My anniversary minute highlights two long time members of FBC, Laird and Ersel Addis. In thinking over what I want to say, I have to confess that my personal story and relationships with these two people, may color what I have to say about their many contributions to this church over the years. You see, not only were they long time members, they were also my mother and father in law, which also makes them grandparents to my children and great grandparents to my grandchildren.
From a personal standpoint, my first recollection of them was Laird, actually, standing in the narthex with his hand out in greeting the first Sunday I every walked through the doors of this church. His winning smile, booming voice, and overall friendliness helped me to feel at home right away. I needed that, since the fall of 1964 was my first time living away from home.
Anyway, Laird and Ersel’s history in this church began at different times in history. A few years following their marriage in 1935, they moved to Iowa City together by way of New York and Des Moines. Upon settling here, their life together in this church began. Ersel, however, had attended FBC prior to her moving to New York, meeting Laird, and getting married. Her father was a pastor in the Fairfield, Iowa area. The family moved to Iowa City in 1926 and first lived for a summer in a tent at the current City Park. Doran had mentioned that a couple of weeks ago, in telling the story of Woodye and Orville Kessler. You see, Woodye and Ersel were sisters, so the stories of their lives in Iowa City began together. Laird and Ersel raised four children and provided foster care for other children during their child raising years.
People my age who have “done church” their whole lives are familiar with an old expression “pillars of the church”, referring to people very active in a local congregation. I guess that phrase aptly fit Laird and Ersel. Their decades of service to this church can be seen in Annual Reports, meeting minutes, directories, old bulletins, and other historical documents available in our church archives. The list is very long. At one time or another, Laird was involved in choir (his booming bass voice still echoing in here just weeks before his death in 2011 at age 97). He often did solo work for funerals, weddings, hymn sings and special events. He served as a deacon, an usher, a trustee, Sunday school song leader, and was involved in men’s work. He is pictured helping putting the finishing touches on this very building in the early 1950’s. He also was the church treasurer for many years, counting the money and keeping track of pledges. This was a job he took very seriously, and kept secret the pledges he was entrusted to record in the financial record books each week. After his retirement, he came to the church every week to replace envelopes in the pews and tidy up, as he used to say.
Ersel was very active in women’s work, both locally and on the state level of the American Baptists. She was very active in Sunday school as a teacher and leader. She also served on the diaconate, long time church clerk, and special called committees through the years. She also helped in the kitchen, for in bygone days getting men to help there was more difficult. She was a true church basement lady. Ersel died in 1995.
While their committee work and other official church duties were important to the vitality of FBC, their interactions with people and their willingness to share their home with individuals and groups truly set them apart. Their closest friends were their church friends. They hosted countless events for their adult Sunday school class, and other social groups within the church. They also invited people for meals who were new to the church or were recent visitors. Ersel hosted the women’s circle in her home many times.
I feel Laird and Ersel led lives that were what we would call today “spirit filled”. They set examples by their lives of outgoing friendliness and nonjudgmental attitudes. As Pastor Jim Davison said in Laird’s eulogy, “he was a down to earth saint”. The same could certainly be said of Ersel. People like Laird and Ersel, and many other saints of FBC who have gone on before us, helped preserve the ministry of this congregation through the years. May we continue to follow their example of leading spirit filled lives as we strive to continue ministry in this place into the future.
Woodye and Orville Kessler were long time members of First Baptist Church (now known as Spirit of Christ Church) of Iowa City. Woodye died in 2011 and was preceded in death by Orville in 2007. Orville was employed by the University of Iowa upon his retirement in the 1980s. Woodye worked for a time at the UI Pediatrics Hospital, Wards, raised a family of 5 children and is remembered for her work with the jail ministry in Johnson County, Iowa.
Woodye and Orville resided at 1908 F St., a house that Orville and his mother purchased around 1949 after moving from Solon. Orville loved to bake pies and enjoyed his garden. I noticed as the years went by that his garden continued to get smaller and smaller until it entirely disappeared. He served during World War II in Italy and like most veterans of that time he never talked much with his family about his experiences during the war years. Later, when the Kesslers were moved for additional care due to ageing, and the family cleaned out their house on F Street. A folded, creased photograph was found inserted between the pages of an old book. It shows a dapper young man in a military uniform standing in a church plaza somewhere in Europe. The cathedral looked familiar. Looking at the mural on the church and comparing it with online images, I realized Orville was standing in St. Mark’s plaza in Venice, Italy.
Woodye arrived in Iowa City in 1926 at the age of nine. The large family resided briefly in a tent in City Park until they could find permanent housing. Her father admired President Woodrow Wilson and, he had decided on the name for the child anticipating a son. However life is hard to predict and a daughter was delivered. She was named “Woodrow Wilson Wilda Webber” or W.W.W.W. There is a question as to whether the name “Wilda” was actually on the birth certificate or perhaps inserted later into the family Bible. All things considered, Woodye was very pleased with her given name.
