Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Journey of Awakening – 23: Preparing for Leaving the Good Life

Summer 1972—Chicago. The Institute of Cultural Affairs (ICA), aka the Ecumenical Institute (EI) held its month-long research assembly. I was there with a thousand others. Sue attended half of it. Leslea and Robb were at the summer camp provided and staffed by the Institute. The ICA/EI had recently received the gift of an 8-story office building in Uptown Chicago from the Kemper Insurance Company. The 200 Institute staff members moved out of the old Church of the Brethren seminary campus on the west side into “Kemper” as it continued to be known for many years. These few hundred and their families were forming into a family “secular-religious” order in the sense of carrying the mission of the religious into the secular world and seeing the spiritual in the mundane social order.

I had been involved for 5 years as a committed volunteer with the Institute, first as regional coordinator for the Kansas City Region which encompassed Nebraska, Kansas and half of Missouri; then as a local church educator/reformer in my new assignment at St. John UCC in St. Charles, Missouri. This included coordinating local training courses and raising support for establishing a “Religious House” in St. Louis, one of 24 that were being formed in major U.S. cities, to house ICA staff who were being dispersed from the central headquarters in Chicago, along with interns recruited from the local regions.

A call came late in August or early September from a Dan Tuecke, who identified himself as the prior of the new St. Louis Religious House, just arrived from Tulsa with his wife, Lin and 2 other couples from Chicago. Surprised, I responded with “Really. Where is the House located?”

“Well, we don’t actually have a house yet. We’re working on it. Could you put us up at your house for a few days until we get settled? And could you find places for our other two families?”

“Uh, O sure—I think we can manage.”

I hadn’t actually checked with Sue yet, but she was all right with it. “It is just for a few days, right?” I don’t remember how many actual days it was, but eventually a facility was found. It was an old abandoned convent that had most recently been inhabited by a handful of Jesuit brothers. The Diocese of St. Louis rented it to the ICA for $1 a year, if the new occupants would promise to do some repairs and maintain the property. The location was in the infamous Pruitt Igoe neighborhood of St. Louis; near one of those high rise low income housing projects that are now being removed (Cabrini Green in Chicago is the latest one to fall).

We began the year in earnest, recruiting lay people and pastors to attend the weekend RS-1 seminars and midweek Parish Leadership Colloquies for clergy and church leaders. I tried without success to convince my senior pastor that he needed to attend, but did get the nod to recruit from our church members for the weekend courses. We held a couple of courses that were well attended and successful in the sense that the St. John members who attended were appreciative and some had profound spiritual experiences.

Then came the weekend that changed the course of my family’s life, and I wasn’t even in attendance.

One St. John couple left at the end of the first evening. This was not unusual for an occasional person to find that it was to be a little more challenging to their belief system than they were ready for. But the next morning I received a call from Pastor Burkhalter that I was being called in by the church council for a meeting. I was shocked to learn that the husband of the couple who left the course was accusing me of causing his wife severe mental distress and “if she has another nervous breakdown it will be your fault.” He was demanding that they fire me. I didn’t get a chance to ask him who was responsible for her previous breakdowns.

The irony of this is compounded by the fact that I had already submitted my resignation in order for our family to join the ICA staff as interns for a year. We were already making plans to move our belongings into the basement of the St. Louis House at the end of the summer of 1973. But I was given no chance to appeal the council’s decision. In fact, I was sitting in an adjoining room when they were discussing whether to just accept my resignation and let me take my vacation time until the end of the summer, or to fire me on the spot. I overheard one of the elders say “Let’s just get rid of the problem.” So I was fired after I had already resigned. The pastor didn’t try to defend me, nor did any of the other council members. I don’t even recall Burkhalter offering to give me any counsel. But as I wrote earlier, he was not one to allow any “boat-rocking.” I was in shock.

The only comfort I received, aside from my family, was from a group of about 25 young families, many who had been through the RS-1 course, who came to me wanting to mount a protest and defense on my behalf. I thanked them for their support, but asked that they just continue to support the church, gently leading the congregation to be more of a servant to the community. I knew that these young people would one day be in leadership positions in that congregation.

My course was set, so I thought. I was now going to spend full-time waking up my fellow-clergy to the way life really is and to the real truth of the Gospel, and to shake the church out of its lethargy.

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