Dr. Robert Stevens, Rest in Peace
By Garland Pollard
Director of Communications, Diocese of Southwest Florida
July 30, 2019
“We have lost in the Diocese of Southwest Florida a great saintly asset in the life and mission purpose of Dr. Bob Stevens,” said Bishop Dabney Smith, in a statement. “His sudden death is a shock and great sadness for many, both in this diocese and particularly in the Diocese of the Dominican Republic.”
Stevens was the first executive director of the organization. In the last two decades, the organization has sent hundreds of mission teams to the Dominican Republic, from not only the Diocese of Southwest Florida, but other Episcopal dioceses across the U.S. The Dominican Republic is now one of the fastest growing dioceses in The Episcopal Church.
Stevens’ philosophy for aid development echoed Habitat for Humanity founder and mentor Millard Fuller; he believed that plans should not gather dust on the shelves of diocesan offices but instead be made flexible, adaptable plans that have broad-scale applications.
Stevens dedicated his life to the service of the Lord through the Peace Corps, Habitat for Humanity and as a missionary in the Dominican Episcopal church and with the Dominican Development Group. Bob moved on in retirement to fulfill a 25-year-old dream to start the Province 9 development group with the goal of supporting the development and self-sufficiency of the other dioceses of Province 9 using the proven model of the DDG.
The Dominican Development Group, founded in 1998, is a non-profit organization within The Episcopal Church that assists the Episcopal Diocese of the Dominican Republic with project planning, program development, and construction expertise; raises funds for the diocesan endowment; and coordinates the schedules and the work projects of mission teams from the United States working in the Diocese of the Dominican Republic. It had offices at DaySpring until it moved in 2012.
Born in Manitowoc, Wisconsin on May 21, 1943, he was valedictorian of Pioneer High School in Whittier, Calif. In his 1999 monograph book El Peregrino: The Spiritual Journey of a Missionary, Stevens detailed not only how he came to faith, but how he worked through the plan that was begun as a college sophomore engineering student when he walked forward to accept Christ at an East Los Angeles Billy Graham Crusade.
After UCLA, he studied under Japanese writer and theologian Dr. Toyozo Nakarai, who had in his youth been a black belt samurai who converted to Christianity. In early years, he worked in Venezuela, and later he joined the Peace Corps, where he met Habitat for Humanity founder Fuller while working in Guatemala. He eventually moved to Americus, Georgia, becoming Habitat’s first Director of Operations. He worked for both the Southern Institute for Appropriate Technology and Church World Service. From 1993-97, he served as planning and development officer for the Episcopal Diocese of the Dominican Republic.
His skill at church-based development work was not only about experience, but training. He earned a B. S. in Engineering from UCLA, an MDiv. from Emmanuel School of Religion, a masters in regional planning and a PhD in social science focusing on Latin American studies at Syracuse University.
He served as the executive director of the group from 1998-2013. Early on, there were massive successes, including Christ Church Bradenton’s raising $105,000 for a church in Bani. Dozens of mission trips followed from dioceses across the church.
In a June 17, 2003 letter to the diocese, the Rt. Rev. William Skilton of South Carolina wrote that he believed that “we have developed one of the most creative mission programs that our Church has seen and the support which we have been able to generate is well beyond the expectations we had several years ago.” In a 2003 paper submitted to member dioceses and given at General Convention, Stevens wrote of his philosophy of investing in a developing country in “A New Wrinkle in the Companion Diocese Relationship.” He said that it focused on a “sense of solidarity and a companionship that comes with our marrying of a relationship with resources in a positive, non-paternalistic way.”
In diocesan files, there are dozens of letters Stevens wrote to the diocese and Episcopal Church, thanking it for continued annual support. One such letter dated July 27, 2006 to then Bishop John Lipscomb showed the church’s growth in a simple chart of progress from 1991-2006, when the church in the Dominican Republic went from 23 to 65 congregations, 15 to 31 clergy, 10 to 31 church buildings and 7 to 21 schools.
Current DDG Executive Director Bill Kunkle met Stevens in 1999, and later traveled with him to dedicate a church and clinic. “He showed me a different way of mission,” said Kunkle. They talked of many things, one of which was the theology of fund-raising. Stevens, said Kunkle, understood that “fund-raising, at any level, allows so many more people to be involved.”
In one thank-you letter to Bishop Dabney Smith, Stevens wrote of his concern about the funds entrusted to him for development work. “We are a public trust before God, it is important that our review show that we are acting responsibly in this task that God has given us.”
Stevens is survived by his loving wife Vickie, children; Michelle (Jon) Pauley, Jeremy Harris, Eric (Haley) Stevens, Tan (Steven) Payne; grandchildren; Robert/Bobby, Ava, Max, Cooper, Mason, Elin, Luke, Owen, Gracie and Ellis; brother; and Doug (Leslie).
Bob was also an active member of St. Vincent’s Episcopal Church where he shared his experiences of service and evangelism. He was also a fixture within the Hispanic and Latino communities of the diocese. He loved to worship in Spanish and made another spiritual home in St. Giles Episcopal Church in Pinellas Park.
A funeral will be held on Saturday, August 31, at 1 p.m. at St. Vincent’s Episcopal Church (5441 9th Ave N, St. Petersburg, FL 33710) with a Celebration of Life immediately following in the Parish Hall. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Bob Stevens Memorial Fund through the Dominican Development Group (http://dominicandevelopmentgroup.org/donate) to continue his efforts to support Latin American communities in need.