In his younger years, the Rev. Gary Downing would often hit the road with his Bible and guitar, spreading the word of Jesus Christ. As he got older, he would take to churches, always with the goal of trying to be a “friend maker for God,” he’d say.
Downing, of Minneapolis, who led area churches and spent decades breaking down the Bible to the community, died June 25 at 65. He had battled nonsmokers lung cancer for a year.
“I think the greatest strength that he had was his heart,” said Dave Scherf of Edina, a friend and student of Downing’s. “He was one of those people that cared about people more than programs.”
Gary Willard Downing was born in Grantsburg, Wis., on Nov. 30, 1946. He grew up without much money, his wife said, and moved to Minnesota as a child. He attended the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., and started to pursue a nuclear physics degree.
He held a summer job driving a bus while in college. He was taking kids to a Young Life camp in Detroit Lakes when he realized he wanted to switch career paths, said Robert Linner of Edina, one of Downing’s closest friends.
Downing would say he was called to the ministry by God, Linner said.
“He felt it in his heart,” he said.
Downing transferred to Bethel College to complete his bachelor’s degree and ended up working for Young Life, the nondenominational Christian ministry that initially attracted him.
From there, he moved to leading churches — first, as an executive minister at Colonial Church of Edina, then as a pastor at Faith Covenant Church, and finally as lead pastor at Rochester Covenant Church. He also published a book, “One Man’s Heart,” in 1976.
He was raised Baptist but eventually joined the Evangelical Covenant Church denomination, Linner said.
Downing married his wife, Kathy, in 1970, and they had four children. He loved flying airplanes and playing guitar. He took trips to Costa Rica, where he and his wife owned a bed-and-breakfast.
Downing’s knowledge was diverse and broad, Kathy Downing said, which helped him talk to the many different people he encountered as a pastor. She said no one ever knew he received his doctorate at Luther Northwestern Theological Seminary, because he never flaunted his degree.
“I knew he was a very bright man, but he never acted like a very bright man,” she said.
In 2013, Gary Downing was diagnosed with lung cancer. He was active until the end — even attending one of his grandchildren’s soccer games the week before he died, said his daughter Rachael Jarman, who lives in Minneapolis. When people would ask how Downing was doing and he was too sick to speak, he would flash them a thumbs-up, she said.
“His entire life was lived in a godly way, and he was just a blast,” Jarman said.
In addition to his wife and daughter, Downing is survived by his other children, Tanya Larson, Nathanael and Jonathan Downing, and eight grandchildren. Services have been held.