Sunday, March 11

Enigmatic AND Effective: Farewell to a Spiritual Light of Madison

Sunset at Holy Wisdom Monastery - March 6, 2012
Chuck Pfeifer's Farewell Dinner
photo by John-Brian Paprock
 Making Community Better Uniquely The Way God Made You

There are a few people in my life that have been crucial in my spiritual development. Charles D. Pfeifer has been one of those people. Past tense is used not because Chuck has passed on, but because he is leaving Madison, finally moving closer to his adult children and their families.  I am glad he will be an example of the good in humanity to his grandchildren.  That's part of the reason I am sad to see him go.

We have not been in much contact since his retirement from Madison Urban Ministry, but I have always known he was close by.  He has been a shining light among the people that make Madison shine among the cities of America.  I have made many referrals to him for spiritual counsel to those of similar thread.

There is so much about Madison and about me that would not have come about if Chuck was not seeking the good, the best of people and our community.  At the same time, he did not flinch in the face of true darkness that so often seeps into the cracks, blending into the floor or the walls.

During his 25+ years with Madison Urban Ministry, Chuck worked hard on the problems that seemed to be on the edge of people's consciousness and sometimes ignnored by their conscience - even if they were going to get around to helping with that problem at sometime. Chuck challenged the morality and the ethics of waiting around for someone else to do it. 

Charles "Chuck" Pfeifer
and Rev. John-Brian Paprock
March 6, 2012
photo by Christo
Under Chuck's sometimes reluctant leadership as executive director of Madison Urban Ministry: a model family program to help troubled families was started (aptly named Family Enhancement); as was a program to assist the elderly with home repairs and remodelling (Project Home); and, when I got involved, Chuck and MUM were in the midst of dynamic work to resolve homelessness in the Madison area.

I actually called Chuck 25 years ago, during the spring of 1987, when the date of my ordination to the priesthood was set.  I called about community ministry for the small mission in Madison I was being ordained to serve.  It turned out that as many things as we had in common, we seemed to have even more that set us apart.  Yet Chuck always seemed to dwell in our common-ness and I learned that, in actuality, we had much more in common at a deeper level.

We were from different Christian denominations, very different. He was a founding member of a progressive United Church of Christ congregation and I was an Orthodox deacon serving a mission chapel being ordained to Orthodox Christian priesthood. Yet our intellectualism left us both open-minded enough and curious enough to find ample common ground.  It also helped that were shared a similar heart, a deep and affectionate attitude to the poor and marginalized in society.

As a young Orthodox Christian man interested in serving humanity, I guess I was something of an anomaly.  Chuck was more interested in where my motivation for service was coming from.  After articulating my service motivation, he referred me to a couple of other people and institutions.  I found my way to serving in hospital chaplaincy and a few ecumenical activities, but it was the ideals of urban ministry that continued to intrigue me.

Charles "Chuck" Pfeifer
and Rev. John-Brian Paprock
March 6, 2012
photo by Christo

 When we had a nasty racial incident happen in Madison in the late 1980s, our self admired progressive city was confounded. Chuck and Madison Urban Ministry immediately moved to deal with the issues of racism.  We established a Race Relations Task Force and had clergy meetings, but the underlying problems of institutional racism proved to be a much larger issue than MUM had dealt with before.  Victories, even progress, was hard to identify at times. MUM itself would be transformed as we sought to heal racial inequalities and related problems.  25 years later and these issues still tug at the fabric of our society; as do all the issues that MUM had the foresight to grapple with.

Nevertheless, Chuck worked hard to have MUM reflect the needed changes we sought in our more-than-90% white city - a city that was seeing a dramatic increase in cultural diversity.  25 years later, that diversity continues to grow.  I was honored to serve as president the first intentionally culturally diverse board of directors of MUM.  It was an experience I will always treasure.

Chuck also surprised me by inviting Jim Forest, founder of the Orthdox Peace Fellowship, as the speaker at the MUM annual banquet that  year.  I have always felt honored and respected, safe, in my Orthodox Christian beliefs and with my cultural identity ever since.   

The depth of Chuck's spirituality and his continuing search for understanding of God's message to us made our discussions on spiritual and mystical topics treasured and memorable to me with their connectedness and in a certain quality that transcends information and even intellect, although we both use our intellects to arrive at that threshold.  There was always a pragmatism that grounded our conversations.

Compassion and love being principle qualities of spiritual development were not lost on a philosopher's intellect. Rather Chuck was able to demonstrate tremendous compassion and care. He was able to step off the platform of intellectual thought and direct his energy toward genuine concern.  This is a quality I admire and emulate, and, as a recipient, remain grateful.

So, I was personally invited to Chuck's farewell dinner. Among the invitees were many I recognized from ecumenical and interfaith activities over the years; many I admire for their spirit of good will for all people. I looked around at all the people and added my remarks to the accolades of the evening.  But, I asked myself, "do I fit in with this crowd?"

In my remarks that evening, I simply reminded everyone of the race relations era. I mentioned that when I met Chuck, I found it helpful to meet someone else who was a bit eccentric, even odd, that could do good in society. To which, everyone chuckled.  Then, I added that I most admired the questions he would ask.  "From one spiritual brother to another, keep asking questions," I said directly to Chuck and he nodded emphatically.

I reluctantly said good-bye to a gentle mystic philosopher, Charles D. Pfeifer, who ran an urban ministry and changed the direction of my own ministry, getting me to serve in a manner closer to the way God made me; a light that shines in my memory, helping me see the road ahead.

When I had the chance for a big mutual hug, I realized I had asked myself the wrong question earlier.  The question was not, "do I fit in with this crowd?" but "how do I fit in with this crowd?"  Chuck had always been my reminder and seeing Chuck brought me back to a core truth: I am already part of this community.  And he would ask, "So, what am I going to do about it?" 

Farewell Dinner for Chuck Pfeifer with aabout 100 of his invited friends
Sponsored by Holy Wisdom Monastery, Middleton, Wisconsin
March 6, 2012 ~ Photo by John-Brian Paprock