Thursday, July 26, 2012

My Not So Personal History

Wednesday's talk at the South West UU Summer Institute -- Bread Not Stones.


Unitarian Universalists are so often seen as coming from that New English Puritan tradition – the First Parish church on the town green, with long standing congregations, supported by the somewhat more non-conformist branches of the old families, at once both smug, snobby and also, with a chip on their shoulder about their.   Outsider status.  Kind of like that guy in the Sprint commercial – a corporate executive behind a big desk bragging about how is “sticking it to the Man” until some underling suggests that “He IS the Man.”
There are other ways that people have become Unitarian Universalists, and my family’s story is one of them.  
I never thought much about my family’s religious journey very much when I was a child – no child does, because most children assume that their family is the norm.  As I got older and started studying religion and American history more formally, it was then that I finally started to take an interest in my families background and learned that it was not typical.  I also started to see my own particular and personal journey of faith to be, in fact, not the evidence of my unique individuality and creative personality, but a continuation of certain themes of my particular past into a new present.   . 
My family, on both my father’s and mother’s side were Germans, and they were Baptists.  Germans tend to be either Lutherans or Catholics, but there have been remnants of the Radical Reformation since the 1600’s there.  Protestants, they differed from the Lutherans because they were separatists, not believing in the universal church, but in what we would now call, voluntary religious communities.  Accordingly, they did not believe in infant baptism, but in adult baptism because only an adult of the age of reason could make a decision of faith.  Their skepticism about the sacraments extended to the Eucharist, which they considered a Memorial Service. 
My ancestors came to this country as part of small German colonies, settling in rural areas, farming communities in Pennsylvania and in the Midwest, Kansas, Iowa.  My father’s mother’s family settled in Blooming Grove PA, in a Dunkard community  -- the small church of which still stands, and where many generations of my relatives are buried in the graveyard out back. They were called Dunkards as an insult, but they claimed the name as their own.  It referred to their emphasis on baptism – the adult baptism of the freely chosen faith – as the central act of Christianity. 
All of my relatives came from similar little communities, and the connections between them go back into time.  Some of these groups were pacifist; my mother’s clan dodged the draft in several states in Germany, and then the Ukraine, before settling in Iowa and the migrating into Milwaukee.   Some of the groups were called “plain”, meaning that they didn’t use modern technology.  Others were called “fancy” or “gay”, meaning that they used zippers instead of buttons etc.   The little town of Blooming Grove, Pennsylvania, which is the historic homeland of one of my clans used to be called a gay Dutch commune, a misnomer, in that at all three words are inaccurate by today’s meanings. 
About four generations ago, the men in my family started moving into ministry.  My great grandfather, Thomas, for whom I was named, went to a German language Bible college, and shared there a room for a while with Walter Rauschenbusch, the Social Gospel theologian, and his son-in-law, my grandfather served as one of Rauschenbusch’s teaching associates later in life.  Of my grandparent’s generation, on both sides, there were many ministers, and in my father’s generation, a majority of the men became ministers and a majority of the women married them. 
The story of American Baptism dividing into fundamentalist and progressive wings was played out in my father’s family.  My great-uncle Ewald, who ran a hardware store in Kansas, told us that he quit going to family events because all that ever happened was that his clergy brothers would argue over the inerrancy of the Bible vs. the Social Gospel.  
My mother grew up in Milwaukee, the last child of a prominent German Baptist minister, and my father was the son of a minister who had become a teacher at the German seminary attached to the Rochester University.  My mother and father met at a Baptist Youth Organization conference while in high school and courted each other across the distance between Milwaukee and Rochester for seven years, marrying after my dad was ordained in 1944.  
My father told me once that his decision to enter the ministry was heavily influenced by the fact that there was college scholarship money available for the sons of German Baptist ministers who intended to go into the ministry themselves.  He also expressed the opinion that he would have preferred to study geology instead.  
Summing it up, the principle theological and philosophical influences on Bob and Henrietta Schade as they started their life in ministry together in Rock Village Massachusetts in 1944 were: my father’s interest in the natural science, his family’s long standing connection with the Social Gospel, his seminary study which centered on the historical criticism of the Bible, my mother’s family long standing connection with pacifism and non-violence and both their family’s submersion in a small and insular subculture with the larger German immigrant communities.  I would suspect that German was the language of faith in their childhood – my grandfather’s preached in German – and German was a language that my parent’s generation was losing.
World War 2 and the Holocaust, of course, accelerated their dissociation with the German language and culture.  And I believe that here in New England in the late 1940’s, my parents reinvented themselves – moving from being Germans to being New Englanders.  Being a New Englander allowed them to express in a new cultural and ethnic milieu many of the cultural and personal traits of their childhood: a free skepticism about religious faith, a firm faith in God’s benevolence, political progressivism, a stoic disdain for emotionalism, a self-denying moderation and a barely disguised judgmentalism that has given the world a sympathetic hearing, but still finds it somewhat morally deficient.  
