Fr. Vern McGee

By Michael Gallagher – From the Ellensburg Daily Record 7/21/09
Not the retiring sort
At 69, Ellensburg’s Rev. McGee is just getting started
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Rev. Vern McGee, of Grace Episcopal Church in Ellensburg, spent years translating Russian for the U.S. government before coming here to “save the church.”
ELLENSBURG —  Pastor Vern McGee comes to the Grace Episcopal Church in Ellensburg after a career that allowed him to travel the world.Early in his career it was his job to talk to Russians at a time when the United States and the Soviet Union seemed intent to engage in a game of chicken with nuclear arsenals.He’s spent much of his career doing things for the government that he can’t entirely talk about.

As that career came to a close he decided to attend seminary and become an Episcopal minister. At age 69, he arrived in a laid-back rural town in January, far from his prior stomping grounds of Berlin and New York City. Time to pull out that comfy rocking chair, right? Well, only if you intend to set it on fire.

Pastor McGee has not come to Ellensburg to kick back.“I felt this church needed to be saved, and I had enough time to make the contribution,” McGee said.Grace Episcopal parishioner Mollie Edson said McGee is serving the church well.

“He’s a great leader,” Edson said. “He’s been slow to make changes. He’s feeling his way, making sure to listen to all parts of the congregation.”

But Edson also points out that McGee is not the type of person to gravitate toward the middle of the road.

“He’s excited about getting things done,” Edson said.

Parishioner Fritz Glover said the congregation knew what it was getting with McGee.

“No question, that’s why he was chosen,” Glover said. “We wanted to bring in new life, new energy.”

From Russia with love

McGee grew up in Spokane and went to the University of Washington with the original intent to study medicine.

“When I got there, I realized it was the last thing I wanted to do,” McGee said.

Russian proved much easier for McGee, plus the language classes were considerably shorter than the science labs.

From his native Spokane, McGee veered left to Seattle and kept on going that direction to San Francisco in the early 1960s, at the height of the beatnik-hippie era.

“If you were traditional you did not fit in, in San Francisco,” McGee said. “I fit in fine.”

Then in what has to rank as a world-class culture shock, McGee entered the Army in 1962.

McGee said he was resigned to being in the infantry “crawling on his belly,” but was saved from that fate by his language skills.

“I took a class that qualified me to be a linguist,” McGee said. “I was told to go to Berlin for a job on the border between East and West Germany. I’d be the only one there speaking Russian.”

This was, of course, when the Cold War was anything but. Tensions were at a peak. The Berlin Wall had just been constructed. The Bay of Pigs crisis occurred while he was stationed there.

“We were all on alert with full field packs and guns loaded,” McGee said. He added that the sight of file clerks toting loaded rifles was a little disconcerting.

Through this time when the two more powerful nations were engaged in a stare down waiting for the other to blink, McGee discovered something — he thoroughly enjoyed the Russians.

“I hated the Army, but I loved the Russians,” McGee said. “That was not a popular feeling in that situation.”

His experience in Berlin, though, qualified him for a career as a Russian translator for the U.S. government.

After he left the Army, McGee earned a master’s in Russian from the University of Washington, then worked for the government. He would receive material to translate and had the freedom to do his work while traveling around the country.

“That was fun,” McGee said. “That lasted a couple of years.”

Throughout the course of his career as a translator, McGee was able to teach at universities. He also earned his Ph.D in comparative literature.

Toward the end of this journey, McGee started thinking of ways to segue into a new direction and hopefully give back to society.

“At first I thought I’d go to a small college in Vermont and have graduate students sit at my feet listening to my wisdom,” McGee said. “Then I realized no one was going to let me do that. They’d make me teach English 101.”

His next idea was to enter a monastery and devote his life to reading, writing and study.

“I decided that wasn’t the best use of my life, either,” McGee said. “Then it occurred to me that what I really needed to do was turn the church around.”

All you need is love

McGee said traditional religions teach that doing the right thing means not sinning.

“We were raised in a culture where if you’re good you go to heaven, if you’re bad you go to hell,” McGee said. “There’s nothing about how we are supposed to be loving each other.”

McGee’s life has led him to view the world in shades besides black and white.

“In the large picture, there is no right or wrong,” McGee said. “It depends on context.  … There’s more to this world than right and wrong, and there’s more to this world than what we see.”

In terms of practical steps, McGee said he has been brought in to reach out to college-age parishioners. That might seem like an odd task for a man slated to turn 70 in August, but McGee said one of his strengths as a teacher was in counseling students.

What McGee wants to do is hear from young people what they want from the church. He wants to recruit college-age musicians to play for a Sunday evening service. McGee said the church will maintain the traditional morning service but, come fall, will add a 6 p.m. Sunday service.

“I’m hoping the students will work with me to create a service that responds to their needs,” McGee said.

By Michael Gallagher – Ellensburg Daily Record 7/21/09