It Won’t Fizzle Out

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2009 Daniel Harper.


The first reading was from a transcription of a talk given to the Women’s Alliance by Maggi Peiece, on the history of Tryworks Coffeehouse:

“And then there was one famous night where I had to take care of Friday night…. I arrived on the Friday, but nobody else did. Joe [Cardoza] was on the door. And there wasn’t even any coffee that night. And only four kids came. And one of them was Pete and he was from Fairhaven. And he said to me… ‘Is nothing happening tonight?’

“And I said, ‘There is always something happening at Tryworks.’

“And he looked at me, and he said, ‘You know, Maggi, this is sort of typical of New Bedford. Everything starts with a big article in the newspaper, and a big hoopla.’ He said, ‘Remember that first night in May, when we opened?’ And this was about July [1967]. He said, ‘Everybody starts with a terrific hope, and everybody’s going to help, and then it all fizzles out within six weeks.’

“And I said, ‘Pete, I promise you. Tryworks will not fizzle out in six weeks.’”

[Talk given 10 March 2009]

The next reading was a story told by James Luther Adams, about a time in the late 1940s when the Board of the First Unitarian Church in Chicago was debating about whether to encourage African Americans to become members of their church.

“Some years ago I was a member of the Board of Trustees of the First Unitarian Church in Chicago. A member of the board often complained about the minister’s preaching too many sermons on race relations. He often said that academics of course know little of the world of reality. One evening at a meeting of the board he opened up again. So the question was put to him, ‘Do you want the minister to preach sermons that conform to what you have been saying about Jews and blacks?’ ‘No,’ he replied, ‘I just want the church to be more realistic.’ Then the barrage opened, ‘Will you tell us what is the purpose of a church anyway?’ ‘I’m no theologian. I don’t know.’ ‘But you have ideas, you are a member here, a member of the Board of Trustees, and you are helping to make decisions here. Go ahead, tell us the purpose of what we are up to here. We can’t go on unless we have some understanding of what we are up to here.’ The questioning continued, and items on the agenda for the evening were ignored.

“At about one o’clock in the morning our friend became so fatigued that the Holy Spirit took charge. And our friend gave a remarkable statement regarding the nature of our fellowship. He said, ‘The purpose of the church is…. Well, the purpose is to get hold of people like me and change them.’

“Someone, a former evangelical, suggested that we should adjourn the meeting, but not before we sang, ‘Amazing grace… how sweet the sound. I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.’

“There is the vocation of the… church, to form a network of fellowship that alone is reliable because it is responsive to a sustaining, commanding, judging, and transforming power.”

[From the sermon “Fishing with Nets,” in The Prophethood of All Believers, by James Luther Adams, ed. George K. Beach, Boston: Beacon, 1986, pp. 253-254.]

Sermon — “‘It Won’t Fizzle Out’”

First of all, I must apologize to anyone who read the church newsletter, or the signboard out front, expecting to hear a sermon on civic religion; for I have gone and changed the sermon topic. What has happened is this: We are fast approaching the end of our three hundredth anniversary year. As part of that three hundredth anniversary year, I have been doing some research into the history of liberal religion in New Bedford. Now our history is important, but at a certain point we’re all going to get sick of hearing about history, so I decided to draw the line — no more research into, and no more sermons about, our church’s history after our 301st birthday in June. But I also decided that I have two more history sermons I just have to give before I am done: a sermon on Rev. William Jackson, and African American preacher who tried to start a black Unitarian church in New Bedford in 1860; and the sermon I am going to give today.

So it is that this morning I shall ignore the announced sermon topic, and preach on one aspect of liberal religion in New Bedford in the late 1960s and 1970s. More specifically, I’m going to preach about a project our church got involved with that was known as Tryworks Coffeehouse.

In order for the story of Tryworks Coffeehouse to make any sense at all, I have to talk about some of the issues liberal churches like ours were facing in late 1960s. As a child and teenager growing up in a Unitarian Universalist church in the late 1960s and through the 1970s, I remember those as being very turbulent and divisive times. Serious social issues were erupting throughout society: — the Black Power movement; the women’s liberation movement; the gay rights movement; youth rebellion; widespread use of psychoactive drugs; sexual experimentation; middle class flight from urban areas and the subsequent the suburbanization of America; increased economic and racial segregation; the attack on liberal political values that began in the late 1960s and which has continued to the present day; and so on. All these issues erupting in the wider society of course also affected our Unitarian Universalist churches.

