Two lives we celebrate: W.A. Amerson and Edgar Nelson

Two lives we celebrate: W.A. Amerson and Edgar Nelson

By James V. Heidinger II

This spring at our annual conference sessions, pastors and lay delegates will open with a Memorial Service honoring members and spouses who have died during the past year. At this always-touching service, we will lift our voices, singing triumphantly, “For all the saints, who from their labors rest, who thee by faith before the world confessed…” (Hymnal, No. 711).

Two of those to be remembered this spring will be pastors who have been especially important to Good News’ ministry, to the evangelical witness of the United Methodist Church, and to countless numbers of young clergy they inspired toward ministry.

Just how does one get a handle on the scope of the ministries of the Rev. W. A. Amerson, who died last September at 92 years of age, and the Rev. Mr. Edgar Nelson, who died in January 2010, at the age of 95? I knew both of these pastors and was touched by their friendship and their ministries. They both incarnated what Eugene Peterson wrote about in his book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. They were, indeed, “faithful unto death.”

What strikes me about these two statesmen are the similarities of their ministries. Both W.A. and Edgar were graduates of Asbury Theological Seminary and members of the Good News board of directors in its early, formative years. Both had lengthy pastorates at large, flagship evangelical UM Churches—W.A. seventeen years at the Dueber United Methodist Church in Canton, Ohio (East Ohio Conference) and Edgar twenty-five years at the Yuba City United Methodist Church in Yuba City, California (Cal-Nevada Conference). They both had a lifelong passion for missions and thus, both of the above churches developed strong missions programs which continue to this day. In good Wesleyan fashion, the world became part of their parish.

One other similarity fascinates me. Both pastors were passionately committed to calling on their members in their homes. It was nothing for W.A. to have 70-80 calls in a week’s time—not a long visit, obviously, but enough to learn whether there were any needs the family had; if so, he could stay to address those and offer encouragement. For Edgar, I learned recently from the Rev. Al Vom Steeg (for whom Edgar was a long-time mentor in the conference) that “he made it his goal to be in each member’s home at least twice in a year. And sometimes he would be at the home of church visitors nearly before they got home from church.”

My ministry began as W. A. Amerson’s associate pastor in 1967 at the Dueber Church in Canton. I learned so much about ministry (administration, calling, funerals, weddings, etc.) by simply being there and watching him in action. He allowed me to preach and share in the administrative load. I consider those four years (1967-1971) a time of invaluable learning.

What impressed me about W.A. was how this pastor, coming from such humble beginnings, made himself and his talents totally available to God. He knew the difficulties of the Great Depression and how to live with little. W. A. put himself through college at Texas Tech and then earned graduate degrees from Asbury Seminary and Louisville Presbyterian Seminary while working every kind of job imaginable to acquire tuition money.

The people W.A. served loved him because they knew he loved them. He visited them, cared for them, prayed for and with them, and he remembered their names. His great memory was one of his special gifts and he amazed people at his ability to remember their names. Because of the love they felt from him, countless hundreds were moved to accept the Savior he served and about whom he preached. And no one knows just how many young men and women W.A. and his wife Virginia (who died in 2004) encouraged and directed into Christian ministry. He was a father in the ministry to scores of persons, including the young and not so young.

I’m not sure it fully struck me until his death just how much this dear pastor had meant to me—how he had touched my life personally. In addition to all I learned from him about pastoral ministry, W.A. served on the Good News board and nominated me to be on that board in 1974. That introduced me to a wonderful family of renewal-oriented United Methodists. Then, as a member of the Asbury College board of trustees, he nominated me to be on that board in 1979, where I was privileged to serve for 28 years.

As best as I can determine, taken together, W.A. and Edgar’s lives account for more than 130 years of ministry and service within our denomination. W.A. lived 92 years. Edgar lived to be 95.

Edgar Nelson was a giant, both spiritually and physically. At six-foot-eight, when he entered a room, he commanded your attention immediately. And his heart was as big and loving as his physical frame. There was about him a charming warmth and contagious smile that made you love him from the start.

Edgar served the First United Methodist Church in Yuba City, California, from 1960 until his retirement in 1985. During those 25 years, the church flourished and with his passion for missions, the church developed a strong, dynamic missions program that continues yet today.

While serving as a pastor, Edgar was also one of the founders, along with the equally legendary Dr. J. C. McPheeters, of Redwood Christian Park near Santa Cruz. (Some may recall that in the 1950s, McPheeters served as senior minister of Glide Memorial Methodist Church while also serving as President of Asbury Theological Seminary, commuting cross country on a regular basis.) Edgar remained active in leadership at Redwood Christian Park as long as he was physically able.

