No one thought my brother Dave would live to celebrate his 75th birthday. He was born in the heart of the Great Depression, and my parents already had five little mouths to feed, including mine. They couldn't afford to have this baby at the hospital. It was a difficult delivery, and Dave suffered significant injuries that have affected him since.
Litchfield, Minn., had no special education in the schools in those days, so it was difficult for Dave to make much progress. When he reached sixth grade, it was clear he'd have to go to the state school at Owatonna, Minn.
That day looms large as one of the most wrenching of my life. My mother and I rode with the social worker to take Dave to Owatonna, where we found gray, cold-looking buildings.
After a tour of the school the superintendent said, "David, it's time to say goodbye to your family." Dave began to shake, breaking into a desperate sob. My mother wept and hugged him tightly. I thought I had to be strong, so I stood ramrod straight and rigid. I knew I'd lose it if I tried to put my arm around Dave. The lump in my throat hurt so much that I can feel it even as I write these words.
On our return home, I sat close to my mother and could feel her body trembling with quiet sobs. My throat was too tight to speak. I was sad to the core of my being.
In those days one walked the difficult passages of life mostly in stone silence. At night, though, my pillow was wet with tears as I cried myself to sleep. Now the bed we two brothers had shared seemed a mile wide and cold as a frozen, windswept prairie. No more poking each other, no more teasing, no more wrestling, no more giggling until our father came to stop us. Just silence.
I wondered how this could be — "Where is God in all of this? Why couldn't this have happened to me instead of him? Surely that would have been easier."
After more than two years at Owatonna, it became apparent that it wasn't the right place for Dave. He was brighter and better adjusted than most of his cottage-mates. By then the Litchfield school district realized it needed to educate children like Dave in the community. He made excellent progress and soon began earning his own money.
He collected newspapers, magazines and cardboard boxes, which he cut, sorted and packaged in the garage and periodically sold to a recycling company. Then for more than 25 years he worked on the assembly line at the local turkey processing plant. And he had a Saturday evening job cleaning the bakery.
When the turkey plant closed, Dave became a custodian at Emmanuel nursing home — an ideal place for him. He had a special way of relating to the elderly. He brought sunshine into their lives as he swept and mopped floors.
When I was a bishop, I'd stop to visit Dave. We walked the nursing home halls and chatted with those sitting along the way. They wondered who I was. They weren't impressed a bit that I was a bishop. But when I said I was Dave's brother, they lit up: "Oh, you're Dave's brother! He's wonderful. He does such a good job." I was roving the world at the time, meeting the high and mighty in countries everywhere. His world was mostly six square blocks. And yet in that world, he had become as important to them — and more so — than I was in mine.
Dave always has had a simple, deep faith. I've often referred to him in sermons as one who trusted in God. I'd say that he couldn't go to college, seminary and graduate school like his brother. But he has a calling. And if you heard him describe how important he feels about cleaning the bakery on Saturday night, you'd understand what it means for one of God's precious children to use his gifts. And you'd forever forget about belonging to an elite group of church professionals.
Dave has had a profound impact on my life, on his family and on hundreds of others. If I have some sense of working for justice for others, some sensitivity for those with limitations, some courage to speak out on issues of fairness, I owe much of that to my brother Dave.
Check out this week's articles:
Hosanna! Hosanna?: Were the crowds praising Jesus — or crying out for his help?
Hitting the road for God: Retirees in RVs? They just might be ELCA Mission Builders.
They were 'cool': In Argentina, a Lutheran ministry creates community, with a 'loud' voice.
'Flash of Genius': Film celebrates ideal of credit given where credit is due.Also: 'Grace Matters' canceled.
Discuss Mission Builders
March 31-April 7: Join Tom Chase (top right), director of ELCA Mission Builders and Marlys Waldo (bottom right), ELCA director for support networks, to discuss how retirees can help build Lutheran congregations.
Consider reading "Hitting the road for God" before joining in the conversation.
Tell us! Pastor goofs
For some of you it was just last Sunday, for others it was years ago. Pastors, please share with us your funniest — yes, likely embarrassing — ministry stories.
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Introducing The Little Christian
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