My father got a Baptist church in Plymouth, Massachusetts, and then a short time before I was born applied to be fellowshipped by the American Unitarian Association and hence became a Unitarian minister.  He was called to Lexington, MA to serve the Follen Church, ironically named after the German transcendentalist Charles Follen, his first Unitarian church.  Shortly thereafter I was born.  
My father’s letter to the AUA said that he wanted to become a Unitarian because he wanted to preach God’s love, instead of judgment, that men will do good out of attraction to God, not fear of God.  He said that he wanted more theological freedom.  I believe that he and my mother wished to be German no longer.  My aunts tell me that the real story is that my parents wanted to smoke and drink.  All of these explanations may be true.
I grew up in a home that was oddly both very religious and not religious at all.  We didn’t pray; we didn’t talk about God much; we liked Jesus, but saw him as misused by most Christians, we went to church every week, even after my father left the ministry to work in a steel mill, we were politically correct in 1958, my mother would not let us watch Howdy Doody because of the stereotypical images of Native Americans it featured, we never had toy guns, we were morally engaged in a constant struggle to tell right from wrong, the picture book “The Family of Man” was on our coffee table for years and years, and at Christmas my parents would show us a picture book of paintings of the Madonna and Child from every culture around the world – African Marys, and Japanese Jesuses, and shepherds from the middle east and the three Kings as Native American chiefs.  
I need to tell you that my father's career in the Unitarian ministry (it was all conducted in the AUA, and was over before merger in 1961) was not successful.  He served churches in Lexington, and Providence and then finally in Youngstown, Ohio.  He was not treated well by congregations.  Both he and my mother were embittered by it, but not so much that our family ever quit going to church.  My father voluntarily left the ministry in 1958 and went to work in a steel mill.  No one from the mill ever called him at home.
In three generations my family went from being simple pietistic German farmers who saw themselves as God’s elect, gathered into a separate flock, and filled of a sweet and generous faith to being essentially, if you will, Christians without Christ, without doctrine, without ritual, without sacraments, retaining only the institution of the church and the ethical teachings of the Christian tradition, and oh yes, Christmas and Easter.  But I believe that my parents never gave up the faith that there was some great benevolence at the heart of creation, some great love somewhere, that gives meaning to life, and pulls us in the direction of something you could call the Kingdom of God, or what one author has renamed "the Republic of Heaven."  
You can ask what was the difference between my family and another family who were unapologetically secular, but morally engaged liberals, or even radicals. 
I am not sure if there was, aside from that going to church part every week.  
I grew up more interested in politics than in religion, an interest that my parents encouraged.  As the Civil Rights Movement swept the country in the late 50’s and early 60’s, religion was generally submerged into the struggle for justice. We assumed that the purpose of the church was to mobilize people to support the struggle.  A minister was a good minister if he did so; sermons about other issues, including faith, or personal reflection were so much navel gazing in my mother’s frequently expressed opinion.  
When I went off to college, and became active in the student movement, I saw how pitiful and ineffective an instrument of social change the church was, and ended my connection with religion in all forms for twenty years. 
I have all sorts of adventure stories from my twenty years between 1969 (when I was twenty) and 1989 (when I was forty).  Some of them are funny and some are shocking, some shocking enough that you wouldn’t hear another thing if I told you, so I will just say that I took the idea that one ought to dedicate the whole of one’s life, without regard to one’s personal future and comfort, to the struggle for a world wide transformation to justice, by any means necessary to an extreme. I passed over several boundaries which ought not be transcended.  I took Satan up on his third temptation of Christ, believing that if authority over the powers and principalities of this world was up for grabs, than those of us who loved justice should be ruthless enough to try to scoop it up.  I had seriously lost my way.
******Not to be coy about this.  I grew up in Youngstown, Ohio once I hit school age and graduated from a small rural high school.  I went to George Washington University in DC from 1966 to 1971.  It was radical politics all the time.
After college, I moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota and became involved in radical community organizing.  I met Sue; she was an actress in a radical community theatre troupe.  
We were recruited into a secret marxist-leninist organization, which sounds much more exciting and thrilling than it actually was.  The attraction we had for it was not intellectual or theoretical, but organizational.  We were mostly frustrated with the radical movements we were in.  There were so many meetings where people talked and talked and never did anything, in endless discussions that wandered off-topic in many directions.  You could endure a three hour meeting to argue about the wording of a leaflet to give out a factory gate where they made controllers for anti-personnel weapons, but Sue and I would be the only ones up at 6 AM at the gate. It was frustrating in that the radical movement had no self-discipline.  In many ways, that loose radical movement reminded me too much of the Unitarian Church of Youngstown, Ohio. 
So when the chance came to be in a group with some internal discipline -- you got your orders and you did them -- we went for it.
We didn't know anything about the group.  Much of it was secret even to ourselves. 
