J. Shane Mercer, Published January 10 2009
Gethsemane priest follows long, exciting road from Fort Worth to Fargo
Gethsemane dean took winding road to post
He was there when they moved Elvis’ body.
He brought down a corrupt Texas sheriff’s department.
He became an Episcopal priest, and he wrote a book that inspired a made-for-TV movie starring Rick Schroder.
Come to think of it, the whole thing sort of sounds like a made-for-TV movie. But this is no film. It’s the actual life of the Very Rev. Steve Sellers, dean of Gethsemane Episcopal Cathedral in Fargo since August of last year.
Dixie Sellers, his wife of almost 21 years, describes her husband as very much a “renaissance man.” True enough. Not only has he been an author, editor and clergyman, but he played baseball in college, writes poetry, has perfect pitch and plays 10 musical instruments.
It was a pretty crooked road that led the former investigative reporter from the sometimes brutal heat of his native Fort Worth, Texas, to the frozen plains of North Dakota.
In Sellers’ words, “I was born with printer’s ink in my blood.” His father was editor of the now defunct Fort Worth Press. His grandfather was also a newspaperman.
Even so, as a 15-year-old, this son of a Southern Baptist deacon sensed a call.
But on Sept. 14, 1970, two weeks after he began college at Texas Wesleyan University in Fort Worth, his father died of a massive heart attack.
“The whole idea of going to seminary or any sort of grad school was just off the page right then,” he says.
He finished college in less than three years and took a full-time reporting position with the Fort Worth Press.
He became weekend city editor when he was only 23. But when the paper abruptly closed up shop in May 1975, he went back to school on a teaching fellowship, earning a master’s degree in history with a minor in journalism.
Finding his path
But even as Sellers was excelling in his career, he was searching in his spiritual life. After the death of his father, he had begun to explore how other denominations worshiped.
“I was wrestling with God for 15 years,” he says.
After earning his masters degree in 1977, he worked as a general assignment reporter at the Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn. It was there that he would get a front-row seat to pop culture history.
On Aug. 16, 1977, only weeks after Sellers joined the staff, Elvis Presley died, and, says Sellers, “Every person who had the name reporter attached to theirs was sent out.”
In the days and weeks that followed, anything about Elvis was a hot story. Sellers broke the news that Presley, whose birthday was this past Thursday, had $1.2 million in his checking account when he died.
There were a number of attempts to steal Elvis’ body, so it and his mother’s body were moved to Graceland. Sellers was there when they were buried and spoke with Vernon Presley, Elvis’s father that day. Sellers saw that Elvis’ middle name on the headstone was spelled “Aaron,” but he knew that it was spelled “Aron” on Elvis’ birth certificate. Sellers asked about the discrepancy.
“And Mr. Presley, you know, who was just pure country, you know, salt of the Earth kind of guy said, ‘Well, crap, we just couldn’t spell very good back then,’ ” says Sellers.
Those who knew Sellers back in those days, paint the picture of a strong newsman with a laid back personality.
“He liked to laugh,” says Otis Sanford, Commercial Appeal editor for opinion and editorials.
Sanford recalls that one reporter used to call Sellers, “CB,” a reference to his curly beard, saying “He took it all in stride.”
Jerome Wright, citizens editor at the Appeal, says Sellers had a “nurturing” aspect about him and that you could “count on his word.”
“This business tends to have a lot of egos … but he was somebody you could talk to,” Wright says. “Steve always did the right thing even if it wasn’t popular.”
Answering the call
Looking back, Wright says, “maybe he was meant to be a priest.”
And while Sellers enjoyed the work he did, changes were afoot. He remembers seeing people hurt when he was covering the news in Memphis and having the sense that he was “doing them no good” by sitting and taking notes.
He believes God was gently tapping on his shoulder.
Sellers was eventually promoted to urban affairs editor and was in line to continue his move upward. But he wanted to be “back on the streets,” and took a job as the investigative reporter for the Austin American Statesmen newspaper in Austin, Texas.
That’s where he got a tip about some nasty business at a sheriff’s department north of Houston. He started digging and found that inmates had been water-tortured, drugs were sold out of the jail and innocent motorists were arrested and stolen from by the department. In May 1982, Sellers wrote the first of a dozen articles about the department.
In the end, Sellers says “the sheriff and his entire department except one deputy were all convicted of federal felony offenses or pleaded guilty.”
But after the first of those articles came out, that tapping that Sellers perceived on his shoulder, grew deafening.
Sellers had been attending an Episcopal church. He was drawn to the Catholic aspects of the church such as the ancient sacraments, creeds and orders of ministry as well as its protestant ideas such as the emphasis on scripture, the transformative work of the Holy Spirit and the concept of free will. And when he was driving along one day, he saw a sign – for the Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest.
He drove to the first church he could find open, and the “Lord and I had a face-to-face, heart-to-heart talk.
“I’ll do whatever you tell me to do,” he prayed.
He started seminary in the fall of 1983. And, during his first year in seminary, he wrote a book about the sheriff’s department he’d busted. “Terror on Highway 59” paid for a good bit of school.
“When CBS bought the motion picture rights, that paid for the rest of school,” he says.
Sellers was ordained in 1986 and ministered in Texas until last year. He came to Fargo after answering a posting for the position at Gethsemane. The cathedral’s mission statement closely matched his own personal mission statement, both of which focus on bringing people into a relationship with Jesus Christ.
“Neither of those mentions four feet of snow,” he says. “That is a big change for this old Texas boy.”
It’s been a wild ride for Sellers all the way from Fort Worth to Fargo.
“We really don’t understand how God is at work in our lives until we look backwards at our lives,” Sellers says. “And when we’re in the midst of exciting and difficult and confusing situations, we don’t really notice the divine hand at work,” Sellers says. “It’s only when we’re through and look back that we see.”
Readers can reach Forum reporter Shane Mercer at (701) 451-5734