Wednesday, February 12, 2014


In 1958, my sixth grade Sunday School class at American Lutheran Church in Huron, South Dakota was comprised of an unfortunate number of cutups—me among them. One fateful Sunday morning we were in the process of achieving new levels of hilarious misbehavior when our teacher stood up and walked out. And never came back. Ever.

In the immediate aftermath of her departure we got quiet, and, stifling giggles, stared ominously across the teacherless table at one another. And then the door opened, and in walked Thordis Bultena—the Sunday School Superintendent. Our heads bowed in repentant expectation; the giggling stopped. Mrs. Bultena was one of those teachers who actually seemed to deserve—not demand—our respect. She was kind of a combination of Saturday Night Live’s “Church Lady” and the mom in “Leave It To Beaver.” She was no nonsense, but she was so darn loving. And the main reason for the bowing of one of those heads that morning was that she was my mom’s best friend. Uh-oh.

I don’t remember if Thordis (who remained with our class for the rest of the year) told my mom about the incident; I don’t think she did. I do however, trace my growing admiration for Thordis as a woman of faith and of the church from that time on, no doubt because I also came to an understated but deep realization that she cared about me. My baptism had been a quasi-emegency, and I never got to know the neighbors my parents had recruited to be my on-the-spot godparents. Thordis and John, I now realize, were my real godparents.

Mom and Dad and Thordis and John (about whom I’ve written here) were often together in those casual church potluck and backyard picnic table sort of events; they had the kind of friendship that could be measured in gallons of coffee (and—for John and my dad—the very occasional Hamms beer). And in what was a coincidence of employment-triggered mobility, both of our families moved from Huron to Rapid City within a year or so of each other, and became, as before, members of the same church. Often, on my visits home from college, and, later, seminary, Mom would say, “You should go over and say hi to John and Thordis.” Which I was happy to do. Of course we had coffee.

Then came the day, not long after my dad had died, I was visiting my mom—now alone in that Rapid City house, just down the hill from South Canyon Lutheran Church where my dad’s funeral had been held. I asked her how she was doing, and my mom—a lifelong woman of the church—said, a bit downcast, “I’m not sure how much faith I have right now.” And then she brightened just a bit and said, “But Thordis has enough faith for both of us.”

That’s the Church. Thordis and Vi: The Church.

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