James P. Wind's formative moments

February 8, 2011

One Sunday morning in the late 1950s, as I inched along in the line
waiting to shake hands with my pastor after worship, I was singled out.
The Rev. Dr. George W. Wittmer asked me, a ten-year-old, to meet him at
the door to the sacristy after he had greeted everyone. Tall and
gray-haired, Pastor Wittmer was easily the most important person our
family knew. He wore impressive vestments, gave polished sermons, had
more books in his study than I had ever seen in one place and had an
office bigger than our family's living room. A vice president of our
denomination, he presided over Messiah Lutheran Church at the corner of
Grand Avenue and Pesta­lozzi Street in South St. Louis with refined
authority.

Messiah Church was a thriving tall-steeple church in
those religious boom years, and its pastor was a leader in a
denomination that placed clergy on a pedestal. When I met him at the
sacristy door, he invited me in to a place I had never been before. As
Pastor Wittmer put away his vestments, he told me that the congregation
was going to introduce the use of individual cups into its communion
practice.

Like many Protestant congregations, Messiah Church was a
very prim and proper place in the days before liturgical reform and
social upheaval swept across much of American Christianity. Holy
Communion, as it was called then, was celebrated on a monthly rhythm,
and children my age were not permitted to partake.

Pastor Wittmer
invited me to become the first acolyte chosen to follow him as he
distributed the private cups filled with wine to the well-dressed adults
kneeling at the communion rail. My job would be to collect the used
glass cups on a silver tray.

Although always taking me to the
brink of disaster (a dropped tray or cup), the job had perks: a special
robe and the privilege of sitting with Pastor Wittmer in the sacristy
during the service. In those days our congregation's clergy sat
privately in the sacristy and appeared in the sanctuary only when they
had something to say or do. I could assist him by timing his sermon (the
goal was finishing within a rarely reached 23 minutes), lighting the
candles and filling his water glass.

What I did not know then was
that I had crossed a threshold. I had been invited inside the working
world of the pastor. As I timed the sermons, collected the
lipstick-smeared communion cups, arranged books, lit candles and watched
my pastor do his job, I began to try on the role of pastor. A decade
later Pastor Wittmer and I began to disagree about the course of Messiah
Church and our denomination. But that day—with the full collusion of my
parents and a large congregation of people who thought it would be
great if I would be a pastor someday—he gave me the chance to try on
pastoring. More than that, he led my family and congregation in creating
a plausibility structure (something that is much harder to construct in
our more complex times) in which I could begin to see myself as a
minister.

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