The Rev. Sally Fahrenthold has already written her obituary. It starts by saying that “The Rev. Sally Brown (Curtiss) Fahrenthold died in faith and peace on (date) in (location).”
She wrote the obituary years ago, before doctors told her in October that she had just six months to live.
She chose this quote for the obituary: “I didn’t do anything much. We did it together.”
Her friends point to many organizations she helped launch or served with.
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In Kansas City that included Harvesters – the Community Food Network food bank, Warmth and Light Coalition and Kansas City Community Gardens.
In Wichita, she helped start and lead Partners for Wichita, which launched Bags of Blessings, Filling the Gap Lunches for Kids and other programs for people in need.
Forrest Ehmke, a retired social worker who was a member of Christ Lutheran Church while Fahrenthold was pastor there, said she was a tireless advocate for people with limited resources.
“I always say when I grow up I want to be like Pastor Sally,” Ehmke said. “Unfortunately I think I’ve aged out of the growing up part, but she’s been really a mentor and an example for me to follow, to learn from. In terms of my family, I think she has been very much symbolic of what Christianity is all about.”
Now, that tireless advocate is facing a terminal cancer diagnosis feeling “secure in the presence and love of God” as she looks back on the many people who have been a part of her life.
She was active in Inter-Faith Ministries, the Greater Wichita Ministerial League, the former Kansas Ecumenical Ministries and the former Lutheran Social Services of Kansas and Oklahoma.
“Well no, I didn’t do it (alone),” said Fahrenthold, 80. “Maybe I knew people to gather people together who would have good ideas for it, but they used their individual gifts and experiences and ideas.”
Facing death hasn’t changed how Fahrenthold views life, she said, but it has showed her how caring people are.
She doesn’t envision pearly gates in Heaven, or having a party with people she knew who have passed away.
“More for me it’s that Christ promises that he’s with us always, so I don’t need to worry about that,” she said. “I think of eternal peace and joy — somehow.”
About 40 years ago, she asked a Jewish friend who had cancer what she expected of the afterlife.
“Well, I think I’m in God’s hands and I’ll let God figure that out,” the woman told her.
Fahrenthold also thinks of a Southern Baptist friend who said, “I keep ready” for heaven.
Those things apply to her too, she said: not an emphasis on trying to get to heaven, but keeping ready as she lets God figure out the rest.
Looking back on her life, Fahrenthold says that what gives her the most pleasure is bringing people together from different walks of life to make a difference in the community.
Elaine Harvey said Fahrenthold, who she has known for years, has “always been a connector to everybody in the community.”
“She’s just a true friend,” Harvey said. “She’s a great encourager. You just think of her as a person who can do things and encourages others to accomplish the things that are needed for this time and this place.”
Now, some of those people who Fahrenthold helped or worked alongside are sending her letters, cards and notes.
“There are hundreds of people that think of her as a light in their lives,” Harvey said. “And more that have been affected that don’t know, through what she has accomplished.”
It’s surprised Fahrenthold how many people mentioned the importance of being a woman in the pulpit. Although other women had been ordained in the Evangelical Lutheran Church (then the American Lutheran Church), it was still considered unusual to have a woman pastor when she arrived in Wichita in 1991.
Fahrenthold didn’t grow up thinking she’d become a pastor. Rather, she “backed into it.”
When her daughter was born with developmental disabilities, the doctor told her, “Don’t get too attached to her, because you’ll put her in an institution for the rest of her life.” That brought out the fight in Fahrenthold, who got involved in developing services for people with disabilities, something that necessitated public speaking.
Later, she took a job with Metro Lutheran Ministry in Kansas City working on food and rent assistance. While working toward a master’s degree in social work, people said her practicum ideas were pastoral ministry, not social work.
Eventually, she went to Saint Paul School of Theology to receive a master of divinity degree. She was ordained in 1985 and became an associate pastor in Overland Park before moving to Wichita.
Being a woman pastor was never something she focused on, she said, and never an issue in the congregations she served.
After being at Christ Lutheran for a few years she was told that some at the church hadn’t wanted a female pastor, but they “were welcoming and enthusiastic” about her presence anyway.
“It was a really hot issue,” she said. “It was the kind of thing that divided up (denominations). So for Christ Lutheran Church to accept me as a pastor was a bold step.”
Fahrenthold says she’d like an update from the doctors on how long she’s expected to live. “Obviously I haven’t died yet,” she says with a laugh.
She was able to have her family around her at Christmas: Her two sisters; her daughter, who lives in her own apartment and benefits from some of the same programs for people with disabilities that Fahrenthold helped to start; her son; daughter-in-law; and four grandchildren. Her husband Glenn Fahrenthold died in 2006.
For now she’s taking each day as it comes, getting her finances in order, giving away belongings and reading the dozens of notes and letters from people who care about her.
“During the past few months the expressions of caring and wonderful memories that people have shared has been a real blessing,” Fahrenthold said. “It’s been really like a benediction, like a final blessing. It’s been a blessing before I go forth.”