Shaking the hand of Brother Martin

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.


  1. My feelings are similar to yours, Steve. I didn’t find Brother Martin annoying, so much as merely forgettable. But during his eulogy, it occurred to me that most people — including Brother Martin — have a life story that is interesting and potentially inspiring, if only I’d allow myself to break out of my weekly routine and actually get to know them and their stories and be inspired. When I think of Brother Martin now, I see an example of service to the fullest, of not giving a moment’s thought to the alleged prestige or import of one’s calling in some imagined hierarchical ranking system. And I feel chastized for having imagined that his contributions were not significant.

  2. Moving stuff, Steve. Thank you.

  3. *like*

  4. Thank you, Steve.

  5. A keeper (both Brother Martin and this post).

  6. nat kelly says:

    Wow. I had no idea. I hadn’t heard that he died. When did it happen? I didn’t even hear that there was a funeral. I would have loved to attend!

    In my very occasional interactions with our ward, and sporadic attendance, he has actually meant a lot to me. The one time I was able to attend this summer, I thought he was going to skip by me when he was passing out the bulletin.

    But he caught my eye contact, totally acknowledged me, and walked over to shake my hand and give me the program. I was sitting there feeling invisible, and he changed that in one instant.

    This is the first time I’m hearing of his passing, and I’m so sad to hear it. :( He was such a sweet person.

  7. “I avoided Brother Martin as best I could”

    Well, no wonder it took him 5 years to get your name right.

  8. Mark N., indeed.

  9. Good one, nice! This is our culture! There is a variation of “Brother Martin” in every ward, although each is obviously very personal and unique. And remember: each of us is probably a Brother Martin to another in some form or another. I’m relentless in my performance of sitting in the foyer and jaw jabbing.

  10. Years ago, Brother Martin did remember names. An extraordinary number of them, I thought. But the ward was smaller then, and he was somewhat younger. I think he put everything he had into that calling. Did you ever meet him outside of church? say, downtown on the street? He was not the same outgoing man. He was quiet and private and preferred to be obscure. He would nod and acknowledge me, and then shuffle off into the crowd. I think when he came to church he mustered all the social energy he could, and then was spent for a week.
    But he needed us, and we needed him. I’ll miss him every week.
    Especially those grand, hornlike eyebrows.

  11. Man, yeah, he had a pair of eyebrows that were majestic. Great horsehair things, like something out of Dr. Seuss.

  12. Zachary Fraser says:

    Sam – we rode the same bus often when I worked downtown at the Washington Mutual Building (old Sonics and Storm offices), and he wouldn’t talk to me. But at church, he was so happy to see me. He was one of the reasons we decided to stay in the city/ward – I loved that he was so happy to provide that service. I am slightly ashamed that I don’t muster the same energy to fulfill my callings.

  13. I enjoyed reading this.

    We don’t have to wait until we’re on the other side of the veil to be kind to “a Brother Martin”. He is here, in the now, and needs our kindness.

  14. nat, I think I enjoyed your comment here more than anything you’ve ever written anywhere. You add a whole new dimension to Steve’s description. Thank you.

  15. After having a store in Seattle for fifteen years and seeing countless home teachers, stake councilmen, bishops, and other members who knew we worked there, but would pass by our store and not stop in to say hello, I had all the more respect for Brother Martin who not only stopped in to say hello, but he would also bring in his friends to introduce them to us.

  16. p.s. We closed the Seattle store on August 31st. We hope it wasn’t a contributing factor to his departure. :-) We will miss him.

  17. Bro. Martin was awesome. I remember the twinkle in his eye and the feeling of pride and surprise I got the first time he remembered my name. I couldn’t help but brag a bit. It’s not the same without him.

  18. Latter-day Guy says:

    That was marvelous, Steve. Thank you.

  19. Thank you, Steve.

  20. I really enjoyed this one Steve. Thank you for posting this.

  21. Very nice.

  22. Your remembrance brought to mind this recent and excellent obituary of “a solitary man who knew his likes and lived within his means,a man who could be counted upon.”

    Highly recommended.