I have been to Redwood Christian Park a number of times. Nestled in the breathtakingly beautiful setting of the Santa Cruz Mountains, it is a magnificent venue for Christian camping and conferences. With lovely, modern facilities, it has been for 60 years a wonderful evangelical center for summer camps, weekend retreats, ministerial gatherings, family camps, and other professional group meetings. And in many respects, it is an abiding testament to Edgar Nelson’s (and McPheeters’) passion for both evangelism and missions.

Edgar remained concerned about denominational renewal right up until the end of his life. It was not unusual for this dear friend to call me just to chat and catch up with what hopeful signs might be seen across his church. He was faithful and regular in his support of Good News.

Edgar Nelson’s lovely wife and lifetime partner in ministry, Marian Barber Nelson, still lives at the home they enjoyed for 51 years. The two would have celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary this coming August.

By every measure, the lives and ministries of W.A. Amerson and Edgar Nelson are worth celebrating, perhaps on our knees before God. And as you sing that great memorial hymn the next time, maybe this spring at annual conference, note carefully verse 3: “O may thy soldiers, faithful, true, and bold,/ fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,/ and win with them the victor’s crown of gold./ Alleluia, Alleluia.”

W.A. and Edgar fought nobly and boldly—and they did so for several decades before any organized renewal efforts emerged in the church to give encouragement. They were faithful unto death. They have surely won the “victor’s crown of gold.”

Lord, for the lives and faithful witness of these two saints, we thank you. May those of us who follow after be found faithful. And Lord, as we are moved by their memory, help us “run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2 NRSV). Amen.

James V. Heidinger II is the president and publisher emeritus of Good News.

Two lives we celebrate: W.A. Amerson and Edgar Nelson

The march of the Last Responders

By Steve Beard

They weren’t taking any chances. For Super Bowl Sunday, the historic St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans called the Vatican to seek permission to replace the Papal flag over the front entrance of the sanctuary with the flag of the New Orleans Saints.

Attendance rivaled Easter Sunday, and the entire congregation was bedecked in black and gold. After his sermon, Monsignor Crosby Kern prayed for the Saints, pulled off his vestments to reveal the quarterback Drew Brees’ jersey, and led a “Who Dat” cheer as he shook hands with parishioners.

With tongue in cheek, it was suggested during the service that the faithful should remember St. Joan of Arc—her large statue only blocks away from the cathedral—as she rode a colt to victory as a saint.

In sports narratives, it’s hard to beat the Saints-Colts storyline. With all due respect to the faithful Indianapolis Colts fans, this was never going to be a fair fight. The underdog and scrappy Saints became America’s team. The experts picked the Colts, but the heart and soul of the nation picked the Saints. How could a fan not want to see the Lombardi Trophy go to a city that was almost swallowed up in a watery grave?

According to the Nielsen ratings, Super Bowl XLIV was viewed by the largest audience in TV history for a single broadcast. The case can certainly be made that the numbers reflected a deep seated interest in the recovery of New Orleans.

I’m not an impartial observer. I wore my “Believe Dat!” shirt and my fleur-de-lis Saints hat during the Super Bowl with pride. Years ago, I fell in love with New Orleans. I loved the Creole and Cajun cultures, the architecture, the jazz, the art, and the food. Jambalaya, red beans and rice, muffuletta sandwiches, gumbo, crawfish etouffee, shrimp po’boys, boudin sausage, chickory coffee, and beignets—what’s not to love?

The history of the city is etched with the scars of floods, fires, hurricanes, and battles. Its streets have been trod by preachers and pirates, steamboat captains and stowaways, the devious and the pious, the Jazz Man and the Jesuit, as well as a whole host of lovers, rogues, and warriors. I love the eclectic history.

But after Katrina, I fell in love with the Saints. Their decision to stay in the city and help rebuild the devastated area prompted my respect and admiration.
Yeah, yeah, it’s only sports. I hear you. But weren’t we witnessing a team trying to give CPR to a city?

40 billion gallons
In early January, I was back in New Orleans. During the shuttle ride from the airport to the hotel, we drove slowly past the Superdome. Instantly, the devastating images of 30,000 bedraggled men, women, and children trying to take refuge in the partially-destroyed edifice came streaming through my mind. The aerial shots of the desperate and dispossessed looking for an escape from the torrents of water seemed to play all over again in slow motion as we drove by.

The elderly, the sick, and the poor were trapped like contestants on a particularly cruel episode of Survivor, surrounded by 40 billion angry gallons of putrid water.

Four-and-a-half years have gone by since Katrina threw her tragic tantrum. It’s hard to imagine this place under water—but not impossible. If you venture out of the French Quarter, you can see the aftermath. Of course, much of the devastation has been erased, hundreds of unsalvageable homes bulldozed. You will also not see the thousands of truckloads of debris that have been removed, nor will you witness the 200,000 cars that were strewn about as if King Kong began throwing them around the Lower Ninth Ward.

