The Circuit-Riding Organist

by Charles Richard Lester


Twice in my life I have found myself in the position of being a “circuit-rider” organist. The first time was in the mid 1970s.

I got my first church-organist job in 1972 at Mayo Memorial United Methodist church in rural Mayo, Maryland. I was 15 years old when I began playing for that church. I couldn’t drive yet, so my long-suffering mother (also an organist) would drive me the 25-minute trip to my church, drop me off, go to her own church, then come back afterward and bring me home. It was a great relief to her — my hair-raising early efforts at driving notwithstanding — when I finally got my license at age 17 and was then able to drive myself.

In 1974, I took a position at another church, Mt. Zion United Methodist Church, which was about 10 miles away from Mayo.

After I had been at Mt. Zion a year or so, Mayo suffered a terrible tragedy: The beautiful 1950s sanctuary burned to the ground — an arson. To this day, the identity of the arsonist has, as far as I know, never been discovered.

In the interim of building a new church facility, the Mayo congregation met in a nearby Episcopal church and held services at 12 noon, after the Episcopal church let out. I don’t remember the particulars, but the organist who followed me at Mayo left around the same time and they were then without an organist.

The service at Mt. Zion was earlier, at 10 a.m. When the pastor at Mayo told me their organist had left, it occurred to both of us that I could probably play at Mt. Zion then drive to Mayo in plenty of time to play their noon service. He joked that maybe I could become the first “circuit-riding” organist!

Which I did, for about two years.

This circuit-riding work went along really nicely. I only had close calls a couple of times, usually due to bad weather or icy roads.

But one fine, sunny summer day the service at Mt. Zion went longer than usual for some reason, and I was running very late. I really had to “step on it” to try to get to Mayo in time. But, I have to admit, I didn’t REEEEALLY mind.

Besides tending to drive with a “lead foot,” I had a beautiful, dark green 1972 Cougar XR-7 with a powerful V-8/451 engine that was a joy to drive. Especially fast.

Anyway, this particular morning I was barrelling down the two-lane country highway at about 75-80 miles per hour.

Sure enough ... you guessed it ... I looked in my rear-view mirror and saw a Maryland State Trooper coming up behind me, blue lights flashing.

Heart pounding and sweaty hands shaking, I carefully pulled off to the grassy side of the road. This was my first time to be pulled over by a state trooper, and I just knew my goose was cooked since I really had been speeding. The posted speed limit was 45mph!!

The trooper got out of his car. As he was walking toward my car, I quickly got out and started walking toward him, babbling my hastily rehearsed excuse about how I was running late for church.

(Now, I have to explain that the two churches had different-colored robes, so in order to “blend” at both and not have to take the time to change from one robe to another, I wore a simple black robe -- just a plain black cassock with a clerical-type collar. I'd hop into the car, still in my cassock, and drive on over to Mayo.)

The trooper, upon seeing me in my black cassock, did a terrific double-take. He put up his hand to stop my blabbering, and then waved me back to my car. He said, “Reverend, I’m very sorry. I did not see your collar when I pulled you over. Please go on ahead and I’ll escort you.”

So, that Sunday, I arrived in the Mayo Methodist parking lot with a state trooper escort — to the wide-eyed surprise of the other late churchgoers!

All I can say is, it was just a good thing that I really WAS going to church — even though I was not a “Reverend” ... and who was going to admit that?


Fast forward to 2003.

I have been the organist and/or music director (in various permutations) at Holy Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Inglewood, California, for about twelve and a half years.

A half-mile or so away is Faith Lutheran (Missouri Synod) Church. When I recently spoke with his pastor, he mentioned that they have been without an organist for some time, and are actively looking for one - to no avail. He asked if I knew of anyone looking for a church job and I said that I did not, but if I heard of anyone I’d let him know.

The next time I talked to him, he said, “I don’t suppose you’d consider playing here at Faith and then going over to Holy Trinity on an interim basis until we can find a permanent organist, would you? Our service is at 9:00 a.m., and we could let you go just before the sermon so you can get over there in time. We can use the MIDI keyboard for the closing hymn.”

He said it would be great it I could do this at least through the Easter season.


Here I was, once again presented with the opportunity to be a “circuit-rider.” I told the pastor that I would think about it and get back to him.

My primary concern, of course, and that of the pastor and other musician at Holy Trinity, was whether I could get over there in time to set up the mikes and get the instruments ready. It occurred to me that I could go over to Holy Trinity first, set everything up, then go over to Faith. That way, I wouldn’t have to rush to get back over there.

But, to tell you the truth, I really didn’t have to give it a lot of thought. Faith Lutheran has a fairly large, very beautiful sanctuary. I’d say, wild guess, that it seats about 700-800 people. It’s a 1958-vintage edifice and embodies some interesting and, to me, very appealing facets of that era’s “Populuxe” architectural and design aesthetics, and it has beautiful contemporary stained-glass windows including a large window in the organ loft that has glass imported from Witmer, Germany (the home of Martin Luther, the founder of Lutheranism).

The organ is a very lovely three-manual, 26-rank Casavant, constructed for the church when it was built in 1958. It's a bit on the mild side, but it really is a very fine instrument nonetheless. Every stop is sweet and beautiful, and it is a joy to play.

This past Thursday, I went to the church to get acquainted with the place and the organ. The caretaker, a very kindly man named Merle, led me up to the organ loft. He showed me the secret hiding place for the console, then opened it for me.

I seated myself at the console and kinda waited for him to excuse himself — I practice best when I am alone and not distracted by an audience. Especially when trying out an organ for the first time. But he made no indication of leaving, so I went ahead and started exploring through the stops.

Then, I began working on the liturgy music for Sunday morning. As I played through the opening hymn, I heard Merle faintly humming along. I did find his humming a bit distracting and was secretly kinda wishing he’d stop. But he was such a nice man, and it was not SO big an annoyance that I wanted to bother making a big deal about it.

On the third verse of the hymn, he got a little more courageous — or inspired, I guess! — and began to sing along quite lustily. He had a really sweet voice and sang on pitch. I had a suspicion that he was a singer as well as custodian!

After I played the “grand finale” of the hymn on full organ, I turned to Merle. My heart melted when I saw him standing there, his head slightly bowed. He looked up at me, his eyes sparkling, and said very quietly,“It is so wonderful to hear the organ again.”

Well, in an instant my impatience gave way to humble gratitude for this very sweet man and his love for the pipe organ. That was quite a special moment for me.

I can’t look into my crystal ball and predict how long my association with Faith Lutheran will last. But as long as I can continue “circuit-riding” and not get too overtaxed from serving two churches, I’d like to keep it up. And since the two churches are so close, there’s little concern about being pulled over by a state trooper for speeding!


On the following two pages are a few photos I took of the church. The church also has a web site with more photos; see the link below.




I left Holy Trinity in 2006 and have been at Faith Lutheran exclusively since then.

Faith's dear friend Merle, who had been a member since the new church was established in 1957, also died in 2006.




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Faith Lutheran’s Web Site

My Website “Home Page”


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