From my own experience as a child and teenager, the way those issues affected our liberal chruches had both positive and negative effects. On the negative side, I saw youth rebellion and drug use in our churches first-hand; I saw the destructive effects that sexual experimentation had on church communities; and over time I slowly became aware that the suburbanization of America led to increasing economic and racial segregation in many of our churches; and I saw the attacks on liberal political values turn into attacks on liberal religious values. On the positive side, I remember the growing sense of enlightenment that came with my growing sense of understanding of women’s liberation, anti-racism, and gay rights, an enlightenment that came when I realized how these movements for liberation led to a deepening of our shared religious community.

Another thing that I witnessed personally was the way the Unitarian Universalist churches tried to deal with changes in teenagers. When I was in middle school, I was scared of the kids who were in the youth group at my church — we younger kids all knew those kids weren’t really part of our church, they just went to the youth groups meetings so they could use drugs without adult supervision. That was one model of youth ministry we developed in those days: let the teenagers do whatever they want without interference from adults; I do not think it was a very successful strategy. Then the adults in that church shut down the youth group, and turned it over to the Pat Green, the assistant minister, and Pat began running the youth group; he listened to the kids, but he was clearly in charge. Pretty soon, it became a big, active youth group, and my sister and I decided to join, and we both loved it; it was a safe place for us in a world that often did not at all safe. This was a more successful strategy for youth programming: to provide a safe, structured program with strong adult involvement.

More generally, Unitarian Universalists in the late 1960s and 1970s responded to the social changes going on around them and in their churches in two ways. Many times, we basically stuck our heads in the sand and pretended that everything was exactly the way it had been in the 1950s; this attitude led to things like the adults in my home church abdicating all responsibility for the church youth group. But sometimes Unitarian Universalists in the late 1960s and 1970s responded to the social changes going on around them by taking decisive leadership, and when they did so, they touched the lives of many people.

Here in New Bedford, our church faced most of the issues of that era: middle class flight from the city; increasing drug use; youth rebellion; racial tension and violence; a growing women’s liberation movement; sexual experimentation within the church and outside it; and so on. Many of these issues arose in New Bedford beginning in the late 1950s and early 1960s; I talked to a social worker who worked in New Bedford in the early 1960s, and according to her the racial tensions, the middle class flight, the drugs, the problems with young people were all happening then.

How did our church respond to those issues? Perhaps the most notable action our church took in the middle 1960s was to renovate our sanctuary and put in a new organ, work which was completed in 1967. While this was a good action to take, it did not address the social issues in the surrounding world. Perhaps not surprisingly, the records show that Sunday morning attendance began dropping in the late 1950s, and continuing dropping from then through the 1970s. While it is true that our building did need renovation, that renovation apparently did not provide an adequate ministry to the real live people who came into this building each week seeking comfort and care, seeking to live up to the highest moral and ethical ideals, seeking to make themselves and the world a better place. This pattern was repeated across the denomination, and in the liberal Christian denominations as well: church membership dropped throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

At the same time, many Unitarian Universalist churches in the late 1960s and into the 1970s sought out ways to make our churches “relevant” — that’s the word we religious liberals used at the time, “relevant.” Looking back, I’m not sure we entirely knew what we meant by “relevant,” nor to whom we wanted to extend this relevance once we found it. The events and issues came at us fast and furiously, and we just did the best we knew how.

A particularly pressing issue here in New Bedford was that the young people in this area needed some kind of outreach. By the middle 1960s, young people were facing problems of homelessness, addiction, lack of direction, and a lack of caring adults in their lives. In 1966, Pilgrim Church, the liberal Christian church just a few blocks from here, decided to open a drop-in center for the young people in the surrounding neighborhood, based on an idea proposed by their minister at that time, Rev. John De Sousa (“History of Tryworks” [HTW], p. 1). Due to a lack of adult supervision, the drop-in center did not succeed (HTW p. 1), and so John DeSousa came up with the idea of opening a coffeehouse, a place where young people could experience and help create supportive programming. This idea was not original to De Sousa; churches across the country were starting coffeehouses at this time.

