The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


'Jazz pastor' dead at 80

John Garcia Gensel, for 33 years pastor to New York's jazz community, died Feb. 6. He was 80 and had been recovering from a fall on Dec. 20 after performing his grandson's baptism.

His jazz ministry began while he served as pastor of Advent Lutheran Church, New York. For nearly 30 years, until he retired in 1994, Gensel reached out to members of the jazz community through his ministry at St. Peter Lutheran Church, New York. At St. Peter he began a series of jazz vespers on Sundays that featured a virtual who's who of jazz. Before coming to New York City, he served as a Navy chaplain during World War II and was pastor to two Ohio congregations.

Gensel's jazz ministry combined his love for jazz with his strong pastoral skills. He provided counseling to jazz musicians and their families, performed marriages and officiated at funeral services for, among others, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Ellington dedicated a piece to Gensel — The Shepherd (Who Watches Over the Night Flock).

He was one of the most publicized ELCA pastors. All the TV networks have done pieces on his jazz ministry. The All-Nite Soul concerts attracted the attention of magazines, newspapers and television.

Gensel was born Juan Garcia Velez to a poor family in Manati, Puerto Rico. His parents sent him to live with an aunt in Catawissa, Pa., when he was 6. He took his aunt's last name and anglicized his first name.

Although baptized a Roman Catholic, he began attending a Lutheran church in Pennsylvania. He graduated from Susquehanna University, Selinsgrove, Pa., in 1940, from the Lutheran Seminary at Gettysburg (Pa.) in 1943 and later did graduate work at Union Seminary, New York.

Since his retirement Gensel had resided in Muncy, Pa. He is survived by his wife of 55 years, Audrey, whom he met while on seminary internship at Luther Place Memorial Church, Washington, D.C.; a daughter; two sons; and nine grandchildren.


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