The Rev. Herbert Kern, assisting pastor at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Amityville, turned 99 this week and will be honored in a ceremony after services Sunday morning.
“Just a little celebration,” he said one recent afternoon. “There might be some cake.”
He was sitting in the den of the East Meadow home where he has lived alone since the death of his wife, Alma, in 2013.
Semi-retirement has been good to him, even with that loss. As a minister, his job is to comfort and encourage people and it is one he has always relished. And it comes without the logistical responsibilities of running a church. He did that for 32 years at Calvary Lutheran in East Meadow, a church he founded in a storefront. He stepped down from the pulpit in 1983.
“The meetings were always the least satisfying,” he said of his pastoral duties with the church.
As assisting pastor at St. Paul’s, a position he has held since 1993, he preaches several times a year, makes hospital and home visits, and writes letters of condolence and congratulation to members of the congregation.
He writes their names and the dates of important life events of the adult members on index cards — hundreds of them, kept together in a stack 6 inches thick — and makes phone calls every birthday and every anniversary.
On Fridays and Saturdays he sits down with the names and reads through them, picturing each person’s face as he reads the name. It takes 45 minutes.
He adopted these practices decades ago from a Dale Carnegie course.
Every day he spends a few minutes writing down things for which he is thankful, 20 minutes exercising, and 90 minutes reading the Bible, two books of the Old Testament and two of the New.
The calls are a simple way to spread joy, he reasons, based on his own experience: “If there’s an important event and people call me, I appreciate it,” he said. They are also strategic: “It keeps the church in their view,” much as his exercise with the names of the congregation members refreshes his memory of them. The Bible reading is an exercise for the spirit and the intellect.
“It’s reading that makes you think,” he said.
To Kern, these last few years haven’t all been good. He is disturbed by what he sees as the secularization of the world around him and the liberalization of some churches.
“This is a hard time for the church,” he said. Calvary Lutheran, which at its peak drew 700 people to Sunday services, now draws 100; St. Paul’s, which once drew 300, now draws 125 to 150, he said.
Kern stopped driving about three years ago when he felt his reactions had become too slow. He depends on friends, family and Meals on Wheels for his food, and on congregation members to drive him to church on Sundays.
He is no longer able to walk long distances, a passion that in 1972 led him to walk, in sections over six days, the 136 miles from Varick Street in lower Manhattan to Montauk Point.
But the churchgoers who will celebrate him Sunday still talk about him with a kind of awe. Larry Rath, a St. Paul’s deacon, described his preaching style: “He walks off the altar, and he’ll preach a verse or two that he’ll have everybody repeat, and then he’ll basically preach off the top of his head, an entire sermon, never looking at notes. He still preaches a couple times a year like this.”
Jessica Bernius, Amityville’s deputy mayor and a church member, said simply, “He’s what you call a real minister.”