Remembering my spiritual father, by Ric Hudgens

Ric Hudgens Reflects on a mentor's impact on his own faith development: "Oddly I didn't know that I had any faith in Jesus! But John always talked to me as if Jesus had already claimed me and that we were both working on finding out why. Over time I somehow began to agree with him." ...

Rev. John Francis Kovalcik

On August 23 my spiritual father Rev. John Francis Kovalcik (1943-2012) died in a hospice in Arkansas. He was an ordained United Methodist minister in Eureka Springs where he had lived and pastored for the past thirty years. His wife Anne (married forty-three years) and his son Andrew still live there. His youngest son Timothy is a history professor at Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois.


When I was 19 years old John became the pastor of the small Methodist church in our southern Illinois town. As his name indicated John was raised Catholic. He never lost the passion of a convert or his continual frustration with the ecclesiastical hierarchy. The Methodists moved their clergy to new congregations every two or three years and John was being relocated further and further to the margins of the conference. He was now in a rural backwater with a congregation of about 75 (on Easter and Christmas anyway).


My family was not Methodist, but John had started a youth group at the Methodist Church and my sister was participating in it. I was two years out of high school, still living with my parents, and working on the night crew at the local IGA Supermarket 10 miles away.


I was a lost soul.


I would stop by the Methodist Church on Sunday nights to give my sister a ride home from the youth group. After a few Sundays John noticed me and asked my name and what I did with my time. I told him the truth. "Not much."


A few days later I got a phone call from him. "I have to go pick up some supplies for youth group this week. If you're not busy, maybe you'd like to come along."


Why not?


And so began a strange sort of stealth discipleship as John went to the places and did the things that pastors do - and invited me to go along. We did hospital visitation. We sat together as the only two men in the midweek Wednesday morning women's Bible Study. I often ate supper at his house with his wife and two kids. We played golf together on Mondays. We talked about his sermon preparation each week. He prayed a lot and I listened. He gave me books to read and cassette tapes to listen to. He told me stories about Martin Luther King, Howard Thurman, and James Lawson. He took me to revivals in black churches.


I had never known a pastor up close and personal. John was not an impressive man. He was neither handsome, the smartest person I had ever met, or in any way fashionable or cool.


What he was was a curiosity. He was a man on a mission. He felt called. His life was about more than just a house, a car, and a pension. I had never met anyone like him. He asked me questions I had never before thought about such as what was I going to do with my life, and what about God, and how was I going to live out my faith in Jesus.


Oddly I didn't know that I had any faith in Jesus! But John always talked to me as if Jesus had already claimed me and that we were both working on finding out why. Over time I somehow began to agree with him.


My "real conversion" according to some happened after John was transferred to another small rural Methodist church many miles away. Without his almost daily presence I found that the faith I was acting like I had wasn't very deeply rooted. I finally escaped my rural captivity and ran off to California hoping I could leave it all behind. But a charismatic pastor sat with me one day in Los Angeles, laid hands on my head and prayed in tongues that God would save my soul.


Whatever happened that day was decisive.


Three years was all I spent with John. Three years. Just like the disciples with Jesus I guess.


John moved to Eureka Springs and started a retreat center. He started a summer camp for kids.

He and his wife opened a Christian bookstore. He kept witnessing to people and bringing people into the kingdom. There will be two memorials for him, one in Arkansas and another in Illinois, where stories like mine will be multiplied many times over.


Three years doesn't seem long enough to accomplish much, but it was long enough for me.


"Redeem the time" wrote the Apostle Paul.


John Francis Kovalcik was a good and faithful servant who truly redeemed his time.


Glory to God.


-- Ric Hudgens is an ordained Mennonite pastor who has lived at Reba Place in Evanston, Illinois for the last twenty-two years. He is Pastor-in-Residence at Second Baptist Church (Progressive National Bapist Convention) which is celebrating its 130th year as Evanston's oldest African-American congregation. A lovely obituary for Rev. Kovalcik can be found at Carroll County (Arkansas) News: