Listen To Article
As many of us are aware, it is twenty years ago right now that the first brilliant installment of Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy was released. In that first film, “The Fellowship of the Ring,” there is a scene in the Elf kingdom of Lothlorien not long after the Gray Wizard Gandalf had been killed by a Balrog in the mines of Moria. The Elves sing a lament for Gandalf but when one of the characters asks the Elf Legolas to translate the song, he says he cannot. “For me the grief is still too near.”
As the year 2021 ends this week, I am closing out the year with a tribute to my professor, mentor, and dear friend Wally Bratt. Wally died on Easter this past April, and although I delivered a graveside meditation in April at a private family service and a full length funeral sermon at his public memorial service in June, I have not written elsewhere about him. For me the grief was still too near. In some ways it still is but before this year is out, I wanted to put some things down in writing. As I acknowledged at both of the services for Wally, I do this in full recognition that he would have only discomfiture and even personal embarrassment over all this. Even so, here goes.
In September of 1982 I entered Calvin College as a freshman, taking a few placement tests as part of the course registration process. As I proceeded through the registration line, I was handed a card that said, “You did really well on your German placement test. You are encouraged to take German 218.” Here is an instance where God’s providence operated not through knowledge but ignorance, not through a wise decision but a foolish one. What the note card was conveying was that I had tested out of my foreign language requirement. What my eager-to-do-the-right-thing 18-year-old mind understood was that I was required to take German 218 and so I dutifully registered for the course. Had I understood the message correctly, I would have skipped taking German at Calvin. And I would never have met Wallace Bratt.
German 218 turned out to be my very first college class at 9am on a Monday morning with Prof. W. Bratt the instructor in this entry level German literature course. We read a Nazi-era novel titled Jugend Ohne Gott and a classic Northern German novel titled Der Schimmelreiter. Somehow as the semester unfolded, Prof. Bratt and I formed a bond. He soon encouraged me to act in a German language play he was directing for my first January Interim course and then I took yet another German course in Spring Semester.
When in March of my freshman year I felt a call to the ministry, Prof. Bratt was one of the first people I told. Immediately he encouraged me to become a German major because this would expose me to the wider world and to Christians who think differently than believers inside the American socio-cultural-religious bubble. It would make me a better pastor and preacher, he said. Within a year I traveled with him to Germany for the five-week German Interim Abroad and eventually I lived and worked in Germany for a summer at Bayer Pharmaceuticals in Wuppertal.
(Wally Bratt and I, West Berlin 1984 as Wally translated a poem painted onto the Berlin Wall)
Through it all, Wally and I became ever closer and by the time I started my first year at Calvin Theological Seminary, Wally and I maintained a weekly lunch on Wednesdays—he even put me on the calendar on his office door to make sure we never missed a lunch. Those conversations and hundreds more besides cemented what had now become a friendship. A few short years later I became Wally and Marianne’s pastor at Calvin CRC in Grand Rapids. In that context across twelve years Wally helped me navigate choppy pastoral waters at times even as he was a constant source of encouragement in regard to my preaching ministry. At times I was not sure who was pastoring whom!
If you are lucky—that is to say, providentially blessed—a Wally Bratt crosses your path at some point. There is finally no way to describe the myriad ways Wally shaped me as a person, as a Christian, as a theologian, and most certainly as a pastor. He was right about how a German major expanded my horizons and made me more world-aware than I ever would have been otherwise. Even as a fish cannot describe the water in which it swims as its natural habitat, so I cannot describe how Wally contributed to my life: it is so pervasive as to be to me what water is to a fish. It’s where I live. It’s who I am.
One thing that became abundantly clear after he died suddenly in April is that there are hundreds if not thousands of Calvin students who can tell similar stories about how Wally’s investment in them changed their lives for the better. As my wife and I reflected on all of this last Spring, my wife said, “How does someone become like that? How does someone become so alive to other people?” We did not come up with an answer but that is because it surely is a charism of the Holy Spirit and is, just so, mysterious in its own way.
The last two years of the pandemic have dished up huge batches of loss for all of us and for people around the globe. But as 2021 closes, one of the losses I feel most keenly—if not the most keenly—is my friend Wally. The pandemic meant we had to suspend our regular breakfasts for just over a year leading up to Wally’s death. Having not seen him in person for so long only magnified my grief earlier this year.
It is trite and dangerously close to over-sentimentality to say “But he lives on in me.” But he does. His influence and what it wrought in me is the water in which I swim every day. I think of Wally often and miss him every time I do. But with genuine fervor I can also at those same moments be grateful to God that my registration misunderstanding in 1982 changed my life. God works that way sometimes. Thankfully.
So right and fitting, Scott. Wally was a God-sent gift to countless many. Reading what you wrote about him, I pause to give our Lord thanks.
Praise God for him…and you. Wonderfully written, probably through tears. Thank you for giving your heart to express this.
Yes, with tears and Hope. I’m one among the thousands, blessed by Wally’s encouragements across years and continents, in the move from German grad school to painting houses in GR with Wally the summer beforeto being drafted, to spending unforgettable days with the Bratts in Husum, to the switch from German to CTS and the conversations during trips from Latin America and letters while there. And so much more. Wally, a blessed man who blessed so many. Thank you, Scott and Wally.
Thank you Scott, though I did not know your friend and mentor I surely now wish I had. Your tribute also prompted a return to love, admire and grieve again a list of dear friends and mentors past of my own. Bless you Scott!
