Meet Our New Chaplain!
Then he moved to northwest Wisconsin, totally out of his comfort zone, to pastor five community churches. This was a while back; only one church had indoor plumbing. It became part of his mission that they would all have indoor plumbing. But in one church, a man vehemently opposed paying to heat the church all the time when they already had something that worked! Well, the bathroom went in; the hold-out did not return until Pastor Lowrance preached his last sermon and at the end, he stood up and said, “Pastor, I will think of you every time I use that bathroom.” And that is why he was called the bathroom pastor.
Later came a call to Virginia, just five hours from family, and Will responded. While a community pastor in Virginia, he went to school to become a Spiritual Director. He hadn’t heard of that, but knew that when you encounter people, they are where God wants them and they are headed down a path to where God wants them. He could be their advisor on the way.
While working on his doctorate, Will started a Sunday class in which he asked people to bring in something they had read that spoke to them that week and share it with the group. Class membership would wax and wane, but always grew during the Christmas season. He knew Christmas was not always a happy time; it certainly did not start out that way. Christ was born into a hard time. A young, pregnant woman, a man taking her on faith, this paranoid king, and amid all that, genocide. Rachel, weeping for her children, and would not be comforted for they were no more. Fleeing to Egypt, a strange land. It was a time of stress and sorrow.
In class, he saw individual stories that connected to this Christmas story. He would read Christmas stories he had written and then listen to their stories of finding connections between the stress of that first Christmas and their own circumstances. He learned when people connect to a story, they can find meaning; there is a beginning, a middle, and an end to connect to God.
Will has seen the terrors of life: shootings, accidents, broken children. He would go where the people were poor and life was hard to minister to those he met. He was not always welcomed. Once, he was confronted with a switchblade and told he needed to leave. Yes, he was scared, but he told them he was there to care for their mamas and families. Over time, they learned he was sincere and gave him a pass. He is delighted that there is no fear of switchblades at Sunnyside!
Then he felt called to a program called PACE (Program for All-inclusive Care of the Elderly) to care for the elderly poor. A government-funded program, it included spiritual, as well as mental and physical, needs. Some programs had no chaplain or only a part-time one; money was needed elsewhere. He started out at 25 hours a week and was able to demonstrate the value of the service in such a way to become full-time. In this way, he was able to change their mind about the need for more than part-time chaplains.
Then, one day, the CEO of the company responsible for the program called everyone together to explain that the facility was failing; they were moving all the residents to a more successful (profitable) facility. The entire workforce was pink-slipped.
Will began searching the Internet for a place that was not just focused on the bottom line and found Sunnyside’s ad for a new chaplain. He applied, went through the lengthy interview process (FOUR interviews!). He toured the facilities, met with Jack, talked to residents. He was pleased to accept the offer. It was an answer to his search for a call. He says it’s great working for a corporation with a Christian influence where he can be in community service.
Chaplain Will says chaplains have the unique ability to always be home, to be where God wants them to be. He looks for what Celtic Christians called “thin places,” those places where you feel God’s presence, with his elbow almost touching yours. The Celts experienced these thin places in cathedrals, prayer gardens, sacred groves, rivers – places where “the veil was so sheer, one could almost step through it” into God’s presence. He finds these places most often in nature, in the woods, or by a stream. There, he is home. If you ask him, he will tell you of one close by.
He values experiences like one he had when he went to the third floor of the Pannill Center and was immediately greeted with, “Come on in!” He knew his predecessor had a powerful impact in the community. He knew the difficulty of trying to care for folks when you are different from your predecessor. His welcome has affirmed his being here.
He is looking forward to preparing and delivering sermons. His last 10 years were spent with a community whose members were cognitively challenged, disruptive, and worship-restricted. Here, he will be able to reach out, tell stories, and be able to preach full or abbreviated sermons to meet a variety of needs. He is enjoying writing devotions for the phone line. He was never on TV before and finds it exciting. He loves asking those watching to sing with him. He is delighted that he can observe the sacrament of communion once more. He finds that we need the sacramental to connect to God and to each other.
He believes his biggest challenge here will be fear of death and how to make sense of grief. He finds faith to be a good structure. Death becomes reinterpreted through faith – not without loss and grief, but by connecting, rather than disconnecting, with God and family.
Chaplain Will is elated to be Sunnyside. His wife is happy with relatives nearby. He felt the need to go where a community needed help with their walk to God. He values that it is easier to walk with people than to push them. He cannot imagine a better fit.
“Thin places,” the Celts call this space, Both seen and unseen, Where the door between the world And the next is cracked open for a moment And the light is not all on the other side. God shaped space. Holy. -- Sharlande Sledge