For some it may be fate, chance, synchronicity or God’s actions that explain how life unfolds in the most unexpected ways.
Self-proclaimed hillbilly from Southern Ohio, Pastor Jim Whaley had no clue that he would end up as a Lutheran pastor in Northwest B.C.
“I would have said, ‘First off, where is B.C. and second, what’s a Lutheran pastor?’” he said, with a slight southern drawl from within the St. Paul’s Lutheran Church on McBride Avenue in Prince Rupert.
In his 34 years of service on the North Coast, he has touched the lives of people in times of celebration, and times of mourning. He founded the pastoral care committee for the hospital in the 1980s and has been the chaplain at the hospital since then.
Among his other duties, every Tuesday he is the Bingo caller for residents at Acropolis Manor, the long-term care home. Then last year, he became the vice-chair of the Rupert Syrian Refugee Support group, who sponsored a family of seven to resettle in the community in September.
Born in Ironton, Ohio, raised in a Baptist church, educated at Ohio State University with a bachelor degree in political science, Whaley was on his way to study law at Rutgers University when he was struck to follow a different path in life.
His wife, Judy, went to a Lutheran University and every Sunday, she would go with a group to the state mental institution to offer church services.
Whaley went with the group and visited the hospital, which he said was the worst of the worst where people couldn’t move on their own. He met one man there who was singing “What a friend we have in Jesus.”
“It just sort of got me. This is what people need. That was the beginning of my hospital ministry way back then,” Whaley said.
He registered for the seminary, trained to be a Lutheran pastor, and for the past 34 years he has been leading the congregation in Prince Rupert, and at the community church in Sandspit, Haida Gwaii.
Whaley’s journey from Ohio to the far corners of northwestern Canada came about when he graduated from the seminary. The bishops from different regions of the church visited the seminary.
“It’s like a football lottery, they take a look at people’s records and say maybe this person could work for us,” he said.
Upon graduation, the president of the Canadian church paid a visit to the seminary. Whaley said he wasn’t asking to go north, but if that is what the church wants he’ll go. When the assignments came up, he received a piece of paper that had one word on it — Canada.
He was sent to serve the ministry in northern Alberta. The dimensions of his parish were 80 kilometres across by 128 kilometres wide. The nearest gas station or grocery store was 48 kilometres away from his home. In five years, he wore out two cars travelling over gravel roads.
But the mountains and coast called to his family. When the congregation in Prince Rupert invited him to be their pastor, they packed up and moved in the summer of 1983. The city was in full bloom then, with 18,000 people, a flourishing fishing industry, two pulp mills and a lumber mill.
After those golden years, the population fell as jobs were lost and he rallied with the commuity to support one another. When the Elizabeth Apartments burned down in 2004, he joined the group that sorted and delivered donations of furniture to help the people who lost their home start again.
The congregation is not as big as it was when he first arrived but even with a smaller congregation they still support him to serve as the on-call pastor for the hospital. For the past 10 years they have also organized a clothing program for homeless, that is now supported by the Rotary Club.
Bringing a family of Syrian refugees to the community is also part of Whaley’s mandate — “All are welcome.”
When the Rupert Syrian Refugee Support group formed last year, he suggested using Canadian Lutheran World Relief to help them in the complicated endeavour, and they were successful in bringing the Attiah family to the community.
They continue to make the family feel welcome and offer emotional support. This past Sunday, the St. Paul Lutheran Church hosted a dinner and cultural exchange for the newcomers.
The work Whaley has done in this community is immense, and all of his contributions would not fit in this article alone, which is exactly why he is leaving the congregation after the summer. He is semi-retiring and moving to Sandspit, where he and his wife of 43-years, will live above the community church he helped build.
“I can tell you all the nails in that building,” he said.
The policy is that a retired pastor — especially one as involved as Pastor Jim — has to leave the congregation to allow the new pastor the freedom to establish a relationship within the congregation and the community.