Advancing cancer moves up 50th ordination observance
Written by Joanne Griffith Domingue
February - March 2007
March 1, 2007

The Rev. James Chapman was a little boy during the Great Depression, and it was desperation that drove his parents to consider parceling out family members to survive.

But while considering this heart-wrenching option, they heard the Rev. Harry Emerson Fosdick preaching on the radio, urging people to "hang on a little longer."

The Chapmans did. Not long after Fosdick's sermon, a check for $2,000 arrived in the mail "out of the blue," Chapman says. It was an unexpected inheritance.

The family used it to buy a neighborhood variety store in Haverhill, Mass. The parents and three children, Florence, 9, Jim, 5, and Ralph, 1, moved into the three rooms behind the store.

The Chapmans didn't have a car. But Riverside Memorial Church - then Congregational, now UCC - was just across the street. Young Jim spent many hours there - singing in the choir, attending youth group. For 10 years, he never missed Sunday School.

"I jingled like a Russian general with all those bars" earned for perfect attendance, he recalls.

And it was there - on June 30, 1957, just five days after the formation of the UCC - Chapman was ordained to Christian ministry, making him one of the first to be ordained in the new denomination. On Nov. 26, 2006, Chapman's family and former parishioners celebrated his 50th ordination anniversary during a service at Bath UCC in Ohio.

A party had been planned for this coming June, but Chapman's advancing prostate cancer moved up the event.

"Who knows what shape I'll be in on June 30?" Chapman says. His cancer was first diagnosed in 1999. He had surgery and treatment and thought it was licked. But the cancer returned. It is now "Stage 5 and a little bit everywhere," he says.

The Rev. Mark Frey, the current minister at Bath UCC where Chapman served as pastor for 16 years, says, "We wanted to do the celebration while Jim is able to be with us in full form and fashion."

And he was. Four of his six adult children attended, "grandchildren by the dozens" came (he has 18 grandchildren and one great grandchild); his sister from California and his brother from Texas also were there.

His daughter Cynthia Chapman, a professor of Jewish and Christian scriptures at Oberlin College, read the Bible lesson.

In one of those grace notes of life, it was her predecessor, Herbert G. May, professor of Old Testament, who taught her father when he was a student at Oberlin's Graduate School of Theology.

And it was May who preached 50 years ago at Chapman's ordination. (In 1966, UCC-related Oberlin School of Theology merged with Vanderbilt University Divinity School in Nashville, Tenn.)

Jim Chapman considered May his mentor, and it was May who persuaded him to attend seminary instead of pursuing a music degree, Cynthia Chapman says.

Her father said he'd planned all along to go to seminary. But he chose Oberlin because it also had a conservatory of music. After all, his undergraduate degree from the University of Massachusetts was in fine arts, and he figured if seminary didn't work out, he could always turn to music.

"I fell in love with the whole Bible thing," Chapman says. He won a preaching award and since then, "I've been speaking to anyone who would listen."

'He toasts us, teaches us'

Frey describes Chapman as a "very engaging preacher, a real wordsmith. He toasts us, touches us, teaches us. The church really took off under Jim's leadership."

Bath UCC hired Frey in 1991 to be associate minister while Chapman was senior minister. "Jim was my mentor, supporter, teacher and guide. Jim really has a charisma, a great sense of humor and a caring spirit."

Frey went on to become Bath UCC's senior minister and helped organize the ordination celebration.

Chapman's caring spirit shines through in his music. Chapman, known as a great baritone singer, sang in the Bath choir, and occasionally he ended his sermons with a solo.

A few years ago his wife, Carolyn, encouraged him to record a CD for his family. He did. It was so popular, they sold copies and used the proceeds to set up a scholarship fund for low-income students in the Akron, Ohio, area, enabling them to rent an instrument and take music lessons. The fund is administered by the local association of churches.

Another of Chapman's daughters, the Rev. Laurel Tenhave-Chapman, a UCC minister serving the First Congregational UCC of Rockford, Mich., spoke at the anniversary celebration.

The seeds of her father's ministry, she says, were sown early in his life, while he was growing up in the family store, which was open 365 days a year. "How may I help you? What do you need? How can I help you find it?" Chapman would have heard those questions - and asked them himself - every single day, his daughter says.

Chapman's boyhood friend, Lloyd Smith, a 60-year member of Riverside Memorial UCC in Haverhill, Mass., remembers the Chapmans' store.

"It was very small," Smith says, recalling how he delivered newspapers while Chapman worked the store.

"The living room was really the store," Chapman says. "People came to visit us in the store. The store shaped us all. When you live where your living room is public domain, that shapes you."

'Chaplain' Chapman

While in seminary, he met his first wife, Katharine, an undergraduate at Oberlin. They married June 30, 1956. A year later, on their anniversary, he was ordained.

In college, Chapman was in the Air Force ROTC program. After graduation, he had a four-year deferment to attend seminary. Two months after his ordination, he entered the Air Force as a chaplain.

During his 23 years as a chaplain, the family lived in Texas, Colorado, Nebraska, England, and Washington, D.C. He and Katharine had six children: Cheryl, Laurie, Lisa, Cynthia Michelle and Jim.

"Being a PK [preacher's kid] is supposed to be a hard thing," Cynthia Chapman says. And they were military brats as well. "But there are no horror stories, not for us."

Their home was not militaristic, Laurie Tenhave-Chapman says. There were youth group kids who came over, then the Air Force cadets. She remembers her father saying how much he loved his work.

"Isn't it crazy I get paid for this? I love ministry," she remembers her dad would say. She never thought she would be a pastor. But "Dad nourished me." And now she says the same thing about her ministry.

Chapman retired from military chaplaincy in 1980, and from there, he was called to serve Bath UCC until his retirement in 1996.

In January 1998, after 14 years of remission, breast cancer returned to his beloved wife, Katie. She died that November. "That changed my life," Chapman says.

Yet, in 2000, Chapman was a guest preacher at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, in the Akron area.

There he met Carolyn, a life-long Episcopalian. They fell in love and were married that year.

But last fall, Chapman's prostate cancer returned, and he received a bleak verdict from his oncologist. Yet, as always, he is committed to living his life to its fullest.

"If there's something we want to do, we book it," Chapman says.

Adds daughter Carolyn, "We enjoy each day, each bit of grace."

Joanne Griffith Domingue, a freelance journalist and United Church News contributor, is a member of First Congregational UCC in San Jose, Calif. 

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