Dan Whitley was a 19-year-old kid when he got the calling. He was a college student at Guilford College in North Carolina studying for a BA in religion when he knew that God had called him to become a pastor. Many years and a few lifetimes later Whitley sits in his study at the Clintondale Friends Christian Church and discusses his life and his decision to leave the pastor-hood, retiring after 28 years in the service of God. It has been a long haul.
“I am 29 years sober,” says Whitley of his early life battling alcoholism as he referenced the Bible to various congregations throughout the eastern United States. After Guilford, he moved on to the Earlham School of Religion — a Quaker college in Richmond, Indiana — where he studied for an MA in religion. “I always wanted to teach,” says Whitley, “and one day years later my wife said to me, ‘You belong in the church as a pastor.’ I was considered a ‘weighty friend’ — a serious person — and I was in a Presbyterian church in Dallas and the pastor gave me a robe. I knew it was the answer to what God had called me to do, and just eight months prior I was drinking,” adds Whitley, who up to that moment had worked for various Quaker groups that worked with young kids, such as the workshops and camps he ran for Peace and Social Concerns throughout the Northeast in the 1970’s, then as field secretary for New York Friends Meeting, then a few years at Powell House as the Director of their retreat in Old Chatham, NY.
“And then Clintondale called,” laughs Whitley. “I knew the church a bit from my travels around the state and Jerry Hurd was on the board at Powell House. I liked the area, wanted to preach and interviewed for the position in 1986. I was a year sober and prayed for an answer. Well,” adds Whitley, “this church healed us. It’s a loving community that allowed us to be who we were.”
And Whitley explains that he is not a traditional Quaker and the church is not a traditional Friends church. “I’m a Pentecostal and evangelical. We see healings, miracles from God at this church, we speak in tongues, as the Holy Spirit fills us with enthusiasm for God…the church is alive!” When Whitley arrived at Clintondale Friends, he told me “We had the traditional Sunday morning services with Thursday night prayer meetings, which soon infused the Sundays and raised them to a revival for the 80-plus members.”
Whitley is all about “relationships” — with God, fellow people, to love everyone and to help people stay in that relationship. “I hate religion, but love relationships,” says Whitley. “Sin is separation from God and those relationships. Honesty is to rely on God and then one can receive unmerited grace, or favor, from God. The lord makes us worthy. He loves us the way we are, but loves us too much to leave us that way,” smiles Whitley, who mentions that we are “born broken. Human beings know that they’re broken. That they are in sin. They are looking for acceptance. Certainty. Life isn’t fair and they want some idea of certainty in their lives. So we here witness for Jesus and leave it to God.” Whitley’s Pentecostalism is Bible-based, but not literalist. “We share Christ through prayer and good works,” says Whitley, who then mentions that one of his favorite human beings is Mahatma Gandhi. “Even though he wasn’t a Christian, he loved Jesus. He said that he did not become a Christian because of the attitudes of the missionaries. I think God looks at the heart and I hope we meet in heaven someday,” smiles Whitley. He then mentions Christian martyr Deitrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian who opposed the Nazis and gave his life in the hope that others could live. “He didn’t just live for ideas,” adds Whitley, “but for life.”
Whitley’s early life of struggle has certainly infused his later one. “I was broken and prayed to God for answers, for an answer to that calling I heard years ago, and I think that his bringing me to Clintondale was part of his plan for me.”
And after his retirement on Aug. 1?
“We’re moving to Greene County. A little house in Oak Hill. And the rest?…I’ll listen to God to find out what he wants me to do.”