Friday, December 30, 2011

Three Lights Went out in December

About 12 years ago.  I was Church Moderator.  We had just done a modest capital drive to remodel and refurnish the Church School space in the basement.  We dedicated the main room to Helen Wright, Mae Vieregg's  best friend and a church institution in her own right who died in her late '90's.  Mae shared her memories.

It has been an emotional month for the members of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Woodstock.  Not only did we deal with, in the middle of an otherwise joyous Holiday Season, with a series of “lasts” as we counted down to leaving our church home of 106 years, but three of those dearest to us died.  None of the deaths were totally unexpected—the folks were known to be ill or in one case extremely elderly—but the each left holes in our hearts.

The first to go was Joan Coleman.  She had bravely and remarkably cheerfully been dealing with liver cancer—almost always a death sentence—for more than two years.  A small round woman with an infectious smile she was always at the side of her tall, lean, shambling husband Bob with his shock of white hair.  They truly cared for each other, nurturing each other through different health problems. 

A childless couple, they found room in their home for the dogs they loved and the occasional human stray.  Years ago they took in a local high school boy thrown out of his home when he announced that he was Gay.  They became his surrogate parents and eventually sent him off into the world much loved.  Naturally, they formed the McHenry County chapter of PFLAG which met in the church.  Later one of our members in late middle age, a single woman, lost her condo when the factory she worked in closed.  Sandra could only find part time work a Target.  Facing homelessness, Joan and Bob took her in, too.

The two of them worked closely with me and the Rev. Dan Larsen on various social justice projects.  Joan frequently spoke in church, often sharing a reading.  She died a couple of weeks ago in Hospice care and surrounded by love.  A memorial service will be held Saturday, January 14 at the new church building in McHenry.

Joe Blanco was never a member of the congregation.  But he was a very close friend of the church.  After suffering a nearly fatal heart attack and receiving a heart transplant in his early 50’s, Joe retired from a very successful business career to spend the rest of his life in service to others.  

I first met him when he was Chair of the McHenry Country Human Relations Commission.  Rev. Larsen and I, as part of what became the Interfaith Council for Social Justice, had worked hard to get local governments to set up such bodies.  We hoped that they would actually function to improve relations between racial, ethnic, and religious communities and address issues like discrimination in housing.  It turned out we were wrong.  Neither the County nor the municipalities were willing to give the fledgling commissions any authority and wanted to use them only for window dressing.  Despite the massive indifference of the County government, Joe tried to make the Commission work.

He started attending service at church and singing in the choir.  Dan recognized his enormous organizational skills and recruited him to become site manager for the PADS homeless shelter that used our building every Wednesday nights.  For seven years he managed and motivated the small army of volunteers need to staff and feed upwards of 50 guests a week. 
He also became unofficial business manager of the Frothy Boys, the men’s a cappela group carved out of the choir and led by Tom Steffens.  He arranged for local appearances that raised money for a number of causes along with visits to nursing homes and the like.  In fact, the day before Joe died he was singing with the Frothy Boys at just such a nursing home.  The news of his death on Christmas Eve was front page news in the Northwest Herald with a photo of Joe greeting a resident.

Joe worked with Harold Rail, Werner Ellmann, and Dan Larsen to found Principled Minds, an organization which puts on anti-bullying campaigns in schools and coordinates or participates in other social justice causes.  He returned to work part time as an instructor at McHenry County College disadvantaged, disabled, and challenged students.  And he did it all with enthusiasm and skill.  Joe wanted a more traditional Christian worship than we could offer and he joined a local Episcopal Church, but he never gave up giving time to UUCW causes and activities.

Joe knew he was having heart problems again and had been hospitalized a couple of times recently.  He was only 63 when he died suddenly and was buried by his family a couple of days ago in his downstate home town Peru.  There will be a local memorial later.

