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Angel's Wings

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A storm rages outside the Rev. Jack Kintner’s cockpit as he points his Cessna 172 toward a narrow landling strip. Wind and rain pummel the tiny four-seat plane, but with both hands on the yoke, and his dog Dutchess by his side, Kintner keeps the nose trained on verdant Orcas Island. “No rookies in this weather,” he shouts above the engine’s roar.

Certainly he’s no novice. For 14 years, this 54-year-old Lutheran pastor of the San Juan Islands parish has braved these not-always-friendly skies more than a thousand times to do the Lord’s work. Each Sunday, Kintner preaches, sings hymns and gives communion to a small congregation on Orcas (population: 3,500) as well as on Lopez and San Juan, remote Washington islands about 90 miles north of Seattle. Other days he takes wing to transport elderly parishioners to medical appointments in mainland Bellingham, Wash., site of the closest hospital, and to make house calls. Even though the church has been planning to transfer him soon to a parish in British Columbia, where he won’t need to fly, Kintner says he’s at peace. “I fly to do the work, not the other way around—I’d use a pogo stick if it would get me there.”

On this day, clad in blue jeans and hiking boots, Kintner is clearly on a mission. Once he has landed on the rain-slicked runway, he hops out of the plane, tugs Dutchess by her leash and makes a dash for a vintage Volkswagen Beetle. After a 10-minute spin down a winding dirt road, he arrives at Emmanuel Episcopal, a 107-year-old white clapboard church rented by the congregation of 40.

“I’m not too late, am I?” he jokes to the parishioners, as he hurries Dutchess into a small office. “I’m going to go sequester the pooch.” Returning in his robes, Kintner leads the flock in prayer, then launches into his sermon. When a baby cries out, he responds good-naturedly, “We love to hear that sound.”

Longtime buddy Yossi Liebowitz, a rabbi in Bellingham, says folks appreciate Kintner’s light touch. “He’s philosophical, yet not dogmatic,” Liebowitz says. “He probes social and religious issues in a way that’s not annoying.”

Clutching her walker after the service, Bernita Sedenko recalls the time Kintner flew her to the hospital after she ruptured a disk in her spine in 1989. The elderly homemaker still relies on him to shuttle her to periodic ophthalmology appointments. “On one of our trips the weather was so bad you couldn’t see past the propeller,” Sedenko says. “I shut my eyes and I prayed a little, but I don’t think he knew it.”

While the good pastor exudes confidence and self-possession, he wasn’t born with it. He was born, in fact, with a cleft lip and palate, and he endured plenty of playground teasing as a child—plus numerous surgeries to correct the problem. “I know what rejection and ridicule is like,” he says. “My faith sustained me through some dark hours.”

Raised in Port Angeles, Wash., by Quentin Kintner, 84, a family physician, and his wife, Christine, a homemaker who died in 1978, Kintner was greatly influenced by his father’s father, an elder in the Church of the Brethren, a German-Swiss denomination similar to Quakerism. “In our family, there’s always been a dialogue with the faith,” says his sister Susan, 45, a Lutheran pastor in Portland, Ore. “It’s almost genetic.”

Flying is also written, apparently, in the family DNA. Kintner’s father is a pilot, as are his sister and two brothers, Tom, 55, a construction equipment salesman on Guam, and Bill, 46, a doctor in Port Angeles. Kintner flew his first solo flight at 16 in Port Angeles. And yet his first church duty, before graduating in 1971 from Pacific Lutheran Seminary, part of the University of California at Berkeley, was with a ski ministry in Aspen. “It wasn’t a scam,” Kintner says. “They were trying to provide a Christian presence in a recreational area.”

Later he became pastor at Western Washington University in Bellingham. In 1985 the Lutheran church asked Kintner, then living on a 24-foot sailboat, to oversee the widely dispersed islands parish, which was serviced only by ferry. He agreed but suggested using a plane.

It won’t be easy replacing Kintner, who is divorced and has no children. “He has the right personality for the place,” says sister Susan. “In summer he comes to church in shorts and Birkenstocks.” Says Kintner, patting Dutchess: “I hope I’ve built enough of a ministry here that I can pass it on.”

Alec Foege

Johnny Dodd in the San Juan Islands