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Sunday, July 10, 2011

From Immigrant to Pulpit

“Practice, Practice what you preach. I’m here to tell you that it’s what you do not what you say that’s gonna count on judgment day.” The lyrics to this song were popular in the house I grew up in. They summarize my sentiments on what it takes to be an effective pastor. An effective pastor should have several virtuous qualities. Level of commitment, passion for God and courage of conviction makes one a credible witness for God.
His name was Heinz. He was my father. He was also a pastor. Heinz first learned about commitment at the early age of five when his parents escaped from East Germany with their six children. His mother had vowed that her children would have a better life and so they boarded a boat, headed for the United States. It was April 22, 1952 when they landed in New York, with only $11.45 to their name. Heinz carried that commitment with him the rest of his life. He had gone into the army during the Vietnam War. Soon after that, he married my mother, and within a few years they had two children. It was then that Dad felt God tugging at his heart. He decided to go to college to become a preacher. He and Mom both worked while Dad went to school. I remember this so clearly because Dad and I walked to school together. Finally, in May of 1977, Heinz graduated from Southern Missionary College in Tennessee. He and Mom had their third child.

My father’s passion for God first took us to North Dakota where Dad ministered for four years. Dad had three churches. Two of the churches we went to one week. Then the next week we went to the other. Every church Dad pastored grew. One of the ways he encouraged participation in church was to tell the children what his sermon would be about and have us count how many times he said specific words. The child who came the closest to being right got a prize. I never got a prize. After four years we moved to Illinois. Again Dad’s church grew. Then one day my parents split. Rumors that went around caused my father to lose his job. Yet so great was my father’s passion for God that he began to sell religious books door to door. Later he remarried a widow who had four young children. This was his saving grace. For the next twelve years Heinz worked hard to provide not only for Carolyn and her children but also his first three children.

After years of struggling to provide for his family Heinz was finally accepted back into the ministry. A little church in Idaho asked Him to come and be their pastor. On April 11, 1998 Heinz preached his first sermon in his new church. The little church grew and flourished under Heinz’s leadership. Each member came to love him. Then it happened. November 15, 1999, I got a phone call. There’s a tumor attached to Daddy’s liver. We don’t know how long it’s been there or how fast it’s growing, more later. January, Dad only has about four months to live. Yet Heinz’s spirit was not deterred. His witness led to him baptizing his older brother. Any time I called him he would do two things. First he would tell me some stupid joke to try to make me laugh. Second he would remind me of the hope of the resurrection. If his faith ever wavered I never saw it. Easter weekend came. April 22, 2000 Daddy’s congregation gathered around him. Someone began to read. “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death...” Daddy squeezed my hand and was gone.

Daddy had all the stubbornness of a German, all the “smoothness” of a drill sergeant, and all the weaknesses of the rest of us humans. No, Daddy wasn’t a saint, but his dedication to others, his passion for God and the courage of his convictions led him to his greatest accomplishments, seeing his children working for God in various ways and still strong in the Lord. Anyone can preach; not everyone should.

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