Fr. Peter Gillquist fell asleep in the Lord on July 1, 2012 after a lifetime of faithful service to Christ. He was the retired Chairman of the Missions and Evangelism Department of the Antiochian Archidiocese of North America and he led some 2000 evangelicals into the Holy Orthodox Church in 1987.
Not knowing who’s going to be present, I am going to begin with— Your Eminences, Your Graces, fellow clergy, brothers and sisters in Christ, whether you’re Orthodox or whether you’re not Orthodox, because that’s the way Fr. Peter would want me to begin with this—you can call it a tribute, or you can call it a eulogy, wherever it happens to be played.
What I would like to do is to tell the story of a remarkable 53-year relationship, a 53-year friendship that began in one of the most unremarkable places imaginable. It started at the high-jump pit at the University of Minnesota in 1958. I didn’t know Fr. Peter, he didn’t know me, but we competed against each other in an open track meet. I don’t remember who won. He didn’t win, I didn’t win, but I know for sure that he beat me. But it was just a few months later that we actually met in person, and from that time on it was just a really remarkable relationship and friendship.
We met through a common friend in Campus Crusade for Christ, and in a short time both the Gillquists—well, Fr. Peter and Marilyn ultimately—and the Brauns, we joined the staff of Campus Crusade for Christ on exactly the same time, and we left the staff of Campus Crusade eight years later on exactly the same day. The only minor thing is that Fr. Peter resigned for me; he didn’t let me resign, but I’m very glad that he let that happen that way.
In Campus Crusade for Christ, Fr. Peter and I were able to do some things that no one else in the whole world was doing at the time, and I’d have never done them without him. He was the visionary. One day he said, “Let’s go up to Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and let’s see what we can do.” So we left Evanston, Illinois. We went to Eau Claire, Wisconsin, to the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire, and we started at about 12:15, just after lunch, and between 12:15 and 10 o’clock at night, we had gained permission to be on campus, we had visited a couple of the athletic teams and had been able to speak to them, we had visited the fraternities and the sororities, and by the time nine o’clock at night came, about 550 kids came out to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Who organized it? Who got it to go? Fr. Peter got it to go.
We had a really fun time. Fr. Peter arranged one of the first Protestant meetings on the campus of Notre Dame. He set up a whole program and brought in me and he brought in a singing group, and he had about 3,000 kids that turned out at Notre Dame. It had never happened that way before.
One of the more fun things I remember that we did together is: he and I were in Knoxville, Tennessee, at the University of Tennessee. So one night about dinner time, we didn’t have anything to do; we didn’t have anything set up. He said, “Let’s go over to the SAE house and see if we can speak to their house at dinner.” “You can’t do this. It’s impossible!” So we walked into the SAE house, and since he happened to be an SAE, he said, “You know, we speak in fraternities and sororities all over America, so we’re here tonight and we just happened to have a night free. Would you like us to speak to your fraternity after dinner? Invite us to dinner and we’ll speak afterwards.” It was an incredible meeting. We were able to do things, we were able to get in in circumstances that you just can’t imagine, and those are the things that I’ll never forget doing with Fr. Peter.
When we were in Campus Crusade for Christ, the most profitable thing that we ever did was for two or three years running, maybe four, while we were there, which was often two to two-and-a-half months a year, we would go to a supermarket that had a restaurant. It was open early, and we would be there at five o’clock in the morning, five or six days a week, with two or three other men, and we would search the Scriptures. That is where our journey to Orthodoxy actually began, while we studied the Scriptures to find out “What is God’s program?” Fr. Peter was there all of those mornings, contributed just incredibly, not just to me but to all of those who were gathered together there. That built the foundation that we worked on over the years as we made our journey—not even able to spell “Orthodox,” probably—but made our journey to Orthodoxy.
