WHY I WORK FOR GOD
THE REVEREND DAVID S. DUNCOMBE
Why does a man become a parson? How does he go about it? A young Protestant minister tells of the trials and triumphs that came in peace and war when he dedicated his life to his faith
ONE SUMMER evening in 1941 I overheard some of my fraternity brothers at Columbia University betting I would never be ordained. I heard three-to-one against being offered, with no takers.
Now, ten years later, I am a priest of the Protestant Episcopal Church. And I’d like to have some of that money in my parish-hall building fund.
At college in those muddled pre-Pearl Harbor days I was dubbed by the more irreverent “the Drunken Deacon”—my initials are D. D. and the adjective was a gross exaggeration of my efforts to prove even that early that a “man of the cloth” was as much a man as anyone.
Now, at my Holy Trinity Church at Hicksville, Long Island, I am called Father Duncombe, by the irreverent and reverent alike. For a year and a half I have been the vicar of this church, and I am the happiest man I know.
Half a dozen times since I was ordained I’ve bumped into people I used to see around before
the war, or men whom I met overseas. We’ll say hello, then they’ll likely break off to stare incredulously at my turned-around collar. The next thing they say is seldom the kind of remark you’d hear around my church.
It’s a curious and saddening fact that when a young man enters the Church—any church, that is—most people wonder why. Somehow to them it seems a strange thing to do and they usually feel diffident about asking for the details. Yet it’s happening all over Canada, the United States, and the rest of the civilized world all the time: in this single diocese of Long Island there are eighty young men in high school, college and seminary who plan to make their religion a full-time job.
It has often occurred to me that if I had been a moony or quiet youth then maybe people would think they understood why I chose the Church. So many otherwise intelligent people have an ingrained conception of “the parson” as a timid sheltered soul with heavy glasses whose main
pleasure is weak tea and buns at garden parties. But I was always fond of athletics—particularly wrestling, football and (rack; I smoked off and on; I enjoyed movies, dances, novels and parties in my Delta Phi fraternity; during the war I was in eighteen different countries as an ambulance driver and company aid man and got along fine wdth all ranks; I did five months as third cook in a Liberty ship. So a lot of people find it hard to understand how it is that I’m now called Father Duncombe, with a congregation of my own to look after and lead, sermons to preach, a church school to run. pastoral calls to make, sacred vestments, all the rest of it.
Maclean’s first asked me to tell why I was entering the Church one summer night when I was enjoying a holiday at Lake Couchiching, in central Ontario. At that time I was finding it pretty tough being back at school in a seminary after the travel and action of the war years. I said, “What is there to tell?” I was
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just a young man struggling from a lite start to fit himself for a job that vas still uncertain and remote to him. Now, though, now that I am a priest, row that I have felt this curiosity of people, even long-time friends, about vhy a man goes into the Church, I think there is something to say.
I don’t regard myself as a shining example, or feel I represent the best, cr worst, of the thousands of young nen who each year become priests, rabbis, ministers, pastors in any of the sidly divided churches that believe in the exciting idea of a real and present God. But if I put down here as simply æ I can the things in boyhood and manhood that led me where I am, then,
1 hope, it will add up to an answer to the questions of how and why. And, too, it might break down some small part of the barrier a lot of people think separates them from “the parson.”
My job averages about sixteen to eighteen hours a day, seven days a veek. It pays three thousand dollars a year with a free house (we pay for tlie utilities and for the car I use constantly). It demands all my physical, mental and spiritual strength.
I nder the Desert Moon
My God is an old-fashioned God; ny relationship with my God is an (Ad-fashioned relationship. I’ve been aware of both for nearly all of my thirty years. By that I mean I have been conscious of God as a perfect personal friend, an ever-loving and ever-understanding Father, present in every thing, place and person. In all my doubts this never changed; my doubts rose from my frequent disbelief that I was worthy of serving Him. My awareness of my God’s presence in my mortal life is now continuous and certain but I can remember times when t hat awareness came sharply into focus.
