Daily Reporter staff writer
WILKINSON — Russell Lutes scheduled much of his week around one-on-one appointments. Breakfast. Lunch. Coffee.
The associate minister at Wilkinson Church of Christ was known for his genuine interest in others, for his satisfaction in just spending time with people and hearing their stories. And yet, even while he gave that personal attention — or perhaps because he did — he was able to form teams that aimed to improve the community: Upward basketball, a faith-based youth league, a summer youth sports camp and a pastoral care program for people struggling or hurting.
Lutes had been battling a brief illness, and his death was unexpected.
“It has just stunned our whole church,” said Mary Etta Shaul, a longtime member of the church who attended a Sunday school class taught by Lutes. “We’re going to miss him terribly.”
After several weeks of bronchitis, Lutes, 67, went to the doctor March 14. After an antibiotic appeared ineffective, he ended up at Hancock Regional Hospital for tests that revealed blood clots in his lungs. He was later found to have blood clots in his legs and pneumonia and eventually died at the hospital Friday.
Russ Bunton had texted the associate minister that day to see how he was doing. Lutes had texted back: He was very tired.
Bunton went out to eat with Lutes weekly. Those times were an enjoyable learning experience, he said. “He just kind of led you deeper into the faith, just through being a regular person.”
Dan D’Angelo used to go out for coffee with Lutes but finally told Lutes to just stop by his house. Every Wednesday for about three years, they talked, sometimes those two and sometimes with D’Angelo’s wife joining them. They studied the Bible together, shared stories from their lives and asked questions.
“You were always the most important person in the room,” D’Angelo said.
D’Angelo was part of a Stephen Ministers group Lutes helped launch at the church. It trains laypeople to offer pastoral care to those facing grief, divorce, financial hardship, illness or other issues.
Helen Parker and her husband, Richard, met about three times a month with Lutes as leaders in the program.
“He loved people and taught us to see them through the eyes of Jesus,” Helen Parker wrote in an email to the Daily Reporter.
Lutes came to the Wilkinson church in 2003, after working for Youth for Christ and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Ryan McCarty, senior minister at the church, said Lutes wore many hats there. He ministered to the Joyful Saints seniors group, was actively involved in the church’s small group ministry, and helped launch programs such as Stephen Ministers or a discipleship program to help new Christians grow in and share their faith.
“His ideas were always huge, kingdom-impacting ideas,” McCarty said. He soon learned that when Lutes had an idea, it would involve a lot of people and cost a lot of money, but “it was going to make a huge impact on the community.”
Calling for Lutes is from 3 to 8 p.m. today at the church, with a funeral there at 10 a.m. Thursday.