Railroad Man

I was a senior seminary student and local pastor to the small church in Northwest Denver, and this was my first funeral service.

The gentleman who had died was 93 years old, a long-time member of the church, active till a couple of weeks before his death. His son and daughter and grandchildren shared their memories of him with me, and I was able to share their memories with those who came to celebrate the life of this man. I also shared my own memories of him. I told how this man was my teacher, both in life and in death.

He had been a railroad man. One of his railroad stories had a special message for me, the new pastor on the block. He told me that a railroad car got lost only once under his watch. If it happened again, someone was out looking for a job. “You went down the line,” he said, “and asked questions and found out what happened. You didn’t sit in your office and wonder what happened.”

As he continued talking, I realized that he wasn’t talking just about boxcars; he was talking about lost members of the congregation. This old gentleman was telling me to go out to those members who weren’t attending church and find out why. “How many members can a small church stand to lose?” he asked. I got the message and made my list, set myself a deadline, and went out to visit as many of the lost sheep I could find.

One day he called and I picked him up. We went to visit a shut-in he hadn’t seen for a while. He was so happy to see her. His conversation with her was so extended I had to go outside and wait for him.

I soon became aware of another person this kind gentleman ministered to. Across the street from our shut-in lived “a great lady” who was older than he was. He crossed the street, greeted her warmly, and introduced me to her.

I was amazed at how brightly the candle burned in him. Two months prior to his death, he was still attending our visioning potlucks. What did his church want to be when it grew up? I was struck by how much he cared, even as the close of his life drew near. He participated in the meeting, making his points and suggestions.

Those months that I knew him, I had to keep reminding myself that he was not one of the younger men of the congregation. He was 93 years old and still a ready volunteer. He was a positive force in the congregation. He knew the church’s problems, its long struggle to keep its doors open. He didn’t always agree with the majority decision, but remained faithful once the decision was made.

As I gave my first eulogy, I felt the Holy Spirit that worked in this man’s life become the Holy Spirit in the community’s collective memory and imagination. It was good for us at the funeral service–members of the congregation and others–to remember and share our stories about this man who had lived almost a century, to share the Word, and to celebrate our past as we were called into the future.