When I was an ambulance driver in the Middle East, for instance, 1 would often sit on the cab roof at night when things were quiet. There was no movement among the New Zealand infantry to whom I was attached, except far off the careful pacing of a perimeter guard. The brilliant desert moon threw all the shapes of trucks, artillery squads, maybe a tank or two, into sharp and bizarre relief. The slit trenches were ink marks in code against the sand. The echoes of recent battle were lost in the maze of silence. As I sat, my cigarette carefully cupped in my hand, 1 felt that 1 was just a spark of life in God’s great kingdom and my heart would fill with peace and humility.
Please don’t see mystical “calls” in any of this. Moments like these must have come to thousands of men: there has never been the slightest scrap of drama in my relationship with God. I mention them because, through such moments, I’ve come to an increasingly personal relationship with Him. Remember, too, that I was a postulant at the time that is, I had declared my desire to take holy orders in the Episcopal Church and was under the guidance of a bishop—and the milestones along the road of my spiritual growth were very real to me.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. When 1 was three my family moved to Briarcliflf Manor, a pleasant hilly wooded village in Westchester County, thirty-two miles from New York City. I had an elder sister, Caroline; my brother John came later. My father was with a fire-insurance firm on Wall Street and still is; my mother taught in the local public school and still does.
The only thing in those very early years that could have had any part in shaping my career were my maternal grandfather’s fire - and - brimstone lectures. He’s a wonderful old man, still belaboring the devil at ninety-two. When we have a family get-together these days my mother makes sure we don’t get arguing theology. She’s afraid my “modern outlook” will scandalize Gramp. Actually we are more in agreement than she thinks.
1 had no regular church life right through to my early high-school days. And maybe this was a factnr in my choosing the Church: in those years
of not being pressured to attend services I became genuinely interested in a practical kind of boy’s religion and began to find a real comfort and help in saying my prayers. I wasn’t always | prompted by the best of motives. 1 can remember one time I badly wanted some cash—five dollars, to be exact, j 1 was standing at the window of my j upstairs bedroom, looking out at the rainy fall day. 1 prayed as hard as 1 knew how for that money. Then I decided to take my dog Ghipits for a walk. To my happy amazement I found a five-dollar bill crumpled in the ( gutter a few steps down the hill. And | I thanked God most fervently. I should add quickly, perhaps, that my complete belief in the power of prayer is no longer founded on the coincidental gratification of any materialist want, and yet again, it was an answer.
It was a serious illness that brought me first to the Episcopal Church. In my freshman year at high school I suffered a ruptured appendix. It was nip and tuck for a while and when the doctors told my family I was going to get well they went to church in thankfulness on Easter Day—to the Episcopal Church about a mile from our home. When I recovered I went to a service or two with them there and was impressed with the color and pageantry of the service; in that church 1 felt distinctly nearer to God. In the following fall my Jad and 1 were confirmed together.
Very soon after, when I was sixteen,
1 announced, practically out of a blue sky, that 1 was going to be a priest. I’ve got more than a suspicion now that, like many sixteen-year-olds, I was trying to win some prestige to hide my adolescent blotches. After boarding school 1 went on to an arts course at Columbia University in 1939. In the summers I worked as a counselor ata boys’ camp in the Adirondacks.
It was while I was at college that I first felt my declared vocation set me apart a little. I noticed after a while that I wo ddn’t be asked to join certain of the apparently inevitable college frolics. Or that, on the conj trary, certain types would deliberately be as coarse as they could manage when I was around. It’s interesting how a man’s own religious insecurity is often reflected quite unconsciously in the way he behaves.
In the summer of 1941, wh *n 1 was twenty and a pretty uncertain postulant, the war caught up vvith me. Almost overnight I knew 1 should be doing something about it. Ina rather odd way this realization of my personal involvement in the war matured side by side with a deep-planted doubt that I was really meant for the priesthood after all. I couldn't see locking myself up in some sort of an ivory tower, studying to equip myself to preach love in a world of hatred and tragedy. Before the fall term got under way I decided to quit college and go up to Toronto to enlist in the British forces.
I was pretty stirred up about it all, but got talked out of it—remember, I was twenty.
I wasn’t back at college more than
a month or two, though, when 1 knew it wasn’t going to work out. Then I heard about the American hield Service, an organized group of volunteers who were going to the Middle East for the British Red Cross to be ambulance drivers in the Western Desert. I went straight downtown and signed up.
