Saturday, November 20, 2010

Journey of Awakening – 15: The Lincoln Years—If You Haven’t Been to Peoria

The summer of ’66 I was asked to take a summer interim job as Minister of Education & Youth at Central Christian Church in Peoria, Illinois. There was no summer school at Cotner and the salary was as much for the summer as my year’s pay at the school. We moved our little family into a furnished house the church rented for us. Our kids were 5 and 3.

My main job was to organize and manage the vacation church school and run the summer youth programs, which included two weeks at high school church camp. This was a time of growing interest in integration and the more liberal churches were beginning to push the issue, primarily at the national and state levels. Local congregations were dragging their feet, except for a handful of radical young clergymen.

I had been hearing about these “immersion” experiences in Chicago, conducted by the Urban Institute, where people from suburban settings would be “turned loose” for a couple of days to experience the poverty of the inner city. I somehow convinced my senior pastor, Bob Bennett, and the parents of the high school youth group, that this would be a great summer experience for their kids. We rented a 12 passenger station wagon, loaded it with 9 boys and girls with all of their luggage tied on top and rolled-up sleeping bags tucked around them, and headed for the big city. I had made some arrangements through our church’s state office with the pastor of Jackson Blvd. Christian Church, an African American congregation in the middle of Chicago’s west side ghetto for us to sleep in their building, as well as to have a get-acquainted session around a meal with the young people of his church.

We arrived in Chicago as the sun was setting, found the church after driving around the west side of Chicago and stopping at the local Jewel Tea supermarket to stock up on groceries for our stay, the only white faces in a sea of black shoppers with suspicious stares. The pastor met us at the church parking lot with a warm welcome as he unlocked the gate to the wrought iron fence surrounding the building, after which he showed us to the hall where we could lay out our sleeping bags for our two night stay.

The get-acquainted session went well and was an eye-opening educational experience for our kids, as these young black kids talked of what life was like growing up on the west side of Chicago. It also became clear to all of them that their hopes and dreams for their lives were not that dissimilar. It was an eye-opener for me in that it was beginning to dawn on me what a sheltered life I had led and my naïve liberal images were being shattered, one after another.

Somehow we survived that brief immersion and got all the kids back to Peoria safely. The rest of the summer unfolded smoothly. Summer youth camp was a relaxing and fun end of our Peoria summer. Three of the black kids from Chicago attended the camp. One vivacious girl took on a real leadership role at the camp. She was also a comedian. On one occasion several kids were on the lake in boats. The girl was in one boat chiding her two friends seated in the front and back of another boat with a white kid in the middle rowing. The young lady shouted for the whole campground to hear: “Hey look! They’ve got a slave!”

It was only two years later that the west side we had visited was burning after the assassination of Martin Luther King. We were not aware of all the undercurrents of erupting anger we were in the middle of at the time.

So at the end of the summer we packed our belongings and headed back to Lincoln, without a clue what would be next.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Journey of Awakening – 14: The Lincoln Years—Gathering Storms

My two-year teaching assignment at Cotner was extended for a third year. The professor I was filling in for discovered that he needed another year at Duke to complete his Ph.D. dissertation. So I got a reprieve from having to find a “real” job and could stay in the academic womb a little longer. I had my little family and my slightly larger student body and a growing circle of like-minded friends in the university and church community. I was busy on weekends with preaching in small town churches in eastern Nebraska. I taught several off-campus classes for ministers and lay people. Cotner’s dean sent me to represent the school at Society of Biblical Literature and American Academy of Religion regional and national meetings, which gave me the opportunity to rub shoulders with many of the prominent scholars and writers in the theological and biblical studies world.

The mid-sixties were also times of growing unrest on college campuses. The civil rights movement was in full swing. The anti-Vietnam war protests were heating up. I found myself attending rallies for these two causes and helping to found a peaceful anti-war protest on the edge of the campus. Daily we stood on the sidewalk with signs and made our silent presence known in opposition to the war’s escalation. Students were also organizing volunteers to get on buses leaving from the campus to go to Mississippi and Alabama.

The end of my life in academia was approaching but I was not yet aware of it. I delivered lectures at a Cotner sponsored series on The New Testament Conception of the Ministry and Paul Tillich’s Concept of God, and while I received kudos for my presentation, the life of a scholar was making less and less sense to me. Also, in 1966 I attended a lecture sponsored by the campus YMCA delivered by the new-on-the-scene Dean of the Ecumenical Institute: Chicago, Joe Mathews, who began to rock my world and challenge many of my already shaky beliefs about the way life is.


One quote from his lecture that never left me was: “There is only one absolute in life and that is that there are no absolutes.” After the lecture I had the chance to spend a couple of hours with him in a small group of campus pastors. I literally did not know what to make of this guy. It was like it must have been the first time the disciples encountered Jesus. I did not immediately pick up and follow him back to Chicago, nor was he asking me to. But the seed was planted. Sometimes it takes a few years to blossom, as will be revealed as the story unfolds.


Joe in “5th City” with a community leader on Chicago’s west side.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Journey of Awakening – 13: The Academic Dream Deferred

Fall semester ’64 at Cotner School of Religion began slowly. Enrollment was down. I taught 2 classes, one on the Literature of the New Testament and the other The Four Gospels. Neither class had more than 10 students. I must have done well enough because they signed up for the 2nd semester and I even added one class on The Bible as Literature.

