Celebrating 50 years of marriage by bringing hope to others

February 17, 2021 by Emily Enders Odom

In retirement, the Rev. Fred Bunning delights in reading mysteries and solving puzzles.

Fortunately, his wife, the Rev. Virginia Bunning, is not one of them.

Even so, after 50 years of marriage, a hint of mystery yet remains as the retired clergy couple continue to discover in each other their hidden gifts and untapped potential — and even, occasionally, in themselves.

“It’s kind of scary what I’ve learned in retirement,” says Virginia Bunning. “At the age of 73, I am in better shape, body, mind and soul, than I have been in a long time.”

After blessing the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) with 50 and 40 years of ordained service respectively, Fred and Virginia served a series of tentmaking and part-time pastorates — four of them as co-pastors — in Pennsylvania, Illinois, Wisconsin and Colorado, where they are now both honorably retired.

“We fast regularly, a 16-hour fast every day and a complete fast one day a week,” said Virginia. “I’ve lost 60 pounds and Fred is below where he was when we got married. We walk four days a week and do high intensity strength training once a week. We also enjoy riding our Greenspeed tandem recumbent tricycle.”

Although Virginia freely admits that her memory isn’t what it once was and, moreover, that “aging isn’t for sissies,” when it comes to pursuing their passions in retirement, it seems there’s no mountain the Bunnings can’t climb, no fish they can’t catch, no tree that remains unpruned and no Presbyterian resource that goes untapped.

“I just love being a Presbyterian,” says Virginia, who comes from a long line of Presbyterians, while Fred became Presbyterian in college, having been raised Baptist. “I go to the website every day and read the day’s Mission Yearbook prayer. It always warms my heart to see what we’re up to. We’re a top-notch denomination.”

In fact, their golden years have only increased the Bunnings’ opportunities for engagement with the PC(USA). Although always generous givers — especially, Fred says, to the PC(USA)’s Special Offerings —they have since found new ways to give.

“The Christmas Joy Offering has always been dear to my heart,” says Fred. “Ever since we were recipients of a joint gift from our presbytery and the Board of Pensions — which of course was supported by Christmas Joy — we have been big givers to that Offering. And even though I have always been aware of the Presbyterian Giving Catalog and always made sure that it was available when we were serving churches, this was the first time that Virginia and I used it. She was the one who had the idea to use the catalog to ask people to join us in celebrating our 50th wedding anniversary.”

Fred and Virginia Bunning were married 50 years ago during Sunday worship at Community Presbyterian Church in Lingle, Wyoming. (Contributed photo)

It was 50 years ago, on December 20, 1970, at the Community Presbyterian Church in Lingle, Wyoming, that Fred and Virginia Bunning were married during Sunday morning worship, “like a baptism or Communion,” Fred notes.

“I remember thinking when the minister who married us said, ‘Will those who want to get married please come forward,’ what if a whole bunch of women came forward,” he said with a chuckle. “In some ways, though, our golden anniversary was a letdown. I had really been looking forward to celebrating our fiftieth on the same day of the week we got married, a Sunday.”

The Bunnings, who have two adult children — a son Joel, who lives with them, and a daughter Jaylyn, who is married and works in Denver — had hoped to invite friends and family to worship with them and celebrate together after morning worship, which was neither wise nor possible due to the ongoing pandemic.

“However,” they wrote last year in a joint letter, “this year has given us pause to consider how we might make a difference. We’ve decided as a tribute to fifty years of — hope equipping endurance, peace calming strife, joy brightening sorrow, and love transcending all of life — to make a gift to www.presbyteriangifts.org. We Presbyterians have a Giving Catalog whereby small can make a big impact. We invite you to participate with us, increasing our capacity to bring hope to others. Instead of cards we would like you to give money toward a gift.”

Now in its seventh, record-breaking year, the Presbyterian Giving Catalog — which is available both in print and online as well as for immediate download in Spanish and Korean — is filled with a wide variety of gifts that provide real and positive impact around the world, including aid for refugees, access to clean water and ways to end hunger.

“If we could have had a gathering, I was going to ask people to tell stories,” Virginia said. “Instead about half the people sent us checks that we honored when we sent in ours, and the other half went online to select their own gifts and emailed us about it later.”

All told, the Bunnings’ family and friends gave a little over $1,750 in honor of their 50th  wedding anniversary to the Presbyterian Giving Catalog, Christmas Joy Offering and the local food bank.

“Our anniversary celebration turned out to be real ‘Links of Love’ where small gifts have a big impact,” the Bunnings wrote in their 2021 Epiphany Epistle. “These gifts included: a sewing machine, a kitchen kit, an emergency life pack, a fishing net, a water filter, a community irrigation water pump, a Mzuzu drill, one share for a latrine, a participant in the women’s empowerment project, teacher training, educate a child, youth agriculture training, a jerry can, a family of chickens, a piglet, beekeeping, a bag of Moringa tree seeds, farming tools, and a community garden; as well as a donation to our local food bank and the Christmas Joy Offering, which provides critical financial support to church workers and their families and supports Presbyterian-related schools and colleges to provide education and leadership development while nurturing racial and ethnic heritage.”

The Rev. Fred Bunning celebrated 50 years of ordination by — what else? — preaching a sermon. (Contributed photo)

Always true to their ordination vows and never content to be idle, the two retired pastors continue to be active through volunteer service in their local community as well as participation in the life of area congregations and the Presbytery of Plains and Peaks. And as if celebrating one 50th anniversary weren’t enough, the Bunnings also just observed the 50th anniversary of Fred’s ordination as a minister of Word and Sacrament. On Sunday, February 7, he marked the occasion by preaching at the Chapel in the Pines in Redfeather Lakes, Colorado.

Looking back on five decades of ordained ministry, the Bunnings are grateful for their shared calling as small church pastors who never wanted a “big steeple.” As tentmakers, Fred’s secular employment has included five years as a heating and air conditioning engineer, eight years working for a moving company and six years managing concession stands for the city of Loveland, where they currently live. Virginia, who had been a science teacher prior to her ordination, says that they are proud to call themselves “a jack and jill of all trades,” adept at many things and always seeking out the next challenge.

The Bunnings say they’re grateful for decades of ministry in small congregations. (Contributed photo)

“My lawn, my vegetable garden, my trees and my flower beds get better every year,” says Virginia with pride. “Our yard is an oasis that cheers the people who walk by. It is now the gift from God I give to others in our neighborhood. Fred is the ‘chief cook and bottle washer’ plus he also does the laundry. And when we were going to church [before the pandemic], the men would all gather at one table before worship and he was a pastoral presence in their midst. I know a lot of women whose husbands never make it to 82. I am thankful l still have him.”

Now is the time to unite with thousands of others using the Presbyterian Giving Catalog to support the ministries closest to their hearts: feeding the hungry, comforting the brokenhearted and sharing our faith with young and old. Give today by clicking here.

This was published for Presbyterian News Service on February 17, 2021.

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