James Fenhagen

When I was at Princeton Theological Seminary in the late 1960’s I struggled with the tensions between the conservative and liberal branches of the church. There were wonderful people in both camps, but they seemed to irritate each other. Since my church experience was in the evangelical part of the church, I had little direct contact with people from liberal church backgrounds. Princeton Seminary was enormously helpful in introducing me to people of different faith backgrounds. I also learned much from several writers. One of these was the Episcopal priest James Fenhagen.

During seminary I purchased and read three books by Fenhagen. The titles were:
Mutual Ministry: The Ministry of the Laity and the Clergy in Church and Society
Ministry and Solitude: The Ministry of the Laity and the Clergy in Church and Society
More than Wanderers: Disciplines for Christian ministry.

These books are probably dated now, but they were formative for me as I read them in the late 1960’s. James Fenhagen described a life path that was different from mine, yet it was one that arrived at a healthy faith and spirituality. He describes his hunger for social justice and peace in the world. As a young man, Fenhagen and his companions were involved in protests and activism that brought them into conflict with the culture and the powers of government. In this journey they found peace of conscience and hope. They also found turmoil and confusion.

Several years later Fenhagen looked around and discovered that some of his companions in the struggle for social justice had drifted away from both the struggle and the church. He wondered how one could build an inner life that would endure the pressures of life. This lead him to explore spirituality and Christian spiritual disciplines as companions to the hunger for peace and justice. He concluded that a life grounded in faith was needed to wage a lifelong quest for social justice.

I was coming from another direction. I had been taught the importance of spirituality, prayer, and the study of scriptures. Yet I was learning these principles in a church that was very slow to join the struggle for social justice in the greater world. Some people whom I knew believed that the Christian faith was a personal matter, and that change in the world comes only through the renewal of many individual lives. In other words, there was no corporate and community dimension to the Christian faith. During seminary and in the following years my vision was enlarged. I came to see that God’s kingdom renews individuals and also transforms the structures and institutions of society. Faith is not a private matter.

When I worked with the church in the Congo, these convictions were reinforced and established in my life. I came to see that it is foolish to ask people to choose between personal renewal and societal transformation. Both are part of the gospel of Christ. To ask for such a choice is like asking an airline traveler whether she or he prefers the left wing or the right wing of the airplane. The proper answer is, “I like both of them.”

James Fenhagen, whose faith journey was different from mine, helped me articulate my faith in a new way. I never met Fenhagen, who died in 2012, but I consider him a friend and mentor.

Old Friends

I have been writing lately on a small computer called a Chromebook. It boots up fast, and runs a number of apps. One of them is a text editor that is perfect for writing blog entries. It is also great for writing emails. This week I have been sending emails to several people who mean a lot to me because of past experiences.

Most of my adult life consisted of four to six year periods of work in one place. With the forty years I spent in ministry, that makes a number of chapters. The jumps between positions were usually long distances: New Jersey to Michigan, to Africa, to Virginia (2 places), to Ohio (5 interim churches), to New Jersey, back to Ohio (almost ten years in one place). Since Jean and I were in ministries in each place, we tended to immerse ourselves in the new place, mostly losing touch with our previous friends. I wish that I could have been able to maintain the friendships that we left behind each time we moved.

Those friendships were life-sustaining and important to me. I wish I could have maintained more of them. I am enormously grateful to God for the people that have encouraged and cared for me along the way. My faith has been sustained by the amazing people I have known.

There are deep feelings attached to many of these people. For some reason the friendships from high school and college years are still stronger than others. During my retirement years I have been able to reestablish some of the connections that went unattended for decades. Renewing old friendships is one of the great gifts of our later years.

What Happened in July

Kids at museum - July 2014

I am back in the blogging routine again. At the end of June we were visited by our son Jonathan and his family. They live in Taiwan, where he teaches at Taiwan Theological Seminary. Their new routine is to return to the U.S. every other summer. So when they are here we want to spend as much time as possible with them. This summer we had them with us for just over three weeks. During that time our household expands from two to seven.

Jonathan and Emily have three kids. The older boy is six years old. The twins, a girl and a boy, are about three and a half. After a few days they become comfortable with us, then we spend all our time watching them, interacting with them, and learning what they like and who they are. It is a great privilege.

The three month stay in the U.S. has several purposes. It provides some time for rest and catching up with family and friends. There is also a need to visit churches and connect with groups who support and coordinate their work. Those tasks were mixed in with the time we shared. I visited three churches with either Jonathan, Emily, or both on the Sundays. When the grandkids came along to churches I was there as backup childcare if I was needed. I also was able to hear both Jonathan and Emily preach and describe the motives and purposes for their living in another culture. Since we tried to raise our children as followers of Christ it is encouraging to hear them describe their own faith and calling. Understanding the importance of what they do also makes it easier for us to accept the long periods when we cannot see (and touch) them. Computer aids like Skype and Facetime help also.

