©Rev. Dr. Russell J. Brownworth
The First Congregational Church of New Village in the 1950’s was in many ways the springboard of faith for me. It was at the little white church with the tiny balcony gallery I learned about Moses, Peter, Paul and Jesus in a Sunday School class with “Uncle” Sid Williams. My Mom, Cecilia Brownworth, was the Sunday School superintendent, so I’m certain she had something to do with making sure I was in Uncle Sid’s class.
It was also when Rev. Ken Olson became pastor at New Village that I first started listening to sermons. I knew others had filled the pulpit before Pastor Olson, but there was something different about the urgent messages of this new wavy-haired, sonorous-voiced smiling preacher. Somehow it always seemed he had picked me out of the whole crowd to speak a word of comfort or joy or correction; he got this 10 year-old’s attention!
When you reduce Pastor A. Kenneth Olson to an acronym you have P.A.K.O.! Of course we never called him that out loud – only in hushed, but admiring tones. But it seemed to fit; he was a PAKO-pastor who could hit a softball a country mile, run and wrestle with the youth group like a teenager, eat pizza and lead singing around a campfire. And, with all that energy and love for youth, the man could preach the Word like an Apostle!
The stirrings of faith that came alive within me during that season led to committing my life to Christ. But this was also accompanied by the first rumblings of a call to pastoral ministry. During a camping trip for youth chaperoned by P.A.K.O. and several other men, I found myself paddling a canoe with one of the men, Mr. Redden. In our conversation that day he shared with me a concern he had about how he could follow Christ better, so he could be a better man; then he asked me what I thought. You could have knocked me over with a chicken feather; he asked ME? I was just a kid; what did I know?
Well, I wanted to sound like I might be spiritual and wise (after all, I was 12), so I mumbled a few things I’d once heard about prayer and being good. When I was done Mr. Redden turned back from the front of the canoe (where he was doing most of the paddling, while I was doing so much talking), and he said: So, you mean….and then he repeated everything I said, nearly word for word. An adult had listened to me! Wow! That moment was a gift from a man trained and gifted at New Village to be Christ to a young boy. I have often called on that moments’ recollection as I have counselled people throughout my ministry – I learned from Mr. Redden that when you listen to others you can make a difference.
Back to P.A.K.O. – on that same canoe and camping trip. There were plenty of fun moments…like canoeing through rapids between lakes, games, stories and even a ride on a two-seater seaplane. But the most important lesson I learned in years growing up in the church of my youth came when I broke five or six of the commandments in one afternoon.
P.A.K.O. had laid out some pretty specific safety rules to follow. Among them was wearing life jackets all the time you were over water, and that no camper or group would go out on the lake without the adult leaders knowing where and when, and all the other details. That was at least two commandments we broke – lying about just taking a walk when we were really planning to go out on the lake – and I’m sure we broke that “loving God” commandment when we lied to our Pastor.
Anyway, there were three of us – myself and two other criminals named Williams and Edwards (although I’d never reveal their identities – that was our sacred pact, and I wasn’t about to add bearing false witness to my commandment trespasses). We rigged two canoe paddles and a tent for a sail and paddled off to the far reaches of the lake late in the afternoon – storm clouds gathering in the east!
The wind kicked up and we found ourselves in the middle of Lake Tsunami. One of the canoe trespassers stood up, literally rocking the boat, and physics being what it is, dumped the entire cargo of teens in the lake. The canoe turned over and could not be turned right side up because of the makeshift sail now acting like a rudder. I was only a marginal swimmer and hadn’t bothered with a life jacket (breaking that honor thy safety instructor commandment);
We were in the middle of a raging tempest, clinging to a floating Titanic. We cried-out for help, but our pleas were lost in the noise of the wind and waves. It seemed like we were in that cold, angry lake for hours. At one point I recall bobbing in the water under the canoe, getting hit on the head with some part of the ship, and thinking: I’m going to die right here in this freezing lake! Oh God, have mercy. I’ll be good from now on!
Then a ray of sunshine broke through this menacing moment – a boat was coming our way; we were going to be rescued! But then my hope fell into the grave of Gethsemane – sitting in the bow of that boat was P.A.K.O.; I was doomed!
In the few moments it took for the rescue boat to pull alongside the three escapees and haul us onboard, I frantically searched my juvenile memory bank for believable excuses with which to avoid having my parents told, and winding up in time-out until I was 40 and married (there: murdering truth – another commandment down the tube)!
I don’t recall what excuses I came up with, other than to try to throw the blame off on one of those horrible boys who convinced me to go with them – but as it turned out I didn’t get the chance to weasel out of my guilt. The only thing P.A.K.O. did was haul me into the boat and wrap a wonderfully-warm blanket around my wet, shivering-cold body.
On the way back to camp I figured the quiet treatment was part of our Pastor’s torture plan, prior to the hanging that was certainly the way frontier church justice was handled. It was dark by the time we arrived and supper was already cooking. The three reprobates of the lake changed out of our wet clothes and found, to our surprise, we were actually going to get dinner, and we were also allowed to sit around the campfire with everyone else as we sang songs, heard stories and roasted marshmallows. For me, it was the most puzzling thing that P.A.K.O. never said a harsh word. The first word he did speak that night was just before we all turned-in: I’m glad you boys are alright.
It’s been more than 50 years since that day, and the lesson of P.A.K.O.’s patience has often reminded me that sometimes Jesus shows up as blonde and Norwegian, because the forgiveness and lovingkindness of God I experienced that stormy afternoon in my sinful arrogance was just the kind of love I needed to pass along in my ministry.