For nearly 20 years, the Rev. William Wendt was at the center of the struggle for racial and social justice in Washington. There have been few efforts toward racial or social justice that he did not touch. Stretching his ministry as rector of St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, he tackled problems of housing, home rule, equality for women and other causes, winning many admirers and more than a few critics along the way.
Then, in 1978, the activist priest switched his attention to seeking a better way of dying.
Wendt said he had become "increasingly concerned and confused as to why people couldn't be relating death more to life, love of live, and giving, everything the church proclaimed."
After taking a one-year sabbatical from St. Stephen's in Northwest to study death and dying, he never went back. He went on to co-found the St. Francis Burial and Counseling Society, later renamed the St. Francis Center, at 1768 Church St. NW. The center comforts and counsels the dying and their survivors.
"Death is really the stimulus for a better way of living," he maintains. "Knowing we are going to die enables us to have a real concern for the way we live our lives and the way we are responsible for our lives. And the more knowledge we have of death and dying the more we can keep ourselves healthy, happy, lovely."
From studying death he has gained an education on life, he said, and developed a philosophy on how best to live it:
"I've learned to travel light . . . a lot of material things are not necessary. . . . I take short views of the future. Although I trust in the future to some degree, I think our daily lives are very important based on making every day count. . . . Every day I have surprises in my life."
"I'm still an impatient Christian," Wendt said in his rumbling voice. His guiding principle is that "it's easier to seek forgiveness than permission" to act first, "and then if you've made the wrong move you can seek forgiveness.
"That's called risking it. Take a few risks," said Wendt, whose boldest risk may have been his defiance of the Episcopal Church in 1975 by allowing a woman ordained in violation of church rules to serve communion at St. Stephen's. Although the church approved women priests just two years later, Wendt's disobedience led to an unprecedented church trial, his conviction and punishment: a formal reprimand by then-Bishop William Creighton of the Washington Diocese.
His conviction for allowing a woman to officiate "really doesn't hang over me," he said, but he still hopes the stigma will be lifted, and his lawyers are working to have the conviction withdrawn.
Under his leadership, St. Stephen's changed from a staid and formerly well-to-do parish in the Episcopalian tradition to a cauldron of social welfare activity. It also became a magnet for the alienated, the disadvantaged and the downtrodden: welfare victims, feminists, black power advocates, gays and alcoholics. Wendt seldom had the unanimous support of his congregation, but he was not deterred.
For all his collisions with conventionality in years of head-on confrontations, Wendt still wears in his jowly features a youthful expectancy, and optimism alongside the worldliness of a politician. With the fitness of a dedicated tennis player, dressed casually in denims or a plaid sports coat, gray curls tumbling over his forehead, he defies the image of sombre priestliness.
"He is Everyman," says Daniel Leviton, a University of Maryland health education professor who works with Wendt in his death-and-dying jump programs. "He is genuinely revered in the Washington area, and rightly so."
Wendt's courage to challenge officialdom with good cause was seeded in his upbringing, as the oldest of four children of a traveling salesman in flat, corn-growing country amidst "a lot of openness" and room to "get in tune with the land, the sky."
He was influenced mainly by his mother, who "had a lot of worldly wisdom, and . . . allowed us to take a few risks and spread our wings," Wendt said.
He recalled that when he was 8 years old, his mother disobeyed church rules during Christmas Eve services in the Episcopal church of his native Mitchell, S.D., and gave him communion even though he had not been confirmed.
"She came back from the communion rail with a little piece of communion bread and fed me," Wendt recalled. "I certainly realized that she was doing something that wasn't necessarily part . . . of the rules and regulations, but it was a loving act. I think that was one of the turning points in my life."
It was also the first lesson that "within the structure of the church loving things could happen outside of the rules and regulations.
Wendt charged personally into the nationwide upheaval of the times. He was arrested in Jackson, Miss., in 1961 for defying segregation rules in the bus station during a southern "prayer pilgrimage" and again in 1969 for holding mass for Vietnam War dead at the Pentagon.
He held a mass in front of the District Building for slain Black Panthers, protested bus fare increases that would hurt the poor, fought for the first burial of a black person in Rock Creek Church cemetery here and conducted a long-running duel with the United Planning Organization over battle plans in the war on poverty.
When St. Stephen's under Wendt's rectorship gave former black power advocate H. Rap Brown a platform to espouse his "shoot and loot" solution to racial injustice in 1967, some parishioners and others were outraged. Wendt defended the action, saying that "if the church doesn't involve itself in giving voice to the frustrations in the ghetto they will seek more violent channels."
A year later, riots and other events made prophecy of Wendt's warnings.
He calls himself "a political animal, because we're all political animals," who was once elected at-large as a member of the District's Democratic State Committee, but rejected suggestions that he run for City Council, "and I'm not sorry I didn't."
Looking back, Wendt says he is not disappointed that some of the causes he struggled for were deflated before they met their goals.
By the time he decided to enter the priesthood in 1947, Wendt had been a bomber pilot in Italy and North Africa during World War II and earned a degree in foreign affairs at George Washington University. He later spent a year studying at the Central College of the Anglican Communion in Canterbury, England.
Wendt and his wife Mary, a District public school teacher, have two sons, aged 20 and 23, and a daughter, 25, who shared the cost of his devotion to great causes and "like a lot of children are still trying to find their way," he said. Although he is glad that his ministry exposed them to life in the inner city, to public schools and other experiences which "at least opened their minds to how their lives could be led," he said he is also sad and feels "a certain sense of guilt" that he did not spend more time with his children as they grew up.
But he finds comfort in some of the changes that occurred in the Episcopal Church during his active ministry.
"Certainly there's much more awareness of the church's role with minorities . . . in working with the underprivileged and the so-to-speak rejects of society," Wendt said, speaking about changes during his activist tenure. "And one has to be very excited about the leadership role the Episcopal Church took with women, acknowledging their role in the priesthood."
But he views the Episcopal Church as "still enculturated. If you reflect the culture in which your ministry is serving, you take on the same coloration of that society. And in the encultured church, unfortunately, you then can't assume a prophetic role." He feels strongly that the church should be at once a part of and separate from the culture, "so it can speak from its position rather than deferring to people who might withdraw their pledges or be upset."
Bishop Paul Moore Jr. of the Diocese of New York, who once worked with Wendt in the Washington diocese, said he admires him because he "hung in there for a long time while others of us became tired, sick and exhausted in the front line ministry. His guts, courage, humor and compassion are a combination that form a really Franciscan quality in him."
Wendt's mother died at 89 in an Iowa nursing home two years ago in a manner that contradicted all his knowledge and convictions about death and left him "very angry with God for dumping that kind of death on me, the death expert."
He characterized her death as "very ugly," and said she had been racked with convulsions. Wendt says relatives had the "joyful opportunity" to observe her death as they wished. He drove her body home in a station wagon to South Dakota where the family held a wake and took turns shoveling earth on her grave.
At his own death, Wendt says, he wants to be cremated. But in the meantime, he has a "couple of books I'd like to write," and dreams of spending a year at it on the beaches of the Caribbean isle of Virgin Gorda.
"I hope and pray for the time that might happen," he said, "but not right now. I'm too engaged in people's lives."