Posted on July 27th, 2012
Every pastor wearing the uniform (i.e., black suit and clerical shirt) has experienced it. Happy smiles on the part of some. Scorn and derision in the eyes of others. The doctor who looks at you like you are dirt. The kind nurse who gives you every courtesy. The parking garage attendant who waves you through without payment, saying nothing more than, “Have a good day, Father.” The strung-out prostitute outside the emergency room late at night hoping you’ll solve a lifetime of abuse for her with a prayer. The man in the airport with time to kill (and always when you’re in a hurry to catch your flight), “Father, can I ask you a question?”
Two particular memories stand out among the many encounters.
One was in Baltimore. I was doing a summer vicarage (a pastoral internship) with my friend Joel, who had just completed a year of seminary with me in Fort Wayne. He was at Martini, I at St. Thomas, both unique inner-city parishes. My job was to run the Kool Klub—a program for Baltimore youth, many of whom were barely literate, malnourished, and some abused. I first realized I knew nothing about their life when I asked a boy if he’d had anything for breakfast, and he said his mother (a prostitute) had given him a dollar to buy something from the corner market. (This was 1994, and a dollar bought him some pop and candy. For breakfast.) I also did my first funeral that summer – for a 16 year old boy who had been shot, a bystander to a drug deal gone bad. But I digress.
Every pastor wearing the uniform (i.e., black suit and clerical shirt) has experienced it. Happy smiles on the part of some. Scorn and derision in the eyes of others.
Amidst all those experiences which I’ll never forget stands also the elderly black man in the elevator at the hospital where I was making a call. As the elevator closed, he said to me, slowly, in the unique Baltimore accent, “Hello, Father.” Then, getting a good look at the 23 year old kid in the clerical collar, he said with a smile, “You a young Father!”
Yes. Yes I was.
The other memory was a few years ago at Fairfax Hospital. I forget who I was there to visit, but as I walked down the hall, what has happened countless times happened again: a Roman Catholic with a sick relative hoping that the priest has finally come. (There simply aren’t enough of them to keep up, I suspect.) This time, a man pacing the hall said, “Father! Are you here to see Maria?” “No, I’m sorry, I’m visiting a member of my parish.” “Well, will you come in and pray with Maria?” “Sure, but I must tell you that I am a Lutheran pastor. I’m not Roman Catholic.” After the briefest hesitation: “Close enough. Please come in.”
“Father! Are you here to see Maria?”
In making a hospital visit recently, what happens to every pastor wearing the uniform happened to me in rapid succession. A man walking in the entrance as I was departing glared at me and and as we passed muttered an invective so only I could hear. About twenty feet later, a woman approaching the entrance saw me and, with a bright smile, chirped, “Hi, Father!”
Where the collar is, there the faithful see Christ.
What has happened in these people’s lives? All the failures and successes of the Church are, in those moments, attributed to me. Not to Christopher Esget, Pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church, Alexandria, Virginia. But to me as the Office-Bearer. For all these people, at that moment, I represent the Church. For some, justly or not, it brings anger. For others, joy. For still others, relief and comfort.
Where the collar is, there the faithful see Christ. Christians rejoice to see the pastor making his rounds.
I don’t believe in the so-called ministry of presence, where the pastor is just supposed to show up. But while journeying to the place of ministry, with my only tools—Bible and communion set—in my hands, there the Church witnesses as well. It brings me joy when others are cheered by my presence. But when the stranger’s face shows me malice or anxiety or is readying a question, then too I must fight my sinful nature and be ready with a smile, and when I have opportunity, a Word of Good News.∗