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AS A CHURCH SECRETARY
About two weeks after we moved to Louisville and church was to begin Mr. Weston was sent to the hospital for the cure of an ailment that would yield only to a very slow treatment. The Board of Trustees asked me if I would do the preaching during his absence. I agreed if they did not blame me if the church fell apart before Weston returned. He was away for a number of Sundays. All of a sudden I realized I had to learn fast how to swim in the uncertain Unitarian waters or I would sink. I suppose I have the manuscripts of those first Unitarian sermons. I only remember one of them, not the subject or contents, but that missing page. What a sinking feeling to turn page five and be confronted with page seven.
For some weeks I was the "whole-big-it" at the Unitarian church - minister and church secretary all rolled up in one ragged package. No one, other than church secretaries and ex-church secretaries, can imagine the thousand plus things a church secretary is expected to do and do them ever so gracefully. The schedule of the best organized minister is always disrupted by weddings, funerals, somebody's sudden illness or some dear lonesome soul needing only someone with whom to talk. All of those unexpected events seem to happen at the most inconvenient times. Regardless of such extracurricular activities a sermon had to be prepared and delivered on Sunday morning, and a two to three one column ad-editorial had to be written in time to meet the newspaper's deadline for the Monday morning paper.
Never mind the thousands of unknown and unexpected jobs a church secretary must gracefully do. At the Louisville church there were certain weekly jobs that had to be done come hell or high water. One of them had to do, every Monday morning, with all that was required of you by the money the church received during the last seven days. It had to be counted and recorded in a book to the proper account for which it was given. In another book the amount given by each contributor had to be recorded under his or her name along with the date received. All the coins, according to size and value had to be enclosed in paper containers, the bills stacked together according to their "gold value" then all stuffed in a bank bag, with the deposit slip, and the bag locked, fortunately, with a lock that could be picked with a paper clip, if you discovered you had left something out. After all that you walked up the street a half block, handed it over to the banker and waited for a receipt, which was filed in a certain folder, in a certain drawer of a certain filing cabinet.
Such money matters killed my Monday mornings, to say nothing of the time it took later to find and correct the mistakes I had made, when I started making out the monthly financial statement for the Board of Trustees. The treasurer of the church was a C.P.A. This monthly report had to be made out in such a way that any C.P.A. could, by adding this to that, subtracting something from something larger and multiplying the results by a key number, tell if as much as a penny mistake had been made, and do so faster that I wrote that sentence. The treasurer was a wonderful fellow. He was a disciple of Henry George and a Republican - strange bed fellows.
I knew I had to find a way to get out of having to mess around with all the filthy lucre. While Mr. Weston was sick two of the older members volunteered to come in on Monday mornings and do everything to get "the root of all evil" ready to take to the bank - Mrs. Harris and Miss Harris. They were not kinfolk. After Mr. Weston returned from his illness, I promised the dear ladies some extra stars in their heavenly crown if they would continue doing the "Lord's work". They toiled on for the rest of the year for those extra stars. When Elien was named secretary the next year Miss Harris continued to come in to help her.
The people of the church were as patient and long suffering as Job. While Mr. Weston was sick many of them pitched in and helped more than they hindered. They seemed to be wiling to go all the way around Uncle Ned's barn and as far around Aunt Sallie's smokehouse as necessary to find something encouraging to say to the country preacher from the deep south, who talked as slowly as a tortoise runs and pronounced and used words in ways unknown to them.
One day a sweet grandmother of the church came in. She was well heeled and a woman of culture. She lived a short way up fourth street in a swanky apartment building. She wanted to call a cab to take her home.
"I'll carry you home", I said.
With a twinkle in her eyes she said, "I may get a little heavy before we get there".
Had I though fast enough I would have said, with a twinkle in my eyes, "No. I don't intend to tote you. I will carry you in my car". When I let her out of my 1939 Ford, I said, "When you have time go in your library and look the word 'carry' up in the dictionary. Notice particularly the first meaning listed". When I got back to the church the phone was ringing. It was Grandmother so and so whom I had properly carried home. She was shocked by having lived so long in ignorance of the first meaning of the word "carry". As we moved west and north I found the "darn westerners" and the "damn Yankees" so ignorant of the first meaning of the word that I stopped using it and used the less colorful and descriptive word, "take".
Note: I just checked in the 1967 printing of "The Random House" and the 1982 printing of "The American Heritage" dictionaries. They have changed the first meaning of the word "carry", but the dictionaries in use during the early fifties and before gave as the first meaning of the word, "to convey by vehicle".
When Weston got well he wasted no time getting the cogs turning to get me accepted as a Unitarian minister by the American Unitarian Association. A committee of Unitarian ministers was invited to Louisville to interview me and make recommendations. Mr. Weston applied whatever pressure may have been necessary to get the committee to make a positive recommendation. In May of 1952 he insisted I go with him to the annual meeting of The American Unitarian Association that met in Boston. Later in the spring, at the annual meeting of the congregation of the church in Louisville, he persuaded the church to employ me, as the associate minister, and Elien as church secretary. During the summer of that same year I was invited to Boston, along with a few other prospective ministers, for a week-long briefing on the ways of Unitarians. Shortly thereafter I received a piece of paper that said, for all practical purpose, that I had been accepted as a Unitarian minister by the American Unitarian Association.
