~ Luke 10:25-37~
Before I start my reflection about the 1960’s and 70’s, I would like to welcome and thank Rev. Dale Ostrander for being part of our service today. Dale was called to be the Associate Minister of Cleveland Park Church fifty years ago this summer, and we modeled this morning’s service after that one in 1968.
I wanted to work on this service because I thought it would be interesting to see what our church was doing at a time when there were so many significant events happening in our world. There was the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Civil Rights Movement, the March on Washington, the Vietnam War, and the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.
So, what went on in our little church in the 1960’s and 70’s?
At the start of the 60’s, the church was not so little. It was thriving under the leadership of Reverend James Brown, with 276 active members and an average Sunday school attendance of 65. Committee activity was abuzz, with some significant differences from our current ones. For example:
- If you are on today’s Mission and Social Action Committee, you would have been on one of three separate committees:
- The Board of Benevolences (men only), which distributed funds to outside causes;
- The Women’s Guild, which supported adult education, social activities, social action, flowers for worship, and fundraising efforts.
- The Social Action Committee (mostly men), which organized forums on political and public interest topics.
- If you are a Deacon, you would have been a Deacon or Deaconess, with distinctly different responsibilities. Men served communion, ushered, voted on members, represented the church at ecumenical meetings and participated in financial decisions. Women prepared communion, arranged fellowship hour, provided member care, and planned special events. Men and women also filed separate annual reports – with the Deaconess’ report coming after the Deacons.
- If you are on the Children & Youth Committee, you would have been on the Board of Christian Education which, in 1963 hired an assistant to recruit Sunday School teachers, train them twice a month, and start a young adult group. As a confirmand, you would have come every Saturday morning at 9:30 for the entire school year!
At least one committee served very similar functions:
- Members of today’s B&G Committee would have been on the “Property Committee,” overseeing things such as painting, lighting, and renovations. Sound familiar, Katherine? There’s a funny notation in the 1969 annual report regarding the installation of the iron grates that cover the window wells: “The grating was installed to stop youngsters from entering the church through the basement windows and to reduce vandalism.” Apparently, children were more anxious to get to Sunday school then than they are now!
Amidst all this activity, signs of change began to pop up:
- In April 1961, the congregation voted to become a part of the United Church of Christ.
- In 1963, the average number of people joining the church on a yearly basis dropped by half, and the number of active members in the church began declining.
- In February 1966, Reverend Brown announced he was resigning, and the congregation called Rev. Robert Hoskins.
- The Sunday school began struggling in 1967 due to a lack of lay leadership and the departure of Rev. Brown.
- Concurrent with the celebration of the church’s 50th anniversary in 1968, signs of divisiveness within the congregation started surfacing. In his report to the congregation Rev. Hoskins wrote, “We cannot avoid involvement in such issues as racial justice, international conflict, changing moral standards, quality education, urban planning, and representative government… We shall come at these matters from differing points of view. Therefore, the challenge for us will be to learn the disciplines of dialogue so that we can profit by our diversity. Instead of shunning the controversial, my hope is that we shall learn together how to engage in Christian controversy: in good faith, good humor, and with mutual respect one for another.” The moderator wrote: “A nation at war abroad and fraught with uneasiness at home inevitably poses serious questions for all of us – collectively and individually. Conscientious men and women expressed differing opinions on these challenges and on the Christian church’s proper role in reacting to the country’s agonies.”
- In 1969, the adult choir got so small that the absence of one member sometimes meant the choir couldn’t sing at all.
- By the annual meeting in 1970, membership had dwindled so much the congregation voted NOT to elect members to the various church committees, but only to fill positions on the Board of Trustees and the Cabinet.
- In 1970, Rev. Hoskins resigned amid controversy.
By this point the congregation was in disarray. But, like The Little Engine That Could, it chugged on and called Rev. Frank Gardner to be interim minister in October 1970. One of the first things he did was initiate a congregational “self-evaluation,” to decide whether to keep the church going.
After a year of soul searching, the congregation voted in November 1971 “to give first priority to vigorously continuing the program of the church in regard to worship services, religious education, music, community activities, and ministry to others.” To revive the struggling church, the congregation formed several action groups to shepherd growth in the various areas that were important to the life of the church. At the January 1972 annual meeting, the congregation called Rev. Gardner as its permanent pastor.
