Pastor Robert Dunlop, who was best known as a local Baptist Pastor in Co Kildare for almost 50 years, died peacefully at his home in Brannockstown on Saturday 15 February 2014. His Funeral and Thanksgiving Service was held on Tuesday 18 February when over 400 people crowded into St Bridget’s Cathedral in Kildare to give thanks for his life and ministry both as a preacher of the gospel and a friend to all. Everyone who spoke in the service shared rich testimonies to Robert’s unshakeable confidence in the gospel of Jesus Christ and of his willingness to go wherever he had opportunity to share the good news of Christ. Robert won the hearts and minds of many people irrespective of their class or creed.
Robert was born in Emyvale, Co Monaghan. His early years were spent in the border counties of Monaghan, Tyrone and Down where his father farmed. Life was uncomplicated with plenty to eat, adequate clothing and abundant exercise. In July 1954 on a lonely mountain road in Tyrone Robert had a “spiritual awakening” on his way home from an evangelistic service in a tent. He described it as a sort of Damascus Road experience when, like John Wesley “I felt my heart strangely warmed”. He went on to study at Belfast Bible College. As a mature student he later went to Trinity College Dublin and researched religious conflict in 19th century Ireland.
As a young man, he was appointed as a Baptist Home Mission worker in Athlone and was placed there for three years.
In 1964 Robert was invited to become Pastor of the Baptist Church in Brannockstown, where he served for 42 years. He had a desire to proclaim the “good news” of the gospel far beyond the boundaries of his small local community. He was energetic and creative. Robert and a small group of other Baptist Pastors, mainly from the Republic, regularly headed to different towns, villages and fairs in many parts of Ireland to preach the redeeming love of God in Christ. They preached in all kinds of public places; in those days their passion to share Christ was sometimes met with misunderstanding and often they faced considerable hostility from some of their audiences. This did not deter Robert who then devised a unique approach to take the message to the people. The idea of the ‘Churchmobile’ was born. A bus was acquired and adapted as a small “church on wheels”. With Robert in the driving seat for 12 years it was taken to many places for regular services as Robert endeavoured to reach out to those who had lost touch with the regular Church because of distance or lack of interest.
He became President of the Baptist Union of Ireland in 1982 - an indication of the wide respect in which he was held by his fellow Baptists in Ireland, both north and south.
Robert’s voice became familiar to RTE listeners as he was given the opportunity to broadcast and preach on his favourite subject of God’s great salvation. His writings became important as he commented on faith as it affected every part of life. His passion to see a peace process in Northern Ireland took him to events and activities that many evangelical leaders might have hesitated in attending, but for Robert this was a practical outworking of the gospel of peace and reconciliation.
Robert was widely respected for his theological and analytical skills. Over the years many people sought his advice both personally and as an evangelical pastor who wanted the voice of evangelicals to be heard beyond their own congregations. He provided leadership, encouragement and training for others who worked for collaboration among evangelicals. He was the editor and inspiration behind the book Evangelicals in Ireland
that sought to explain evangelicals to those beyond their own circle. He was also a persistent voice in challenging his fellow evangelicals to look beyond their own immediate circle and to be involved more widely and more deeply in Irish society. This meant that at times he was misunderstood and challenged by those who disagreed with his willingness to be a ‘cautious ecumenist’.
He was a man of many parts; he was a wordsmith and an avid reader of theological and other writings. Yet his central belief in handling the Word of God is that the gospel is profoundly simple.
Spending a lifetime in a rural community gave him a great interest in the history of the Brannockstown area, especially of the Baptist Church and its connection with the La Touche family of Harristown. Robert became widely respected as a local historian, and as a writer. His poetry was a means of inspiration to many. But his interests were much wider through Christian Endeavour, Notre Dame University, Glenstall Ecumenical Community, Mennonite and Aughrim Summer Schools and were global as well as local. As the dynamic and highly dedicated Chair of the Board of World Vision Ireland, he had a passion for the wider world. In a personal tribute he was recently described as…“a man of magnanimous heart who crossed all kinds of borders with courage and imagination”.
After his retirement in 2006 Robert’s health deteriorated and he had to come to terms with a severe visual, impairment and reduced mobility. When he could no longer read he had a regular arrangement for friends to come and read to him. One of the most moving tributes to the life and influence of Robert occurred when in April 2007 the Brannockstown Community Committee organised a Service of Thanksgiving for his Ministry and prayed for his healing. This unique service celebrated his sterling contribution to the community over more than 40 years.
It was back in his beloved Brannockstown, in a small graveyard beside the Baptist Church where his mortal remains were laid to rest. Well over 200 people from all sections of the community gathered around the graveside. With sun shining through the trees and a small male voice choir singing a stirring gospel song about Heaven, everyone was reminded of the amazing eternal hope because of all that Jesus has done - a message which Robert knew and shared with everyone.
Our thoughts and prayers are with his beloved wife Olive who cared for him through his declining years and his daughter Julie and son Jeremy.
In a personal reflection written some years ago Robert said he would like to be remembered as “….someone who tried to be fair minded.” Those who knew him in every walk of life can heartily agree with that sentiment.
The memory of the righteous is a blessing: Proverbs 10 v 7a