My tears were my diploma, another’s death my benediction, and my failure my ordination.

I wish to memorialize Arthur Forte, dead the second year of my ministry, poor before he died, unkempt, obscene, sardonic, arrogant, old, old, lonely, black, and bitter—but one whose soul has never ceased to teach me. From Arthur, from the things this man demanded of me, and from my restless probing of that experience, I grow. This is absolutely true. My pastoral hands are tenderized. My perceptions into age and pain are daily sharpened. My humility is kept soft, unhardened. And by old, dead Arthur I remember the profounder meaning of my title, minister.

It is certainly time, now, to memorialize teachers, those undegreed, unasked, ungentle, unforgettable. In memoriam then: Arthur Forte.

Arthur lived in a shotgun house, so-called because it was three rooms in a dead straight line, built narrowly on half a city lot.

More properly, Arthur lived in the front room of his house. Or rather, to speak the cold, disturbing truth, Arthur lived in a rotting stuffed chair in that room, from which he seldom stirred the last year of his life.

No one mourned his absence from church. The man had a walk and a manner like a toad, a high-backed slouch, and a burping contempt for his fellow parishioners. Arthur’s mind, though uneducated, was excellent. He had written poetry in his day, both serious and sly, but now he used words to shiv Christians in their pews. No one felt moved to visit him when he became housebound.

Except me. I was the pastor, so sweetly young and dutiful. It was my job. And Arthur had phoned to remind me of that.

But to visit Arthur was grimly sacrificial.

After several months of chair sitting, both Arthur and his room were filthy. I do not exaggerate: roaches flowed from my step like puddles stomped in; they dropped casually from the walls. I stood very still. The TV flickered constantly. There were newspapers strewn all over the floor. There lay a damp film on every solid object in the room, from which arose a close, moldy odor as though it were alive. But the dampness was a blessing, because Arthur smoked.

He had a bottom lip like a shelf. Upon that shelf he placed lit cigarettes, and then he did not remove them until they had burned quite down, at which moment he blew them toward the television set. Burning, they hit the newspapers on the floor. But it’s impossible to ignite a fine, moist mildew. Blessedly, they went out.

Then Arthur would increase the sacrifice of my visit by first motioning toward a moist sofa of uncertain color, and then speaking deadly words: “Have a seat, why don’t you, Reverend?”

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From the beginning, I did not like to visit Arthur Forte.

Nor did he make my job (my ministry! you cry. My service! My discipleship! No—just my job) any easier. He did not wish a quick psalm, a professional prayer, devotions. Rather, he wanted sharply to dispute a young clergyman’s faith. Seventy years a churchgoer, the old man narrowed his eye at me and argued the goodness of God. With incontrovertible proofs, he delivered shattering damnations of hospitals (at which he had worked), and doctors (for whom he had worked over the years): “Twenty dollars a strolling visit when they come to a patient’s room,” he said, “for what? Two minutes’ time, that’s what, and no particular news to the patient. They leave that sucker feeling low and worthless. God had listened to their heart, and didn’t even tell them what he heard! Ho, ho!” said Arthur, “I’ll never go to a hospital. Ho, ho!” And somehow the failure of doctors he wove into his intense argument against the goodness of the Deity. When I left him, I was empty in my soul and close to tears, and testy, my own faith in God seeming most stale, flat, unprofitable at the moment. I didn’t like to visit Arthur.

Then came the days when he asked for prayer, Scripture, and Holy Communion, all three.

The man, by late summer, was failing. He did not remove himself from the chair to let me in (I entered an unlocked door), nor even to pass urine (which entered a chair impossibly foul). The August heat was unbearable. I had argued that Arthur go to the hospital. He had had a better idea. He took off all his clothes.

Naked, Arthur greeted me. Naked, finally, the old man asked my prayers. Naked, he opened his mouth to receive Communion. Naked. He’d raised the level of my sacrifice to anguish. I was mortified. And still he was not finished.

For in those latter days, the naked Arthur Forte asked me, his pastor, to come forward and put his slippers on him, his undershorts, and his pants. And I did. His feet had begun to swell, so it caused both him and me unutterable pain in those private moments when I took his hard heel in my hands and worked a splitbacked slipper round it; when he stood groaning aloud, taking the clothing one leg at a time; when I bent groaning so deeply in my soul. I dressed him. He leaned on me and I touched his nakedness to dress him, and we hurt, and his was sacrifice beyond my telling it. But in those moments I came to know a certain wordless affection for Arthur Forte.

