Saints I Have Know: Jerry Vanice

Saints I Have Known — Jerry & Ethel Vanice


X COUNTRYSIDE COMMUNITY UCC  When I was growing up at Countryside Community United Church of Christ in Omaha, Nebraska I was unaware of how many truly talented people were a part of that community of faith, where I was growing up.   Warren Buffet attended with his wife Susan.   One of my Sunday school teachers was an executive Vice-President of the Union Pacific Railroad. Another Sunday school teacher, Mark Anthony, was a salesman, but before he went into sales, he had been a lion tamer in the circus. The Sunday school teacher I remember most fondly was Jerry Vanice, who was the President of the Omaha Grain Exchange.


X IMPORTANCE OF LOVEJerry took a genuine interest in the young people in his Sunday School Class, and he always emphasized the importance of love — God is love – Jesus was the embodiment of love, and we are to embody the way of Jesus. When I was a senior in high school, a friend of mine, Dwight Burney, from another church, First Central Congregational in downtown Omaha, set to work organizing an urban immersion experience for young people in the Nebraska Conference of the United Church of Christ. We had two dozen youth come from all over Nebraska for an experience about race and urban affairs. Most of the young people attending were from towns of less than 10,000.


X PETER KIEWITT PLAZA Jerry Vanice took an interest in this urban experience for young people, because he felt a concern for racial justice. He offered to take all of the participants to dinner at the Omaha Club atop the Peter Kiewitt Plaza in Omaha, one of the City’s tallest buildings at the time, about a block from First Central Church, where we were spending the night. Twenty-four young people ordering off of the menu of an exclusive club was not an empty gesture.


X NOW I KNOW WHAT WHITE POWER IS The Kiewit Plaza is still the home office of Warren Buffet’s Investment Company Berkshire Hathaway. From the top floor we could see the City laid out beneath us. The dazzling lights of the down town as opposed to the more darkened streets of the Near North Side. After a really nice dinner we were riding the elevator down to the street level and a girl from Franklin, Nebraska, population 1,200, said, “I don’t know if I understand Black Power, but now I know what White Power is.” Jerry remarked later that that elevator ride was worth everything he had paid for the dinner.


X CRISIS OF FAITHThe memory I most want to share about Jerry and his wife Ethel was after I had graduated from High School, left Omaha and gone on to Yale Divinity School. I was having a crisis of faith over the church. I truly believed that the way of Jesus was the way of life to which God calls us, but the church, the institutional church was at best disappointing. Maybe sort of like people today who claim to be spiritual but not religious, or people who say, “I like your Jesus, but not your church.” I was suffering a crisis of faith because of the tremendous gap between the values of Jesus and the way most congregations behave.


X JERRY & ETHEL VANICE  And then my mother sent me a newsletter article about a mission project Jerry and Ethel Vanice had undertaken. Jerry felt called by God to use his abilities in mission. He was the President of the Omaha Grain Exchange, he was an expert in agriculture and agri-business. And he felt there was some way his skills and knowledge could be used in mission. He began making inquiries and before long he was offered an opportunity to serve with Technoserve as an agricultural missionary in Uganda. But then he began to have second thoughts. After all he would have to make a commitment for between one and two years of service during his peak earning years. His heart said, “Yes,” his head said, “No!” He wrestled with this call in prayer. Sort of like a “Still Speaking Devotional” written by Mari Luti a couple of weeks ago.


X DOES GOD KEEP YOU AWAKE AT NIGHT My seminary once ran an ad campaign featuring this question—“Does God keep you up at night?” I thought it was awful. So did some other professors. We couldn’t imagine attracting anyone to our school with that hokey tag line.               That ad was so successful that I often try to take credit for it. Applicants said it rang completely true. They hadn’t been sleeping soundly for years. They’d fend off God’s insistence during the day, but the Glory of the Presence woke them, trembling, in the wee hours.             What made me tremble were the huge sacrifices they made to say ‘yes.’ When I’d ask why, they said they finally just could not not do it. When they reviewed their lives, they realized that they were shot through with a certain inevitability.

