One thing leads to another. When you look back it sometimes seems there was a master plan, like an invisible hand moving you through the maze to bring you to this place to bring you to who and where you are today. Have you ever felt that way? A telephone conversation with my friend Jack Mendelsohn today reminded me of that web of inter-connectedness. You see, it was Jack who recommended me to the search committee here in Westport, twenty eight years ago.
Let me tell you why Jack made that recommendation – it happened thus:
When I was a senior in college, Bob Saunders, the minister of the Congregational Church in Wilmington, where I was an active member and volunteer youth group advisor, asked me to consider the ministry, which would mean seminary the following year. I loved the church, admired his ministry, and felt drawn to it.
The idea was at once attractive and scary, so I asked to meet with Bob to talk about it. We set an appointment for a Sunday afternoon – it was the first and only time I would sit with Bob, one on one. That meeting is etched in my memory like words carved in stone. I remember feeling anxious, for a couple of reasons, one of which is that I didn’t want to take too much of his time; I was conscious that it was a Sunday afternoon and I was taking him away from his family.
When I sat down in his office, across from Bob’s desk, I cut to the chase and said, “If I’m going to be a minister, do I have to believe all the things we say we believe in?” He was puzzled and asked, “What things?” I said,“You know, the Apostle’s creed. Do I have to believe literally that Jesus was born of a virgin, was crucified and descended into hell, and rose from the dead and sits at the right hand of the Father?”
He looked across the great expanse of that orderly desk, in his neatly arranged office, and said, “Yes, of course.” I was incredulous. Dumbfounded. I said, “You mean that you believe all those things…literally? I thought they were metaphors.” He was not pleased, and he said, with accusation in his voice, “You sound like a Unitarian!!”
I left feeling a mixture of disappointment and relief. I attended the nearest Unitarian church the following Sunday and felt at home. I didn’t get involved in a Unitarian congregation until my children were old enough to go to Sunday school but I heard about an inspiring minister in Boston, at the Arlington Street Church. I drove to Boston from Wellesley, a nearby suburb where I was teaching and living, and was captivated by the minister, Jack Mendelsohn.
I joined the Wellesley Church, became youth group advisor, and within a few years the minister, Bill Rice, urged me to go to seminary. I told Bill, as I had told Bob Saunders in that fateful conversation, that I had serious theological doubts. I remember his immediate response: “You’ll spend the rest of your life with those questions.” It was the perfect answer!
He assured me that I didn’t have to pass a belief test. I went to Boston University School of Theology, graduated in 1972 and was called to Murray Universalist Church in Attleboro, MA.
In 1975 Jack announced his candidacy for president of the UUA. I admired Jack’s ministry, I knew he would be a great, inspiring, and challenging leader. My friend Herb Adams introduced me to Jack and I volunteered to help.
While I was working on Jack’s campaign I had a ‘meet-the-candidate dinner’ for Jack, at the church, inviting several area UU clergy and active lay people from nearby congregations. Jack appreciated my efforts – we became friends and colleagues. He’s been a marvelous mentor to me all these years.
The UUA presidential election of 1976 was held at the General Assembly in Ithaca. The night before the voting, Jack, Bill Shulz and I had dinner together, and Jack thanked Bill and me for the help and support and said something that has stayed with me: “Well, the campaign is done and tomorrow is the election. If I win I’ll be president — if I don’t I won’t have to be!”
He didn’t win, so he didn’t have to be president.
That brings me back to where we started, when I said ‘one thing leads to another.’
Today, when I talked with Jack, I told him that I had named a date for my retirement from Westport. He complimented me on my long tenure here, and I reminded him that it was his recommendation that brought me to Westport.
Jack said, “No, you didn’t go to Westport because of me. I just introduced you to them – you went to Westport because of you.” He added, “You’ve had a wonderful ministry there.”
Jack is 93 years old and dealing with health issues, but he hasn’t lost his wonderful enthusiasm – his mind is clear and his wit is sharp. He thanked me, again, for the memorial service I conducted for our mutual friend, Herb Adams. He thanked me for the work on his campaign, and told me, again, how much he values our friendship. He said, “I’ll never forget that dinner you arranged—and cooked! That’s why I recommended you to Westport.” I heard his smile.
We reminisced a bit and he said, “If it wasn’t for the walk-out at the General Assembly in Boston in 1967 I would have been elected.” The walk-out, to which he referred, was about the struggle for racial equality in America, and in our association of congregations. Jack was adamant about the work we needed to do for racial justice, as well as all the other work that needs to be done for our nation to live up to its promises – implicit and explicit.
The General Assembly in 1967 was held within walking distance of Jack’s Arlington Street Church and when discussion about the racial issue bogged down Jack stood at the microphone and invited anyone who wanted to ‘dig in to this issue’ to come to Arlington Street Church with him, and many walked with him.
During today’s telephone conversation Jack reminded me that ‘today we are celebrating the life of one of our country’s most important leaders.’ He said, “Martin’s dream is still our dream.”
I was very moved by our conversation today, knowing that Jack, at 93, is in his final, valiant struggle. I took his book, Why I am a Unitarian, from my shelf, reminded of that invisible hand, and read his words: “The liberal spirit’s supreme gift to me was an introduction to the Unitarian Universalist religious community, where I found encouragement to unfold: the special joy of breaking out of the cocoon or of discovering a greater freedom in the exercise of my intelligence and in the growth of my experience of love, beauty, and justice.” Amen.