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William Eugene 'Gene' Bolin, Episcopal priest and passionate social advocate, dies

William Eugene 'Gene' Bolin, Episcopal priest and passionate social advocate, dies
The Rev. William "Gene" Bolin's puns were "zingers," his daughter recalls. (Handout / HANDOUT)

The Rev. William Eugene “Gene” Bolin, a “master of the pun” and spiritual man known for his compassion and skills as a public speaker, died Feb. 7 in Towson. He was 78.

Born July 2, 1940, in Dundalk, he was the son of Helen Gertrude Williams, a homemaker, and Carroll Eugene Bolin, the owner of a land-leveling business and, later, a minister.

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Growing up, Mr. Bolin’s parents frequently relocated the family along the West Coast as his father explored his calling as a Christian minister. Along the way, Mr. Bolin joined his school football team in Madras, Ore., and later in Seattle, Wash., where he excelled in his high school varsity team and developed a lifelong passion for the sport.

He lettered in football at the University of Washington in Seattle before suffering a severe back injury his sophomore year. He spent the remainder of his collegiate studies as an active member of the local and state Baptist Student Union, eventually rising to leadership position with the organization’s student choir.

Mr. Bolin married Frances Schoonmaker of Aberdeen, Wash., in 1968. He taught briefly at a Washington high school before accepting a teaching assistant position at the University of Washington in 1962, during which time he studied speech and communication.

When the opportunity arose in 1965 for him to direct the student ministries and church music for the Baptists Convention of Washington, Oregon and Canada, the couple moved to Portland, Ore. He held that position until 1969, save for an academic year spent with the Baptists Sunday School Board during 1966-1967 in Nashville, Tenn.

After his daughter Liesl Claire Bolin was born in 1969, Mr. Bolin took a full-time director position in the Student Ministries Department of the Baptists Sunday School Board, serving until 1980. He was considered a popular speaker at youth meetings and soon began developing a manual for starting and sustaining Christian campus ministries.

The Bolin household was an extension of the campus ministry department, and living there involved running into college students who would stop by at all hours, said Liesl Bolin, who works as administrator for Woodbrook Baptist Church in Rogers Forge.

Her father’s puns were “zingers that you’d walk right into,” then sigh after realizing the joke, she said.

But Mr. Bolin’s personality made him easy to talk to and welcoming to all people, Ms. Bolin said. When a congregation member came out as gay to him in the 1970s, she said, he responded: “I liked you as a person beforehand; why should that change?”

“He loved without question,” she said. “He said, ‘If Christ died for me, why wouldn’t Christ have died for you as well?’ … Having that model throughout my life was a gift. Now I get to do that for my daughter and say, ‘We are not called to judge. We are called to love.’ That’s what he did.”

Mr. Bolin encouraged his daughter’s hopes of going into the arts, rather than urging her to seek a more lucrative career, she said. When she put on theater productions, he would come help build the sets, she said.

“Having someone support me and my desire to go into English education and theater, not being pushed in some other direction, was really wonderful,” Ms. Bolin said.

Mr. Bolin took a sabbatical in 1979 to study at the Union Theological Seminary in New York, and the family joined him there the following year. He began ministering to the Metro Baptists Mission, which under his guidance became a church in 1982. He served there as pastor until 1991 and witnessed the congregation grow from a handful of people who met on the third floor of the New York Baptists Convention offices to a large body based at its present location on West 40th Street in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood.

When the church was negotiating to buy its current Hell’s Kitchen building, Mr. Bolin prayed “Lord, Don’t give us this building if we can’t put into use for the people who need it 24/7.”

Mr. Bolin was also known for passionately ministering through the distribution of food and clothes to those in need. He once came home in his socks because he’d given his shoes to someone who did not have any.

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He often encouraged youths to engage in direct social ministry, leading groups of college students into places such as the Lower East Side, where they helped convert a dilapidated building into the still-operating Graffiti Baptist Ministry. And when the crack cocaine epidemic struck, Mr. Bolin led a coalition of local businesses in Hell’s Kitchen to lobby for better police protection and city services.

Mr. Bolin and Ms. Schoonmaker divorced in 1990, and he soon entered the Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Va., while serving at All Souls Episcopal Church and the National Cathedral in Washington. He was ordained to the Episcopal priesthood and served as the University of Maryland chaplain before becoming a priest at St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Damascus.

In 1997, Mr. Bolin began a new church ministry in Walkersville, focused on drawing baby boomers and Gen-Xers. After retirement, he married Marion Northern of Hagerstown in 2010. He moved in 2013 to Oak Crest Village in Parkville, where he lived until his death.

Mr. Bolin was preceded in death by his parents and Mary Jean Bolin, an older sister who died shortly after birth. He is survived by his wife, his half-sister, Karolyn Dawn Ostrum of Broken Arrow, Okla., and his daughter, Liesl; granddaughter Amelia; and former spouse, Frances Schoonmaker.

A memorial service is scheduled for April 6 at 1 p.m. at the Woodbrook Baptist Church. Another memorial service is expected to be held in June at Metro Baptists Church in New York.

Baltimore Sun reporter Colin Campbell contributed to this article.

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