March 2015

Unlike some pastors I’ve known, I never kept count of the many weddings at which I officiated. Some colleagues were so good at keeping track (with the help of their secretaries, probably) that they have an exact number. Not me.

But I can tell you how many weddings I didn’t do: two. OK, probably many more than that. No doubt I was asked to conduct ceremonies on dates I wasn’t available, and I was asked to officiate by couples who really didn’t want a religious service, and I said no thanks. Get a Justice of the Peace.

One of the two non-starts that come to mind happened (or didn’t happen) when I was in non-parish ministry. I had become a kind of chaplain to the radio community of Richmond, VA, and I did lots of weddings for radio station personnel. In the midst of my doing some required premarital counseling with a radio station executive, he and his bride-to-be pulled the plug on the event over some debts he owed. I included some financial planning with my couples, knowing that money issues were the cause of much marital strife. When the bride found out that her fiance was heavily in debt, she suggested postponing the wedding, and his response was something along the lines of, “Postpone? Hell; Let’s just forget the whole thing.” I’m sure she wound up happier when the shock wore off.

The other wedding I didn’t do never got to the “meet the couple” stage. And I was serving a church when the initial call come to me at home. Even though I was Associate Pastor at the Bon Air Presbyterian Church in Richmond at the time, the telephone call came from a couple that had “met” me through one of my radio programs, not the church. When it was established that I was indeed “the Jeff Kellam on the radio,” the by now familiar question came next: “Are you a real minister?” Besides being a rock deejay? Yes, I am.

The woman on the phone explained that she and her husband had set a date, but they were having trouble finding a pastor to do the ceremony. I went over my ground rules first: 1) I only do Christian wedding services; 2) I require premarital counseling. Both were fine with her. So, next came the calendar question, because if I didn’t have the date free, the ground rules were moot. October 31, she told me. I checked my book. The date was OK. Honestly, the date didn’t register as, you know, Halloween.

But in further conversation, it dawned on me. She told me again that they’d had a hard time finding a minister to do the ceremony. It’s going to be at the John Marshall Hotel, downtown. I’d done religious weddings in “secular” spaces before, I told her. No problem.

“And, I should tell you that we’ll be in costume.” Oh? I’m thinking, isn’t almost every wedding done in costume? I mean, look at the bride! And the groom doesn’t exactly dress in street clothes usually. But I sought clarification.

“What kind of costumes?”

“Well, I’ll be dressed as a medieval bride.” Again, this didn’t seem terribly out of place. Although I couldn’t picture how a medieval bride would look a whole lot different from a model on the cover of “Modern Bride” magazine. I inquired about her husband-to-be.

“Well, he was going to be dressed as a medieval groom, of course.” [Of course! A matching set!] But something had changed?

“He found something he liked better,” she explained. “He’s going to be dress like a gladiator.”

Only now is it dawning on me. Costumes…October 31…oh oh. “A gladiator, you say. Like the ones who slaughtered the Christians in the coliseums?”

“Well, I don’t know about that. It’s just that he liked the costume. Oh, and the attendants and ushers will be in costume too.” I hesitated to ask, and I didn’t. The woman on the phone then hastened to add that I too would be welcome to come dressed as…something. Anything I liked. “It’s going to be a fun wedding, for sure.”

At this point, I’m thinking that even we clergy-types very often wear a costume of sorts every week, if not every day. Customs (and costumes) vary from tradition to tradition when it comes to vestments, collars, and colors. I prefer the white cassock/alb (or off-white; I’m not a virgin).

By now, I am imagining the bridal party dressed in giant cigarette boxes, like those dancing Chesterfield packages from black and white TV days. And maybe the groomsmen would be dressed as pirates, cowboys, or cow-pirates. Lord, I can’t do this.

“I’m really very sorry,” I said. “I’m a fun guy, but I can’t do a wedding where everyone is pretending to be someone or something else. I just don’t see anyone keeping a straight face as I read through the liturgy and ask you to take sacred vows. I hope you have a wonderful time there at the John Marshall on Halloween, but I’ll be standing at my front door passing out dimes.” Dimes. Yep. (Must have been an idea our dentist had.)

