The Shepherd of the Night Flock

Louis Armstrong once said, “I’ve seen Fats Waller enter a place, and you could see a gladness in the faces of all the people in the place.”

When Pastor John Garcia Gensel entered a jazz club, as he very often did, he was warmly welcomed by the musicians-and by those of the laity who had come to know him as an integral part of the jazz scene. Pastor Gensel was on the staff of Saint Peter’s Church in New York, but he had a special beat, as journalists say. His ministry was to serve the jazz community. He presided at memorial services for jazz musicians who had finished their last chorus. And early every Sunday evening, he was there to present-and manifestly enjoy-jazz vesper services.

Gensel was seemingly everywhere in the jazz community. He conducted wedding services and, when some of the marriages hit clinkers, he was a patient, extraordinarily attentive family counselor and sometimes he paid a musician’s rent. As Gary Giddins once said, this pastor “created a remarkably nondemoninational and nonjudgmental space.” John knew I was an atheist, and while we sometimes kidded each other about our contrasting explanations for the order of the universe-mine was that it was simply serendipitous-he never tried to even subtly nudge me into what Kierkegaard called “a leap into faith.”

Religious faith is just that-the ability to possess and be possessed by faith. Rational reasons to believe in God can only follow the leap, I would tell him. John Gensel understood where I was coming from. Indeed, of all the people I have known, he had the most actual-not pretended-respect for views other than his own. He was so comfortable in himself-without being in the least self-satisfied (the two are not necessarily synonymous) that he was a true listener. Not only to jazz, which he so visibly enjoyed-but to anyone who wanted to talk to him. In his inner peace-which had nothing to do with passive acceptance of any kind to injustice-he reminded me of Clifford Brown. Nobody I knew in the jazz world ever had a bad word to say about Brownie. He too was open, entirely without guile, without even a hint of malice toward anyone. So too was John Garcia Gensel.

At 80, he died of a fall on February 6th, 1998. To the hundreds, and maybe thousands, of musicians who knew him well, he was mourned as an intimate member of their musical family. I still miss the feeling of gladness I felt when I came upon him listening intently in a club or standing at St. Peter’s waiting, eager, to respond to troubles, to triumphs to unexpected joys and sudden terrible losses. I have friends among pastors and priests and rabbis, but I never had any doubt that if religion ever became central to my life, John would be my pastor. He was a Lutheran, but the denomination wouldn’t matter. The example set by the pastor would be the key.

In a recent letter from Amandus J. Derr, Senior Pastor of St. Peter’s, asking for funds to enlarge the work of the jazz ministry, he pointed out how vividly and fruitfully John Gensel’s legacy has continued. “This past year alone Pastor Dale Lind, his worthy successor, conducted 38 memorials for jazz musicians and led Jazz Vespers each Sunday, while continuing to provide pastoral care for jazz musicians throughout the city.” St. Peter’s Church is at 619 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY 10022-4611.

On September 12, 1999, St. Peter’s Jazz Vespers will introduce its new African-American worship book in the spirit of John Gensel who was authentically multicultural because he valued all forms of illuminating men and women in the world. An unassuming man of God, he was so ubiquitous in this world because that’s where the work of faith-not only its profession-had to be done.

Going to memorial services at St. Peter’s under John’s continually attentive direction-Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, Miles Davis- you would see active differences among certain musicians and critics and fans dissolve, at least for the time, because of his presence. In that respect, he reminded me of Dizzy Gillespie, who had such warmth and integrity that he could silence a bitter quarrel, as I once saw, simply by entering the room.

Such presence is very rare because people like Dizzy and John Garcia Gensel are so rare. So too thought Duke Ellington, who composed a piece in Gensel’s honor called “The Shepherd Who Watches Over the Night Flock.”