Remembering The 'Prophetic Voice' Of Kansas City's Rev. Dr. Robert H. Meneilly
The founding pastor of Village Presbyterian Church, the Rev. Dr. Robert H. Meneilly, was "completely unafraid in the pulpit." He died on July 20 at age 96.
Editor's note: Bill Tammeus is a former columnist for The Kansas City Star and writes columns for The Presbyterian Outlook and formerly for The National Catholic Reporter.
Back in 1981, when I was a Kansas City Star editorial page columnist looking to supplement my modest income with freelance work, I talked the editor of Star Magazine, the now-defunct Sunday supplement, into doing a profile on the popular and sometimes-controversial founding pastor of Village Presbyterian Church, the Rev. Dr. Robert H. Meneilly.
Dr. Bob, as people called him, had started Village in 1949, taking advantage of the close-in post-war suburban boom in something like the way that 40-plus years later the Rev. Adam Hamilton, founding pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection, would take advantage of the suburban boom south of College Boulevard.
Meneilly wound up with a church of nearly 8,000 members. Hamilton’s church today is well above 20,000.
I got to know both men well, and when Meneilly died last Tuesday, it occurred to me that he and Hamilton shared some similar characteristics.
They’re both men of great integrity and well understood the impossibility of pleasing everyone in a congregation of thousands. So instead of trying, they aimed at giving their congregants a clear, reliable interpretation of the whatever Bible passage was their subject for a sermon.
What came to impress me about Meneilly in 1981, when I spent a fair amount of time with him to write the profile, was that when he got into the pulpit he was completely unafraid. He did not care if people objected to what he was saying. He was convinced from his careful study of the Bible and the stories in the newspaper that he had something worthwhile and important to say about both.
Through all of that, there was no false pride in him. In the 1981 profile, I wrote this: “Though Meneilly admits he is amazed by Village Church, he quickly adds, ‘I also know the mistakes and the weaknesses all through here.’ It is revealing that Meneilly mentions mistakes and weaknesses without having been asked. As hard as it may be for some in his flock to believe, Bob Meneilly does not seem to be the strong, powerful, certain man that many who hear his arresting and insightful preaching assume him to be.”
Instead, he was simply a pastor who knew that his job was to unpack what Christians call the word of God every week and to make that word applicable to the daily lives of members of Village. And he pointed out this: “In the Presbyterian church, the pulpit is free. Nobody can tell that person what he must or must not say.”
He told me he thought of his preaching as “an equal balance between personal evangelism and social evangelism.”
By the latter, he meant the ability to dig into social, political, economic and other developments and see how scripture would lead members of his congregation to respond. In other words, Bob Meneilly had what Christians (as well as followers of other faith traditions) call a prophetic voice. That doesn’t mean he could predict the future. Rather, it means that he could apply the foundational moral lessons found in the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth to what was happening in Congress, in school board meetings, in international crises.
He didn’t say it to me quite this way, but he believed that what breaks God’s heart must surely break ours, and part of his job as a pastor was to point out those matters in the world — racism, poverty, children in crisis, unjust wars, on and on — that were breaking God’s heart and to encourage Village members to do something about them.
And in many ways through various programs, they did and, under the Rev. Tom Are, the current senior pastor at Village, still do.
In recent years, I talked to Meneilly about his memories of the 1968 Kansas City riots after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination and about his opposition to the Vietnam War. And I watched him become more physically frail. But inside that thin body was a wise brain and a beautiful soul.
A memorial service for Rev. Dr. Robert H. Meneilly is scheduled for 1 p.m. Friday, July 30, at Village Church, 6641 Mission Road in Prairie Village, Kansas.
Bill Tammeus, a former award-winning columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the “Faith Matters” blog and columns for The Presbyterian Outlook, and formerly for The National Catholic Reporter. His latest book is Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.