My caller was quite disappointed in me, of course. “Oh, you were our last hope,” she explained. That always makes you feel good, to know that you were at the bottom of the list. Like being the last one picked for a junior high team. I suggested maybe she could find a judge or someone who might do a perfectly nice ceremony for tying their knot. I was thinking that maybe the judge could wear a priest costume. “I wish you all the best,” I said as I breathed a sigh of relief that I had stood my sometimes shaky ground.

I’ve written here previously that my colleague at the Bon Air Church had half-kiddingly accused me of “doing anything for money.” He had applied that charge (note to self: not a good word to use in this context) to my having done a wedding in a shopping center. (See elsewhere in my blog history for a perfectly reasonable explanation for that one.) As I hung up the phone that evening, I couldn’t wait to tell Bob that I had some scruples after all. Some.

I know that almost every clergy person of every ilk could write a book about all the weddings that provided drama, humor, and inspiration in their ministries. Thanks for letting me tell you the story of a wedding I didn’t do.

Tomorrow, I will write very carefully of how I got along with church musicians. My wife will proof that entry first.


[This begins the last week of writing a reflection each day during Lent (2015) about my pastoral ministry past, from a seminary internship to my retirement.]

Through all the years I spent in Richmond, VA., I had little experience in visiting nursing homes. It wasn’t in my “job description” for the most part. The only memory I have of a pastoral call in such a facility in Richmond was serving Holy Communion after conducting a worship service at the Confederate Home for Women. When I told a frequent visitor in the Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church fellowship (an eccentric woman known as Miss Lilly, quite a story herself) that I had served Communion to a 100 year-old resident of that home, she replied, “What a privilege for you both.” I always thought that was a wonderful comment.

However, my ministry in Vermont led me into a significant role as an ad hoc chaplain and board member of the Greensboro Nursing Home, about six miles from my East Craftsbury Presbyterian Church. Greensboro, VT on Caspian Lake had a small (30 beds?) independent, community-run nursing home, and I almost always had a church member or two living there. At first, I would make the occasional visit, dropping by for conversation and a prayer.

But it didn’t take long to be invited to serve on the Board, and that was quite an education. Issues of healthcare, funding, patient advocacy, and staff relations were always on the agenda, and I found myself sandwiched between the nursing home administration and resident concerns. Fortunately, I wasn’t seen as antagonist to either side, but as ally to both.

The nursing home, being small and community-based, had a pleasant enough atmosphere. I recall no odd odors, nor rumors of abusive treatment. In fact, it had several admirable attributes. For one thing, at that time the Greensboro Nursing Home operated a commercial bakery out of its kitchen. It was a revenue source for the home, as well as providing some good PR for the place. People would come in just looking for cakes, pies, pastries, and other goodies, and having people come in to shop, got them in touch with some residents, or at least gave them a  good impression of the facility. Some of the goodies were on sale in local stores, and the chef/baker was well-respected for his wares.

But aside from the side-business, the nursing home itself had other good qualities. At the door of each room was a framed biographical sketch of the room’s resident(s). With HIPAA privacy laws now, that helpful bio may be a thing of the past, but at the time it was a wonderful way to get to know something about the resident I was about to visit. Seeing that this woman was once a ballet dancer in New York, or that that man was a dairy farmer for sixty years, or that the person in this room was great-great-grandparent to four youngsters — well, there were starting points for conversations and story-telling.

Sally Levy was the volunteer behind those biographies, a master of listening and honoring the stories of residents, as well as what we could call the MJ for the “living room.” Movie Jockey? Sally knew that many of those elderly folks grew up in the golden age of films, and Sally planted a big screen projection TV in the facility’s largest gathering space and showed old movies hour after hour. Fred Astaire, Cary Grant, Joan Crawford…and Sally didn’t let those films just glow from the screen; she processed the films with viewers, again drawing out memories, attitudes, politics.

And Sally would read aloud to small circles of residents, or sit at bedside reading poetry or classic novels. (She once shared with me her own unpublished novel, a very impressive work that captured a certain age in her personal New York City experiences and imaginings.)

