Monthly Archives: March 2009


Betty A. Steinfeld, 70, of Westford, Mass., died March 29, 2009 at home, surrounded by her family.

A graduate of Morningside College, she spent much of her career editing technical publications for Digital Equipment Corp. (now Hewlett Packard) and her daughter’s publishing company, and was an award-winning indexer. She lived for many years in Westford, Mass.

She was born in Whiting, Iowa, to Elsie (Merritt) and Archie Stubblefield. Family members include her husband of 45 years, Edward; daughter, Carol and her spouse Daniel Harper of New Bedford, Mass.; and her sisters, Bonnie Ahmann of Montgomery, Ala. and Rose Mather of Yankton, S.D.; as well as nephews and nieces.

A remembrance gathering will be held 12 noon, April 4 at the Parish Center for the Arts of Westford, Mass. In lieu of flowers, donations in her memory may be made to the American Cancer Society.

UU inducted into International Literary Hall of Fame for Writers of African Descent

Everett Hoagland, poet and Unitarian Universalist, will be inducted into the International Literary Hall of Fame for Writers of African Descent. The Tenth Annual Induction Ceremony to honor the writers who have been selected for inclusion in the International Literary Hall of Fame for Writers of African Descent will take place at Chicago State University on April 18, 2009. Writers who are selected for inclusion in the Literary Hall of Fame have produced a visible body of work that exemplifies cultural cognizance and literary excellence. The award is administered by the Gwendolyn Brooks Center for Black Literature and Creative Writing. Other inductees for 2009 include Laini Mataka and Carolyn Rodgers.

Mr. Hoagland, former poet laureate of t he city of New Bedford, Massachusetts, is a long-time member of First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. His poems have appeared in many periodicals, including the denominational magazine UU World. Some of his poems have been on liberal religious themes, notably including the poem “The Pilgrim” in his 2002 book …Here…: New and Selected Poems.

Spring watch

I spent a good part of the past two days up at Carol’s parents’ house in Westford, Mass. There’s a small wooded wetland right next to their house, and Friday in the late afternoon a chorus of frogs sang very loudly. (Actually, it wouldn’t be accurate to say they sing: the sound is something between a small dog barking and a Mallard duck quacking.) I’m not sure what kind of frog those are, but those were the only frogs I heard last night. And then this evening there were three or four spring peepers adding their voices to the chorus.

There’s a small pond a quarter of a mile away from the house; not a natural pond, but a constructed pond that a developer built in front of some condos. Yesterday Carol and I went for a walk around this pond, and she pointed out for me where sunfish had made nests. There were perhaps half a dozen of these nests, depressions in the sandy bottom near the edge of the pond, about ten inches across and several inches deep. She said that last week she saw a little Bluegill guarding each nest, but we didn’t see any fish there yesterday.

Driving up to Westford from New Bedford yesterday and this morning, I took I-495 most of the way. Perhaps I didn’t notice yesterday, but driving up today I realized that a few willow trees were starting to bloom. All the other trees are still a wintry gray, but a few willows had turned a straw-yellow color.

What music do you listen to when you’re…

So as a minister, I have a question for you. When you are sad — I mean seriously sad, not just sad because you broke a nail, or because you didn’t hit the lottery (again) — when you are seriously sad, what music do you prefer to listen to?

I’ll hold off on giving my own answer for now….

Spring watch

A few of us went up to a gospel concert in Norton yesterday, and as we were walking back to our cars after the concert, we could hear the spring peepers singing away in the swamp next to the parking lot. We all agreed that the spring peepers haven’t yet started singing down along the coast, presumably because it’s cooler next to the ocean.

Most of the waterfowl have left the harbor, but I did see six pairs of Buffleheads this afternoon. I suspect these are not birds that wintered over here, but rather birds that are migrating north and just happened to stop here for a day; perhaps they got stranded due to the strong north winds that were blowing the past two days.

Standing at the end of State Pier today, I saw two Harbor Seals surface quite close to the pier. They stayed quite close to one another, and at one point they twined their necks together, then slipped under water together. I’ve never seen seals behave in quite this way. I don’t know anything about the mating behavior of Harbor Seals (the only reference work I have on mammals covers land mammals, including order Sirenia but leaving out pinnipeds), but I wonder if what I saw was mating behavior.

Your criticism requested…

I’m writing a revisionist essay about the Rev. Dr. Samuel West, one of the early liberal ministers in Massachusetts whom later Unitarians claimed as a sort of proto-Unitarian. I feel West has been slighted to by the standard Unitarian biographies (including the bio on the UU Historical Society Web site), in the sense that his intellectual accomplishments have been overshadowed by exaggerated claims of eccentric behavior. Now I know some of my readers are interested in this kind of thing, and you are good at picking holes in my arguments, so I’m hoping at least some of you will be willing to read and comment on the rather long essay below….

