by Kathryn Lieder
At the final Agape Latte talk of the semester on April 5, Brad Bates switched gears from the usual day-to-day focus of his job as Athletic director regarding, Coaches, press conferences, and athletic events to turn inward and reflect on his own faith journey.
From Port Huron Michigan, a town of 35,000 residents, -Bates remarks that he attended school in the same district that expelled Thomas Edison.
He reflects that his parents, as educators, instilled in him a great appreciation for education: the many pathways it paves and the opportunities it drives. He shares that his maternal grandparents were deaf, so he and his siblings learned sign language in order to communicate with them. Rather than viewing their hearing impairment as a disability, it made him “really open from the beginning to engaging difference and trying to use that as a way to grow and learn.”
Baptized Christian, raised First Congregationalist, and married in the Catholic Church, Bates had a uniquely diverse patchwork of varying experiences within the Christian faith.
The Church that Bates belonged to growing up was very integrative in its approach to engaging the community. Its minister would often welcome the local priest and the local rabbi to share homilies at their services and he would, in turn, offer sermons at the local synagogue and local Catholic parishes.
From a young age, experiencing this religious diversity helped broaden his perspective on the world and affirm him in his faith.
“Never in my life did I ever doubt that there was a God, that Jesus was His Son, that there is an afterlife,” he shared. However, he recalled feeling challenged to question his faith in the after life for the first time while reading Mark Twain’s Number 44: The Mysterious Stranger in his 10th grade English class.
The story unfolds in a destitute 15th century Medieval town through the eyes of a teenage printer’s apprentice named August. The town’s gloomy situation starts to look up when a teenager named 44 comes along, sharing that he yields amazing capabilities to bring about justice.
“And suddenly he’s changing over and rewarding those who have been oppressed, and punishing those who have been the oppressors. As it turns out, Number 44 is the devil’s nephew,” Bates recounts. Number 44 brings August on incredible adventures throughout the world until in the last chapter he tells August that he must leave and, sadly, he will never see him again. To this, August responds, “but surely we’ll see each other in the next.”
“There is no other,” 44 returned. It was these four words that left Bates in a state of stillness as he doubted his faith for the first time. This questioning led him to turn to both theological and anatomical research on the afterlife.
Four years later, as a sophomore in college, he was enrolled in a Cadaver Anatomy course. The course, just as it sounded, involved up-close examination of dissected corpses.
He reflects on experiencing an aha moment when he walked into the lab with the cadavers for the first time. “I realized that this [pointing to the body] is not soul—that this is just a container; it’s a way we optically relate to one another and envision one another. But once this doesn’t serve that soul anymore, there’s no use for it.”
This very concrete confrontation of death led Bates to reorient his perspective to focus more on his present life than on the prospect of the after life.
“I really think of life now as a series of afterlives, right? How many of you are seniors? So you’re about to embark on your after-BC life, right?” he asks, challenging everyone in the audience to recognize that we are continually bombarded by transitions. While these times of transitions can ask a lot of us, learning to be present and live in the moment is how we can find meaning in and confront the inevitable experience of stress and anxiety.
He shares that he first met his wife, whom he has now been happily married to for 33 years, during the last week of his sophomore year at the University of Michigan. But their story together didn’t unfold from there on the way one might expect.
Three months later, while driving in rural Michigan, her car was broadsided in an intersection by a reckless drunk driver. This life-threatening accident left her in a coma for four days. She had to learn how to walk and talk again.
Two years later, on her first day back at classes, Bates saw her on campus for the first time after they had been initially introduced and recalls, “all of a sudden comes this idiot on a bike and he almost hits her…That might be me,” he joked.
“I was on my way to class, but once again, I forgot I had class. That time I got her number. Thirty-three years later, here we are. We’re celebrating our anniversary in July,” he remarks with a smile.
“I never would have met her again if she hadn’t experienced that. Don’t overanalyze life. It’ll come to you. God’s presence will take care of things.”
He continues, stating “Sure, you have obligations, you have responsibilities. Your commitment to this place is to maximize your development and formation and leave this place to make the world better, and whatever endeavors you engage better than you find them.”
He closes, challenging students to be present with themselves and others and to make the most of the incredible resources, people, and opportunities that surround them on campus.
“Afterlife,” he stated, “Every day’s an afterlife.”