Due to Mr. Weston's illness I preached more times in Louisville the first year than I did the next. He was always generous with the pulpit, asking me to preach more times than I accepted. Also, by phone and mail he introduced me to all the Unitarian Fellowships within two hundred miles of Louisville, and urged them to invite me to preach for them. I preached a number of times for the fellowship in Lexington, Kentucky. They were meeting in a school building. Also, I preached nearly as often for the fellowship in Nashville, Tenn. They met in the Masonic Lodge building. Both these fellowships grew into churches, with their own church buildings and ministers. I remember making two trips all the way to the fellowship in Paducah, Kentucky. I preached a number of times for the fellowship in Evansville, Ind. Once, when the minister, Mr. Backus, was sick I preached for the Unitarian church of Indianapolis, Ind. Mr. Weston insisted I accept every invitation to preach for those fellowships, even though to do so I had to neglect doing some things I was paid to do in Louisville.
A radio station in Louisville sponsored a weekly panel discussion known as "The Moral Side of the News". Mr. Weston, the Catholic Bishop, the most liberal and best-known Rabbi in the city, a bishop of one of the other major church groups and the president of the Baptist Seminary were the regular panel members. Each member was responsible for providing a substitute when he could not be present. Mr. Weston was good at finding excuses for not being able to be there. He always asked me to pinch hit for him. Sometimes the excuses were real. Some were, I'm sure, contrived to give me the opportunity to express what I would call my ignorance more often than not.
The members of the panel would meet an hour early, drink coffee and try to decide what news had a moral or immoral side that they would discuss. I was never a shining example of an off the cuff talker. I had long been in the habit of thinking in private about what would be said before I said it in public. I even wrote what was to be said so I could look at it and read it a few times to myself. After doing all that I was disappointed by the number of things I had decided, for one reason or another, not to say in public. I was never satisfied with my performance on "The Moral Side of the News".
While we were in Louisville the long awaited new authorized translation of the bible was published. This translation had been in the making for a number of years. A large committee of famous Hebrew and Greek scholars around the world had spent alone and together multitudes of man-hours and even more dollars to give birth to this new translation of the bible.
The T.V. station in Louisville sponsored a panel discussion on this new translation. As I remember it the regular panel members of "The Moral Side of the News" were the panel members for this T.V. discussion. Anyway, Mr. Weston was invited to be on the panel. For some reason he could not serve and insisted that I take his place. I did have some conscious reactions, not to the quality of the translation, but to the fact that another translation had been made. Also, I had a few days to decide what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it.
Each member of the panel was given two or three minutes for an opening statement. On all panel discussions I have tried to maneuver it so I would be the last speaker, not that I thought it gave me some advantage but just to postpone the ordeal as long as possible. On this occasion I was successful. In my opening statement I made reference to the recent news reports that gave the enormous number of man hours, and even more dollars, it took to make this latest authorized translation of the bible. I called attention to the fact that we already had many great translations, all the way from the King James on up, or down, to a goodly number of translations in the everyday English of today's English speaking world, some with a British accent and others in the language as used in America. I concluded by saying that I believed anyone wanting to know what the bible has to say could learn, by studying one or more of the translations we already had. I said that I considered this present translation a pure waste of man hours and money.
A good bit of the time left for discussion was used by the other members of the panel to express their negative reaction to my opening statement. Some had a few words of praise or criticism of the verbiage used to translate a favorite psalm or some verse in the New Testament. No one provided any evidence that the new translation made the bible more readable or understandable.
In all the opportunities Mr. Weston made possible for me through the years, from the time he offered me the secretary's job of his church until now, I never felt it was his desire or intention to use me but rather to help me. I hope the work Elien and I did in Louisville was of some service to him and his church. However, it always seemed to me that Mr. Weston and the church were more concerned in helping us than in what benefits they might get from our labors.
About the time we left Louisville, or shortly thereafter, Weston began a fellowship on the edge of Louisville that was being swiftly overrun by the city. He talked the church into buying a few acres with an old farmhouse still on it. The farmhouse was made the meeting place for the fellowship. He encouraged the members of his church, who lived in that part of the city, to become charter members of the fellowship. Two or three years later it was decided to try to have six services at the fellowship during the summer. Through Weston's recommendation the fellowship invited me to conduct those services. I am sure he hoped such services would help the fellowship. However, he was just as anxious to use the opportunity to help pay the expense of Elien and the girls' vacation trip to Virginia to visit Elien's family. On their way to Virginia they dropped me off in Louisville.
