When the leaders of the Love Akron network sat down to figure out a plan for highlighting Christian excellence, they quickly agreed that it could be recognized by good works.
Their focus immediately turned to three role models known for their good works in the greater Akron community — the late Judge Brenda Burnham Unruh and the Revs. Ronald Fowler and Knute Larson.
Larson, a white pastor, and Fowler, a black pastor, developed a relationship that promoted unity by breaking down the walls of race, culture and denomination. Their friendship became known as an “allies” relationship that served as an example to the members of their respective congregations — The Chapel and Arlington Church of God — and the community at large.
Unruh, who served as a Summit County Common Pleas Judge, boldly demonstrated her Christianity by reaching out to people from all walks of life, from politicians to felons. She started an effort called One Life at a Time, a mentorship program designed to curb recidivism and help low-felony offenders get their lives on a positive track. Her legacy is rooted in her ability to treat everyone with respect and dignity.
With Unruh, Fowler and Larson in mind, Love Akron created two awards to be given annually to recipients who exemplify Larson and Fowler’s “allies” spirit of unity and Unruh’s servant leadership. The awards will be presented at the first annual Love Akron Breakfast at 7 a.m. Sept. 25 at the Quaker Station. The inaugural event will feature Fowler and Larson, co-founders of Love Akron, as keynote speakers.
Love Akron is dedicated to bringing Christian leaders together to work toward the spiritual and social transformation of the greater Akron area.
“We, at Love Akron, felt that it was time to do something on a citywide scale to recognize Christian men and women who have made positive contributions,” said Mark Ford, executive director of Love Akron. “We certainly want to honor the people whose names are on the awards because they set a standard. But we also want to honor the award recipients, who have embodied their examples.”
The Fowler-Larson Allies Award will be presented to the Rev. Luther Cooper, pastor of Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church and the Rev. Mark Frey, pastor of Bath United Church of Christ. Their friendship has developed over 20 years and has permeated through their respective congregations.
The Brenda Burnham Unruh Servant Leader Award will go to John Rasnick, an Akron estate planning and business attorney. Rasnick is currently on a mission trip in Africa, where he is working with a team, including eye doctors, from The Chapel to distribute more than 2,000 pairs of glasses. The mission to remote villages in Mozambique is his sixth in seven years.
“We’ve seen people come in functionally blind and leave able to see,” Rasnick said. “It’s a great feeling to know that what little I can do helps make someone else’s life better. If you have Christ in you, you just have a natural inclination to want to serve others.”
Rasnick, who describes himself as “a simple kid who grew up in Goodyear Heights, who God has blessed in tremendous ways,” said he feels undeserving of an award that bears the name of his late friend. But her husband, Bob Unruh, said it is fitting that Rasnick is the recipient.
“He has some of the same characteristics as Brenda. John flies so under the radar with the things that he does to serve others,” Unruh said. “Like with Brenda, it is impossible to tally the number of one-on-ones that John has been involved in, trying to give people hope. He’s a servant’s servant who is obedient to the Holy Spirit and committed to what the good Lord would have him do.”
Rasnick has provided pro bono legal services to churches and ministry organizations and used his law practice as a ministry mechanism to offer counsel that is rooted in the scripture and to share his life in Christ.
He has served on numerous boards of Christian ministries, including Cuyahoga Valley Christian Academy and Emmanuel Christian Academy, which he founded at Akron’s the House of the Lord. He established minority scholarships to CVCA and several regional Christian colleges.
Unruh said that among Rasnick’s less-visible commitments is his dedication to two young men who lost their father 12 years ago.
“He stepped in and devoted one night a week to them, spending time with them as they grew from boys to young men,” Unruh said. “He did it because he knew it was the right thing to do, because he was led by the Holy Spirit and chose to be obedient. He stepped up to be a father to the fatherless – that’s John.”
Like Rasnick, Cooper and Frey have strived to exhibit the love of God in their everyday lives. One of their vehicles for sharing the gospel has been an expression of unity through friendship.
The two men — one Caucasian and one African-American — were paired by the Akron Area Association of Churches 20 years ago to promote healing in the wake of the rioting that occurred in the Los Angeles area after a jury acquitted four white police officers accused of beating a black motorist, the late Rodney King.
Both admit that they never imagined a true friendship would develop from an exercise that challenged them to find ways to work together to bridge racial, denominational and cultural divides.
“It all started with AAAC asking, ‘Can’t we all get along?’ We weren’t sure we would really break down any walls; but we thought that if it was going to really mean anything, we should start by getting to know one another,” Frey said. “What we discovered is that we actually liked each other, so we made a commitment to put in the work to develop a relationship.”
“We had to get past the fear and unknown territory and develop a genuine friendship; then, we could encourage our congregations to come together,” Cooper said.
“Now, we sing together, pray together, worship together, have meals with each other and visit each other’s homes. When you think about it, based on the theology of reconciliation, we are doing what we should be doing because we’re all God’s children.”
The collaborative ministry between the two churches, led by Cooper and Frey, has included pulpit exchanges, a joint Easter sunrise service, an appearance by the Mount Zion Choir at the Bath church’s Epiphany Arts Festival, joint book studies, a civil rights tour of the South and numerous personal interactions.
“We knew that our relationship would be key in modeling for members of our congregations that this could be done,” Frey said. “We have progressed to a point where we can share openly and we honor each other’s gifts.”
“It’s like a marriage, you’ve got to invest. We learned that we were compatible and we invested the time and commitment,” Cooper said.
“It’s truly been a beautiful journey of mutual reciprocity.”
Tickets for the breakfast are $50. Reservations can be made through the Love Akron website, www.loveakron.org or by calling 330-384- 8124. A portion of the proceeds will benefit Unruh’s One Life at a Time initiative.
Colette Jenkins can be reached at 330-996-3731 or firstname.lastname@example.org