Obituary: James Linn Jr. / Minister with refined sense of justice, humor

May 6, 1960 - July 21, 2013

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James Linn Jr. was a 19-year-old facing cancer when he boarded a bus to see a movie and a detour stalled it in an alley where someone had written on a brick at bus window height: "Trust in God. Choose Jesus."

A Sunday school teacher from the age of 15, he took it as a sign and ultimately became the Rev. James Linn, pastor of the First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Charleroi. He recovered from his teenage cancer, which was unrelated to the brain cancer that claimed his life Sunday, at the age of 53.

"He never understood how someone got up high enough to leave that message at eye level on that bus," said his wife, KellyLynn Linn. They had dated at McKeesport Area High School before college took them separate ways. Both weathered a divorce before they reunited 23 years later. They married in 2004.

He dropped journalism studies at Penn State University, earned a bachelor's in religious studies at Bethany College in West Virginia, then a ministerial degree at Lexington Theological Seminary in Kentucky. The Rev. Jack Sullivan Jr., minister of the Pennsylvania Region of The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), was a classmate and friend.

Soon after they met, the future Rev. Linn, who loved music and sang tenor, gave him a cassette anthology of The Four Tops.

"I'm African-American, he's white, and I'd never known a white person who listened to the Motown scene. He knew the music. It showed the diversity of his life and how much he appreciated all that life had to offer," Rev. Sullivan said.

"He also had a great sense of justice. He wanted wrong things to be made right. He had a big heart. Whenever he knew a person was being trivialized or looked down upon unjustly, he was concerned about that."

Ordained in 1987, he served in West Virginia and Kentucky while often returning home to visit family and use the Pirates season tickets he had held since he was 18. He accepted the call to Charleroi in 1996.

He was known for improvised children's sermons, in which a child handed him an object and he devised a biblical message about it.

When handed a Pirates magnet, he spoke about faith.

"He said that the lesson of the Pirates is that you have to have faith, no matter how bad things get," Ms. Linn said. "Then he said he didn't know why everyone was so interested in football and hockey when baseball was in the Bible. Everyone was puzzled, and he said it opens with 'In the big inning.'"

Though Charleroi had been hit hard by the collapse of the steel industry a decade earlier, he never saw it as a depressed town.

"He could always see the good in everything," Ms. Linn said.

He served meals at the senior citizens center. He was an honorary member of the fire department in Fallowfield -- where his church had relocated -- and blessed each new piece of equipment..

"His church loved him and he loved the church," Rev. Sullivan said.

"He saw humor in everything. During every hour of being together we had some kind of major laugh."

A sudden loss of that sense of humor was a sign something was wrong, Ms. Linn said. In December he was diagnosed with brain cancer.

To comfort his mother, Ms. Linn arranged for him to record "Mary Did You Know?" which he sang in church each Christmas Eve. He also recorded a favorite hymn, "The Anchor Holds."

"It started off as one recording just for his mother, and it ended up as hundreds of copies that were made as people wanted that memory of him and the legacy of his voice," Ms. Linn said.

One of his final joys was the Pirates' success, which he attributed to "magic."

"I'm telling people that I'm OK because he is OK," she said. He was adamant that he wanted no flowers, but that any gifts should go to his church or to the Musella Foundation for Brain Tumor Research.

"I've never been one who believes that God sends people illnesses or makes planes crash," Rev. Sullivan said. "I think God is grieving Jim's death with the rest of us and welcoming Jim into God's own arms."

In addition to his wife, he is survived by a son, Jared of Alameda, Calif.; his parents, James Sr. and Arleen of Dravosburg; and brothers John of Dravosburg, Jeffrey of Monongahela and Jeremy of Springfield, Ohio.

Visitation is today from 2 to 4 and 6 to 9 p.m. in the First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Charleroi, where the funeral will be Thursday at 11 a.m.

obituaries

Ann Rodgers: arodgers@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416.


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