Persistent and courageous in ministry despite severe illness, alumnus Walter Hermanns dies

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The Rev. Walter Hermanns, a 1987 alumnus of The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia (LTSP) who served courageously and with grace and dignity as a parish pastor in Racine, Wisconsin, despite a battle with Multiple Sclerosis, died December 12, 2013, in Racine. He was 54.

Pr. Hermanns as there prophet IsaiahA native of Mineola, New York, Hermanns graduated from Wantagh (NY) High School in 1977 and earned a degree in biology from Swarthmore College in 1982 before attending seminary. He was called to Holy Communion Lutheran Church in Racine, serving 21 years there, including two years as pastor emeritus.

In the early 1990s, Hermanns was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, an inflammatory central nervous disease. “He could have given up preaching and grumbled about his faith,” wrote Stephanie Jones of the Racine Journal Times at the time of Hermanns’ death. “Instead he did the opposite.”

“Even on his worst days you would ask Walter how he is doing, and he would say, ‘I’m doing good. It’s a good day,’” said Darryl Sturino, a long-time friend, quoted in the article. Jones wrote that as the disease worsened, Hermanns went from walking on his own to needing a cane, then arm crutches, and ultimately a power wheelchair. (in the photo above, Pr. Hermanns as the prophet Isaiah)

Until the last few months of his life, he swam at the local YMCA because his legs still worked in water, Jones wrote. He had recently started a “gentle worship service” in Racine, launched to give parishioners in the region a place to go if their physical or mental conditions made them feel uncomfortable at a traditional worship service. Hermanns told the newspaper in 2012 the key was “having a place we can go where we do not have to apologize or explain … We can just relax and be who God created us.” He advocated regularly for access for people with disabilities at voting places and on public transportation. “But he was an advocate for all people,” said the Rev. Mark Doidge, a current pastor at Holy Communion.

In 2007, Hermanns, a gifted writer, wrote a reflection about what God does when one is having a “worst day.”

“I was having one of those days where everything seems to go wrong,” he wrote. “I got a late start in the morning, left some important papers on the kitchen table, and learned that a proposal I had spent hours preparing had been turned down.” Hermanns then drove to Wilson’s Coffee Shop in Racine to see some friends. While transferring to his wheelchair from the driver’s seat, his foot caught on the seat brace and Hermanns found himself pinned in agony, completely helpless between the wheelchair and driver’s seat. “After a minute or two of being angry, I started to cry,” he wrote.

He eventually reached his cell phone and called a friend who was willing to “drop everything” and come to help him. “With a combination of ingenuity and muscle he got me offthe floor and back into the driver’s seat. I drove home humbled yet again by the incredible kindness of friends … I entered the house and greeted my wife, Lynn, telling her about my hard day. When I finished, she didn’t respond with the expected sympathy or commiseration. Instead she said ‘go look in the bedroom’.”

Lynn had stenciled above the sliding glass door that offered access to the yard the words “Expect Grace” in beautiful dark green capital letters. “It summed up everything that had happened to me that day,” he wrote. “It recalled the Apostle Paul’s promises that there is nothing in death or life that can separate us from God’s love, and that God will always give us access to the grace and strength we need to endure whatever trial or evil confronts us.”

In the reflection, Hermanns recalled visits he had with seniors at Lincoln Lutheran, asking them to recount times when they felt closest to God. “I had imagined their answers would be centered on vivid sunsets or Thanksgiving dinners … surrounded by loved ones. Instead, most people remembered feeling closest to God in times of loss or crisis … As I learned from my Lincoln Lutheran friends, our trials can be gates through which God enters our lives,” Hermanns wrote in part.

Hermanns served in the ELCA Ability Coach Network, a group which provides coaching/mentoring for persons in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) who have specific mobility, sensory, and learning disabilities and are in the process of vocation exploration, candidacy, and first call as rostered leaders in the church.

Survivors include his widow, Lynn Helmke, son Shawn, who was born while Walter was a senior at seminary and baptized during compline service by Rev. Gordon Lathrop. and daughter Laura, who followed later..

Click to view the original article in the Racine Journal Times

This article was updated 2/25/2014 to reflect son Shawn and daughter Laura. Thanks to Lynn Helmke for the update.

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Thank you so much for the

Thank you so much for the beautiful article!  Our times at seminary, and the people that we still call friends, are much more precious now that Walter is gone.  Just a correction though . . . Those of you that were there at the same time as we were will remember that our son Shawn was born while Walter was a senior at seminary and baptized during compline service by Rev. Gordon Lathrop.  Our daughter. Laura, followed later.