by Kent Annan
Whenever George Pasley, Class of 1997, returns to Princeton (three times so far) he takes time to help wash dishes in the cafeteria, which
he did most recently after breakfast a week after Easter. He was at PTS to
read his poem “Therefore, Let Us Celebrate” as part of the Seminary’s
Easter Octave celebration of the eighth and final day of the traditional
high feast of Easter. He washes the dishes because he enjoys it and
because he has three years of good memories among the suds as a student.
This is not the practice of most PTS alums
George Pasley in his church's garden
Neither is working as a shepherd nor earning a B.S. in agriculture, which were both along Pasley’s path to becoming pastor of two congregations in rural Kansas—Garnett Presbyterian Church in Garnett (pop. 3500, whose main industry is three retirement homes and related services) and Miami Presbyterian Church, which is forty miles from Garnett and not in a town.
The ones who spend an hour
Kneeling on cold moist earth
Stones biting at their knees
Early March wind
Bothering at their backs
Planting peas dried and wrinkled
Know what a promise is,
Know the love that makes it
Know the joy that seals it
Know the faith that keeps it
Know the hope that binds it
To the harvest, yet to come.
Pasley, 46 and a bachelor, grew up in the country —
Kansas, Indiana, then a family farm in western Maryland. In Maryland, while working as a shepherd (really; he even had his own flock) and sheep shearer, Pasley became extensively involved in ministry at the First Presbyterian Church of Howard County in Columbia, Maryland, an 800-member congregation. Recognizing his gifts, people at the church encouraged him to attend seminary, an idea he had toyed with. He followed their advice to Princeton and prepared for his next vocation.
Poetry was always part of the mix as Pasley trained for the ministry of Word and Sacrament, though it was only a recent addition to his life. “About a year before seminary, a poem just came to me while I was praying,” he says. “The poem kind of answered this desperate prayer. After that I started to write.” Since he wasn’t a liberal arts major, Pasley hadn’t written or read much poetry to that point. But he started to write regularly and to share his poetry with friends. On special occasions like Easter or Christmas, Pasley distributed copies of his poetry as a gift to the PTS community through the mailboxes of students, faculty, and staff.
Now his poems appear regularly on the back of his church bulletins, “because if they don’t, some people start to ask me why I’m not including them.” Seven or eight times a year, he delivers a long poem as a sermon.
But the confluence of poet and pastor involves more than sprinkling poetry into his ministry. An admirer of Wendell Berry (a celebrated poet/writer and farmer who lives on a farm in Kentucky), Pasley thinks the pastor’s and poet’s roles in the community are almost identical.
“The job of both pastor and poet is to look and listen and understand,” he says. “You’re supposed to see below the surface and beyond the end of the day.”
As pastor, he has led his two congregations to employ their resources faithfully. Last year the Garnett church aimed to add ten members to their rolls; they added nine. Unfortunately, they also lost one member, a man who at 107 years old may have been the oldest Presbyterian elder in the country, says Pasley, “though I was pretty glad we only had one die.”
“With only fifty members, many over seventy-five years old, it’s hard to do a whole lot,” he says. “But we have our building, so we use that. God has been answering our willingness.” For example, the congregation set the goal of helping single parents. They then had the opportunity to provide needed space for Head Start, a child development program that serves low-income children and their families, to use for its family counseling and speech therapy. They are also trying to invite the wider community to three events at the church per year, which so far have included a lecture by a parenting expert and a piano concert by PTS director of music Martin Tel.
In a way uniquely possible in a small town, Pasley is involved throughout the community. He is secretary of the Lion’s Club, secretary of the Big Brothers Big Sisters chapter, secretary of the minister’s fellowship, and on the library board. He turned down being secretary of the Rotary Club, “because I thought that would be too much.”
Speaking slowly, with a bit of country drawl, Pasley winds his stories through the names and histories of people and places. In Garnett, he has taken up “flower gardening.” His parsonage garden of zinnias, peonies, and two large hibiscus shrubs is on the main street right across from city hall, so everyone in town sees his (God’s?) handiwork. Which seems symbolically appropriate for this poet/pastor. People pay attention to Pasley while he pays attention to them, to what is below the surface, to what is beyond the end of the day.
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