  23. Near my work there was an old man in a wheel chair – always shirtless – always with a cigarette in his right hand lit up – always bent over while smoking that cigarette. This is 115 weather in the summer but he was always there. I never knew where he lived nor what his life was about. Once on a very hot day a passerby bought him a water sprayer and showed him how to squirt it at his face. He tossed it away mumbling four letter words to the nth degree. He was found recently on the hot sidewalk dead in front of his wheelchair…cigarette still lit. I’d kill to know the story of his life and how he got from birth to that wheelchair in the hot sun. There’s a story in all of us.

  24. enigmaatlarge says:

    Nice story. I was reminded of some lines of Melville’s Moby Dick.
    Men may seem detestable as joint stock-companies and nations; knaves, fools, and murderers there may be; men may have mean and meagre faces; but man, in the ideal, is so noble and so sparkling, such a grand and glowing creature, that over any ignominious blemish in him all his fellows should run to throw their costliest robes.
    If, then, to meanest mariners, and renegades and castaways, I shall hereafter ascribe high qualities, though dark; weave round them tragic graces; if even the most mournful, perchance the most abased, among them all, shall at times lift himself to the exalted mounts; if I shall touch that workman’s arm with some ethereal light; if I shall spread a rainbow over his disastrous set of sun; then against all mortal critics bear me out in it, thou just spirit of equality, which hast spread one royal mantle of humanity over all my kind!
    By the way. does anyone know how to contact someone in charge of this blob? I have some questions regarding the use of content in a book I am writing.

  25. As someone with a disabled brother who others probably find “creepy”, this post makes me deeply uncomfortable.

    I think it’s great you came to appreciate who he was after hearing all the eulogies delivered from a distance.

    But would you be willing to shake the hand of other finger-lickers here and now? How will this experience change the way you treat folks now?

    I do appreciate your honesty–and think what you had to say is pretty typical of the way most people with disabilities or mental illnesses get treated. It is easy to be respectful and loving from a distance, and to idealize and romanticize them–“Oh she’s such a sweet spirit” and all. But most of us are deeply uncomfortable in the here and now and more focused on avoiding people who strike us as a bit off.

    And I’m not sure this post challenges that.

  26. Steve Evans says:

    cms, fair questions. I honestly don’t know. Certainly the ideal is that I treat people better right now. But I haven’t been put to the test there yet.

    By the way, I don’t know that Martin had any disabilities or mental illness. He was old.

  27. Ah, sorry, not knowing him, I made assumptions from the group home living.

    And I’m sorry if my tone was off. I don’t mean to attack–just that I find it frustrating when we romanticize people because they actually make us uncomfortable. I admire you putting your honest responses out there.

  28. Steve Evans says:

    No problem. I completely agree with you.

  29. Bauer Family says:

    We loved him and miss him a lot. Our ward isn’t the same without him. I loved that he knew all our names and would always ask where one of us was if we were missing (by name). And I loved that he always called me Mary (close enough), and always asked about baby James. I ran into him in the village once and he was just the same! He asked about everyone in our family and didn’t seem reserved or private at all. I’m so sad we missed his service and I hope he knows the Bauers love him.

  30. Bauer Family says:

    p.s. I thought it was cool that he’d chase folks down to hand them a program. It’s one of the things that spiced our ward up a bit and made it fun/different from a typical (yawn) ward.

  31. Michael Kellu says:

    Thank you for this post.

    I was one of those he could call by name. In fact, with his unexpected humor, he would pretend not to know my name only to interrupt me with the correct name after I would try and re-inform him.

    Ah, most conversations with him were confusing, but he will be missed by all.

  32. Thank you for sharing your lovely reminiscences, Steve.

  33. Which ward?

  34. Interesting post, Steve. That memorial service was illuminating for me, as well, and bless those remarkable eyebrows. I found Bro. Martin’s sudden departure fairly shocking. Just the Sunday before, he had practically wrestled my one-year-old out of my arms to give him a hug and talk to him. He was a little over-the-top with those programs, for sure, and I always worried about shaking the hand of someone who had already shaken everyone else’s hand, but I always felt like he was genuinely interested in my family. I considered shaking that hand as one of those “if I do this, it will make this man happy, and hopefully the Lord will bless me that I won’t get sick” moments. :)
    Our ward is rather quirky, and he was one of those quirks, and somehow it feels just a touch more *ordinary* without him, which makes me sad.
    PS: I love that so many other ward members have commented here.

  35. Steve Evans says:

    Danielle, exactly right. We are a little more ordinary without him.

  36. Cynthia L. says:

    I like this.

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