Never met the man, but your wonderful remembrance makes his character step off the page. Thanks.
Wally was extraordinarily kind and encouraging to all he encountered — and, yes, he’d be squirming amid all this praise, so richly deserved. Thanks for these good words, Scott.
You have been blessed to have such a person in your life. My condolences. You wrote so beautifully on how he was and how he impacted your life.
What a life force friendship is, how its goodness educates us. A befitting topic not only to cherish but to study. How good to let our lifetexts school us in the matter of this precious pragmatic terrain from which such blessing flows.
Lovely to see this tribute to a much-loved man. Even many of us who were not (directly) his students benefited from his wise—often soulful—mentoring and friendship. Thanks, Scott .
Proud to be counted as one of the thousands. Dr Bratt helped me out of a deep hole of my own making back in the day. I’ll be grateful forever.
Thank you so much for this, Scott! A beautifully presented tribute to an extraordinarily faithful servant in our midst for so many years. We were truly blessed! I wept.
I also wept. Wally was also a friend to me and to my husband John. We attended the same church for a number of years, and then I got to know him better as a Calvin colleague. He visited our home on occasion of a rough time in our lives in 1995 to listen and to attempt to give counsel. When he left, he used a German (or Dutch?) phrase that he interpreted as “the water is close to my eyes.” One could always feel that Wally listened and Wally cared, and that mattered.
Thank you very much, Scott. So good to read. I met Wally Bratt when I was a Calvin junior owing two years of German to the narrow pre-sem requirements of the early ‘sixties. Ach! But Wally’s friendship and class got me to study and benefit beyond a bare requirement, and later somehow got me through German reading tests of Henry Stob at Calvin Sem and Geoffrey Bromiley at Fuller.
Thank you for your memorial Rev Hoezee. SIgning up for German, which I did as a freshman in 1979 was a recipe for academic disaster, while, unbeknownst to me at the time, critical for life navigation – as Professor Bratt mercifully tolerated my reluctance to admit my cognitive configuration is not ideally suited for language learning.
After the last class before the day, he asked each student he knew to be from out of town “do you have a place to go for Thanksgiving?” It mattered.
During class, he equipped us to think deeply academically, so we could in life; he showed how mercy could accompany justice as (I) struggled with Deutsch; and encouraged us to live wholeheartedly
as Christ’s agents of renewal in the world by exposing some of us to the other side of the wall.
At that time, fear of nuclear destruction and the East-West political divide dominated the conversation of life in ways student-kind today can hardly imagine.
In Wittenberg, (East)) Germany, January 1982, he made possible a “Calvinist-Communist” student meeting which became an unchaperoned meeting of young Christians from both sides of the wall. There, a young East German Christian, in response to someone offering prayer for their difficult circumstances posited roughly: “We appreciate that but it is we who pray for you: how difficult it must be to be a Christian where you have so much freedom.” (where we can do and say nearly anything, have anything, etc). We were in the presence of people also created in God’s image, living in the land of the enemy, who viewed us as we could never view ourselves. Christ’s agent’s of change indeed. We had actually met the enemy, and at least some of them were us. Now what to do?
Professor Bratt made such encounters possible. He knew he was preparing Christ’s agents of change; he placed a high value on reports from the field by those agents of change.
Our individual backgrounds were less important than the fact that we had been placed in his presence for a time before encountering and addressing various manifestations of evil in the world. He left the door open to report in as life’s individual mission unfolded. I think he knew he was watching God’s hand actively at work – that German would be the life work of few of his students, but that as God’s agents, a life of learning and engagement was in store for all of them, and he wanted to know how it worked out.
During grad school, and for over 30 years in the foreign service, periodic correspondence and visits with Professor Bratt increased in significance. We spoke often of “the question” posited by the East German Christians – and people like them the world over who, in 1982 I had been prepared to meet.
When one of my Calvin-graduate daughters sent monthly reports from the field during service in the Peace Corps in Rwanda, he made the mailing list, and responded with questions and encouragement every to every report, though she never took a class of German.
Yes, I was blessed to have not a, but the Wally Bratt cross my path – and then further blessed that he was willing and interested to meet at intersections from time to time to review how things were going. He knew how the God’s story for us will conclude, he was just making sure he participated as fully as possible. And he did. And I am grateful for it, and not infrequently wonder these days what it will be like the next time I am at Calvin, and there is no intersection at which our paths can cross.
Thank you, Scott, for this tribute to our valued friend. As a classmate way back in Holland Christian, I greatly respected him. As a parishioner in the Grand Rapids church I served in more than thirty years later, he became for me a wise counselor and fiercely supportive friend. That friendship only deepened as he became my neighbor at Raybrook and my colleague as a KidsHope mentor. Selflessly and very helpfully he poured himself into poring over my memoir jottings. The suggestions he made were always gentle and consistently improved the stories. His death on Easter not only meant he would not accompany me to the service but also that my life had to go on without him. I go on, but I miss dear Wally very much—with deep gratitude and tearful sadness.
It took a couple attempts to read this beautiful tribute. In many ways, “the grief is still too near.” The news of Wally’s death certainly diminished this world, but it also brought heaven much closer. Reunion. How I rejoice in the reunions which he now has and which we will someday have with him. Wally loved his Lord, and he loved his students. He worked tirelessly to build the connection between them. I remember a small note he had on his office window: Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when dawn is still dark. Wally understood darkness, but he also taught us how to sing and trust the Dawn. I will forever be thankful that Wally was my teacher, my mentor, and my friend.