But maybe the loss I felt deepest was Mae Vieregg.  Mae was both the oldest member of the congregation and the longest term member.  She was 98.  She joined the church in 1948 as a young mother.  Thursday night at our farewell service we looked at a picture of the Ladies Evening League taken in 1953—more than a dozen matrons lined up behind a generous table.  Mae, the junior member, was all the way to the right of the line, her dark hair contrasting with the mostly white and grey.  She was tiny then.  She got tinier.

Mae and her husband Bob operated Vieregg’s Family Restaurant just a block down Dean Street from the church on the Square.  They raised a family—four boys, I think—in a large Victorian house a few blocks away.  Bob rang the church bell every Sunday.  That’s a job that fell to me years later.  I think it helped Mae take a shine to me even though she did not always approve of my more radical ideas.  Mae volunteered at everything.  The kids grew up in the church, got married, and as children do, moved away.

When Bob died about 30 years ago, Mae sold the restaurant to the folks who operate it now as Angelo’s.  She gave the almost new commercial range to the congregation around which built a nice kitchen in the basement making the many church suppers and the funeral dinners fed by the ladies of the Friendly Aid usually led by Mae.  She live alone in her big house, walked to Church every Sunday or drove in her big Buick and was often at meetings two or three nights a week.  Her life centered on the congregation and its people.

Folks remember Mae for being “Feisty” and blunt spoken.  A lot attributed it to age.  Not so.  Mae would no more suffer a fool at 30 than she did at 90.  She was always ready to stand up in church and speak her piece. 
When Dan Larsen first came on as minister, Mae was on the Church Council.  It took her a while to warm up to the new minister.  And Dan was, frankly a little frightened of her.  Eventually he won her over, though.  He visited her in her nursing home three days before she died.

Mae was best known as the defender of the Congregationalist heritage of the church.  Most folks thought she was an unreconstructed Congregationalist herself.  But when I was working on my history of the congregation, she told me, “I’m a Christian, but I was always more of a Universalist myself.  It’s just that the Unitarians came in and swept everyone else aside.  It was the Congregationalists church and the Unitarians stole it.”  

Despite this, with less than five members of the church still identifying with the United Church of Christ when the congregation held its vote to sever its ties to the UCC, she cast her vote in the unanimous decision.  “It was time, and they gave us respect.”  As she hoped the congregation kept it name as Congregational Unitarian Church, “But they will probably wait until I die to change it.”  Actually, we did not wait quite that long, although it took almost a dozen years to become the UUCW.

I think Mae and I grew fond of each other because she was born the same year as both of my late parents—1913—and I was the same age as her youngest son.  She even grew to like my poetry, forgive me for being a Democrat—she was a life-long Republican of the vanished progressive stamp.  Just before the 2008 election she pulled me aside after church and said, “You were right about that war.  I’m voting for Obama.

Mae was pretty much unstoppable until she tripped and fell leaving church one Sunday.  She banged her head pretty good and was bleeding.  The paramedics arrived she told them in no uncertain terms, “I tripped on the city sidewalk, not on the Church steps.”  But she was back in the pews within a few weeks.  Two years ago, however, she broke her pelvis and had to leave her big old home to move into an assisted living apartment after she got out of the nursing home.  She came back to Church to worship when she could walk well again, there was no snow or ice, and when she could get a ride.

She spoke up at the summer Congregational Meeting that accepted the donation of the new building.  Surprisingly, she did not oppose the move, especially if it would help attract new young families.  But her heart would always be in the old building.  Mae attended her last service here in November.  She slipped away the day after Christmas.  I am convinced she chose to go before the congregation left the building.

A memorial service will be held in February.

The Summer of ’68 Chicago Style—The Whole World Was Watching

Surprisingly few street level photos of the Battle of Michigan Ave. are available--photographers on the scene were themselves attacked and their cameras smashed.  Most memorable images come from film by TV crews shooting down from upper floors of the Conrad Hilton Hotel.

