Thursday, November 1, 2007
The Preacher’s Corner
An ordinary saint who embodied what holiness is
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about Cottrell Williams, the custodian of our church at Cleveland, Miss. This week I want to talk about Walter Markiewich (pronounced Mark-ee-vich), who headed the house staff at the church I served in Chicago. These two could not have been more different, yet each played a pivotal role in the churches they served and in my own progress as a minister.
Whatever formal education Walter may have had, I am not sure, but I do know that he was a highly intelligent and well-informed person. His family had fled the Russian Revolution of 1917 when he was just a baby, so that although he had never been to Russia, Walter had learned Russian as it was spoken in the home. The family had come first to New York City and eventually he had found his way to Chicago and to our church.
Now, Walter was a member of the Russian Orthodox Church, but when asked about that background, he would dismiss the past with an offhand wave, saying something to the effect that “Russian Orthodox — Presbyterian — we are all the same.” I thought that however much the theologians and ecumenicists might recoil in horror, his comment was an immense compliment to us; but Walter was always a picture of Christian charity.
He also saw many things with a certain kind of clarity that often eluded others whose judgment was clouded by societal privilege and churchly prerogative.
When I first came to the church as a seminary intern, Walter did not have much use for me. He’d seen lots of assistant ministers come and go, and how many seminarians? I soon found that like Professor Kingsfield in The Paper Chase, Walter made you earn his esteem, and for some reason I found myself wanting very much to have it.
Perhaps it was the observations he made on our preaching pastor’s sermons. Dr. Davies had been named by Time Magazine as one of the nation’s seven most effective preachers; but Walter (who ran the sound system and lighting for the services) would offer comments in my hearing that indicated the profoundest sort of critical insight. One did not expect to hear such informed critique from the “church janitor.” Moreover, I take it that Dr. Davies regularly sought Walter’s opinions.
Later I would learn that Walter served as Dr. Davies’ “eyes and ears,” keeping him informed (among other things) of how all the assistant ministers were performing. Walter enjoyed friendships with many of the leading members, as before the service, he tended the gate of a small parking lot behind the church. There were very few spaces, and it was up to Walter to decide who got in. You could be president of the church trustees, but if you were not on Walter’s good side, you didn’t get a space, and some, I will have you know, did not!
Our church fronted on some of the most expensive real estate in the world — Michigan Boulevard, called to Walter’s disdain, “the Magnificent Mile.” “Pure junk” he called the inventories of the elegant stores. “Overpriced merchandise to part the tourists from their money.” “Look at how they come into the service with their Bloomingdale’s sacks,” he would say. “Did they come to worship God or to shop at Bloomingdale’s?” he would chortle. He especially liked to recount the tale of the couple who brought their infant to the church nursery and then did not return to claim the tot until late that afternoon. Not only had they “skipped church,” they thought the nursery was “free” for as long as they cared to shop!
Although he lived just a block or so away, Walter did not have such luxurious surroundings as those Gold Coast addresses that drew the fast and the fashionable onto the sidewalks around our church. His was just a little room on a fourth floor Rush Street walk-up — a real, old-fashioned Chicago rooming house. In fact, Walter would have been just the sort of person that the church’s original outreach programs had sought to embrace when the congregation moved to its present location in 1912. Walter had worked construction on a remodeling project at the church, and hired on with the congregation as the chapel project neared completion.
When it would snow, Walter would be out well before dawn, making sure the sidewalks surrounding the church were clear for pedestrian traffic. One of the people who regularly walked by was Ann Landers. She and Walter were friends.
Walter despised pretension and false displays of religiosity. He had an unerring sense of who was genuine and who was phony. No amount of money or prestige could dissuade Walter that this or that person’s acclaim was ill-considered or undeserved. On the other hand, even the most humble could be accorded the privileges due a king. (Remember what I said about his dispensation of those spaces in the parking lot!)
Once a big tycoon died and his funeral was in the church. He was the owner of one of the city’s big sports teams. Of course, all the important people, including the mayor and the governor were there, and the black stretch limos circled the block. But when that man’s wife died about a year later, Walter took great satisfaction that an even bigger crowd was in attendance for her service. You see, she came to church every Sunday; her husband never took part.
Every year on Christmas Eve the Fourth Presbyterian Church had a midnight service. It took lots of getting ready, but it was the biggest crowd of the year. The candlelight and choir were magnificent beyond my power to describe. People came two hours early to stake out a seat. But at the end of the service, Dr. Davies always called on Walter to come forward and wish the congregation a Merry Christmas in Russian, and he would do this, working his way up the aisle to the lectern — walking with his characteristic limp, like the hunchback of Notre Dame. Afterward, Walter would invite us seminarians to his little office in the basement, where he would pour out a late-night Christmas libation, and we would raise our glasses to the Christ Child — again with Walter offering the toast in the language of his native land.
Walter had a sister in Michigan, and in the summer he would take a few days to ride the bus to visit. He was very proud of his nieces and nephews. Otherwise, we were his family, and on good days he allowed us to be his. But shortly after I left Chicago to serve in Holly Springs they found that Walter had passed away one night in his little room above Rush Street.
The church had a stained glass window dedicated to its housemen, one of whom had fallen with his tools even as the church was being built. I hope they added Walter’s name to the list.
As we come to All Saints’ Day, I like to think of Walter. He was the kind of ordinary saint whose life gives a clue to what real holiness should be.
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