In a recent Sunday sermon, the Rev. Randall Von Kanel told the parable of the dessert fork.
Von Kanel, 64, told his parishioners at Cayman Islands Baptist Church about a dying woman putting her affairs in order. She requested that her minister make sure she had a fork in her right hand as she lay in her casket.
The minister in Von Kanel’s story asks the woman why and she explains the anticipation she sometimes felt when dinner dishes were being cleared.
“She said, ‘Whenever someone would say, “Keep your fork,” I always knew something better was coming. When (the mourners) pass by, I want them to wonder, ‘What’s with the fork?’ I want you to tell them, ‘The best is yet to come.’”
For Von Kanel, the story is an appropriate illustration of what Christians can expect when they leave this world. It also seems to be the outlook he carries in this life. His past nine years of pastoring at Cayman Islands Baptist Church, he said, have been his most fulfilling.
Not only has his church grown, but Von Kanel has been active in the community and was one of the driving forces behind establishing the YMCA of the Cayman Islands. He has been part of the development of the Baptist community on Grand Cayman off and on for 40 years and recently published a book about the denomination’s history here, “Our Baptist Story.”
Von Kanel is in his third stint on Grand Cayman. He first came in 1978, when he was still a divinity student and worked as a music and youth journeyman missionary for the newly established First Baptist Church of Grand Cayman. He later served as pastor for the same church from 1992 to 1998. Each time he returned to the island, he said, required leaving a comfortable position in the United States for an uncertain future on the island. His faith and trust in God rewarded him each time, he said. Quoting one of his favorite authors and pastors, Dr. Charles Swindoll, he added: “‘When you dare to do the unusual, you can trust God to do the incredible,’ and He did.”
Von Kanel, who is widely known as Pastor Randy, said he believes even better things lie ahead as he bolsters the Northwestern Caribbean Baptist Theological Seminary, recently opened on the second floor of the large church complex that was built on Pedro Castle Road in Savannah in 2009.
He’s hoping a Caymanian will feel the call to the ministry and will be trained at the seminary to succeed him in the coming years.
When he does step down, it will serve as a bookend to his career, which began here when he was 25.
An early call to serve
Jennifer Godfrey, 72, lives in South Sound. She said she met Von Kanel 40 years ago when she was having trouble getting out of the Buy Rite parking lot and he offered his assistance.
“I remember that day so well,” Godfrey said. “That began a great journey.”
Godfrey said she was part of the committee that asked Von Kanel to take the helm of the church in 2009. She said the pastor takes time for everyone and she occasionally worries he might be overextending himself.
“No man is perfect, but he’s pretty special,” she said. “He lives a life that’s true and real and he always points you to the Father.”
Von Kanel’s own call to serve came while he was still in high school, playing football and baseball for the Pascagoula Panthers, in the Mississippi town of the same name where he grew up. He was 15 and was attending a youth retreat in Pass Christian, a beach community on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, where the running theme for the weekend had been God’s will for your life, he said.
“At a closing beach bonfire, we were singing the song “His Way Mine.” I sensed the call of God and accepted that call,” he said.
But he didn’t see himself standing in front of a congregation.
“I thought it would be a music ministry,” he said. “I had a terrible fear of public speaking.”
Faced with a classroom full of fellow students, he said, he trembled so badly that “in my junior year in high school, my teacher excused me from oral book reports.”
And, in fact, the early years of his service to the church were spent in a role that only required him to make music or deal with other young people. It wasn’t long after his call, he was still in high school, that he was asked to help at a church across town.
“By the time I was 17, I led the music and youth at Riverside Baptist Church,” he said.
After graduating high school in 1971, he went on to what is now the Baptist William Carey University in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music. He also began doing some speaking at youth camps and retreats.
He enrolled in New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, and not long after beginning his first semester, he filled out a postcard expressing interest in a missionary program.
“That started a journey that led to me being assigned to the Cayman Islands,” he said, a place he had never been. “I had been friends with students at William Carey who were from the Cayman Islands. I thought, ‘Well I know people there.’”
Grand Cayman was very different in those days. There were no high-rise hotels and there was no Baptist church. Baptists had been active in Cayman Brac since the late 1800s, but Herbert and Jackie Neely, who started the First Baptist Church in Grand Cayman, had been on the island only a year, when Von Kanel showed up as their music and youth minister.
“We didn’t even have a building,” he recalled, adding that services were being held in the Neely’s home and the Town Hall in George Town at the time. “I learned some of the dynamics of starting a church from the beginning. And, I continued my spiritual growth.”
That included a new understanding. It came during a Keswick meeting, a weeklong non-denominational evangelical gathering attended by churches from throughout the Caribbean.
“I learned that Christ lives in me and wants to live through me,” he said.
The reality of that message came alive for him in Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
“Out of that week, the understanding that Christ is my life would be transformative,” he said. It solidified his faith.
And with faith, the Bible says, all things are possible. During that time, he started a band, something with which he had no experience.
Von Kanel had been involved in choral music – these were the days before guitars and drum sets started showing up in church – but there was a desire in Grand Cayman to establish a school band.