Once again 1 went into a period of years when my religion became just a regular normal part of life, not a fixed destination or an iron-clad career; when I was freed of the considerable mental pressure, the introspection, the atmosphere of “multiplying holiness” that worries a lot of postulants.
I arrived in Egypt in March 19 42 and served as ambulance driver with the English, Australians, Indians and New Zealanders, first in Syria and then from Alamein to Tripoli. Among a double row of ration decorations I’ve got the Africa Star with 8th Army clasp.
At Alamein one thing I learned in college stood me in good stead. My track coach had worked patiently with me to develop a short sprint to use as a race-winner after a half-mile run —it’s a trick of mentally reserving a certain amount of energy and wind, to be produced on demand. On this particular day Rommel was doing his best to throw Monty’s coming offensive off balance and artillery and dive bombers on sneak raids were making our lives miserable. I had parked my ambulance in a little wadi and was climbing out when l looked up into the scream of a Stuka. He was lv aded dead centre on the big red cross on my bus. I saw some slit-trenches about twenty-five yards away and, snapping on that last-minute sprint, I lit out. The Stuka was pulling out of its dive and the bomb was on its way as 1 leaped into the trench. I landed on the back of a long Australian. The bomb blast tore the back out of my shirt and a bomb splinter nicked the back of my hand. The Aussie grabbed his kidneys, which must still bear the imprint of my hobnails, and yelled, “Jesus Christ!” I’m quietly proud I still had enough wits left to say, “No. Just Duncombe the Deacon.”
When my year’s stint with the AFS was up I was supposed to return to the States but I liked the men I had met in the desert war and I tried to infiltrate the New Zealand Division. A sympathetic quartermaster gave me a Kiwi bat tied ress and peaked hat, even a paybook, but when headquarters back in Cairo heard about it they said, “No,” politely and firmly.
I had missed my planned accommodation back to New York and while hanging around in Alexandria I got the chance to ship aboard the Liberty ship James Duncan, then working the Mediterranean with troops and supplies. I was with her as third cook from April 1943, through the invasion of Sicily, until we reached New York in October.
Just after Christmas I was inducted into the U. S. Army, which was mostly a bore after the free-and-easy atmosphere of the Middle East. To start with, I spent the first five months learning how to pick up a stretcher to numbers, with all the boot-camp instructors eyeing my foreign ribbons suspiciously. I finished up as aid man with an infantry company for the last days in Germany, then went up to Norway with the occupation forces.
The men I met during the war were very important in my decision on my life’s work. A lot of them came from places I had never heard of, many of them were loudly agnostic, some foulmouthed in bravado, some secretly prayerful, some homesick, and some in perpetual terror. Some of them had some part of all these things. But they
were not the lost creatures who lurch through the novels of Norman Mailer, James Jones and others. The brutality of war will bring out the brute in any man, but in many unpublicized ways it can bring out the best, too. One way is in brotherhood —or comradeship. if you like. I had a tremendous feeling of kinship with the men 1 met in the war and was continually delighted at the willingness with which men of different nat ions, different religions, different color, would work toge! her and try to understand each other in the common aim of victory. In peacetime their governments were snarling over boundaries, tariffs, markets and spheres of influence.
The knowledge that all kinds of men could work together in harmony for a common goal helped me, I’m certain, to believe there is always hope they will work together when the way is shown to achieve the greatest victory of all—to live together in peace, trust and friendship.
In December 1945 I was shipped back home and discharged. Immediately the old doubts returned. I suppose it was the letdown of civilian life after four years of action and travel, but the thought of doing something that would show concrete results, today, tomorrow, still dogged me. I returned to Columbia and centred my courses around the alternative idea of schoolteaching. But, by the time I graduated BA in Jan. 1947, I was again sure only actively working for my religion could give me the chance of a worth-while life.
Prayers For a Landlord
That was when Pat stepped in. She was the daughter of Capt. Eliot Warburton, director of the United Kingdom Office of Information at Ottawa during the war years. Her mother was American. She was at the New York School of Social Work when I first met her and we became engaged shortly before she got her MS. In Feb. 1947 she rejoined her family in London and in June I joined her there for the marriage.
