Henry is one of my heroes. I knew Henry for a total of about twelve years, starting in 2000. He wasn’t a perfect person. He had one significant flaw that I knew of – not being punctual. He lived by his internal clock, not his watch. But he taught me more about forgiveness, kindness, and absolute commitment to serving God than anyone else I’ve known in my 66 years of life. (Well, maybe my mom taught me more about those values, but Henry taught me the second most of anybody.)
Henry, who died a few years ago, was a Methodist minister who was called in 2000 to be pastor of Willerup United Methodist Church in Cambridge. Henry was a second career pastor. In his previous career he had worked in sales and marketing for a publishing company. He was about 60, divorced, and the father of two adult children. He was also the legal guardian and caregiver for Bob, a developmentally disabled man in his 40s.
I met Henry and Bob when they moved to Cambridge for Henry’s call to Willerup. Mim and I were living in our farmhouse at the time and we welcomed guests into our home as Country Comforts Bed & Breakfast. Henry wanted Bob and him to stay with us for the first few days during their move into the Willerup parsonage. He thought the move would be less disruptive for Bob if they could at least sleep in an environment that wasn’t as chaotic as a place filled with boxes in the process of being unpacked. However, when Henry and Bob arrived in Cambridge, they discovered that the parsonage wasn’t ready for them. The parsonage was in need of some minor repairs and major cleaning before they could move in.
So Henry and Bob ended up living with us for a couple months. During that time, we became good friends. As a B&B, we always served them breakfast, but as they were becoming friends, they often ate dinner with us too. Sometimes we’d go into the living room after dinner and gather around the piano for a sing-along, especially on days when my sister Nancy and her husband Clark had also joined us for dinner.
Unfortunately, it became clear early in Henry’s time of ministry at Willerup that some members of the congregation were not pleased that Henry, a divorced, second-career pastor, was their minister. The congregation, in general, was quite conservative, and Henry and Bob didn’t fit their image of a traditional pastor and his family. Matters got worse when Bob, who spent his days at a sheltered work environment did some acting out to get more attention. Bob observed that another worker got extra attention when he told stories about his guardian being sexually inappropriate. So Bob tried to tell similar stories about Henry. Bob was right – he got lots of attention when he told these stories. A social worker and even the police got involved.
Word quickly got back to the congregation about these allegations, and certain members of the congregation demanded that Henry be forced to leave the church. Henry tried to continue to minister to the congregation, but stress was beginning to take its toll on his health. Furthermore, one of the social workers believed Bob’s stories without question, and managed to have Henry’s guardianship of Bob terminated, breaking up a healthy “family” relationship that had existed for many years. She also did everything she could to be sure Henry would spend the rest of his life in prison.
That’s when Henry taught me one of his most important lessons. I asked him how he could stand the prospect of spending years in prison because of Bob’s sensational but untrue stories. Henry said, “If I go to prison, it’s because God has a ministry for me to do there. It’s all up to God, and I’ll gladly do whatever He calls me to do.”
The legal case was eventually dropped, but Henry’s reputation was too badly damaged for him to be able to effectively minister at Willerup. He agreed to move to Madison and begin a part-time clown ministry. Being a clown had been a hobby of his for years, and he saw the potential to develop it into an intentional ministry. Henry also needed some less stressful time to regain his health. With all the turmoil, his body had really suffered, and he was put on a waiting list for a heart transplant.
In less than a year of Henry arriving in Cambridge, he was preparing to leave. He decided to take only a few things with him and to move into a small apartment in Madison. He called upon an auctioneer friend of his from his previous congregation to help him get rid of all the rest of his belongings.
Before the auction, Mim and I talked with Henry about how hard it must be to give up most of his material possessions. We talked for a long time. He showed us some of his most treasured items that would be in the auction and told us stories about some of them. “Peter” was the name of a life-size cast iron rooster. A member of a previous congregation had given that to him as a gift because of how personally meaningful Henry had made the story of Peter’s betrayal of Jesus, of Jesus’ forgiveness of this betrayal, and of Jesus’ continuing love for Peter and for all of us.
The next day, Mim and I went to the auction. Henry was there. We asked him how he could bear to watch all his treasures being auctioned off. He responded, “I’m delighted to see who is bidding on what. It’s great to see who God has in mind to be the next caretaker of each item. Everything belongs to God anyway. There is no change in ownership.” That was another lesson Henry taught me.
Mim and I really wanted to get “Peter,” the 26-inch tall cast iron rooster. I got into a bidding war over him. I persisted, and “Peter” now stands proudly on the big rock at the corner of our condo – a reminder of Peter’s betrayal of Jesus and Jesus’ forgiveness and continuing love, and also a reminder of all the lessons we learned from Henry.
About a year after Henry left Cambridge he got his new heart. The donor was a young man who died in a motorcycle accident. Henry’s recovery was long and hard, but he was determined to recover and continue to develop his clown ministry. He had a new focus for clowning – to comfort people who are involved in heart transplants – the families of donors, the recipients and their families, and the medical and nursing staff who work with everyone involved. He served in clown ministry for about ten years.
I’m very thankful that Henry was called to ministry in Cambridge, even though it was for a short time. By his example, I learned a lot about forgiveness, kindness, and absolute commitment to serving God. Henry is truly one of my heroes.