The story of how David and Denise Tripp met is a very unusual one.”
It begins in 1979 in Hemming Park, a trim, tree-lined splash of green in the skyscraper-packed city of Jacksonville, Fla. Denise and her friend Kristi had just finished up their shifts at a roadside fruit vendor and were heading toward the nearby bus station. As they walked, they tried to stay within the shadows cast by the towering trees and bushes surrounding the park. It was a hot May afternoon, and they were eager to go home and rest. Denise brushed a droplet of sweat from her tan forehead framed with a halo of short brown hair.
Suddenly, they heard shouting. “Sounds like there’s a Jesus freak out there,” Denise said. She wasn’t worried, though. She was a devout Christian and had no reason to be afraid of an especially noisy preacher.
They neared the corner. Denise thought she heard running coming from the other side, but the large bushes blocked her view. The two girls rounded the bend, and out of nowhere a manic-looking man toppled into them and shouted at the top of his lungs, “WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT CAPITAL PUNISHMENT?”
Denise blinked, too afraid to even remember what capital punishment was, let alone how she felt about it. The tall man’s stony gaze demanded a response. “Um … it’s a good thing,” Denise said, hoping that answer would assuage him.
As soon as she uttered those words, the man fired back, “YOU’RE GOING TO HELL!”
Then he sped off down the sidewalk, shouting, preaching and condemning as if Judgment Day were right around the corner.
Three weeks later, the two crossed paths a second time. Denise was once again waiting at the bus stop at Hemming Park. This time, she was alone. She sat in front of a babbling fountain, watching the sun’s wavy reflection in the water. Suddenly, she got a weird feeling, as if someone were watching her. She turned around and saw the same tall man staring at her. He stood up, walked over and sat down next to her.
“I saw you in a dream,” the man said. The color of his dark brown hair matched Denise’s almost perfectly.
Denise had no idea how to respond to that. She glanced around and noticed a big, fluffy yellow handkerchief sticking out of the man’s pants pocket. She silently pulled it out, dipped it in the cool fountain and wiped his sweaty forehead. He looked at her like she was crazy.
“Somehow I feel we’re supposed to be together,” Denise said.
“You mean in marriage?” he responded.
“Yes,” she said.
“Tell me your name. Tell me your number. I gotta go pray about this,” he ordered.
At this moment, Denise’s bus pulled up. She quickly whispered the information to the man and climbed aboard.
Denise’s premonition was correct: A little over a month later, David and Denise Tripp were married.
Thirty-two years went by. David’s health deteriorated. He’s had surgery twice and has trouble breathing when he sleeps. His hip is weak and mandates the use of a cane. When he walks, he hobbles. He can only preach outside for so long before he needs to sit down — cops don’t let him put a chair on the sidewalk, this is permissible only during a parade — and preaching in the cold is out of the question.
He’s exhausted all the time, and it’s not just because of his declining health. For years he worked at two jobs in 12-hour shifts, one as a roaming security guard, the other as a bagboy at Kroger, but in December 2011 David was laid off from his security post. The letter the company mailed to David cited “lack of suitable work to offer you at this time” as the reason. Denise’s health isn’t in such bad shape, but she too admits that throughout the years, the open-air preaching they do at colleges and high schools has become more difficult.
Red and orange leaves spiral to the ground on the Otterbein campus. A bright blue sky hangs above the deserted Campus Center.
It’s 11:15 a.m., 45 minutes before the campus erupts into activity, with students making their daily exodus from dorm to class, or vice versa. But for now, it’s quiet enough to hear a faint breeze whisper past your ears.
David, tall, gray-haired and a tad on the heavier side, is wearing a bright blue shirt that quotes, in thick capital letters, a verse from Revelation: “FEAR GOD AND GIVE GLORY TO HIM.” He wears a watch and carries a book of hymns.
Denise, her ever-present smile plastered on her face, has a sandwich board strapped on her shoulders. “YOU DON’T HAVE TO GO TO HELL” hovers above a poorly animated flame, and then, “… says the Lord Jesus!” Her short black hair is tucked behind her ears, and a pair of squinty eyes peer out from behind her thin-rimmed glasses.
I introduce myself, and they’re both exceedingly nice. Unprovoked, David delves right into his past.
“Been doing open-air preaching 42 years. Started out at 18 years old, 1971. I got with the Jesus people — Christian hippies. We were in some big, big events, especially Richard Nixon’s impeachment.” He pushes his glasses into place with his long fingers. “What I saw made me sick.”
Denise took over after this. She explains how they met each other that day in Florida, 819 miles from where they now stand.
“I told my mom we were getting married,” Denise recalls. “She drops her coffee cup and says, ‘No, you’re not.’ Six weeks later, we were married. And we’ve been married 32 years. The Lord just went BANG. Didn’t propose or nothing. My brothers and my mom just took David right in.” She shifts her gaze to David. “But he’s been there when my brothers got married, when our nieces and nephews have been born.” And then she says, with a very loving tone, “He’s been a part of everything.”
