TORONTO - With retirement approaching July 1, Pastor Michael E. Bongart will be preaching his final Easter sermon today at the Toronto First Presbyterian Church where he has been its pastoral leader for nine years.
And like most of his sermons, the message will blend grace and forgiveness, and that, yes, there is life beyond what we experience here for the believers of "the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, God in Jesus Christ."
Bongart believes it's a "glorious life" based on what he said he's felt already during a near-death experience he had in Vietnam. At the time he was the aircraft commander (head pilot) of a UH-1H helicopter flying U.S. troops into combat that was shot down on Oct. 4, 1968. His dramatic rescue was seen in homes across America four days later on ABC Nightly News.
LOOKING BACK — The Rev. Michael E. Bongart gestures as he talks about his journey to becoming a later-in-life preacher, all of which will be part of the book he plans to write after retiring July 1 as the pastor of Toronto First Presbyterian Church. The book will have two themes, including his near-death experience after he was wounded in 1968 during the Vietnam War.
-- Janice Kiaski
His place in the pulpit - the Toronto one now and at the First United Presbyterian Church of Mingo Junction from October 1992 through June 2005 - was a vocation he resisted for much of his adult life, one in which he was ultimately pegged as a "modern-day Jonah."
His full-circle journey from procrastinator to preacher is one for the book he's promised himself he'll write in retirement, one he says he's here on Earth to do.
"If I don't do this book, then I did not do what I was called back to do."
In a lengthy two-part interview, Michael E. Bongart recalls the circumstances of why he was called a "modern-day Jonah."
Between his second and third year at Princeton Theological Seminary, Bongart was studying Hebrew. It was summer, a time when pastors were on campus for continuing education classes.
"There was this morning when I was going in to take a shower, and I put my shaving kit on that stainless steel bar that goes across five sinks, and as I did, I heard this deep voice - 'And what church do you pastor?' and I looked over, and I saw this man, and it was strange how he was dressed," Bongart said.
"The guy looked like he was about 90 years old and had a scraggly white beard and wire-rimmed glasses, and he was all wrapped in towels. I looked over at him and said, "Sir, I'm not a pastor - I'm a student.' I was about 48 years old, and he says, 'Student, where have you been?'"
Being the oldest guy on campus, Bongart was accustomed to the question, so much so that he was ever ready with a rehearsed response.
"Well, prior to coming to Princeton Theological Seminary, I worked for the Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission helping people with bill payment problems; prior to that, I studied biomedical photographic communications and did an internship at John Hopkins; prior to that I was a captain in the United States Army, a helicopter pilot who flew two tours in Vietnam; prior to that, I worked for Harrisburg Steel Company as a utility clerk; prior to that I was a teletype operator for Eastern Express trucking company; and prior to that I was studying for the ministry at Shenandoah College," Bogart rattled off the standard response.
"And that's when he says to me, 'By God, a modern-day Jonah!"
Bongart wasn't sure what that even meant until his return to his dorm room where he opened his Bible to read the Old Testament book of Jonah. God had commanded Jonah to preach repentance to the city of Nineveh.
"He didn't want to do it, so he ran and got on a ship, headed west to get away from what he was called to do, and the story goes he was swallowed by a whale and was spewed onto dry land when the word of the Lord came to him a second time, and that's when I went, aahh, that's what he means.
"It took two callings for me to be a pastor.
"I'm Jonah," he recounted the revelation.
On went the light bulb for what Bongart said became his signature sermon, the crafting of a story that in essence was his life told in the third person, the "I know a guy who..."
Retirement will bring a transition to do the book and address all that, including his near-death, out-of-body experience in detail, according to Bongart.
"I needed time to process this, and that's what I have been doing ever since I experienced it."
MAKING CAREER PLANS
Michael E. Bongart grew up in Steelton, Pa., a community similar, he would ironically discover, to the communities of Mingo Junction and Toronto where he would finally be a pastor.
His junior year of high school, he felt a call to the ministry. He also "fell madly in love" with a girl from another school. Bongart graduated in 1961 to a game plan that included two years at Shenendoah College, a junior college in Virginia from which he would then transfer to the seminary.
Academcially, though, he was challenged, his confidence shaken and his long-distance relationship stressed and later ending.
"Jonah" decided to join the Army, a decision that utlimately, after twists and turns and jobs in between that included working as a teletype operator and later as a utility clerk, would find him graduating from flight school in March 1968 in Savannah, Ga., and heading off to Vietnam the following month for his first tour of duty.
