Town Recalls Former Pastor

Written by Carrie Schmelkin, Reporter
Thursday, 01 July 2010 15:54

The Rev. Gary Wilburn

Warner Depuy still remembers the first time he heard the Rev. Dr. Gary Wilburn preach at the First Presbyterian Church of New Canaan.

“I remember coming away from that thinking that’s the first time I’ve heard anyone tell me something that I can think about for the course of the week to help me live a better life,” Warner told the Advertiser Tuesday.

“I remember Gary standing at the front of the church and opening his arms and saying that this wasn’t a Presbyterian table, it wasn’t a Jewish table, it wasn’t a Catholic table, it was God’s table,” he said. “I remember thinking to myself, you’ve got me.”

The former pastor died at around 2 p.m. Monday, June 28, after a battle with Amytrophic Lateral Sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. He was 67.

Depuy said he will always remember all of Wilburn’s services and, most importantly, what he taught him about life and spirituality during the 12 years he served as pastor at the church. To Depuy, Wilburn will always remain his “spiritual captain.”

Bev Wilburn, the late pastor’s wife, said the family will hold three services — one at the Bel Air Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles, Calif., where he worked for 10 years; one in Baja California, Mexico, where he lived for the past two years, and one at his former church in New Canaan. Times and dates are not finalized.

“He loved the [New Canaan] community and that’s why we are going back there to be buried there,” Bev Wilburn told the Advertiser.

The senior pastor, only the second individual to serve that position in the history of the church when he took the pulpit, made his mark in the community, according to those who knew him.

He is remembered for honing the mission of the First Presbyterian Church; writing three novels about love, faith and hope; transforming the Council of Churches and Synagogues into the Interfaith Council of Southwestern Connecticut, and joining the fight for peace by working with the United Nations Committee of New Canaan.

Joining him in that effort was resident Peter Hanson, who teamed with Wilburn after the reverend asked him to help him with a U.N. mission in Cambodia. The two joined others in raising $51,000 to remove landmines in the area.

“It was a life-changing experience,” Hanson told the Advertiser Wednesday, noting that he had Wilburn to thank for it.

“Gary was a courageous person,” he said, noting that in addition to fighting for peace in Cambodia the reverend spoke in New Canaan against war.

“He preached a number of times against war in New Canaan, which is a Republican, conservative town, and he knew when he preached against war he was going to get complaints from founders of his own church,” Hanson said.

“But he did it,” he said. “He had the courage to do what he believed and I admire him a great deal for that.”

Most recently in Baja California, Wilburn continued his outreach efforts, by starting “Sundays with Gary,” sermons delivered out of his chair, using speakers to amplify a voice lowered by his disease, his wife said.

“Until his passing he continued to fight for justice and world peace,” she said.

During his last sermon at the First Presbyterian Church of New Canaan in 2007, before he retired to address his condition, Wilburn reminded his congregation that the question is not death but, rather, life, according to the Rev. Tom Nissley, who worships at the church.

“Gary … preached a beautiful sermon,” Nissley told the Advertiser. “It was very inspiring to me and a lot of people.”

When he left New Canaan, Wilburn also told members of his congregation that he did not view his condition as a terminal illness because he believed in prayer, and that not all diagnosis are entirely accurate.

“Miracles,” he said, are really “nature unencumbered.”

In that sermon, Wilburn said he was now “practicing the art of unencumbering the natural health of my body by trying to live each day with love and hope, rather than fear and anxiety.”

“I will miss his optimism, his insistence that the church remain progressive and his demonstration that the community is where the church is,” Nissley said.

What Wilburn was most recently passionate about was promoting the campaign “One Word, One World,” which brings into question whether individuals can discover the common ethical underpinnings that exist in all major religions, according to Depuy. The two worked for almost the past year to promote this idea, talking to people of all different faiths, including Hindu, Buddhist, Judaism and Islamic.

On Depuy’s final visit to his spiritual mentor last week, Depuy told Wilburn that those involved in the mission were moving forward with the idea and creating the Wilburn Fellowship, to be given each year to high school seniors who work on interfaith projects similar to One Word, One World.

Depuy and those working on the project hope to launch the awards this coming school year at New Canaan High School.

“I specifically went out to California not only to say goodbye to Gary but to make sure that he was fully aware of what he meant to us and how we were going to do everything we could to make his legacy a living one,” Depuy said. “We had a good cry about it, we talked about it and I think he was incredibly thankful to us, but we are way more thankful to him.”

As the weeks go on and Depuy works to keep promoting One Word, One World, he said that his “spiritual captain” will always be with him.

“When I was saying goodbye to him this past week, I told him I would be listening for ship bells any time he needed to tell me something,” he said. “I am hoping he will knock me back on my heels a few more times.”

For the complete obituary, click here.

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