January 15 is the birthday of Russell Sawmiller, Jr., a dear friend who joined that innumerable caravan of the saints in 2020. Russ was many things to me: senior pastor, colleague, mentor, a distant cousin on my mother’s side, and most of all a life-long friend. I am reposting here a letter to God I wrote after his death as a tribute to Russ on this his 95th birthday.
April 17, 2020
I’m writing this and asking that you forward it to my dear friend Russ who should have checked in with you early this morning. He never could figure out computers or cell phones; so I can’t send him an email or text, but I know somewhere out there in your marvelous universe he’s there and will be able to hear some things I should have said to him much sooner.
I first met Russ 49 years ago this summer when I had the good fortune to be appointed as his colleague and associate pastor in my first church after seminary. I’m sure there was divine intervention in that appointment because I had specifically told my bishop that I wanted my own church and did not want to be an associate pastor, and thanks to Russ I never really was, at least he never treated me like one.
Thanks, Russ for always treating me as a colleague. We were co-pastors in fact even though our titles never reflected that. Thanks for teaching me so much about being a pastor that I didn’t learn in seminary and didn’t even know what I didn’t know. You did that in a collegial way without ever making me feel like the greenhorn I was. You let me learn from my mistakes instead of warning or lecturing me, even when you had to clean up my messes. I think the only time you gave any disapproval was when I confided in you something I was too embarrassed to trust anyone else with. You just gave me one of those looks and a pointed rhetorical question: “Do you have a death wish?”
Since I heard about your passing this morning I have been flooded with memories of our times together, I didn’t appreciate those years at Indianola while we were up to our butts in alligators, but in retrospect they were some of the very best years of my life. I remember you giving advice like, “take a day off — and get out of town!” Sorry I didn’t do very well taking that advice to heart. You taught me from your own hard experience to be very careful about not becoming too beholden to parishioners who would expect preferential treatment or unacceptable power in church decisions. And, as you often said, “Sometimes it’s too hard to take it ‘one day at a time.’ Those days just settle for a half day at a time.”
I remember the day it dawned on me that we had to be related since my mother was a Sawmiller! I can’t believe it took me weeks to figure that out, and then not until you mentioned the little town of Kossuth where my mom was born. So we were distant cousins and maybe my job with you was some sort of nepotism, but I rather think it explains how well we worked together.
I am grateful for memories and pictures of you baptizing both of my kids. You broadened my perspectives on life, theology, sociology, politics and coping with personal tragedy in so many ways. Your wife had died of brain cancer just 3 years before we met, leaving you with two children to raise and a gaggle of women knocking on your door to take Marilyn’s place. You introduced me to a whole gang of your clergy friends who accepted me as a colleague and by example about how to do relevant and creative ministry in ways that I had never experienced in the very conservative church and community I grew up in.
In spite of living in the social unrest of the early ‘70’s, working in a rapidly changing neighborhood in a church in transition, i.e. dying, we had fun. I still chuckle about the time your friend Dick Teller asked us why we needed two curators for our “museum” where much of our large church building was described by phrases like “this is where the women’s society used to meet,” or this is “where the nursery used to be.” But then you taught me churches could repurpose spaces for community needs like the Neighborhood Services food pantry, Huckleberry House for runaway teens, and the first Ohio State University child care center. All of those programs moved on to bigger spaces as they grew, but you planted the seeds that are still serving that community 50 plus years later.
You taught me about collaboration with other churches in the University-Indianola Outreach program, and oh what stories Stan Sells had to tell us about funny experiences with those neighbors who lived in a totally different world than our church members. You taught me that church work and meetings could be fun, that good team building staff meetings and birthday lunches strengthened bonds that didn’t break in times of stress.
We played racquetball, not well, but it was great stress relief, and when I got depressed because a particular election outcome was not to either of our liking you gave me a nugget of wisdom I’ve never forgotten: “Steve, elections are like buses and pretty women. If you miss one there will be another one coming along soon.”
Our partnership included many Sunday mornings in the wonderful hideaway study up in the bell tower before worship when you’d tell me what the morning sermon was about and ask me to help you find a Scripture that fit. That last minute scrambling (aka proof texting?) was the exact opposite of how I had been taught to preach, and I must confess that many years later when I got the chance to teach preaching to seminary students I often used you as an example of how not to go about picking a preaching text!
By example you taught me and others to treat life as sacred without taking oneself too seriously. You shaped my ministerial career in so many ways, not the least of which was that my time with you was nothing like any horror stories I heard from other associate pastors. It was so obvious from the first time we met that you were different than many other stuffed-shirt pastors I had known who had made me reluctant to answer God’s persistent call to ministry. And it wasn’t just me that felt that immediate connection that made you such a good pastor and friend. When one of my good friends from seminary first met you shortly after we had both received our first appointments he told me how lucky I was and that he wished he had someone like Russ as his senior pastor.
I learned so much from you about ministry that I was ready to fly solo when you left Indianola for another challenge, just not as soon as I expected; but having a few months on my own at Indianola, a congregation where I already felt safe in an established community was the perfect basic training for the next step in my faith journey. I don’t think you planned it that way, but thanks anyway.
When four years later I was asked to take another appointment as an associate after having my own church my friends were aghast that I would do that. But because I had such a positive experience working with you it was something I could do. I’m glad to say my other staff experiences were mostly good — not as good as ours had been of course — but I do believe that was in part because I went into those situations with a positive attitude thanks to you.
I learned about generosity and hospitality as you offered your Vineyard cottage to my family when our children were too young to do our normal camping vacation. You couldn’t help that it rained that entire week, but being there stuck inside with two toddlers for a week may explain why I didn’t visit the Vineyard again for nearly 20 years. But when I did I was happy to return every year for the next four years, and those laid back weeks there with you were some of the best ever and something I looked forward to every year. The last year we vacationed together was 2001, and I’ll never forget that date because I flew home through New York that year on September 6th, just five days before the towers came crashing down.
I remember your loyalty to your mom and one of your many, many moves to be there for her in her last years. And speaking of moving! You moved so often I sometimes wondered if you were in witness protection! I hope your search for home is finally satisfied. I imagine Ralph has already given you a hard time about being late to join him on the other side, but I’m glad you two are together again with all your old Boston buddies sharing even more memorable years of memories than you and I have.
I’m so sorry your last years here were so hard, but I’m glad you really haven’t had to deal with the awful mess our world is in right now. If you can send us any divine intervention now we could sure use it.
I’m happy those years when you weren’t the old Russ are over and you are at peace. But I’m sad for the new memories we won’t get to make. I’m sorry I wasn’t as good a friend as you deserved these last few years but knowing the old Russ I loved wasn’t there made it hard. There would be no more boring retiree meetings together, no more cranberry pecan pancakes at First Watch, no more walks on the beach at Lucy Vincent or Gay Head.
I almost wrote “no more words of wisdom,” but I know that’s not true because after 50 years we share a bond that transcends death. What I’ve learned from you about life will always be a part of me. So, till we meet again at some First Watch or beach in the great beyond thanks for being a great friend, mentor, and the father figure I always wished I had.
So, thanks good friend for all the Russellisms, for the laughter and the tears of a life well lived and generously shared. As the finality of human life sinks in and the light of eternity shines a little brighter with you in it, I’m reminded of the words of Walter Brinkley, one of our elder members at Indianola. When Walter’s wife died he summed up the way I’m feeling in this world without you. He said, “I’m smiling through my tears.”
Peace and love,