I was certain it was the Robert Certain I had met as I watched C-Span’s rebroadcast Tuesday night of former President Gerald R. Ford’s funeral at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. That Episcopal rector, the Ford family’s pastor, had to be the same Robert Certain I had interviewed in a Scottsdale restaurant in 2003 promoting his book and talking about his candidacy to be the next Episcopal bishop for Arizona.
I searched the bookshelves and found “Unchained Eagle: From Prisoner of War to Prisoner of Christ.”
Certain had spent 3 1/2 months in the “Hanoi Hilton,” aka “Heartbreak Hotel,” as a prisoner of the North Vietnamese, an event that led him to ministry and chaplaincy work.
He had mailed the book to me from his pastorate at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in Palm Desert, Calif., several weeks before the interview and wrote on the inside cover “3/29/75 - 3/29/03 — May God speak to you through the pages of this story. Robert G. Certain, 30 Years of Freedom.” I had read the 320-page book in time for the interview with Certain, who spent 2 1/2 years (1995 to 1998) at the 3,000-member St. Barnabas of the Desert Episcopal Church in Paradise Valley, first as associate pastor and then interim rector for six months after Rector Dan Miner resigned.
In his book, Certain wrote fondly of what he and wife Robbie found at St. Barnabas, an assignment he had taken after a one-year sabbatical. “A Golden Opportunity” is how he titled the chapter of their stay. “I was thrilled to be able to concentrate on the care of the people ... God had provided me with a golden opportunity to ease back into parish leadership,” he wrote. But through the remaining pages of the chapter, he candidly shared how parish and synod politics made staying as interim rector problematic.
He wrote about taking a group of parishioners on a hike on Ash Wednesday up Camelback Mountain in Phoenix for a Eucharist and imposition of ashes ceremony. On the way home, he learned Robbie had been in a car crash in north Phoenix and had broken 10 ribs. During her month of hospitalization, Certain was in talks with the Palm Desert church about taking the pastorate there.
On Easter 1998, Certain was announced as the new rector of St. Margaret’s, where he has remained.
In my files, I found the interview notes and printed e-mails of our correspondence four years ago. Alas, at no time in his communications, nor in his book, did he disclose that Gerald Ford and wife Betty were members of his Palm Desert parish. But it’s common for most pastors to not be namedroppers.
Certain’s book starkly detailed his life in a rat-infested prisoner-of-war cell, where he was sent after his B-52 Stratofortress was shot down during a bombing mission over Vietnam just before Christmas 1972. He had parachuted and was quickly taken prisoner with others. His capture came during his second tour of duty in Vietnam. With the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in early 1973, Certain would be released in March. The book is a frank and personal look at Certain’s faith journey, including challenges trying to balance family, far-flung military chaplaincy demands and parish ministry. He also discussed Episcopalian and Air Force politics and decades of posttraumatic stress disorder that triggered depression, alcoholism and emotional outbursts.
The native Georgian, raised in the United Methodist Church, endured threats and grueling interrogation by the North Vietnamese. “I didn’t know whether I would be killed by those people or not,” he said in the interview. It seemed likely as he was marched blindfolded down a road to bayonets. He recalled how eerie it was for American B-52s to be bombing so near the Hanoi Hilton.
“No one can take away your ability to pray under any circumstances or any place, unless you are totally unconscious,” he said. The retired chaplain and colonel would spend 30 years in the U.S. Air Force (22 of them in the Reserves) and would earn 26 decorations, including the Legion of Merit.
Certain would sit on national panels to help determine policy regarding government payment for Agent Orange injuries to servicemen. He coordinated training of Air Force Reserve chaplains and wrote a critique of Reserve chaplain deployment during Desert Shield/Desert Storm. His final appointment was senior Reserve chaplain at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.
The priest failed to make the list of finalists for the Arizona bishop’s job in 2003. It would go to Kirk Stevan Smith.
But the 59-year-old pastor has once again been thrust into a major news event. Certain was highly visible in the nine days from Ford’s death on Dec. 26 until his burial in Grand Rapids, Mich., on Wednesday. From the beginning, he pledged to accompany Betty Ford throughout the mourning journey.
He had roles throughout the odyssey from Palm Desert to Washington, D.C., to Grand Rapids, speaking often of Ford’s character.
At St. Margaret’s, where Certain officiated over a private family service Dec. 29, the family sat in the “President’s Pew,” where the Fords had sat nearly every Sunday after leaving the White House in 1977 and moving to California. “This was their spot, and it will always be their spot,” he said.