Besides the pastoral calls I made to members of my own flock, and serving a couple of terms on the Board, I was asked to help with the Thursday afternoon worship services. What started as an ecumenical rotation of pastors and priests, each one responsible for one Thursday a month, eventually became me and the Catholic priest. He’d do Mass once a month, and I’d handle all the other services. The other pastors just didn’t have the time or inclination to share the responsibility. So, almost every Thursday afternoon at 2, I’d lead a modest chapel service for whomever happened to be in the living room. When I arrived, a staff person would rather unceremoniously turn off the TV (that didn’t win the preacher any points) and announce that it was time for “church.” A few folks would be wheeled from their rooms (at the their request, of course), and I would lead prayers, read scripture, and offer a brief reflection or meditation. The first couple of years I was there, an old guy named John would interrupt me about two minutes in, and gruffly holler, “I want to go to bed!” Five more minutes, John… “I wannna go to BED!”

I also led memorial services for residents for whom their nursing home beds were their death beds. Obviously, most residents were unable to attend funerals in local churches, so we held services at the home, sometimes with surviving family members attending. Often, I hadn’t met those families before the services, but they were so respectful and grateful for the thoughtfulness of nursing home staff to have offered an occasion for everyone to celebrate the lives of these old friends.

One particular resident was Ethel Bailey, a member of my congregation who had survived some 30+ years with multiple sclerosis. When I first visited her in the home in which she and her husband had raised their family, Ethel was widowed, wheelchair-bound, but very resourceful. She asked me once to help her locate paperwork of some kind; it was filed in her dishwasher! She washed dishes by hand, but used the wheelchair-level dishwasher as an accessible place to keep files and magazines. She eventually moved to the Craftsbury Community Care Center (about which I have previously written here), and then ultimately to the Greensboro Nursing Home. Ethel became quite the artist there, and one of her works hangs on my wall, reminding me of her friendship.

I remember how Ethel’s room was “decorated” with various notes to staff, complaints and warnings about where things should go/stay in her room, what should NOT be thrown away, or how the content of her dresser should be arranged. Note after note after note. For the most part, the staff was understanding. “Oh, that’s Ethel,” they’d tell me.

Ethel also had an uncanny memory for details of dates and days and numbers in general. She knew everyone’s birthdays, their ages, graduation years, and I swear, she could tell you the day of the week a person had been born.

Long after we had moved from Vermont, Ethel kept up with us by calling us at home, sometimes at odd hours. As her health declined, she was difficult to understand over the phone, but we did the best we could to listen carefully and tolerate her many complaints about the nursing home. It was, as I have said, as good as nursing homes get, but unless Ethel was the CEO, it had many shortcomings as far as she was concerned. We always made it a point to visit her when our travels led back to Vermont,.

This informal nursing home “chaplaincy” was a far cry from my days in youth ministry, but generation after generation, there is a place for compassion, understanding, and acceptance, and I learned so much from these folks. They enriched my pastoral ministry, and I am grateful.

(Please see the following for one more story related to my Greensboro Nursing Home ministry:)

Next…one wedding I turned down.

One of my most pleasant memories of walking the halls of the Bon Air Presbyterian Church (Richmond, VA) is that of hearing the sound of music in the hallways on Wednesday nights.

The church had Wednesday night dinners prepared by volunteer crews working under the guidance of a very part-time kitchen/menu coordinator. The meals were delicious, affordable, and well-attended. There were lots of children running around, older adults sitting in pretty much the same places they’d sat for years, and often a program of some kind that went nicely with dessert.

After the dinners, there were various committee meetings, a more formal study (sometimes related to mission and service opportunities, sometimes a discussion of theological issues), and there were music rehearsals. It’s the music I want to center on as I write today.

Following the after-dinner study, I’d walk down the hall and hear music. Oddly enough, the first rehearsal I’d come to was that of the “big band.” Jazz. Swing. Just for fun. Although I would loved to have heard the band play for worship sometime, this intergenerational group played for the joy of the moment. Led by a veteran of the later edge of the big band era, this band’s personnel included some adults who probably hadn’t had a chance to play their brass instruments since high school or college days, as well as middle and high school youth who added some zest to the old charts.

A bit further down the hall were the handbells. These musicians did play for worship, and, donning their white gloves, they held in their hands only two notes, with other notes (bells) laying on the padded table should their particular tone be required. An old Richmond friend insists that handbells are not technically musical instruments, because each bell only makes one sound. But the set, the community of ringers, several hands blending several octaves…well, that’s music. And the Bon Air handbell choir was a joy to behold. Except that soloist.

