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Coming home

Man standing in front of a church

Glenn Wagner recently returned to his hometown for a pandemic-delayed high school reunion and Sunday morning worship in his home church. He shares his experience of this first extended homecoming in fifty years and gives thanks for the church and the people who nurtured his faith.

Michigan Conference Communications

Where is home for you? Are you, like me, among the 33% living in Michigan who were not born here?

Many of us travel great distances from the ZIP codes of our birth. We migrate for a variety of reasons. I have moved for education, for love, and for employment. Half of my high school graduating class have moved across the country and now reside in 43 states and two foreign countries. Yet, returning home again after five decades has given me a deeper understanding of the homing instinct in sea turtles who venture across the oceans for most of their lives yet return to the exact beach of their birth when it is time to lay eggs for the next generation.

The late poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou acknowledged this powerful longing for home when she wrote, “The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”

This is my story of coming home after fifty years away to visit for a weekend and my expressions of gratitude to hometown friends and for the people in my home church who embodied the love of Jesus and inspired my life of ministry.

Know that I love Michigan. My two grandfathers were born in Michigan. My undergraduate degree was earned at a Michigan college. Nancy, my wife of 47 years, is from Michigan. I have lived nearly half my life and spent more than half of my ministry serving Christ in Michigan. I live in Michigan in retirement, but my home for the first 18 years was in Elmhurst, a Chicago suburb located 18 miles west of the city.

Much about Elmhurst has dramatically changed. The neighboring Elmhurst Memorial Hospital, my birthplace and that of my siblings, purchased our family home as part of an ambitious hospital expansion soon after I moved to Michigan for college in August 1971. My parents subsequently migrated west to a town closer to Dad’s work to shorten his commute. The entire hospital has since been leveled and relocated in 2011 to a much larger facility in Elmhurst with greater visibility and easier access to major transportation arteries. My elementary school has been torn down and rebuilt. Many cherished merchants of my youth have been replaced in the heart of the downtown business district.

Thankfully, my spiritual home, First United Methodist Church, remains at the corner of York Road and Church Street, with a living witness for Jesus reaching beyond church walls. This congregation introduced me to Jesus, surrounded our family with love, and influenced me through regular contact with its pastors, who were important spiritual role models. I have clear memories of former ministers: Bill White, Emerson Colaw, Art Landwehr, Roy Larson, Donald Keck, and Robert Burkhart.

I also cherish memories of the life-shaping impact of adult volunteers who served as Sunday school teachers, youth group leaders, theater directors, and choir directors. Ellie Chapman introduced us to social and racial justice issues by taking us to a picket in Chicago for Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers. She also arranged for us to worship in African American churches in Chicago so we would learn firsthand that God’s great people are many colors. James Holderman was the vice-chancellor at the Chicago campus of the University of Illinois. He inspired us to value higher education and to articulate vocational aspirations. Rosemary Musial was a retired theater professional from Goodman Theatre in Chicago. She developed a children’s theater program both in our church and in public schools and engaged me in productions. Arlene Schmelzel directed the children’s choir and taught me to sing songs of faith. At church, I also learned about the life-enhancing importance of groups when I was elected to leadership of the Methodist Youth Fellowship.

Summer experiences at church-sponsored camps introduced me to living with others in Christian community and to the wonders of creation. I also learned faithful discipleship at church from Mom and Dad, who brought us to weekly Sunday worship. We learned from their adult Sunday school reports about generous support for missions, fellowship events, resettling refugee families, and modeling effective Christian discipleship. A leader of their Sunday school class and another cherished encourager of mine, Jim Wall, was the long-time editor of The Christian Century. Dad was chair of the building committee and oversaw construction of the fellowship and educational building addition to the church, completed in 1960. Mom was superintendent of Sunday school, which offered weekly education for children and youth of all ages and a week of Vacation Bible School every summer.

In high school, church offered me opportunities to serve on Sunday as a liturgist, to offer the invocation at a church banquet, and to help in planning for the annual youth Sunday worship experience for the whole church.

Most importantly for our family, when our sister Jane was born with extensive brain damage in 1961, we committed to physical therapy called patterning to help Jane’s development. Church volunteers regularly assisted with this therapy in our home for seven years.

When I experienced a call to ministry while in high school, the church pastor-parish committee interviewed me and endorsed the call. Those leaders introduced me to the district superintendent, who helped me understand the path and educational requirements toward ordination. Their counseling influenced my decision to attend Hope College in Holland, MI, which had a strong religion department.

