February 2015


[I have no doubt this story has been told elsewhere in one of my WordPress sites. If you compare this account with the others and find some factual deviations, give me a break. This happened a long time ago.]

When I was Associate Pastor at the Bon Air Presbyterian Church in Chesterfield County, Va., I “chaperoned” a couple of youth group “lock-ins,” those overnight in-church retreats designed to…well, I don’t know what they were designed to do. All I know is that they were fun, for the most part, and included movies, games, pizza, maybe some sort of “devotional,” and, the highlight: staying up all night… or not.

A few years before I was called to Bon Air, I served as the Pastor to/for Youth at the Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church, which, unlike suburban Bon Air, was on the edge of the downtown area of Richmond. When we were planning some summer youth activities, the idea of a lock-in came up. Always looking for a more creative edge to routine programming, I had this idea: why not lock ourselves out of the church? And engage the city in the middle of the night. Meet some of the night people who work while the rest of us sleep.

After getting positive feedback from the 8-10 teens and their parents, I brainstormed where we might go for the night, and made some phone calls. I came up with a schedule, arranged some transportation, and also called the local police precinct. “We’re going to be out on the streets this coming Friday night, and wonder if you might just keep an eye out for us. You know, drive by every once in awhile to make sure we’re safe.”

“Can’t do that,” the officer replied. “We have established patrols, and we can’t provide personal protection services for every group that happens by at night.”

I understood completely. But was nonetheless a bit disappointed. Now I — captial I,  bold, italicized, and, if WordPress would allow it, underlined — I would be responsible for 10 kids along dark city streets at 3 a.m. Still, let’s do this!

The teenagers arrived at the church early Friday night. We gathered the obligatory snacks, munched on a few, and discussed what lay ahead. I offered a brief devotional to set the theme, probably something from the Psalms: 42:8 or 63:6? We might have used the stories of the boy Samuel hearing a voice in the night, or Nicodemus visiting Jesus under the cloak of darkness (Nic at night). Then, we left the building.

First stop: putting the morning newspaper to bed. We drove a few blocks to the downtown building housing the Richmond Times Dispatch, saw the last of the photos being readied for the early edition, saw pages being composed, watched as the giant presses rolled, and, with some helpful commentary along the way by a reporter I knew (was it Ed Briggs, the religion writer?), we saw the first papers bundled up and loaded on trucks.

While we were downtown, we next visited the night chaplain at what was then called the Medical College of Virginia Hospital. The chaplain spoke of having been in an auto accident on the way to take the chaplain’s position at MCV, and how first being a patient there had been unique preparation for the compassionate service a chaplain rendered professionally. We would like to have toured the hospital halls in the quiet of that night, but it would have been inappropriate for our “gang” to invade the space of medical personnel on the night shift. It was enough to hear the chaplain’s moving stories about serving the sick and vulnerable, literally stories of life and death.

By now, it was certainly well after 1 a.m. We went back to the church’s neighborhood, though not back to the church. Instead, a few blocks away, I had made arrangements to visit the local police precinct. It was hardy “Hill Street Blues,” a popular gritty TV show on the air at the time. This was little more than a few desks, some lockers, and a small lock-up, where someone could be held before being taken downtown to the larger city jail. A bit of drama was about to unfold here.

As we entered the precinct building, the officer on duty looked a little surprised. Must have been odd to see eight or ten teenagers and two adults burst noisily into the premises. I introduced myself and said I had hoped that he would have gotten the word about our coming. “Yes, we knew about it,” he said. “But there’s a problem that’s come up, Reverend.” (I hate it when people call me that, but that wasn’t the problem.) “We have a curfew here, and people your age, ” he said pointing to the teens, “aren’t supposed to be out past curfew like this. I’m sorry we didn’t mention this before, but we didn’t realize how late you all were going to be out. Reverend, you’re in charge of these kids?”

“Um, yes.”

“Well, I’m sorry to tell you that we are going to have to hold you here, under arrest for contributing to the delinquency of minors.” It took a split second to process this. My first thought was that this was going to screw up the night’s schedule. One of the kids admitted later that his first thought was, “Man, I’m gonna be in big trouble calling my father to come pick me up at one in the morning!”

Of course, the welcoming officer then broke into a smile and said he was just kidding. I knew he was, but there was that one or two (or five) seconds when I think he had me. As he walked us through the first floor of the little building they called home, he was apologetic about the tame look of the place. “Mostly we do paperwork,” he said. “We spend a lot of time filing reports.”  With only two officers on the premises, there wasn’t much to see, so we moved on, but thanked them for taking the time to talk with us.

