Father Bob Towner was riding in a dilapidated truck in the middle of nowhere, a mountainous region still lush with vegetation despite the large-scale deforestation taking place throughout the country. The truck had been left behind by American forces after World War II. A dozen other people were crowded in next to him, as well as another dozen sitting on top. They were moving away from their missionary zone, located in one of the poorest, most primitive parts of the Philippines.
“The poorest but most generous hosts I have ever been with,” Father Bob says of the region’s inhabitants.
The trip was only 30 miles on the national highway; however, due to large potholes every five yards or so, the driver would slow down to a crawl to prevent damage to the truck’s axles. Two-thirds of the way down the road, during one of these crawls, three men stepped out into the road. Their faces were covered with bandanas and they were armed- two with pistols and one with a shotgun. They pointed their weapons at the driver. Had he been able to drive faster, perhaps they could have fled. But he knew at this speed, any evasive action would end shortly as bullets would splinter the windshield tearing their way into his flesh as well as that of his passengers. By stopping, there was a chance no one would be hurt.
The bandits ordered everyone out of the vehicle and passed a hat around in which the people were to deposit their valuables- jewelry and watches, loose change and wallets. They came across Father Bob, the big American guy, and knew he would be the most valuable of them all.
“I gave them what was in my front pockets happily, but I would not give them my wallet,” Father Bob laughingly says. “They were standing over me with a shotgun to my head and I still didn’t give them my damn wallet. I don’t know what was wrong with me.”
From underneath their bandanas came sounds of near hysteria- shouting, screaming. Father Bob could sense their fear and although he was on the other side of the barrel, he still refused their demands. Luckily, he was traveling with a Filipino priest who wrapped his body around Father Bob’s shielding him from harm. Although they were dressed in street clothes, the native priest shouted in their dialect, “We are priests! We are priests!” With each time the priest beseeched them, the bandits’ eyes grew larger until they gathered what they had stolen and ran into the bush in terror.
Later, Father Bob found out the culprits were captured.
“They were a couple of 16- to 17-year-old kids that were really hungry. They gave back all of the money and had to go apologize to the Filipino priest,” he says.
He would also receive a letter of apology, and although the memory has stayed with him, he was able to forgive the boys for their misdeeds. He was relieved, he says to know that although they were out in the bush, the justice system really worked. And the justice system also showed mercy. It is this type of balance Father Bob seeks to spread and part of where he spreads it is the classroom.
“Teaching keeps me mentally alert. That is one reason I do it. The other reason is that I really enjoy the interaction with students and faculty,” he says.
Father Bob received his bachelor of philosophy degree at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., and his masters of divinity degree from Seabury Western Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill. He has taught at least one religion course per semester at Southeast for six years in what he jokingly refers to as “the department of church and state” - better known as the Department of Political Science, Philosophy and Religion. His main vocation, however, is that of priest at Christ Episcopal Church on Fountain Street in Cape Girardeau.
Besides being a priest, he says a lot of his qualifications for teaching world religions come from travel. When he travels, he does it as a pilgrim wanting to be instructed by the wisdom of other cultures. This approach has proven very helpful in understanding the spectrum of religion and thus mankind. His pilgrimages have taken him mainly to third-world countries such as Sudan, Thailand, Nepal and the Philippines - places where ancient oral traditions based in animism are still present. In his world religions class, students talk about animism in the first few weeks of the class.
“When a Filipino farmer asks the priest to come pray over his well that is not working, he is asking the priest to conduct an exorcism over the evil animistic spirit. So have I ever done an animistic service? Yeah!” Father Bob says. “I used the Christian rite, but it was the animistic ideas that caused it to be handled in a religious way before it could be handled technologically, because it was the ‘evil spirit’ who made it break. I feel the same way about the church plumbing. It gets clogged a lot. I have to exorcise it.”
It is this sort of pragmatism, respect for other cultures, and humor that makes Father Bob a wildcard amongst church leaders. In addition to his travels abroad, he has been exposed to indigenous American religions through Native American cultures, mainly the Ojibwa and Sioux, through summer missions. His brother, who now grows a garden on a mountain in New Mexico, has adopted the culture of the Sioux as a keeper of the pipe and Sioux rights. Due to these experiences, Father Bob exudes a richness in his teaching that is personal, yet accessible to his students no matter what their religious beliefs may be.
“I am deeply dedicated to my own religion and to the proposition that the Holy Spirit has communicated wisdom to other people in other cultures,” says Father Bob.
This sentiment shows through in the classes he has had a hand in developing. After the September 11th terrorist attacks, he says he began thinking a lot about the role of religion in violence. Subsequently, he developed PL408-Religion and Violence, a seminar course being offered next in the spring of 2008. This class examines the link between religion and violence and attempts to add complexity to discourse when comparing one religion to another. He always takes this class, as well as others, to the Islamic center. In addition, he teams up with a Muslim professor for presentations.
“One of the professors at the University and I have on five or six occasions presented together. I am the introducer and he tells them what he thinks Islam really means,” says Father Bob. “He and I very much want to get the message out that terrorists do not represent the majority of Muslims across the world.”
He was also invited by Dr. Allen Gathman of the biology department to team teach UI415-Science and Religion. In this course, they integrate scientific and religious knowledge through reading and discussion related to epistemology, origins, process and ethics.
“I’m the religious guy,” he jokes.
Outside of church and the University, Father Bob says he is interested in downtown redevelopment in Cape. He helped start Neighborhood Connections, a grassroots organization. They are organizing to make a more habitable and safe neighborhood around the church, as it is in one of the older neighborhoods in town.
His advice for students is, “Go to class. Don’t hide. When you get messed up- hurt, sick, confused. Don’t hide.”
This is advice you would expect from someone who has made it his vocation to be a counselor, a mentor and a teacher. It is his job to influence, to help, especially those who are the most hurt.