Weston persuaded a car dealer to loan me a car for the six weeks. I lived in the fellowship building. When the family returned from Virginia we moved into the parsonage for the rest of the six weeks. The Westons had carefully planned their vacation so we could use the parsonage. Later he conned a member of his church, who had more money than wisdom, to pay for having my sermons printed in a pamphlet by the title, "Six Summer Sundays". He sent me a large box of them.
In 1965 Mr. Weston was the minister of the Unitarian church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He got the idea it would be good for the church to have a guest minister for six weeks during the summer. He found a generous soul with six hundred dollars for the honorarium for a guest minister. He invited me to be the guest minister and planned their vacation so they would be away so the Isom family could use the parsonage. In return I was to give six Sunday sermons, bury any who died and marry those who might want to do such a thing. I had no funerals and only one wedding. I spent most of my time catching, cleaning, cooking and eating fish with friends and relatives from Virginia, South Carolina and Alabama, plus a few fish fries for some of the members of the Fort Lauderdale church, who had been especially nice to us.
Of course Mr. Weston arranged those summer services in hopes they would be useful to the church. But he was also trying to make it possible for the Isoms to trade a little work for a free six weeks stay in Florida. I have never known a more unselfish person. All I have said about Mr. Weston I could say also of Mrs. Weston. They were two different personalities, but like two black eyed peas in thoughtfulness and kindness.
Mr. Weston was a master of the English language. His poetry and poetic prose were not only beautiful to listen to, more importantly, they said something! A number of the readings and responsive readings in the present Unitarian hymn book were written by him. Beacon Press has published pamphlets of his poetry and readings. Years ago he was a contributor and editor of a minister's Funeral Manual. It is still my best source for help when there is a funeral.
I did not have the time to do much heavy reading while in Louisville. The public library was just across the street from the church so I tried to make time each week to slip over and browse for awhile. I tried to read at least one good article each time I went . I usually could find an article of interest to me in the magazine of the Sunday New York Times. I read "The Gate of Silence", by W.T. Stace. I thought about memorizing it, but hardly got any further. I found "Human Destiny", by Lecompte du Nouy, to be interesting at the time. It was one of a number of many bold attempts to put God on a scientific "throne", thus proving that he exists and is well. The book does have some helpful information, but as all such "scientific" efforts, the author, religiously speaking, vainly tries to preserve his "new wine in old wine skins". In so doing he fails to humble himself by recognizing human love, as frail and wobbly as it is, to be the ultimate source and judge of goodness - the love as expressed by Jesus and other great sages of our human heritage.
The best book I read while in Louisville was "Eleven Plays", by Maxwell Anderson. "The Masque of Kings", "Key Largo", and "Winterset" contain many profound observations of great human significance. Mr. Weston gave me the book.
In the spring of 1952 Elien and I decided we would use our G.I. loan and buy a house. After a month or more of looking we bought a two bedroom house, with full basement and an unattached garage. The house was in Clarksville, Indiana, three miles from the church. The house was in a recent development, built during or shortly after World War Two. The interest on the loan was less than four percent. The next spring we sold the house to a friend. If memory has the record straight our housing cost that year was less than fifty dollars a month.
In those days The American Unitarian Association had a few ministers-at-large. Depending on the circumstances, usually the Association paid all the ministers salary for the first two years. As progress was made the Association decreased the subsidy as the church became more self-sufficient. The minister-at-large program was designed to help old established churches that had seen better days. For one reason or more they were now no longer able to stand alone. Also, to help large fellowships in growing communities that needed a minister to help them reach church status. The home office of the American Unitarian Association was in Boston, Massachusetts. Hereafter I shall refer to the Association as Boston.
In the spring of 1953 Boston asked me if I would be interested in serving somewhere as a minister-at-large. I informed them that I was interested so they sent me all they knew about two situations. One was an old church in Wichita, Kansas, organized in 1880s. The other was a large fellowship in Long Beach, California, that needed a minister to help them grow into a church. Boston would send me out to look either situation over, but it was up to me to decide which.
After reading the information from Boston Elien and I decided to consider the possibility of going to Wichita rather than to the flowering fellowship in Long Beach. For the life of me I cannot remember why we did not consider Long Beach. I am sure the opportunity of moving to California must have been a temptation. Being from the hills of Alabama and the tidewater swamps of Virginia we no doubt, felt that California was a long, long way from home. But there had to be more than that to make us pause and yield not to that temptation. It could have been something about the Long Beach situation, described in the information that made us hesitate. It could have been something beyond our control. The fact is we opted for the possibility of going to Wichita.
Yes, I have wondered, more than once, what difference it would have made in the life of each of us had we moved to Long Beach in 1953. There can be no resolution to that wonderment. Would it have been for better or worse? It would be interesting to be able to roll back the march of time and go to Long Beach rather than Kansas. Only in the boundless world of the imagination is that possible. Maybe Rose, Mary Beth or one of the grand children will write a novel that will reveal what happened to the four Isoms who went to Long Beach in 1953.