At that time, FM rock was taking over the radio dial, but when I couldn’t get permission to take the group to the station most of them listened to, I called the once mighty AM rocker, WLEE, and they were glad to welcome us. The night time deejay worked the station alone, playing the hits, answering the phone (taking requests), and making the whole place sound as if it were an exciting hub of activity. I suggested that the two cars that drove us to Richmond’s West End tune into the station on the way. When we got to the parking lot, I went to the door and pushed what looked like a doorbell. A light flashed in the studio, and over the intercom the deejay told us he was on his way to the door. Most of the kids had never seen a real radio station, nor talked with a deejay face-to-face, so there were lots of questions about why he played the music he did (there was a pre-selected rotation; not his choices), what is was like to be there all night (he was rarely lonely…liked the all-night shift…enjoyed most of the calls, but had endure some abuse now and then), and why he played “8-tracks” (the cartridges only looked like 8-tracks; putting each song on tape meant preserving them from scratches and there was no need to cue them up).

Later when debriefing the radio station visit, we talked about why anyone would call a radio station in the middle of the night, just to talk to a stranger.

Our last stop that night was an early breakfast at a White Tower Restaurant. It may have 4:30 a.m. by now, or a little later. Things were running more quickly than I had planned, but we were all hungry, so a White Tower breakfast it was! And I couldn’t have planned the next thing. As we took our seats in the restaurant (a term I use lightly here), there was a young man, early 20s, sitting at the counter reading a Bible. Here was a genuine “night person” sitting alone, reading his Bible. I confess to having missed a wonderful opportunity: I wish I had respectfully interrupted his reading to conduct a little interview, have a conversation with the teens listening in, asking him to tell us what brought him to that place at that time with that Book. At the same time, it was probably more respectful to simply let him be, and not exploit his presence in our youth group’s all-night sojourn in the city.

By 5:30 a.m or so, we were back at church. We gathered in the video room and watched a VHS tape of an episode from the original “Star Trek” program. (It might have been the one titled “Bread and Circuses.”) Some of the teens dozed. Some snacked. Two or three took off to explore the huge creaky church building, somewhat against my better judgment. But I trusted them. It turns out that they had watched the sunrise, and (shudder) I think it might have been from the church roof! Could that be?! Or, is my memory playing tricks? Anyway, they said it was a beautiful sight. And no one got hurt.

We finished the “lock-out” with a devotional to wrap up, sharing impressions, thinking again how even in the loneliest or longest nights, God is with us. Light always comes. And joy comes in the morning, as the psalm promises.

Though I never replicated that lock-out event in another location, with some contacts and some planning, it makes a lot more sense, I think, than simply staying up all night in a church basement until, zombie-like, the bleary-eyed kids roll up sleeping bags and go home Saturday morning to sleep it off. Even if you risk breaking curfew and spending the night in the lock-up.

Next: answering the question, “So, what are we going to be…the gay church?”

Advertisements

I’m writing each day in Lent (2015) as a form of discipline, something to take up each day, noting confessions and celebrations related to my pastoral service to the Church. I’ve been meaning to do this for some time, but life happens and I ignored the prompts to write, while going about the routines of my retirement. I’m considering this a collection of forty essays, but I know it will be easy to keep going once Lent has ended.

[Warning: there’s an ugly word used in a paragraph below, and I’ve used asterisks to keep the offensive word from coming up in an internet word search and pointing to my blog. If there were a way to tell the story without that word…well, it wouldn’t be the same story then.]

I began my seminary career at an especially significant time for the City of Richmond, Va. It was the mid-1960s. When I drove down Seminary Avenue that first night in town, it hadn’t dawned on me that I was entering the former Capital of the Confederacy. But, it didn’t take long to realize that Union Seminary was considered by many old Richmonders (and certainly by the city’s two newspapers) a hotbed of liberal thinking. Indeed, Presbyterians generally seemed to be on what we called then the “cutting edge” of social change. Our Presbytery and Synod offices, and our graduate school for Christian education, along with the seminary itself, were located in a cluster on the northside. The Presbytery’s Camp Hanover had been integrated since 1956, and decades before that people such as Elinor Curry had worked in inner city missions, not for African Americans but alongside them.

In the mid-60s, Richmond’s city bureaucracy — its mayor, city manager, city council members, police and fire chiefs — all white. When we moved from Richmond 27 years later, the white “establishment” was gone, and one-time mayor Douglas Wilder would soon become the nation’s first African American governor. The long process had taken time, pain, and patience, and is on-going, of course, for the barriers between the races remain.

