By CHUCK OFFENBURGER
DUBUQUE & CUMBERLAND, Iowa, April 16, 2022 — Nobody told me, when I was starting to teach college kids, that a couple of them might actually turn out to be pastors of churches. Oh, I would occasionally hear more seasoned faculty talk about how satisfying and fulfilling it can be in later years watching former students excelling in their chosen fields. But my students in journalism and Iowa public affairs becoming respected religious leaders?
Well, hallelujah, and can I get an “amen” for that?
Recent travels have put me near two of my favorite alumni, Father Andy Upah, now the pastor at Nativity Catholic Church in Dubuque, and Pastor Casey Pelzer at Cumberland United Methodist Church in his hometown of Cumberland (pop. 250) in southwest Iowa.
I had them both at Buena Vista University in Storm Lake. Both are 40.
With Holy Week approaching, I decided to take time for quality-control checks on these former students.
So how do I grade them now?
I know I’m getting soft, but let me confess: I am just so damned proud of both of them. That’s a hell of a thing to say about two pastors, I know, so please forgive me. I promise that for Lent next year, I’ll give up cussing.
Father Andy Upah outside Nativity Catholic Church in Dubuque.
Pastor Casey Pelzer leading a song at Cumberland United Methodist Church.
Come to think of it, I’ve had two recent meet-ups with Pastor Casey Pelzer. In February, he invited me as his guest at an Iowa Girls State Basketball Tournament game that he was refereeing. I watched with his wife Haley Pelzer and their daughters Gracey, 15, and Nelley, 12, and then we all went out for a late lunch in Des Moines. And in late March, after overnighting in my hometown of Shenandoah in southwest Iowa, it was easy to drive home Sunday morning via Cumberland, where I attended Casey’s Methodist service.
Last Saturday, after attending a funeral over near Dubuque, Father Andy Upah and I got together, not at his Nativity parish, but at what we might call the “Basilica of Balltown,” the tiny town a dozen miles up-river from Dubuque. In other words, we ate huge buffet lunches as guests of Mike Breitbach, the co-owner of Breitbach’s Country Dining, the oldest restaurant and bar in Iowa.
Then I followed up in recent days with long phone interviews with each of my pastors.
How are they doing?
My witness, after being in services led by both, and supported by testimonies from their flocks when I’ve checked, is that both are excelling in their ministries.
Pelzer with daughters Nelley (lef0 and Gracey after church in Cumberland.
Upah and his old professor ourside Breitbach’s Country Dining in little Balltown, northwest of Dubque, after our lunch together.
Their vocations early-on surprised me — and surprised them, too.
Pelzer was best known at Buena Vista U as a quick, aggressive point guard on three of the Beavers’ best basketball teams, which were Iowa Conference champions. He drifted away from attending church until midway through his junior year, when he and a BV teammate Nesha Francic signed up for a “January term” course in religion taught by Rev. Beverlee Bell, the pastor of the Storm Lake United Methodist Church.
“That course got me back to my church roots,” Pelzer said. “Nesha was more open about his faith than most of our other friends were, and he and I started having some good discussions with each other in the dorms. Pretty soon, I was starting to want to get more involved, and one thing I did was starting to sing on several Sunday mornings at the Storm Lake church.”
After graduating, marrying and becoming a father, he said his faith really deepened after watching the birth of his first daughter, and “realizing what an absolute miracle that is. How anybody could be involved in the birth of a baby and not believe in God, I just don’t know.”
He got in touch with Rev. Dick Krambeck, a former teacher and coach who was the pastor of Cumberland Methodist. They began meeting for conversations and study. Krambeck helped Pelzer begin filling-in, conducting services, to help pastors of a half-dozen small Methodist churches in the area.
Pelzer was first certified by the United Methodist denomination as “temporary pulpit supply,” then went through the church’s “licensing school,” and is now authorized to lead services, conduct weddings and funerals, and more for his congregation in Cumberland. In addition, he is now in his sixth year of a 10-year part-time “Course of Study” seminary program at Morningside University in Sioux City, and that will lead to full ordination.
Father Andy Upah at Nativity Catholic Church in Dubuque.
Andy Upah was a leading student and practitioner in information technology at Buena Vista U, always had an interest in journalism, and had a steady girlfriend. After he graduated in 2004, he landed a good IT job in West Des Moines, and also started seven years of part-time work as webmaster of this website, www.Offenburger.com.
In about 2008, he said, “I started thinking about more involvement in the church. I was growing in my faith, going to some men’s classes, and I started wondering if maybe I should work for the church — part-time after my IT job, or maybe a pastoral manager or a business manager.
“By the end of 2009, I was getting the idea, ‘You need to be a priest. Being a priest is where the real meat is.’ I was happy in IT, but while I knew I was helping people by designing websites, doing coding and all that, I felt I could do a lot more for people as a priest.’ I commmitted to the idea, and I didn’t want to go into it halfway. So eventually I broke up with my girlfriend, who’d been great, quit my IT job, and in August 2012 started seminary.”
Six years and a whole lot of study later, he was ordained.
So, how do Pelzer and Upah evaluate themselves at this point in their pastoral careers?
“I love preaching, and I love preparing,” Pelzer said, “and if I wasn’t a pastor anywhere, I’d find some other way to be sharing the faith. I’ve always been told that I do a good job of making scripture easy to understand and applicable to how we live today. I’ve tried really hard at that.”
He now generally has a crowd of 75 to 80 people in the pews for the Sunday service. In-person attendance is growing again as the COVID pandemic has eased, and people are feeling more comfortable about showing up instead of following from home on Facebook. Pelzer feels good that Cumberland Methodist has four different pianists and a song leader who all help. Plus, he can pick up his guitar, play and sing small parts of the service — and he’s very good at that. “I’m careful not to do too much of the playing and singing myself,” he said. “I don’t want people beginning to think of this as a performance by me.”