Note:  My continuing saga of those thrilling days of yesteryear.  This one more thrilling than most.  Originally posted in a slightly different form on The Third City blog.

I was accidentally near the head of two or three hundred folks trying to find their way out of Grant Park late Wednesday afternoon of Convention Week when we finally found an open bridge over the rail tracks at Monroe Street.  To our astonishment the Poor People’s Campaign Mule Train was coming down Michigan Avenue heading south.

If things had worked out differently in Memphis that April, Dr. King himself might have been in the lead wagon.  The Poor People’s Campaign was his dream to unite the poor of all races into a new movement for economic justice.  But he was dead and Ralph Abernathy was left to carry on.  He was on the seat of the lead wagon dressed in overalls.  The mule train was meant to recall the promise of 20 acres and a mule free and clear to Freedmen after the Civil War.  Their presence in Chicago was really just to publicize a planned encampment in Washington to pressure Congress for a whole new economic deal for the poor. 

Most importantly, the Poor People’s Campaign had secured what almost no one else had—a permit to drive their wagons right up to the doorstep of the Democratic Convention at the International Amphitheater.
We surged over the bridge and joined the procession.  Others were already with them.  More joined as we inched South filtering in from the Park or coming from elsewhere in the city. 

To tell the truth Abernathy and his people did not look exactly thrilled to find their wagons suddenly engulfed by disheveled youth, many of us still reeking of tear gas or nursing wounds.  They had good reason to believe that their permit would not be honored if we were with them.  And these folks who had themselves endured so much police violence in the South, worried that we would draw the same response down upon them again.

It is only a few blocks south from Monroe to Balbo.  But at the methodical, plodding pace of the mule drawn wagons and as we clogged the street with swelling numbers, it took an hour to reach it as the Chicago Police scrambled to get a large force in front of us and redeploy the forces from Grant Park and other sites in the city.

When we finally reached Balbo, the cops had enough massed force to block the march further south.  The marchers pushed up tightly, filling Michigan Ave and spilling into the edge of Grant Park.  It looked, as best as I could tell in the press and confusion, that the crowd stretched back a block or more, but was probably no more than a couple of thousand folks.  It was a standoff.

As the crowd went into a chant after chant, Abernathy and his people negotiated with the police.  Eventually, they were allowed to pass, but the cordon of cops quickly closed and blocked the rest of us.  

I was getting uncomfortable in the crowd. I noticed that the side walk was clear right around the corner on Balbo across from the Conrad Hilton.  I stepped over there to get my bearings.  

The light was fading to dusk when I heard my friend Amy’s voice.  She had found me again after we had been separated at the Band Shell earlier.  At six foot two and wearing the only cowboy hat around, it was a lot easier for her to find me.  I would never have picked all five foot nothing of her out the crowd. 

We tried to decide what to do.  Amy wanted to try and find other staffers from the Movement Center.  She thought that they were well back on Michigan.  Since there was no way to push through the crowd on Michigan, we decided to head north on Wabash then cut back to the Avenue.

There were some cops forming on Wabash, so we went on to State.  It was amazing.  Life seemed to be going on as normal.  The sidewalks bustled with ordinary folk going about their evening as if nothing at all extraordinary was occurring two blocks over.  We cut back to Michigan and sure enough found ourselves to the rear of the crowd.  But a glance made it clear that it would be unlikely that we would connect with the others.  Now Amy wanted to go back where we started because she was sure things were going to get interesting.

She spotted a cab coming down Michigan.  She grabbed my hand and said “come on!”  We hopped in the cab.  Amy asked to go to State and Balbo.  The driver looked disgusted, whether at the short fare or our appearance.  But just as he was getting ready to pull away from the curb, the door of the cab flew open and two guys tumbled in, both looking the worse for wear.