We had only a handful of students of color on our campus at that time, and, if memory serves, the only African Americans in the seminary community were in, how to put it, subservient jobs: cafeteria servers, buildings and grounds, maids. So, the campus, even though it welcomed the Poor Peoples’ March in 1968, hadn’t fully embraced its own theology of racial justice. Times have changed, of course…but back then…

This is the context of my own coming to grips with racism in the church.

In 1978, I was on the staff of Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church, another of my many “part time tenures” necessitated by the budget limitations of what were considered “experimental” ministries (like my media work). I was called to be the church’s “minister to youth,” while using the church’s newly-purchased video equipment in as many creative ways as we could come up with. I had just ended a couple of years as Presbytery’s “Youth Ministry Coordinator” (or somethng like that), and I was excited to have a face-to-face ministry with teens and their families, as well as having access to the new technology the church purchased as an adjunct to the new position.

One of the first things we produced with the VHS portable video recorder and its companion JVC camera was a short devotional for shut-ins. We started the tape with the organist playing a brief prelude, and then moved to the pastor’s study where, with hot TV lights overwhelming the room, the pastor offered words of greeting and a short meditation for his audience of elderly viewers. He did a remarkable job, considering that this was our first attempt, and with no editing, the tape was ready to be delivered. Hand-delivered. Keep in mind that this was 1978. We had no delivery means except for a portable video playback unit and small color TV carried into members’ homes (so that we needn’t make the shut-ins nervous by hooking our equipment up to their TVs).

The tape and equipment were delivered by a man who was himself in his early 80s, if I recall correctly. I thought at the time, what a saint he is, to faithfully show up several times and carry that equipment into peoples’ homes, watch the devotional with them, have a prayer, and then return the stuff to the church again. One morning as I helped him carry a TV set to his car, he remarked that when this trip was over, he’d be driving by a corner in the city where he’d pick up a n*gg*r or two to do some work at his house. My jaw didn’t exactly drop, but it may as well have. I was speechless. The word emerged so casually from the man’s mouth, and with no embarrassment, no awareness of its offense…I confess I just let the guy get in his car and drive away.

I stewed about this for a couple of days and finally approached the pastor with my concern. “I’m ashamed of myself,” I admitted, “but I didn’t know what to say. It was just a quick bomb that exploded in the conversation, I was shocked and speechless, and…”

The pastor responded with sympathy, saying he knew there were many people in the church who were more enlightened, but many too who were stuck in old ruts and old ways. “He’s in his eighties,” the  pastor said, “and he’s lived that culture his whole life, and I doubt there’s anything that you or I could say that would change that. You were right to be shocked, but don’t feel guilty that you didn’t confront him or correct him.” I suppose that helped me some, but it didn’t help James and Randolph.

James and Randolph. Everyone at that sizable church knew their names. Well, their first names. I know a few insiders must have known their full names, but the vast majority of church members just called them by their first names. They were white-coated custodians and greeters and errand runners. They had an office; it was in the furnace room. A couple of uncomfortable chairs, an old desk, and a radio, and mops and buckets. On Sunday mornings they stood at the parking lot door and greeted church-goers, smiling and nodding. “Hello, Randolph… James,” people would smile back. During the week, the church staff had a daily morning break around 10 a.m., with everyone accounted for: pastor, associate pastor, Director of Christian Ed., secretaries, and a couple of office volunteers, and me. But no Randolph or James. When I questioned someone about their exclusion, the excuse was, “Oh, I don’t think they’d feel comfortable coming in here.”  (But, if we tried, we could help them feel comfortable, right?)

Now that I think about it, there was also a Leroy on staff during that time. And a cook named Geneva. We never saw them at break time either. Nor did they come to the occasional birthday celebrations held in the same small gathering space. Only once do I remember their later coming to a party of some sort in that room. Maybe things were changing, too late and too slightly, of course, and as usual.

I questioned, yes. But I did not speak up nor speak out. There. I’ve confessed. But I should have apologized back then.

My connection with that congregation was very positive in so many ways. I’ll celebrate some of those stories as these Lenten posts continue. But I wanted to note this first, another growth spurt for me in my slow maturity in pastoral roles, and a growing thirst for justice for someone besides myself.

Tomorrow…and more briefly (I promise)…the night the youth group and I turned a church “lock in” upside down and locked ourselves out for the night.

My first parish in Richmond, Va. was a small church, planted with modest expectations in a suburban community, and then strangled by the construction of an Interstate highway. The Calvary Presbyterian Church had had a succession of full-time pastors, but it was becoming less and less viable as the highway cut off easy access to the church’s neighborhood.