One of the teens could stand at a table filled with bells and play a bell composition solo, reaching for this bell and that, ringing one, putting it down to reach for and ring another, sometimes almost racing from one end of the table to the other to retrieve the next note. I usually could not behold it. It really made me nervous as I sensed the seeming desperation of the process. Now, I could close my eyes and enjoy the sound of music, yes…but I could not watch.

And then, further down the hallway was the choir room where the Chancel Choir rehearsed its sometimes challenging, but always inspiring anthems. Bon Air was (and still is) graced with professional music leadership, and, back when the loft was full, the sound was rich, whether we were hearing a classical work or a more contemporary piece.

To make my walk that evening so long ago complete, I can only imagine adding the sound of our resident cellist Francis Church and his then-teenage children, whose string trios and quartets produced a wondrous sound. But they no doubt practiced mostly at home, and wouldn’t have been in the musical mix that Wednesday night after dinner.

When we moved to Vermont, it wasn’t necessarily the church hallways that were filled with music. It was the whole village! I’ve written previously of the musical riches of the East Craftsbury Presbyterian Church (in this series of forty reflections for Lent 2015), but I can’t resist sharing here the memory of an afternoon’s walk down the E. Craftsbury Road one summer. The Craftsbury Chamber Players were in the midst of their July-August season. Made up of Julliard faculty, students, and alumni (and I guess, some friends, too), the musicians’ concerts were organized by a resident of East Craftsbury, Mary Anthony Cox, who lived down the road, attended our church, and who commuted to New York City every week to teach ear training at Julliard.

This one afternoon, our village hills were alive with the sound of music (with apologies to the von Trapps who lived in nearby Stowe). Walking from the manse at one end of the village (and this actually happened…it’s not my imagination at work), the first sounds I heard came from the church. A vocalist was at the piano in the sanctuary, warming up. The church windows were open on that hot July day, and her vocalization filled that part of the neighborhood. Across the road, in a home occupied ordinarily only in the summers, came the sound of a pianist rehearsing for her performance later in the week. As the voice from the church grew more faint, the piano provided my walking music as I moved toward the village library. In its off-hours, the library’s books were treated to a cello solo as still another performer rehearsed.

And, we’re not finished yet. Another summer home…another group of musicians, strings this time. I’m no expert here, but I could probably count two or three violins or violas, being played by some youngsters being taught by one of the many pros who found their way to our hills to play in the Hardwick Town House, or over in Burlington at the University of Vermont. Finally, making a turn at Whetstone Brook, one of Mary Anthony’s Steinways resounded through the open screen door, a magnificent sound that could soothe even the souls reposed in the nearby East Craftsbury cemetery.

[I highly suggest that you go to and read about their outstanding summer series.]

We were privileged to have occasional guest artists from the chamber players enrich our Sunday morning music at the East Craftsbury Presbyterian Church. What a surprise it must have been for a visitor to come to that country church on a summer Sunday, settle into a pew, and hear Julliard musicians playing the prelude. And then I had to preach. Sigh.

Praise God from whom all musical blessings flow.

Kind of wish I’d practiced that trombone more back in eighth grade.

Next, adventures in a nursing home.

When I retired, I didn’t look back.

I treated retirement from my last church as answering a call, a call that came just as clearly as any call to move from one church to another, or one non-clergy position to another. And when the deed was accomplished and I settled into a new lifestyle, I didn’t miss the clergy life. That said, there is one thing I would love to recover from my last pastorate: the weekly meeting at the Falls.

On the edge of Trumansburg, NY, there is a restaurant, “The Falls,” a neighborhood gathering place that is a couple of steps up from a diner, but not a table-cloth and crystal fine dining experience. Very popular with the locals, it was also the gathering space for us in the local clergy, every Thursday at 10 a.m. My immediate predecessor (an interim pastor) told me about the group, and assured me that it was strictly social, that is, no book study, no agenda of any kind. I looked forward to it.

And it did not disappoint. The local Catholic priest would be there, having celebrated daily Mass just blocks away, and now ready for his breakfast of pancakes and sausages. Ordinarily we had a couple of United Methodists pastors there, and the American Baptist pastor…as opposed to the independent Baptist guy who never came. Never. None of us were Christians to him. (That independent church never joined us in any ecumenical services, nor communicated with the rest of us in any way. Sad.)

