JUST PASSIN’ THROUGH
Just Passin’ Through: a Statement for the Archives of the UUMA (Part 1)
Many times I’ve remarked that the UUMA and the UU seminaries would learn a lot more by interviewing those who depart early than by assuming those who hang on represent the potential. In my own case, I sometimes think the reason I stuck as long as I did was because so many people were intent on pushing me out. Most of it came from competing women, though I wasn’t competing with them, and some of it was from men who could not compete, particularly when preaching.
What took me out in the end is also what saved me, because the decade was (surreptitiously) to me all about me, and every blow taught me more. In fact, I was finding the way to a far more dynamic understanding of the world than the UUA was willing to consider, though they hinted at it, which was tantalizing. I was coming to consider all “organized” religion (we joked about Unitarians being so disorganized that we escaped the stigma) a process rather than a “thing.” It almost was an ongoing set of evolving reactions to the culture. But the UUA wanted it to be a frozen thing — THEIR thing.
We used to talk a lot about the Alban Institute’s idea of the one-celled church, how groups under a hundred members expanded because of unity, doing everything together, so they could announce on Sunday morning that without explanation they would do the “usual” event at the “usual” place and then wonder why no visitors ever came. The first split of this congregational blastosphere was usually about social issues. No one ever admitted the real problem was simply always finances, sometimes changing demographics in the larger culture.
When we invented the Montana UU circuit-riding ministry, which I began directly from Meadville/Lombard before I had technically graduated, no one dared challenge Russ Lockwood and Emil Gudmundson, my co-conspirators and District Execs. This level of circuit-riding was an innovation, but it was a step up from the founding of the six fellowships of Montana, none of them big or dynamic enough to singly support a minister. Two were too anti-clerical to participate.
Both men cared about and shepherded the prairie districts, the middle of the continent. On a day in 1980, shortly after the eruption of Mt. St. Helens and after I’d just gotten word that my step-granddaughter had died in a car accident that looked like suicide, I sat with Emil at the top of the stairs in Fleck House, looking out the tall staircase window at the bell tower of the First Unitarian Church across the street. It was a demonstration of his doctrine that a pastor should simply be with those who needed support. It was enough, and yet the mountain went on erupting, my granddaughter was still dead, and in a few years the First Unitarian would tear down its tower due to lack of maintenance, making a lot of pigeons homeless.
My tie to Rev. Russ Lockwood was more formal. I was inspired by PNWD Leadership School. Others named other Leadership Schools after Lockwood though he didn’t invent them. Rev. Peter Raible, Rod Stewart and Ord Elliot had the brainstorm. I’ve written about them. But Lockwood had found and secured a little cache of money that midwest Universalists had hidden before the merger with the Unitarians, those head-trippers from New England.
The idea became possible because Jon Chacopulos, a lay Unitarian from Pasadena now living in Helena, had inherited a great deal of money which paid for the F150 van that I lived in while circulating from Helena to Great Falls to Bozeman to Missoula. His contribution was secret. He has helped many people. working through a cloaked coalition of weathy people called “God’s Love.”
The two fellowships who refused to join were Billings and Whitefish. Missoula joined reluctantly but supplied the most money. This left four groups: Helena in the center, Great Falls just north a hundred miles, and the two university towns, Missoula and Bozeman, each a hundred miles away from Helena where I rented a studio apartment at the top of the Parchen building, an old brick building, once a printing plant. Downstairs was “On Broadway,” a fine restaurants (pasta and seafood). The occasional tremors that went through the area always made me think the dog was rubbing against my chair until I remembered that there was no dog.
This Montana effort was not on the scale of Monroe Husbands who had traveled in a proper Fifties RV around the country founding fellowships, but it was in the same spirit, except that Husbands goal was helping independent spirits in a sometimes hostile society. https://www.uua.org/re/tapestry/adults/river/workshop16/178925.shtml
The UU Montana Ministry was not building the fortunes of the UUA, though I suppose they thought we were and thus lent support and formal contact. We were meeting the needs of progressive people in an environment they refused to leave because of their love for the place. It was the beginning of the development of “landscape theology” — reading the environment.
I did not tell anyone that I was on a personal “spiritual” quest, which was too ostentatiously corny to mention even for clergy, but became real as I drove alone at hundred mile segments between worship services. I also stayed for board meetings and classes, which startled them. Our connection with Beacon Street was through Rev. William Holway who made a visit and — extrovert that he was — thoroughly enjoyed. We had planned three years and fulfilled that, though by the end I was over forty and exhausted.
My ordination/installation worried the arts community of Helena because the Grand Street Theatre had been built with the help of the early Copper barons to be the Unitarian Church and they were afraid we would claim it back. A lawyer named Don Marble, not a member of any fellowship but a UU at heart, stepped out of the woodwork to prevent it from being converted to an upscale restaurant.
That original church was distinguished by the contributions of the early minister’s wife, Clara Hodgin who pressed for the finishing funds of the building, but also sponsored an ecumenical discussion group including the Catholic bishop and the rabbi at the synagogue behind the cathedral that the Catholics eventually bought. She was an early founder of Helena kindergartens. In her honor in 1910 a Tiffany window was installed in the building.
All this is forgotten now. This is also pretty much true of the UUMM, which was a process — not mortar and bricks. The early not-quite-forgotten stories of Butte and Red Lodge remain to be told.