, and the church’s future beyond immediate disagreements.
He spoke often of how painful it had become watching people plead for their humanity.
But he walked calmly through the tumult comforting and helping. He heard whispers falsely accusing him of seeking higher church office when he wanted nothing more than a trustworthy process, and the resources for vulnerable to people to find security, sanctuary and acceptance.
Negativity only deepened his resolve. He made long-range plans to hasten the crucial reckoning American Christians have with their tolerance of and complicity with all forms of discrimination.
But searing back and side pain drove him into the emergency room on New Year’s Eve and in this age of unthinkable pain and loss that was precisely the kind of news he received: late-stage pancreatic cancer, perhaps the most unforgiving form of the disease.
When he called to break the news to me one Saturday afternoon, I heard an unfamiliar tremor in his voice. He rambled some and then read a column he’d begun writing to comfort everyone who loved him. He didn’t want anyone feeling sorry for him. He spoke boldly of his faith and his intention to fight.
This moment, he said, was golden. The only time we truly hold people’s attention on life’s stage is as our spotlight begins to dim. His illness offered a microphone through which people might hear the urgency and righteousness of his message.
But the rampaging cancer ravaged his liver before he could even begin chemotherapy.
He died the very day I learned he’d been sent home for end-of-life care.
My final images of him came through loved ones who said when his pain eased, Junius would try to write. He urged despondent friends and family to listen to music. He put others at ease through laughter.
People should live the way this man died.
To Junius, “good grief” wasn’t a bitter interjection, but a declaration of a way we live to give our faith depth and resilience.
A barometer for love and for grace.