CLEVELAND - At the University Circle United Methodist Church, its senior pastor walked among the pews of the large building toward its pulpit. During Christmas and for a few days after, a beautiful nativity scene depicting the birth of Jesus was in place. The wood carvings, some of which were three feet in height, showed the handiwork of the Reverend Kenneth Chalker.
He touched the oak and walnut figures he had constructed, giving special attention to the baby Jesus in the manger. Also there were Mary, Joseph, shepherds and the others who are part of the Christmas story. Chalker had used a pattern to make the nativity scene.
"It's an outlet for me because you see something from start to finish," he said. "And that's a therapeutic thing."
As he showed his handiwork, he said he was not as artistic as some would think. "Thank God for power tools," he said, his laughter filling the huge sanctuary of the church.
As he spoke of the power tools used in his woodcarving work, he also spoke of the power of God. He called it a power which is always there, but too often, is not called upon by people.
"It is the secularization of our lives that's just taking the meaning out of things," he said. "People feel an inner permission to go after what they want," he concluded. "It's me, me, me," he said, his voice rising and echoing against the walls and stain glass windows of the sanctuary.
Chalker, who has been an ordained minister for 40 years, has been quick with his opinions over the years in Cleveland. The tragic murders of school children in Newtown, Conn., hit him especially hard.
"I think this shooting, for instance, in Connecticut has focused the fact that we need to be more spiritual or we're going to kill ourselves," he said.
He said the answer to many of the problems of violence was not necessarily a collection of all the guns in the United States. He emphasized he was not against guns, but against the civilian population's access to automatic assault weapons.
"I like to hunt and I did as young person," he said. "There's nothing wrong with that, but we don't need automatic weapons in the hands of the civilian population."
Later, in his office a few steps from the sanctuary, the clergyman continued his thoughts. Periodically, he paused as if searching for the right words to explain his feelings. He was surrounded by religious books on the shelves of his office. His mind seemed as it was several hundred miles away. It probably was.
"When little children are shot in school -- first graders for Heaven's sake -- this is something that just troubles all of us," he said. The horror of Newton, CT, prompted him to write an opinion which was printed in The Plain Dealer, Cleveland's daily newspaper. The subject also found its way into his Sunday sermons.
Rev. Chalker leads a congregation of several hundred people. University Circle United Methodist Church has grown through a merger of Epworth United Methodist Church and the First United Methodist Church. Chalker led the latter. When the two congregations merged a few years ago, they moved into the historic building once named Epworth. It is one of the most visible structures in Cleveland's University Circle area with its steeple rising into the air.
"Why can't we talk about the proper use of not just guns, but the proper involvement in society of helping one another," the ministers asks as he sits as his desk overlooking part of the historic Cultural Gardens of Cleveland and the Cleveland Museum of Art. "We are part of the kingdom of God, but if we make it the kingdom of human beings alone, we will be killing each other," he said.
Kenneth Chalker is a man of strong words and strong faith. He said too often American society has not looked long enough at the spiritual side of life.
"We go to everything else -- law enforcement, mental health, medicine -- all of which are important," he said in his baritone voice as his fist gently hit his desktop to emphasis his belief. "But we marginalize the spirit that gives purpose to it all."
His viewpoints are not new. He has often spoken of the need for many churches themselves to put more emphasis on the spiritual lives of congregations and less on the business aspects of the churches. "I get sick of the insitutional religion because that's not it," he said. "It's the message of power and faith in an individual's life that makes the difference."
Chalker recounted the story of his father's death when Kenneth Chalker was 10 years old. "People came by the casket and said to me, 'God took your father home,'" Chalker said. He disagreed with that assessment. "God is in the midst of us all the time."
Kenneth Chalker is a strong Christian who preaches weekly from his pulpit. However, his advice is for people of all faiths.
"The spiritual reality is that God is good and that God is love," he said.
The minister admitted he is troubled by all the violence which peppers nearly every newscast in every major American
city. Still, he looks for the best in people. It has been his life's work.
He said he believed no matter what happened, God would enable good to eventually come of it.
"God didn't send the evil event, but goodness is so powerful, it will take any event and turn it for righteous purposes," said Chalker.
His prayer for the entire nation is for peace and a strengthening of the people in their spiritual walks. Rev. Chalker cites the story of the babe in the manger, which inspired him to carve the nativity scene for the church. In the sanctuary as he talked of the murders of the Connecticut school children, he looked at his wood carving of the baby Jesus in the manger.
"Life," he said, "is a great blessing."