Unlike many people, perhaps, I came to know Will not as a fellow student, musician, teacher, or filmmaker. When I met Will, he was just Angie’s husband. So I should back up a bit and explain how I met Angie.
My wife and I had been in Washington, DC for about a year, I think, when our pastor mentioned one Sunday night that someone named Angie was looking for help moving. I didn’t know Angie, but had the moving day free and was one of four or so guys who offered to help. One of the first things I saw on moving day was a Chicago Tribune clock that led me to inquire where Angie and Kelli were from. Finding out they grew up just an hour or two from the little midwestern town I am from led me to the immediate conclusion that they were good folks.
My recollections of Angie’s marrying Will are quite vague. We were more “greet each other in the halls at church” kind of acquaintances. I had some general understanding that Will was a musician, but he traveled a lot with Scratch Track in those days and I don’t remember meeting him other than being struck by how tall he was, how thin he was, and how cool his hair was.
Looking back through email I find that we invited Angie and Will over for lunch but managed to hit a date he was on the road and they were unable to join us. Shortly after that we went to hear Scratch Track play in the DC suburbs – kind of. We’d never been to a club or a show or a gig (strict upbringings) and were very unsure of ourselves. So we sat in the club’s restaurant where we were unfortunately barely able to hear the set. Ten months later, Will and I were getting together for lunch every couple of weeks – and how that happened is one of my two favorite Will Gray stories.
After church one Sunday Will walked up to me and said “Angie and I’d like to get to know you guys better.” And if you knew Will, you understand when I say this came with a slight tilt of the head, a irresistibly sheepish grin, and hands wrung together. Of course, I immediately misunderstood. The church we were in had a pervasive culture of people discipling one another (getting together to do each other good spiritually) and so I assumed Will was asking to get together formally on a regular schedule to read through a book or a part of the Bible. I started off down that trail and Will gently corrected, “no, we want to be your friends.”
This was striking to me in the moment because I hadn’t heard such a naked request for friendship since childhood (when it rolled out of my mouth far more often than into my ears), but has only become moreso in hindsight as over the years I began to understand just how many friends Will and Angie already had. I did not understand then and still today do not understand why Will and Angie wanted to be our friends. I can’t imagine what they thought we had to offer and I deeply regret that we almost certainly did not deliver what they wanted or needed.
I have too many memories to catalogue or even categorize from those irregular lunches with Will. He gently checked my assumptions about the homeless and modeled a more human way to express human compassion. He honestly asked and humbly took feedback on his music from a man with no knowledge or understanding – he even helped to cure my ignorance by putting together for me a timeline of hip hop. We discussed the joys and challenges of marriage generally, and those specific to his situation as an unsigned artist. We talked about novels (mostly me), philosophers (mostly him), and plans for world domination (entirely him). We talked about our faith in Christ and what it means to live it out.
When Will and Angie moved to Martha’s Vineyard, I was very sorry to see distance reduce the frequency of our conversations. But something unusual happened during that year and the following years when they moved to LA. Our friendship deepened, or at least my appreciation of it did. As the frequency of our conversations diminished the weight of them increased. We tended to talk less around the edges of life and more about the immediate challenges that seemed most threatening. The topics weren’t new, our conversations still revolved almost completely around marriage, career, and faith, but there was less room for the theoretical; the stakes felt higher.
My second favorite Will Gray story took place during these years. I was calling just because it had been a while since we had spoken and when Will answered I greeted him with just a “Hey!” An slight pause helped me understand that Will didn’t recognize my voice, so I added “this is John.” Another pause and the truth dawned on me as I supplied my last name; Will Gray was my closest friend, but I wasn’t even his closest friend named John! This was not a disconcerting discovery, but an amazing one. The confidences that I was able to share with only my closest friend, he was able to invest in others, like me. The love and affection and warmth I felt only for my closest friend was the same level of care with which he enveloped many people near him.
There are dozens of other vignettes that I could probably spin into full stories: seeing Will and Angie’s generosity as they let a guy they didn’t know terribly well sleep on their sofa for weeks or months in their first year or two in LA; grabbing breakfast with Will at the end of a visit so he could offer advice he thought important for me to hear immediately and in person; cooking dinner for the band on the Renegade tour one night and seeing how much confidence Will inspired in his friends and colleagues; seeing Will’s cheerfulness at receiving a call from a close friend even in his discomfort after surgery; observing his painful obsessiveness as he picked out towels he thought Angie would like to save her the trouble since she had been so busy wrangling doctors and coordinating visitors.
While it still perplexes me, I am more thankful than I can communicate that Will Gray walked up to me after church that Sunday night in 2005. My life is much richer for having been his friend.