Sunday, May 27, 2001

Clergyman's uphill path to virtue

        Gene Wells retired last Sunday after 45 years. His son, the Rev. David Wells, offered the farewell sermon. The rest of us rose from the old wooden benches and applauded.

        We sang Hymn No. 711, “For All the Saints,” then the organist played “The Emperor's Fanfare” as Gene walked down the aisle for the last time as the church's minister. “Well done, good shepherd,” someone said.

        The Rev. Gene Wells left having done what he could. A minister's job is not to make us better people. It's to tell us how. To urge us to try. The rest is up to us.

        He was packing his office Wednesday, a lifetime of work loaded into cardboard boxes. This is what retirement looks like: A space filled with boxes, a 65-year-old man sitting quietly in an easy chair, alternately reading and gazing out the window.

        A question interrupted his day.

        “Tell me,” I asked, “what it means to be a good man.”

        I'm not terribly religious. I'm certainly not a zealot. When people praise God for passing an exam or making a jump shot, I reach for my coat.

        I go to church for one selfish reason: I enjoy it. Everyone should have a place to go an hour a week to feel good. Church is mine.

        Gene Wells had a talent beyond being a good man. He could speak straight into you. He owned the preternatural calm common among the clergy. But his words were elevators. When you listened to him, faith became simpler. You wanted to do good.

        I remembered the line from the movie Saving Private Ryan. It came in the last scene, when Ryan, now elderly, revisited the American cemetery above Omaha Beach.

        “Tell me I've been a good man,” Ryan said to his wife.

        Tell me I've done right. Tell me at least that I've tried. Tell me I've been worth a life's journey.

        Tell me what it means to be a good man.

        It seems vitally important now, as Cincinnati tears itself apart with hate.

        Tell me why everyone talks, but no one listens. Tell me why we're a city shouting from opposite sides of the fence. Tell me why we enjoy it so much. We must. If we didn't, we'd quit.

        Tell me what it means to be a good man.

        Gene Wells had made a list. An outline, points marked A through F, each topic with subsections numbered 1 through 4. The syllabus on goodness, from a man who would know.

        “A good man does the right thing whether he feels like it or not,” Gene said. “A good man wants to be on the growing edge in the understanding of himself, of life, of his faith. A good man demonstrates good will to all persons.”

        A good man “walks the second mile,” Gene said.

        When do we walk the second mile? We're only as good as the way we treat each other. We're never better than when we do it with care.

        Gene Wells spoke the language of ideals. His sermons were echoes of hope. They weren't meant to mirror reality. They were calls to rise above it. Each was a summons to be the best we can be. Maybe that's what it means to be a good man.

        “There are times when you have to struggle to be a good person. Doing the right thing is like walking uphill,” Gene said. “It takes effort.”

        Cincinnati needs to change. Change is a walk uphill. It is time for us to be good men. To try to make our journey worthwhile. Anybody up for it?



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