In addition to Valpo’s MLK Celebration, this past Monday was the 15th anniversary of the death of a mentoring pastor of mine. A veteran of the civil rights movement, the Rev. Norman Brandt served at St. John Lutheran Church in Gary through four turbulent decades guiding the congregation as it successfully mirrored the demographic changes of the Tolleston neighborhood around it. The congregation continues to be the oldest surviving institution in Gary, north of the Calumet River. Our own Dr. David Weber currently serves as their visiting pastor.
When I arrived in Gary, fresh out of school, it was Pastor Brandt who took me around to NAACP and Urban League meetings, introducing me to Gary’s leadership and using his significant social capital to vouch for me, a 29-year-old white man with no local history. As my then, all-white congregation strove to reach out into its Glen Park neighborhood, it was Pastor Brandt who convinced long-time teachers from St. John to come and teach in our Vacation Bible School as though it was their own congregation.
Pastor Brandt’s commitment to the Gospel was as deep as his commitment to racial integration, but his ideas were so straightforward, a child could follow his lead. When he was honored for his service by the Governor of Indiana with the Sagamore of the Wabash award, Pastor Brandt’s acceptance speech included the admonition that if we would all just pick up the trash we saw when we walked down the street, our neighborhoods would be the better for it. He assumed, in saying so, that we were actually out, walking the streets of our neighborhoods.
The bit of Pastor Brandt’s wisdom that will always stick with me was a remark he made, almost in passing to a gathering of his pastoral colleagues as he reflected on his years of ministry. Speaking of the continuing challenge of getting human beings to risk relationships of mutual benefit with one another, he wryly observed; “You know, the insects outnumber us. You’d think we’d be happier to see one another.”
As I reflect on the good work yet before us, it’s a remark that always calls me back to the basics of the beloved community.
Rev. James A. Wetzstein and Rev. Charlene M. Rachuy Cox serve as university pastors at Valpo and take turns writing weekly reflections.