Local Pastor Retires After Decades in Ministry
Rev. Dr. Vic Hunter is heading home to Colorado after decades of ministry.
One might recognize Hunter’s name. He is the pastor of the First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), located on Maple Avenue. However, his name is also linked to several area ministries – The Gabriel Project, Gift of Years, First Light (Addiction Help), Babies Needs, Helping Hand, Food Pantry, Prayer Shawls, Martha’s Kitchen, and The Carpenter’s Shop, to name a few. The First Christian Church has been connected with several ministries, whether they are operated by the members themselves or are housed at the First Christian Church’s Disciple Center for Human Wholeness.
Hunter said the First Christian Church’s Disciple Center houses the Gabriel Project, has housed a music camp, has focused on mental health support and groups, and is anticipating housing the National Youth Advocacy Program. (See fact box for more details).
Hunter was retired at one point, after working with fellow pastors at a retreat in Colorado. The retreat, Hunter explains, was for pastors who were stressed, burned out, or suffering some other type of difficulty. Hunter’s background served him well at aiding these pastors, as his background is in religion and psychiatry.
After working with the pastors for 20 years, Hunter felt it was time to retire, so he did.
“I was retired about eight months when I got a call from a little town in West Virginia that I never heard of. They said my name had been submitted to them, that I might be available to do some work. It turned out to be in New Martinsville,” Hunter explained.
He said he was told that the church had just purchased a funeral home that they wanted to fill with some of the church’s ministry.
During the conversation, Hunter was told about some of the issues that the area faces, such as access to mental health care, among others.
“It seemed to me that it was a call again for something that I was uniquely trained for, and so I came and visited and thought I would kind of help them as their pastor.”
Six-and-one-half years later, Hunter is turning 75, while his wife is turning 76.
“If we are going to have any time to visit our children in England and Colorado, we have to be able to walk. We decided the time had come to retire.
After 53 years of ministry, it is time for me to retire in the sense that I don’t have the energy that I think it takes to be a pastor; it takes enormous energy if you don’t decide to loaf your way through it. In one sense, you are never done. Your work is never done.” It is time for First Christian Church to have new leadership. I think they are going to have to decide who they are going to be in the future.”
Hunter and his wife, Lynette, have been married for 54 years and have three children. Two of the Hunters’ children live in England, while a third child lives in Denver, Colorado. A son, in England, has retired from a paramedic job with London Ambulance Service, and now is a violin maker and repairer/restorer. A daughter, in England, is a public health nurse in school nursing, dealing with child abuse. The daughter in Colorado is a pastor of a Disciples Church near Boulder.
The Hunters have six grandchildren total.
Hunter grew up in Dodge City and then served churches in New York City, in London (England), Trenton (New Jersey), and Evergreen (Colorado). He is the author of numerous books and many articles.
First Christian Church member Fawn Price notes that the number one positive attribute Hunter has brought to the church is “identifying strengths.”
“Not just here, but in the community, he brings everyone together and capitalizes on those strengths,” Price said.
Hunter is purposeful to do such, speaking extensively at how important it is for the church to reach out to the community, to the world.
“I find wonderfully gifted people, and my job as a pastor is not to do the work of the lay people, but it is to empower the lay people to do their work, to encourage them. That is one of the exciting things we’ve done here, and that is important to the ministry.”
“There are many problems in our world that, if we take as Christians, our cue from Jesus, need our attention – the poor, and all the problems associated with poverty… Jesus was primarily a teacher, and a healer, and a person that lifted the spiritual dimensions of life…. faith and hope and love. He was the incarnation of the love of God, so the church is the incarnation of Jesus. We are not a Holy society, we aren’t a withdrawn group in the fortress.”
Hunter said the church ought to be, “a bridge, which helps organizations get together and reach out together and bring their resources together. That is why we have these connections that operate out of the Disciple Center, whether feeding ministries, healing ministries, support groups… we are all trying to address a variety of issues.” Hunter noted that Protestants use the words “preachers” and “pastors” to describe the leadership of the church, while Catholic and Orthodox traditions use the words “priests and pastors.”