One of them was Tom Hayden.  He was babbling a non-stop monologue that didn’t seem to make much sense.  “He thinks he’s Thomas Jefferson,” the other guy explained.  I’m not sure if he had gotten bopped in the head at the Band Shell like Rennie Davis or if maybe Abbie Hoffman had shared some dope with him.  Anyway, the second guy said, “We gotta get him to safety.”  He mentioned the name of a Loop hotel.
After delivering Hayden and his pal to safety, we took the cab back to Balbo.  Amy must have paid, because by this time in the week I was down to pocket change.

It was full dark by the time we got back to where we started, on the Balbo sidewalk directly across from the entrance to the Hilton’s Haymarket restaurant.  Bright TV lights shined down from the upper floors of the Hilton, the official convention headquarters hotel were the media and many delegates were encamped.  We could barely make out a line of blue helmets across Michigan.  Protestors surged against them from time to time.

Suddenly, a large phalanx of cops appeared from Wabash and massed on Balbo.  They had their batons out and looked like they meant business.  They marched in military formation right down the street sweeping passed us on the sidewalk and plowed into the mass of demonstrators, clubs flaying.  The cops along Michigan joined the fray.  I am told that another unit hit the crowd on Michigan from the rear.

If you were alive and sentient in the ‘60’s you probably remember the scene, which was broadcast live on network television shooting the action from Hilton windows.  The police violence that had largely been hidden from public view all week was there for the nation to see in all of its savagery.

It was like we were invisible on our side of the street, still in the shadows not illuminated by those lights.

Folks right across from us in front of the Haymarket were not so lucky.  Several of them looked to delegates, staffers, and other associated with the convention, not protestors.  But a handful of cops waded into them with gusto.  They pushed a couple through the plate glass window of the restaurant. 

Batons were still flaying as demonstrators began waving and pointing at the TV lights chanting over and over “The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching!”

Some of the wounded began to straggle up our side of the street hugging the building for safety.  We guided a couple of them back up the street toward Wabash where I set up a kind of rough aid station using the first aid kit on my utility belt and more of my dad’s handkerchiefs.  Amy ferried more to me as I dabbed blood and washed tear gas from eyes until my canteen was dry.  I was soon out of what meager supplies I had.

Amy and I and our patients were still in danger.  Squads of cops were now breaking off chasing demonstrators.  We told our charges to scatter as they were able.  We helped a couple get to State Street.  We clamored down the stairs to the subway and headed north.

We evidently we just ahead of adrenalin pumping squads of cops who swept up Wabash and State beating any one they could find, including folks emerging from theaters.

We got off at Diversy and stumbled into the church Movement Center exhausted. Amazingly it was not yet 11 o’clock.  We huddled around the radio trying to find out what was happening.

The Battle of Michigan Avenue waned, but cops kept sweeping for stragglers all night.  In the morning they even charged into the hotel where they raided McCarthy headquarters, which had taken in several wounded demonstrators.  They beat everyone in the room.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

This Old Church—Saying Goodbye

The First Congregational Chuch of  Woodstock circa 1930.

Tonight some of us will gather for the last time at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Woodstock building to say goodbye.  It will be a virtual shell—most everything will have been boxed, packed up, and hauled to our new church home in McHenry, if everything goes according to plan.  The pews will still be there, and the pulpit.  We will have an informal service and leave taking.  Folks will share memories.  I plan to sing a song This Old Church, based on the 1950’s hit This Old House that I wrote for a worship service production celebrating the centennial of the building in 2006.  Folks will have to bring refreshments and treats from home to share—the coffee urns, founts of UU communion wine, will be gone with everything else.


Folks have been worshiping at Dean and South Streets since 1865 when a bunch of returning Civil War veterans and local teetotalers formed the First Congregational Church of Woodstock.  By the following year they had raised a tidy sum and put up a fine new white clapboard church building with an impressive spire in the New England Meeting House style.  It was the largest church in town and could seat 400, although Sunday services never drew nearly that many.

