On Tuesday morning, April 5th, Kristi’s birthday, we learned of the passing of Walt Gerber. Walt had faithfully served as senior pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church (MPPC) for 29 years. Even though MPPC was and is a large church, our family has always known and thought of Walt as our pastor. My Mom has often said that when Walt spoke and preached, it was as if he was speaking directly to her. I think that many people felt the same way. During his pastorate, church membership quadrupled.
MPPC, with Walt at the helm, has had a profound impact on my life. It is here that I was nurtured in the faith as a child, as a youth, and then baptized as a young adult. It is here that I was on staff for two years, receiving the call to the pastorate. It is here that I was ordained as a PC(USA) teaching elder (pastor) by the Presbytery of San Francisco. MPPC supported me while serving with African Evangelistic Enterprise in Rwanda, while I studied at Fuller Theological Seminary, and even now MPPC (now called Menlo Church) continues to generously support our work in the Democratic Republic of Congo. MPPC and Walt Gerber have been central to my faith journey.
On the 1st of April Kristi and I jumped back in the saddle, serving as PC(USA) Mission Co-workers after having taken a three month Personal Leave of Absence. We are stateside, based in Bloomington, IL, until the beginning of July when our whirlwind of travel begins. The week of Walt’s passing was our second week back to work. We had been feeling some restlessness and excitement in getting back into our work groove. However, that Tuesday afternoon, after hearing of Walt’s passing, I could not fight off the idea that I should travel to California for the Memorial Service the following week. Although the timing felt bad, I could not imagine not being there. After discussing the idea with Kristi, wrestling with the idea in prayer, speaking with my parents in California, it became clear that it would be best for me to go. I bought my tickets.
At certain junctures in one’s life, one feels a sense of liminality, a sense that one is on the threshold of something new and different, looking back but also looking forward. Going “home,” out to California for Walt’s Memorial, created such feelings in me. I was able to drive along familiar routes, see old friends, be with family, step back, albeit briefly, into a life that was once so familiar. It was like fingering the pages of an old, beloved book, remembering and noting the always deepening story. I felt like I was able to reconnect with myself and my life story. Throughout the week, each time after having some special experience, my Mom would invariably say, “Walt brought you back so that you could have that special experience!” She was right. I owe this special trip to Walt.
And then the big event transpired, the actual Memorial Service for Walt. We had been told that 2-3,000 people were expected. My Mom and I arrived an hour early but only found seats two thirds of the way back in the sanctuary. Family and friends, former pastors and leaders and staff members of the church flew in from all over the country. Local members and friends of the church and family were present. It was like a giant family reunion, everyone coming back to honor someone held dearly, also reconnecting with an important part of their own story.
The actual service was an event one cannot adequately justify with words, but only treasure by experience. Some described the funeral “as one which we had probably never experienced anything like before.” Their words ring true. There was plenty of laughter, but also times of hushed holiness, acute moments teeming with poignancy and depth of feeling. Half a dozen former pastors who had served under Walt’s tutelage spoke with candor, opening up their hearts, sharing how Walt had stepped into their lives and stories, encouraging them and loving them. Scott Dudley, now serving a church in Bellevue, WA, shared how Walt helped him discern his call away from the professorship and into the pastorate. Walt “changed his life,” as Walt did for countless others.
Walt’s children also spoke. They shared deeply from the heart about a father who nurtured them and loved them. Paul, the youngest son and a friend of mine, shared so openly and candidly about his father and their family that it felt shocking, breathtaking, yet truly resonant with the transparent life Walt himself had walked before us. Paul shared how the last few years of Walt’s life were a “Job like” experience, suffering from physical and emotional ailments, including family trials, two back surgeries, a rare blood disorder which led him to a near death experience, post traumatic stress disorder, vascular dementia, and feeling abandoned and betrayed by his family as they wheeled him into a nursing care facility. Yet, in the midst of all this emotional and physical trauma, Walt was able to say, “God is in charge.” Paul concluded that he himself is 100% sure that God is proud of Walt’s resolve to believe in the goodness and mercy of God, even during Walt’s suffering of mind, body and spirit at the end. I am so thankful for the ways the Gerber family welcomed us into the heart and hearth of their lives, pulling back the curtain, allowing us to witness their joy and their pain under the backdrop of the goodness and mercy of the Lord.
Reflecting back on my own experience of Walt Gerber, it is crystal clear that his pastoral leadership cultivated a culture and a place where people experienced the grace of God and felt valued and loved. In the process of making the decision to return to California for the Memorial, with tears in my eyes at our breakfast table in Bloomington, IL, I said to Kristi, “Menlo [and Walt] has done so much for me, they have believed in me. For that reason I need to go.” Those same tears found a bookend at the Memorial Service as Paul bravely shared the suffering his father faced in his waning years, suffering which indeed reveals true faith and abiding hope.
My life is indelibly webbed into the story of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, and the life of Walter Woodworth Gerber, and for that, I am eternally grateful. Psalm 56 ends with these wonderful words, words which describe and complement Walt’s life and story -
For you have delivered my soul from death,
and my feet from falling,
so that I may walk before God
in the light of life (Psalm 56: 13)