The clock strikes noon, and the streets of Otterbein’s campus fill with students. David and Denise start the day’s work. She stands, sandwich board astride, and smiles her signature smile. He cracks open the old, brown hymnal book and, without a trace of inhibition, starts belting out centuries-old church chorales in the middle of the sidewalk. Students stare; most keep walking. A couple students strike silly poses around the preachers while another student takes photos. Denise keeps right on smiling, David keeps right on singing.
David bursts out in song again, this time at an old folks’ home. He and Denise have come here once a week for the past six years to minister to the elderly. The only times they don’t go are when the weather holds them up, they’re sick or they just don’t have the gas for their car.
Denise is looking stately as usual, with a bright blue dress, a necklace of pearls, black flats and pantyhose. David is dressed in his typical black and gray apparel. His singing fills the little room we’re in, most likely a cafeteria.
Four residents sit at the long tables adorned with vases of flowers. A counter with a coffee machine sits in the back. On the wall, a notice reads, “THE YEAR IS 2011. THE MONTH IS NOVEMBER. TODAY IS WEDNESDAY. THE DATE IS 9TH. THE WEATHER TODAY IS RAINY.” Other than David’s voice, only the occasional footsteps in the hall can be heard.
David’s singing is heartfelt, but clearly not professionally trained in the slightest. His vibrato is lousy, his pitch is way off, his performance is overbearing and uncomfortable. “Now I’ll pep it up a little bit,” he says before trying, unsuccessfully, to go up an octave.
The old folks, six total, watch quietly and attentively. One of the women idly adjusts the placemat under one of the flower vases.
He finishes. No applause, just blank gazes, some directed to the window. Rain streaks down the glass.
“I’m old, but I’m young ’cause my mind says you’re young,” David says. “My body says you’re tired. My heart says don’t listen to either one of them. Listen to God.”
Denise stands up. “You want me to get you some, David?”
“Yes, if you will, coffee.”
After Denise finishes up, we leave the nursing home. Puddles in the parking lot ripple with raindrops. The sky is white and gray and cloudy. David limps to his car with his cane, coughing as he goes. He loses his breath in the short trip to the car.
He says he started using the cane four months ago. His doctor told him he’s going to be in a wheelchair for the rest of his life unless he gets hip replacement surgery in his right leg. “It’s just bone grinding bone now,” he says. “That’s why I don’t stand three-four hours on campus anymore.”
David refuses to admit himself to a nursing home because he doesn’t want to leave Denise alone. He tells her she wouldn’t be able to pay the bills on her own.
They gently place their Bibles in the trunk of their dark green sedan. Three bumper stickers adorn the back of their car: One an American flag, the second a 2008 McCain endorsement, half of which is ripped off, and the third advertising Calvary Chapel, their nondenominational church.
David and Denise don’t see their families very often. David’s son from his first marriage, Anthony, tries to take them out about once a month, but long hours at work give him little time to do anything but sleep. David’s brother, Melvin, lives with his partner in another state.
David doesn’t hate his brother for being gay; neither he nor Denise have any hatred for anyone, including all gay people, though he does think homosexuality is sinful. “Hate the sin, not the sinner,” became David’s mantra. Neither David or Denise agree with Lady Gaga’s recent theology on the subject. (They were not born that way, David said, but they became that way through their environment and experiences.)
You’ll never catch either of them wearing a “GOD HATES FAGS” sandwich board a la the Westboro Baptist Church, however. Both David and Denise have stated, forcibly, that they think the WBC’s methods are wrong and they’re making all open-air preachers look bad. They hate the fact that Otterbein students have compared them to the WBC simply because they wear sandwich boards.
David and Denise lost their first child during pregnancy and decided to give up on having children together after several other miscarriages. One day, about a year after the first miscarriage, David came home with an 8-week-old kitten.
“Joshua,” Denise says with tidy pronunciation and affection. “It was perfectly marked. It had four white feet. If you put Josh in the sunlight, you could go ahead and see stripes on him.”
Denise sits barefoot on the couch in her and David’s Columbus apartment. David sits next to her wearing a blue shirt with the word JESUS stamped across the front, his long legs stretched out in front of him.
“He was a great companion,” Denise says. “Very much so … very much so.”
Denise rapturously expounds on the cat the way parents talk about their kids, with bursts of pride and compassion lighting up each syllable she speaks. She tells me of Joshua’s on-again-off-again relationship with a cat who lived nearby, a “beautiful white female” with “glittery blue eyes.”
She details his exact dimensions (21 pounds, 21 inches long, 15 inches tall), the way he seemed to be genuinely concerned when David and Denise were sick and his apparent ability to only grant Christians entrance into the apartment.
But it is David’s responses that are more interesting. He remains uncharacteristically silent save the occasional sigh or whispered remark of affirmation. Every few minutes he quietly says, “He was a different kind of cat” — the same comment every time, never elaborating on the statement, but sounding more and more despondent each time he says it.
The cat lived an unusually long life at 18 years. They never took in another pet because Denise became allergic to the hair.
“One of these days I’m going to get a cat again,” David says weakly. Denise laughs affectionately and says, “He still thinks about that cat and he’ll start crying.”
12:00 pm | Campus Refresh
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12:00 pm | Campus Refresh
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No events for this date