Pelzer, in his seventh year as pastor in Cumberland, is casual in his dress and approach, belying the fact that he is awake, studying, praying and meditating by 5 a.m. nearly every day at his home in nearby Atlantic, where he also teaches elementary school physical education and also driver training in the summers. “I think of myself as a pretty ordinary person, so I’m not really comfortable when I’m called ‘Pastor’,” he said.
The Sunday I attended in Cumberland, he wore a nice open-necked shirt and jeans. “I don’t wear a robe because, first, I don’t have one,” he said. “And I’ve got to be me, and I want to be more comfortable. Now, one person who definitely did not like the way I dress for church was my late Grandma Elgene Sander. She would especially let me have it over wearing jeans in church. So every once in a while, I will still dress-up for Grandma.”
Pelzer sending off his people after the service. He is shaking hands with Mary Erickson and that’s Barb Krauth in front.
Upah, who grew up in the Tama-Toledo area in east central Iowa, is in his fourth year as a priest, spending one year as an associate pastor at another parish in Dubuque and now three years as the pastor at Nativity. He says he is “growing as a preacher. I’m getting better. I listen to the Holy Spirit more, and I have more trust in what the Lord wants me to say. I’ve learned to have confidence in that. I remind myself this is really His church, and I’m just the voice, hands and feet. The best part of it for me is working with the people, helping them encounter God in their lives, bringing them the sacraments, being right with them in bad times and good times, becoming part of their families.”
He’s heading what seems a huge church, with about 1,800 members from about 800 households. He has nice-sized parish staff supporting him. “But it’s a small church in the city of Dubuque,” he said, noting the area’s large Catholic population. Nativity is just south of Loras College on a hilltop overlooking downtown and the Mississippi River. Upah lives in a parsonage next door to the church.
He is more formal in his daily dress when he’s working, almost always wearing his Roman collar, black shirt, trousers and shoes, although when he’s out and about in the community he often wears a sporty jacket from Dubuque Wahlert Catholic High School, where he serves as the school chaplain. Of course, he always wears the traditional vestments for mass.
Upah reports the parish has had significant growth — 51 families have joined in the past two years — “although it’s been a little difficult to see that growth as we went through the pandemic,” since most people, sometimes all the people, were “attending” mass online.
“When I came here, getting to know everybody and meeting with the parish council, I said, ‘What do you think Nativity’s strengths are, and what are our challenges?’ The common answer was, ‘We don’t have young people involved like we should.’ I said, ‘Well, I do know a little about how we can do that.’ “
He hired a young woman as “director of evangelization” and they started adding more family activities.
“Now we’ve got babies crying in mass, kind of a constant hum of chatter from kids, and I often have to talk over that,” he said. “I don’t care — it’s great — it’s a beautiful thing! You know, if you don’t have kids crying at mass, your church is in trouble!”
Always an athlete and sports fan, Upah is adding “grass volleyball” games for parishioners this spring and summer. And he keeps himself in shape by playing golf, basketball and a little volleyball.
Here’s the columnist with Nelley and Gracey Pelzer and their mom Haley Pelzer at the girls state basketball tournament. Haley is a phlebotomist at the Cass County Memorial Hospital in Atlantic, and also heads her own dance studio, the Villa Dance Company, with more than 300 students. She takes a group of 160 dancers of mixed ages on the road as the “Traveling Hip-Hop Team” that does very popular 7-minute halftime shows at basketball games around western Iowa. Pastor Pelzer often serves as a “dance dad” or “roadie” in support of the dance activities.
Both Upah and Pelzer use social media and conventional media very well.
Upah has presided over a website of the church’s website. During the pandemic, a local radio station KDTH-AM, asked him to come into the studio and say mass right there, and he continues to do that now, with the masses being broadcast at 4 p.m. on Saturdays and 6:30 a.m. on Sundays. Plus, since October of 2020, he’s been featured by a sister station KAT-FM, with an “adult hits” format, on Thursday mornings at 8:10 a.m. The station’s morning show host Lisa Bennett had the idea to bring in a younger priest “who could show that priests are normal people,” and engage in fun conversations “to bring some positive, uplifting and helpful content in the middle of a difficult time,” Upah said. Bennett has titled Upah’s chat with her “Father Time,” and it’s sponsored by the Hoffmann Schneider Funeral Home and The South End Tap.
Pelzer, uploads his sermons and sometimes other parts of his services live on Facebook. Another very effective way he connects with his members and other followers is that for more than 360 consecutive Wednesdays, he has written an original brief, spiritual reflection — usually about three paragraphs — and sends it to about 80 people by email and probably several hundred on Facebook. Sometimes those have been published by the Atlantic News-Telegraph newspaper.
Both pastors were as close — or even closer — to my late wife Carla Offenburger as they’ve been to me. She taught and counseled both of them at Buena Vista U, too.
In her dying days, she asked to talk to Pelzer one more time, asking if he’d call and sing her favorite hymn, “This Is My Father’s World” over the phone, and he did. He also played guitar and soloed on “What a Wonderful World” at her funeral, and then conducted the brief service for her burial.
At any earlier critical stage of Carla’s cancer journey, Upah, then a seminarian, led prayers for her while he was touring the Holy Land. Last summer, he told his radio audience about her passing, and celebrated a mass for her.
Now both pastors have transcended being my students. I rely on both of them to be my teachers, and spiritual mentors, too.
God bless both of them.
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