Written by Mara Williams
Dalton and Rhonda Vann have sat in the pews at Graceway church for the last 20 years, near the front, close to the Word.
But the couple has been together for 30 years. They met in 1982 at Lee’s Summit High School back when inter-racial dating was not so generally accepted there.
That means their courtship wasn’t the typical easygoing high school sweetheart romance. It was tough.
Dalton was a high school jock, All-State, and All-Conference wide receiver. He shined on the basketball court and in track and field too.
“Everybody knew who I was,” Dalton said. But Rhonda, she was the new girl, a freshman, quiet and unassuming. “Nobody knew who I was,” she recalled. That was until she caught Dalton’s eye. He was a junior and very popular.
They tried to keep their friendship low key. “I remember that in school I just wanted you to hold my hand,” Dalton recalled, his eyes tearing up as he remembered the tough time the two had trying to be boyfriend and girlfriend at a time when nobody wanted to see them together.
“I hated high school,” Rhonda said.
Both recall growing up going to church. Like so many young people, when mama went to church the kids went too, with the change they were supposed to put in the offering plate. But Dalton admits his little money didn’t always make it into the plate. He laughs. But says the time he spent as a kid at Morning Star Baptist Church in Kansas City, “was the beginning of my faith. I knew that was something you were supposed to do on Sundays,” he said.
When Dalton graduated high school, he headed to college, a football star who was sought after by several Midwest college programs. Dalton had planned to attend the University of Kansas but ended up at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar.
“I know now that God put me at Southwest.” He’d gone to visit the school with a friend who was also interested in the school. They got snowed in for three days and Dalton fell in love with the place.
“God was always with me, but believe me I was not a very Christian guy when I was at Southwest,” he said. “Being a Christian school they had 750 rules and I was there to break all of them.” Southwest also had mandatory chapel. Dalton went.
Rhonda graduated and went straight to work. The two got married and had their first son. Even some family members who were racially intolerant and didn’t want the two to marry, gave them a rough time.
For a while the two lived together in Bolivar, where work was scarce for Rhonda. When she got a job at Sprint she and their son Deron moved back to Lee’s Summit. Dalton stayed to finish school.
That was tough too.
“But she stayed with me through everything,” Dalton said. “You make that clear here,” he said, that Rhonda has always been the wind beneath his wings.
In college, like in high school Dalton was a leader. On and off the football field his friends looked to him for direction.
Friends, even his college coach, told him more than once that someday he’d be a coach.
“I remember saying, man, I ain’t gonna be no coach. Coaches don’t make no money.” He laughed.
Dalton, who is now 50, says he didn’t know it then, but in some way it was as if he was being prepared for something he would use later in his life.
The Vanns had another son, Michael. And the couple was back together living in Lee’s Summit, raising the boys and thriving, financially and as a family.
Family friends had introduced the couple to what was then Kansas City Baptist Temple, now Graceway.
“I liked that there were people there who looked like us,” Rhonda said. “We would pass like 20 churches to get to Graceway.”
Life was good. Good friends, solid family. Rhonda, with no college degree, worked in training and development at Sprint. Dalton was into real estate and coaching high school league football on the side. They owned a five-bedroom home in Raintree Lake and vacationed every year in Cancun, Mexico.
“We were good people doing good things,” Rhonda said. “But we weren’t doing what God wanted us to do.”
Dalton felt that too.
“I remember praying, I asked God to show me what he wanted us to do. I remember saying I got bills a mortgage to pay.”
In 2006, Rhonda got laid off from Sprint and no matter how hard she tried she couldn’t find another job.
“I guess God said if the bills are in your way, I’ll take it away. We lost our house,” Dalton said.
“When God shuts a door, he slams it,” Rhonda said.
Dalton went to what he knew, what he had always known. Football. They started Saints Athletics football league. Rhonda ran the business. Dalton coached. The league was wildly popular.
“And when God opens a door he pushes you through. Sometimes you even feel like you are falling but He’s there,” Dalton said, cupping his hands together as if he were scooping water.
The Vanns no longer made the money they had been used to. Somehow, though, the bills get paid. Friends and family, good people who believe in them, helped them meet ends.
For the last five years, in addition to his Christian league, Dalton has also been the head football Coach at Summit Christian Academy and in 2012 he became the first black head coach at a school in Lee’s Summit.
“It is such a blessing to coach at a place where I can use God’s Word. I call my players my flock and God entrusted me with them,” Dalton said. “I’m employed by God.”
Recently, Summit Christian Academy went before the Lee’s Summit City Council for a permit to get lights for a ball field. A council member stood up to speak. He’d played football for Coach Vann as a kid, he said, and today he was a better man for it.
“It reaffirmed for me,” Dalton said, “That God got me doing what I ought to do. God had a plan from the beginning we just didn’t know what it was. We didn’t even know there was a plan.”
Dalton has been called on by various groups to speak. When he’s done people often come up to him and ask if he’s a preacher because his words are like a sermon.
The answer has always been no. “I’m just me,” he said.
The Vann’s sons are grown now, 25 and 30. The couple has two grandchildren and one on the way. And they have been studying God’s word at church.
On Sunday, Dalton is going to take the next big step on the path God has put before him when he’s ordained by our pastors at Graceway.
“For 10 years we have struggled. We have had to depend on God every day and He has always sent me to the right place. Now it doesn’t seem we have to try that hard anymore.”