Vale Rev. Dr Joel Edwards – fellow traveller, brother in Christ

A reflection, on the passing of a great man I briefly chatted with twice

The first time I can remember ever hearing a sermon about God’s heart for justice, Joel Edwards was preaching.

It was about 20 years ago and I had timed my lunchbreak – I worked in an administrative role at my church – so I could slip into a college chapel service and hear him preach.

More than anything, Joel’s message instilled a profound sense of family in me.

I can’t remember who let me know it was on, or why I chose to go when I’d never before attended a college chapel service during my lunchbreak. I can’t even remember what I was expecting.

What I do remember is how I felt listening to Joel share that God cares deeply about righting the wrongs of injustice and oppression.

Joel spoke about the Old Testament’s prophets in a way I hadn’t heard anyone do before that day. They came alive to me. I was also struck by his ability to tackle difficult, challenging subject-matter, and yet still make me feel hopeful and inspired to act. His oratory skills were remarkable.

But more than anything, Joel’s message instilled a profound sense of family in me. Somehow, as he told the story of God working to set the world’s injustices right, I realised that I was part of a great family of brothers and sisters who all had a part to play in what God was doing. I had a part in the story he was telling. Joel Edwards – brilliant as he was – was my brother in Christ.

Later that afternoon, I ran into the college’s principal and Joel walking back from lunch. The principal introduced us and said something about how we would get along. We talked politely for a few minutes and went our separate ways – an inconsequential encounter for them, no doubt, but the kindness of heaven for me.

The next time I met Joel was a decade or so later at a round-table discussion on “evangelicalism” at Morling Bible College in Sydney. About twenty of us – academics, pastors, activists – had been invited by missiologist Michael Frost to discuss whether or not the label “evangelical” had been corrupted beyond redemption in the public square.

I can remember feeling faintly annoyed by the conversation, which didn’t really matter to me. Now I recognise how important this conversation was and still is to many Christians. But at the time, the most interesting part was that I had ended up being in a room with Joel Edwards again!

I chatted to Joel after the meeting and, to my surprise, he responded warmly when he learned what church I attended. My church’s name did not usually produce warmth from social justice types. In fact, I had grown accustomed to the revelation resulting in either a lecture or a request to get my church involved in an initiative of some kind.

But not from the Rev. Dr Joel Edwards! Joel was positively delighted to hear the name of my church and asked me to pass on his best to the college principal.

“Do you know, Kylie, years ago I was in Kampala, Uganda, and I heard your pastor preach a wonderful message about justice,” he told me.

Joel went on to admit he’d been surprised by the subject matter – it wasn’t what our church was known for.

“I mean, he was speaking about world poverty and how it mattered to God!” he said.

I smiled and said I knew exactly the message he was referring to. I’d heard the series when it was originally preached in Sydney.

I told Joel that I had previously worked in that pastor’s office and at the time he was preparing that message, he’d had a broken arm, so I had helped to collate some of the resources he wanted to use in his study.

One of them, I clearly remember, was an article I found on the international Micah Challenge website – which Joel had been the International Director of at the time. The paper’s author argued that many of Jesus’ actions could be viewed as overtly political and, even, social justice activism. I had found it fascinating and had gone to some effort to get my pastor to not only read but also discuss it with me.

“You did your part.” – Joel Edwards

After I told him this, Joel looked me dead in the eye and said, “Ah, so it was you!”

I was embaressed and quickly backtracked. I did not want to give anyone the impression that I had that kind of influence over my pastor because it simply was not true. He is a man who preaches what he believes he should and no admin assistant shoving her social justice articles down his throat was going to manipulate him.

I had wanted Joel to know about the part the Micah Challenge article had played in it all and I’d inadvertently claimed credit that was not mine to claim!

Joel heard me but looked me in the eye once again and said, “But you did your part.”

I felt seen. Deep down, I knew I really had done my part – albeit a teeny tiny part of the enormous work God was doing. I had been deliberate and determined and it had felt like a stretch to me at the time. And here was my brother in Christ, Joel – who played a much larger and more sigificant role in God’s kingdom – affirming me as a fellow worker.

It was with great sadness that I learned this morning that this brother in Christ, Joel Edwards, passed away on Wednesday after a battle with cancer. Today, I have spent time reading tributes to him that outline the wonderful work he did during his 70 years on earth.

Joel was General Secretary of the Evangelical Alliance from 1997 until 2009 – the first black Pentecostal to hold the post – moving on to become International Director of Micah Challenge. A senior figure in the UK church, Joel was awarded the Langton Award for Community Service in 2016 “for his unique contribution in uniting evangelical Christians across the UK in challenging global injustice”.

“I wait to welcome you …” – Joel Edwards

Despite having only met Joel briefly twice and having no expectation our paths would ever cross again, the weight of his loss has stayed with me all day.

Don’t get me wrong, I am fully acutely aware that I lay no claim to personal grief here. The two times I interacted with Joel were most likely not at all noteworthy to him and it’s highly unlikely he would have known me from a proverbial bar of soap should we have met on the street.

Nonetheless, my brother – our brother – and fellow traveller, Joel, was promoted to glory this week.

I am grateful for the opportunity to honour and give thanks for his life here.

Oh, by the way – he left us a letter.