Christian Pilgrimage and Personal Sense of Call
Pastor Lou Aita
The Christian pilgrimage is a journey that begins with a sense of call. The call serves as the opening clarion of the spiritual journey.
My initial exposure to Christianity was through the Catholic Church. From a very early age the concept of church and attending the weekly mass was ingrained in me by devout parents. Finding that there was more to the church than just the Sunday worship experience, the church became a major factor in the formative years of my life. Immaculate Conception church became the center of my life as well as my families lives. It was also the center of many family’s lives in the small town I lived in.
As a young man of 14, my musical abilities were honed enough to serve as church organist. This position opened to me a deeper understanding of Catholicism, the propers of the mass, and a greater appreciation of how the church functions within the lives of its congregants. The initial desire to heed the call of servitude to God, Jesus Christ, and the house built upon Christ came to me while at the organ console. I felt a deep human desire to be in the house of God, and share my experiences with whomever would listen.
My goal upon graduating high school was to become a Catholic priest. I had many unanswered questions which were affirmed by my uncle who was actively serving in that capacity. He was very open to my attending seminary but always instilled in me that it was more than just a career, it was a lifestyle that needed to be lived daily.
Upon graduating from Misericordia University with a degree in Music Education, my desire to perform music led me to the U.S. Army Band. I served as piano player and vocalist for the 389the Army Band at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey from 1986 to 1989. While in the Army, my thoughts changed from seminary to education. I did teach music for 13 years in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and spent 10 years as an adult basic education and GED instructor with the Pennsylvania State Education System, assigned to a maximum security prison, SCI Mahanoy, located in Frackville, PA.
My pilgrimage into education did not lessen my desire to continue church work. The still strong sense of call and performing church music directed me to Grace United Church of Christ in Hazleton, PA, were I began part-time work as organist and choir director. The United Church of Christ made a profound effect on me as I began to learn more of the polity and procedures of this institution. Coming from a Catholic background, it was refreshing to find a church that had such autonomy and an opportunity for involvement. Always being one that embraced further education, I became involved, with the help of the minister Rev. Dr. Jane Hess, in the licensing program for ministry while still serving as organist and choir director. The strong sense of call began to see fruition as I began learning more about the Bible, the Reformed traditions of worship and of course, Protestantism. Many family members and friends found it strange that I had separated myself from Catholicism, but that was not the case. Although traditions are different, the same God spoke, urging me to embrace servitude within the church.
My studies provided by the Penn Northeast Conference drove me directly to the heart of the matter. While absorbed in the academics of ministry, a curtain began to unfold along the journey. What became evident to me was that, as my uncle stated, this was a life that needed to be lived.
In contemplation, I looked at long range goals for myself as a minister. I realized at some point there would be an opportunity to pastor a church. Affirmation of this was further solidified by my work as assistant to Rev. Hess. She guided me through the procedures of hospital, personal care home, and congregation members home visitation. This was done through direct observation and role playing. I also gained confidence from a natural ability to become engaged with others and show respect for their position in life, thoughts, and feelings. As a young man, I was taught respect for humanity and that all of God’s people need each other in order to survive and thrive. This was one of the tenants that formed my thought process on reaching out to others. My classroom experience provided me with success in being in front of people speaking and teaching.
At this time, Grace United Church of Christ and three other local UCC churches in Hazleton began planning to join together resulting in the formation of a unified congregation, now known as Faith UCC. As assistant minister to Rev. Dr. Jane Hess my pastoral abilities were to be tested, and my personal call becoming a reality through action and example.
The next part pf my pilgrimage which was being involved in the jointure process along with the congregants allowed the call to ministry to flourish. Within the jointure process I saw joy, disappointment, and anger. Here then we have the separation of the academic minister and the human, feeling minister. I spoke to countless people about the joy of worshipping together as a unified body of believers, and how the Holy Spirit will continue to be our counselor and guide. This awoke in me my love for all people and a deep desire to reach others on a personal level as well as a pastoral influence.
The pilgrimage I was on thus far showed me the need for spirituality in each person’s life and the desire to be heard. Always a good listener, I entered into a graduate program in licensed counseling through Capella University. While at Capella, I accepted a call from the Nuremberg Charge as head minister as Rev. Judy Wadsworth entered retirement. Utilizing Jane Hess’ guidance and mentorship, as well as my own studies, I assumed the duties of pastoring three churches within the charge. My call to ministry had now been made real as I encountered the work of minister.
Serving three churches with three distinct personalities was a daunting task at first, but through organization, my love for the people, the help of God and Jesus Christ, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, I became quite successful as a minister. A “successful ministry” marks success through the congregation’s response to our study of scripture, their excitement about the future of the church and what we learned about Christianity and each other. Not every road was smooth. We encountered rocks and stumbling stones on our journey, yet, the sense of call was still very strong with me and my pilgrimage was continuing.
On March 10th, 2015, while at the Nuremburg Charge and in my fourth year of graduate school, I suffered a severe stroke. The stroke was due to an increase in plaque within my body causing the plaque to become trapped in the veins at the base of my brain. My prognoses was listed as poor and I was not expected to live through the cerebral incident. My first month in the Lehigh Valley hospital in Allentown still remains a blur to me till this day. I have only the testimony of my family as to what went on. Slowly, I began to regain cognition and some semblance of strength. My left side was completely paralyzed to include the loss of sight in my left eye, complete paralysis of the left vocal cord, and the loss of the swallowing reflex. My family was told none of these bodily functions would likely return. In addition, I developed pneumonia and a very bad case of MRSA in my lungs, as well as diabetes due to damage to the pancreas…. The journey continues.
While bed-ridden, I decided to take that time to take stock of my life as musician, teacher, husband, father, and minister. I began reciting Psalm 46 to myself and others, especially the words, “Be still and know that I am God.” I felt that only the power of God could help me overcome this major setback.
My sense of call, still very much alive, told me I must get back to church, I must continue my education. So, here the pilgrimage took on a different meaning. This pilgrimage was now one of a life that would possibly be confined to a nursing facility, or a life that continues on the road of servitude.
God did provide for me professionals that worked extremely hard to get me upright and out of a wheelchair, training me to walk with a walker and eventually a cane. I worked with a speech therapist daily and retrieved the swallowing reflex. Slowly, I began to see from my left eye again. Three months out of the hospital saw me back on the alter. I sat for the service, and the people within the congregation performed a major part of the service. The Veterans Administration operated on my vocal which allowed me to speak once more. I felt all of these things were a blessing to me from God. There was a plan orchestrated and through the power of the Holy Spirit, that plan was saving me and allowing me to return to my initial pilgrimage and call.
After one more year with the Nuremburg Charge, I accepted the position I now continue to hold. That is pastor of Emmanuel UCC in Dorrance, PA. This positive experience has provided the call to ministry a new life as I now feel much more secure and accomplished as a minister and my enthusiasm has become contagious to an aging congregation. Slowly, word is beginning to spread in the community of Emmanuel becoming a church that is vibrant and alive.
The pilgrimage is ongoing. I feel that because God is always working within us, always speaking to us, always urging us forward. Ministry is a life that is to be led both in church and the community. We spread the example of servitude to the church and its people to a larger global community. The pilgrimage and the sense pf call have made me what I am today. I am ready to once again move forward.