My grandmother, a deaconness in the Methodist church (because that’s what women who were called to ministry did before 1956 when ordination became possible) made a deal with God. Like Hannah, the mother of the great Biblical prophet Samuel, she wanted a child, but after a serious miscarriage, was not sure she would be able to carry a pregnancy to term. And like Hannah, we think she may have offered the consecration of her first born to a life of service as a bargain for the privilege of motherhood.
My father has no other way to explain the fact that he always wanted to be a minister. Though church and faith were an ever-present part of his family’s life, he was, in many ways, an unlikely candidate for the ministry. I’ve heard him talk about the roll of pennies that he wrapped around his hand with masking tape to make his own version of brass knuckles for the fights he got into in high school. His winsomeness insured that he was rarely without a girlfriend and he’s always had a group of friends ready to engage in carousing and other adventures.
Now he has been in the hospital for two weeks, unable to communicate and very weak. He will recover, but to what extent we are not sure. Even in his weakened state, his strength and capacity are apparent. He lies in a bed only a few miles from a piece of land he rescured from becoming a toxic waste dump after the school that stood there was condemned.
The site sits across from the church where he was a pastor and the Kansas City, Kansas school board needed the money the oil company was promising them to provide a place where they could bury their sludge and wasted oil drums. My father fought them, and was able to use the political animosity between the city council and the school board to his advantage, winning support for a park, the only one for miles in this neighborhood with very few resources and even less power.
The park stands to this day, cared for by the church and well used by the children who live around it, holding complete blight at bay for the last 35 years.
I grew up with a sense of my dad as a fighter and aware of the respect people had for him. But he was not in the ministry to be liked or affirmed. I remember when one of the lunch ladies at my elementary school told me she’d seen my father on tv, and it was a few minutes before I realized that a pastor speaking on behalf of Planned Parenthood wasn’t what she wanted or expected to see. And I was an adult starting my own ministry before I realized that the reason I seemd to be forever running laps alone in basketball practice was that the coach, a former member of our church, had mounted a campaign against my dad and his political theology and lost, grudgingly moving his family from the church where he had worshipped for over 20 years.
My dad has always been a skinny man; the black clergy shirts that he wore as a six foot, 120 pound man and passed on to me have never fit. And so when he was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 1984 when I was 16 there wasn’t much the disease could do to diminish his stature. But it robbed him of his energy and took away his quickness and forced him to measure all his outputs where once what he was able to offer seemed boundless. Still, he pressed on, and continued as senior pastor of a church of over 2000 members, the largest United Methodist church in Kansas. Every day, with incredible determination, he took himself up the steepest flight of stairs to his office which for some reason sat like an oversized crow’s nest above the sanctuary of this huge church built in the 1800s. And from that position, he went on to the bishop’s cabinet, a pastor of pastors and an unwavering advocate for a church with integrity, alive, active and seeking justice. He held the liberal line as Christianity in this country became more and more socially conservative, and more concerned with controlling people’s lives than with the liberation inherent in the gospel.
I was lucky enough to get to start my professional ministry in a church just 30 minutes from where he was appointed, and able to call him with my neophyte’s questions, see him at meetings and often meet for lunch. One time when I was particularly discouraged with the work load and attacks I felt, I asked my dad how he could have possibly stood to be a pastor for such a long time, why he didn’t leave and go do something else that would have been less taxing, and probably more lucrative. He nodded, and clearly understood, and then said, “I decided a long time ago that I wasn’t going to let the bastards have it.” His ministry was not only about righting the injustices in the places he found himself, but struggling for the soul of the church, making sure we did right and broke down divisions between people instead of claiming that we were right causing more barriers to be erected. He was elected to general conference many times casting minority votes to change the church’s discriminatory stances on the inclusion of gay and lesbian persons. A tireless advocate for racial justice, he made sure that persons of color were never limited in their appointments. As a trustee of Baker University, the United Methodist college that awarded him an honorary doctorate, he organized to insure that sexual orientation was in the university’s non-discrimination policy. He was the first person to suggest to me and my teenage friends that God could be bigger than the male gender.
Multiple Sclerosis means, literally, “many scars,” and I often wonder about the scars my father has internalized in fighting the good fight. Did my grandmother know what toll her bargain with God would take on her unborn son? My guess is, in some sense, she did. A life of service always costs, and if there’s one thing I think my family knows, it’s that it’s a privilege to pay it. But it seems to me that the price my father has had to pay is too high. His legacy is legion, and his spirit and work live on in the lives of the countless persons he’s affected, either directly or indirectly, through going to work, day after day, and just doing his job. I’m grateful that we will have him with us for more time, to love him and experience the immense love that comes from him. Though he’s struggling now to say people’s names or explain what he wants, he almost never fails to respond to us when we tell him we love him and say, “I love you, too.”