Cedar Breaks National Monument was among Rob Rowbottom’s favorite destinations for his motorcycle treks in Utah. BP/Photo submitted
By Art Toalston
WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah – “I ain’t never going to make it to heaven,” a gruff biker named Rusty told Rob Rowbottom.
“Why?” Rowbottom inquired that night during a two-day ride in Utah to which Rusty had been invited.
“There isn’t one of the Ten Commandments I ain’t busted,” Rusty replied.
Rusty recounted the conversation during a memorial service September 13 for Rowbottom, one of Utah’s most well-known Baptists, who died September 6 after a sudden, weeklong illness at age seventy.
Rowbottom tenderly pointed Rusty to a man in the Bible named Paul who had led in the killing of Christians before his life was redeemed in an encounter with Christ.
“I got to thinking about that,” Rusty said, “and I realized that if God can do something like that . . . I could go ‘home.’”
To an eternal home, Rowbottom assured, as he led the biker in surrendering his life to Christ.
“I didn’t have to be cold and mean and hateful,” Rusty said. “I could breathe, I could feel good about myself, and help people.”
Rowbottom “was just awesome,” Rusty added. “You could look in his eyes and you could see it, you could see he lived it.”
From military to ministry
The retired sergeant major — the Army’s highest enlisted rank — sparked a similar sense of amazement at First Baptist Church in West Valley City, twelve miles southwest of Salt Lake City, and in numerous churches across the state. He did the same in the Christian Motorcyclists Association, serving as the area rep and Cowboy Gospel Night leader, and at the Rescue Mission of Salt Lake, where Utah Governor Gary Herbert joined him on stage to sing at the annual Thanksgiving dinner in recent years.
Rob Lee, executive director of the Utah-Idaho Southern Baptist Convention, said Rowbottom “exemplified the hundreds of pastors and lay pastors that go the second, third, and fourth mile.”
“We’ll miss the pure joy he brought not just to our lives but to anyone he met,” Lee said at the memorial service. “He had a pure joy of loving the church family and loving those in the community around those churches.
“Everyone loved the pure joy he brought in leading singing about Jesus,” Lee continued, whether his guitar and rich voice were heard at a motorcycle rally, a cowboy church, or an Easter sunrise service, and “in his preaching and teaching about Jesus and the pure joy He can bring to anyone. Jesus is that true joy.”
Reflecting Rowbottom’s personal motto that “A stranger is just a friend you haven’t met yet,” Lee stated: “Even when your Harley breaks down on that favorite ride that you have planned all year . . . consider it pure joy, [Rob] would say, because it’s a chance to make a new friend at the repair shop.”
Rowbottom was serving as a volunteer “support pastor” to Carl Young at First Baptist West Valley City at the time of his death. He had been pastor of the former Road to Freedom Biker Mission; a bivocational pastor in Mt. Pleasant; a transitional interim pastor in Duchesne; and a pulpit guest in numerous Utah churches.
He was ordained to the ministry in 1996 at Millcreek Baptist Church in Salt Lake City, moving to Utah to be closer to his two daughters and son after twenty-two years in the Army. He had served in Germany, where he was part of Baptist churches in Heidelberg and Augsburg, and at the Pentagon and had taught at the Army Sergeants Major Academy in Fort Bliss, Texas.
A St. Louis native, Rowbottom made a profession of faith in Christ around the age of eleven at a Baptist church he attended thanks to transportation provided by his brother, Al.
‘His life spoke it all’
Young, who had ministered with Rowbottom for three years, said the funeral would be the most difficult he had ever preached.
“In a lost man’s funeral, you honor the dead, you comfort the hurting, and you glorify Christ. And you can do that with a good Christian, somebody who lived out the faith.
“But a man like Rob . . . everybody knew he was a man of honor, a man of courage, a man who lived out his convictions until his death. What do you say? His life spoke it all — the way he evangelized, the way he preached, the way he taught.”
Rowbottom’s last message, on August 20, focused on the apostle Paul’s exhortation in Philippians 2:1–11 to be “like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind” (New King James Version) to reflect the humility and servanthood of Christ.
“The humble person is . . . going to allow Christ to use what he is and has for the glory of God for the good of others,” he said in a weekly Facebook Live “Pastors’ Talk” with Young that began with the coronavirus pandemic earlier this year.