Pat came with me that fall when I entered the Seabury Western ’rheological Seminary, at Evanston, 111. We set up house in two attic rooms in a suburban home at twenty dollars a week rent. 1 got busy making the place habitable -such things as moving a wall at the top of the stairs to make a larger living room-bedroom. After six months the owner of the house inspected the improvements and decided he could perhaps do better than twenty dollars. 1 was financing my seminary education on the GI Bill of Rights plus what Pat was earning as a social worker in Chicago, and couldn't afford
more. We managed to fight it out until June, then we packed and moved. This incident severely strained my own capacity for Christian charity and I talked it over with my spiritual counselor at the seminary. He instructed me to pray for my ex-landlord every day. It was a wonderful lesson to me and had its reward when we found a better apartment for less rent closer to the seminary where we lived happily until my graduation.
That three years in the “hothouse” of the seminary is sometimes referred to by the students as “the mortal storm.” And that’s not far from the truth. I was much luckier than most in that I had a wife to come home to after each day’s classes, where I could shrug off the pressures and tensions of finally being on the threshold of my demanding future.
At this stage a candidate for holy orders often begins to see himself a man apart and it would be fatally easy for him to lose his bearings in the intricacies of theology. He is sometimes tempted, too, to give up and take any one of the vastly better paid jobs his college training has equipped him to handle. Also, in the searchingly religious atmosphere of the seminary, Satan seems alarmingly present, and the prospect of changing things for the better, frightening and remote.
Take the case of Bill Wright. He had been in the Army and was perhaps the most brilliant student in the seminary. He seemed to have a clear grasp of his vocation; he was a fascinating talker; he had an excellent presence and a winning personality. But his reaction to seminary life was to roister like a drunken sailor as soon as he got off the campus. He would horrify younger and more sheltered candidates in the locker rooms with lurid reports of his night adventures on Chicago’s Rush Street and other bawdy spots. He didn’t graduate with the rest of us and last I heard of him he was working ¡n a hotel in New England.
Nor was I immune from the same tensions. I hadn’t been at the seminary long before I was suspected of Red leanings because I was worried over what seemed to me a lack of concern in basic sociological problems. Only twenty minutes from the seminary were the terrible slums of Chicago but my fellow seminarians were staying up late debating the fine points of celebrating the Mass. I loved and practiced all of this ceremonial for what it was and is: an expression, traditional and beautiful, of man’s love for his God, and a means of blessed union with his Creator. But all of this was without meaning for me unless it led to a like fulfillment of the second commandment, which is to love my neighbor.
1 tried to start a discussion group on
economic and social problems because I couldn’t see how a man could lead others anywhere without even recognizing the obstacles in the way. For that matter, I still can’t. But the project soon fizzled out and I was an outcast to some of my classmates. Again my charity was sorely taxed.
That first year wore me to a frazzle and when summer vacation finally came round Pat and I bought one of those tiny Crosley station wagons that you gas up with a hypo and set off for Toronto where a guy I had met in the Middle East was living. We called the Crosley “Bildad.” There’s often mock argument among divinity students about who was the smallest man in the Bible—Bildad the Shu-hite, or “The Centurion who slept on his watch.” If you can work out the pun in the first-named you’ll know how big our car was.
We took a cabin for a few days on Lake Couchiching with our Canadian friends and had a forgetful time swimming, canoeing, dancing, yarning and campfire singing. And this holiday was one of the things that firmed my resolve to carry on to the priesthood. Out of the “hothouse,” among old friends from those very important wartime days, proudly showing off my wife and confidently defending my faith, I came a good step nearer a happy and practical concept of the job I could do.
We went back to the seminary happy and secure and two years later I graduated. Only sad thing that happened was that Bildad got run over by a Nash.
Amid the Drone of Jets
In the Episcopal Church graduation from seminary or failure to graduate doesn’t automatically mean either acceptance or rejection by a candidate’s sponsoring diocese. In either case he goes before his bishop’s standing committee; if the committee and the bishop are satisfied, he qualifies for ordination.
