Rev. Nathaniel Urshan, Pentecostal leader, dies

30-year pastor of Calvary Tabernacle here headed United Pentecostal Church International; he was 84. 15, 2005
By John Strauss

The Rev. Nathaniel A. Urshan, a one-time minor league baseball player who dedicated his life to Christ after a near-deadly bout with tuberculosis, will be remembered for his leadership of the United Pentecostal Church International.

Urshan was pastor of Calvary Tabernacle in Indianapolis for 30 years and went on to lead the denomination, which has about 4 million members worldwide. He died Friday at 84.

Services are scheduled for Thursday night at the Near-Southside Indianapolis church.

Urshan was elected the denomination's general superintendent in 1978 and served until he retired in 2002. The Pentecostals have stressed missionary work, and membership during his tenure increased from about 400,000 to 4 million. About three-quarters of the membership is outside the United States.

Urshan visited the White House several times to meet Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. In 1981, he helped secure the release of the "Siberian Seven," religious dissidents in Russia who had fled to the American Embassy.

As arrangements were finalized for a funeral in Indianapolis this week, he was recalled most as a pastor in touch with his church and his city.

Urshan, the son of Pentecostal minister Andrew Urshan, was a 20-year-old baseball player with dreams of the major leagues when he was stricken by tuberculosis. Gravely ill in a Peoria, Ill., hospital, he decided to dedicate his life to the ministry.

He made his mark early as a spellbinding preacher and musician with his wife, Jean.

"He was tall and handsome, with wavy black hair," said the Rev. Kenneth F. Haney, who succeeded Urshan as general superintendent.

"Jean had a voice like a trumpet. They were awesome, and people would drive for miles to hear them."

He became pastor of Calvary Tabernacle in 1949.

Stephen Goldsmith, who went on to become mayor of Indianapolis, met Urshan a year before Goldsmith ran for Marion County prosecutor in 1978.

"I knocked on the door of the church and visited him in his study," Goldsmith recalled. "He wanted the city cleaned up. That's all he wanted. He demanded high standards of politicians and wanted them to perform for the people."

Urshan knew four-term Mayor William Hudnut, Sen. Richard Lugar and Mitch Daniels, at the time an assistant to Lugar.

"Very few people have meant as much to both the spiritual and civic life of our state," Daniels, now governor, said Monday. "Like all great leaders, he leaves not only a record of achievement but also a legacy in the hearts of those committed to carrying on his work."

Urshan traveled constantly after becoming the denomination's leader, based near St. Louis.

The Rev. Paul Mooney, president of Indiana Bible College and pastor at Calvary Tabernacle, remembers the day Urshan surprised him.

Mooney was then pastor of a Benton Harbor, Mich., church that had invited the Pentecostal leader to speak at a regional rally.

But on the day of the meeting, a fierce storm swept across Lake Michigan, burying Benton Harbor and other communities along the shore under howling winds and 2 feet of lake-effect snow.

Organizers had expected 400 people, but fewer than two dozen could make it through the blizzard.

Finally, Urshan stepped into the room, his coat covered with snow.

Somebody suggested that maybe he would like to rest after the harrowing drive.

"We've all fought the storm," Mooney remembers him saying. "Let's have some church."

Before that, the rally had been about to break up. Urshan pulled them together.

"He gave us a full-blown sermon," Mooney said. "He preached like there was 5,000 people there."

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