The Episcopal priest came often, though he lived some distance away. Sometimes we’d be joined by a couple of other pastors (Presbyterian and Reformed Churches), as well as a retiree and his wife. Our table was smack dab in the middle of the place, so there was no huddling in secret to complain about one’s church treasurer or another’s musician (perish the thought!) or a governing board made up of clueless Christians. Mostly, we met just for the pure fellowship of the moment, a respite of sorts just past mid-week. Many of us were “Lectionary preachers,” and now and then we’d share an idea or resource, but, again, no “agenda.”

Parishioners might wave or stop by briefly to bid a good morning. And there was always some good-natured kidding around with the waitress. It felt really good to have her welcome us with a cup of coffee and those words, “The usual?” I don’t go anywhere these days where someone knows my “usual.” In fact, I don’t go anywhere that colleagues gather regularly and without some agenda or business to attend to. That’s the part I miss about that table time at The Falls.

In ministry,as well as in other professions, I’m sure…but especially in solo pastorate ministry, there is often a “Lone Ranger” kind of feeling, a sense that one is apart from the flock, always guarded, or watched, and there are few places to let one’s hair down (so to speak, in my case). In the multi-staff churches I served in Richmond, there was camaraderie, conversations, sharing of personal thoughts and dreams and frustrations. In my Vermont “solo” parish, I did have some now-and-then contact with other clergy in the area, but not a weekly gathering over coffee (“…and whole wheat toast, buttered, please…”) with a regular circle of friends.

[In Vermont, I did have a special friend with whom I met every week to share thoughts about the Lectionary passages for the coming Sunday. But we spent much of our time in friendly conversation, too. I wrote about Bill Lingelbach in my previous Lenten series “Forty I Have Followed.” Look here:   ]

When I reiterate that there was no agenda, I should clarify. Two or three times a year, the group did have some things to plan together, and it made sense to pull out calendars and note pads there at breakfast and talk about ecumenical services for Holy Week or the summer services we shared in Taughannock State Park on Cayuga Lake. (The restaurant we met in — The falls — took its name from Taughannock Falls in the park.) There was also a Christmas concert for many years, where our individual choirs offered special music, or as I called it, “The Battle of the T-burg Choirs.” All of our churches were members of a wider ecumenical group that did mission and service together, including a food pantry, so we’d talk about our modest council of churches too. But, mostly, this warm gathering was for the building of friendships over coffee.

Since this was a small town, many of us knew one another’s parishioners. In fact, as with any church in close proximity to another, some of our members had been members of our colleague’s churches. If a Methodist didn’t care for the new minister the District Superintendent had sent to town, that parishioner might very well cross the street to the Presbyterian church. And if this one-time Baptist couple attending (but never joining) the Presbyterian church had trouble with something decided by the Presbyterian’s national General Assembly, they’d wind up back in one of the Baptist churches around the block. When we lost or gained a member within our circle of churches, we’d just smile at the situation and wish one another well. I don’t recall, ever, any hard feelings among us.

Our meeting at the Falls was sometimes the brightest spot in a routine week. Plus, the toast was excellent.

Next, in this series of forty reflections on my pastoral past, Vermont hills alive with the sound of music (and it had nothing to do with the Von Trapps who lived nearby).

Each day in Lent 2015, I am recounting confessions and celebrations that grew out of my six pastorates (the non-pastoral years are available at Today, adventures in a llama pasture at sunrise.

The East Craftsbury Presbyterian Church in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont had a long tradition of gathering for worship as the sun rose on Easter. My first year there, I followed the lead of those who had gone before, hesitant to make any changes early in my tenure. We researched what time the sun would rise that Easter day, and in the dark we drove up the “road to the Common,” stopping halfway up the hill, pulling our cars off the roadway and into snowy drifts. We’d walk through maybe two feet of snow, through a fence gate, and into Ned Houston’s field.

As we walked, or plowed our way to the hillside facing the eastern sky, someone asked whether anyone had remembered to ask Ned’s permission. The consensus was that it had always been OK before and that he and his wife would be likely to join us. As we greeted one another, the familiar words, “His is risen!” were spoken, bring the response from the already initiated, “He is risen, indeed!” Many voices in the early morning frigid temperature still sounded “unrisen.”