I had been serving on the Presbytery’s Committee on Ministry when the Calvary pulpit was “vacated” and they needed someone to fill in for a short time. This was before interim ministry had gained a foothold in the polity of Presbyterian machinations, so I was asked to serve the church as a “Stated Supply.” Three months. That seemed manageable, even with my own full-time media work already fairly demanding. I thought it might be mutually beneficial for the church and me. They would have someone every week to lead worship and to provide some pastoral support, and I would have my first taste of writing a sermon every week, and having responsibility for a congregation’s care — for the first time since ordination.

[Until that time, I had only preached on rare occasions, a special speaker at some services, or substituting for a vacationing pastor. Writing the occasional sermon was (is) quite a bit less of a challenge than the every-single-week grind…I mean, responsibility.]

The people were wonderful to serve alongside. They understood my limitations, and I so appreciated their patience, their trust, and their encouragement as the weeks went by. Some mental snapshots come to mind:

  • Children didn’t know what to call me and I didn’t know what was proper. When I suggested “Jeff” was OK with me, one parent said to her child, “Oh, no; you call him Rev. Kellam.” She explained to me that she wanted to instill in her elementary school child respect for adult roles.
  • This was the nation’s Bicentennial Year, so I researched what a Presbyterian service might have looked like in 1776, and the congregation found the experience both educational and worshipful.
  • On the first Sunday of the new year, I asked the secretary to print the outside of the worship bulletin normally, but to leave the inside blank — except for a few sentences explaining that as we enter a new year not knowing what will come, so we enter worship that day. Though I assured everyone that the service would be identical to the normal liturgy we followed week-by-week, a few folks were pretty nervous as we moved from the first hymn into the rest of the hour.
  • I had office hours one afternoon a week, so that if anyone needed to meet with me for planning, informal counseling (about all I was qualified to help with), or serious conversation, I’d be available. One afternoon a parishioner called to see if I was there, saying she had something to discuss with me. As she drove over to the church, I wondered if I’d be fielding a complaint, or maybe facing a counseling situation that might be way over my head. After some small talk, she got to the point. Since I was taking on this little extra job at her church, she thought I might be interested in joining her Amway distributorship…to make some extra money. No, but thanks for your concern.
  • Not long after that conversation, I was leading a seminar at our Presbytery camp, and a man in the crowd sought me out and said he’d like to meet with me about an idea he had. He met me at the church office the next week, with an older man in tow, his “supervisor,” and preceded to sell me on his Amway plan. When I explained that a woman in my church had made the same offer, the big guy pulled out his wallet, fat with bills, and said that unless her wallet was as thick as his, I’d certainly be better off going with the more successful offer HE was making. I don’t think I minced words when I told him that I’d never believed that “success” was measured by big wallets. Good grief.
  • My sermons must have been atrocious. Many a Saturday night, I started my sermons, both study and writing. And sometimes with the TV on. Star Trek reruns were on one local station at 11 p.m., and I didn’t let my sermons interfere with Kirk’s and Spock’s “final frontier.” This is the “confession” part of this post. Atrocious.

My tenure at Calvary Church was renewed for another three months. And then for another six.There must have been some redeeming value in my leadership there, for they could have tossed me out at any time. I recall no active “search committee” in place, but I couldn’t stay there indefinitely, so I left, hoping that someone with more time, better skills, and an actual “call” might serve the church more ably. I had definitely gained valuable experience in pastoral work, and for someone in non-parish ministry, that was a good thing. Though inexperienced, I look back with deep affection for the folks there, and I remember being invited back a few years later to write and lead a litany for the closing of that church when its fullness of time had come.

One more story.

Among the people I remember best at Calvary was an older woman who came to church every week with perfectly coiffed bluish hair. Maybe not bluish, but blue! I swear, if she’d bumped that hairdo against a wall sconce on the way to her pew, she’d have had to buy a new sconce. She wasn’t on any committees, didn’t come to Sunday School, or any other function where I might have learned her name, but if someone had called her the blue-haired lady, I’d know who that referred to.

I got a call at my media office mid-week a few months into my time at Calvary. The church secretary told me that an elderly parishioner had fallen in her home, in the kitchen, and hadn’t been found until late the next day. She was in the hospital now. Would I have time to go see her. Of course. I didn’t recognize the name, but the secretary said she was in church every week. You know her, she said. She’s the one with the bluish hair.

