OPINION

Pastor al: my church or yours

Tony Bender
Local Columnist

In the beginning, I didn't like church. Oh, I liked churches, the stained glass, high ceilings, and architecture, just not an hour of it, and certainly not with glowering, impersonal overlords in the pulpit, which is how I viewed my first ministers as a kid. Pastor Al changed that. 

I laughingly referred to myself as a heathen in a recent phone call with my mom, but she quite seriously replied. “No, your church is the same as your grandfather's.” My grandfather saw a higher power in the birth of foals and in the sunsets he watched while smoking hand-rolled cigarettes.

Al came to St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Frederick, SD, not long out of seminary, on the tallish side, tanned, black hair, a good-looking young man with a beer in his refrigerator for you when you were invited over for a fresh fish dinner. Even if you were just 15. Now, you have to be 21 to eat fish.

An occasional beer was consistent with his rough and tumble farm-boy upbringing during which he engaged in pitchfork battles with his brother and narrowly missed him once when he threw one. Perhaps it was in the pasture at sunset where Al found God.

As soon as I could ask questions, I wrestled not so much with God, but with the Bible—the inconsistencies—and later, when I understood the concept of editing, with the idea that ancient imperfect men with political agendas and kingdoms could produce infallibility. Oh, I tried to embrace it; my plan was to sin like hell until I was on death's door and then seek forgiveness. That was before I understood the concept of karma. “...those who plow evil and those who sow trouble reap it,” —Job 4:8

Al had been a smokejumper. I didn't know that, but it didn't surprise me when I read his obituary last week, because the man was real, and he became the first of four ministers I've called friends, even though my church isn't indoors.

So Al came to my church. Took me fishing. I learned to waterski behind his boat and its anemic motor. I dunked him in the shallows one day, and he rose furious like a hydra and held me under almost forever. And that's how it came to be that I was baptized for a second time by Pastor Albert Goldammer.

He hired me to mow the church lawn for $10 a week, a princely sum in those days, maybe because there were six kids in the family and we had to earn our own spending money, maybe because there were so few town kids to do the job, or maybe because he sensed in me the perfectionism that had me crawling prayerfully, I suppose, on my hands and knees on Saturdays to pluck grass that jutted out along the church walls.

He took my brothers to their first movie. “And he bought us popcorn and everything,” Scott reminisced on the phone with my Mom when he learned the news, a fifty-something teacher suddenly transported to a childhood memory.

He was my friend, but I didn't grasp our unspoken deal. He would come to my church and I should come to his. I fought and argued with my mother, won some and lost some, and when I was emancipated, I stopped. Sometimes I'd been out the night before drinking beer and maybe I thought Al might understand that I was walking in the path of Martin Luther. Sort of. Kind of. Maybe just a little.

One day, Whitey and I skipped confirmation class to play chess and read comic books—I won't even try to explain—and Al tracked us down and kept us until we knew our verses. 

His commitment and humanness began to soften my stridency, and in time I began to judge the church by the congregation and less so by the puzzles in the scriptures. Good people doing good work. None of this enlightenment, if that's what it was, came swiftly, but I've thought about him often through the years because he planted that seed.

Years ago, when he had a parish in Redfield, SD, I was passing through and decided to look him up, and I stopped the first person who looked Lutheran, only to learn that Al was out of town. So, I never got to tell him these things. How he impacted my life, how maybe that unscheduled baptism at Elm Lake took hold, and how much his friendship meant. Now he knows.