After the regional director of the Southwest Unitarian Conference, the minister in Memphis, Tenn., Mr. Gibbs, made a trip to Louisville to give me a verbal picture of the situation in Wichita, a date was set for me to go southwest to spend the better part of a week to see and hear for myself. I went by way of the C&O railroad system. From Louisville to St. Louis I rode on a main line in a swanky coach. From St. Louis to Wichita I traveled on a spur track in a dinky train, made up of a freight box, mail coach and a passenger coach at one end of which was a snack bar. I was one of the half dozen persons who made the long night ride southwest across Missouri and then west to Wichita, deep in Kansas, stopping at every village along the winding track through the wheat fields. The train arrived in Wichita about eight-thirty A.M. The wind was madly blowing.
No one showed up to meet me. I was to learn later that the person who tried to meet me went to the Rock Island station, never thinking anyone would be coming in on the C&O. I waited for a respectable time for someone to show. knew the church was on the corner of Topeka and Central. By asking a few questions I learned Topeka was four blocks east of the station and Central was six blocks north. With suitcase and briefcase in hand I set out on my two feet to learn there were ten country blocks between me and the First Unitarian Church. I stopped at a greasy spoon for my first breakfast in Kansas. In time, in spite of the long blocks and the wind, I arrived in front of the parsonage.
The parsonage faced Topeka Street about six feet behind the church. The church faced Central Avenue. knew Dean and Bernice Raush lived in the parsonage. Dean was active as the minister of the church. Near ten A.M. I knocked on the front door of the parsonage. A young redheaded woman opened the door. She stared at me. I stared back, because she was holding one child still in diapers in one arm, a two and a half year old was holding the other hand. She was obviously expecting another. For some years, as time proved, the Raushes were always expecting another. I broke the silent stares by introducing myself.
"Oh!" she said, "Dean met the train but you were not on it. How did you get here?"
"I rode partway on the C&O trains", I said.
That explained the mix-up. She invited me to come in and wait while she tried to locate her husband. Seeing she was busy and obviously not expecting company, especially a stranger, I allowed I would like to look at the church while she was finding Dean, if she had a key. Obviously relieved she gave me the church key.
The church and the parsonage sat on a lot that was only three feet wider than the church and twelve feet longer than the church and the width of the parsonage. There were two feet of space between the south side of the parsonage and an alley, six feet between the north side of the parsonage and the south end of the church. The rest of the empty space was between the sidewalk along Central and the front of the church.
The church building was a brick veneer structure, built during the 1890s. Recent mortar had been smeared in the cracks between the bricks at many places. Like a rabbit's tail the bell tower was only a suggestion. The building would have looked better without it. The paintable part of the outside was in need of a paint job. Hanging onto the front corner of the building, about eight feet above the sidewalk, there was a board as big as a barn door. On it was printed, in different colors, the time, day and a descriptive name for all the meetings at the church during the time of the last minister. To say the best, it added nothing toward improving the looks of the building. From the outside the building looked shabby, tired and worn out.
The inside of the church had a cleaner and a more alive look, due to a recent paint job. The shape of the auditorium, the location of the pulpit and the arrangement of the pews gave the room a cozy feeling and made the room look smaller than it actually was. There was a small kitchen and a large dining room, above which was a room with equal floor space. Judging from the debris, covered with old dust and cobwebs, the upstairs had not been used for some years. At this point my inspection was interrupted by Dean's arrival. The wind was still raging, even though there was no cloud in the sky.
Dean took me to my hotel room, high up in the tallest building in the city. The view from my window, no doubt, would have been accepted as evidence that the earth is flat. There were no elevations out there to prevent you from seeing as far as the edge of the earth and beyond. Only the limitation of your eyesight prevented you from seeing as far as forever, however far that may be.
Dean had the same pages of instructions from Boston as I had; in which was explained what I was and was not to do and what the church was and was not to do during my visit. Dean and I sat down in front of that wide ranging and long distant window view, which made me feel as free as a bird in a limitless meadow.
Since Dean, representing the church, and I were the actors in the small drama that was about to begin, it was our mutual feeling that the results of my visit were our responsibility. Therefore we should make up a schedule of activities we believed would best expose the people of the church to me and me to them. We went over the instructions from Boston and evaluated them in the light of our knowledge and understanding of the local situation. We agreed it would be wiser and better for me and the church to do some of the things Boston said not to do, and not to do some of the things the instructions said we should do.
The one preplanned activity was a dinner meeting with the trustees of the church. Dean and I carried with us our own agenda for the rest of my visit. At the proper time Dean, without reference to the instruction from Boston, presented our own agenda, which included the suggestion that I preach the coming Sunday, and the following Sunday, the congregation would vote on whether or not to invite me to be the minister-at-large of their church. With no significant changes the agenda was adopted by the trustees. In my judgment it was the adoption of that agenda that made a big beginning toward healing a dispute among the members of the church over the minister-at-large program.
Z Wetmore attended that dinner meeting of the trustees of the church. No, Z is neither his initial nor nickname. Z is the only given name he had. I never did think to ask him if his name might indicate he was the last child of his mother. Due to the role he had played and was still to play in the life of the church I must introduce you to him.
