He was the embodiment of wisdom, kindness, and moral leadership.
I only knew him for a little over 4 years, but he has been one of the most influential people in my life.
On June 1, he passed away suddenly and unexpectedly.
My wife and I are broken from the loss, and grieving also for his wife Laura and son Jakob. After we heard the news, we spent a good portion of the afternoon just sitting and crying. Later on, I just sat staring at my phone, scrolling through the comments of people sharing their memories of him.
Our church community at Mosaic is devastated. He was only 48 years old. We always assumed he would be around for a long while. It’s hard to believe he’s really gone, and it’ll be hard for a long time.
Many others knew him on a much deeper level. But I want to share with you who he was through just a handful of interactions I had with him.
This is Rickey Williams.
The First Time I Met Him Was a Lesson in Humility and Empathy
I was part of a church in transition. Rickey was the new incoming pastor. If you’re familiar with church culture, you know this can be a tense time. The week before he would be introduced, he had a chat with a few of the core members in a living room. There was some concern, frustration, and uncertainty among those who were there, including myself.
As we all voiced our thoughts, Rickey listened. He affirmed and validated what we had to say. He empathized with us. Not once did he try to counter, dismiss, or discredit anyone, even when questions were unfairly aimed at him. He handled it with patience and grace. He simply listened and let us know he was for us. He didn’t make any excuses, but took on the responsibility of helping us build the community we wanted.
That night, I remember saying to my wife that even though I’d only known him for 2 hours, I fully trusted him to lead.
He Showed Wisdom and Grace When Speaking on Things That Mattered
In the first year that Rickey was the new pastor at our church, several major events happened in our country, including mass shootings, police killings of black people, and the refugee crisis.
While many churches shied away from talking about it, Rickey addressed those issues head on. On some occasions, he dedicated his entire sermon to talking about racism or refugees. He always pulled from his own life experiences and was vulnerable about his own failings. He reminded us of the people God called us to be. He lovingly challenged us to broaden our perspectives and seek what we should be doing.
I recall multiple private conversations he would have with me on these issues. During times when I was uncertain of what to think or feel, Rickey provided so much clarity and insight. He wasn’t afraid to call out the areas where Christians were wrong, and he always pointed me back towards the person of Jesus. With both gentleness and conviction, he guided me in how to see the world through the eyes of God. Rickey’s stories and teachings have inspired me to write as much as I do on these issues, particularly when it involves my faith.
He Called Us to Be More
There were a few times Rickey texted me to have coffee. More often though, he texted me to help serve. Whether it was inviting me to hang out with new people he’d met to make them feel welcome, or helping someone out through physical labor, his heart was always about creating space for other people.
He called us to expand our circles. He challenged us to truly love our neighbors. He would often say that instead of just inviting people to church, try inviting them into your lives.
When Rickey heard about how my wife and I were passionate about helping refugees, he sent us information about a meeting from our other church campus to start a refugee ministry. We attended, and from there, we’ve served on multiple refugee teams, hosted refugees in our home, and my wife has led the refugee ministry. Rickey’s desire to call people to live larger and push them towards something greater has undoubtedly changed the course of their lives, including ours.
He Prayed Over Our Son
When our first child born, I asked Rickey if we could dedicate our son at a church service. He of course was excited about it. We had the honor of Rickey praying over our son Emerson, and that’s something we will always cherish and remind Emerson of as he grows up. We’re saddened that our kids won’t have the opportunity to know him and learn from him.
He Guided Us in Our Marriage and Parenting
In the first year of being parents, we were overwhelmed and stressed. Rickey and Laura were gracious enough to meet us for breakfast and share their wisdom with us. Though most of it was probably just my wife and I unloading on them, they were so patient, understanding, empathetic, and encouraging. They were vulnerable about not being the perfect family, but they were the perfect family to build others up.
I Realize Now That I Should Say “Yes” More Often
Last summer he invited me to see a movie with some guys. I remember I was feeling overwhelmed and said no, but that I would go next time. I was hosting an event the next day and thought that it was too much activity for a weekend.
Next time never happened.
I wish I would’ve said yes. I wish I would’ve made one extra memory with him.
The Last Time I Saw Him was a Lesson in Justice
4 days before Rickey passed, I saw him for the last time. We were on a group Zoom call to talk about what to do next in the George Floyd murder. He shared with us about being humble in listening to black voices, and to be bold in taking action on their behalf. Those were the last words I heard from him.
For the next half hour, we stayed on the Zoom meeting, muted, and all individually made phone calls to various offices in Minnesota to demand justice for George Floyd. That was the last thing I saw him do.
The last time I heard him speak was about justice. The last action I saw him do was for justice.
I’m not sure what he did in the few days after, but his online activity continued to speak in support of the black community. This was his last post on Instagram:
Up until the end, his life was lived imparting wisdom and seeking justice.
I Hope to Carry His Legacy
I wish I would have spent more time with him. I wish I would have asked more questions. I wish I would have taken more notes. There was so much he taught me, both in word and in deed, but there was so much more I could have learned from him. I wish I would have thanked him more.
I see his legacy in his wife and his son – I admire them so much. I see his legacy in all the people he’s influenced and how they’re better people because of him.
I hope I have absorbed enough of what he’s taught me in these 4 short years to carry and transfer his legacy to others.
Rickey Williams was a man of strength and gentleness, of influence and humility, of wisdom and empathy. He spoke with the heart of Jesus and served with the hands of Jesus.