But De Sousa wanted this coffeehouse to be a real community ventur. Along with Pilgrim Church, he got First Congregational Church of Fairhaven, North Baptist Church, and our church to sponsor a planning meeting (New Bedford Standard-Times, 12 May 1967). In order to help draw a crowd, and to show what a coffeehouse was like, the planning committee decided to put on a concert, featuring two musicians from our church, Barbara Carns and Maggi Peirce, as well as two other performers. The announcement hit the newspaper on May 12, 1967:

“Folk music from the British Isles, sea chants [sic], blues, and popular numbers will feature [sic] the opening of an experimental coffee house in New Bedford on Sunday night.

“The coffeehouse will open at 8 p.m. at the Pilgrim United Church of Christ church house, School and Purchase Streets. It will serve as a trial meeting to acquaint and interest area churches and individuals with [the] establishment of a permanent coffeehouse. Those who attend will act as a committee of the whole in planning for a coffee house that tentatively would be open two afternoons and two nights a week.”

The concert was a success. But even though more than a hundred people showed up, only a few people actually volunteered to help run the coffeehouse (HTW). The planning committee decided to forge ahead anyway, and open the coffeehouse two nights a week. Over the next few months, volunteers slowly fell away, and fewer and fewer young people showed up. This downward trend hit bottom in July, 1967, and in the first reading we heard Maggi Peirce describe what happened:

“And then there was one famous night where I had to take care of Friday night…. I arrived on the Friday, but nobody else did. Joe [Cardoza] was on the door. And there wasn’t even any coffee that night. And only four kids came. And one of them was Pete and he was from Fairhaven. And he said to me… ‘Is nothing happening tonight?’

“And I said, ‘There is always something happening at Tryworks.’

“And he looked at me, and he said, … ‘Everybody starts with a terrific hope, and everybody’s going to help, and then it all fizzles out within six weeks.’

“And I said, ‘Pete, I promise you. Tryworks will not fizzle out in six weeks.’” [Talk by Maggi Peirce given on 10 March 2009]

This was a turning point for this ministry to young people. It was said that most church coffeehouses of that time lasted only three to six months. Looking back at the 1960s from our current perspective, we have a good idea why most coffeehouses were short-lived: due to lack of structure, lack of commitment, pervasive permissiveness, and so on. But this did not happen at Tryworks coffeehouse. Maggi Peirce and a few other committed volunteers knew they were providing a valuable service to young people, and they refused to give up.

In retrospect, the success of Tryworks seems inevitable, because we all know that it lasted for 35 years, becoming one of the longest-running folk music coffeehouses of its day. Yet when you read accounts of the early days of Tryworks, you realize there was nothing inevitable about it. Here’s how Maggi told the story in a 2002 history of Tryworks:

“In 1967-68 I knew nothing about drugs or crime. I had led a somewhat blameless youth in Ireland hiking in the mountains, learning foreign languages, and folkdancing… I did know a great deal about British folksong — but nothing of crime. I thought I’d introduce these young people to my wealth of British Isles traditional song and music and also teach them to be aware of one another, to be kind to one another.

“I allowed no talk during sets (I don’t think half of the kids in that room had ever had No! said to them). I would holler out ‘Silence for the singer!’ if they dared talk. I warned them that folk on stage were not television and radio to be turned on and off at their will. Respect for the performer had to be shown.

“No drink or drugs could be brought on premises. They were of course. A well-known drug pusher came in one night and he was pointed out to me. I threaded my way through the crowd and looking up at him said quietly ‘I hear you’re a drug pusher. You get down those stairs and out of here or I’ll throw you out myself and don’t show your face here again.’ I heard through the grapevine that I was known as ‘one tough lady.’ I also, in the early days, took a gun from a kid and a knife another night. I did these things without thinking, without fear. I was an innocent.”

Maggi’s approach to running Tryworks is instructive. Her approach represented a balancing act between being relevant to the contemporary situation on the one hand, and remaining true to permanent religious values on the other hand. The fundamental religious truth of Tryworks, as stated by Maggi, was quite simply the golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do to you; or, as she put it, teaching young people to be aware of one another, and to be kind to one another.

Thus Tryworks coffeehouse was not merely another performance venue for folk music. In fact, if you read through the early newsletters for Tryworks, you will find that Tryworks sponsored rap sessions, fencing lessons, a talk on the Peace Corps, modernistic plays, films, poetry, skits, readings, participatory dancing. May 31, 1975, was “Lunacy Night,” with “crazy monologues, silly songs, stupid games.” September 26, 1970, was a “rap session — by anyone who wishes to get a gripe or talk about something near to their hearts.” There was an hour given over every week to an open microphone, a time when anyone could sign up and perform. There may have been more performances of folk music than anything else, but in the 1960s and 1970s Tryworks was not a concert series so much as it was a ministry to the young people of the greater New Bedford area.