What can be seen may be as subtle as eye-level waterlines on the sides of buildings where the tide had reached, or it can be as unsubtle as the spray painted markings of the First Responders—the rescue workers who entered each and every home looking for survivors hiding in the attics. Their series of X’s and O’s and initials have been called the iconography of the tragedy. When was someone last inside? Were there any human remains?

In some neighborhoods, it’s not uncommon to see a freshly painted, rebuilt home with a new roof sprung up between dilapidated hovels that look as though they are waiting for a wrecking ball. As a homeowner, you may have no idea if your neighbors will ever return. Nevertheless, you start over, rebuild your home, reestablish your residence, and take a gamble on the future of the city’s saints.

Watching the horror
Leonard Carter was in Texas watching the horror at the Superdome unfold on CNN. Retired after 21 years in the military and retired a second time from the New Orleans School District, Carter was chomping at the bit to return to his home and begin the process of cleaning up the mess.

He managed to return before New Orleans was officially opened back up to the public and drove through the desolate and eerily silent streets—something like a war zone after both sides had run out of bullets.

As my guide one afternoon, Carter regaled me with stories of recovery and restoration in the neighborhoods of the Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth Wards. He knows what he’s talking about. He’s a project manager for the Louisiana United Methodist Disaster Recovery Ministry.

The faith-based relief agencies — ranging from the Southern Baptists to the United Methodists to the Roman Catholics to the non-denominational — have been the lifeblood of the mission to restore that which Katrina destroyed.
The United Methodists have kept a trained eye on those who fell through the cracks. “We have always looked out for the least, the last, and the lost,” he says.

Carter has seen it all. He has also heard the heart-breaking tales of those who were scammed by phony contractors. Deceptive vultures preyed on the weak and vulnerable. Yet one block over, Christian charity and compassion motivated the building of a new roof. It is a workplace of contrasts—open hands and dark hearts lurk in the same neighborhood.

As if that were not enough, bewildered citizens wrestled with the profound tragedy of an elderly woman dying in her FEMA trailer during a tornado—days away from moving into her rebuilt home. For those pouring their hearts into rebuilding, how do you begin to grapple with the perplexity of that situation? After all the hard work, sweat, and toil, an experience like that tears at faith in Providence and serves as a graphic dagger through the heart.

Nevertheless, the men and women rebuilding New Orleans and the entire Gulf Coast region wiped the tears from their eyes and stayed on course, keeping the faith.

United Methodist action
As of January 31, more than 72,000 volunteers have shown up to work with the Louisiana United Methodists. They have appeared from every Annual Conference within the United States and from 33 countries. Over the last four years, many churches within our denomination have repeatedly sent work teams. For example, Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church in Tipp City, Ohio, has sent 55 teams on the 14-hour drive to the Gulf Coast. Seventy percent of the volunteers are repeat visitors.

Thus far, United Methodists—through three million volunteer labor hours and contributions to UMCOR—have contributed 95 million dollars worth of economic development to the region.

There are currently 67 full-time employees working with the United Methodist Church focused on the rebuilding effort.

In New Orleans, 39 United Methodist churches were flood damaged. The Louisiana Annual Conference collected a special offering to pay the pensions and pastors’ salaries of those whose congregations were dispersed and sanctuaries damaged. Local congregations began using the recovery effort as a ministry. They have even sent their own staff to other disasters in different parts of the United States.

Remarkably, United Methodists in Louisiana recently raised $164,000 for Haitian relief.

We can fix this
Nothing makes 71-year-old Leonard Carter happier than being able to look at a home and say, “We can fix this.” He has between 20 and 50 houses being salvaged at any one time. The whiteboards in his office survey the progress of each home. The United Methodist relief ministry juggles work teams, finances, and the hopes and dreams of eager displaced residents.

“I look forward to going to work every day,” says Carter. The office hours at the center begin at 9 a.m., but Leonard is often already on the job at 6:30.
While I was in New Orleans during the first week of January, there were 70 college students associated with various Wesley Foundations throughout Arkansas working on the rebuilding project.

They keep coming—four-and-a-half years after Katrina!

Desperately needed, the volunteers are all put to work. High school students to retirees to trained construction workers—plumbers, carpenters, masons—all show up to help.

Many of the big-time relief organizations are downsizing their operations. With faith and stamina, United Methodists will be among the Last Responders for New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.

On and off field saints
The Saints’ NFL franchise was awarded to New Orleans on All Saints’ Day, Nov. 1, 1966. John Mecom, the original owner, called Archbishop Philip Hannan to ask if he or his Catholic parishioners would have any objection to the franchise naming the team the Saints.

