Finding Meaning

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Well Done, Good Reverend          

By Skip Hellewell
By Skip Hellewell

When the county first paved a single-lane road down Laguna Canyon in 1915, life picked up in the art colony.  Laguna Presbyterian was founded two years later.  Today’s senior pastor, the Rev. Dr. Jerry Tankersley, has served nearly half the time since—46 years.  The reverend recently announcedhis retirement, effective June 24.  It’s no surprise he’s retiring. The surprise is that people never tired of him.

A Laguna Presbyterian without Jerry—for that’s what everyone calls him—is a turning point. He leaves the church in good condition: the membership 700 strong and united in faith; the building renovated with mortgage retired.  Despite his success here, it’s a polarizing time for our nation, one that reminds him of the public discord of the mid-1800s.  But unlike that period, churches have lost much of their authority. No trumpet sounds a clear call. It is a time of chaos, a subject that fascinates Tankersley.

The Rev. Jerry Tankersley
The Rev. Jerry Tankersley

Chaos is the science of surprise.  It’s about confusion, disorder, and noise.  Chaos captures the human brokenness that darkens our life journey. Yet along the way, one finds these sunlit oases of peace and order—like the book-lined study of the Rev. Tankersley. If you’ve been there, you know it’s a place of healing and abiding spirituality.  Such spirituality comes from prayer, reading the word, and meditation—all sources of meaning.

When I sat down in Tankersley’s office, he reflected on what most surprised him in his life.  He spoke of the winds of change, how Laguna sees them all, but that amid the chaos there are recurring themes.  He noted the continuing violence in the world and of the church’s call to peace making.  He regretted society had not effectively addressed our racial issues.  He spoke of human “brokenness,” of how we are all broken in some way, in need of healing.  He has a favorite Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn saying, that “the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties—but right through every human heart . . .”   He reflected on the mystery of human sexuality, on the sexual revolution, and its consequences. Others had told of his hard work and leadership during the AIDS epidemic, of helping the suffering and dying. It’s a tribute to his ministry that he has helped without judging and welcomes all, while holding to his beliefs.

Tankersley spoke of the influences along his journey: C.S. Lewis, Martin Luther King Jr., and from his youth, Billy Graham.  He noted the great reformers Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Jonathan Edwards. Edwards was a famed preacher, the light of America’s First Great Awakening, and a president of Princeton where Tankersley later studied.  And he spoke of the great 20thcentury theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, like Tankersley, a thoughtful centrist.   Presbyterians, he observed, played a role in America’s great movements, which he likened to the “law of ferment.” There had been ferment in his own life, he acknowledged, an early divorce, turmoil, and doubt over his calling. The challenges of the ministry, he says, can destroy you.  The key to survival was to learn to pray and meditate.  The Psalms, Tankersley pointed out, were Jesus’ prayer book.  He ponders over five daily, covering the book of Psalms each month.  The power of the Holy Spirit is thus revealed, and that made the difference between self-destruction and success.  I repeat it here, for he thought it important—perhaps a key to the return of church authority in the town square.

So, people never tired of Tankersley; rather they grew to love him.  Parishioner Mike Regele says Jerry is the model of the faithful pastor, the “rare combination of clear-eyed leader, humble servant and visionary. His sense of humor is great fun yet he is deeply serious about his faith, which he shares authentically Sunday after Sunday.”

From Lorna Cohen: “He teaches what it means to follow Christ in . . . a world bent on self-serving and self-promotion.  He holds up the self-sacrificial way of humble ‘downward mobility’.  His life makes him credible.”

Steve Donner tells of visiting Tankersley’s church as a young man, returning with his family, and a life of upward transformation. “I became a Christian . . . the priorities of my life changed . . . instead of wanting to ‘get ahead’, I wanted to give of myself.”

As the end nears, teaching the Bible and being a pastor is as exciting to Tankersley as at the beginning. “It’s been a blessed life, spent with wonderful people.”  He retains an optimistic theology of hope, that God has a plan for each of us.  And he spoke of a final hope, to one day hear the Lord affirm: “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”  People here think his chances are good.

Skip fell in love with Laguna on a ‘50s surfing trip, and is the author of “Loving Laguna: A Local’s Guide to Laguna Beach.” Email:  [email protected]



Places to worship (all on Sunday, unless noted):

Baha’i’s of Laguna Beach—contact [email protected] for events and meetings.

Chabad Jewish Center, 30804 S. Coast Hwy, Fri. 6 p.m., Sat. 10:30 a.m., Sun. 8 a.m.

Church by the Sea, 468 Legion St., 9 & 10:45 a.m.

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon), 682 Park Ave., 10 a.m.

First Church of Christ, Scientist, 635 High Dr., 10 a.m.

ISKCON (Hare Krishna), 285 Legion St., 5 p.m., with 6:45 feast.

Jehovah’s Witnesses, 20912 Laguna Canyon Rd., 1:00 p.m.

Laguna Beach Net-Works, 286 St. Ann’s Dr., 10 a.m.

Laguna Presbyterian, 415 Forest Ave., 8:30 & 10 a.m.

Neighborhood Congregational Church (UCC), 340 St. Ann’s Drive, 10 a.m.

United Methodist Church, 21632 Wesley, 10 a.m.

St. Catherine of Siena (Catholic), 1042 Temple Terrace, 7:30, 9, 11, 1:30 p.m. (Spanish), 5:30 p.m.  There are 8 a.m. masses on other days and Saturday 5:30 p.m. vigils.

St. Francis by the Sea (American Catholic), 430 Park, 9:30 a.m.

St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, 428 Park Ave., 8 & 10:30 a.m.

Unitarian Universalist, 429 Cypress St., 10:30 a.m.






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