Monthly Archives: February 2009

Spring watch

The song of a House Finch awakened me this morning. It seemed so normal that for a moment I didn’t realize that this is the first day this year I have heard a finch singing outside our apartment. I opened my eyes, and said matter-of-factly, “That’s a House Finch.” I said this matter-of-factly, but inside I felt extraordinarily pleased.

Later in the morning, when I was putting on my shoes to go outside, Carol’s cross-country skis caught my eye, leaning in one corner of our little vestibule where they have been standing since the last big snowstorm we had in January. They looked odd and out-of-place, and before long I will put them away in the storage closet until next winter.

Choose one for UUA president:
Hallman | Morales

If I’ve got my facts right, it’s now too late to nominate another candidate for the presidency of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). Oh well. We must choose between the two candidates who have declared themselves: Laurel Hallman, the anointed candidate of the UUA power elite; and Peter Morales, the upstart candidate.

Honestly, I’m not terribly enthusiastic about either candidate. Both candidates are a little too committed to “The UUA Way” of doing religion. What is The UUA Way? The UUA Way is:

  • doing religion like it’s still 1986
  • being obsessed with John Carver’s “Policy Governance” (TM) model for administration
  • placing 1980s second-wave feminism at theological center
  • focussing attention on the wealthy White suburbs.

In addition, The UUA Way is dominated by these Baby Boomer behavior patterns:

  • expecting churches to provide goods and services to consumers
  • operating under the assumption that protest is the pinnacle of social justice work
  • always being far too self-absorbed.

I was hoping that a younger candidate (“young” by the standards of The UUA Way means someone under 50) would step forward at the last minute to challenge The UUA Way. Since that hasn’t happened, I’ve finally decided that I’m going to vote for Peter Morales.

I’m going to vote for Morales even though he says he supports John Carver’s Policy Governance (TM) model, a rigid and inflexible model that is poorly matched to membership organizations in which the members (not the Board) set ultimate policy — but at least he uses and seems to understand the phrase “modern management” as applied to non-profits, and that counts for a lot. I’m going to vote for him even though the theological vision he states in his platform is not particularly compelling, nor particularly deep — but at least as someone who spoke Spanish before he spoke English, he seems to have some understanding of theologies that might be congruent with a post-White-hegemony world, and he is willing to talk about reconciliation, and those things count for a lot. Most important to me, Morales seems to really understand that The UUA Way has to undergo rapid change to respond to the vast changes in surrounding society — I don’t think he would change The UUA Way as much as I’d hope to have it changed, but at least we’d see some change in the right direction.

Not that it matters how I vote, or whom I support, because the rumor mill tells me that Morales doesn’t stand a ghost of a chance. Hallman has the money and the influential people behind her, and even Gini Courter, the popular moderator of the UUA, has come out in support of Hallman. So maybe I should just forget the 2009 election.

But I will say this: If you’re a post-Baby-Boomer minister, with good administrative and fundraising skills, and a deep understanding of the societal changes that are rapidly rendering The UUA Way obsolete — I do hope you will start preparing now to run for the 2014 2013 UUA presidential election.

Adventures with “Big Bertha”

When I was a year out of college, I bought my parent’s old ’78 Chevy Impala station wagon, a huge green boat of a car with a 305 small block V8 engine. My mother, who liked to name cars, called it “Big Bertha,” or “Bert” for short; when she didn’t like the car she called it “The Big Green Monster.” I think it was the biggest car she ever drove. I don’t think she ever liked it much, but I was happy to buy it, because it was the only car I could afford.

I bought it in the summer of 1984 and drove it down to Philadelphia where I had been living. I loaded everything I owned into the back, and started driving home. I was on the northeast extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike when the tractor-trailer rig in front of me blew a retread off one of its eighteen wheels. All I saw was this huge black writhing piece of rubber flying down the highway directly at me and, Wham! it hit the underside of the car, and suddenly the muffler was dragging on the highway and making a horrible noise. I limped along to the next exit, pulled into a gas station and was told they couldn’t fix the car until the next day. I must have looked pretty sick — I didn’t have the money to stay in a motel — so this friendly guy went out, crawled under the car with me, and showed me how to wire the muffler up so I could drive the rest of the way home.

I had been unable to find a job in Philly, but within a month of moving back to Massachusetts I had several job offers. I went to work full time at the lumberyard where I had worked summers, and pretty soon took a room in a shared house that was close enough to the lumberyard that I could walk to work. The big green station wagon sat in the driveway most of the week; by now it had rust spots showing through the green paint. Once or twice a week, I would drive it in to the Boston Museum School to take art classes. At first I was terrified to drive into Boston in rush hour traffic, but I soon learned that other drivers were wary of a huge green rusty station wagon driven by a long-haired, wild-eyed kid. Then one night after class, I walked out to where I had parked the car along the Fenway, and it was gone — stolen. I went back into the school (this was before cell phones, remember) and called the Boston police, who told me that the Fenway was covered by Metropolitan District Commission Police; I called them and they told me I would have to appear in person at their station up near the Charles River dam. So I walked all the way up there, and the cop on duty, being a Boston cop, was rude and unhelpful and did everything he could to keep from having to write up a report of the theft. At last he wrote it up, and I managed to catch the midnight train from North Station back home. Two days later, the cops called me at work: they had found the car where it had been abandoned by some joyriders. I went in to pick up the car at the tow company lot, paid their criminally high towing and storage fees. The inside of the car was trashed, but all the joyriders (or it could have been the tow company) really stole was an axe I had left in the back of the car. When I got back to the lumberyard, one of the guys I worked with showed me how easy it was to pop the locks in a Chevy Impala of that vintage — all you needed was a teaspoon, and it was actually easier to unlock the car with a teaspoon than with the key.

