The Chappy D Effect: A Profile by Joshua Ray Amiling
Photo credit: Bethany Lutheran College
It is another weekly installment of a Bible study in the observation room of Honsey Hall, titled the South Lantern for its lighting style. During the day, one can gaze out of its two-story tall windows upon a soccer field and baseball diamond. Just beyond the diamond is the Mayo Clinic. However, it is a gloomy Wednesday evening in September, and under the rain-soaked street lights cars pass as the clinic lights glimmer in the blurry distance.
Honsey Hall is located on the campus of Bethany Lutheran College (BLC), a college in Mankato, Minnesota, a 90-minute drive outside the Twin Cities. With a full-time enrollment of 646 students (the highest to date for the college), it is hard to hide yourself unless you hole up in your dorm room. So, people who stand out really stand out. In the case of one man, he definitely does not try to hide.
At the Bible study, the group goes around introducing themselves. Everything goes smoothly until it gets to the end. The gentleman leading the bible study says, “I’m Elvis Presley.” Chuckles arise from the assembled group. Some exchange glances with faces that ask, “Did he say what I think he just said?” A couple eyes roll, but they are accompanied with smirks, shaking heads, and the kind of laughter one does under one’s breath, like a student laughing in the back of the classroom after the teacher has called for silence. It is the kind of laughter that comes when one is far too used to the joke but the person delivering it is too funny not to elicit a response. I happen to be in this camp. Hang around this man enough and you can’t help but laugh at his jokes.
No, this is not a man in a black wig and a guitar impersonating “The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” He is not looking to stir up controversy or draw attention through brash actions. He most definitely is not gyrating his hips or wearing a white jumpsuit. Not even close. But the joke is part of his personality. Rather, the man leading the bible study has just turned 60. Salt and pepper hair graces his head. His outfit consists of dress shoes, suit and tie, and nice slacks. While he draws attention, he is not actively looking for it. When he speaks, his voice is full of energy. While he sits, he either has one leg over the other while he reclines, or he leans forward then sits back with his hands folded in his lap. He is a man of many words and sturdy faith. He’s a complex man, but he takes joy in the simple things. He’s Chaplain Donald “Don” Moldstad.
It is sleepy Thursday on the campus of BLC. No one seems in the mood to look up from their sullen trances to acknowledge those they pass. A majority of hoods are up as students scurry through the rain or stay inside seeking shelter and meander through the cloistered tunnel system. The lethargy is derived from the gray blanket of clouds that denies any sliver of blue sky or ray of sunshine. The entire week has been much of the same, and unfortunately the weather forecasts offer no relief. Pitter-patter of raindrops provide a staccato of drudgery.
If only the many passersby would wander on down to one of the offices under Trinity Chapel, even for a moment, their spirits would be easily lifted. Below the worship space sits Office 111, where Moldstad resides. A crucifix hangs on the door. Enter, and take a long look around — there is a lot to take in. To the left on a gray metal cabinet is a model wooden ship, some kind of wooden figure, a plaque, a Martin Luther toy with a comically large head. There are enough books for an adventurous child to build a substantial fort with. “It’s almost all theology, most of them. There’s a little bit of art maybe, and there might be psychology or history books, but it’s mostly theology. Most of my library is for preparing for sermons and classes and things,” Moldstad says. A fully stocked tall revolving bookcase, once his grandfather’s, stands in the corner. There is a strange contraption behind the desks that holds even more books. Moldstad is at the contraption reading a book. “Just a second, I don’t want to lose my place,” he says, “I get distracted easily.” The contraption is a Thomas Jefferson revolving bookstand that can hold five open books at a time. Moldstad and his wife Gina came across one while visiting Jefferson’s Monticello home in Virginia. She found the blueprints for it online, gave it to a friend, and the friend put one together as a gift for Moldstad.
While he finishes preparing for upcoming October chapel sermons, I settle in at the round table at the center of the room. The desk is covered in books and papers, and a healthy-looking plant provides some refreshing green. A Luther sketch and a painting of Jesus with Mary and Martha grace two of the walls. On the right wall is a painting of a railroad in a countryside setting rounds out the interior. It is the lone decoration on this wall.Railroads have to follow a planned, precise, and orderly path. Any deviation, any spike out of place, any tie off by the smallest of margin, could lead to disaster. My interview with Moldstad begins, and I realize the questions I have prepared are not orderly, but rather a bit scatterbrained. Thankfully, this is kind of how Moldstad operates. Sit down and have a conversation with him. Pick a subject, any subject. What would be a five-minute talk with the average person is a 30-minute-deep dive with several tangents that all lead back home to the original topic. You will leave entertained with a head full of much more than bargained for. Several months ago, I interviewed Moldstad for a history class. It was supposed to be a five-minute Q&A about America in the 1960s and 70s. Instead, the interview was almost 20 minutes of great discussion and insight. An orderly railroad Moldstad is not.
