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Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs

The call to serve the United Presbyterian Church on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation in Central Oregon may well have had its origin in 1965.  I was in my Middler year at San Francisco Theological Seminary when I returned home on the bus that took a group of seminary students to Selma, Alabama.  Getting off the bus, the first words that I said to my wife were, “I see myself serving a racial ethnic congregation someday.”  My very first call out of seminary was to a tall steeple church—a predominantly white congregation in Southern California—hardly a racial ethnic congregation.  But if not for accepting the call to that church, I would not have been introduced to Native American ministries.  My primary responsibility as the Minister with Youth was serving the youth in the congregation.  A missionary-minded couple, who had visited reservations in the Southwest, started an off-campus ministry with the Native American youth who were forcefully shipped to Sherman Institute, a federal boarding school about a mile from the church campus.  They came from the Pima, Navajo, Hopi, Apache, Ute reservations.  As the only person of color on our four member pastoral staff, I was assigned the task of staffing this newly created ministry.  The more involved I got with the lives of these Native American young people, including spending vacation time in their homes at their invitation, the more I realized that the racial ethnic congregation I felt called to serve as a result of my participation in the Selma March was not an African American congregation and not even the Chinese American congregation which I served years later.

The United Presbyterian Church on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation was my first opportunity to serve as a solo pastor, following the two previous calls as Assistant/Associate.  Preaching every week and doing everything in the church was challenging, but it was not what discouraged me.  I conducted a funeral on average every two and a half weeks.  Alcoholism was a disease that infected the culture and the population.  It was a depressed, self-destructive population.  As time went on in that ministry, I wondered often what I was doing there, whether I was making any difference.  The education system was terrible; so I worried about my young children’s academic future.  The classmates my daughter befriended at age 4 in the Head Start program started picking on her, chasing her home from school, threatening to beat her up by the time they were in the third grade.

Towards the end of my interview with the Pastor Nominating Committee, I could tell that I was the committee’s choice to be their next pastor.  I looked out the window of the meeting room to enjoy the beautiful 2 acres of lawn upon which the church and the manse sat.  I wondered aloud, not intending to ask a serious question, “So, who mows the lawn?”  The long silence from the committee gave me a hint of what they were about to tell me.  “Well, the pastor has always taken care of the lawn.”  Possessed by an elevated sense of the pastoral office, I sputtered, “Well, don’t you want your pastor to spend his time making home visits, pastoral calls in the hospital, preparing sermons and bible studies?”  The committee did not know how to answer me because the pastor had always taken care of the lawn; and they had no idea who else would do it.  At that moment, I did not think it was that big an issue to debate and it certainly was not a make or break issue as far as accepting the call.  I felt called; and I was confident that in time, the matter would be resolved.

In the end, mowing the 2 acres of lawn weekly throughout the summer months was what saved me in that ministry.  By the time I settled into the routine of tackling this 3 hour chore, it was something I looked forward to each week.  It was the one time of the week I could enjoy a time of solitude.  Perched on top of that riding mower, I could shut out the rest of the world and meditate on my sermon for the coming Sunday.  And by the time I finished mowing the lawn, I could look back and enjoy what I had accomplished.  I could appreciate a visible sign of achievement, a concrete product of my efforts.  The immaculately manicured lawn was testimony that there was something I could start and finish, a stark contrast to my ministry where much of the time I could not tell whether it made any difference.

John Conner, the Campus Minister at Oregon State University, was elected Moderator of the General Assembly in 1977.  He visited me often in Warm Springs, knowing how discouraged I was.  When his Moderatorial year ended, he was interviewed and the question was posed:  “Now that you have completed your responsibilities in the highest office of the church, can you climb any higher?”  John Conner, with no hesitation, answered:  “Oh yes, there is one more step higher I can go; and that is to serve as the pastor of a small rural congregation!”  I cried when I heard that interview; for I knew in my heart that John was thinking of me.

9 thoughts on “Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs”

  1. Beautiful reflection, beautiful writing!! Thank you.
    (I check your blog right after the PCC worship service which is why I seem to be always first on the Post Comment.)

  2. Thanks, Cal.

    You made a difference in the Warm Springs community not because you solved their issues, but because you joined them in their brokenness. That’s the pastoral call. I’m sure they could sense that.

    “Lawn mowing” as sermon prep; I’ll have to try that someday!

  3. Thanks Cal! A wonderful testimony to the often unexpected work of God in one’s life. Very grateful for your sharing of the wisdom collected from your journey!

  4. Sue (Gangler)Landgren

    Cal, hello from your WS past ????
    You made a tremendous impact on more people at WS than you are probably aware of. It seems too often that the “grateful” stay quiet, the unhappy ones make the most noise. But, you did make a difference. Believe that.
    One of the mysteries of a faith life is how God moves through us in ways that we don’t understand or realize.
    I hope that all is well with by our family and you, Sue

    1. Sue, I love hearing from voices in the past, especially the older I get. Thank you for reading my blog and responding. I am at once grateful and humbled to receive your kind words. My family and I are well. Let’s try to stay in touch; would love to catch up with you! Please send me your email address.

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