Editor's note: This story was originally published on Sept. 22, 1997. Rich Mullins usually slipped into the last row, sometime after the first hymn and the pastor's opening remarks. Perpetually clad in blue jeans, often needing a shave, the big- name Christian singer hardly attracted a second glance from other members of the congregation - even the young ladies who had driven hours to catch a glimpse of him.
But Central Christian Church's pastor Joe Wright would see him.
"It would almost embarrass him if I would notice and ask him to come sing a praise, " Wright said.
On Sunday, two days after Mullins' death in a car crash, Wright was the one singing the praises of the humble man who wrote words that opened hearts.
"We have taken for granted the privilege we at Central Christian Church have had in having Rich here, " Wright said, reminding the congregation to remember God is in control of destinies. "God just wanted Rich early, with all the angelic music in him, to prepare for that time when trumpets will sound."
Mullins, 41, was run over and killed by a tractor-trailer Friday night after being thrown from an out-of-control Jeep, 75 miles southwest of Chicago. He and Mitchell McVicker were heading to Wichita for a benefit concert. McVicker, 24, was reported in critical condition Sunday.
The death of the quiet guy in the back row has left a "huge hole" in the Central Christian Church congregation, said Sherrie McCready, the kid sister of Mullins' Cincinnati Bible College buddy, Sam Howard. It was Howard who brought Mullins to Wichita and to the Central Christian Church in 1988.
Wright's daughter Laura Schlueter confided that Mullins was kicked out of the music school there "for not doing it the way they wanted, I think." But when Amy Grant took his song "Sing Your Praise to the Lord" to hit status, he called his piano teacher at the bible college to thank the teacher for making him practice, Schlueter said.
"People like Rich come around once in a lifetime, " McCready said. "My first thought when I heard was: 'He's home.' This world troubled him greatly. Rich didn't know what to do about the pain he saw. But he's home now."
Julie Samaniego had a similar reaction. "I can honestly say that yesterday he met Jesus, " said Samaniego, a Central Christian Church member who knew Mullins mostly through his music and from meetings at concerts. "Jesus really was his best friend."
Blake Langhofer, guitar in hand and Mullins' music in his head, stopped to discuss the guitar player who walked on stages barefoot. "We were just jammin' to his music. . . .He was the main male Christian singer, " said Langhofer, 16.
It wasn't just rockin' tunes though, it was music with a message. "It's the deepest music you could possibly get, " said Miles Hutchinson, 19, who volunteered an example. "He wrote: 'I will fight you for something I don't really want rather than take what you've given to me.' Think about it. It's so true."
"I think Rich had a message to the church not to put God in a box, because God can't be put into a neat little compartment. He's too vast and mysterious, " McCready said, sounding a bit like the soul-searching lyrics of her good friend's songs. "Too often the church wants to make God understandable and marketable. Rich had a passion for this and the courage to let God be what he is."
Mullins strived to be true to a gospel message and still his songs were marketable, said McCready. "He wasn't like other writers simplifying things or just pointing out doubts. . . . He was able to point to doubts and give us hope at the same time, " she said.
Even his autograph had a message. Mullins signed all requests with an admonition to "be God's, " said Samaniego holding up a CD cover with her daughter Stephanie's name before the "be God's" and Mullins scrawl underneath.
"He would always go out and talk to people after concerts. We'd have to drag him away, " said Nichole Lundgren, who sang and toured with Mullins from 1989 to 1996. "He was tireless. He would do anything anyone asked - radio interviews or going to bookstores, talking to a group."
Complex, introspective, humble, generous - and absentminded.
Those are the words friends used to describe Mullins. They tell of his losing keys and shoes and even his instrument on the road. His best friend and fellow musician, known simply as Beaker, was in charge of watching Mullins' clothes, said Lundgren.
But the guy who couldn't find his way to a concert venue even with a map, could puzzle out the intricacies of religion, writing maps for others to follow. "He was literally the most brilliant man I know. I'd come home exhausted from all we had spoken about, " said Schlueter who had dated Mullins casually in the past.
Lundgren concurred. "On stage you got a one-dimensional view. But he was complex. Hard to know and hard not to love. One of the greatest things about him was he was real open with his struggles."
The Richmond, Ind., native's greatest hit was "Our God Is An Awesome God, " sung in churches across America. He recorded seven albums for Reunion Records, including his latest, "A Liturgy, A Legacy and a Ragamuffin Band, " released in 1993. He had recently signed a contract with Myrrh Records to begin work on a new album next month, said his manager, Jim Dunning.
Mullins often talked about how in the music business the singer/songwriter often becomes the star that overshadows his music, said McCready. "Sometimes the person can get in the way of the message. I think now people will hear them (the messages in his songs) more than when he was alive."
Mullins' striving to put the message of God before himself has ended.
All that's left is the message.
Clues to Mullins' Messages
At a Wichita concert, Rich Mullins passed out copies of hand-written notes he had made on what he was thinking as he wrote various songs. Following are excerpts from those notes:
"I don't know if God wept at Moses' funeral. I don't know if he cried when he killed the first of his creatures to take as skin to clothe this man's earliest ancestors. I don't know who will bury me.
"But I look back over the events of my life and see the hands that carried Moses to his grave lifting me out of mine. In remembering I go back to these places where God met me and I meet him again and I lay my head on his breast, and he shows me the land beyond the Jordan and I suck into my lungs the fragrance of his breath, the power of his presence. -Song: "The World As Best As I Remember It"