SLIDE 10: WHOM SHALL I SEND?              It’s not only seminarians who sense that inevitability. All kinds of people have felt sort of doomed to discipleship. We like to

Chibelela farmer Tanzania

Chibelela farmer Tanzania

think we choose our paths in life, and theoretically we do. But, as Mark Wilson observed, when you find yourself trembling in the presence of the true and living God, choosing seems irrelevant. Instead, when God asks, “Whom shall I send?,” you tell God to send you, even ‘though it never before entered your mind that you could be ready, willing, or able to do any such thing.’              Once you get a glimpse of God’s glory, it’s already too late for choosing. Your feet discover a will of their own, your hands drop the nets by the shore, and off you go, trembling, terrified, and glad.


X WHAT WOULD YOU DO IF YOU WERE NOT AFRAID    Jerry Vanice had a glimpse of God’s glory that would not let him go, and so despite fears and doubts he and Ethel went to Uganda for two years. In Uganda Jerry first tackled the problem of how to make fence posts in an area with no trees or wood. Unfenced cattle were eating the grain people needed to survive. He came up with a method of making fence posts from mud. Then Jerry noted that the farmers in his area had to haul there grain 20 twenty miles to a mill, a day’s journey, where it could be ground into flour. Jerry helped them construct a hammer mill that reduced their time in transportation and the cost of producing flour. After working with local authorities Jerry finally helped the Ugandans create a grain exchange, where farmer’s produce could be bought and sold freely for fair prices. These three ideas were important practical projects that improved the lives of the people with whom Jerry and Ethel were working.


X GOD LOVES US ALLJerry spoke movingly of an Easter Sunrise Service in the bush in Uganda, where he and Ethel were the only non-Africans attending. In the light of that African sunrise, as they shared communion with the people of their village, Jerry and Ethel truly knew that God is everywhere calling to all people. The color of our skin does not matter God loves us all.


X RUSSIAN CROOP FAILUREIn telling his story Jerry saved what he believed was the best part of his story for last. He said, “When I was trying to make up my mind whether or not to answer the call to serve as a missionary, I was anxious and concerned about all the income I was afraid I would lose while I was in Uganda 1971 – 1972. Well I returned to the States early in the fall of 1972, when the Russians experienced a huge crop failure, and President Richard Nixon allowed the Russians to enter the U.S. markets to buy grain. I returned just in time to handle more grain orders that fall than I had ever serviced in any previous two year period. Everything I thought I was going to lose I made up in less than a year’s time. In looking back on it I realize how little faith I had. When we respond to God’s call to mission, God will take care of us, we have to have faith.”


X GOD STILL WORKS THROUGH PEOPLE OF FAITHWhen I heard Jerry’s story, I realized that even though congregations may from time to time disappoint us, God is still working through people of faith like Jerry and Ethel Vanice. All those lessons about love Jerry had shared with his Junior and Senior High classes were for real, because Jerry was for real. Jerry’s story helped to get me through a faith crisis. The validity of the way of Jesus cannot be proved or disproved by how congregations behave, but by the love and service of good people of faith who are willing to respond to God’s call. Good and faithful church people do make a difference in the world. And when God asks, “Whom shall I send?,” with trembling hearts we answer, “Here am I send me!” God doesn’t always promise that the Russians will jump into the grain market, but if we have the courage to respond in faith, God will take care of us.


X IN THE END OUR STORIES IS ALL WE GOTI tell this story today, because unless it is shared, it will be lost. If we do not pay attention and share our stories, they slip through our fingers and vanish. And as the lead character in the novel Jabbok said, “In the end our stories are all we got.” So let us remember the saints like Jerry and Ethel Vanice, who responded, “Here am I send me!” For in the end our stories are all we got.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s