“God calls you the way you are,” Rowbottom added. “God is going to make the changes necessary in your life; He’s going to build you and use those attributes He’s already given you.”
On Thursday, September 3, the church’s Facebook page stated there would be no Pastors’ Talk that night. “Please keep Pastor Rob in your prayers as he is battling an illness right now,” the post stated. Three days later, Rowbottom died in the early morning hours at a local hospital. A test for COVID-19 came back negative.
Two friends on Facebook
Young was reticent about the Facebook Live sessions, but Rowbottom suggested they chat just as they had each Monday morning at the Hidden Peaks coffee shop — as two friends, talking amid moments of lightheartedness and laughter about their lives and their families, especially his children and grandchildren, alongside the church and the Bible.
In their video sessions, Young said, “You’ll catch me looking at Rob [with] a look of total amazement at his understanding of theological issues, and yet he had the ability to make it understandable and applicable to people’s lives.
“He’d always say, ‘You got the seminary training’ [at Gateway Seminary], but I would literally look at him and think, ‘Man, God’s really using you right now.’ . . . You can’t learn the stuff that Rob had in seminary. You’ve got to learn that in life.”
And Rowbottom had leadership skills that were God-given, Young said, noting his ability “to influence and change lives by using God’s Word and loving people and encouraging them, meeting them right where they’re at.”
Young recounted a visit to a Navajo reservation in Arizona for a revival when Rowbottom indicated to the tribal elder that Young was the pastor. But the elder, sensing Rowbottom to be a special man of honor and courage, gave him a seat of honor that night.
“It may seem to be small thing, but in native country, that is huge,” said Young, himself a Native American.
Rowbottom’s wide reach into the community contributed to a key facet of First Baptist West Valley City’s growth: “We didn’t go looking for it, but God started bringing us people that needed funeral services,” Young said. “We just showed them the love of Jesus,” yielding contacts that have led to a number of baptisms.
The first funeral, which packed the auditorium of the eighty-member church, was for a gang member who had been shot and killed. The second, a woman who was murdered. The third, a Mormon’s Christian brother who was out of favor with the local Mormon congregation. And the fourth, a Christian woman from American Samoa afflicted by cancer who hadn’t been going to church.
Motorcycles and ministry
Rowbottom’s involvement with the Christian Motorcyclists Association stemmed from his father’s ownership of a motorcycle — and getting one of his own around the age of twenty.
“He led hundreds of people to the Lord,” said Bob Stringham, CMA’s state coordinator for Utah.
“Yes, hundreds” in the twenty-plus years he has known Rowbottom, he said.
“Rob has been the kind of a guy that, by serving others, they became willing to listen and ask questions about Jesus, God, salvation, what the Bible means. And Rob very lovingly shared that with them.”
And when someone asked about a church to attend, “Rob would always recommend one where he knew the pastoral staff and the congregation were open to people who had made mistakes in their lives and would be loving toward them.
“He was a person that was, I believe, created by God to live that Jesus lifestyle of service,” Stringham said. “It was never about Rob. It was always about Jesus and what people could benefit from by accepting Him as their Lord and Savior.”
Among Rowbottom’s CMA initiatives: ministry stations along Interstate 80 at milepost 50 going east and west during an annual two-day benefit ride for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. He secured the Utah Department of Transportation’s cooperation in aiding bikers needing gasoline, medical supplies, blankets or clothing from any unexpected circumstances.
At the Rescue Mission of Salt Lake, Rowbottom led chapel services on the first Monday of each month with a team including Debbie Chidester, executive assistant at the Utah-Idaho Southern Baptist Convention, and others from First Baptist West Valley City.
In addition to his Thanksgiving and monthly messages and music, Rowbottom had served on the Rescue Mission’s board of directors; provided one-on-one mentoring to men in the inpatient recovery program; and helped a number of them venture out on CMA motorcycle rides.
He was one of the most popular chapel providers, said Chris Croswhite, the Rescue Mission’s executive director. “He was approachable. He was non-judgmental. The style of music and the fun he had on stage was inviting for the men and women, for them to engage with him personally and with his music and his Bible message.”
Rowbottom is survived by two daughters, Anita and Sarah; a son, Stephen; their mother, Paula Lediard; and five grandchildren.
Art Tolaston is a writer based in Nashville, Tenn.