When I entered her hospital room, there were two beds there and I didn’t have a clue which woman was my parishioner. Both women were asleep, and both had unkempt gray hair, a hue that almost matched their sickly complexions. I looked at the name cards at the foot of the beds and found that I was indeed in the right room, but how our friend had changed. A novice at hospital visitation, I knew to let her sleep, and I prayed silently for her, and gently read a psalm aloud.

Then just weeks later, it happened again. Another older woman from the church had had a stroke at home, couldn’t get up, and was found the next day by the mailman, who had noticed she hadn’t picked up her mail from the day before…an occurrence so unusual he risked opening her door to see if she was OK. She was asleep when I saw her at the hospital. But didn’t wake up.

When those old TV ads portrayed an old woman crying out, “I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up,” it became a national joke. It’s not at all funny though, is it, when you know someone so vulnerable, so weak, that they hardly have the breath to cry out, much less to get up? I learned to take life and pastoral ministry much more seriously at Calvary Church. It was a year when I’d like to believe I grew into my call to ministry.

Tomorrow, Leroy and James, the servants with no last names.

In my previous entry I wrote of arriving in East Craftsbury, Vermont just in time to see the development and construction of an assisted living center across the road from our church. I mentioned that while the Craftsbury Community Care Center certainly wasn’t a church project, most of the first Board of Trustees were members of our church, and the church’s hospitality (read leech field or septic system) was instrumental in helping the vision of affordable housing and care for elderly residence become a reality.

Once the church had made its additional hospitality evident through modifications to our building, we found that accessibility to worship was only part of our ministry to the thirty or so Care Center residents. We provided a weekly Bible study, of course, but also visitation, a listening ear, and seasonal religious activities such as Lenten studies. One favorite group I resourced there was a gathering of residents (church folk were also welcome and did attend) to listen to short stories read aloud from the works of Raymond Carver, Flannery O’Connor, John O’Hara, and Martin Bell. The stories evoked significant connections with the lives of listeners, and conversations were rich.

Church members provided rides to medical appointments and stores, and that was an important service given the very rural nature of our village. (I haven’t mentioned it yet, but here are the services available while we were in East Craftsbury: a library, a bread and breakfast, a beauty/barber shop, and an auto mechanic. Hardwick and Morrisville were the nearest centers of commerce, though Greensboro had Willey’s Store, a solid general store that sold everything but tires, and Craftsbury Village had two general stores and a gas station. So you see why providing transportation was a valuable ministry.)

A favorite memory was watching the younger children from our church march across the road to parade through the Care Center showing off their costumes on Halloween night. (It was uncanny how that night seemed to bring the season’s first snowflakes!) And there were visits and some shared activities involving our church’s preschool too, a gift for both residents and those young visitors.

Of course, not all the residents there were Presbyterians. Many weren’t much interested in religious activities, though the short story group and informal visits suited their needs for companionship. One person who lived there a short time while I served the East Craftsbury Church was a Holocaust survivor. I regret that I can’t recall her name after all these years, but she made sure that everyone she spoke with would remember the atrocities of the Nazi concentration camps. She was so afraid that with her generation gone, so would be the horror. That fear was confirmed when she had to spend time in a nursing home, and when she mentioned to her ordeal to an attendant there, the young woman professed complete ignorance of the Holocaust. She had no idea…

Another resident whose name I do remember for some reason was another German, Anna Scharschmidt. She was happy to hear of my wife’s German heritage and was delighted when Joan made her a dinner of traditional German food (sauerbraten and apple strudel) which we ate together in the resident kitchen. Speaking of food, within a few years the Care Center’s main kitchen became the hub of Meals on Wheels in our area, and many of our church members signed up to deliver meals, even through snow drifts and down icy driveways. All this is to say that ours was not a little country church where a handful of people shuffle in on Sunday mornings and shuffle on home until the next week. East Craftsbury Presbyterian Church found a vital mission and beloved friends within a snowball’s throw across the road.

That would be the “celebration” part of the church/care center story. I do have one confession to share though. Through some denominational connections, we learned of some grants available from the PC(USA) that were meant to support building community in rural areas. Someone suggested that a recreation area in our small village would help bring young and older neighbors together. Once we had determined that the Community Care Center was a more suitable site than the church yard (the grant application made it clear that the funds were not to benefit churches so much as the areas churches served), we applied even before the center itself was complete.

