Pastors' Memoirs

Gordon V. "Ben" Nelson Jr., 1934 – 2005

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Gordon V. "Ben" Nelson Jr. was born in a log cabin in Champs, Virginia, on Feb. 20, 1934, to Gay and Gordon Nelson Sr., the second of their five children. He grew up in McKinney, Virginia, and graduated from Sunnyside-McKinney High School. After a brief stint working with a state survey party, Ben responded to the call to ordained ministry by graduating from Randolph-Macon College and Duke Divinity School. In the years of his active ministry (1955-2000) Ben served at Powhatan, Fredericksburg, South Sussex, Winterpock, Highland (Colonial Heights), Highland Park (Richmond), campus minister at Virginia Commonwealth University, Basic, St. John’s-People’s, Aldersgate (Chesapeake), St. James and chaplain at Ferrum, Cherrydale, Culmore, St. Stephen’s (Alexandria), Park Place (Norfolk) and Mt. Vernon (Alexandria). On March 7, 1971, he and Alice Brown were married at a morning worship service at Highland Park, which included celebration of the Eucharist and Ben singing a solo to his bride. Their marriage produced four sons (Mark, Jonathan, David, and Lee) and many happy memories, including creative annual anniversary celebrations that took them to such places as San Francisco, Seattle, and Chicago (the last one a whirlwind one day trip).

  I met Ben when he was in his early 30s and I was a teenager at Highland Park. I had never known a young preacher, and was impressed. He was easy to talk to, fun to be with, and had a sports car. He had time for teens. After Sunday evening worship, we went to his house to hang out. He counseled us on how to get approval from the official board for a dance in the church social hall. He played softball for the church and coached church basketball teams for the teens. He was interested in the arts, and gave leadership to the conference’s Creative Arts Workshops. He adapted literary works to the church stage, including Dickens’ "Christmas Carol," and his musical about the appointment process (which included his adaptation of "Matchmaker, Matchmaker, Make Me a Match").

  Ben’s creativity and commitments served the church well. He developed a summer-long Vacation Bible School program for the children of Highland Park UMC and the neighborhood in an effort to bring our new black neighbors into the church, and staffed it with college students. Later, Ben architecturally designed Aldersgate UMC in Chesapeake, something of which he was immensely proud. He was also proud of the fact that he was among the first clergy to serve a cross-racial appointment when he was the pastor of St. John’s-People’s Charge.

  Ben broadened my understanding of what it meant to be a Christian. For example, in discussing the issue of creation and evolution, Ben taught our youth group how to understand the Bible critically, what it is communicating, and how it is interested in something different than simple scientific knowledge and facts. He confronted and held the church accountable about contemporary issues such as race or Vietnam, and did so in an encouraging and loving way. He did the same thing in countless conversations with this racist teen as he pressed and probed me about integration and civil rights for all; and God’s grace changed me through his ministry and care.

  Even when Ben was treated shabbily by the institution, he continued to serve Christ and love the church. He was among the first to decide he wanted to live with his family in his own home, and rarely fought back when he was punished for his commitment to that vision. Clergy with housing allowances today owe a debt to Ben and his commitment and sacrifice. He was a quiet warrior. Similarly, we have district chaplains and a process for helping clergy transition out of ministry in large part to Ben’s compassion for folks whom others simply wished to dismiss.

  Ben’s hand and influence continues in much of what I do in campus ministry today. The critical contemporary issues may have changed, but he taught me the church is where they should be discussed. He taught me to love God with all my mind, and that there was no issue or information that could shatter my faith. He exemplified humility for me (a lesson I still strive to learn), was gracious and kind, rarely losing his sense of humor or his temper, and embodied gentle greatness. He never drew attention to himself, but did good things for the right reasons.

  Ben died early in the morning on May 16, 2005, in the company of his children and wife, and was welcomed into the strong embrace of the Risen Christ he served so well. Thanks be to God for his life, his ministry, and his faithful witness to the One who is our hope and peace and joy.

— Rev. David M. Hindman

 

 

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