The church was typical in its Puritan, Spartan simplicity.  Originally it had no stove, let alone indoor plumbing.  Members sat through three hour worship services sitting bolt upright on hard pews in layers of heavy winter clothing.  Eventually a couple of heating stoves were added, but were hardly up to the worst of Illinois winters.  Gradually other amenities were added, including even gas lights.

Shortly after the turn of the 20th Century a new minister, Rev. C.H. Bene concluded it was past time for a modern building befitting the congregation’s status as the religious home of many of Woodstock’s most influential citizens.  A building campaign was launched and due to the generosity of the congregation and some of those leading families including the Hoys, Wheats, McConnells, and Wrights the money was raised.

In 1906 the old building was torn down and the new building featuring a squat square Norman bell tower and magnificent gothic arched stained glass windows was erected. Built on an unusual plan, the sanctuary was separated from a large open meeting room by sliding pocket doors. With the doors thrown open the floor of the open room became a stage for Sunday school pageants or amateur theatricals. Around the perimeter of the large room, smaller rooms could be created with folding doors for office space or Sunday school classes.

The new building also symbolized a break with the stricter tenets of traditional Calvinism. Not only was the New England meeting house style abandoned, so was Puritan austerity. The colorful stained glass windows in the German style featuring not only Jesus, but an almost Catholic depiction of Mary, would have been considered idolatrous to earlier generations.

Within two years more money was raised to purchase a magnificent pipe organ which brought a new sophistication to Sunday worship music and encouraged the formation of a choir.  More traditional Congregational practice was to have communal singing by the congregation only, perhaps accompanied by a lap organ.  Generations of young boys would get their Sunday morning exercise hand pumping the bellows for that organ before an electric motor took over the job after World War II.

With rooms for proper Sunday School, young families joined the congregation. The congregation grew a reputation as a bastion of liberal Christianity and an outpost of social gospel preaching under the Rev. William Kilburne from 1909 to 1917.

There were good times and bad.  The Church saw memorials for its young men lost in World War I.

The years after the Great War were difficult. Church attendance dropped dramatically across the nation in the wake of the disillusion caused by the war's carnage, scientific advances that seemed to negate revealed religion, and the wide open hedonism of the Roaring Twenties. The First Congregational Church was not immune. Thus it was in an already weakened state when the Great Depression hit throwing many members out of work. It became a desperate struggle just to pay the minister and keep enough coal on hand to keep the church from freezing on Sunday morning.

The ladies of the Friendly Aid came to the rescue with at least enough money for Sunday morning coal when they pledged an extra 5¢ per week each from their “pin money.”

The Rev. William D. Pratt, who assumed the pulpit in 1932, was a pragmatist who recognized that the Church needed to find new partners to survive. Other local churches were in no better financial condition. Negotiations were undertaken with the Presbyterians and Baptists to create a single Federated Community Church. Votes for this scheme carried the Congregational and Presbyterian churches but failed with the Baptists and the efforts collapsed.

Then, in 1937 former members of the defunct local Universalist Church who now worshiped at First Congregational remembered a $5000 bequest set aside for the establishment of a new Universalist congregation in McHenry County. It was decided to seek joint fellowship with the Universalists. The church obtained dual fellowship on May 1, 1938 with the Universalist Church in America.

The name of the church was changed to the Congregational Universalist Church of Woodstock and the church was rescued from financial disaster.

To cement relations with the Universalists, the congregation agreed to call a Universalist minister. Rev. Merton L. Aldridge held the pulpit longer than any other preacher before him, serving from December 1938 until his death in January 1949. As minister during the war years he watched attendance climb with the uncertainty of the age.

War came early and hard to the Congregation. Thomas Lounsbury, the twenty-year-old son of leading members Robert and Florence Lounsbury was killed on the battleship USS Arizona on December 7, 1941. He was the first McHenry County casualty of the war. The American Flag still carried to the Civil War Monument in the Woodstock Square for Memorial Day services every year was donated to the church in Lounsbury’s memory.

