With gentle acceptance for all
Growing up, our family traveled a great deal, but we managed to celebrate God every Sunday. It was always in a different church/synagogue/temple/shrine around the country, or at an impromptu non-denominational service at a campground, or sometimes just me and my mom at the top of a mountain (my favorite place to feel His love.) Looking below at the little towns, the abundance of trees, rivers that looked like trickles, and sunrays highlighting everything, we basked in the spiritual love that we knew was all around us as we inwardly expressed appreciation and awe. Twenty-five years ago, married with children, I searched for a church that could be that meaningful for our family, and wandered into Pilgrim Lutheran Church on Warwick Avenue. The facility itself had beautiful stained-glass windows and was aesthetically welcoming. Pastor Dennis Kohl, a stunningly pleasant man, welcomed me with a smile. He exuded spirituality yet commonality. He was one of us! During mass on Sundays, he would pass along the messages from the Bible using down to earth, practical words pertaining to every day life. His mantra was that everyone was loved, including those "amongst the least of us.” Of course, he was also a wise theologian, providing analogies, interpretations and inspiration to those more classically religious, but it was his philosophy of inclusion and love for all warmed my heart. My family thrived in this church; Pastor Kohl's philosophy of acceptance and forgiveness was in the air. Having children with disabilities, including a son who was denied entrance to a parochial school because of his blindness, it was a welcome change for them to provide a Large Print Bible and modifications to the Sunday School Program so he could participate fully. It was also a welcomed accommodation when they provided an American Sign Language interpreter for my daughter who is deaf. When my son, Steven, who is on the autism spectrum, was baptized at the age of four, it was acceptable for him to climb under the pastor's vestments to hide during the ceremony. This same son also hid under the pew when it came time for first communion, and Pastor Kohl empathetically walked halfway down the aisle to his pew, knelt down, and gave him communion in his hidden spot. Perhaps it was with Angel that he had the biggest effect. Angel, who had been severely abused as an infant and toddler, was customarily mute on the topic, hiding it away to prevent its recall. Angel found himself drawn to Pastor Kohl and his gentle manner, expressing the horror of his past and fear for the future and his emotional stability. Pastor listened patiently as Angel's story came pouring out. With an arm on his shoulder, he suggested Angel look at the bigger picture, the supportive family with whom he now lived, and all of the wonderful possibilities that awaited him in the future. From that moment on, every time Angel saw Pastor Kohl's smile, he was reminded that he had wonderful opportunities ahead of him and this mitigated fears brought on by his abuse. My own life choices have been affected by this wise man; a man who espouses acceptance despite race or nationality, sexual orientation, sinner or saint, friend or foe. When my youngest daughter had a gender identity issue, we accepted that she wasn't "broken,” but a child of God to be loved and guided to choose the best path for her.
After 25 years, Pastor Kohl is retiring from Pilgrim on August 12th. There are not enough words to express my gratitude for what he has quietly done for my family, and undoubtedly done for others. Like the story of Jesus who multiplied the fish for a crowd to eat, Pastor Kohl's guidance and love has multiplied within the families whom he served. We all have eaten well!
Pastor Dennis Kohl at the First Communion of his grandson, Arlen McMahon, on July 21. (Photo courtesy of Laurie Linden)