Dear Fellow Custodians:
Over the decades, many individuals have guided my ministry—mentoring pastors, professors, thoughtful laypersons and fellow staff; but among those who have had the most significant impact on my ministry, few are as dear to me as Walter Markovic.
I first met Walter when I was a student intern at the Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago. He was the senior houseman (i.e. oldest custodian). Injured in a construction accident many years before, Walter walked with a shuffling limp. He also had a deep cough that betrayed his decades-long affection for Lucky Strikes. Walter would shuffle and hack through the church corridors with a big ring of keys, usually one step ahead of the next activity. Walter was the guy who knew where the shut-off valves were, what breaker panel controlled which outlets and when to open and close the seasonal air dampers, but his knowledge ran much deeper than facility management. Walter understood ministry.
I learned from Walter how to wash 2,000 glass communion cups without breakage, how to flip a heavy folding table without scuffing the floor, how to safely and efficiently stack folding chairs—these were skills seldom necessary for the pastors of Fourth Church but invaluable for my future ministry.
Walter was in charge of the signboard at the corner of Delaware and Michigan. For the weekly Friday organ recitals, Walter always included the names of the composers as well as the organist. He explained to me that you have to think about people’s interests when lettering a sign; those considering a recital would appreciate the warning if the composer’s music was weird.
Walter had grown up in Moscow until the age of 12. His parents came to Chicago to flee the Russian Revolution. His dad became the chief gardener at Chicago Beach Hotel, a south-side occasional residence for wealthy with suspicious income. After decades working various construction jobs, Walter ended up at Fourth Presbyterian. He told me the job had saved his life; it gave him something important to do and a way to serve God.
Walter explained to me that his job was to remove distractions. “If a lady comes to church in her white gloves and I haven’t cleaned the door handles, she’ll begin the service by looking at the smudge on her glove, not thinking about worship. Her distraction would be my fault.” Every month he would get the massive step ladder and dust the chandeliers in the sanctuary. “You can’t concentrate on a sermon when you’ve got cobwebs dangling over your head.” Walter told me, “An organized pew rack is the best welcome; it says we’ve been expecting you, here are the things you will need for participation in our worship service.” It was the same message conveyed by well-shoveled steps, an uncluttered narthex and sufficient paper towels in the restrooms. Eliminate distractions, and people are freed to worship God.
On the Sunday after VBS/VCT’s closing ceremonies, I made a big deal about the solid performance of our air conditioning system. Over the past several months our Property Committee has spent thousands of your dollars restoring the system to greater reliability and efficiency. All week it delivered a comfortable sanctuary through some of the hottest days of summer. There our young parishioners learned songs of praise and memorized the Lord’s Prayer. They did so without distraction. Walter would have been proud.
Striving to shuffle away the distractions, I remain,