American and global culture lost a compassionate and moral giant Tuesday with the untimely passing of the Rev. John Deckenback, the Central Atlantic Conference minister of the most progressive among Protestant denominations, the United Church of Christ. Deckenback, as we are sure he would have preferred, “died with his boots on,” suddenly at his desk in the early evening hours of July 19. He was 69.
Deckenback was one of the countless human beings who carry out their life’s work outside the kind of spotlights that define “celebrity” these days, although his entire adult life was dedicated to his special ministry in the U.C.C. at the regional conference spiritual and administrative level. In particular, he endured and persevered in that “conference minister” role in Northern California and for the past two decades in the Central Atlantic states, including Virginia, navigating the ongoing relevance and redemptive role of the church through a rough period of declining numbers and its calling for social change and spiritual growth.
Deckenback was a lifelong friend, a year junior, of our owner-editor. They grew up together in a southern California seacoast town and both wound up attending the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, Calif., during the wildly tumultuous times of the burgeoning anti-Vietnam War, civil rights, feminist and gay liberation movements. Upon his graduation, Deckenback saw his role as moving into the denomination’s regional administrative offices in downtown San Francisco in the midst of that era, while our editor chose the role of social activism and journalism. It did not cause their estrangement, but as Deckenback said back then, “We’ve simply chosen different paths.”
The two were reunited when, a year after our editor founded this newspaper in 1991, Deckenback was called to head the U.C.C.’s conference in this region. Among many other things, Deckenback helped arrange exclusive interviews with the national leadership of the U.C.C. by the News-Press.
A big, burly, bearded, booming but friendly and kind-faced man, he cherished all his roles as pastor, husband and father. He was a tireless worker, holding together the churches in a denomination that prides in the independence of its local congregations, from conservative ones in the Shenandoah Valley to predominantly African-American ones in the D.C. and Baltimore inner cities. The role of the denomination in founding Howard University after the Civil War was never lost on him as an inspiration for his work, as well the denomination’s trail-blazing decision at a national synod to advocate for same-sex marriage years before it became a popular idea.
Deckenback also traveled periodically to the Middle East, visiting and bringing aid to the massive refugee camps on the Syrian-Iraqi borders after the U.S. began its invasion and occupation of Iraq.
A core theme of the U.C.C. is that “God is still speaking,” and “where man puts a period, God puts a comma.” The Rev. Deckenback was a living, breathing embodiment of just that.
Correction: A previous version of the editorial incorrectly listed Deckenback as being in his early 70s. The current version has been updated with his correct age of 69.