Among the first of the forty I followed on my faith journey is Wilbur J. Kerr. He was the pastor of my church as I was growing up. From my first days in the Union Presbyterian Church Sunday School when I was 11 or so, until he retired about the time I headed off to college, Rev. Kerr was my earliest model for ministry. He must have made quite an impression, for it was in ninth grade that I decided to follow in his vocational footsteps.

As a kid in Sunday School and into my junior high youth group days, I didn’t have a close or particularly memorable relationship with the church pastor. So, I have no warm stories to share. This much is sure, however. I grew up in a solid, active, and theologically moderate Presbyterian congregation. I learned the strong and lasting hymns of the mainline church, and I was nurtured by Sunday School teachers who relied on the denomination’s sturdy curriculum. Worship at the Union Church was rooted in the Reformed Tradition (though I wouldn’t have known that at the time), and Rev. Kerr’s sermons were certainly more scholarly than devotional. He laid a good foundation for my faith.

I wish I knew more about his background. I know he had been an Army chaplain during World War II, serving the 133rd Regiment of the 34th Infantry Division in Europe. I have found references on the Internet to his leading worship services in the field for troops. But a quick search reveals no biographical data. I am assuming that he went to Union Seminary in NYC. I have seen references to a Brooklyn address on book-plates in books he had given me after his retirement. I do wish I had paid more attention. But what kid knows much more about the pastor than his/her name, and how long he/she preaches?

As I grew older, I enjoyed Mrs. Kerr’s presence at our youth group meetings. Rev. Kerr would show up now and then, but I don’t remember his having a particularly winsome personality that “kids” would be attracted to. (I suspect he was far more comfortable with adult church folk.) That said, I didn’t miss many Sundays at church. And that included worship services, so I must have found something there of value that Rev. Kerr provided. It may be helpful to point out that I was not forced to attend church by my parents. In fact, they weren’t very active in church. So my walking across the street on Sundays was something I wanted to do.

In my mind are some snapshots (remember them?) of this man I followed into ministry. One shows a warm broad smile. Another is a scene in the hallway outside his study as he counsels me about which college to choose, given my emerging call to ministry. He encouraged me to attend a Presbyterian school, but also thought his own alma mater would be a good choice. Was it Hamilton? He later changed his mind about his own school, sharing his reasoning. Coming from a family with modest means, I would be out of my element in a school filled with students of affluence. Rev. Kerr was gratified with my choice of Westminster in Pennsylvania. But he cautioned me to avoid a major in religion. “You’ll have plenty of study in bible and religion in seminary,” he told me. “Major in literature or history, a broad foundation for your later studies.”

Two other scenes I picture are tragic. Mrs. Kerr had a fatal stroke while dressing for the church service on a Christmas Sunday. Rushing to church from my high school  job at the drug store, I had arrived at the door as the ambulance sat in the manse driveway. My Dad was ushering that day and told me that Mrs. Kerr had died. Shocked at the news, I hurried down to the choir room to robe up (the choir had already gone to the loft completely unaware of the drama unfolding next door). I took my seat with the choir and there was Rev. Kerr about to lead the call to worship. Had no one told him?! Or, maybe my Dad was wrong; maybe it was Mrs. Kerr’s elderly mother who had died. (I believe she was living with the Kerrs at the time.)

Rev. Kerr preached that Sunday on “The Star of Hope.” After the sermon, he came over to the choir loft and, with that warm smile, thanked the choir for its wonderful Christmas music. And then, as he was about to pronounce the benediction, he said, with voice breaking, “I am going to ask Rev. White [a retired pastor who worshipped in our church] to say the benediction this morning. I’m sure you will all understand.” With that he left, and went to his study to comfort his children. At the time, I was so impressed that he was able to carry on and fulfill his church responsibilities. But then I wondered how he could have left his teenaged children in the care of someone else to deal with such a sudden and tragic loss. Now I know, of course, that being in shock leads to confusion that overrules reason.

The other tragic scene involving Rev. Kerr was a concert by our high school chorus at a Rotary Club meeting at Easter time, perhaps the very next year. I was in the chorus that year, and at the end of the concert the audience gave us a standing ovation. Except for my pastor who remained in his chair. I thought that was odd. Later in the day I heard that Rev. Kerr had had a stroke during the concert. The illness forced him into an early retirement. And two more snapshots occur. One shows the attic of the manse, where Rev. Kerr is handing off to me boxes of his books, making comments about many of them. While most of those old books are gone now, I still have a handful, and I treasure them, especially Henry Ward Beecher’s Life Thoughts, an 1858 edition.

The other snapshot is recalled from the home where he moved after leaving the church manse for retirement. I visited him there as he recovered very slowly from the stroke. He told me he was studying  Russian, a language he chose to study because it was very difficult and he wanted his brain to have the exercise. It may be that image that is most impressive as I look back on my relationship with my childhood pastor. He would not give up. Nor, did he give up on me, as I struggled through college.

Rev. Kerr died while I was away at school. No one thought to tell me, until my parents almost casually mentioned it as we drove home from Westminster for the summer break. (Communications were quite different back in the early 1960s, especially if one had little money. Long distance phone calls were expensive; we relied on letters. I guess my parents figured the news could wait.)

In summary, finally (!), Rev. Wilbur J. Kerr provided me with an articulate, faith-filled, conscientious, and loving model for ministry. I still thank God for having grown up in the church to which God called Jay Kerr.

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