New Westminster minister brings life with him

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 9, 2007

He jokingly refers to himself as a slow learner. But with a bachelor’s in criminology, a master’s in divinity and a doctorate in cultural anthropology and theology, Westminster Presbyterian Church’s new minister Marc Mihail is anything but.

The spry 70-year-old minister brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to his position. Over the past 40 years, Mihail has worked as a minister, a criminal liaison for Ronald Reagan, a professor, a researcher, an anthropologist, a pilot and a ski instructor. He has lived among brown bears in Alaska, slot machines in Las Vegas and empty desert in Israel.

From the Midwest to the Middle East, Mihail said he has found one common element — human suffering.

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“I feel the pain of all the people I’ve gotten to know,” he said. “What I’ve seen has been a blessing, but has caused a lot of weeping. These experiences really made me want to be more pastoral to my flock.”

Mihail said he didn’t grow up a Presbyterian and really didn’t have a “church upbringing.”

“I first became interested in ministry while working for then-governor Reagan,” he said. “I thought I heard God calling me, but I ran the other way.”

Mihail said he struggled with the decision to become a minister.

“I was very happy with my job in California,” he said. It wasn’t until I was in my 40s that I decided to go to seminary. When the Lord calls, he won’t let go.”

After successfully navigating three years of seminary instruction, Mihail accepted his first job as pastor of a small church in Kansas.

“It was a wonderful experience,” he said. “But I had to redefine my sense of beauty. I was not at all familiar with the Midwest.”

Mihail described Kansas as the “only place in the country where you can be buried in mud and have the wind blow dust across your face. We had one road in that town and it wasn’t paved.”

Mihail soon left his remote Kansas town for a remote Alaskan island as part of a doctorate program in cultural anthropology and theology. Mihail and his wife, Sandra, lived among the island’s natives where “there are more bears than people.”

“There were no doctors, nurses, restaurants or theaters,” he said. “The village hunted and fished to survive.”

While living in Alaska, Mihail was adopted by a native family and was given the tribal name “ha-noon-ga,” which translates “wolf of the isthmus.” The role of this wolf was to run back and forth between the coasts and warn people of danger.

“I think any pastor anywhere would be grateful to have this name,” he said. “It speaks to what a pastor should be.”

As part of his doctorate program, Mihail said he studied the psychological and cultural problems of Alaska’s indigenous population through a theological lens. He was part of the Presbyterian effort to reach indigenous people worldwide.

“Like many Alaskan villages, there were incredible psychological problems there,” he said. “People everywhere have different problems, but most of them are spiritual.”

As part of the same program, Mihail also studied in Israel.

“I saw a lot of human suffering and strife,” he said. “That same human suffering has a historic trajectory that is common everywhere.”

After completing his doctorate program, Mihail accepted an invitation to establish a cultural anthropology and theology program at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas.

“Talk about a culture shock,” he said. “After all that time in Alaska, moving to Las Vegas was amazing. It was from famine to feast.”

It was during his time in Las Vegas that Mihail first heard from Westminster.

“I had been contacted by a number of churches, but found myself declining,” he said. “After hearing from Natchez, I thought it might be time to return to the pulpit.”

The Boston native met with the church’s pastor search committee in January and said he immediately fell in love with the church and Natchez.

“It was almost like I really discerned the will of God saying ‘Natchez is for you,’” he said. “We’ve felt that through the whole process.”

After preaching a trial sermon at a sister church in Port Gibson, Mihail was offered the position at Westminster. He officially accepted in late June.

“I know the Lord is doing something in this community and I’m thrilled to be part of it,” he said. “I see Natchez as a community made up of human beings going through their own transitions and I want to help.”

Mihail said he has no plans of leaving Natchez any time soon.

“This place feels like home to me,” he said. “I’ve even asked my son to move his family here. I may have only been here for a couple of months, but I already feel like a true Southerner.”