Servant Leadership

Randall Tremba
May 6, 2012
5th Sunday of Easter
Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church

1 John 4:7-21
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.

* * *

Yesterday I officiated the memorial service for Verle Headings, a long time member and Elder of this church. Over the past 37 years as the pastor of this parish I have officiated more than 200 such services. Verle’s was different.

Before Verle was ever a parishioner of this church, he was my friend and, as it turned out, my mentor. More than once he lured me outside the box of orthodoxy. More than once he placed a book in my hand. More than once he left my head spinning. Some of you know that feeling in the wake of a conversation with him.

I owe more than a little of my life in this place to Vivian and Verle. This morning I’d like to tell you how that came about and reflect a little on Verle’s impact on my life as well as this congregation’s.

I first met Vivian and Verle in November 1974, nearly 40 years ago. It was a chance meeting, or so it seemed.

I had been visiting my cousin in Washington and was about to drive back to Youngstown, Ohio to spend Thanksgiving with my parents. And then, hopefully, figure out what to do with my floundering life. Just the year before I had been ordained to ministry in the Presbyterian Church in California. But now I was adrift, out to sea.

My cousin is a sailor. My cousin also likes to fix things and people. He had a friend who had a friend who had a friend who knew a couple, a couple associated with Church of the Savior who apparently had some far-fetched idea that might, just might (my cousin thought) provide a clue for my clueless life. Not likely, I thought, but you never know where the spirit might take you if your sails are up. (We can’t control the weather or wind but we can keep our sails trimmed.)

I met Vivian and Verle in their home the next evening. We talked for hours about our respective wanderings and meanderings. We talked about the Sermon on the Mount and about ideas for building and nurturing community in the way and spirit of Jesus. It was all very interesting but I didn’t figure it would lead anywhere.

When we parted that night I offered to drive through Harpers Ferry the next day on my way to Youngstown in order to check out a large wooded tract of land just past Shannondale called Rolling Ridge. It was a 1000-acre tract of land that an elderly Quaker couple had offered to the Headings and several other families as a potential meditation and study retreat center. Verle and Vivian themselves had not yet seen the promised land.

And so it was that in November of 1974 I drove across the Potomac River and then the Shenandoah into Harpers Ferry. I couldn’t believe my eyes. As Thomas Jefferson said while sitting on a rock perch overlooking those rivers: WOW! This view is worth a voyage across the Atlantic—not to mention a trip up I-270.

Then and there I realized that wherever I was going in my life a river ran through it. I thought I had stumbled upon J. R. R Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Then and there I decided to stake my lot with the hobbits and the Headings. And just like that I rented a room in a farmhouse across from the Fort Drive-in Theater on old 340 near Millville. I drove up the mountain to Rolling Ridge, walked about, drove on to Youngstown and two days later returned to my new home in Jefferson County, West Virginia.

Little did I know what was about to unfold over the next 38 years. In December 1974 I found a job pruning apple trees in Walnut Hill Orchards. In April 1975  Frank Pyles the young minister of SPC suddenly resigned. On the way out the door he told the Session about a Presbyterian minister working in an apple orchard. I was called and I agreed to fill-in on Sundays here until they found a real minister. (We’re still looking!)

Soon after came Paula; then came marriage; then came Jonah in a baby carriage. Verle and Vivian eventually moved to Shepherdstown with their three daughters and became second parents to our three children.

You couldn’t tell by looking at him, but Verle was an adventurer, a pioneer. He was raised in a tightly knit Mennonite family in Oregon. He attended the University of Michigan, earned an MD and a PhD, married a nurse, and chose to teach at Howard University in part to experience life as a minority in an African American majority context and to devote his life, mind and research to alleviating sickle cell disease. He became world-renown in that field.

In the early 70s Verle and Vivian joined an ecumenical church in Washington called Church of the Savior. It was a small, innovative and remarkable community that I had read about in seminary in Pasadena, California. Little did I know that one day I would meet two of its members and through them its legendary but humble pastor Gordon Cosby. Lo and behold, when I was installed as pastor for SPC in July 1976 Gordon Cosby preached the installation sermon.

The spirit and vision of Church of the Savior had infected Verle and Vivian and through my reading had infected me. It gave me hope that a church centered on prayer, serious study and mission, loving and caring for one another, would find a way to live the life of Christ here and now in this world.

As an Elder and chair of our Mission & Stewardship Committee Verle urged us by word and example to practice kindness but also justice. I remember a request coming to the session in the 1980s for support of a homeless shelter. Verle expressed his approval but added that he’d also like us to figure out why so many people in this society end up homeless and see if we could redress that. As Martin Luther King said, if the Good Samaritan keeps finding beaten bodies along the Jericho Road every day or every week, he might want to find out why.

Verle understood the importance of band-aids but he also understood the importance of infrastructure—physical, legal, financial, personal and spiritual. He believed in making connections with others and not just sending mission dollars. Nothing made his heart leap more or his eyes sparkle more than hearing an idea from one of us about how we might practice love or justice for a local or global neighbor.

Verle leaves behind a legacy. Our partnerships in mission—local and global— have grown in large part because of his vision and persistence. His was the kind of leadership he learned 30 some years ago at a workshop he attended called: “Servant Leadership.” Soon after he put a book with that title in my hand. Servant Leadership.

Last year when our national church removed a legal barrier preventing gays and lesbians otherwise qualified to be ordained to ministry, Verle was delighted and told me so in the Fellowship Hall. And then he added, “Now that we’ve taken that step, what about making our church more accessible to those with handicaps of one sort or another.”

Soon after the Session appointed an ad hoc committee on accessibility and already it has prepared recommendations that will help us be more open to those often excluded by barriers or indifference. That was one of the last bits of church news I got to convey to Verle just a few weeks before he took his last breath. As I recall, his eyes sparkled and a smile lit up his face.

I for one will be eternally grateful for Verle and the way he showed us and me how to answer the call of love.