Smile Politely

Keepin’ the Faith: Steve Shoemaker in memoriam

Steve Shoemaker has died.

Many will have known him, many others will not. It is difficult to convey in mere words what sort of man he was, the influence he had over those fortunate enough to have been graced by his presence over the years, and the impact he had on Champaign County. I could tell you he was a pastor, a son, a father, a husband, a grandfather, a radio host, a television personality, a politician, a mentor, a humanitarian, and a kind, beautiful man. I could tell you all of that, and it still wouldn’t suffice.

Here we are, in the midst of a raucous 2016. There is much strife and tumult in the world. Our own presidential election has turned farcical. And a man who was a calm, steadying influence is gone. Steve passed away on the night of October 10th, and the loss of his presence will be felt. Active in the community for decades, he managed to keep a presence on social media during the last few months of his life while he fought pancreatic cancer.

I can tell you most definitely when I first became aware of Steve Shoemaker. Sunday nights growing up in my house on South Draper St. were one of the highlights of the week. WCIA (or Channel 3, as we used to call it) would air episodes of the original Star Trek series after the Sunday newscast. Granted, it was a bit late for a kid with grade school the next day, but hey, it was Star Trek, so my parents made an exception.

Between the news signing-off and the beginning of a colorful episode of vintage television featuring William Shatner chewing the scenery and Leonard Nimoy raising an eyebrow, was Evensong, the weekly words of religious advice from local pastors. Quite often, Steve Shoemaker’s warm, honest, bearded face would grace our screens for a few moments, offering words of comfort and sending us off into the work and school week feeling just a little bit better about the world. I didn’t know this man, but I liked him.

Steve was the minister, for a time, at McKinley Presbyterian Church on the University of Illinois campus. I never heard one of his sermons, but I imagine they no doubt reflected the man, and how he saw God: humble, imposing, welcoming, direct, passionate and loving. He also served as the director of the University YMCA, helping to shape it into one of the most socially conscious environments on campus.

Indeed, it can be said without reservation that Steve Shoemaker was a man with a social conscience. That was evident to anyone who knew him, and by his notable work in striving to bring together many disparate groups: The poor, the homeless, folks in the African-American and white communities, people of the Christian, Muslim and Jewish faiths, those in the LGBT community, and many others. Through it all, the effort, the time, the devotion, the accolades, Steve retained his humility.

When I moved back to Champaign in 2004, and became more politically active, it didn’t surprise me to find out that Steve had recently served a term on the Champaign County Board. After all, politics is a form of advocacy, and who better than Steve to advocate for the citizens of Champaign County? Alas, he served only one, short term, and though I wasn’t privy to the reason why, I have my suspicions. While politics can be noble, it can also, unfortunately, be cutthroat. It’s difficult to picture Steve Shoemaker putting up with that for very long.

For fourteen years, from 1999-2013, Steve hosted a radio show on WILLam580 titled, appropriately enough, Keepin’ the Faith. Over the course of the show’s run, topics ranged from religion, to questions of an ethical nature, to the more nebulous realm of spirituality. It was, of course, guided by the dulcet tones that could only come from Pastor Shoemaker. He brought his usual thoughtful and candid nature to the topics at hand.

I cringed upon hearing the news, several months ago, that Steve had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. It is the cancer that took my father some nineteen years ago, and its prognosis is rarely good. Of course, I should have known that Steve would face it with his usual grace and dignity. He kept active on Facebook, posting on a myriad of topics. Honestly, some of his postings about his cancer shocked me with their candor and dark sense of humor, but then I realized it was ok. He was looking at death with a twinkle in his eye. He even wrote and published a book during this time, A Sin a Week.

And now, Steve Shoemaker is gone. I didn’t know him nearly as well as I wanted to, yet his presence looms large in my thoughts. From seeing him on the TV as a little boy, to enjoying a social gathering at his wonderful home in rural Champaign, dubbed ‘Prairie Haven,’ I will remember Steve. More than that, I will truly miss him. No one could portray President Lincoln quite like him. No one had a voice quite like his. Steve was, truly, a humble man who used his faith to do good for others. We are a better community because of him, and will feel his loss for some time to come.

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