Warren Martin was in his 70s and had the long-standing calling of handing out the ward bulletin each week. His longish gray hair curled like ramen noodles and his tie, invariably a Looney Tunes tie or a Disney themed tie, was in a standard knot around the collar of his denim shirt. Brother Martin wasn’t homeless; he lived in a group home downtown for disadvantaged folks. He had few possessions, but his shirt pocket was usually stuffed full of bus schedules. He was fairly tall, with a broad paunch and red cheeks. He was also relentless in the performance of his duties.
When I say Brother Martin was relentless, I mean he was completely unstoppable in the delivery of those ward bulletins, regardless of the circumstance. He would stand during the passing of the sacrament to thrust a program into the hands of someone on the stand. He would wait patiently by parents holding multiple children, biding his time, knowing that sooner or later that parent would have a hand free and they’d get a program, by thunder. To say that he magnified his calling is only a meaningful phrase if the magnifier involved is the Hubble Space Telescope.
He was also pretty creepy sometimes. The routine for the bulletin-delivery went as follows, without fail:
1. “Hey there. What’s your name?”
2. Lick fingers
3. Pull out bulletin, hand it over
4. “I’m Brother Martin.”
5. Shake hand
Step 1 took place regardless of how many times you’d met Brother Martin; in fact, getting to the point where he remembered your name was something of a point of pride amongst long-term members of the ward. In my five years in the ward Brother Martin started to remember my name earlier this year. Of course, Step 2 was the real stumbling block for many, because it meant that he was licking his fingers immediately before touching your program and shaking your hand. Some people have a problem with that. I was one of those people; I’m not much of a hand-shaker, but I’m especially not a hand-shaker when the hand has been freshly licked. I avoided Brother Martin as best I could, tried not to shake his hand or better still, get one of my kids to shake his hand for me. Occasionally I would chuckle at him or roll my eyes as I saw him trying to foist a program on some unsuspecting visitor who clearly wanted to be left alone.
When Brother Martin died a few weeks ago, I immediately felt a jolt of sadness, loss and guilt. Strange to say, considering most of my interaction with him had been despite my best efforts. But a friend was discussing Brother Martin with me and the adjective that came to mind was “irreplaceable.” He was so true and perfect in his calling, such a fixture each week without fail, that his absence the next Sunday was glaring. I do not know who has the calling now, if anyone. Who would want to replace Lou Gehrig on first base? It also occurs to me that being irreplaceable is about one of the highest compliments one can be paid, period. In the context of church service it means that Bro. Martin was dependable and conscientious, two traits that are to be prized, perhaps above all else.
Many of us went to Brother Martin’s funeral. Some others from his home talked of him from the podium, and some ward members talked about him as well. From these eulogies came a fuller picture of Bro. Martin: mischievous, friendly, devoted, lonely, a man who valued order but not possessions. I knew nothing of him, it seems. And as I think now of Warren Martin, I have a great deal of regret. I owe him an apology for treating him so callously, but of course there’s no one to hear it. I’ll write this blog post, and perhaps some will think this to be a public apology in some effort to ease my conscience, but not really. It’s just a recognition on my part that sometimes it’s too late to appreciate people and make things right. But I’ll say this much: next time I see you, Brother Martin, I’ll gladly shake your hand, if you’ll let me.