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(Now read me your words, “ministry,” and “service,” and “discipleship,” for then I began to understand them: then, at the touching of Arthur’s feet, when that and nothing else was what Arthur yearned for, one human being to touch him, physically to touch his old flesh, and not to judge. In the most dramatic terms available, the old man had said, “Love me.”)

The last week of August, on my weekly visit, I found Arthur prone on the floor. He’d fallen out of his chair during the night, but his legs were too swollen and his arms too weak for climbing in again.

I said, “This, is it, Arthur. You’re going to the hospital.”

He was tired. He didn’t argue any more, but let me call two other members of the congregation. While they came, I dressed him—and he groaned profoundly. He groaned when we carried him to the car. He groaned even during the transfer from cart to wheelchair: we’d brought him to emergency.

But there his groaning took on new meaning.

“I’m thirsty,” he said.

“He’s thirsty,” I said to a nurse. “Would you get a drink of water?” “No,” she said.


“No. He can ingest nothing until his doctor is contacted. No.”

“But, water—?”


“Would you contact his doctor, then?”

“That will be done by the unit nurse when he’s in his room.”

Arthur, slumped in his chair and hurting, said, “I’m thirsty.”

I said, “Well, then, can I wheel him to his room?”

“I’m sorry, no,” she said.

“Please,” I said. “I’m his pastor. I’ll take responsibility for him.”

“In this place he is our responsibility, not yours,” she said. “Be patient. An aide will get him up in good time.” O Arthur, forgive me not getting you water at home. Forgive us 20 minutes’ wait without a drink. Forgive us our rules, our rules, our irresponsibility.

Even in his room they took the time to wash him long before they brought him drink.

“Why?” I pleaded.

“We’re about to change shifts. The next nurse will call his doctor. All in good time.”

So Arthur, whose smell had triggered much discussion in the halls, finally did not stink. But Arthur still was thirsty. He said two things before I left.

He mumbled, “Bloody but unbowed.” Poetry!

“Good, Arthur!” I praised him with all my might. Even malicious wit was better than lethargy; perhaps I could get him to shiv a nurse or two.

But he rolled an eye toward me for the first time since entering this place. “Bloody,” he said, “and bowed.”

He slept an hour. Then, suddenly, he started awake and stared about himself. “Where am I? Where am I?” he called. I answered, and he groaned painfully, “Why am I?” I have wept at the death of only one parishioner.

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Since the hospital knew no relative for Arthur Forte, at 11 P.M. that same night they called me. Then I laid the telephone aside, and I cried as though it were my father dead. My father. Indeed, it was my father. Anguish, failure, the want of a simple glass of water: I sat in the kitchen and cried.

But that failure has since nurtured a certain calm success.

I do not suppose that Arthur consciously gave me the last year of his life, nor that he chose to teach me. Yet, by his mere being; by forcing me to take that life, real, unsweetened, bare-naked, hurting, and critical; by demanding that I serve him altogether unrewarded; by wringing from me first mere gestures of loving, and then the love itself—but a sacrificial love, a Christ-like love, being love for one so indisputably unlovable—he did prepare me for my ministry.

My tears were my diploma, his death my benediction, and failure my ordination. For the Lord did not say, “Blessed are you if you know” or “teach” or “preach these things.” He said, rather, “Blessed are you if you do them.”

When, on the night before his crucifixion, Jesus had washed the disciples’ feet, he sat and said, “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. If you know these things,” said Jesus, “blessed are you if you do them” (John 13:14–17). Again and again the Lord expanded on this theme: “Drink to the stinking is drink to me!” One might have learned by reading it …

But it is a theme made real in experience alone, by doing it.

And the first flush of that experience is, generally, a sense of failure, for this sort of ministry severely diminishes the minister, makes him insignificant, makes him the merest servant, the least in the transaction! To feel so small is to feel somehow failing, weak, unable.

But there, right there, begins true servanthood, the disciple who has, despite himself, denied himself.

And then, for perhaps the first time, one is loving not out of his own bowels, merit, ability, superiority, but out of Christ: for he has discovered himself to be nothing and Christ everything.

In the terrible, terrible doing of ministry the minister is born. And curiously, the best teachers of that nascent minister are sometimes the neediest people, foul to touch, unworthy, ungiving, unlovely, yet haughty in demanding (and then miraculously receiving) love.

Arthur, my father, my father! So seeming empty your death, it was not empty at all. There is no monument above your pauper’s grave—but here: it is here in me and in my ministry. However could I make little of this godly wonder, that I love you?

Walter Wangerin, Jr., author of the award-winning Book of the Dun Cow (Harper & Row, 1978), is pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, Evansville, Indiana.

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