Then we left the staff of Campus Crusade for Christ, not because we were dissatisfied. We left the staff of Campus Crusade for Christ because we had one objective in our mind. Fr. Peter’s objective, along with his friends—we were going to find the Church. Whatever it was, we were going to find it, and we made a commitment to historic Christianity, that is, we would find it. So beginning in 1973, we had a meeting in Dallas, Texas, and there was a lot of commotion because people couldn’t understand why we were interested in historic Christianity. To ease the confusion, we left Dallas, Texas, where we were, flew to Memphis, Tennessee, and then went out to Fr. Peter’s home in Grand Junction, Tennessee, spent several days there together, where we made the commitment that we were going to stick together. Seven of us in particular were going to stick together to make a journey, as in Abraham’s case, going to a land not really knowing where we were going. It was not to be Orthodox, because we didn’t understand that yet, but that’s what we were going to do.
So we made the journey to Orthodoxy. Fr. Peter, what was his commitment? Two-fold. Two-fold, as far as his ministry was concerned. Number one, as a college student, Fr. Peter had made an irrevocable commitment to Christ, one that would never fail. He never, never flagged for a moment on that commitment. And secondly he was committed to the Church and to the kingdom of God, whatever the cost might be. That’s what drove him. It’s what made him stand in the back of an airplane from New York to Los Angeles scores of times, except when they made him sit down. Many people have no idea how much the man’s back hurt. He couldn’t sit unless he had to, standing sometimes for three or four hours on the trip.
Of course, he made use of the time talking to people, and Fr. Peter basically had one subject: he talked about Christ. It didn’t make any difference where he was. That’s what he would do. He would talk about Christ, and he would talk about the Church.
Some people didn’t like Fr. Peter. That made no difference to Fr. Peter. If you didn’t like him, he liked you anyway. He was for you. Fr. Peter’s glass was never half-empty. It was always three-quarters full. Sometimes almost to a fault, but he was the most optimistic human being I have ever worked with in my life. I have no idea how many thousands of hours we spent together. I never saw him anything but utterly optimistic. In the face of what looked like an impossibility, he always thought it was going to work out just perfectly, perfectly well.
As most of you who hear this know, Fr. Peter was a remarkable communicator. He could communicate in writing; he could communicate speaking. He was probably one of the most—no, he was probably the most fun person to listen to. He told stories. He communicated with stories. Fr. Peter was really well-educated. He never tried to speak to academics. He tried to speak to people. He wanted things to be simple. If you ever heard him speak, you understood what he was saying. There were never concepts that were difficult to understand. When he finished speaking, you knew what he had said, you felt warm inside, and you wanted to decide to do what he was challenging you to do.
A sermon of his that I remember—we had our sugar sticks, you know, the sermons we preach over and over again—Fr. Peter had a sermon he called “Crossing the Finish Line.” I’ll never forget the homily, I’ll never forget that sermon, and I’ll never forget how challenged I was about “crossing the finish line” and crossing well. Fr. Peter crossed the finish line, and he really crossed it well.
He was a man of impeccable integrity. I never saw him give the slightest ground to anything but utter honesty, utter truth, and he really wasn’t an exaggerator; he just told things the way they were. He was a man of never-failing loyalty. His loyalty to Metropolitan Philip never flagged; it never failed for even a moment. And his faithfulness and his loyalty to the hierarchs, not just to the Antiochian Archdiocese, but all Orthodox hierarchs—he was loyal, never spoke against them in any way, always supportive. And he was loyal to his friends. Never, never did it cross your mind that he might in any way betray you.
Then, lastly, as a friend, as my friend. We could occasionally argue. We never ever left without an argument being finished and where we came to total agreement. He never demanded his own way, because love doesn’t demand its own way. We would finish being able to be in agreement, and it was part of the incredible dynamic that made the possibility of the Evangelical Orthodox Church becoming a part of canonical Orthodoxy.
On the bright side, or on the lightest side, his oldest daughter and my fourth son got married. We share three grandchildren, and we share one great-grandchild who’s almost here.
Fr. Peter will be remembered by thousands of Orthodox people in America, but he’ll be remembered by many, many of his Protestant brethren as well. He never showed a preference for anyone. What he did was leave us an example of a really fine Christian man, and if we walk in his steps, our life also will be a glory to God.