There are times in life when it’s not until someone dies that we come to understand how their life impacted ours, even when we may not have known them while they were here, even if the connection to them was and is peripherally. Such is the story of Mark Bolles, the former pastor of the Charlotte Congregational Church, who was born on August 21, 1951, and died on August 12, 2018.
Mark’s son, Tyler, is someone I have known for a number of years. I know his son, Dan, as a fellow journalist. They were both happy to take the time to talk about their dad after he died last month, and I was more than happy to hear the stories of a man who, like me, was a preacher who worked for community building, justice and service to this world, and wrote stories for his local paper, this local paper, that were also his sermons.
The story of Mark’s life was both ordinary and extraordinary, as is so often the case in this life. He grew up in Rhode Island where he was inspired by his local church community, in particular by the minister there, Ralph Barlow. Dan tells the story beautifully: “There was a Sunday, when Dad was about 18 years old, and members of a black militant rights group stormed the church in the middle of the service, demanding restitution for the wrongs their people had endured. The pastor, rather than being angry or scared, welcomed the group and then spent the days afterwards working with the church community to figure out the best course of action. Dad was inspired by Barlow and his ways.”
Mark got married (Carolyn), had three kids (Ariel, Tyler and Dan), then moved with his young family from Rhode Island to Bangor, Maine to attend seminary. There were side trips, detours along the way, for him often having to do with transportation. “He loved driving really large vehicles” is how Tyler puts it. He had a tour bus company, and while he lived in Charlotte, he drove the school bus. He was the garbage man in Rhode Island.
What Mark Bolles did was weave the seemingly disparate pieces of his life into one lovely tapestry of service to this world and his community. He found creative ways to help people. “He once filled his tour bus with Charlotters to take them south to help rebuild churches that had been torched by arsonists. In Maine he drove people who had no transportation to and from work. He loved being the bus driver in Charlotte,”
Mark used his love of vehicles as vehicles for love.
“I wish I had known him,” was what I told Tyler and Dan as they revealed to me, in stories and pictures, their dad and who and what he was in this world: “He was an amazing preacher. He had an amazing sense of humor. He didn’t take himself too seriously. He made the church more inclusive. He loved everybody unconditionally. He gave you all the space you needed to find things out for yourself. He let people draw their own conclusions.”
“He was a gifted storyteller, a musician; all three of us are musicians.”
Mark got divorced and remarried (Susan). He moved from Vermont back to Maine. He became a stepdad (Daniel) and a granddad. He got cancer and was sick for this past year. Not surprisingly, some of the universe’s magic came into play at the end of Mark’s life. “For the past five or six years,” is how Tyler tells it, “we all rented a house in Maine right around the time of Dad’s birthday. This year, the house was booked for that week, so we had to take it for another week instead. It turned out to be the last week of his life, so we got to be with him at the end.”
To all of you who knew Mark Bolles in his time here in Charlotte, as a preacher, as a school bus driver, as someone who was on the receiving end of his generosity, as a friend, as a contributor to this newspaper, how very fortunate you were; I am envious. Still, I believe strongly that our spirits linger here, along with our stories, and when one lives as graciously and generously as did Mark Bolles, there remains opportunity for all of us to be moved, to be challenged to live rightly, and I believe that Pastor Bolles would like that very much. Rest in peace, kind sir. And thank you for leaving such a magnanimous legacy.