During the weeks here in Alabama there was lots of interaction between our sons and their families. Since David’s children are older we were happy to see them spend time with their younger cousins. Most days all of us had dinner together at our home or ate out together. What fun. My sister Nancy and niece Amy made the long drive from Wheaton, Illinois to spend a long weekend with us. That was for me a highlight of our time together. It was a reminder of the big family gatherings at my parents’ home when they were living.

We spent the last five days with Jonathan’s family in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. There was lots of activity there, including one day of driving into the Smoky Mountain National Park. The stay in Gatlinburg took Jonathan, Emily, and the kids halfway back to Louisville, which was their next destination. On the last Friday morning we said our goodbyes at the hotel and we sent them on their way with a prayer and a blessing.

The Good News School (Lumu Luimpe) at Bulape

Lumu Luimpe students at BulapeIn the 1970’s the church in Africa (as in many parts of the world) was trying to find new ways to train pastors and leaders. “Theological education by extension” was one of the phrases used to describe education that would be offered to people closer to where they lived. I was invited to Congo to explore new ways to offer training. One of the pioneers was Rev. Charlie Ross, who had already begun a pastoral institute at Bulape. He and Pastor Mishenge had selected a group of about ten evangelists and church leaders to be trained as pastors.

I was involved involved with the school from early 1975 through the middle of 1978. It was probably the most important part of my work. The students came to Bulape for a month long stay at least three times each year. Lodging and food was provided by the school. Classes were held Monday through Friday from early morning until bedtime at night. On Saturdays and Sundays we rode together in the Land Rover, placing the students in pairs in different villages. Occasionally we would go to a city and all work together in one place. Village meetings and church services were scheduled with the host churches. Students used this practical experience as a balance for the course work during the week.

Between school sessions Pastor Mishenge and I often visited the students in their home villages. We formed deep friendships and loyalties. Conversations with this group gave me a most honest and accurate picture of what was really happening in the African churches.

For the last couple years I was with the school we began asking the General Assembly to approve the non-traditional education we were offering as a basis for pastoral ordination. After I left, the Presbytery of Lutschadi did ordain the graduates as village pastors. I was confident they had all the necessary skills to be good leaders of their congregations.

The photo above was provided by Charlie Ross. The three graduates are Bope Bope, Mingishanga, and Mafuata. May God guide and bless all who serve the church in Congo.


197903-15 - 1200x800God blessed Jean and me with two sons. And now we are grandparents to two boys and three girls. The gender mix of children makes a big difference in how the family interacts. Our two sons face the additional factor of having a 5-1/2 year difference in age. Jean and I explain this by saying that after David was born we were waiting for a good time to have a second child. We found ourselves living in a remote village in Africa with a four year old son. We finally realized there is no good time. So Jonathan was born in mid 1976, with a formidably older brother.

The two boys have turned out to be good friends for each other. When we returned from Africa in 1978 the adjustment was especially challenging for David. It took him several years before he played comfortably with children his own age. When other children kept their distance David always had Jonathan.

And Jonathan was wowed by David. David knew so much that Jonathan was trying to understand. Jonathan’s response was mimicry. Jonathan watched David like a hawk. Anything David did, Jonathan did also. The world is an intimidating place for a young boy. David provided a model.

The picture above shows David and Jonathan playing together in Richmond, Virginia, shortly after our return from Africa. Star Wars was the big cultural event, so the weapons were not just pistols but laser guns. How lucky they are to be brothers.


197504-37 - palm tree about 1200 pixels tall

Congo has been known by many names. During the colonial period it was called The Belgian Congo. During the 1970’s, when we were there, it was known as Zaire. Now it is called The Democratic Republic of the Congo.

We returned from Congo in the summer of 1978. We had been away from the States for four years, the last 3-1/2 years in the Congo. Traveling to the Congo was a big change, but the culture shock of our return was stronger. It took us several years to feel at home again in the U.S.

For most of the time in the Congo we were assigned to Bulape, a remote village in the northern region of the Kasai. We lived just six degrees south of the equator, on the edge of the massive rain forests of Africa. Bulape at that time was a large village of about ten thousand residents. The village could be reached by dirt roads, but much of the communication and longer travel was done by small airplanes that landed on a grass landing strip. Counting our family of four (Jean, me, David, and Jonathan) the village hosted between six and fourteen foreigners, mainly Americans. During the last couple years there, our family, the doctor (Stuart Anderson) and a nurse (Judy Comstock) were the only Europeans or Americans.

We were quickly absorbed into the life of the African church and the village. Hospitality was provided by the village chiefs and the local church. We felt loved and secure. As I look back on it I am amazed at how much trust and responsibility was given to us from the very beginning. This must have been secured by long relationships built over almost a hundred years of work together.

When we returned in the summer of 1978 we lived in missionary housing in Richmond, Virginia. For the next year I traveled and spoke about Congo and life in the Presbyterian Church of the Kasai. I also began taking courses in the Doctor of Ministry program at Union Theological Seminary (now Union Presbyterian Seminary). These two facets of my life helped me reflect on our time in Congo and how it had shaped me. It was an inner conversation that continued for many years.

