Described by friends as a ‘gentle witness’ with a ‘warm heart for Malawi’
by Tammy Warren | Presbyterian News Service
LOUISVILLE – The Rev. Robert I. “Bob” Rasmussen, a mission co-worker in Malawi from January 1986 until his retirement in August 1992, passed away at his home in Michigan on Thursday, Jan. 25, at age 90. After he retired, Rasmussen and his wife, Edith, returned to Malawi many times, sometimes for months at a time, to train pastors and to preach and teach.
The Rev. A.B. Maulana, general secretary of the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian, Blantyre Synod, expressed condolences to the Rasmussen family, along with celebration for the “committed man of God” and “spiritual father” Rasmussen was in the life and work in the CCAP Blantyre Synod.
“Bob was one of the best preachers I’ve ever heard,” said retired mission co-worker Doug Welch. “He had a humble, gentle, patient spirit and was a blessing to be around. I enjoyed hearing him use the Scriptures and speak about what he was learning. He shared deep content around the issues.”
On more than one occasion Welch suggested Rasmussen publish his dynamic sermons as a collection, but “he wasn’t about making a name for himself,” Welch said. “He was an amazing person and a great role model.”
During their mission service, Welch and his wife, Ruth, became very close to the Rasmussens as neighbors and mission co-workers in Malawi. Bob Rasmussen baptized the Welches’ daughter, Luta, at age 12. Now Luta and her husband, the Rev. Jeremy Garbat-Welch, are carrying on the legacy of mission as they serve alongside the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian as PC(USA) mission co-workers in Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
Luta said the Rasmussens were “mission grandparents” to her, which was a great encouragement since her own grandparents were in the U.S. during her parents’ mission service in Malawi.
“We are so grateful to have served together in Malawi,” Ruth Welch said. “Bob was a gentle witness who was willing to take a stand from the pulpit when it could have cost him his life.”
Jimmy and Mirriam Lipunga wrote that Bob’s preaching “struck a chord with everyone across the denominational divide with his deep and yet accessible messages of hope and salvation in the Savior Jesus Christ.” The Lipungas’ hosted the Rasmussens when they returned to Malawi to minister during Holy Week services at St. Michael and All Angels Church in the early 2000s.
Hunter Farrell, director of the World Mission Initiative at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and former director of Presbyterian World Mission, said Rasmussen had a deep understanding of doing mission in partnership with fellow Christians in the Global South.
“Bob was a ‘missional Christian’ years before most of us ever learned what the term meant,” Farrell said. “He saw his reason for living as growing directly out of the great commandment and the great commission.” Farrell added, “Bob never said a negative word about anyone.”
Rasmussen, the son of Ivan and Esther (Larsen) Rasmussen, was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, on Aug. 12, 1927. He graduated from Kalamazoo Central High School in 1945, the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in 1950 and McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago in 1953. He was ordained by the Presbytery of Western Michigan in 1953. He and Edith married Dec. 29, 1954.
He served at Clement Presbyterian Church in Cicero, Illinois; First Presbyterian Church of Colcord and Clear Creek Presbyterian Church in West Virginia; and North Presbyterian Church of Kalamazoo. In Malawi he served as associate pastor of St. Michael and All Angels Church of Central Africa Presbyterian in Blantyre, Malawi.
“He was like a grandfather to us at St. Michael and All Angels Church in Malawi,” writes Faith Mkolesia, whose mother, Ruth, was head of Sunday school during the Rasmussens’ mission service. “Ever loving and caring. I remember him telling us stories at Sunday school, taking care of my sister, Maureen, when she moved to the states as a teenager and keeping in touch over the years. He also introduced us to the work of C.S. Lewis in The Chronicles of Narnia.”
In an online condolence, Kathy Fraley Reid remembered how much everyone loved to hear Rasmussen sing and play piano at Clear Creek Presbyterian.
After he returned from Malawi, Rasmussen served as interim pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Benton Harbor, Michigan. Member Gail Leonard commented, “Bob came to First Presbyterian Benton Harbor as interim pastor at a very difficult time. When I first saw Bob in the pulpit, I remember thinking he looked so slim, even frail, that I thought, ‘He will be blown away in a still wind.’ Very soon I realized that Bob had the strongest spirit, providing our congregation with the strength we needed to find our way through that period, coming out stronger than ever.”
Rasmussen served as initiating pastor of Pine Island Presbyterian in Texas Township, which opened in 1994. Pine Island Presbyterian supported many initiatives in Malawi, including clean water projects and training for pastors.
Rasmussen received the NAACP Humanitarian Award in 1985, given by the Metropolitan Kalamazoo Branch of the NAACP, to honor individuals who have dedicated their lives to helping the underserved and underrepresented population in Kalamazoo, regardless of race, creed, gender or religion. He also received the ISAAC (Interfaith Strategy for Advocacy and Action in the Community) Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017. ISAAC strives to improve the life and health of Kalamazoo residents.
A memorial service in Michigan for the Rev. Robert I. Rasmussen will be held at First Presbyterian Church of Kalamazoo on Saturday, Feb. 3, at 11 a.m. with lunch and time to meet with family to follow. He is survived by his wife of 63 years, Edith, four children, seven grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
A memorial service in Malawi, led by Blantyre Synod Moderator the Rev. Masauko Lyson Mbolembole, will be held at St. Michael and All Angels Church on Sunday, Feb. 4, at 4:30 p.m.
The family has requested that memorial gifts be made to a Presbyterian mission priority in Malawi. Online gifts can be made by clicking here or checks can be sent to Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), P.O. Box 643700, Pittsburgh, PA 15264-3700. Please write Rasmussen Memorial on the memo line.
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