Fielda Calderwood had provided me copies of the previous years’ services, a collection of songs, scripture readings, and space for my short sermon. People shivered. As was the custom, the church youth had leadership roles. Imagine that: teens, having practiced the week before, were there for a 6 a.m. sunrise service. I was impressed.

Of course, one of the hymns we would sing was very well known and almost required of every church of every denomination: “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today,” with all its alleluias. But there was a song new to Joan and me. We let the sunrise service veterans lead us in it. It was an old song, “Up from the Grave He Arose.” Imagine each word in the title moving up a note as you sing it, and you pretty much have the first line. I confess that I didn’t think much of it, and Joan and I later (and always) referred to it as the “Jack-in-the-box” Easter song.Bum, bum-bum-bum, bumpa bummm!     Boing!

We may have sung it one more year after that, but easily found replacements (like Sydney Carter’s “Lord  of the Dance”) and no one complained.

After the 20-minute service, looking often in vain for the sunrise (no one had told Vermont that clear skies would be a good idea for Easter Day), we’d drive back to the church for breakfast. White table cloths covered the tables which were joined together in the shape of a cross, and one chair at the head of that cross was vacant, symbolizing the risen Christ. What a relief to come into that warm church basement, and soon smell the aromas of breakfast, knowing that pure Vermont maple syrup would be lavished upon stacks of hot pancakes. Happy Easter, indeed!

After breakfast and clean-up, folks would head back home for a couple of hours before returning for the eleven o’clock Easter service with its more-joyful-than-sunrise-service alleluias. Joan would have driven forty miles south to her church in Danville (where she played the organ and directed the choir), so she missed my Resurrection-inspired sermons. But she’d return to our neighborhood toward the end of our service (in time for the offering, she reminds me), and after extending final Easter greetings to worshipers, we’d head toward Easter dinner at Marvin and Georgette Rowell’s home where their large family and extended family (the Kinseys) and others filled every downstairs room in the farmhouse.

Everyone brought a dish or two, and the final course was always “sugar on snow,” maple syrup heated to just the right temperature that it thickens when poured over trays of snow. Twirling a fork into the sticky syrup, you pull the syrup from the snow and savor its sweetness, over and over. When you’ve had enough maple goodness, there are doughnuts and pickles (yes, pickles) on the table to give respite from the sugary taste. Then you go for another fork full or several! Now, Joan’s not a fan of pickles, and when Morris Rowell encourages her to bite into that pickle so she can enjoy more sugar on snow, Joan resists. Morris insists. Joan resists. And so on. Joan wins. Morris: “More for the rest of us….”

And, in case you are not aware of this factoid, no, one doesn’t eat the snow. Just the syrup. In those years when Easter came later in the spring and snow was melting away, we’d wonder where the snow for this after-dinner delicacy had come from. “Oh, just out near the barn,” was the response. (Think about it.)

After we’d been in Vermont a few years, Ned’s field was used for pasturing llamas. If, on Easter morning, the ground was still frozen and snow-covered…no problem. But if the weather had turned milder, one had to be careful where one stepped as we walked the hillside to face the sunrise. There was ample evidence that llamas had been in the field, and we didn’t need to track that evidence into our cars as the sunrise service came to an end.

Another good memory of those East Craftsbury Sunrise services… One year, with the weather particularly un-spring-like, we  made our way into the llama pasture, gathering church members and Craftsbury neighbors on the hillside. As I left the car, to my dismay I realized I had left my Bible at home. I hoped that someone else had thought to bring one, maybe one of the youth who’d be helping with the service. But no. But the alternative to reading the story from the Gospels turned out to be an Easter present for us all. And I was tempted to make this remedy into an Easter sunrise tradition! We told the story from our collective memory, step by step.

When it came time for the normal scripture reading, I confessed that no one had brought a Bible, so we’d have to tell one another the story. I got it started by asking who had found the grave empty that morning. And then as the gathered folk shared what they recalled, we’d ask another question, and other details followed. These people knew their Easter story, detail by detail, and frankly, we told more of the story than any one Gospel contained. I commented that the process we were sharing in was exactly how the stories had been shared before the gospels had been first written down. This was oral tradition, storytelling, and faith sharing at its best. I hardly needed to add my Easter meditation that day. (But I did. After all, I had spent some time on it.)