Hunter noted he liked the word “priest,” related to the Latin word “pontiff,” which then relates to the word “pontifex,”which means “bridge.”
Hunter said Christians are priests for Christ in all the world. “The priesthood of all believers means we are all priests and bridges or bridge builders. There is one thing about a bridge… it has to touch both sides, or it doesn’t connect. We are about connecting, bringing people together and building coalitions together. I think the First Christian Church has been a presence, building coalitions, and trying to be deeply rooted in the story of God and the human story.”
“Some of the bridges… I really have tried to live between the church and the world and connect those. I’ve tried to live on the boundaries of things like racial issues, and racial tensions, social justice issues. I’ve tried to live in the boundaries of faith, the rhythm of faith being prayer and social justice, worship and action. I try to bring those boundaries together.”
Hunter noted that he uses the structure of a church building as the example of how people should live their faith. “The sanctuary is where the people are during worship. Then there is the pulpit and the communion table, the altar, the place of Word and Sacrament…in the chancel. Finally, at the other end, is the narthex. That is the gathering room between the church and the world. That is where people come into the church and people leave the church, to go out into the world. It’s the meeting place of world and church. I think I have spent a lot of my ministry in the narthex.”
Hunter said he has always tried to be not just as a pastor of the church, but a pastor for the community.
“I like to be involved in community projects, to speak at service organizations and other events, bringing a vision of faith to the public square. I try to really be among the people. I’ve tried to participate as a chaplain at Wetzel County Hospital, and when I was in Colorado, the night after the Columbine shootings, we had a place for students and parents to find each other… I was there…and I worked in race relations when tensions were high in our public schools…that kind of thing.”
“It’s just really important to me, and it has been in this ministry in New Martinsville, to be in the narthex, where the church and the world meet.”
The Drug Epidemic, The Worship of Power
“I think the drug situation shows us a lot about the social health of our nation, the mental health of our nation…. the well-being, or not, of our nation. For some reason, there is a wide age-range of addiction,” Hunter said, when asked about the drug epidemic and its affects on the area.
Hunter continued, “I think there is a pain, or sorrow, or fear, an anxiety, about our lives that people are living in, that they they begin to self-medicate.”
Hunter said that we are never going to “criminalize and prosecute our way out of addiction.”
And, “we are never going to be able to drug our way out of the pain.”
Furthermore, we also “can’t blame the nations that produce and export their drugs into this nation. We are the consumers. We are providing the market. It is a market economy in America, and so we need to address these deeper, more difficult human issues, to address this disease.”
Hunter said there are three possible outcomes to addiction: prison, death, or recovery.
“I tell every addict… the first thing I say is ‘You’re lying to me. The reason I know you’re lying is because your lips are moving.'”
Hunter said truthfulness is what “can set us free,” but it is the first casualty for an addict.
“It’s not until the person with the addiction, and the social context that he or she lives in – family, church and friends, hit the bottom, that we can begin recovery.”
Hunter said the loved ones of an addict usually encounter five emotions when dealing with their addicted loved one, including feeling rage, lied to, manipulated, guilt, and broken-hearted.
“I feel, ‘What did I do wrong? I could have helped.’ But we feel powerless and helpless.”
Hunter said people need to learn from each other’s stories. “Those aren’t unusual feelings. I run into them all the time. How do we deal with those overwhelming and conflicted emotions?”
When asked what he felt like the single hang-up for the area is, Hunter said he felt people are afraid.
“The answers are difficult and complex. People want to have control of everything, even in a small town. They will do almost anything to be in charge.”
“Jesus put the choice right on us, when he says you can choose power or love… Love is vulnerable, and we are afraid to be vulnerable. We’d rather flex our muscles than weep with those who weep.”
Hunter said one of the great mistakes of Western Christianity is “to worship power.”