Local contractors built a playground with solid wooden equipment, some benches, and even a walking trail, all located behind the Care Center. But there was to be a complication that just about torpedoed the project. Our original vision had neighborhood kids coming to the playground and, when Vermont’s weather cooperated, interacting in positive ways with the elderly residents who might otherwise rarely have contact with youngsters. But the Care Center executive director vetoed the plan, pointing out that there were serious liability and safety concerns, including a lack of supervisory personnel to prevent vandalism of the property and possible harm to fragile residents. She declared that the recreation area would be open only to “invitees” and children who had a connection with (or willingness to visit with) residents.

Looking back, hers may have been the right decision, but I was very disappointed that we had failed to live up to the good purposes of the original grant. Instead of building community, we put up barriers, and that was no fun.

In the years since my pastorate there, we have heard of financial challenges and management changes at the Center. But I understand that church members are still involved with Board work and church folk still find a remarkable outreach opportunity across the road. I should add that several church members have also taken up residence at the Craftsbury Community Care Center over the years, making every risk, challenge, and effort worthwhile.

I’ll write more about our Vermont parish in further posts, but tomorrow I’ll return to my first parish experience in Richmond, to explain why the old TV ad about falling “and I can’t get up,” isn’t at all funny.

With Uries, Rowells, Kinseys, and Calderwoods surrounding us, one might assume we were in Scotland. But we were among the Scottish descendants of immigrants who had found in northern Vermont a rocky terrain that reminded them of home, I spent more time serving the East Craftsbury Presbyterian Church in Craftsbury, VT than in any other pastoral position. We were there nearly ten years, and what good years they were!

I’ll have many stories to tell about this congregation, but I begin with a ministry that was taking focus as I arrived, and which provided a significant mission opportunity right across the rural road that winds through the village. When Joan and I moved into the lovely manse next door to the brown-shingled church, conversations had begun about the need for an assisted living center in the town of Craftsbury (which includes what is called Craftsbury Village, Craftsbury Common, and East Craftsbury).

A young nurse with a vision for working in gerontology and serving the needs of the county’s elderly citizens was meeting with community members to design an affordable community care center. Within a short time of my coming to the East Craftsbury Church, I was invited to serve on the board of what was to become known informally as “the 4 C’s: the thirty-resident Craftsbury Community Care Center. The board, with only two exceptions, was made up of our church members. Thus, while the church didn’t “own and operate” the 4 C’s, it had a big stake in it, and some 20 years later still does.

Our board applied for and received a federally-funded Community Development Block Grant, and there was great celebration that the vision would provide housing and medical care for many local senior citizens. There is not space here to tell the whole story, but I want to connect that original vision to the foresight and compassion of the East Craftsbury Church. The fact is that without the church’s cooperation, the facility could not have been built on the land set aside for it by the Vermont Land Trust. The acreage wouldn’t perk.I’m not a hydrologist or an engineer (and I’ve never played either on TV), but unless the church had granted the Care Center permission to use a small part of its property for a septic field, of course the residential facility couldn’t have become a reality.

But the church helped with more than sewage! Knowing we had up to thirty new neighbors coming into our small village, and being the only church in the village, members of the congregation wanted to be as welcoming as possible, and that meant making the 1908 building accessible. We wanted to accomplish that before the care center opened, so a committee agreed on a plan to add a handicapped-accessible entrance and an elevator. With only 70 members, the majority of whom ran small family dairy farms, the financial challenge was a stretch. We learned that our denomination had a low-interest loan program to help churches with accessibility issues, but many folk were nervous about putting the church into debt.

Our church thrived on self-sufficiency and faithful stewardship. Some members tithed; others gave what they could week by week to support the church budget. I had heard that in previous years, when some exceptional financial need arose, someone put an empty Quaker Oats box on a table and people contributed what they could to meet the special need. The church wasn’t into selling things, charging for meals, or even indirectly asking non-church neighbors for financial support for ministries or obligations that were the sole responsibility of the congregation. But an exception was made when some church women hosted a rare (once in my pastorate) yard sale. At the end of the day, they had made a modest amount to go toward the elevator.

Now, about that “elevator.” Jack Morrill had been instrumental in securing a comparatively inexpensive lift for his previous church. He volunteered to do the same for us, and somehow he found a lift that had been built for another project (but returned to the manufacturer) and that would fill our need for a three-stop “elevette.” Basement rest rooms, entrance foyer, and sanctuary were on three levels, and this find was considered providential.

And about that entrance. Hollis Rowell was on the committee that sweated over how to add a handicapped-accessible door to the side of the church building, without disrupting the original architectural design of the church. On the Sunday morning we were about to show the final design to the congregation, Hollis took me aside and told me he had had another idea the night before. He said he really didn’t want to have a handicapped entrance. He had drawn up a new plan (unilaterally – not the Presbyterian way, you see)  and was going to share it during the congregational meeting. I was, let us say, chagrined. “Oh, Hollis; I don’t know…”  But when I heard his rationale, it made sense.

