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 Sept. 13 for Rowbottom, one of Utah’s most well-known Baptists, who died Sept. 6 after a sudden, weeklong illness at 70 years old.
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 heaven. 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, Utah, 12 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 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, 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 Mount 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 22 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 11.
‘His life spoke it all’
Young, who had ministered with Rowbottom for three years, said the funeral was 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 Aug. 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” to reflect the humility and servanthood of Christ.
‘Glory of God’
“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
“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 Sept. 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.
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 is survived by two daughters, Anita and Sarah; a son, Stephen; their mother, Paula Lediard; and five grandchildren.
Reprinted from Baptist Press (www.baptistpress.com), news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.