The archbishop gave his blessing, but wisely told Mecom, “Most of our saints were martyrs.”

A few years later, Hannan actually wrote a Prayer for the Saints which included the humorous plea, “Grant to our fans perseverance in their devotion and unlimited lung power, tempered with a sense of charity to all, including the referees.”

At the Saints and Sinners booster club banquet in 1968, Hannan ended his prayer with these words: “May the ‘Saints Come Marching In’ be a victory march for all, now and in eternity.’”

New Orleans knows that saints come from all walks of life. Some are found in black and gold on the gridiron, while others emerge simply as hammer-toting believers in hipwaders filing out of a church van looking for a city to salvage.

For the soul of the city, New Orleans needed both. For the soul of the nation, we need New Orleans.

Steve Beard is the editor of Good News.

Two lives we celebrate: W.A. Amerson and Edgar Nelson

Examining your glasses

By Frank Decker

We were nearing the conclusion of a training session in which I was teaching about the Kingdom of God when the hand of a South American pastor shot up. “So, does someone have to be a Protestant to be saved?” he asked. His question was obviously born from uneasiness that had been building in him throughout the day. We had been discussing the importance of enabling people to meet Jesus within their own denominational context—as Jesus’ disciples demonstrated. And we had re-examined the meaning of the word “church” (or ecclesia), defining it as simply a gathering of believers in Jesus Christ, regardless of their denominational affiliation. This pastor’s frame of reference, however, was that Catholics needed to be extracted out of their own background and into his own context (in this case Methodism) as a prerequisite for them to really meet Jesus.

When this type of thinking is the default setting in our cranial software, we are likely to find ourselves spending far more energy proliferating our own denominational organizations or traditions rather than simply sharing Jesus. The distinction may seem rudimentary, but it is crucial. Sometimes the religious lenses we wear cloud our ability to see God’s work in the hearts of the people around us. However, if we are willing to look at those lenses rather than through them, we are likely to position ourselves to more fully experience reformation and renewal. In fact, after my response to the pastor’s query, which was the simple question, “Are you saved by being a Protestant, or are you saved by the blood of Jesus?” it seemed as though a light had come on in the room.

I am encouraged by evidence that this light seems to be coming on in many places. Vincent Donovan, an American Roman Catholic priest, served as a missionary to the Masai of Tanzania in the 1960s and 1970s. During his first year of cross-cultural ministry he wrote a letter to his bishop questioning the missionary approach that had preceded him for 100 years in that location. The schools, chapel, and hospital that marked the presence of that mission consumed countless hours of energy, and in Donovan’s assessment produced little spiritual fruit.

In other words, as helpful as these ministries had been to meet specific needs, sustaining them had eventually begun to interfere with—rather than enable—the essential work of pointing people to Jesus. So, instead of resigning himself to spend his time and energy only maintaining these mission mechanisms, this novice missionary decided to invest himself by “simply getting to know the Masai and telling them about God.” His book Christianity Rediscovered bears witness to the result that he became a successful disciple-maker in a locale where previously, in his estimation, not one local Masai had come to faith in Jesus.

Picture a scene with burned-out automobiles and buildings, the result of recent clashes between Muslims and Christians in central Nigeria that have left about 400 people dead. It was in this environment that Mission Society staff members Dick McClain and Darrell Whiteman, cross-cultural worker Kirk Sims, and African leaders recently facilitated a Global Engagement Training event attended by 100 pastors and bishops representing seven denominations. As the teaching progressed, it was evident to the Christians present that they needed to think not in terms of spiritually conquering their Muslim adversaries, but loving them into the Kingdom.

A watershed incident took place when one woman stood up and testified, “Because of the conflict, whenever I see a Muslim, I just become angry in my heart. I don’t even want to look at them. But now I see that I need to love them.” She continued, “If we cannot deal with Muslims right here, how are we going to be able to reach them in Senegal or wherever else God sends us?” She went on to say that she intended to begin to pray for her Muslim neighbors and to reach out to them. A spirit of revival broke out during the event that led to the final two evenings being consumed with times of crying out to God for Muslims to meet Jesus. In Sims’ words, “it was almost like scales falling off the eyes of people.”

As I think about the increase of light, I also am aware of the opposition from the forces of darkness. In fact, if I were the devil, I think I would attempt to reduce the biblical message of Jesus and his Kingdom so that it would popularly be understood in a weak and diminished form—as mere adherence to a religion, void of the essentiality of actually knowing the King. Then that perspective, not the perspective of the Kingdom, would become the lens through which devotees would view everything else. Yeah, if I were the devil I think I would try that.

Frank Decker is the vice president for mission operations at The Mission Society and a long-time columnist for Good News.