He told the church members, “I don;t think we should have a separate entrance for wheelchair-bound people. We should modify our entrance so that everyone can come into the church through the same door. His plan was adopted.

When we worried about how the front of this fairly historic church might look when the entrance was modified, our answer came when a long-time Craftsbury resident called me to ask if there had been some problem with the brown shingles on the front of the church. The modification was so perfectly executed, that all she had noticed was the slight difference in color between the old and new shingles around the front door.

Enough for today. Tomorrow I want to write of the ministry this small church extended to its new neighbors once the Care Center actually opened. Those neighbors included a Holocaust survivor whose stories I shall never forget.

I am writing each day in Lent (2015) about my adventures and misadventures in the churches I served in some pastoral capacity. [Since the forty days of Lent do not include Sundays, I take the Sabbath off.] Elsewhere in this blog’s history, there is ample note of the fact that much of my ministry was considered “non-parish,” that is, serving in ways not connected to individual churches, i.e., media, youth work, and teaching.

I’ve begun with my first official church work, a summer youth program accomplished during the middle of my seminary studies. Today, I want to write just a few lines about the five churches I served after seminary, and then, day-by-day, I’ll just jump from one story to another, not with any chronology, but just as the memories occur.

I was ordained in the Presbytery of Susquehanna Valley in 1969, and was called to two part-time positions in Richmond, Va. One call fulfilled my interest in broadcasting, and the other position involved directing an ecumenical youth center. But in 1976 I was asked to take on my first parish work, a small church in Richmond’s West End, a congregation that was nearing the end of its life.

My role there was to be the “Stated Supply” Pastor for three months. I was adding that responsibility to what was already by then a full-time position in media for the presbytery. The position description was very limited: I would plan and lead worship each week (and preach, of course), I would be available for pastoral emergencies, and spend an afternoon in the church office in case someone needed to talk.

I’ll write of this situation in greater detail in days to come, but for now I note just two things: that three month term grew into a full year; and my sojourn at Calvary Presbyterian Church was the first time I had to write and preach sermons every week. I wasn’t at all in sync with that. By the way, don’t try looking the church up anywhere; it’s long gone. Not my fault, by the way.

A few years after that, I returned to part-time parish work at a much larger church near downtown Richmond. It was a church with which I had been connected in various ways since seminary days, and the church which housed the radio station where my first radio ministry took root. [When you have a few weeks more to read, go to http://www.celebrationrock.wordpress.com and you will find the whole story.]

Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church called me to be its “Minister for Youth and Video.” Yes, that’s right. Though I may not be remembering the title exactly, that’s very close to what I did there for two years. It was a ministry of convenience, or of opportunity for me. It coordinated nicely with my continuing media ministry, and rescued me from a Presbytery youth ministry position (part-time again, of course) that ill fit my administrative abilities or lack thereof. It turned out that the church youth and I got along better than I deserved, and the short time I spent in residence there produced some good stories: a robbery, an all night pilgrimage into the city with church teenagers, preaching to a U.S. Supreme Court Justice (and worse, a couple of my seminary professors), and being confronted by not-so-subtle forms of racism.

I must be more concise now, as I move toward the last three churches I served. The Bon Air Presbyterian Church in Richmond is, in my opinion, one of the great churches of our denomination. While my children and I had worshiped there for many years, it was only in my last five years in Richmond that I actually served on staff, as Associate Pastor for Liturgy and Congregational Care. When we go back to Richmond, we always look in on that congregation, and though changing times have reduced its numbers, it is still a vibrant church focused on ministries of music, peacemaking, social justice, and Christian love.

Another of the impressive churches of the Presbyterian Church USA is the small East Craftsbury Presbyterian Church in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. When Joan and I felt called to uproot ourselves after all those years in Richmond, it was that 69 member rural church that invited me to serve as pastor. In many ways, it was an extraordinary experience, and I do believe it saved my life. I want to write about its people, its music, its dedication to local and global mission, and how that place changed Joan and me forever.

Finally, I have some stories to tell of our time in my last parish, the First Presbyterian Church of Ulysses, in Trumansburg, NY. While it presented some very serious challenges, I happened to be there, by the grace of God, at a significant time in that church’s life. Not many pastors get to help a church celebrate its Bicentennial, and renovate its worship space, and invite jazz into the sanctuary. Some of the other stories there will be more difficult to tell.