Bishop James DeWolfe of Long Island, who had been my guide and my friend, accepted me. Within ten days of graduation I was ordained deacon and assigned to Hicksville’s Church of the Holy Trinity.
Until a landscape gardener called Levitt got the idea of building a city of mass-produced houses with built-in television, Hicksville was just a village off the Grand Central parkway, centre of a three-hundred-year-old potatogrowing community. Now Levittown has all but devoured Hicksville with ultramodern food fairs, community centres, halls, playgrounds, swimming pools and miles of circled, crescented avenued houses. In the last three years the population of the area has climbed from ten thousand to forty thousand.
Set almost plumb centre in this beehive (the new Grumman jet-plane plant supplies the drone) is the white clapboard of the seven-room rectory and the adjacent church of the Holy Trinity Mission. It’s called a mission because, although it’s been established for more than fifty years, it has not yet been incorporated as a fully selfsupporting parish. With much the same feeling as a new office boy turning up for his first day at work I moved in on June 23, 1950. I had just turned twenty-nine.
I mentioned earlier that a lot of people seem to find it hard to understand why a man enters the Church. And I think some of the reason is that they find it hard to work out “what he does for a living.” Sure, they’ll say, there’s a sermon on Sunday, babies to christen, things like that . . . But
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what do you do the rest of the time? After I had been formally ordained deacon and taken charge of my twentysquare-mile area 1 found that for me “the rest. of the time” was up to eighteen hours a day of plugging.
Over the last ten years Holy Trinity has had five different priests and, naturally, things were pretty much upside down. There had been no resident pastor for five months. While Pat got to work setting our first home to rights I pitched in, first to find out just who were in the congregation. This meant calling on more than one hundred families loosely listed in the existing records. »Some of them had moved away years ago; others had lost interest. It was often discouraging.
But I did have fun on some of those first calls. At one new home in Hicksville a woman opened the door to me and then, although welcoming me, made frantic gestures behind her back. I looked over her shoulder and couldn’t help laughing at the efforts of two men (her husband and father) to shove a heer keg into the refrigerator. Vegetables, fruit, cans, pop bottles were spilling out around their feet. They rammed the door on the keg, but there was no hope of it closing. By this time 1 was in the vestibule.
“Why don’t you calm down and pour me one?” I asked.
With sighs of relief they let go the door, caught the keg as it fell forward, and fell over themselves getting glasses. I had arrived in time for their housewarming.
I’m sure the fact that I can enjoy a glass of beer on a hot day has very little to do with it, but that whole family, including the in - laws, are among my church’s staunchest supporters today.
The Lord Being My Helper
After 1 had called on every name on the list, or tried to, I found I had crossed off a good half of them. Then 1 got a big county map, taped it up on the study wall, broke my area into four sections with the church as hub. Using glass-headed pins I marked the homes of my congregation such as it was. This showed me at a glance where 1 should concentrate my efforts. I card-indexed the whole lot, too, using colored tabs to tell me when I had paid my last call on the family, if they were regular communicants, all their anniversaries.
At first I spent most of my time getting to know the regular core of worshippers, trying to encourage likely people into the church organizations, and in tackling the problems of keeping Holy Trinity afloat financially. My yearly budget is nine thousand dollars. My siilary comes out of that, also contributions to missions and to the general overhead of the diocese. This leaves close to forty-five hundred dollars for my church. To pay off the mortgages still owing on the church and rectory I need around ten thousand dollars. As a start toward that I pay back ten percent of my salary into the church treasury as a fixed tithe. As v\e have no other source of income you can imagine that Pat works nearmiracles in keeping us clothed, fed, and ahead of the gas company.
Six months after 1 got started at Hicksville 1 was ordained priest by Bishop DeWolfe. When the Bishop asked me in the ordered fashion if 1 would devote my life to God’s work and 1 answered, “I will so do, the Lord being my helper,” my mind flashed back fourteen years to my adolescent boast that I was going to be a priest. Can a man feel humble and proud all at the same time? That’s how I felt,
anyway. Kneeling before my own altar I felt weak and very young and inexperienced, and my neck itched under my new white collar. I prayed God to give me strength to serve Him by serving my fellow man.
