VALLEY FORGE, PA (12/16/16)—Rev. Dr. Paul Duaine Eppinger, 83, an American Baptist Churches USA (ABCUSA)pastor who dedicated his life to peacemaking and reaching out to society’s most marginalized, died Nov. 10 in Arizona 18-months after being diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS).
Eppinger felt a calling to Christian ministry during his student days at William Jewell College in Liberty, Mo., and served as pastor of two rural churches during his college years. He was ordained at the age of 21. During his career he served as a missionary to Japan and held pastorates in Freehold and Wayne, both in New Jersey; Norristown, Pa., Topeka, Kans.; and Phoenix, Ariz.
Eppinger was widely known for his collaborative nature and ecumenical and interfaith sensitivities and leadership over the years. He directed the Arizona Ecumenical Council for eight years, and his ecumenical service led him to invite people of other religious faiths to join together in respect, understanding and support for one another. That invitation led to the founding of the Arizona Interfaith Movement, an organization of 24 religious groups he led for 20 years.
As executive director for the Interfaith Movement, Eppinger encouraged the legislature and governor of Arizona to enact legislation to adopt the Golden Rule, a variation of which is taught in every religious tradition. The adoption led to the creation of license plates in Arizona with the Golden Rule imprinted on them. The Interfaith Movement hosted popular monthly forums, featuring a keynoter addressing a topic and respondents from faith traditions reacting to the presentation.
His interfaith work extended into participation in the American Baptist Churches’ Baptist-Muslim dialogue and presentations at the Parliament of the World’s Religions meetings in Barcelona, Spain (2004), Melbourne, Australia (2009) and Salt Lake City, Utah (2015). He served on the Board of Directors for the Parliament of the World’s Religions. Eppinger was on the Baptist-Muslim Dialogue Task Force for the 2009 national dialogue, and was a presenter at the 2009 ABCUSA Biennial workshop focusing on Baptist-Muslim dialogue. He also faithfully represented ABCUSA on the National Council of Churches Interfaith Relations Commission.
For his ecumenical and interfaith service, Eppinger was recognized in 2008 with an Award of Excellence at the 2008 General Assembly of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, Church World Service. In 2015 the Parliament of the World’s Religions presented him with the Golden Rule Award.
When Arizona was one of only two states in the nation without a holiday acknowledging Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Eppinger accepted the call to leadership in Arizona’s Victory Together Campaign. As executive director he worked closely with campaign chair Rev. Dr. Warren Stewart. Victory Together was instrumental in establishing a statewide holiday on the third Monday in January honoring Dr. King and recognizing the importance of civil rights.
Much of Eppinger’s spirit, heart and mindset became evident in his approach to pastoral ministry and his work as a missionary.
After college Eppinger offered himself for overseas mission service, and during six weeks of missionary orientation he met and fell in love with his wife-to-be, Sybil Casbeer. The couple decided to fulfill their missionary contracts before getting married. Sybil had been appointed to service in the Philippines with the Methodist Church. Eppinger was appointed by the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society to teach English in Japan. While in Japan for more than two years, Eppinger learned to speak Japanese, sang in the Yokohama Christian Choir, led a weekly Bible study and made a study of other religions. It was a visit to the ruins of Hiroshima that persuaded him to a lifetime working on behalf of peace and justice.
At the conclusion of their missionary service Eppinger and Sybil were married and the couple moved to New Jersey. Eppinger earned a Bachelor of Divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary while serving Ardena Baptist Church near Freehold. While later serving as pastor of Preakness Baptist Church in Wayne, N.J., Eppinger became aware of the lack of religious opportunities for developmentally disabled people and organized a special Sunday school class for them. While serving that congregation Eppinger participated in the March on Washington, featuring Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Seven years later Eppinger, his wife and four children moved to service at Calvary Baptist Church in Norristown, where Eppinger quickly notice the lack of a safe space in the community for teens and young adults, some of them runaways or drug users who were no longer welcome in their parents’ homes. He repurposed the church parsonage into a youth house. His ongoing concern for civil rights and race relations led to an annual pulpit exchange with New Hope Baptist Church, an African American congregation in town. He taught homiletics (preaching) as an adjunct at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary in St. David’s, Pa. While serving in Norristown Eppinger earned a D.Min. degree from San Francisco Theological Seminary, writing a dissertation on marriage and divorce among American Baptist pastors.
In 1974, Eppinger moved with his family to Topeka, Kans., to serve First Baptist Church there. In Topeka, Eppinger continued a radio ministry he had once developed in New Jersey, delivering a weekly message for a program called “Life in Crisis.” He and Sybil, a marriage and family counselor, also hosted and produced a weekly television program called “Today’s Growing, Intimate Family.” When a newly divorced parishioner expressed consternation that divorced people felt out-of-place in church, Eppinger started a ministry for single adults. It grew into a three-times-a-week ministry with an attendance of 75, developing national conferences for single adults. Eppinger also became an adjunct professor of homiletics at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City.
Following 11 fruitful years in Topeka, Eppinger was called to First Baptist Church in Phoenix, Ariz., where so much of his ecumenical and interfaith work took shape. At First Church in the 1980s, Eppinger became aware of the height of the AIDS epidemic at a time when being diagnosed as HIV-positive was a virtual death sentence. Recognizing the stigma of HIV/AIDS Eppinger began the Joshua Tree ministry, hosting a weekly luncheon for people living with AIDS. He found out that when homeless people who needed hospital care were released to go “home,” they had no place to go, and so he began a respite shelter on First Baptist Church’s campus, offering a place to recuperate for homeless men just out of the hospital.
Despite dealing with a wide variety of serious and challenging issues, his family maintains Eppinger “made his way lightly through life.” He enjoyed traveling the world, and with Sybil led tour groups to the Holy Land and Europe. He attended Baptist World Alliance congresses in Seoul, South Korea and Buenos Aires, Argentina. He had tremendous love for his family and was happiest when he had “all of his girls” with him. He adored his grandsons and delighted in taking them to the Fiesta Bowl football game each year. He prepared for death from ALS as well as he lived, his family said, and he kept his sense of humor.
Surviving is Sybil, his wife of 58 years, four grown daughters; a sister; two grandsons, and nieces and nephews.
A memorial service celebrating Eppinger’s life was held Saturday, December 3. The family asks that memorial gifts be made either to the Arizona Interfaith Movement or the American Baptist Historical Society, where his personal papers will be deposited.
American Baptist Churches USA is one of the most diverse Christian denominations today, with approximately 5,000 congregations comprised of 1.3 million members, across the United States and Puerto Rico, all engaged in God’s mission around the world.