So, tomorrow… I think I’ll go to Vermont. There were no pennies in the stream, few sycamores…but there were many bends in the road, ski trails, and yes, moonlight in Vermont.

That photo (below) of Dunedin’s sunset is so tranquil. But a few miles away, there was this guy with a gun…

I’m writing each day in Lent (2015) about my experiences in ministry from my first church job to my retirement. I decided to start at the beginning, though I won’t be letting chronology get in the way as we go. First Presbyterian Church in Dunedin, Florida took me on as its summer youth director from June through August, 1968, in the middle of my seminary education.

Earlier that year, I had started an hour-long rock radio program back in Richmond, Va., and the “sponsors” of that media experiment hoped we could continue to produce it through the summer, having found a Tampa radio station willing to donate studio time. Each Monday night, I’d drive from Dunedin to someplace that looked awfully like a swamp to me, to that AM-FM facility near Tampa. I’d borrow the station’s file of duplicate 45 rpm hits, tape my show, and mail the reels back to Richmond in time for the Sunday night broadcast. The Dunedin church thought that was fine, and the high school youth thought it was kind of cool (I guess) that I was a deejay (of sorts).

My first visit to the station was unnerving. As is the case with many broadcast facilities, after hours the only entry into the secured studios is via a doorbell, a voice from a small loudspeaker asking your business, and eventually the one person in the building coming to the door to let visitors in…or not.  Buzz. Crackle. “Yeah, who’s this?”

“Jeff Kellam” and introductory words about my supposed welcome to use the studio. “Oh, yeah. Hold on.” A minute or two later, as I fought off swamp-bred mosquitoes, the on-air guy comes to the door, armed. A pistol, holstered, but in view. He saw my eyes widen, and answered my unspoken question. “Can’t be too safe out here. I talk to a lot of loonies.” Turns out, he did a call-in show at night, and that’s why I could borrow all the station’s hits to record my show. He showed me the basics of the production room, handed me the 45s (records, not firearms!), and left me to write and produce my program.

So, each Monday night through that summer, I made that trip into the swamp. I tried to fashion a hand-written script around songs such as “Sky Pilot,” “Pictures of Matchstick Men,” “Born to Be Wild,” and “People Got to Be Free.” I had more than enough work to do preparing for the children and youth of the church day-by-day, leading them through class time, recreation, field trips, and small group experiences. Trying to add the radio thing was way too much. The recordings I still have from that summer are embarrassing to listen to. Except the one with Joanie and Caroline. That program was a delight. Silly, though.

Joanie and Caroline were high schoolers, and asked if they could come along one night to watch me record my show. At first, I said no; I needed to concentrate on listening to the song lyrics, writing my script (such as it was), and cuing up records. But with their parents’ permission (one was the pastor’s daughter, I add for no reason), I thought maybe I could interview them. The topic? I figured it would come to me. Maybe gun control? Nah.

When we entered the station, our host wasn’t carrying that night, and I was relieved. Wouldn’t have to explain that to the girls or their parents. The girls were great in the studio, letting me do the serious stuff mentioned above. And then, eventually, I opened the mike to them and the giggling started. We did air that show, after some minor editing, and it probably was a nice change of pace for the audience.

Not quite as much fun was the program I recorded in our sweltering living quarters on the church campus. I had already sent my reels up to Richmond for the following Sunday night. But then Sen. Robert Kennedy was assassinated as he campaigned for the Presidency. He had been my Senator when I lived in New York State. I had taken pictures of him on the stump in my home town, in his campaign for the Senate. I was shocked, saddened, and afraid for our country. I sat on the floor of our apartment and spoke into a Wollensak tape recorder I had borrowed from the church. I had written out some of my feelings, but rambled into a commentary that lasted some 35 minutes. It was way out of format, but I called Cliff Dixon, my “producer,” and he understood my desire to share my comments during my airtime. Cliff thoughtfully and generously added some music to the program once my air-mailed tapes arrived. He built the whole thing into our hour-long slot. Whether my “native New Yorker” comments were appreciated by my Richmond, Va. audience, I do not know.

I must confess that I probably had no idea how to process the Senator’s assassination for my high school kids the following Sunday night at church. I recall no attempt. Mark it up to my being a total novice in youth ministry.

Still, as I look back to that summer, I celebrate the giggling girls, that gorgeous sunset at the Dunedin Pier, and the first summer Joan and I spent together as husband and wife. On our first wedding anniversary, we stood waist deep in the warm waters off Clearwater Beach. Yes…stood; because as you may remember from my first post in this series, I can’t swim.
img231

Next Page »