One of my struggles was my desire to explain everything in relation to the intense life experiences of Congo. After the first year back I began to feel embarrassed about my own constant references to Congo. Eventually I chose to stop speaking about Africa so that I could root my life once again in the U.S.

When we were in Congo we were valued and sheltered by the community. Worship services were vital and lively. Even the offering was an energetic and jubilant part of the worship service. Music was loud and joyful. Resources were shared with any in need. The well-being of the community outweighed individual concerns. After a time it felt normal to be part of the group, and the individualism of Western culture took a background role. When work or travel was hard you sometimes had the sense that you were being carried along by the strength of others who were with you. Laughter, play, challenges and struggles were shared. Friendships grew strong and deep.

When we returned to the U.S. we felt that we had left one world and had entered another universe. It took us a long time to adjust. I spent many months comparing my African world with my American world. Now, many years later, I can understand it better. I brought back with me from Africa more that I took to Africa. I have a second lens through which I can view my experiences. Fortunately I have periodic encounters with Africans in the U.S. who are facing the same issues from the other direction. Living in a second culture deepens and enriches one’s life forever. For this I am deeply grateful to God and to the African church and community.

A Few Words

Several years ago I visited a church on the Sunday that one of the ministers was leaving for a new call. At the reception after church a number of members spoke to express appreciation for his work. Then the host for the event turned to him and asked, “Do you have anything you would like to say? The departing minister thought for a few seconds and responded, “No.”

I was astounded. It had never occurred to me that a pastor could say “no” to such a request. Perhaps he had spoken recently and said all that he wanted. Perhaps he was angry about something and did not want to speak. Perhaps he was a wise person who had nothing new to say and did not want to waste the time of others. It still felt odd to me.

I was educated as an electrical engineer, and I have worked very hard to develop the skills of a wordsmith so as to be an effective pastor. A church (or any other human community) needs people who can find words that support the vision, hopes, and dreams of the community. All of us can use our speech to thank, to bless, and to encourage others.
When I was a parish minister I was constantly preparing and planning what I would say if I was asked to speak. Over the years I met many people who recounted how careless or intemperate words had wounded them. Some were so deeply wounded they had withdrawn from their faith community or community organization. I did not want to harm others because I had failed to think or prepare.

Many times I was invited to a seemingly casual event, a birthday party or a wedding anniversary celebration. Seldom was I warned ahead of time that I would be asked to speak. But I was not fooled. Often a relative would stand, welcome everyone for coming, and express happiness for the event. Then he or she would turn to me and say, “Pastor, do you have a few words.” And saying the right words was one of the most important things I did.

Life is a precious gift of God. Each life is a miracle beyond expression. Words point beyond themselves to the amazing story of human life. By God’s grace our words honor and encourage others.

Turning Seventy, “I’m Just an Old Cowboy”

I thought retirement was one major change, but it involves a series of shifts. After several years being retired I am still making changes in how I live. I had decided that seventy was a good time to put in some new patterns. One of these was beginning again to write a blog. This is for me as well as for others.

I put an old John Denver CD in the car stereo yesterday. It included the song “Whispering Jenny.” I was delighted to hear the line, “I’m just an old cowboy….” Understatement plays well in the later years of life.

I plan to be grateful for anything good that comes my way. Facebook today included a number of kind posts from old friends and acquaintances. It felt really good. Gratitude is good any time in life, and I plan to make it a big part of the years I have left.

Pastor Mishenge

This is one of a handful of photos that I have of Pastor Mishenge.

Pastor Mushenge on a ferry - probably on the Sankuru RiverPastor Mishenge was the senior pastor in the Lutshadi Presbyery in Congo during the years I worked there in the late 1970′s.  I have very few good photos of him.  The one included here shows him crossing the Sankuru River in the Dekese Region around 1976.  He is on a ferry boat, standing next to the Land Rover that was used for most of our travel.  The Pastor has always been my model of faithful service to Christ and good pastoring.  His example has been in my mind through all the later years of my life.

Saying “thank you.”

20060325 - Birmingham (48) - Craig at 1200 by 800

I have had several different blogs over the years, and I am starting again now with new hosting for several renewed domains. I struggled whether to invest the energy in this effort, but there are several good reasons for blogging. One is that blogs offer a way to say “thank you” to people who have helped me. In the past I have had old friends who found me because my name appeared in a search engine. This put us back in touch, allowing us to encourage each other with shared memories.

A spirit of thanksgiving is central to living a happy life. I have a long list of people who have helped me as friends, teachers, mentors and companions in life. In earlier blogs I wrote posts on several of these people. I wish I had written more letters and made more phone calls to people who have encouraged me. Many of them, particularly teachers and mentors, have died in recent years. I can at least honor their memories with a few kind words in a blog entry.

I am planning also to write personal letters to some people. Perhaps there are people you know who would be encouraged by a kind letter or phone call.