RANTOUL — The Rev. Robert Freeman was a track star in a high school in Claymont, Del., when one day the teen told his track teammate, Steve LeCombe, he wanted to pray for him.
“I was preaching at 16,” the former pastor at Rantoul’s First United Methodist Church said. “I prayed he would grow up to be a man who would make a difference, who would believe in God and bridge the gap.”
The year was 1976. Freeman hadn’t seen his old friend since then when he was invited back to his hometown to be inducted into his high school’s athletic hall of fame last month, and LeCombe was there.
LeCombe told Freeman he was CEO of a Fortune 500 country when the board of American Bible Society recruited him to find the funding to build the Faith and Liberty Discovery Center in Philadelphia — a museum that will trace the impact of the Bible on American life.
The museum will be located near Independence Hall, Philadelphia, where both the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution were debated and adopted.
Freeman said the location of the building is designed to illustrate how this country leaned on God during its formation and growth. But he said that has changed.
“’Somehow in America we’ve disengaged ourselves away from God, and so we want to be able to say the rubric of the foundation was developed between the relationship between God and country,’” he quoted LeCombe.
LeCombe told Freeman he believes it’s because Freeman took time to pray with him when they were teens that God is using LeCombe in this way.
“I said, ‘God can really use a Methodist, can’t he,’” the affable Freeman told members of the Rantoul Exchange Club last week.
Freeman’s talk was centered on the theme of “God and Country,” which is an Exchange Club focus each year at this time.
Freeman said faith was important in the life and development of Rantoul.
“It’s a great town,” said Freeman, who was pastor at the Rantoul church from 1997 to 2004 and now pastors the Urbana United Methodist Church. “It’s got a great legacy of people who engaged country and God or city and God.”
Freeman remembers the first year he came to Rantoul when he and three other local pastors met at The Linden Banquet Center and asked each other how the clergy could help bring God and the city together. He said they all pledged from that moment on to support each other 100 percent.
“I believe if we’re going to live in the country we want to live in that we have to learn to love each other and respect each other and give dignity to each other,” Freeman said.
He remembered other people who were influential during his stay in Rantoul, among them Bill Seeber and Gen. Frank Elliott. Both asked him if he believed in God and country, to which he replied he did, and they said they would give him their 100 percent support.
He would later present the eulogies at their funerals, which he called an honor.
“Those are my bench marks,” he said of the men.
Freeman said his son served in the Navy and was in charge of retrofitting the aircraft carrier The Abraham Lincoln with nuclear propulsion and armament.
“He said, ‘I want to see the world,’” Freeman said of his son. “The brass said, ‘No way; you’re too smart,’ so he never stepped foot off the Virginia base. His job was complete when the Abraham Lincoln was done.”
Freeman said he got to see the Lincoln launched, which gave him a greater appreciation of God and country — “freedom to worship and freedom to pray.”
But he said U.S. citizens’ freedom has come at a price.
“We’ve lost some great young people in our community,” he said. “It came at a cost, so now when I see my son I give him a huge hug and say, ‘Thank you for giving me my freedom.’”
Freeman said he always celebrates Veterans Day with a fervor ever since Ray Boudreaux, Rantoul’s then-director of aviation and development, had Freeman come and ring the bell at the former air museum at 11 a.m. on “Armistice Day.” He said since then he has rung his church bells at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, marking the end of World War I. This year, the Urbana church’s bells rang for a solid hour.
“I look at the kids today and say, ‘You just don’t realize how good you have it and how wasteful you are with your freedom,’” Freeman said.
One of Freeman’s previous pastoral ministries was to go into Mexico and bring back young men and women who were prostitutes to the United States and help them turn their lives around. One of them was a young man named Carlos, who earned 50 cents a day in prostitution. Carlos recently called Freeman and told him he is now a great-great-grandfather.
“I met him when he was 17,” Freeman said. “Now his son and grandson serve in the Navy.”
Exchange Club member Bill Scott said he has had countless young men tell him what an influence Freeman was on their lives.
“To me one of the saddest days in our community,” Scott said, “was when he left town.”