For this interview, I prepare accordingly and carve out 30 minutes. I also fully expect to exceed my projected time.
The Bible study group is focusing on the book of Revelation written by the Apostle John. In the 20th verse of chapter one, it talks about seven stars that represent the seven angels of seven churches John is writing to. Just like stars that brightly twinkle and dance while the lighting night sky, Moldstad’s eyes and smile do likewise. They put at ease some quiet freshmen who walk in with bibles in hand and a lost look on their faces. “Come in! Have a seat,” says Moldstad warmly. The freshmen visibly loosen up. Shoulders drop, they crack grins, and they look up from the floor, their previous sanctuary of shyness.
Moldstad is great at putting people at ease. But beware, get too comfy, and like a thief in the night, he will strike with a playful joke that will use you as the punchline. When I enter the bible study with a friend, he says to my friend, “Hey my man, what’s up?” then chides me, “Oh, but you, you aren’t welcome. Go away!” Everyone laughs, and I jokingly turn to go. Moldstad laughs, “Ah, get back in here.” As the freshmen file into their seats, someone else wanders in. Now we are short a chair. Her boyfriend gets up to fetch another one. A girl gets up and volunteers to sacrifice her seat and sit on the floor. Moldstad senses an opportunity: “Are you sure you don’t want a chair to sit by your boyfriend?” The room again is filled with chuckles, but this time is accompanied with loud laughter. The girl gives Moldstad a look and sighs. She realizes she was just the victim of a well-timed ambush. Moldstad immediately apologizes, fearing he has crossed a line, but a genuine smile breaks across the girl’s face. “It’s fine, it’s all good,” she says. She reiterates that she was not offended by the joke after the bible study when he profusely apologizes again. Anyone who has been around Moldstad enough knows he never means to be offensive, and honestly the only problem is nobody expects or can anticipate what joke he will make next or when he will say something.
Moldstad credits his never-ending humor to his upbringing. He says his parents were very happy and lighthearted. “It put a foundation of joy and happiness into everything we [he and his siblings] did,” he says. He also says his humor is a key tool in his teaching and for certain situations. “You can teach people things through humor that maybe they wouldn’t get otherwise. A well-timed joke can ease the tension in a situation.”
Those who know Moldstad have some kind of story about his humor. A great example is a video he and BLC professor Peter Bloedel made in 2010. I show him the beginning of the video and he laughs and cringes. “It’s hard to believe I still have my job after this,” he says chuckling and shaking his head. Spoofed from Saturday Night Live’s 2005 song “Lazy Sunday,” “Crazy Monday” was a creation to entertain people at a BLC spring banquet. In the song, “Pedro” Bloedel calls up “Chappy D just to talk a little smack,” and the two, wearing skewed baseball caps and cutoff shirts and necklaces, give a tour of the campus and rap about “people hanging on the green playing fris for shizzle,” “El Presidente,” “pants on the ground,” and more.
Along with his humor, he gives off a positive vibe that is infectious. He smiles and waves at people as he passes them, and their faces light up without fail. Sometimes, if he really knows the person, he will not call them by their name, but instead a nickname or something similar. “What’s up Tone?” he says to a student named Tony who enters the South Lantern. A smile lights up the face of “Tone.” When another student tentatively raises his hand to read, Moldstad says with much gusto, “Go for it, big guy!” The student’s shoulders, noticeably slouched, become upright, and his timidity fades.
Moldstad applies this attitude to his job as chaplain. “What I love about being a chaplain is it’s not work. I mean, it does have duties to it, but it’s so fun to do.” He then jokes, “Well I hate meeting with students one on one.” He goes on to say, “Here at Bethany it is the students [that make it so enjoyable]. I love when you get to be the person that helps them understand or know something new from God’s Word that they didn’t know before. That’s exciting. We’ve had students that have become Christians through their classes and gotten baptized. That’s exciting. It’s the students. I don’t mind working with the faculty either except [professor, organist, and organ instructor Mark] DeGarmeaux [laughs].”