My buddy Will and I loved that car for driving up to the White Mountains for a backpacking trip. There was lots of room for our packs, it was easy to steer, and that V8 engine went up the steepest grades as if nothing was there. On one trip, the car broke down when we were a hundred and fifty-five miles from home. One hundred and fifty miles was the distance Triple-A would tow my car, so we walked to a phone, got a local tow company to tow us five miles down the road, paid them off, then called Triple-A, and waited a few hours for them to come out to tow us home. The tow truck driver was a friendly guy with a French Canadian accent, and he hooked the rear of my car up, and then we crammed ourselves into the cab of the tow truck, along with him and his girlfriend. He revved up the tow truck’s engine, and drove across the median strip of the highway — I looked out the back window to watch my station wagon bumping and dragging along through the grass behind us. We had a companionable ride home, talking cheerfully with the driver and his girlfriend. So ended that backpacking trip.

The station wagon got rustier and rustier. One spring day, I was driving home from somewhere, and I got to the traffic light that was two tenths of a mile from our house. The light turned green, and as I accelerated the car gave a sort of lurch, the front end dropped down, and the steering wheel pulled madly to the left. I managed to get the car home, driving pretty slowly. Late that night, when there was no traffic on the road, I drove the car over to the garage, with my dad following behind in his car in case anything happened. The next day, the garage called with the bad news — the whole front part of the car was so rusted that they didn’t think they could repair it. I asked around at work, and one of the guys knew someone who owned a garage that did welding work, but when he called them, they told him that if the car had a 305 V8 it wasn’t worth fixing, because those 305 V8 engines gave out at a hundred and five thousand miles. I always wondered if the front end had been weakened by the way that crazy tow truck driver dragged my car across the median strip; but it didn’t really matter, because the engine probably would have gone a few months later.

So after having driven it for about four years, I junked the car. Even though I didn’t know how I was going to afford a new car, I felt a sense of relief — when you get to the point where a car is an adventure rather than a means of transportation, it’s time to let it go.

Unitarian minister fired for promoting basketball (1922)

When you do research in local history, sometimes you turn up fascinating little local dramas. Like the newspaper story I found today about Unitarian minister Samuel L. Elberfeld, who lost his job in part because he coached a church basketball team for teenagers. This is a story that appeared on the front page of the New Bedford Standard for 18 November 1922, above the fold.

Sports fans will have fun reading how Elberfeld believed sports and religion could not be separated — and they will have less fun reading how he got fired for so believing. Aficionados of dirty church politics will revel in the stratagems used by church members to promote minority rule. Church polity geeks will want to puzzle out the complicated matter of why a church rooted in congregational polity would ever delegate responsibility of firing their minister to another church (quick answer — that other church provided the money to pay the minister’s salary).

Journalism fans will notice how the reporter uses “it is said” instead of directly quoting someone, or attributing facts or opinions to an actual person — a delightful use of the passive voice to promote innuendo — but this was a different era of journalism, with different standards. Note too how a daily city newspaper chose to report such a story on the front page — for it is exactly the kind of juicy rumor-laden story that we all love to read in local newspapers, notwithstanding the obvious pain this particular story caused to Samuel Elberfedl, as revealed in his quoted remarks in the story; and no doubt the article was also very painful to members of the congregation. Which is why newspapers stopped carrying stories like this one, and which why we now read blogs, because the newspapers have gotten so boring.

So here is the story, blazing headlines and all (with an epilogue at the end telling what happened afterwards):


Meeting Held in Unity Home
   Last Evening Acts
      Against Pastor

      OF 135 MEMBERS

Final Action in North Unita-
   rian Church Up to
      Center Committee

At a meeting of members of the North Unitarian Church held in Unity Home, Tallman street, last night, a vote was taken on the dismissal of the Rev. Samuel L. Elberfeld, pastor of the church. There were 36 members present, and the voted was 26 for dismissal, and three for his retention. There were seven blanks cast.

According to previous announcements, the meeting was called for the purpose of discussing the future policy of the church, bearing on the question of whether the social and athletic activities are to be carried on as extensively as they are at present, or whether they are to be made subservient to the work of the church proper.