Woodye and Orville met at a Baptist church function, the Sunday Evening Club, held this particular evening at Laird and Ersel Addis’s home. The story goes that Laird suggested that Orville give Woodye a ride home in his car to H Street. It was not such a great distance from Fairchild to H Street. But one thing led to another and they were married in the new church building on December 25, 1952. Their wedding was the first official function at this building and took place downstairs in fellowship hall rather than the unfinished sanctuary.
The jail ministry began in 1973. Sister Rosemary had prayed with and supported Woodye when her mother was dying at Mercy Hospital. This was the beginning of long journey for Woodye, as well as Orville who supported her in the ministry. The following is excerpted from “Not Me Lord” from the book, “Women at the Well: Meditations for Quenching Our Thirst (Volume 2)”, Edited by Linda-Marie Delloff and Bernadette Glover-Williams, Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press 2003, pp. 240-241.
In Woodye’s words:
. . . . Sister Rosemary came often to pray for Mother and me. We became good friends, and she asked me to join in her new ministry at the Johnson County Jail, presenting weekly Bible studies. I had no desire to engage in such a ministry, but Sister was persistent, even after Mother died. I finally gave in, mainly out of my feeling of debt to her.
I was literally “shaking in my boots” as I climbed those steps to the jail and entered the gloomy library. They locked us in. Not even thinking what good it would do without a key, I sat as close to that door as possible. Sister provided the lesson. I continued to go weekly still frightened. Gradually, I moved away from the door and began little by little, to participate. After the lesson, we had time to chat with the inmates.
Eddie, the most obnoxious, vile-mouthed man I had ever known, was one who made these visits frightening. As we walked into the jail every week, we could hear him screaming obscenities. He would come to the Bible study, quiet down for the lesson, but then begin screaming as soon as he left.
One day, after the study, Eddie and I walked to the window together. “Woodye, why do you come here every week, anyway?” he asked. I knew I was coming to repay Sister for her kindnesses, but without a monent’s thought or hesitation, I said, “Because I love you, Eddie.” I was shocked. Only God could have put those words into my mouth. Then I realized that I did love Eddie and all the other inmates. Only God could have put that love in my heart! I heard God calling me to become invested in this ministry with all my being. I was to love the inmates. I was not to condone their misdeeds, but neither was I to condemn the doers. Rather I was to tell them of God’s unconditional love for them and of God’s call to repentance and service.
This was the beginning of a jail and prison ministry that I have continued weekly for twenty-seven years. After Sister Rosemary retired, I continued and eventually expanded the ministry to include writing letters to inmates, visiting prisoners in four other states, advocating for prisoners’ rights, and giving them yearly Christmas gifts and parties.
This was not originally a ministry of my choosing, but it has truly blessed me…..
I was active in student functions in the 1970’s and Woodye and Orville hosted me in “Adopt a Student Program” at the church. And perhaps little did they realize the relationship would last for about 40 yrs. Orville and my father were very similar in that upon leaving the house Orville would ask his son if he had checked the oil in his car, rather than saying “I love you” or providing a hug.
Woodye and Orville helped me make many transitions in life; a trans-America bicycle tour in 1976, sabbatical leave in 1990, through the flooding of 1993, and my move to San Antonio, Texas in 1994. I lived 15 years in Texas. Orville died the year before my return to Iowa City, and Woodye was living in South Bend, Indiana. I miss them. I love them dearly.
A prayer from Woodye Webber Kessler:
God of mysterious ways, thank you for the call to love the unlovable and for the blessings you’ve given me as I have striven to respond to this call. Amen.
On Sunday we gazed into the mystery of the Holy Trinity through icons. The Trinity, while an early doctrine of the church, was never meant to be a rational analysis of God. Rather, it is an enticement into fuller lived experience and deeper relationship with our one true God through joining in the dance of three unique divine persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The dynamic of self-giving, identity-receiving Love shared in and through the Trinity is the essence of the Way of Jesus. Shall we dance?
We were delighted to have our Mid-ABC Regional Executive Minister Marshall Peters preach on Pentecost Sunday, when we celebrate the birth of the Church! We heard Isaiah declare that God is always doing a new thing and reflected on how the Church – those called out from mainstream culture to share the gospel and build up the Kin-dom of God – is birthed anew in every time and place. And so it is with our faith community, being born yet again by the Spirit of Christ in ways we have yet to discover!
On Sunday we considered the Ascension of the Lord by listening especially to the voice in Luke’s gospel that tells the disciples to get their heads out of the clouds! Jesus’ ascension into heaven is not about otherworldly glory, but about Jesus of Nazareth withdrawing his particular historical manifestation from the world so that the Spirit of Christ could become more accessible to everyone in the world, all at once and for all time. The Ascension is much more a celebration of Presence than absence. But we have to keep our heads out of the clouds and use our eyes and ears to see and hear the Christ Spirit alive in other people, in all creation, and in our own hearts, if we want to get in on it.
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