Remembering Rod Whitacre: The Ukulele Evangelist

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In early 2023, the Rev. Dr. Rod Whitacre sat in a hospital bed, reflecting on his life with his son Chad. He was receiving treatment for lymphoma and would soon decide to come home to hospice care. Together that day, they remembered Rod’s many published contributions to New Testament studies, including the IVP New Testament Commentary on the Gospel of John and several Greek textbooks.[1] Rod and Chad then remembered another book he had to his name: Songs of the Already & Not Yet, a compilation of hundreds of folk songs, spirituals, and bluegrass tunes Rod had pieced together over fifteen years. This songbook, never officially published, was the achievement that brought tears to Rod’s eyes that day because of what it represented: years and years of musical gatherings among his family, colleagues, students, and friends.

Rod Whitacre preaching

On May 22, 2023, Rod departed this life in peace, carried into glory on the voices of his family singing around his bed. In the tributes following his death, Rod was remembered for his brilliance, humility, kindness, generosity, humor, wisdom, and—above all—his deep faith. For his decades-long career teaching New Testament and Greek at Trinity School for Ministry, an evangelical Anglican seminary in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, he was celebrated as a scholar, a theologian, a mentor, a friend, and truly a saint of God. Even among such accolades, his role as a folk musician and ukulele player was never forgotten. At Trinity, he even earned the nickname of Ukulele Evangelist.

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A  Scholar and the Ukelele

Rod’s interest in the ukulele was a long time in the making. As a doctoral student at Cambridge in the 1980s, Rod wanted to cultivate a hobby that would rest him from the cerebral intensity of his studies (although one of his early ideas for a “brain break” was to learn chess). He tried several other activities in his limited spare time as his family and career took shape, including refinishing furniture. He had played guitar in a folk band as a college kid, but his true interest in folk music was sparked several years later, in 2000, with the release of the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? A loose adaptation of Homer’s The Odyssey set in 1930s rural Mississippi, it features George Clooney, a singing group called the Soggy Bottom Boys, and a soundtrack packed with toe-tapping American folk tunes. It lit a fire in Rod. He began amassing a collection of bluegrass and folksy CDs and learning fingerstyle guitar and, later, ukulele.

Rod Whitacre with Ukulele

It didn’t take long for him to want to share this love of music. He and his wife Margaret, an accomplished keyboardist herself, began welcoming colleagues from the seminary into their home in Sewickley, Pennsylvania, for jam sessions. It spread to weekly ukulele lunches on the Trinity campus. Students and faculty—including musicians with prodigious skills as well as beginners—could grab an instrument and a packet of music and join in. It grew and expanded into a longstanding ministry called “Roots Jam,” a bimonthly potluck gathering at Grace Anglican Church in Edgeworth, PA, where Rod served as an assisting priest. Roots Jam created a beloved and safe environment. It took place in the basement of the church, which, for some participants, was the only part of the building they ever saw. It served as a way to invite people into meaningful fellowship who may not otherwise accept the invitation.

Rod industriously researched and added tunes to his songbook until it included over 300 titles from the traditions of gospel, folk, bluegrass, old-time, blues, and more. What began as a stapled packet of songs turned into a spiral-bound compilation entitled Songs of the Already & Not Yet, reflecting one of the hallmarks of Rod’s teaching about the salvation narrative. For deeper reflections on this, I commend the powerful eulogy Rod’s son Chad delivered at his funeral.

A Patron of the Arts

Rod influenced my own theological education heavily. I took his classes on Biblical and Pauline Theology, endured the two most caffeinated weeks of my life in summer Greek intensive, and received his research and writing guidance as my master’s thesis advisor. (He was also, of course, my patient ukulele instructor.) In the years that followed my time at Trinity, I considered Rod a spiritual mentor, prayer partner, and friend. I owe much of my faith journey to him, but I know I barely managed to scratch the surface of his knowledge and wisdom.

One thing that always stood out to me in Rod’s classes was how he ended a session. He would shift from lecture into prayer in one breath, addressing our Heavenly Father so seamlessly it was as if he had been in prayer all along. I think music may have been like that for him, too. One moment, he could be singing the silly lyrics of “Froggy Went A-Courtin’” or “O My Darlin’ Clementine,” but the worshipful depth of “Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy” or “Wayfaring Stranger” was never far from his heart.

Despite his substantial academic contributions to New Testament studies, Rod preferred the term teacher over scholar.[2] I find it easy to assume, then, that he would not have considered himself a patron of the arts. The term does sound rather grandiose. It calls to mind the wealthy class of the Renaissance, financially commissioning masterpieces by professional artists. It generally does not conjure the twang of a ukulele or the simple melodies of folk tunes. But a patron of the arts is one who, out of his own riches and generosity, makes art accessible to all. In that sense, the title certainly fits Rod.

A Lasting Legacy

Rod’s legacy will continue to bear fruit for years to come, by God’s grace. His music lives on through his family, first and foremost, and in anyone who still has a copy of his songbook. Mine is tattered and re-stapled after many moves but still has all its pages. When I flip through it, I remember the unique and unexpected fellowship of the lunchtime jam sessions. Thoughtful engagement with great works of art can be edifying and profound for our spiritual lives. But you can also invite someone to lunch, hand them a ukulele, teach them three basic chords, and begin making music together. There’s something incarnational about that that smacks of the Gospel. Maybe the term Ukulele Evangelist is the most fitting, after all.


Footnotes

[1] A teacher to the very end, Rod completed his final book on his deathbed, in keeping with his lifelong passion to make biblical Greek accessible. Learning Greek Passage by Passage is free to download from his website as a PDF or to purchase in print form from Amazon.

[2] Witt, Bill, Jack Gabig, and Rod Whitacre, “Rod Whitacre: Friend, Teacher, Priest, Saint.” Seed & Harvest (Fall/Winter 2023): 12-13.


Cover photo by Rebell from GettyImages, courtesy of Canva. Photos of Dr. Whitacre courtesy of his family.

Published on

May 8, 2024

Author

Elizabeth Demmon

Elizabeth Demmon is a writer and musician who grew up in the Anglican tradition. She is married to Mike, an Anglican priest and U.S. Army chaplain, and together they have three children.

View more from Elizabeth Demmon

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