The meeting resolved itself into a discussion of the dismissal of the pastor. The vote it is said did not represent the sentiment of the full church body for the reason that there are at least 125 accredited members of the parish, and that our of this number only 36 were present. Of the 36 who attended, it was pointed out that the majority was entirely out of sympathy with the pastor. Members of this majority, it is said, were the instigators in the removal proceedings that were first brought to light as a result of a meeting a week ago. It

(Continued on Page 2.) Continue reading

I had a lunch meeting today at the Unitarian Universalist church in Fairhaven, and since it’s only two miles away I decided to walk. Just as I was setting out, I happened to run into Carol, and asked if she wanted to walk over with me. We talked the whole way, about people we know, about our work, about local politics. The walk seemed to go very quickly, and before I knew it we were in front of the Fairhaven church and we had to stop talking for the moment. Carol walked back home, and I walked into the meeting. After my meeting was over, I walked back home. The sun was shining and it was a beautiful late winter day and I noticed things I didn’t notice on the walk over: the skim of ice on sheltered parts of the harbor because the water is still freezing cold even if the air temperature was above freezing; the bright new gray-and-white plumage of the Ring-billed Gulls; , but this time the walk seemed to take much longer than it did while I was talking with Carol.

Spring watch

It was chilly and windy this afternoon, and I was feeling sorry for myself. It’s still winter, and it will probably snow again. The produce in the supermarkets has been limp and tasteless, as it always is at this time of year. The whole city has that sad, sorry look that New England cities get in midwinter, when unidentifiable trash has been blown into every corner where it will remain until spring when we finally get the energy to clean it up. The only good thing about February is that it is shorter than all the other months.

But then at four o’clock I went outside to take a walk, and the sun was brightly shining, and I realized that two months ago it would have been dark already at four o’clock. The days are getting longer very quickly, and the first day of spring is less than a month away.

A second half-century of Universalist preaching in New Bedford: 1875-1825

Part one, 1825-1875.

After William Bell preached his sermon excoriating Christianity in December, 1874, First Universalist Church in New Bedford called an experienced minister. Rev. Jeremy Hoadly Farnsworth had been a Universalist minister for 30 years when he arrived in New Bedford, having served congregations in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, Maine, Rhode Island, Virginia, and Iowa. He supported various reform movements, including temperance, women’s rights, and peace; before becoming a minister, he had worked in a cotton mill, and he was said to support workers’ rights. His obituary in the 1900 edition of the Universalist Register stated: “His home was happy. His churches peaceful and prosperous”; but there was no mention of the quality of his preaching.

Farnsworth was followed by Rev. William Curtis Stiles, who preached from 1878 to 1880. After the Pocasset Tragedy of 1879, where two parents murdered their child in an act of religious fanaticism while trying to re-enact the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac, Stiles had a brief moment of fame. His sermon on the subject was published in a booklet titled History of the Pocasset Tragedy, with Three Sermons Preached in New Bedford. One of the other sermons was by William Potter, the older and better-known minister of the Unitarian church in New Bedford.

After having served two years as the Universalist minister in New Bedford, Stiles renounced Universalism; he was converted to orthodox Congregationalism by Rev. A. H. Heath, the minister of the North Congregational Church. Stiles left New Bedford to become the pastor of the East End Congregational Church in Brooklyn. Stiles apparently left some turmoil behind him in the Universalist church, for the church did not call a new settled minister for two years. During that time, Rev. Charles Rockwell Tenney, the minister of the Mattapoisett Universalist church, traveled each week to New Bedford as a supply preacher. Continue reading

Peace aesthetic

So Carol and I just got back from a vacation in San Francisco, and on our last day there we happened across an outdoor marketplace down the the end of Market Street, right where lots of tourists would walk through. There were people sitting at tables selling the usual things you find at such marketplaces:– colorful scarves, bad watercolor paintings, funky jewelry, good acrylic paintings, carved wooden tchotchkes, and so on.

At one table sat a youngish woman with uncombed brown hair wearing a drab green hooded sweatshirt. She was selling t-shirts with peace signs on them. The t-shirts were exactly the colors you would expect, deep purple and various earth colors. It’s exactly the sort of thing a tourist might buy and wear back home while bragging “I got this cool t-shirt from this funky woman in San Francisco. Cool, huh?” It’s exactly the kind of shirt that screams Hippy-Peacenik-Wannabe.

I think it’s time the grand concept of peace got re-branded with a new aesthetic that better reflects its universality and its high aspirations. Or maybe it would be better if peace didn’t have a brand. Can’t we just dump the drab colors, the hemp t-shirts, and yes maybe even the venerable peace sign, altogether?

Pretty please?… I’ll be nice to you if you say “yes”…

Posted in a slightly different form on PaxPac.

Spring watch

Down on State Pier this afternoon, the Herring Gulls were strutting around as usual, looking to steal food from one another, or from another bird. They were looking particularly bright and cheerful today, and I finally realized why: almost all of the adults have finished molting, and they are now resplendent in their breeding season plumage.

This can only mean that breeding season is coming soon, or has already started. Because the rooftops of downtown New Bedford are the site of a Herring Gull nesting colony, this means we will soon have to listen as the Herring Gulls scream and squawk their love songs to one another on the roof of our building. I am not looking forward to Herring Gull nesting season.