“It is very clear that we are healed by the wounds of God, but we worship power, money, success, drugs… anything that takes us away from the demands of love.”
Hunter said that his beliefs, to have action-oriented involvement to the community and world based in word and sacrament, is what he promised to do during his ordination vows.
“Our ordination vows are to preach, teach, prepare people for baptism, to minister to the dying, to the sick, to celebrate Holy Communion… If we don’t keep our life centered there, we are lost in the world.”
Hunter said every person, every town, and every congregation has a story.
“The Bible itself is primarily a story, and we think of it is as a lot of Do’s and Don’ts, but the central nature of the Bible is stories.”
“What we try to do at this church in preaching and teaching is to take the story seriously, and to find how our story intersects with the Biblical stories.”
“Most people think preachers talk a lot, but a minister is to listen seven days a week in order to have the right to speak 20 minutes a week.”
Hunter thinks we all should take more time to talk to one another, to share our stories.
“One thing that troubles me about our nation is that we are seriously polarized. We are polarized over politics to such an extent that it is difficult to have a conversation, and so we’ve lost the ability to listen to each other.
Hunter noted that 200 years ago, a French physician named Laennec, invented the stethoscope. Supposedly, Laennec had told his students to ‘Listen to your patients. They are giving you the diagnosis.”
“That is what we, as pastors, need to be doing, to help people… is to listen to each other’s stories.”
“We have given up listening for propaganda, from every side. I think that should be of deep concern.”
Hunter said that, besides listening, we need to also do something else important: Practice Hospitality.
“In the New Testament, under Paul’s writings, his instruction to the community is to practice hospitality. In that same context, he said “Welcome one another, as Christ as welcomed you.”
“We are in a time of shutting out, but I think the church’s ministry needs to be practicing hospitality.”
Hunter noted that the Greek word for hospitality is philoxenia, made up of two words: Philo,means love, while xenia (xenos) means stranger.
“The literal meaning of philoxenia is to practice the love of the stranger, and that is the Christian mission of community. If the stranger or outsider is not in our community, we may have a lot of things, but we don’t have hospitality-love of the stranger.”
Jesus’s whole ministry could almost be told in terms of philoxenia…. He’d eat with the sinners, or the righteous, the poor… Hunter noted that Jesus “rarely used the word sinner to describe people,” but rather, lost.
Hunter said that those, who were critical of Jesus, said that he was eating and drinking with sinners. “They were right,” he said.
“If we don’t stay anchored in the story of Jesus, we become lost.”
“Jesus used the word lost, and the Greek word is amnesia. If you have amnesia, you’ve forgotten your story and your identify.”
With the talk of polarization, drugs, and other troubles of today, Hunter was then asked how he remains optimistic.
“Optimism and pessimism are not the appropriate categories for a Christian to think in,” he responded.
“The appropriate category is “hope” for a Christian. I remain hopeful in the promise of the God of hope. I hope, but it doesn’t mean I’m a happy-talk Christian. When we look at that stuff, there is no room for a happy-talk Christian.
“It’s not the gospel of happy-talk and health and wealth; it’s the Gospel of faith, hope, and love. Hope is the important category in which the Christian lives, because we worship God.”
“God always has another surprise for us, and we stay open for that…. that surprise is going to be good.”
He noted that he is about to publish his latest book, “Stories of Desire and Narratives of Faith: From Neanderthals to the Post Modern Era.” He noted that this is a book in which he bears witness to hope. He said, “We can either live as “affirming flames” (in W. H. Auden’s words) or as “burnt out candles” (in Albert Einstein’s words).
And after talking of stories, Hunter was asked what his favorite story of the Bible is.
“The central story of the Old Testament is the story of Exodus… the liberation from bondage. I think that story can apply to the drug issue… People have bondage to Oxycontin, heroin, cocaine, etc, but also to money, fear, sex and many other things… “
“In the new Testament, the central story is one of death and resurrection. Out of death, comes life.”
“Both of those stories have to do with life, and if I’m anything… I’m a theologian of life alive.”