Z and his wife, Mary, had been active members of the church for years. Z was a lawyer. They must have been near seventy years old. He wore a little gray goatee. He was treasurer of the church during the time the church was negotiating with Boston for the service of a minister-at-large. The terms to which Boston asked the church to agree seemed to Z to be too high-handed and dictatorial. For that reason he opposed the minister-at-large program to the bitter end.
In defense of the people of Boston it should be noted they had been sorely irritated by the Wichita church. Their last minister, who fowled everything up so badly, leaving the church depleted of funds and of many members, as well as smeared with a tarnished reputation, was not a Unitarian minister. He had never been recognized as such by the American Unitarian Association. In fact no one in Boston had ever heard of him until he became the minister of the Wichita church. Seemingly, the people of the church had invited him to be their minister while knowing little more than that he had a good gift-of-gab and made a very good impression the first time you met him.
To receive the help of a minister-at-large a church had to agree, if and when the church ceased to be a Unitarian church, that the property of the church would become the possession of he American Unitarian Association. Z may have had some reservations about that. But his biggest objection had to do with what seemed to him, and I confess to me, the dictatorial way the minister-at-large was to be chosen. In short, the church was told that Boston would choose a minister, send him to Wichita to meet in informal ways with the groups and individuals of the church, and size up the situation. If he decided he wanted the job Boston would send him to Wichita to serve as minister-at-large and the church would have no voice in the matter.
When the majority of the members, under the pressure of necessity, voted to accept a minister-at-large on such terms Z and Mary Wetmore resigned from the church in protest. Being the treasurer of the church Z sent all the money the church had to Boston, with a note that said, in substance, that since the church had, in order to get a minister-at-large, forfeited all its rights as a free church, he assumed it had no right to spend its own money. Boston, of course, returned the money.
My reaction to those same instructions, which Z called orders or demands, was not as dramatic as those of Z and Mary. When I read them I knew I would not dare go to Wichita as minister-at-large without a vote of the congregation inviting me to do so, and I could not expect them to do that without offering them the opportunity to hear me preach at least once. I showed the pages of instructions to Mr. Weston. His reaction was the same as mine. Each of us wrote a letter to Boston, saying we believed it unfair for all concerned and counter productive for me not to preach while in Wichita, and unwise for a minister to go to any church without a vote of the congregation, expressing their confidence they can work with him. When Gibbs, director of the Southwest Conference, came to see me, Weston and I gave him an ear full of our reaction to the letter of instructions. He seemed inclined to agree with us. Boston never did alter its written instruction to the church or to me, but in unwritten ways they let me know I was at liberty to do what I judged to be most helpful when I got to Wichita.
What I thought was necessary was enclosed in the agenda for the week that Dean recommended to the trustees at the dinner meeting. In my little speech at that meeting, without reference to the letter of instruction from Boston, I expressed agreement with the agenda they had adopted. I made it clear I could not accept the job as minister-at-large of their church without an invitation to do so by a vote of the congregation; that I could not build a church without their help and would need to know before coming that the members of the church believed they could work with me.
I had been informed about what Z and Mary Wetmore had done and why. Also, Dean told me Z had been deliberately invited to the dinner meeting of the trustees, with the hope that what was said and done would help diminish his fear of and anger at Boston. I had met Z at a meeting of the Western Conference in Cincinnati two years before. I recognized him by his goatee. That made it easy for me to engage him in a conversation at the trustees meeting. No reference was made by either of us to the instructions from Boston and his reaction to it. He was at every public meeting of the church during the week, including the Sunday morning church service when I gave the sermon. Not once did he or I mention the instructions from Boston during our conversations. Mary, his wife, did not show for any of the meetings during the week.
I felt then and still do that the letters of instruction from Boston were written in anger and never would have been mailed had the director of the minister-at-large program consulted another person at headquarters. The instructions did not, for sure, reflect the commitment of Unitarians to the democratic process and the undisputed right of each church to accept or reject any decision the American Unitarian Association may make on its behalf.
The week passed after many meetings and a lot of talking. After the church service on Sunday I returned to Louisville. The following week I received a telegram informing me the church in Wichita had voted to invite me to become their minister-at-large. I in turn notified Boston I would accept the job, as of September 1, 1953.
THE TRIP TO WICHITA
It was in May I made the trip to Kansas that resulted in me becoming the minister of the Unitarian Church of Wichita, the largest city of the Sunflower state. We had less than three months to make ready and to make that trip. Our jobs with the Louisville church did not end until July 31st. In the meantime we had to sell our house, ship our household belongings to Wichita, buy a new car and find a home for a horse size dog, who was too large to take with us in a car. Selling the house turned out to be the easiest of the jobs. A couple in the church and their children bought the house. When the Westons left in June on their summer vacation and the new owners were ready to move in, we shipped our things to Wichita and stayed in the parsonage until we could leave.