Samuel West was born on 3 March 1730 (Old Style), to Dr. Sackfield West and Ruth Jenkins in Yarmouth, Massachusetts. He was apparently something of a prodigy as a child. He went off to Harvard College, and was graduated in 1754, one of the top students in his class. He decided to enter the ministry, and was ordained and installed on 3 June 1761 in the established church in what was then Dartmouth, Massachusetts. Beginning in the 1760s, West became active in politics, affiliating himself with the Whigs, and he remained involved with the Revolutionary cause through the Massachusetts convention which ratified the United States constitution. West married twice: first, on 7 March 1768 to Experience Howland, who died 6 March 1789, and with whom he had six children; second, on 20 January 1790 to the widow Louisa Jenne, née Hathway, who died 18 March 1779. Due to loss of memory (and possibly what we would now term senile dementia) West “relinquished his pastoral charge” in June, 1803. He went to live with his son, Samuel West, M.D., in Tiverton, Rhode Island, and died there 24 September 1807. (1)

These are the bare facts of Samuel West’s life. Behind those bare facts was a man of good character and superior intellect, who participated in two revolutionary ventures: the political revolution which was the separation of most of British North America from the British Empire during the War for American Independence, commonly called the American Revolution; and in the quiet and slow theological revolution that eventually led to an open breach between the liberal and conservative factions in the established Massachusetts churches. However, because West’s accomplishments are often obscured by his reputation for eccentricity, I will deal with the allegations of eccentricity first, and then give an account of his revolutionary accomplishments. Continue reading

Conversation on UUA election continues…

I did a post a week or so ago on the upcoming election for the new president of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), and in the past couple of days there have been three or four new comments that I think are worth reading. Start here, and keep reading down. Feel free to continue that conversation over there….

What’s going to be really interesting to watch between now and the election at the end of June is this — will the candidates have anything to say about the dire financial realities of the UUA? The financial crisis has hit the UUA hard, and from what I hear, UUA staff are slashing the budget right now, before the fiscal year has even ended — yes, things are that bad. I’m sure there will be little room for the new UUA president to start any new initiatives; instead, the new president will have to cut budgets, tighten belts, and lay off staff. Given where the economy is going, it will continue to get worse for at least a year.

So here some questions I want the UUA presidential candidates to answer: (1) Contemporary non-profit management requires increased efficiency because expenses for staff are rising faster than revenue; so what will you do to increase efficiency at the UUA? (2) A true fiscal conservative looks at both revenue and expenses; so in addition to cutting costs, how will you work to increase revenue? (3) One of the things many non-profits are doing these days is using more volunteers, and using them more effectively, especially considering how many Baby Boomers are retiring right now; so how will you work to extend the work of the UUA through volunteers?

That’s what I want to ask the UUA presidential candidates right now. What about you?

The absent-minded minister

I’m currently writing an essay about Samuel West, my predecessor in the pulpit here in New Bedford from 1761-1803. He had the reputation for being absent-minded and eccentric. Back in 1849, John Morison, another one of my predecessors in the pulpit here, wrote the definitive biographical essay of West. Morison tells the following anecdote as evidence of West’s eccentricity, and I’m going to ask you to read it, and then tell me what you think….

“The following story was told me by his daughter, and is unquestionably true. He had gone to Boston, and, a violent shower coming up on Saturday afternoon, he did not get home that evening, as was expected. The next morning his family were very anxious, and waited till, just at the last moment, he was seen hurrying his horse on with muddy ruffles dangling about his hands, and another large ruffle hanging out upon his bosom, through the open vest which he usually had buttoned close to his chin. He never had worn such embellishments before, and never afterwards could tell how he came by them then. It was too late to change — the congregation were waiting. His daughter buttoned up his vest, so as to hide the bosom ornaments entirely, and carefully tucked the ruffles in about the wrists. During the opening services all went very well. But probably feeling uneasy about the wrists, he twitched at them till the ruffles were flourishing about, and then, growing warm as he advanced, he opened his vest, and made such an exhibition of muddy finery as probably tended very little to the religious edification of the younger portion of his audience. ‘That,’ said his daughter, in telling the story, ‘was the only time that I was ever ashamed of my father.’  ”

So here’s my question: The poor man had a rough ride back home, was probably riding all night, got muddy and dirty, didn’t have time to change his clothing, but made it into the pulpit in time to preach. I don’t get it — this is eccentric how? I readily admit that I don’t pay much attention to my own personal appearance, and have been known to wear a suit on Sunday morning but forget to put on a tie (since I don’t wear a robe in the pulpit, this does not look good). I also admit that I have been asked by Beauty Tips for Ministers to submit a photograph to demonstrate how not to dress if you’re a minister. And I admit that it would be better if people like me and Dr. West had it in us to pay attention to our personal appearance.

But by all accounts, West was an amazing preacher, and can’t we put up with dirty ruffles for the sake of good preaching? And yeah, you don’t have to tell me, if the answer is “no,” I had better find another line of work….

Happy birthday, dad

My father’s birthday is today. Some years ago, Grace Paley wrote a poem describing what her father was like when he was the same age as my father is now. I discovered that by changing a few words, and adding a few words, the poem applies pretty well to my own father (at least, before January 20 of this year):


My father said
          how will they get out of it
          they should be sorry they got in

My father says
          how will they get out
          Cheney Bush    the whole bunch
          they don’t know how

goddammit he says
          I’d give anything to see it
          they went in over their heads

he says
          greed    greed    time
          nothing is happening fast enough


What are the changed words, you ask? I’ll let you look up the poem yourself, in Paley’s book Leaning Forward (Penobscot, Maine: Granite Press, 1985), p. 69. Hint: Paley’s poem was written c. 1970; the political leaders of that time were more aware of their errors in judgment than are Cheney and Bush.