“He is Risen!” And then you say….

The manse of the East Craftsbury Presbyterian Church in Vermont was the only church-owned home Joan and I ever lived in. Prior to moving to Vermont and later living in Ithaca, NY, we owned our own homes (with the bank’s help, of course).

The Vermont manse was built in the 1840s, and had quite a history. It was first a farmhouse, and then, generations ago, became the property of the church, and used as what some traditions call a “parsonage.” Joan and I loved it at first sight. There was not a floor that was level, much of the wall paper had faded over the years, and we didn’t trust the garage to hold the weight of the Camry. A fire had burned off the original attached barn, and the roof over the attic area still had charred wood and a smoky odor these fifty years later.

Some motion picture lore is attached to that home. Around 1953 Alfred Hitchcock was filming “The Trouble with Harry” in Craftsbury, VT, and the church agreed to let the “Master of Suspense” use the church house for Shirley MacLaine’s home in the film. A movie set provided the home’s interior shots, but Hitchcock wanted exterior shots to include a front porch. So he built one on the front of the manse, and after the film crew left, the church removed the porch to the back of the house, where it remains today, screened in. I used to call it the Hitchcock Memorial Porch. Rent the movie and you’ll see John Forsythe striding up our front walk to sit on the porch with MacLaine and a very young Jerry Mathers who played her son.

Joan devoted a lot of time and energy to freshening up the interior of the old place: new wallpaper, some plastering of cracked walls, adding some stenciling, and applying bright paint colors. The church had a painting bee for the exterior one summer, and church members were wonderful at sharing their gifts: plowing snow and loading in firewood for the big furnace. Bob Kinsey firmed up the garage floor, and then warned us not to look at his work. “It doesn’t look real good, but it’ll hold,” he promised. And it did.

The house became the heart of the church’s hospitality and the communications center, thanks to the old red rocking chair on the front glassed-in porch. Whenever there was paperwork to be shared, or a package picked up or left, we’d say, “It’s on the red rocker.” As for hospitality, not only did we have church meetings in the “keeping room” around our dining table, but we entertained members of the Presbytery’s Cambodian Fellowship, a Habitat For Humanity work team, and Heifer International visitors from Tanzania, as well as a monthly Soup Group from our own congregation.

That Soup Group was Joan’s idea. Homemade soup in the midst of Vermont’s long winters would make for warm fellowship for anybody, but we had in mind some of the older church members who might enjoy just getting out of their own homes for lunch now and then. It was a chance to escape “cabin fever” and meet for conversation and homemade bread and soup.

We lived in that wonderful home for almost ten years. The year after we had moved to Ithaca, a church member mailed us the Vermont Life Magazine calendar, with a note that told us to look at the December page. There was the manse. And in the driveway, under a couple of feet of snow, was my car, with the vanity license plate almost visible. It said “KINGDOM,” meaning the Northeast Kingdom, that part of Vermont that changed our lives, and enriched my sense of ministry.

Next, in this series of forty reflections for Lent 2015, Craftsbury’s Easter Sunrise Service in the llama pasture.


When I was serving the Bon Air Presbyterian Church (Richmond, Va.) as Associate Pastor, the “senior minister” took Mondays off, and I was “on duty.” Monday was the day when most of the pleas for “emergency funds” came our way. And I learned quickly that not all those requests arose from legitimate needs.

There was the man who came in fairly regularly asking for help. It wasn’t on a Monday, so the pastor met the man in the front entry hall of the church and was surprised to hear that the man needed money for a parasol. “A parasol?!” the pastor exclaimed. “We don’t consider that an emergency need.”

The man explained that he needed it for cutting wood to build a fire to keep his grandchildren warm. It was a power saw that he needed, but in his rural southern drawl, it sure sounded like he wanted a parasol.

Many of the requests we fielded were more serious (especially since we doubted the “keep the grand kids warm” story). With our church situated right on the border between Richmond city and Chesterfield County, people from both localities approached us in person or by phone, hoping we would help with utility bills, rent, or food. Sadly, our experience in dealing with wolves in sheeps’ clothing led us to doubt many of the stories we were told.