Another aspect of Moldstad that people know him by is the finger (no, not that finger). While most have ten fingers. Moldstad now is the owner of nine and a half. On his left hand, his pointer finger is shorter. He worked at a houseboat factory when he was 19, and while reaching under a table saw to turn it off, he slipped in sawdust and his finger got sucked into the saw. Recounting the day, Moldstad says, “I didn’t feel anything right away. A guy came in, found my finger, rushed me to the hospital, and the doctor said ‘We can’t put it back on.’” In true Moldstad fashion, he keeps good humor about his finger. “I had to learn to walk all over because my weight was thrown off,” he laughs. Many times, whether in chapel sermons or just random conversations, he’s joked about his finger. Being right handed, it did not affect him too much. He had to adjust to play the piano and type, but he worked hard and says he plays and types better now than when he had ten fingers because of the work he had to put in.
But there’s more to Moldstad than just an extremely happy man with endless humor and a shorter digit. Being a chaplain, his strong Christian faith guides him every day. He grew up in a Christian home, and his father was a pastor. While attending BLC, former professor Allen Quist pulled him aside. “[Allen] said ‘Hey, you’ve got some abilities that can be used as a pastor.’” At the time, Moldstad wanted to go into advertising, but during his junior year at Mankato State (he attended BLC while it was a two-year college), he “got so sick” of its ungodliness and secularism. He decided to look into the ministry, and after graduation at MSU with a Bachelors’ in Fine Arts, he went to the Bethany Lutheran Seminary and became a pastor. He started at Our Savior Lutheran Church in Naples, FL, before moving to Golden Valley, MN to King of Grace Lutheran Church. From there he came to Mankato to be a pastor at Mount Olive Lutheran Church for 10 years until taking his current position as Chaplain and Director of Campus Spiritual Life at BLC in 2005.
I ask him about his life philosophy. He chuckles, then ponders for a moment, tilting his head and gazing upwards. Then he stands up and reaching for the wall by his desk. “I’ll show you what it is,” he says. The sound of tape slowly peeling can be heard as Moldstad gently takes a piece of paper off. He lays it on the table, saying, “I always put this right next to myself.” It reads: “How can God use me today to advance His Kingdom of Grace?” For the first time in the interview, there’s a moment of silence. We both stare at the paper. Nothing else seems to matter. For several seconds, the world continues around us, but the paper is our world at this moment. I look up as he begins to speak again, his eyes still on the paper, his face solemn. “Now, I can’t claim I live up to that all the time but that’s my motto or the question I ask myself frequently, ‘How can God use me today to advance His Kingdom of Grace?’ What is something I can do today that will help promote and help people learn about God’s kingdom of grace?” His voice has softened. I can feel the impact the words on the paper have on Moldstad. It hits me pretty deep. The humility and reverence in his voice is something I have never really heard before outside of a chapel setting. It shows just how important this sentence and the Christian faith in general is to Moldstad. It is a powerful philosophy to live by.
While students continue to filter past the office, concerned for only making it to the weekend, inside Trinity Chapel 111 is this daily reminder to Moldstad that he is not here on Earth for himself, but for something bigger than himself and everyone else. I make a mental note to print his manifesto off for myself.
It has been over 30 minutes since the interview began. My Voice Memos app says 39 minutes and 41 seconds to be precise. I thank Moldstad for the interview, we exchange a few more words, and I pack up and hustle through the tunnels to Honsey Hall for a class. It is still raining outside, and it will continue to do so till evening. But I feel great. How could I not? It’s the “Chappy D Effect.” This is where people are bound to have their spirits lifted, their faith strengthened, and their lives bettered by being around Moldstad. It occurs after a simple hello he gives a student in the tunnels. It occurs after he gives the chapel sermon. It occurs during the bible study.
This Wednesday’s session has ended. We all close with the Lord’s Prayer, and good evenings are exchanged as we all head out into the evening drizzle. My friend turns to me with an ear to ear grin. He says, “Dude, I just love Chappy’s Bible studies! When I leave I’m always so happy! It’s so awesome! He just knows how to speak to us.” That is the “Chappy D Effect.” It is epitomized in his unbridled joy, strong faith, and willingness to embrace others, no matter who they are. Moldstad can reach anyone, spreading joy wherever he goes while advancing God’s Kingdom of Grace. The best thing is, when you’re in need of it, all it takes is a trip under Trinity Chapel to room 111.