“I knew nothing about leading a band,” he said.
He could play a little piano, enough to cue the choir, and a little less trombone. But, like an honest version of Harold Hill in the Broadway musical “Music Man”, he took on the project. Raising money for instruments that were shipped from the United States and establishing the island’s first school band at Triple C School, he learned the process as he went along.
“I would stay one book ahead of the students,” he said.
And while all this was going on in his life, he was falling in love.
He’d known Cindy Farris in high school. He was 17 and she was 14. They were boyfriend and girlfriend, he said, but because of her age, they never really dated in high school and eventually went their separate ways. Just before coming to Cayman, he said, he ran into her again. She had become a school teacher.
They rekindled their relationship through letter writing. She came to Cayman several times to visit him, staying with the Neelys each time.
“So, everything was proper,” he said with a smile.
Cindy was nervous about becoming a “preacher’s wife,” Von Kanel said. But they were married in 1980, shortly after he returned to the United States.
“I have a haven with her,” he said. “I don’t have to discuss church business with her. She has taught Sunday school and has been involved in other ways through the years of our ministry, but I told her from the beginning, ‘You don’t have to do anything God doesn’t call you to do. All I need you to do is to love me as I love you.’”
The couple settled in Mississippi, as Von Kanel finished his master’s and then doctorate at the New Orleans seminary, commuting for several years of his studies. He went on to serve in several churches in Mississippi before getting a call to return to the Cayman Islands in 1992.
Pastor Neely was retiring, and the First Baptist congregation asked Von Kanel if he would return and serve as pastor. It wasn’t something he expected when he had departed the island.
“I left and thought I’d never be back,” he said.
He wasn’t sure doing so would be the right move. He and Cindy now had two children and he questioned whether they could make it financially. The Cayman church had never paid its pastor a salary before.
“It was a test of faith to come here,” he said. “But, again, when you dare to do the unusual, you can trust God to do the incredible.’ And he did. Those years (1992-1998) were great years of growth and impact. You can’t explain it other than God did something.”
While the church grew, so did the Von Kanel’s children. Daughter Randa participated in island equestrian competitions and their son, Landon, excelled in swimming. At 12, he won Cayman’s first CARIFTA Games gold medal in 1996. Randy also became involved in the swimming scene, serving as the co-founding chairman of the Sting Ray Swim Club with friend and fellow swim parent, Jim Frazier.
The family was back in the United States in 2001, and Landon was attending university (Louisiana State University). He had been home for a visit and was headed back to school when his car spun out of control on a rain-slick road and crashed. Landon died in the accident.
A test of faith
The loss of his son, Von Kanel said, was the greatest test he has faced in his life.
“Our faith didn’t waiver, but it was put to the test,” he said. “Though we were hurt and grieving tremendously, we emerged still acknowledging that Jesus is Lord.
“I preached three weeks after his death. The sermon was on Hebrews 11:6: ‘Without faith, it’s impossible to please God.’ We knew we had to trust him.”
At the time, Von Kanel was working as executive director of Global Outreach International, a non-profit missionary agency, but stepped down after Landon’s death to be with his family more. He became the senior pastor for First Baptist Church in Tupelo, Mississippi and was preaching there when, in 2009, Cayman called a third time. A new Baptist church had formed in the years since his earlier tenure, the Cayman Islands Baptist Church. The new church wanted his leadership.
“I was in a dilemma,” he said. “I had just been elected president of the Mississippi Baptist Convention Board. I was at a great church. I said, ‘God, what do you want us to do?’ Out of a time of prayer, I came to a place where I knew the Lord wanted us to return.”
Church member Victoria Buttrum, 16, is glad he did. Von Kanel, she said, has a special touch.
“I think he’s very humble and down to earth,” Buttrum said. “He was my assistant for vacation Bible school. I didn’t feel I was ready to teach. He said, ‘God wants the unqualified to work miracles.’ I thought I would be intimidated, but he made me feel comfortable.”
Mixing with his parishioners after a recent service, Von Kanel was all smiles, shaking hands, focusing in on conversations and even signing a few copies of his recently published book.
Molly Elliott, 45, said she enjoys the environment Von Kanel has helped to create.
“You can feel the presence of the Lord here,” she said. “You know (Von Kanel) is speaking from the heart.”
He also speaks beyond the church. Von Kanel said he believes in getting involved in the community as a way of sharing his love for Jesus.
He is involved with the Cayman Ministers’ Association and has served on the ethics board of the Health Services Authority. He was also chairman of the board that established the Cayman Islands YMCA, which began offering programs four years ago.
Much of his focus these days is drawn to the newly established seminary. He is hoping it will produce ministers who want to serve the island as well as the rest of the Caribbean and beyond.
We’re a small population, but we have a large footprint on the world,” he said. “We can impact the world here by leading the congregation to be genuine Christians on mission with the Good News of Jesus.”
Baptists, he said have a history of openness.
“We are champions of freedom,” he said, noting that with that freedom comes the risk of diverse and opposing views. “I’d rather have that risk than the control that would be at the other end of it.
“Maybe a rebirth of that faith and freedom will help us in the modern era.”