It was not exciting.  Mostly we worked in small businesses that the group had set up, to understand first hand how the capitalist economy worked.  We got involved in the computerization process which was changing what we called "the forces of production."  
And we were introduced to "ideology" -- the understanding that one's position in the world shaped how you think about the world, in all ways, down to the most intimate parts of one's personality.  
All of the concepts about oppression, privilege, and class that UU's are now discussing, we studied 30 to 40 years ago.  
It was a weird alienating subculture -- it put you at a remove from the  world -- as though there was a glass wall between you and others -- it was airless and joyless, cramped yet desolate.  
Eventually we left, and no, there was no movie-like defection or escape.  No one ever came after us.
We left that in the mid-80's.  I spent some time studying for a master's in American history.  I took a leave of absence from my job to work on the Jesse Jackson 1988 campaign as a press aide.  
After twenty years in the wilderness, I limped back into another Unitarian Church, with my wife and my two daughters.  We were more recruited by Sue’s sister, both of them were raised Roman Catholic, than by my memories of the Unitarian Church of my youth.  It was not some sudden spiritual awakening that moved me; we were lonely and  a bit beat up, and were settling into a private despair of meaninglessness.
But I did experience a spiritual awakening once I was active in the church again.  I remembered why I loved the church – the people, the sense of shared purpose, the willingness to be witnesses and good examples to each other’s efforts.  But mostly I was moved by the rediscovery of the harmony of means and ends – that the way to reach the goal of a just community or a loving community was to start acting justly and lovingly now.  
Bringing ends and means into harmony has the effect of ending the dichotomy of doing and being, as the current catch phrase, “be the change you want” sums up.  Reflection on that brings me back to the unexpressed faith of my parents: that there is a benevolence somewhere at the heart of creation (a phrase I attribute to Carl Scovel) faith in which makes it possible to “be” without knowing, without trying to control how all this human suffering and struggle will turn out in the end. 
Life in the church led eventually to life in the ministry.  I had the good fortune to go to Perkins School of Theology, a Methodist school, where I was introduced to serious Christian systematic theology for the first time.  I loved it, but I have learned that I love any sort of systematic thought.  I am a sucker for any school of thought that promises me the ability to explain the entire world.  It’s why I loved being a leftist; I take a joy in being able to explain the world.  Being introduced to mature Christian thought was like seeing a map of a city that I had been living in for a long time – seeing the interconnections and its order.  It made a believer out of me, at least on the cognitive level.
Worcester was my first church after graduation and it will be my last. 
I have spent more of my time in ministry trying to develop the church community than anything else, encouraging people to feel a part of  the congregation, that they can be leaders.  I am the host, the welcoming presence.  I delight in the people who come to church and I try to clear my mind of all preconceptions about who they are, or their potential value to the organization that is the congregation.  I try to recognize what an enormous thing it is to come to church on Sunday – it is an act of great self-discipline and personal weirdness in our culture now.  We religious leaders have a tendency to focus too much of our attention on who is NOT there – the members we have lost or who drifted away on the one hand, and on the other hand, all those who we think should come to church, the fish that would overfill our nets if we could just figure out the right side of the boat to fish from.  The people we need and the people who need us are coming in the doors right now.  
At the same time, I know that the way that we do church is vanishing.  So a big part of my ministry has been to try to coax the church into new forms of presence, but it is hard.  I’m talking about online communities and social networks.   Did you know that there are as high a proportion of technophobes among the baby boomer generation as there are among the senior citizen population?  And I think that they are all in churches.  Churches are like tourists in the foreign lands of the young. We don’t speak the language and we think that we just shout a little louder and a little slower, somebody might understand us.
As time goes on, and as I get further and further from seminary, my ministry resembles a somewhat more conscious version of the religious life my parents had:  strong on church life, including the discipline of our collective worship practice, strong on ethics and morals, weak on doctrine, scripture and traditions.  As much as I love the elegance of the doctrines of the church, the grandeur of that intellectual accomplishment does not confer authority on us.  As much as I personally find the Bible to be fascinating, I cannot imagine that my ministry consists of trying to persuade people it has some unique authority in their lives.
Recently, my sister and brother and I traveled to Blooming Grove Pennsylvania to visit the graves of our parents.  They are buried on a hill side above the Blooming Grove Dunkard Baptist church, the last of seven generations of my direct line who are buried there, traced through my father’s mother.  The grave of my great grandfather Thomas Jefferson Schaeffer is there; he was the first minister.  The story was that he was converted while plowing a field, became a minister and left Pennsylvania to go to preach to the Sioux near Yankton, S.D., where he tied of Typhoid Fever in 1885.   Sometimes I wonder what might have happened behind that plow.   Thank you for listening to my story.
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1 comment:

Steve Cook said...

Thank you for sharing that, Tom. I've heard you tell some of that story before and I'm glad to hear it again now with your reflections about its meaning. It is a very different story than mine in many ways, yet we do share a similar yearning for meaning in a family context. It was helpful to think about that.