A look back at Don Rutledge … and a request of you

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In Soviet-era Siberia, 30 new Christians walk resolutely down a hill to be baptized in a river. “I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back” were more than words for them. RUTLEDGE FAMILY ARCHIVE/Special

About 22 years ago my wife, Jan, and I sat in an A&W restaurant in Vancouver, British Columbia, sipping a root beer in a frosted mug and listening to one of the best storytellers of our lives.

A few days later we had another opportunity as we sped through the city on the elevated public transit system. As we sailed through countryside and around skyscrapers, the storyteller once again took us to far flung destinations and into the lives of missionaries.

By the weekend we found ourselves standing on the deck of a large ferry as it threaded itself between the San Juan Islands enroute to the port of Victoria on the island of Vancouver. This time, as we stood by the railing and watched the northwest forests slide by in the fog, the guest enthralled us with tales of voodoo and witchcraft in Haiti.

Quiet and unassuming

The storyteller was quiet and unassuming. In fact, he spoke so quietly that you needed to lean in closer to hear what he was saying, By then you were hooked and couldn’t be pulled away if you wanted to be.

At the time I was the editor of the children, youth, and adult mission education materials for the Home Mission Board. My wife and I were travelling with Don Rutledge, the unassuming photographer for the Foreign Mission Board, who was providing photo coverage to accompany the story of a missionary family I was featuring in a study.

Soon after joining the Home (now North American) Mission Board, Don Rutledge spent weeks covering the daily lives of Alaskan Eskimos above the Arctic Circle. Here, a family waits for visitors to arrive at their home. RUTLEDGE FAMILY ARCHIVE/Special

If you can’t travel the world, the best next thing is to know someone who has and has a gift of taking you there. Don had the gift of taking you there through his photography as well as his storytelling.

While I had known Don marginally professionally for years, this was the first opportunity to build a deeper relationship based on an intimacy that occurred over breaking bread or drinking a root beer after a long day. That weeklong story trip launched a friendship that would last for a decade until his retirement and eventual failing health.

It is rare to find someone who can do two things well. All good writers are not good photographers just like all good authors are not good speakers. I remember missing attending a speaking engagement by Tony Hillerman in Albuquerque, NM, in the 1990s. Until his death a few years ago, Hillerman was one of the American Southwest’s premier writers of crime and Native American peoples and their culture.

His descriptions of the rugged high dessert are legendary. But my supervisor who attend the event came back less than enthused, saying that while Hillerman was an incredible writer he was a less than stellar program personality, even when reading his own material.

That’s what made Don Rutledge so amazing. But you didn’t need to know him personally to get a sense of his eye for capturing a mood, a moment, the commitment of a foreign culture just opening up to the storytelling of Southern Baptist missionaries.

Don Rutledge brought missions into the homes of Southern Baptists for decades, many not knowing who was behind the camera. BILL BANGHAM/Special

Don traveled the world, sacrificing time away from his family, to bring the story of national and international missions into the homes of Baptists thirsty for stories of the spread of the gospel. Through Don’s camera lens you were transported to countries whose peoples were growing more Christ-like because of our gifts through the Cooperative Program.

Don was an award winning photographer who decided that his calling to the ministry was misunderstood when he entered the pastorate. He soon realized that he was called to ministry  – just not in the pulpit but behind a camera. Early in his career he became a staff photographer for Black Star, a prestigious agency that only offered employment to a handful of the nation’s top photographers. He traveled to 140 countries and his work appeared in magazines such as LIFE, LOOK, and Paris Match.

Gave up a career of international fame to work with Southern Baptists

He gained international fame when he documented John Howard Griffin’s experience as he darkened his white skin and traveled throughout the South, experiencing racism first hand. The book, Black Like Me, was published to acclaim in 1961.

But his eventual employment at the Home Mission Board in Atlanta and later the Foreign Mission Board in Richmond, VA, is what brought him full circle in ministry. And Southern Baptists were the better for it.

It gave me great joy to learn this week from Baptist Press that photographs and related items spanning more than 40 years of his ministry and missions comprise a new Southern Baptist archival collection.

Bailey King was broken by a lifetime of poverty and dawn-to-dark labor by the time Don Rutledge came to spend several weeks with him and his family. Doctors claimed it was meningitis and a stroke. “It weren’t that,” a friend said. “His body just plumb wore out.” But King’s mind was keen — and his lifelong belief in accepting others and sharing what little he had shone through. In the lines and ridges of King’s weathered face, in the light and shadows of his sagging clapboard house, Rutledge’s photographs found the windows into his soul. RUTLEDGE FAMILY ARCHIVE/Special

Housed at the Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives (SBHLA) in Nashville, the Don Rutledge Photograph Collection includes hundreds of original prints and corresponding oversized images; about 1,000 each of slides, negatives, and contact sheets; boxes of correspondence, several files of handwritten project notebooks, and other materials related to Rutledge’s career, according to the article quoting SBHLA Director Taffey Hall.

Rutledge’s family donated the materials in 2016, and also included his cameras and other personal items on loan, Hall said. The collection is available for research at the SBHLA.

His widow “Lucy Rutledge expressed she would be glad for Don’s material to bring an awareness to missions,” Hall told Baptist Press. “This is a remarkable collection and will be a gem for researchers interested in photographs of the Southern Baptist Convention’s varied missions activities in the second half of the 20th Century.”

Now let’s bring this remembrance a little closer to home. Like to Ty Ty … or Bainbridge … or Clayton.

The Christian Index has always placed a high value on quality photography. That’s because a photograph plays a powerful role in pulling readers into a story. While people will not always read a story to its end, they will most always scan the photos and be educated in the process.

We all have a story to tell in our own way

We cannot all be Don Rutledge any more than we can be Billy Graham. But we all have a story to tell in our own way. The Index is always looking to tell a good story about the Good News and we want to be sure that you, our readers, are thinking of us when you travel on missions. That mission trip could be around the corner or across the ocean.

Please give us a call if you need some advice on what kind of photos we would be interested in publishing, along with an accounting of how your church is on mission. We are always happy to publish your photos along with the story of how you are bringing light to your corner of the world … the unique mission field that God has given to you.

And please call us before sending us your story. While we do not accept unsolicited manuscripts, we would be happy to interview you or those on your team and help you tell the story with you.

Call The Index at (770) 936-5590 and ask to speak to Scott Barkley, Editor Gerald Harris, or me. We are at your service as we strive to reach the world, together, through Mission Georgia.

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