Milan Cotner-2

My own student year went somewhat differently. The classics department chair, whose reputation as a Greek scholar had drawn me to Nebraska, died half-way through my first semester. The University “imported” a visiting professor directly from Greece, who became my major advisor by fiat. Elias Kapetanopoulos was a young, arrogant, classic-featured Greek with pre-maturely graying hair who had an attitude best expressed by Gus in the movie, My Big Fat Greek Wedding: “My ancestors were writing philosophy while yours were still swinging in trees.” We did not hit it off from the start and it continued to descend throughout the year. I probably can’t blame the whole sordid affair on his attitude. I was getting OK grades but not those I thought I deserved. I went to the acting department head and asked if he would take me on as my major advisor. He, understandable, refused, since it was only a 2 person department. I had to stick it out or quit the program.

On reflection I have to admit that there were two egos involved in the matter at hand: His and Mine. The fact that I thought I already knew as much if not more than he did may have been partly in play. And, as I reflect further, I recall having a similar problem for a time with my (now) beloved seminary professor, Ron Graham, until his patient and kind manner, coupled with his wry Aussie sense of humor, revealed to me one day how much I had to learn.

But with Elias K. it was different. He was neither patient nor kind, at least in my ego-out-of-control mind. So after one year my grad student days were over. For the time-being. But that is a story for later. Much later.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Journey of Awakening–12: The Academic Dream

One of my seminary professors was a graduate of a small college in Lincoln, Nebraska. Cotner University was founded by some ministers and laymen of my denomination, The Disciples of Christ, to prepare young men and women as preachers and educators in small town churches scattered throughout the state of Nebraska. It had fallen on hard times and gone out of existence during the Great Depression, but a small group of college trustees had saved a portion of the school’s endowment in hopes of resurrecting the institution. Cotner was started up after World War II as a school of religion and became affiliated with the University of Nebraska.

Dr. Frank Gardner, who was a colorful “disciple” of Henry Nelson Wieman and Alfred North Whitehead and the infamous process theology school at the University of Chicago, and who had played football at Cotner in the late twenties, put me in touch with Dr. Raleigh Peterson, Dean of Cotner. It was the summer of 1963 and there was an opening for a temporary and part-time instructor of religion. I was interested in pursuing a graduate degree in classical Greek with a prominent professor of classics at the U. of Nebraska, so I applied for the job.

I was on the train from Des Moines to Lincoln for the interview when the news was spread from car to car that President Kennedy had just been shot in Dallas. It was a depressing mood as I was greeted by the Dean and a couple of local ministers from the Cotner Board, but I did get offered the position to begin in the summer of 1964. I was to begin by travelling throughout Nebraska on a “recruitment” trip for Cotner. Even though it was the unofficial school of religion for the university, courses were not required and not part of any major, so students had to be particularly motivated to want to enroll in Cotner’s elective courses.

As it turned out I had to delay my start date by a month or so, due to having major surgery on a cyst requiring 6 weeks of recuperation in my in-laws basement in Minneapolis. Finally, with our two little ones in tow, all of our belongings packed into a U-Haul truck, we caravanned from Des Moines to Lincoln, assisted by our friends, Ted and Georgiann Warren, who drove all the way to help with our move. We had rented an upstairs apartment in the big old red brick house that served as the state headquarters of our denomination. Luckily, our rent was only $90 a month, since my salary at Cotner was to be only about $300. This meant I would have to find weekend preaching jobs to take up the slack. On top of carrying at least 2 classes at the U. in Greek and Latin literature.

The month of August was full of travelling the state, speaking at churches and attending endless pot luck suppers, and calling on students who were coming to Lincoln for fall classes at Nebraska.

I was now ready to take on the academic world as both student and teacher.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Journey of Awakening–11: Waiting for ToGo

I hung around for a year after graduation from seminary, taking a couple of classes to “further my well-rounded education.” I was also offered the position of New Testament Greek Instructor at Open Bible College, a training school for ministers and missionaries of the Church of the Open Bible, a home-grown Pentecostal group based in Des Moines. The president of the college was a seminary classmate who, when interviewing me for the job said: “Milan, I know you smoke, but I’d appreciate it if you didn’t around our campus—if any of our trustees happened to see you smoking, it would mean both of our jobs.”

One day after Greek class, the guys in the class were sharing that they wanted to start a basketball team but did not have a coach. They had discovered my passion for the game and asked if I would work with them. This meant that I also had to help them find teams to play since there was no league for their school. I entered them in the YMCA men’s league and arranged some pickup games with a couple of settlement houses. That was the first time most of them had met any black people, let alone play against them. It was an eye-opening experience for all of them, as they tried to compete while watching some of these guys soar over them. It might as well have been Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant on the other team, to amplify the comparison just a bit. All of my considerable coaching experience and even my playing on their team couldn’t save them. I told them they had better pray harder because only Jesus was going to get them through this game.

Because it was such a small college we often did not have enough players at practice or games to have more than 6 or 7 guys show up at any one time. I had to be player/coach and I was not in the greatest physical shape. After the game with the above-mentioned young black men who had “taken us to basketball school” one of our players said to me as we were dressing: “You know coach, if you’d give up the weeds you’d be more able to keep up.”