Rich Baker will never wonder if he made a difference.
A 12-year veteran volunteering in Southeast Christian Church’s Middle School Ministry, he’s famous as the leader who once dropped 500 superballs down a stairwell. He hid Twinkies, organized Nerf wars and outings in the park.
Rich, 61, befriended kids on the fringe, those hanging out near the exits for quick escape after small groups. He taught about faith by living it.
When Rich’s wife Teresa and son Jared called Hosparus as Rich neared the end of his long battle with cancer, Southeast member David Overall mobilized students and volunteers to honor him.
With social distancing due to COVID-19, they could not see Rich or talk with him. But they could drive by his home.
On May 9, some 100 cars decorated with balloons and posters with handwritten Bible verses caravanned past Baker’s home while he watched from the window, wrapped in blankets.
“Rich was amazed that everyone came,” Teresa said. “It was pure joy. It lifted all our hearts. That day Rich saw his legacy. He changed lives and brought kids closer to Christ.”
Now Rich rests in a room full of signs and cards made by “his kids.”
Overall said the parade of honor came together in two days.
“Everyone wanted to serve Rich in some way,” Overall said. “A lot of people wanted to love on him and his family.”
High School Ministry Pastor Brock O’Dell said Rich’s unique group experiences are legendary around The Block.
“He is famous around these parts for his unique group experiences with his middle school boys. Whether it was dropping 500-plus super balls down a stair well, flying remote-controlled planes or organizing father-son outings to the shooting range, middle school boys have always had a blast being a part of his small group,” O’Dell said. “Rich is amazing at using these fun experiences to enter into conversations about Jesus and faith.”
In every group, Rich looked for kids dealing with doubt—kids not included in the “in group.”
Taylor Searcy, a seventh-grader at Highlands Latin School, didn’t want to join a small group.
“I didn’t want to go to groups, but he made it a lot of fun,” Searcy said. ”Richard understands me. He was there for me when my Grandpa died last year. He came to my house and talked with me for a long time.”
Southeast Echo Pastor Jon McCallon served with Rich for many years when he was Middle School Ministry pastor.
“Rich was most creative with the goal of making an impact,” McCallon said. “Students looked forward to these key moments, and the legend of them grew. At the center, however, was Christ and helping students stay connected to Jesus as their identity and source of life.”
Erik VanZant served as a small group leader with Baker.
“Richard is passionate about God, life and the kids,” he said. “He’s been dealing with cancer a long time, but never had a bad outlook on it.”
Will Thornley loved his small group led by Rich.
“It was never boring,” Thornley said. “He made everything better.”
“Rich Baker over the top pours into these guys,” said Chris Thomas and his son Burke as they took their place in the caravan. “He was always doing extra stuff. He had a lot of joy in being with them.”
Each one in the long caravan had been impacted by Rich in some way.
“For the way he leads his family, for the way he serves middle school kids, for the way he passionately pursues Jesus, we love Rich,” O’Dell said.
Editor’s note: Rich Baker died May 19.