Ashes to Ashes

Karen Gullickson lives with her sister, Ruthie, in a little house behind Gullickson’s Grocery Store, which has been closed for decades. If you were to ask Karen when the family store closed, she would tell you the date along with a complete history of the store and town, Keyeser, Wisconsin.

Spring Prairie Lutheran Church is across the street from Karen’s house. The church was founded by Norwegian Lutherans, who were dairy farmers and tobacco growers back when tobacco was a government subsidized cash crop like corn and soybeans are today.

If you were to open Karen’s front door and walk across the street in a straight line, you would find yourself in the parking space marked by a sign, “Reserved for Pastor.” This was my parking spot–Spring Prairie Lutheran Church was my first congregation.

I went to Spring Prairie Lutheran Church knowing nothing about Lutheranism, to serve as an Interim Pastor following a Pastor who had hurt the congregation in ways that are all too familiar to church goers. The pastor who preceded him, Pr. Rolf Olsen, had served Spring Prairie faithfully for 38 years, so the congregation soon recovered from the shenanigans of the Pastor I succeeded. The resilience of the congregation grew from the deep roots of relationships of a community cultivated over time by working together, by cooperating and sharing farm machinery, by helping one another chop and spear tobacco, by celebrating the end of growing seasons, and by going to church.

The story of these relationships is told in the cemetery, which surrounds Spring Prairie Lutheran Church, and Karen has long tended this cemetery and curated its stories. She has maps for every plot and knows the story of every family member buried there, stories which grow from the Keyeser soil of Norwegian Lutheran relationships.

Funeral services at Spring Prairie Lutheran Church conclude with a congregational procession to the graveside, bells tolling, led by the Pastor, robes flowing in the prairie breeze.

Karen taught me about funeral processions at Spring Prairie. The very first funeral I officiated over was for Esther Gilbertson, the matriarch of Gilbertson’s Grocery Store, which is across the street from Gullickson’s Grocery store. Karen would gladly tell you the complicated story of these two grocery stores.

I asked Karen to walk me through how Pr. Rolf led the the funeral procession and conducted the committal service at the graveside. She told me that Pr. Rolf, while saying “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” made the sign of the cross on the casket with soil from the graveside.

I began to understand beauty of soil at Spring Prairie. The Norwegians moved to Keyeser because it looked like home and because of the soil–fertile, black loam left by glaciers plowing across Wisconsin eons ago, soil that was fed for millennia by prairie grasses. The sign of the cross inscribed with that rich soil traced not only generations of relationships: it connected souls to ages and eons of time that created it.

For the year that I served at Spring Prairie Lutheran Church, I carried a small container of that soil in my robe pocket, and began to follow the 38 year custom established by Pr. Rolf Olsen–“ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

When my year at serving at Spring Prairie Lutheran Church ended, Karen gave me a gift: a tin box with a bag of that beautiful soil. The tin now sits in my study in a cabinet that once belonged to John Deere.

Each time I prepare to officiate a funeral, I open the tin to fill a small container with Spring Prairie soil. The last time I opened the tin was to celebrate the life of Belinda Johnson, and I found that the soil Karen gave me is nearly exhausted.

It is time now for me to find some soil along the Mississippi River to refill the tin.

I am thankful for Karen Gullickson and the good people of Spring Prairie Lutheran Church; it was a profound honor to serve as Pastor in Keyeser, Wisconsin, and as I begin serving as Pastor and Teacher of First Congregational UCC, Moline, Illinois, I can only hope to be as faithful as was Pr. Rolf Olsen. I  believe this faithfulness is about finding the soil of this place.

It is a profound and humbling honor to be officially called by this congregation. We do not know how many years we will be given to walk upon this earth, nor how long we will be given to serve God together, but we can be sure of the soil. In a church that remembers John Deere and the plow he created to prepare the earth for planting, we now look forward to planting seeds and growing together.

At the graveside in the years ahead, as I trace the sign of the cross with the soil of this place, I will remember Karen Gullickson and Spring Prairie Lutheran Church, and I will pray that we will faithfully tend and care for the soil we have been given by God to grow something beautiful and lasting at First Congregational UCC Moline.