Dustin Salter was a big man with a bigger heart.
It’s been nearly seven years since Dustin died at age 37 after a bicycle accident, but even in the short time I knew him, his memory looms large in my mind.
To know Dustin was to see the big in everything. Dustin was big — six-foot-five with an eardrum-splitting laugh and a big, goofy smile. He had no time for small conversations; everything was big picture, big questions — “so what does this meeeeeean?” Dustin was focused on the big picture, and if you were around him, you were, too. He was genuine. He came on strong and stayed that way, because that’s who he was.
Cindy Allen, my high school history teacher who also rarely leaves my mind, recommended I get involved with Reformed University Fellowship, better known as RUF. Dustin was the RUF minister at TCU, and he liked people. He was an active listener, able to make you feel heard with a knowing grin and ask a deep question a split-second later. In a politically divisive era of the church, he was loved to pull people out of petty differences and focus them back on the bigger picture. He once told me he thought RUF should have more smokers, which wasn’t something you heard at Campus Crusade in 2003.
He loved the outdoors and he was fond of bluegrass. I’m not one to ascribe the phrase joy of the Lord to just anybody, but if anybody naturally radiated a transcendent joy, Dustin did.
Truth be told, I was really bad at RUF. I think I was difficult, a phrase that’s circled around me since I was a little kid.
I struggled to find common ground with the students also training for the RUF leadership team. They were Greek kids, and I was not. At TCU, especially in your underclassmen years, that was a very real dividing line. And maybe I was judgmental, too. My parents had divorced a few years before and I was still reeling from the general uprooting of our entire lives when we moved to Texas. Me and the others never connected. I think I just quit going to the meetings.
I think Dustin kinda liked me, but, of course, Dustin liked everyone. We were both Southeastern boys (him from Alabama, me from Florida, where Dustin went to seminary), we both liked movies and music, and we both didn’t accept Christianity blindly. He made it a point to keep up with me, even as I became less and less engaged with RUF. He spent time with me when I think others might have just let me slide through the cracks.
I’m telling ya, folks, he was as human as you or me, but he lived it. He really did.
A few stray shot memories of Dustin: Him barreling down I-30 in his minivan, discussing apologetics on the way to see Os Guinness in Dallas (I feared for my safety, as he maybe looked at the road twice in 35 miles); Him telling me how much he enjoyed a CD someone had made him of Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and The Flaming Lips’ Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (he preferred Wilco); and a message he left me on my phone a few weeks before his accident.
I don’t remember if I called Dustin first or if he called me, but I remember we traded voicemails. He and his family had moved their ministry to Furman University, and I think I was home for the summer in Tyler, Texas. He said he was doing well and that they really liked it in South Carolina. A few weeks later, his bike went the wrong way, and God took Dustin Salter home early.
Too young. Much too young.
The last few weeks, I have been re-reading a Bible study that he put together for RUFers about the foundations of the Christian faith. Now, as I’m 31 and married, I feel like I have so many questions I would like to ask him — about Faith, marriage, joy, the South, music (the Drive-by Truckers conversations we could have!) — but as much as I’d like to call him up, I can’t.
There were a lot of guys and girls who knew Dustin much better than me, and many of them were the same frat guys and sorority sisters I wrongly judged. Some of them rushed to his hospital bed. Some of them gathered prayer groups together. Some of them joined RUF as ministers because of him. They were good people, all in all.
Dustin preached a sermon about divine providence a few days before his death, and it seems to be inextricably linked to his memory. In it, he said, essentially, that God even uses the worst of circumstances for good. Dustin’s death certainly brought that message to bear. In my life, his memory has shown me what a Christian might look like. I miss him and think of him often.