It took longer to buy a new car. Our fourteen year old 1939 Ford was still serving us well. It had become a part of many memories of the family and we were a little reluctant to let it go. We entertained the thought of having a rebuilt motor put in it and all essential moving parts replaced, for about $500.00, and keep it another fourteen years. The new postwar models proved to be too big a temptation for us to resist. After looking at all of them we borrowed $1,800.00 on an insurance policy and bought a four door Plymouth.
The hardest job turned out to be that of finding a new home for the dog, Tippy. He was a very friendly one year old, that we had raised from a pup. He was half Collie and half German Shepherd. The way he showed his affection, however, could be very dangerous, if you did not see his friendly approach in time to duck. After his greeting from a blind side you could find yourself flat on your face feeling like a mule had run over you. It was during our last week in Louisville that we found a home for him on the edge of the city, with a family that had a two or three acre lot. For fear the gift might be returned before we could get out of town we did not take him to his new home until the day before we were to leave.
This would be our first and only moving trip that we did not take along at least one pet. Micky, the half grown pup I had when we got married, was a fox terrier. She was our first pet. She was about eighteen inches high and went with us from place to place during the war years. The last move she made with us was to New Albany, Indiana. There on "Snob Hill" she was killed by a car, at the ripe old age of fourteen years. At the time of the accident Elien was the only one at home. She had to serve as the undertaker, grave digger and the conductor of the funeral service for a very smart and lovely dog.
Less than a week after we arrived in Wichita Mary Beth came in with a dove colored kitten hardly bigger than her fist. She was so near starvation that she was too weak to make a sound when she tried to mew. Of course she had to be fed and nursed back to health. Princess ended up staying with us until she died of old age after both girls had gown up and left home. She had one litter of five kittens. We have a picture of her five babies in a chamber pot on the back porch. We gave all of them away except one. He was a long bodied black cat with four white boots and a white spot at the end of his tail. When we moved to our new house across town, he disappeared the second night. His mother, Princess, two dogs, Bosco and Nina went with us to Des Moines when we left Wichita. They died after the girls left home. It was then Elien and I decided that we would have no more pets. One of the main reasons for that decision was a law that was passed making it illegal to permit a dog to run loose at any time of the day.
In the city I think it is necessary to have and to enforce such a law. However, my observation convinces me there should be some civil right laws passed and enforced for dogs. One such law would not permit a family to keep a dog if the dog had to be kept tied up longer than two hours at a time and not more than four hours in any twenty four hour period, and only then in mild weather. One family I know kept a dog tied up with a ten foot chain. The dog trampled the grass to death in a circle the radius of the chain. When it rained the circle was a mud hole. There were two school age children in the family. I never saw either of them playing with the dog or taking him for a walk on a leash. In like manner another family nearby mistreats a small shaggy dog. I am sure the dog has never had a bath, or his hair combed. Why such people keep a dog is beyond my comprehension. They certainly should not be allowed to keep one.
Another civil right law needed for dogs would specify the treatment of dogs who are kept in a fenced in space. The space must not be less than half the size of an average city lot. There must be provided a warm, dry and clean doghouse, kept free of fleas. T he dog must be able to get under a shade any time of the day. Dog droppings must be moved from the area daily. One member of the family must spend some time with the dog each day, either in or outside the fence. During real cold weather the dog must be allowed to sleep in the house, if the doghouse is not heated. I could give examples of how cruel some families are to fenced in dogs. But they would hardly be different from those of your observations. So much for our pets, or some of them, and civil rights for dogs.
On the evening of July 31st we loaded up our new Plymouth. Early the next morning we left on a long and winding trip that would end in Wichita, Kansas. Our first stop was in Akron, Ohio for a two night visit with my brother, R.L. and his family. After another two day drive we arrived in Holland, Virginia for a long week-end visit with Elien's family. Spartanburg, South Carolina was our next stop for an overnight visit with old friends of the Saxon church. The next night we spent with the Buckners in Hokes Bluff, near Gadsden, Alabama. After a brief stop in Gadsden the next morning to speak to the Cox family, we headed for Birmingham for an overnight visit with my sister, Frances and her family. After stopping in Cullman County for a two day visit with the rest of my family we began our last two day drive to our journey's end, Wichita. As in May the wind was madly blowing still.
I have already given a description of the church in Wichita, but only the location of the parsonage. The parsonage was a solid brick building, old but in good shape. There was a large living room, a big dining room, a large kitchen and a spacious hallway, from which the wide open stairway took off for the four bedrooms and bath above. There was a half basement that could be entered from the outside as well as from within. Judging from what was in it, buried beneath many layers of dust, it must have been used since day one for a junk room. When we got around to cleaning it up we had to hire a truck to haul the junk away.
I had taken pictures of the buildings when I was there in May. I tried to describe them as honestly as I could. But words as well as pictures have ways of flattering buildings as well as people. I knew the church would look small and shabby compared with the stately Gothic church in Louisville. When Rose returned from a brief inspection of the church I saw that she was crying. If Elien and Mary Beth cried I did not see them. I am sure they felt like it. Their first impression of the place remains a sad memory.