Initially, Bongart didn't get to fly much until an assignment to the second airlift platoon, fifth special forces. He flew a couple months as a co-pilot before returning to his regular unit as aircraft commander.
"Four October 1968" is how Bongart responds to the question of when his helicopter was shot down.
"I was the aircraft commander (head pilot) of a UH-1H helicopter flying U.S. troops into combat when I was shot down. I was able to land the chopper upright, and my crew and the troops I was carrying were able to exit unharmed, with the exception of my one door gunner who was shot in the leg," he said.
"While on the ground, the VC (Viet Cong) began mortaring our position, and it's true ... you don't hear the round that gets you. A mortar round exploded nearby, and a piece of shrapnel from it went through my flight helmet, through my skull and into my brain.
"The moment it did, I began to experience one incredible trip ... out of body ... and was taken to several places (on Earth) and then eventually to the edge of the universe where I was given the choice: 'You can transition into the next dimension - which I now refer to as Kingdom of God- or you can go back to existence as you knew it.
"I chose to go back, and here I am, waiting to make the final transition from this world to the next," Bongart said.
As a part of the Vietnam Veterans Head Injury Study, Bongart said that over the years he has had his head examined at Walter Reed, Bethesda Naval and the National Institutes of Health.
At Bethesda Naval, Bongart said a physician's assistant who reviewed his medical records told him the size of brain tissue the neurosurgeon had to remove from his brain to remove the shrapnel was "unremarkable" in that other vets in the study had greater brain tissue removal than he did.
"But then she added, 'What is extremely remarkable is that there was an Army medic nearby who knew exactly what to do," she told him, adding, "The fact that he was right there and did what he did is extraordinary."
Equally extraordinary, Bongart adds, is that after recovering from a hole in his head and from having part of his brain removed, "I was able to get back on flight status and fly another combat tour in Vietnam as an airfact commander."
ABOUT THE BOOK
Michael E. Bongart said his book he plans to begin writing once he retires will have two themes.
One will involve the near-death experience that's not entirely a secret to people who know him although the nitty-gritty details of it might be.
"I spent years of contemplating the 'theological implications' of my NDE 'out-of-body' experience and after much contemplation I will be ready to expound when I retire," he said.
The other theme will involve the subject of synchronicity, events that he experienced in his life that weren't miracles in and of themselves, "but the timings as to when these events occurred were extraordinary."
Synchronicity can be defined as meaningful coincidence.
Bongart can offer many examples, including one from May 1989.
One is on the eve of heading to Princeton Theological Seminary, Bongart is having a goodbye dinner with friends.
The decision to go to seminary at long last comes after a series of "Jonah" decisions to the contrary through the years.
He has been an Army helicopter pilot who flew two tours, the first marked by a feeling of invincibility, the second by vulnerability.
He has earned a bachelor's degree in biomedical photographic communications at RTI and done an internship at John Hopkins, pursuing what others assumed would be a career as a biomedical photographer at a major hospital, but the day he took the final exam, "it just didn't feel right."
He has returned to his hometown to work for the Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission, helping people threatened by shutoffs.
He has set up his own photography business.
"But things just weren't feeling right," Bongart said of all the stops on his journey to becoming a preacher.
Then he read "The Road Less Traveled," feeling something "deep in my psyche being moved" and admitted his unhappiness and discontent during a jog with a friend. The turning point redirected him to seminary.
And at the going-away dinner with friends, Bongart produced from his pocket the note he had found stashed in a cigar box with Boy Scout merit badges and other mementoes from his childhood.
The note, written on Sunday, April 11, 1955, at 10:30 p.m. read:
"As they say, no one can foretell the future, but I , Michael Bongart, have an idea. I like aviation, science, electronics, and like to play football, basketball, baseball, and I think I will become a preacher. I think I will be a preacher because I was meant to be a preacher by the act of God."
"I was 11 years old when I wrote this," said Bongart who became the obedient "Jonah" after all but doesn't consider himself to be a great preacher because of it.
But he has a message from the pulpit today and one coming from his book of the future
"The message is God is a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love - that is the heart of the message, a very loving God, but God is so beyond our ability to comprehend," he said.
"It's a life of grace - there is a very loving God."
As a modern-day Jonah and book-writer-to-be, Bongart is happy.
"It's the story of trying to get away from God and in essence going to God and through doing what I am doing, experiencing the peace and satisfaction I never had going in other directions."
(Kiaski can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)