Throughout the 70s, the church took on the slow process of rebuilding. In his first annual report Gardner wrote, “A Church like ours is destined to be small in size for a variety of reasons which means a limitation in programs and outreach. But it can also mean a freedom from over-organization, a capacity to respond quickly to need, and an opportunity for people to relate to each other in meaningful ways. The challenge before us in the coming year is to accept our limitations in such a way that will free us to achieve our potential.”
These efforts were made by the congregation as a whole, including people many of us know and remember: the Bambachs, Woodses, Rowells, Abernethys, Randalls, Jean Miller, the Jorgensens, Pearl Yancy, the Sugars sisters, the Gunions, and Henry Youngstrom. As Dick Randall wrote during his term as moderator, the church was developing a “new confidence and a new spirit.”
We owe a debt of gratitude to those people who rode that little engine up the hill in the 70’s. And yet, I have to say I was disappointed by one important aspect of my research. Remember what Rev. Hoskins wrote in 1968 about “differing points of view?” This was echoed by three simple sentences in the Annual Report of 1969:
“The Social Action Committee did not function this year. In the fall and winter of 1968-69, some of the more active members decided to devote their energies to building a broad-based group known as ‘Northwest Citizens on the Urban Crisis.’ This effort seemed to be succeeding, but it dwindled away in the spring because it lacked sustaining leadership… We end the year as we began, with the congregation divided on whether to engage in social action and, if so, how.”
I asked myself: How could it be that in the year following Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy’s assassinations, when the racial tensions and Vietnam War protests were reaching a fever pitch, the Social Action Committee of our little church did not function? I couldn’t believe it. I had assumed our little activist church had always been a little activist church.
Now, I can’t say the church did nothing. It was good at educating itself and others about the issues of the day by inviting speakers to present at the church. The women’s circle would also collect food, kits, blankets and other items for people in need. And in the early 1960’s, Bob Abernethy spearheaded a Cuban refugee committee. But I was amazed that the church as a whole didn’t take a stand on many important issues of the day.
At the time I was reading through the files, I had no idea the parable of the Good Samaritan would be the scripture reading for today’s service. But after we chose this 1968 order of service to follow, the connection between the two came to me as I was discussing my disappointment in the church’s lack of activism with Pastor Ellen. It was as if, like the Levite and the Rabbi, our congregation had walked right by a man who was beaten and left on the roadside to die. How could I reconcile this lack of action with who I thought we were? Pastor Ellen suggested we didn’t have to look at the Levite and the Rabbi—or the church in the 60s and 70s— as “bad.” At least not any worse than we are today. In fact, they probably had many of the same reasons for not getting involved. Rather than judge them, we decided (and Jesus taught) it makes better sense to learn from the parable and do a better job of emulating the Good Samaritan in the future.
So, where does this leave us? We still have a small congregation and an old building with lots of aches and pains, but we have grown in many important respects:
- We regularly receive new members;
- We are financially secure;
- We tithe 10% of our income to mission and social action;
- We have an active mission and social action committee that organizes hands-on activities;
- We participate as a church in protest marches and petitions to support causes we believe in;
- We have a strategic plan that not only guides our current work, but also has a vision for where we want to go;
- We do a pretty good job of caring for one another; and
- We have made it our mission to nurture love of God and love of neighbor in the world.
Can we do better? I know I can. I haven’t been as good at caring for others as I should. I have yet to really dive into the issues of affordable housing and gentrification I’ve been talking about for a year now. I’m too often the rabbi or Levite – I have good intentions, but I don’t get my hands dirty because I’m afraid it will be overwhelming – perhaps risky as well.
So, as we move into our next hundred years, I hope we will ask ourselves: what more are we called to do? Yes, we need to accept the limitations of our smallness, but as Pastor Gardner wrote, we need to do it in a way that allows us to achieve our full potential. Could we be more like the Samaritan who took risks and ignored what might overwhelm him? Could we do more than nurture love of neighbor in the world? Can we actively embody the answer to Jesus’s question: “Which of these three, do you think, is a neighbor?”
I think we can.