One redeeming feature of the parsonage, there was plenty of room in it. Soon every one was busy trying to decide what goes where and picking out bedrooms. In the process of doing so each began to find little redeeming virtues about the place that helped to diminish the shock of their first impression. After a few days everything had found its place and Elien had the place clean and tidy enough for royalty.
We had hardly been in Wichita a week when the leaders of the church insisted that I attend a week-long retreat, sponsored by the Southwest Unitarian Conference. The retreat was near Ardmore, Oklahoma, not far from the border of Texas. Ed Rosenberg, church treasure, Frannie Rosenberg, Blaine Tweksberry, Sunday school director, and I made the day long trip to the retreat.
During the day there were workshops for the different groups and major church committees. Just before noon there was a lecture by the theme speaker for the week. Long ago I forgot what the theme of the week was about. There was an open-air sunset service. The speaker for the sunset service was usually a guest speaker from outside the conference. These services were expected to be of an inspirational nature, in that the speaker had been asked in advance to share the things of his life and thought that had inspired him. After dinner there was a general meeting with a different kind of program each evening. Following this meeting there was a candle light service. Each person was given a lighted candle as we left the building. Two by two we marched silently into the woods a short way. There we performed a short ritual, designed to end the day in a solemn and serious way.
After the candle light ritual I went to my room to read for an hour or so. I was rooming with a young guest minister. He was there as the resource person for the young peoples' group. He never disturbed me since it was always midnight before he came in. Thursday evening, after the candle light service, some of the guys insisted I go with them a short way to a place for a social hour. When we arrived I found ninety percent of the adults attending the retreat, in and out of the place of recreation. Most of them were sitting around tables inside the building, drinking something while everyone talked at the same time. In front of the building there was a cement slab where a music box was going at full volume. A few couples were practicing their dancing skills. On the way back to the camp we stopped at an eating joint that seemed, by star light, to be in a corn field. There I saw my largest herd, flock, covey or swarm of crickets. They were everywhere. It was hard to move without stepping on one. There was no way to get in the eating place without letting a number in with you. There were many more crickets in the place than people. You had to hold your burger in one hand and use the other to keep the crickets off the table and yourself. It appeared to be a good cricket farm.
One evening the after dinner meeting was used to introduce the new ministers coming into the conference and to pick their brains. I was one of four such ministers. What are you going to do to build up your church? That was one of the questions we were asked to answer. After each of us had responded, an important layman in the conference said he was disturbed in that not one of us had said he was going to use social action as one way to build up his church.
Something inside me rebelled at that suggestion. It struck me as being somehow unethical, irreligious, to engage in social action for any reason except to try to help solve a social problem. My most active years in direct social action were during the Spartanburg years. I can honestly say I do not remember the idea ever crossing my mind that if I engage in this or that social action it will help my church. The only motive that I was ever conscious of at least, was that of trying to be of help in the solution of a social problem. If I made any comment on the man's observation I do not remember what it was. His idea was new to me. I had to have time to think about it before I could explain to myself my negative gut feeling to his suggestion. I still feel, as I did then, that it is unethical to engage in or encourage others to engage in social action for the sake of the church or for anything else except to help resolve a social problem.
For the two or three people who may read this, who do not know the ways of Unitarians, I should explain that most Unitarians have church services only nine months in any given calendar year. There are few exceptions. In Wichita, if memory has the record straight, we began church on the Sunday after Labor Day and closed on the second Sunday in June. There are a few, very few, that have regular church services every Sunday of the year. I have explained this nine month church year among Unitarians, to some of my old Baptist friends, by saying Unitarians put their religion in deep freeze during the summer to prevent it from spoiling. Judging from my own experience, the largest congregation of the year was, most of the years, the first Sunday of church in the fall. I encouraged those who were inclined to go to church during summer to go to some of the other churches in the city as an educational experience. I do not remember that suggestion ever costing our church a member. I remember we gained one member by the visit to another church by a person who had been attending our church. I noticed a young woman had been attending our church for some months. As she left the church one Sunday I asked her if she would like to sign our membership book.
"No", she answered, "I'm a Lutheran".
A few weeks later she stopped by the study to tell me she was ready to sign the membership book.
"How did you get 'saved?'" I asked.
She said, "A few weeks ago I went home and went to church with my parents. That was the first time in my life I really listened to what a Lutheran minister said".
On the Sunday of the first service Fred and Ann Venditti signed the guest book. They had two boys. Phillip, a two year old; and Curt, a baby of six months. Fred was a counselor in the Wichita school system. After church the next Sunday Fred and Ann informed me they wanted to join the church. I do not remember my response to their intention. To this day they contend that I asked them if they knew what they were joining; if they knew the kind of church the Unitarian church is. I'm sure, at the time, they could have given only a foggy answer to that question. As they tell it they answered by saying that they had attended two services and liked what they heard. Of course that was enough to satisfy me. There on the spot they signed the membership book. I do remember being surprised. I never expected any new members so quickly.