It has been a wonderful experience to be part of the gifted high school class reunion planning team that Zoomed monthly for three years to plan the weekend’s events. As reunion plans progressed, and in anticipation of returning to Elmhurst, I was also aware of a strong desire to thank my home church for my faith journey that has taken me since 1971 from Elmhurst to Michigan, Connecticut, Florida, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Israel, Qatar, Italy, Brazil, Russia, Taiwan, Japan, China, and Great Britain. I am grateful to my first church family for inspiring me to a life in ministry that has included service in hospital chaplaincy settings, two churches in Northern Illinois and three in Michigan, and several significant volunteer posts of connectional leadership. I thank these people, hoping their continuing witnesses will inspire others as they did for me.

High school reunion classmates
Friends from First United Methodist Church reunited 50 + 1 years after high school graduation at the recent York High School class of 1971 reunion weekend in Elmhurst, IL. Pictured left to right are Betty Kuhlmann, Mark Schmelzel, Glenn Wagner, and Susan Thomas. ~ photo courtesy Glenn Wagner

On my October reunion weekend back in Elmhurst, I was blessed to share memories with many of the 157 York High School classmates and spouses in attendance. A foreign exchange student who was also a close high school friend emailed his regards from Japan. We toured York High School, which has been rebuilt since our graduation. We honored the memory of departed classmates. We shared meals and stories at planned evening and afternoon picnic events and over breakfasts at the hotel where most of the out-of-towners chose to stay. It was also special for me to reconnect with classmates known from church. Tom and Andrea came from Idaho. Mark was there from St. Louis. Susan drove from Indianapolis. Betty flew in from Virginia. Tim drove to the event from the north side of Chicago. Thirty years ago, I was honored to officiate at the wedding of Milt and Jan at First United Methodist Church in Elmhurst. They drove over 2,000 miles to the reunion from their home in Washington.

On Sunday morning, October 16, 2022, my wife and I attended worship at First United Methodist Church. As the greeter welcomed us at the door, I wondered if anyone in the church would remember me. Jim and Mary Eleanor Wall, the last people at the church I knew well, both died within the last two years. I didn’t recognize any other names in a quick scan of the rack of nametags in the narthex. The usher offered us a bulletin as we entered the sanctuary and found a seat in a pew before worship began. The familiar space evoked powerful memories. The congregation was celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of exemplary service by their beloved custodian and preparing for their annual pledge campaign to underwrite the church budget for 2023. Pastor Joseph Johnson’s encouraging message focused on God’s life-giving presence.

In a God-incident of wonderful surprise, after worship, the woman seated directly in front of us turned in her pew to welcome us with a genuine smile and interest. She said, “Good morning, my name is Marlene,” and asked, “Aren’t you Glenn Wagner?!”

I said yes and explained that we were returning to worship this morning as a part of our 50 + 1 York High School class reunion. Marlene smiled and said, “Welcome home. We were in the Methodist Youth Fellowship together. I am three years younger than you, but I do remember you. We are so glad you are back. You became a pastor, didn’t you? Tell me about your ministry.” Marlene graciously inquired about my life after high school and then shared gladly about her involvement in the Lay Servant Ministry program. She spoke enthusiastically about her ministries in the Elmhurst church and the greater United Methodist connection.

A later conversation with Kathy, the gifted church administrator, filled me in on current ministries as well as future dreams of the church to continue as a life-transforming presence for Christ by loving children, engaging youth in service, and feeding the hungry. The church has also found creative ways to use its building to benefit the greater community. Finally, it is encouraging to know that vital witness for Jesus still happens through people of faith in my spiritual home.

Yoke as a symbol of being yoked in ministry with Christ
A yoke that was hung inside First United Methodist Church, Elmhurst, IL, in 1960 continues to inspire and remind members and guests of the shared partnership we have with Christ in ministry. ~ photo courtesy Glenn Wagner

Just outside the sanctuary, an important symbol for the church’s ministry that was installed near the dedication of the church addition in 1960 remains a focal point. It is a yoke from a team of oxen to remind us that we are yoked in ministry with Christ, who shares our work and travels alongside our every step.

In Luke 18, following an encounter with a wealthy young man, Jesus responds to a question from Simon Peter with a promise of future reward to all who have left their homes and possessions to follow him. God’s mission for us and God’s presence with us are found wherever life takes us. But this follower of Jesus, who returned after 50 years away, received great nourishment for the soul and a new appreciation for the wisdom of Dorothy Gale, the child whisked away by a tornado from Kansas to the distant Land of Oz, where she learned a great truth that has also been confirmed for me: “There is no place like home.”

Last Updated on January 12, 2023

The Michigan Conference