As it turned out I didn’t have much time to worry about anything. One day I got up at six for six-thirty Mass, visited two parishioners in hospital, worked on my records, performed a marriage in the early afternoon, made some calls, worked on a new schedule for the Sunday school and flopped into bed at midnight. »Somewhere in there I ate twice, said “Hi” to my wife, wrenched my beagle’s drinking dish away from my daughter, Elizabeth Anne. At 2 a.m. the family of a dying parishioner phoned for me and I was out till 3.30. At seven I was celebrating Mass again.
Half way through I turned to say, “The Lord be with you,” and kept turning, downward. My acolyte leaped up from a kneeling position in time to steady me. I rested for a moment and was able to complete the Mass. I’m happy to »say that’s the only time I’ve been that tired.
To Explain to a Child
When you’re in the ministry there’s no whistle or time clock to begin or end your day. And anything . can happen in a day. People are always getting hurt, or sick, or just plain unhappy. Early one recent evening a woman’s tearful voice came over the phone announcing that she was in serious trouble. We met in the church a few minutes later. She told me that differences with her husband had provoked a final quarrel. She had left him and would never return. We talked for more than an hour. In the end she took refuge with some neighbors while I went in to talk with her husband. At nine o’clock they were together again but it was another two hours before I left to return to my supper which Pat had kept warm.
As the months passed more pins showed up on my map, more cards bearing names which run through the
alphabet from Banashefski, Fuchs and Gibson to Herdina, Mackenzie and Yaw appeared in my current file, attendances picked up, the church organizations — vestry, altar guild, women’s auxiliary, young people’s fellowship, the church school and its PTA —began to show real life, and I began to get ideas about expanding the parish hall. At the time of writing my charge has increased to two hundred and thirty-five families; my total congregation to more than five hundred.
If a parson should ever feel a small success going to his head something will usually happen to bring him down to earth.
Once when I was baptizing the child of a family the church usually sees only at weddings and funerals 1 asked the required question: “Hath this child
been already baptized, or no?”
“Heck no!’’ said the father. “Whaddaya think we brought her here for?”
Another time 1 was celebrating Holy Communion and in the act of administering the chalice I came to a woman who had a young child at the rail with her. 1 gave the woman the chalice, saying: “The blood of our Lord Jesus Christ which was shed for thee . . .” Whereupon the child piped up: “Is it really blood, mummy?” Afterward I made my first attempt to explain the doctrine of the Real Presence of the Body and Blood of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament to a four-year-old child. It wasn’t easy.
In my study I’ve got a collection of cartoons about parsons and their sermons, of which my favorite shows a tycoon shaking hands with the minister outside the church and saying: “I don’t get here as often as I should, Reverend, but I frequently catch your stuff on the radio.” My “stuff”—the Sunday morning sermon—is my toughest single chore.
Came a Tinkling Symbol
I write it on Friday on a battered Remington, often with my daughter and my dog Ranger both trying to get into my lap. It should be easy, telling what is traditionally called “the greatest story ever told.” But what is not so easy is to take those very simple yet devastatingly complete truths related by the Apostles so long ago in a very different age and show my people that they are just as true and vital today.
One Friday recently I was trying to get my sermon down on paper and 1 had made a start with the quote, “Though I speak with the tongues of men and angels, and have not love,
I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling symbol.” Then my phone rang. It was a friend of the church who works in the office of the Yankees’ ball club. He told me he had got it fixed for twenty-five kids and two adults from the parish to see the homecoming game the next afternoon on a pass. Could 1 round up the gang in time?
For the next two hours I did nothing but telephone: Who could spare the
time to help drive five carloads of children to the city, get them all safely on the subway and home again? Which of the children in our big brood were first in line for a treat? How much money would they need—at least one coke and one hotdog per head? My own hopes for a comparatively lazy Saturday flew out the window.
In the midst of this the front doorbell of the rectory sounded and Pat called me into the living room to meet a spry old widower of seventy-two who had brought along his sixty-nine-year-old prospective bride to meet me. Clearing my mind of sermons and soda pop I got busy arranging their ceremony.