And it is critically important to remember that Tryworks was not the only such ministry to young people during these years. Another program, also supported by our church, stands out for me. Down in the basement of our church, Tryne Costa organized an outreach program to young drug users and addicts called “Aid to Addicts.” In an interview with the Interchurch Council newsletter in 1969, Tryne described this program: “Our atmosphere is that of a spacious home. Some of these young people are literally ‘on the streets’ and this is the only ‘home’ they know. Others have such a tense home life that they have been heard to remark, ‘This is more like home than home!’ We were given a big refrigerator, which is kept stocked with bread, cheese, fruit juice, milk — all the nourishing things they often go without. There is no charge….” This too was another ministry, another outreach program based on the golden rule.

I am particularly interested in both these programs because the central figure in each one was a lay leader; not a minister, but a lay leader. Each of these lay leaders may have received support from ordained ministers, but basically these two women provided the leadership for these two programs themselves. This represents an important historical trend. Over the past fifty years, increasingly it is the lay people in a congregation who provide direct ministry and outreach, both to other lay people within the church, and to people in need outside the church’s walls. Over the past fifty years, the ordained ministers I respect the most are the ones who are effective administrators, supporters, cheerleaders, and catalysts, ministers who support the lay leaders who are doing the direct ministry. Why do I respect this kind of minister most? First of all, it’s simple arithmetic: if you have one minister supporting ten or thirty or a hundred lay leaders who are doing direct ministry, that’s a lot more ministry that’s getting done than if that one minister thinks he or she should be the one doing most of it. Second of all, it represents one of our religious principles in action: it is what James Luther Adams called the prophethood and priesthood of all believers, of all those in the church.

You know, it’s funny. These days, self-professed Christians call us Unitarian Universalists “post-Christians,” and they mean it as an insult; they like to think that we have abandoned the truth of Christianity because we don’t accept the Nicene Creed. Well, perhaps we are post-Christian, but to me being “post-Christian” means that we look for the eternal, permanent core of Jesus’s teachings — such teachings as loving one’s neighbor as oneself — we take those core teachings very seriously, but we don’t worry about all the impermanent, transient things that have been loaded on top of Jesus over the years, things like the Nicene Creed, and Catholic doctrines, and the rigid rules of the fundamentalists. This notion is shocking to many Christians today, just as shocking as when Theodore Parker first articulated this principle a century and a half ago. We go even further than that: — we know that other world religions also teach fundamental truths, and we are open to their insights as well. Thus, for us, the term “post-Christian” does not represent an insult, it represents our dedication to finding truth wherever the truth may be found.

We often find ourselves faced with circumstances in which we are very unclear about what to do next. In the 1960s and 1970s, it was very unclear what to do about drug use, and youth rebellion, and a host of other problems that confronted our church. There was no one way to deal with these issues — that is, there was no cookbook method, no doctrinal formula for confronting the problems of the day. But there were permanent truths, such as the golden rule, which could be applied to the problems of the day; and that is what members of this church did: they applied eternal truths to immediate problems, and while it wasn’t easy, they got results.

And boy, did they get results. I came to New Bedford after Tryworks closed its doors for good, but people in the wider community keep telling me about what a huge impact Tryworks Coffeehouse had on several generations of young people. Although it is not rememberd as much today, people also tell me about “Aid to Addicts,” what a big impact it had. This tradition continues today: Universal Thrift Store, founded by a lay leader and still run by lay leaders, meets the needs of today’s economic crisis by offering good clothing and household goods at low prices to anyone who wishes to shop there. These efforts will change as the needs of the surrounding community change, and as the talents of the lay leaders change. What will not change is our church’s commitment to knowing eternal religious truths, and applying them to current social problems.

Our ultimate religious goal is change and transformation. Not only do we wish to transform the world for the better, we also wish to transform people for the better. We wish to transform people for the better, but far more importantly we work for such transformation because we know we ourselves are in need of transformation, and we wish most of all to transform ourselves for the better. So it is that each of us can say, in chorus with that man in the story by James Luther Adams, “The purpose of the church is to get hold of people like me and change them.”