An Interview with Walt Wangerin, Jr.
Rabbit Room Press: You’ve written The Book of the Dun Cow trilogy, novelizations of the Bible and the lives of Jesus and Paul, and nonfiction such as Letters from the Land of Cancer. How did you decide it was time to write your memoir?
Walt Wangerin, Jr.: You come to an age where you find yourself looking backward. Faith is always more complicated than can be told, but there are moments where is makes itself apparent, either by its lack or by its appearing. I wanted to write about one such turning point: my return to faith, that moment when faith comes alive.
Rabbit Room Press: In chapter two, you note, “Until I departed for graduate school, my whole education was devoted to preparing me to be a pastor in the Lutheran Church.” What was your Lutheran upbringing like as a child?
Walt Wangerin, Jr.: Theologies built the spiritual house in which I grew. A child doesn’t question air. He breathes it. He doesn’t question the religious atmosphere or the religious devotion of his parents. He abides in them. They constitute his cosmos . . . When I was about ten, the Reverend Walter Wangerin Sr. began to wear a black shirt with a white clerical collar. He said that, like a policeman’s uniform, this was his way of indicating his vocation even to strangers.
Rabbit Room Press: Ah, you’re a pastor’s son. What was your father like?
Walt Wangerin, Jr.: Walter Sr. had a high forehead. Above that he combed his hair into a rakish loop, a handsome man. He entertained the youth group (called, in those days, the Walther League) by playing a sly piano, and the Walther League youth sang with gusto. He also wrote short chancel dramas in which members of the Sunday school took various roles. Theses plays were milked for the radios of city-dwellers and farmers.
Rabbit Room Press: When you were fourteen, you were sent to a Lutheran boarding school. What do you recall from those days?
Walt Wangerin, Jr.: Concordia was an all-male school. We boys attended chapel every morning, five times a week. On Saturdays there was no chapel, but on Sundays we went to churches where we sang Christian hymns, heard the tenants of faith preached, and taught the Sunday school children the established Lutheran doctrine. We, of course, taught what we had learned. We studied the Old and the New Testaments. We learned to speak and to read German and Latin and Greek. Our professors were ordained ministers, most with pastoral experience. We obeyed a strict schedule, studying for two hours before the evening lights went out and we were to be in bed. Most orderly were our days.
Rabbit Room Press: But then you decided not to follow in your father’s footsteps when you chose to go to Miami University in Ohio instead of Concordia Seminary?
Walt Wangerin, Jr.: Yes. And it was here that I felt I was losing hold on my Christian faith. By February of my first year in graduate school, I was in hell. Near the end of May neither food nor study could sustain me. I considered taking incompletes in my classes, but then I would lose my fellowship.
Rabbit Room Press: You describe both your crisis of faith and your return to Jesus in the first part of the book. In the second part, you further discern your calling. How did you decide to become a minister after all?
Walt Wangerin, Jr.: I came to a realization of Jesus’ love in the moment. I came to accept a calling of ministry gradually. I kept noodling my call, whether I had one or not. One night I found myself translating Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter eight. “For whoever is led by the spirit of God, they are the sons of God.” As I translated the verse, this became a real proposition. I wanted to be a child of God. Then what did I have to do? I had to let God lead me. And in what pathways? God’s, not mine. Mine was to teach. God’s was to serve him. And how better to serve him than in ministry? And later on, I began to realize that for me it took a congregation of faithful people to make a call God’s call and true.
Rabbit Room Press: In the third section of the book, you write memorably about serving as pastor of the primarily African-American Grace Church in inner-city Evansville, Indiana. Given the amount of racial tension in our country currently, your experience as the white pastor of a black church for nearly twenty years seems especially timely. What was your time at Grace like?
Walt Wangerin, Jr.: When I started in the inner-city, I was afraid. One thing I forced myself to do was walk, not drive. I could engage with the old men on the corner, the women on their front porches, the kids kicking balls. I came to know there was no reason for fear. When Christians do enter inner-city black churches, they must really experience the lives of those in the congregation. If not, there will always be kind of an “I serve you” rather than “we serve each other” attitude.
One needs to love those who suffer oppression in order to know the signs of oppression himself, and actually to feel the oppression as his own. Given my experience with the church, as well as with my two adopted children, I know what racism looks like. But when you are loved by the people who suffer, you get to see how they respond. The old black woman, for example, who by her nature is strong, never hesitated to teach me. Loving and living among the people of the neighborhood, experiencing the true nature of the hardships of the poor, led me to the cross.
A woman once came to Grace’s church building. She came to say that I was “truly humble” and that I “sacrificed a good life to come down and serve these people.” Her praise was delusional, not to say racist. To come “down” to serve blacks in the inner city was not sacrifice at all. It was my elevation.
Rabbit Room Press: Do you think that the size of your church affected your ability to minister effectively?
Walt Wangerin, Jr.: My congregation was little. I could visit everyone once a year. And I could also visit their family. I believe that success in ministry means that you really serve those you are called to serve; to find joy in their personalities and methods.
I visited the sick. I sat by their beds, touched their brows with the sign of the cross, sang soft hymns in unhearing ears. I shoveled the snow from the church porch and the walks that went down to the street. Kneeling at the rail in the chancel, I prayed for the souls of the people whom God was pleased to place into my care. And I followed their young men to the courtroom and into their prison cells.
Rabbit Room Press: How do you feel about mass incarceration?
Walt Wangerin, Jr.: There is little correcting in our correctional institutions. There is rather a stripping of identity of the inmates.
Rabbit Room Press: Identity is a thread that weaves throughout your book, actually; the loss and discovery of your identity as well as discovering the identity of those you were called to serve. How is your identity today shaped by your past?
Walt Wangerin, Jr.: My past is here, not gone at all. All its goodness and all its troubles, they are just beneath the surface of the present like fish under the surface of a green sea. And when the sea is undisturbed, the fish rise up again. I am the various people I have been, careless and cocky and confident and scared. I am the student, considering suicide. I am the man translating Jerome’s Latin Bible and landing on the verse which calls him into the ministry. And I am preaching.
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