We suspected that the other churches in the community were facing the same issue: whose needs are legit, and whose are simply a way to scam well-meaning churches into paying their bills. Every church had its own policy, but with this in common: the funds we used to respond to those needs were limited. Some came from special offerings, and some were specially budgeted…like a Deacon’s Fund, or Pastor’s Discretionary Fund. As pastors from various churches shared stories, we discovered we were helping some of the same people, almost regularly. Maybe “helping” wasn’t the right word; “enabling” would fit better.

One day, some of the staff members of neighborhood churches came together for lunch and invited someone from a social service agency to speak with us about how we might help more effectively and faithfully. She told us that the best way to help people in need was to act in union with county and city social services, not apart from those local agencies. The first question we should ask of anyone requesting emergency help was (assuming these were not church members whom we knew well and whose needs would be more clear to us), “Do you have a social worker?”

If the answer were yes, it was best to be in contact with that social worker and work together to meet the expressed need. If the answer were no, then the best way to help was to initiate contact with social services so that needs could be addressed in a way we Presbyterians call “decently and in order.”

After that lunch, we went back to our church and determined to follow the advice from that point on, and to keep records (confidentially) of who was making the request, an address, phone number, the expressed need, the amount of the check, and the date of the transaction. Look for patterns, we were told. And limit the number of times one person could receive help in a particular time period.

[It was not uncommon for someone to go to several churches with the same need. We’d all see the electric bill, for example, and we’d all write a check for some or all of the balance. Thus, someone asking for help with a bill for, say, $200 might wind up with contributions totaling many times that amount. If the church insisted, rightly, in sending the payment directly to the electric company, the credit could well build up over a couple of months, thus freeing up the excess for — well, let’s not even go there.]

This was hard. When a woman called in, her voice breaking with fear or embarrassment, young children crying in the background…it was hard to describe the hoops you were about to make her jump through. But when a car pulls into the church parking lot, and we hear the overly familiar story about being on the way to Georgia and running out of gas and needing help from “you good Christian folks here,” we’d like to have said, “What do you think we are here? Traveler’s Aid?”

After our new “social worker” policy went into effect, we started getting calls from a social worker in Richmond, telling us of various people she knew to be in serious need. Each week, we’d listen to the request, OK a check, and put it in the mail. Once I asked the pastor how we knew these requests were from a real social worker, and he chuckled and cautioned me against being too cynical or paranoid about the process. But, this time, I was right.

I began comparing some names and street addresses of the needy folk who were being referred to us, and something looked fishy. And then one day, I called the phone number of the supposed “client” and she answered with the wrong name. When she found out it was I who was calling, she tried to change her voice and create some confusion, but I caught her. Turns out, the so-called social worker was playing games, routing our checks to her own family and friends, sometimes vouching for people who didn’t even exist.

I called Richmond Social Services, and asked about the person who had called the church over a period of months. They didn’t have anyone by that name in their office, but when I reported the names of her “clients” they recognized some names, and the investigation grew deeper. Because some of the bogus calls had been made from a phone connected with the old Medical College of Virginia, a state facility, the State Bureau of Investigation took over, and made an arrest.

When this episode was shared among the local church staffs (and this included administrative personnel since those at the front desks were often the first ones to field requests for financial help), we knew some ecumenical coordination was past due; it was time to join together to be better stewards of the funds entrusted to us to serve those truly in need. I and some others from neighboring churches formed a little ad hoc group to pool emergency funds and share information (situations, not names, thus preserving confidences). At that time, the only church that had access to a computer for storing information was in the office of the Pentecostal church. That church would become our operations hub.

We set about organizing ourselves further, looking for a volunteer coordinator, and — a name…we needed a name! Some ideas were tossed about, and the doodling I was doing on my legal pad turned out to be the name the group adopted. We called ourselves The Chesterfield-Colonial Heights Alliance for Social Ministry, or CCHASM. Since we were building a bridge to cross the divide between those in need and those who could help, the acronym seemed apropos.

It is some 25 years later. A few months ago, I was surprised to learn that that fledgling organization is still going, and stronger than ever. Go to and look what has grown from that troubling scam so long ago. It’s an amazing ecumenical support agency with a variety of programs to meet unmet emergency needs in an area much broader than first conceived. God works in mysterious ways, huh?

Tomorrow, how Alfred Hitchcock and I used a Vermont house for our individual purposes forty years apart.

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