Early in the week the Vendittis invited me and Elien to their home, the coming Friday evening, for a conversation party, along with the Sunday school director and wife, a couple who had signed the guest book the previous Sunday, and I believe a bachelor friend of Fred's, Mel Schroder, who was a teacher in the Wichita school system. From eight thirty until eleven we nibbled on pretzels and sipped on a glass of beer while we talked. The major subject was religion, our own personal religion. By the end of the evening each of us had told his or her religious history, as well as shared her or his religious beliefs, doubts and questions that still remained unanswered. The next Sunday Mel signed the membership book. Mel and his family still live in Wichita and he remains in the school business. More than twenty years ago the Vendittis moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, when Fred became a professor at the University of Tennessee. We still keep in touch with those three Unitarian "saints".
For the next two years or more we were, nearly every week, participants in such small conversation parties, no more than eight persons most of the time - the host couple, Elien and I and four other persons who had recently signed the guest book. It worked like magic in getting new people acquainted with each other and with four members of the church on a personal level. Equally as important, acquainted us on a level of shared religious notions, beliefs and questions. Also it got new people quickly involved in the activities of the church. It became our most effective way to increase the membership of the church, not because it was so designed, but because it happened to meet the personal needs of many of the people who visited our church. We are indebted to Fred and Ann for this very informal week-end "Prayer" meeting, where people could naturally and easily share their religious thoughts and feelings.
Our immediate success in attracting and holding new people helped me to decide early the policy I would follow. In round numbers we found forty active members of the church, as of September 1, 1953. Due to what they had been through I assumed I need not worry about them forsaking the church; that regardless of what I did or did not do they would be there long after I had come and gone or until they died. Bless them!
I found as many who had left the church, due to the problems created by the last minister. I decided I would not worry too much over spilt milk, nor waste too much time trying to get it back in the bottle. By phone, letter or in person, I did contact each of them to let them know I was in town to try to help rebuild the church, that I needed the help of all the Unitarians in the city. I invited them to come and see and hear for themselves what we were trying to do, expressing the hope they would find it helpful to them and worthy of their support. A few drifted back. Most of them had gotten involved in other churches or had dropped out of church life altogether.
I resolved to spend the lion's share of my time and energy in three ways. First, I would work hard to have something worth listening to each Sunday morning for those who came to church. Second, I would do what I could to find the space and teachers to offer a Sunday school program from a Unitarian point of view. Third, I decided if we were to find enough members to build a self-supporting church, we would have to find and attract new people. I gave to that effort as much time as I could spare. I ran an ad-editorial in the Monday morning paper, that seemed to work so well in Louisville. Such ad-editorials served us well for about three years. I was as generous with my time as possible in getting people who signed the guest book involved in one or more of our small conversation parties. They continued to work like magic for two or more years. But as the church grew, the size of the conversation parties grew. They became over crowded by members of the church who enjoyed being together. In the larger parties the new people invited did not feel at ease among so many strangers. A new comer would be lucky to get acquainted with one person on a religious level of any significance. These larger parties did introduce the new people to a group of church members who enjoyed spending an evening with one another as friends. A place where friends gather is always attractive to people who have moved to a new city and are looking for new friends.
Within four years the membership more than tripled. Boston by then was paying only an insignificant amount of my salary. Such an increase is more impressive when judged by the community situation, beyond our control - a situation that made it necessary to get twice as many new members as you could expect to keep, but more about that later.
However, there were two things about the community situation that were going our way, making it possible for us to attract as many people as we did. One of them was the fact that there were plenty of jobs in Wichita, especially during the mid-fifties. The other was the kind of people moving to the city to take those jobs. A large percent of the new comers were ex-GIs and their young families. Some of them had just finished their education, thanks to the GI Bill. Now they were coming to the city to begin their first meaningful post war job. Other GIs, after finishing their education had taken jobs either in their home towns or in some other small community for a year or so. They were now coming to the city to take better jobs.
Many of the ex-GIs had done a little thinking during their war and college years. They had discovered that the religion of their childhood was just no longer believable. They were church shopping looking for a church group with a religious view of life that seemed more believable to them and to which they wanted to expose their children. Many such new comers, who included the Unitarian church on their shopping list, came and decided to stay for one or more reasons.
There were things going on within the church that made it more attractive to those who got involved. In September the large room above the dining hall of the church was cleaned out and tidied up for Sunday school space. The fathers built a wooden fire escape up to one of the windows of the room. By the spring of 1954 we needed more Sunday school space. It reminded me of the prolific woman who lived in a shoe. The church school members grew faster than the members of the church. It was suggested that we partition the basement of the parsonage for two or three class rooms. Money was raised for the materials and the fathers met in the evenings and installed the partitions.
By the time of the annual business meeting in the spring of 1955 it was admitted that our Sunday school space was a patch work of inadequate and unsuitable space. At that meeting the church voted to give the Isom's a house allowance and let them buy a house, so the parsonage could be used as a Sunday school building. At that meeting the church also voted to appoint a search committee to find a new location for the church. This decision of the church proved to produce long range results.
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