Wineke: Roger Olsen lived Christianity

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MADISON, Wis. — If you were to Google the name “Roger Olsen” you would turn up two or three entries, one of them noting he was pastor of Grace Church in New Glarus and the other announcing he was speaking at another church.

If all you had to go on was Google, you could be forgiven for thinking Olsen wasn’t much of a character.

You could be forgiven, but you would be wrong. Roger, who died of cancer Thursday morning at age 74, was one of the best-loved pastors in Southern Wisconsin. He began his career in 1970 as assistant pastor at Bethesda Church in Madison, spent a number of years as a pastor at the Madison Gospel Tabernacle (now Lake City Church) and, in 1993, agreed to take on a tiny and almost dying congregation in New Glarus.

Grace Church met – and meets – in a former Buick sales agency and garage. Although it is now the largest congregation in the village it retains its store-front ambiance. Roger worked at a folding table in the lobby, offered candies, pastry and coffee to anyone who walked in the door.

I knew him for almost 50 years and I don’t recall ever seeing him dressed in anything other than a plaid flannel shirt and slacks.

I have to say, Roger and I didn’t agree on much of anything. We didn’t agree on theology. He said he believed every word of the Bible, “even the maps.” My theology tends to be more liberal.

We most certainly didn’t agree on politics. The advent of social media did little to mellow our disagreements. Well, it exacerbated those disagreements. About the only thing we did agree on his that his wife, Sandra, whom he married in 1965, is a far better person than either of us.

But, we were friends. We liked one another.

I can’t speak to why Roger liked me. I can speak to one reason I liked Roger: He lived out his faith like few others I have ever encountered.

If you encountered Roger and you needed help, you got help. Period. He loved to share his faith, but he never insisted those in need agree before he lent a hand. He helped people buy food, buy gas, pay their rents. He gave second chances and third chances.

There were those of us who disagreed with Roger’s politics and with the way he understood the Bible. No one would ever question the sincerity of his faith or with the humility of his spirit.

He was a charismatic guy. Had he wished to be pastor of a bigger church with a bigger salary, he would have found no shortage of churches who would want him. Had he desired to build a fancy church on the hills surrounding New Glarus (Grace Church, because of its origins, was often called the “Taj Garage”), his congregation would have built it.

He didn’t want that. He liked working in his storefront temple where children trooped in after school to get candy and where poor people felt welcome.

Entries in Google don’t always tell you much about a man.