Pastor Mitty: evangelizing Bernie

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By Tom Holmes

Contributing Reporter / Religion Blogger

Pastor Walter Mitty couldn't find anything good to watch on TV last Sunday evening.  It had been a nice day.  Attendance had been good at church, and it was warm enough outside by noon that he didn't wear his jacket on the way home. After lunch he had added the rose bush he had bought on the sale at the Jewel to the impatiens he had planted in front of his house the week before. 

As the day wound down to a close, he just wanted to put his mind out of gear and be entertained, but nothing he liked was on the tube.  So, as he sometimes does, he switched channels to a rerun of the Rev. Johnny Christian's morning service on channel 34.

"Jesus is calling you to enlist in his army of prayer warriors," boomed the pastor of Miracle Faith Tabernacle.  "Did you hear me now?  An army of prayer warriors to prepare us to receive the mighty power of the Holy Ghost who's going to descend on this place two weeks from today on Pentecost Sunday.  Somebody say amen.  The Holy Ghost is going to bestow power on each of us to win thousands in this city for Christ."  

Entertainment was what Pastor Walt was looking for, and Rev. Johnny came through as usual.  His fascination with the Pentecostal preacher was rooted partly in envy of Johnny Christian's rhetorical skill and partly in an obsession he had with proving him wrong.  Rev. Johnny, of course, wasn't aware--and probably wouldn't care if someone told him--that the liberal pastor of a small, struggling church was trying to refute every word he said. 

But part of the reason Mitty occasionally listened to him was that underneath his issues with Rev. Johnny's theology was a feeling that in addition to the over the top emotional heat he felt every time he turned him on, there was also some light which this white boy from Manitowoc needed to see.

On the one hand, Pastor Walt didn't want to be an aggressive evangelizer like the members of Miracle Faith Tabernacle who, armed with Bible tracts, would approach him at the mall and try to convert him, convinced that if he didn't belong to their church the future of his soul was in jeopardy.  On the other hand, the pastor of Poplar Park Community Church wondered why he often hesitated to say anything about the faith he preached every Sunday morning.  At times he even seemed embarrassed by it.

So the next day he decided to confront the ambivalence which had made him toss and turn all night by walking over to Bernie Rolvaag's store and inviting him to church the next Sunday.  Pastor Walt thought, "After knowing the man for over five years, it's time to get outside my comfort zone and take a risk."

When he walked in the door of History/Herstory, however, to his surprise he saw Bernie in an animated conversation with Fr. Bob Sullivan.  "Am I interrupting something?"

"Not at all, Walt," Bernie smiled. "You might even want to get in on this.  You see, Fr. Bob asked me if I wanted to come to his Pentecost Mass in two weeks, and that started me on a rant about why I hate religion."

Mitty shook his head, sighed and said to himself,  "Fr. Bob beat me to it!  The rascal!"

"Something wrong?" Bernie inquired.

"No, no," Mitty replied.  "Kind of a personal joke."

"As I was telling Fr. Sullivan," Bernie got right back into his anti-sermon, "I was raised as a strict Wisconsin Synod Lutheran.  While my Catholic friends couldn't eat meat on Friday,  we Lutherans couldn't drink or even dance!  I figured the Catholics had the better deal.  And then in college I started reading about all the people Christians have killed over the centuries in Jesus' name.  Not to mention child abuse, racism, embezzlement and judgmentalism."

"You still seem angry," was all Mitty could think of to say in response.

"Well part of the reason I'm angry is that Fr. Bob here has been agreeing with everything I've been saying.  I'm mad that he won't let me be mad at him!"

Fr. Sullivan couldn't help laughing.  "But you're right, Bernie.  Everything you've said about the church is true."

"See what I mean, Walt!?" 

Pastor Mitty couldn't think of anything to say, which happened much more often than he liked.  Finally he asked, "OK Bernie, so I don't understand why you tolerate and maybe even like two clergy guys."

"Because you're not afraid to be human," was the bookstore owner's immediate response.  "You don't barge into my life trying to convert me.  With you two I don't feel judged or like a customer you're trying to make a sale to."

The silence that followed Bernie's reply signaled to all three that their discussion had ended, and their conversation turned to the whether the Ricketts family will really move the Cubs to another city.

Fr. Sullivan and Pastor Walt walked for a block together after leaving Bernie's shop before heading in opposite directions for home. 

"Didn't you feel like defending the church just a little bit?" Mitty asked his colleague.

The two stopped walking and stood at the corner, enjoying the sunshine.  "Sure," replied the Franciscan priest, "but I learned a long time ago that when I get defensive about what I believe I turn the conversation into an argument or a wall goes up ending any real communication.  Religion. . .I mean faith. . .is a topic that makes people feel exposed and vulnerable.  If you really want to communicate you have to establish trust."

Fr. Sullivan's statement brought the members of Miracle Faith Tabernacle to Mitty's mind, the ones who tried to convert him in the mall.

"I wanted to let Bernie know that we had some common ground to stand on," Fr. Sullivan continued.  "And what I said wasn't pandering.  The church has been the cause of a lot of suffering in the world."

"But mixed in with all of its institutional flaws is something precious you can't get anywhere else," Mitty added, feeling a kinship with his Catholic counterpart.

The Franciscan nodded.  "God grant us the grace," he said as the two were parting, "to not be one of the flaws that keep people away."





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