Dwight A. Moody
Amherst College in western Massachusetts was the top-rated liberal arts institution in those days; which is why their president came to Georgetown College to speak at the dedication of our new Ensor Learning Resource Center.
His name was Tom Gerety, and the year was 1998.
I remember nothing of what he said that beautiful Friday morning in September; but I remember the tap on the shoulder as our guest stood to speak.
“I wonder if he knows Pierce Gerety,” the voice whispered in my ear.
I turned to my long-time friend Ken Perkins and said, “I don’t know, but we will ask him when this program is over.”
Perkins had finished three years behind me at Georgetown, then invested his life in Christian mission in East Africa and the Middle East. His work among persecuted people pushed him to adopt a pseudonym for the widely read books he had written to chronicle the struggles of Christians in those regions of the world.
He and I sat with our friends near the back of the throng spread out before the columns that marked the building as the grandest ever constructed on the famous campus in central Kentucky. The ceremony included all the elements you might expect: music, recognitions, introductions, and such. It was a good day.
The night before, I had taken one the four seats on the platform at the dinner for donors; the other three were occupied by college president William Crouch, board chair Randy Fox, and our esteemed guest, Tom Gerety. As dean of the chapel, my role was to offer public prayer, and our guest’s role was to encourage our donors with the unique potential of this Baptist-affiliated school founded the same decade as his Congregational-affiliated school in western Massachusetts. He said nice things, described his spiritual mood as he walked across our campus, and encouraged us to never surrender our religious roots, mentioning especially the practice of praying at meetings of the faculty.
Because of that prior proximity, I felt comfortable in taking my missionary friend by the hand and navigating our way through the crowd to find the visiting president. There were five of us when we circled up—Perkins and his wife, Carroll Stevens (a trustee), Dr. Gerety, and me—and that’s when the question was asked.
“By any chance, do you know Pierce Gerety?”
No one there, no one anywhere could have predicted what happened next.
Dr. Tom Gerety started to cry. Right there in the middle of that bustling throng. In front of God and everybody.
“Yes,” he said finally, and quietly. “He was my brother. He died last week.”
Nobody said anything.
“He was on that Swiss Air flight 111, on his way to an international relief conference in Geneva. He was 56 and worked for the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, responsible for central Africa.”
“I knew your brother,” my friend Perkins said quietly. “I was a Christian missionary in those same parts of the world. I was on the receiving end of his management of refugee relief. I helped distribute the supplies he made available to us and all the other missionaries.”
Perhaps they embraced, I don’t recall. I do remember this statement. “In all my career in Christian relief ministry,” Perkins said, “I never worked with anyone with whom I had a greater respect, who was more trustworthy and reliable.”
He could have said other things about Pierce had he known: that Pierce and Tom were the sons of the Director of Refugee Services for the United States following World War II; or that Pierce had graduated, first, from Yale, then from Harvard Law; or that Pierce had studied theology at the Institute Catholique in Paris while discerning a call to the priesthood; or that Pierce instead opted for the Legal Aid Society in New York City, then the International Rescue Committee assigned to helping Cambodian people fleeing their war-torn country.
Perkins did not know all that and neither did the people gathered to celebrate a big building at a small college in Kentucky. But when Tom Gerety challenged those donors to sustain the unique mission of the college, he no doubt had in mind the kind of formation that shaped his brother into a Jesus-following, people-helping, life-giving servant of the world.
Few people remember much of the public ceremonies attending the dedication of that building twenty-two years ago; even fewer know the back story of that remarkable day. Which is why, in this time of global pandemic, I share this good word—to honor the sacrificial work of those who often are never named.
I call your name, Pierce Gerety, and you also, Tom (now Collegiate Professor at the New York University School of Law), and you also Ken and Beth, now living, lecturing, and writing from their retirement post in Kentucky.
Thanks be to God for all of you.