Memories of Telfer Mook by Eric A. Gass, Former Southern Asia Executive
It was my special privilege and great fortune to have been associated with Telfer for over 41 years – with the United Church Board for World Ministries, the American College Trustees, the NGO Forum on Sri Lanka, and also the Trustees of Jaffna College Funds whom I officially represent today.
What a lucky man I am! But our relationship was more than work. Telfer was a dear friend — to me, my wife Patricia, AND our children. To this day our children affectionately refer to him as “Uncle Telfer.”
Dick Dickinson, in his words read today, not only rendered a loving ministry to Telfer and the family, but summarized so beautifully and concisely a number of his friend’s unique qualities and achievements. How sad that Dick can’t be with us today. But, surely, he, Telfer and Jane are now celebrating together the wonderful memories of three good and faithful servants of God.
Two qualities to which Dick alluded deserve elaboration.
Telfer had a gift for recognizing talent and enabling it to fully blossom.
- He recognized in two young Indian doctors the capacity to start a comprehensive rural health program that became world famous.
- He saw potential in a young principal of a women’s college and persuaded the just retired president of Wellesley College, Margaret Clapp, to mentor her. That college became a trail blazer for women’s higher education in India.
- Telfer identified the leadership talents of a young economics professor. He encouraged and helped him build and lead a rural development program that transformed communities in western India.
Dick Dickinson also mentioned the “Let’s do it” approach to challenges. One illustration:
Telfer and Jane realized that the stories of some of the really creative programs of mission were not being adequately seen by the church people who supported them. Slide shows had their place, but dramatic images would have so much greater impact. So, they said, “Let’s do it.” Let’s make movies.
Just like that Telfer and Jane became movie producers and script writers. They engaged, as cinematographer and director, a Swedish team who had done films for other mission programs. They went on location, filmed, then edited, and even promoted these films. In one film, however, they made a mistake. They used my voice as the voice of the father of modern Turkey. Ataturk spoke in the film with a suspiciously Indian accent!
Those films were used over and over in hundreds of churches, receiving enthusiastic response. Telfer just DID it.
Our family remembers another “just do it” event. Patricia and our daughter had been picked up by Telfer at JFK airport and were crossing the George Washington Bridge. An accident had just turned a car upside down. Without a moment’s hesitation, Telfer stopped and joined those righting the car.
Telfer started his professional life as a lawyer. He was an excellent one, and that makes his call to the ministry all the more significant. But that legal training and experience served his ministry well.
In 1969 James Foreman’s Black Power movement occupied the Interchurch Center offices in New York City. They did this to draw attention to their demand for reparations. Telfer, in large part because of his legal background, was chosen to maintain a physical presence in the 16th floor offices of the United Church Board for World Ministries and do what negotiating was necessary.
We also know that lawyers must prepare well, anticipate opposing arguments and be clear about where they want to go. Telfer could conduct a meeting, and before his colleagues knew what hit them, they were persuaded by the wisdom of a new program he had conceived.
Telfer was a staunch ecumenist. Most Protestant churches in India had been formed along denominational lines. As those churches united and endeavored to accentuate their new united identities, Telfer was in the forefront of bringing western mission boards together to relate to these new churches in a similarly united way.
Telfer was a good listener. No wonder he was beloved as a church pastor before he joined the staff of the Board. On Telfer’s trips to Southern Asia he would give special time to missionaries, attentive to their needs. He had a capacity for getting people to fully share their concerns. Imagine this scene: Telfer arrives at his destination in the morning after 18 hours of trans-continental travel. Forget about jet lag. After a brief freshening up, his first words are directed to the woman of the household. He says, “Carol, Golly! How have things been going with you?” Well, so much for getting on with breakfast. The answer just flows and flows, and Telfer listens and listens.
And there were the-non mission sides of Telfer. I relate two of them. Not long before Jane passed on, my wife and I visited them here in Michigan It was a precious time. One morning I asked Telfer if there was anything I could help with. He said that I hadn’t come here to work, but if I really wanted to, it had been a while since he last mowed the grass at the house. Well! Me and my big mouth! Do you know what kind of lawn mower Telfer was using? The REALLY old fashioned kind.
And we all will remember Telfer’s fabulous smile and exuberant laugh. Both were so warm and genuine, and reflective of much of who Telfer was. The picture is vivid. Telfer is smiling admiringly and adoringly at Jane as she holds forth on some subject of note. And as she wryly makes a humorous point, Telfer erupts into his infectious laugh, followed by a momentary, almost reflective, pause, and then another peal of confirming laughter.
Telfer, that smile warmed our hearts and that laugh lifted our spirits. They do so even now. Thank you, dear mentor and friend.