‘Thanks, bishop.’ A gift officer reflects on a lifelong ministry and a pastor’s legacy
“I’m here to see Eugene Brodeen,” I said to the friendly attendant at the front desk as I removed my sunglasses. The sweltering sun was baking the Florida concrete outside, and the airconditioned lobby was a welcome escape.
“Ah, the pastor. Just a moment.” She called up to his room, announcing my arrival. I wondered, in that brief moment, how she knew that I was a pastor. I was in my suit and tie carrying a briefcase, not in my clerical collar holding a communion kit. She hung up the phone, smiling. “The pastor will see you now. He’s waiting.”
“Oh, thank you,” I said, laughing at my mistake. She wrote his door number on a slip of paper, handed me a visitor pass, and pointed toward the elevators.
When I arrived at Pastor Brodeen’s apartment the door was already ajar. Just inside a tall man sitting in a wheelchair greeted me, framed in the background by shelves of books.
“Welcome! Let’s get some coffee. It’s on me,” he said as he wheeled himself out. “If you would be so kind as to close the door behind me,” his head motioned toward the now vacant room. “You have your keys, right?” I asked instinctively. He laughed. “No need,” he said, “I know everyone here.”
I closed the door and took my station at the back of his chair, pushing him toward the elevator. About that time his neighbor came out to slowly join our journey to the lobby. They chatted easily with one another as if they hadn’t spoken in a good long while, though Eugene would tell me later that they’d had breakfast together in the dining hall earlier. “Every conversation is new at our age,” he said frankly.
We made our way to the small café at the retirement center, the only patrons at that time of the afternoon. “It’s on me,” he reminded me, and then smirked, whispering, “because it’s free.” I smiled.
We grabbed coffee and some cream packets and sat down at a table, the TV above our heads flashing pictures on mute. The conversation came easy, as he started in with the questioning, or should I say, “friendly interrogation.”
Where was I from, originally? When had I started working for the seminary? How long had I been in the parish, and what prompted my move? In my work as a gifts officer and mission ambassador, I was more used to asking the questions. But this was old hat for the pastor across from me. Pastors make a living by being inquisitive, and even into his 90s he still had the gift.
After lobbing a set of questions, one after the other at me, he said, “Did you know that I was the youngest bishop in the LCA [Lutheran Church in America] to be elected at that time?” “I did not,” I confessed. I hadn’t even known he had been a bishop. “I was,” he smiled, “of New England. I met the Dalai Lama in my time as bishop, as well as the Royal Family. They were very kind, but very formal.”
“I also met Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s best friend. Some say they were lovers, you know.” His eyes sparkled at the idea of such a scandal. I nodded, having heard that. “I read it in a biography on him. I still read two books a week or so.”
The conversation then moved into how he had a heart for seminary students, and how he felt it was paramount that they came out of seminary possessing the people skills necessary for making connections in the parish. The ability to connect with the person across from you was just as important as the ability to connect theological concepts together for him. “We cannot be all about theory,” he noted, “we must be about practice.” With this he put his fist down on the armrest of his chair, much as a convicted theologian would.
I thanked him for remembering the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago in his estate plans, a generous gift that would be used to teach these seminarians he had such a heart for the social skills, as well as the theological acumen, needed for parish ministry.
As our cups ran dry, he reminded me of his book study happening soon, and I wheeled him back toward the lobby. “No need to take me up to the apartment,” he said. “I’ll wait here for my group. As I do, I pray for everyone who passes by here. Once a pastor, always a pastor,” he said, smiling. I nodded, thanked him for a lovely visit, and said I looked forward to the next time.
As I left, I watched him sit there, hands folded across his lap, silently watching people pass through the lobby, his lips moving in hushed prayer. And in that moment I thanked God for him, too, and his lifelong ministry, and for his enduring legacy.
Story by Tim Brown, LSTC gift officer and mission ambassador who visited with Eugene Brodeen last fall. Brodeen died in early April.