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Honoring 50-Year Ministry

A congregation remembers its 15 years with George Pera.

Once again, Alexandria's Westminster Presbyterian Church resonated with the voice and biblical interpretations of the Rev. Dr. George Pera. And the packed house congregation absorbed every word as it has done for 15 years when he was its pastor.

Pera's return to Westminster's pulpit as pastor emeritus this past Sunday was in celebration and recognition of his 50 years as an ordained minister. He retired as Westminster's pastor in June 1995.

Prior to his sermon, he came to the pulpit announcing, in the words of Yogi Berra, "I have a few words to say before I speak." He then recalled, "Ten years ago last Sunday, I walked down this aisle for the last time as your pastor. The years since then have been filled with all kinds of wondrous things."

Those have included such things as:

* Co-founder and past chair of Agenda: Alexandria, a nonpartisan forum focusing on community issues

* Past president and board member of Senior Services of Alexandria

* President-elect of Eldercrafters

* Chair of Inova Alexandria Hospital's pastoral care fund and trustee of IAH Foundation

* Alexandria Committee on Teen Pregnancy

In 2003 he received the Annie D. Rose Lifetime Achievement Award from the Alexandria Commission on Aging.

His assessment that "the years have been filled with ... wondrous things" does not apply just to his retirement years. It describes George Pera's 75 years.

FOLLOWING GRADUATION from the University of Pittsburgh, Pera earned his divinity degree at Princeton Theological Seminary, where he became the first undergraduate to be named a teaching fellow. He was later awarded two honorary doctorates from the institution.

While studying at Cambridge University, Pera became a student of Dame Cecily Saunders, founder of the hospice movement. He later received training in counseling at New York City's Bellevue Hospital and in Geneva, Switzerland, with Swiss psychiatrist Dr. Paul Tournier.

After being ordained at Wayne Presbyterian Church in western suburban Philadelphia, he served as that church's assistant minister prior to becoming Ohio State University's chaplain. From there he was called to lead the Protestant ministry at New York University in Manhattan. That is also where he married his wife Nancy in the First Presbyterian Church on the edge of Greenwich Village.

In 1964 Pera became pastor of Greenwich Presbyterian Church in Connecticut where he remained for 15 years before leaving to lead the Interdenominational American Church in London. During his three-year tenure, he presided at the first American Thanksgiving service to be held in Westminster Abbey.

Returning to the United States in 1980, Pera and his family came to Alexandria where he commenced the final 15 years of his active ministry at Westminster Presbyterian Church on Cameron Mills Road.

"I was very impressed with the congregation's sense of community and caring. They endeared themselves to me," he said.

That was mutual as evidenced by the crowd that attended Sunday morning to hear their "Holy Father" preach once again. "That was his nickname when he was our pastor," said Ron Morris, a 36-year Westminster member.

"He's what every pastor should be. We nicknamed him our 'Holy Father' because when he had his picture taken upon arrival he was seated very properly in his robes. Little did we know at the time that he had a choice of being Catholic or Protestant in his youth because his parents were one of each," Morris said.

"The vitality of this church that we enjoy today is directly attributable to George. When the preaching is dynamic the church is on a roll. And George is dynamic. That was evidenced by the turnout today, a summer Sunday with many people away. His legacy is immeasurable," said Greg Ogden, chair, Westminster's Communications Committee.

"We have a marvelous spirit here in this church. And, that is due to one of our special ministers, George, who preached so many sermons that we all remember so vividly," said Gayle Perka, a long-time member.

PERA'S INFLUENCE was recognized by Westminster's present minister, the Rev. Dr. Larry R. Hayward, who introduced Pera, saying, "None of us can say what it is like being George Pera, but I would like to speak for a moment on what it is like following George Pera."

Coming to Westminster in October of 2004, following an interim pastor, Hayward said, "Following George Pera involves following someone of tremendous energy. Following George Pera involves following someone who served this church admirably for 15 years, and who has served the community of Alexandria for 25 years.

"Following George Pera is following someone who is both loved and respected, a rare combination. It involves following someone who has served God through the Presbyterian Church for 50 years, with what our ordination vows call 'energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.' Following George Pera is following someone gifted to preach."

THAT MORNING, Pera launched into what he had titled, "Getting God Right." It encompassed his view of what Christianity is all about and what his 50 years of ordination had convinced him was God's relationship with mankind.

"God does not, and never did, expect us to be perfect. God acts not to destroy but to reconcile," Pera preached. He challenged many of the stories stated in the Old Testament relating to God's supposed wrath against humanity and said they were "misinterpretations," not truisms.

"Christians do not worship words. We worship the living word," he said. "If some of you find my words unsettling, that's just fine with me."

Prior to delivering that sermon, Pera acknowledged to the congregation, "Today I look back ... at five decades and the incredible privilege that has been mine to serve as a minister of the Word and Sacrament. In that period, I count over 600 weddings and around 2,000 sermons."

Reflecting back to his years as a university chaplain, Pera recalled "a heated theological discussion with some of my colleagues ... Near the end of the discussion, a dear, retired Methodist bishop sitting in our presence said ... things may look puzzling to you now, but you will find, as I have, that things become more clear as they are seen in the glow of the setting sun."

"I have been asked if I had it all to do over again, would I take the road on which I have traveled. The answer is a resounding 'Yes.' It has been a wonderful journey. Hard at times, yes. Very hard, especially during the Vietnam War when I had to bury four of my young parishioners" as a result of "a war that ripped the country and church apart."

"But, at other times I have been overwhelmed by the joy that comes from service to others." And, "Serving in Alexandria has been the happiest part of the journey."

He concluded his pre-sermon by telling the congregation, "What you are going to get this morning are some thoughts I have shared with you in the past but have become even more a part of my belief system as I view them in what has become for me the glow of the setting sun."