The post-war years were good ones for the church. Membership grew as families joined the congregation and finances, although never totally secure, ceased to be an ongoing crisis amid the affluence of the post-war boom.

Only three ministers served the congregation in the 14 years after Rev. Aldrige’s death—Rev. Leslie J. Tuck, 1949-1954; Rev. Robert C. Anderson, 1954-1957; and Rev. Weston A. Stevens, 1957-1963.

Services in those years were generally familiarly Christian in form, but the tone expressed the warm-hearted generosity of spirit associated with Universalism. The increasing interest in world religions among Universalists of the time also found its way into worship services.

Improved roads and the 1950's love affair with the automobile had its affect on the congregation. The church reached out beyond Woodstock for membership and gradually became more of a regional and less of a “town"” church. Members began to drive in from McHenry, Crystal Lake 
and Harvard drawn by the unique message of liberal religion. Because Congregational churches were available in other towns, most of these new members were attracted by the Universalist identity of the church. Thus the long, slow process was under way by which the numbers identifying themselves as Universalists, and latter Unitarian Universalists, gradually surpassed those of the founding Congregationalists.

                                                                                                                                                                                                 After 1957 the Congregational Church in America combined with other Protestant denominations including Reform churches of German origin and some Brethren churches, to form a new denomination, the
United Church of Christ, the Congregation’s connections to its original denomination began to slowly fray.

When the Universalist Church in America merged with the larger and more organizationally sound American Unitarian Association in 1961 to form the Unitarian Universalist Association it spelled major changes for the local church. Universalism was a waning movement which retained a distinct Christian feel while the AUA was robust and growing and was then dominated by Humanist thought. But together, they made a major voice for liberal religion.

The Ministry of the Rev. Weston Stevens from 1957 to 1963 symbolically bridged these years. Although ordained a Universalist, like many young ministers of his generation he shared much of the Unitarian outlook. Under his leadership, worship broadened to include more material from world religion sources and Humanism in addition to traditional Biblical and Christian sources. He also took a high visibility, activist role in the community sitting on the boards of numerous local charities and leading the Woodstock Ministerial Association. Stevens’ dynamic leadership brought the church to its highest membership in decades.

After Stevens, came a succession of brief ministries. The first of these, Rev. John A. Dunn, a former Catholic had a brief but memorable one-year pastorate in 1964 and '65. After the murder of UU minister the Rev. James Reeb during a voting rights campaign in Selma, Alabama, Rev. Dunn was one of more than 200 UU ministers to answer the call to march in protest with Dr. Martin Luther King. Over half of the denominations active ministry also responded to that call, which became the legendary high point of the new denomination's early years.

In October of 1965 the Congregation celebrated its 100th anniversary without a settled minister. Membership had dwindled to fewer than 100, but that included many adult children of older members who had moved away or no longer attended church. Despite the celebration, the church was in serious trouble.

Membership continued to decline under two more lackluster ministers until by September 1974 only a handful of the faithful, mostly elderly, regularly attended services. The church's expenses were often only met out of the pockets of church officers, particularly members of the Mather family.

Despite some misgivings, the church's lay leadership took a bold step with the hope of attracting a new generation. They went out and hired a woman. The Rev. Barbara Wuensch—after her marriage Barbara Merritt—was a pioneer in the Unitarian Universalist clergy. She was among the first of a new crop of women to enter seminary and was among the first to get a permanent settlement as a parish minister. This congregation ordained her in 1975.

The new minister was young, energetic, enthusiastic and the perfect spark for a revival of the Congregation. Under her leadership the Congregational Universalist church was soon once again a lively place where young families joined the old established members. Particular attention was paid to reviving the religious education program, which was soon filled with children and care was lavished on music. An articulate and gifted preacher, Rev. Merritt's sermons were noted for their exceptional intellectual depth and their literary quality. She often used poets such as T.S. Eliot and E.E. Cummings as the text for her talks.

Rev. Merritt was very active in the community and gained considerable local notoriety for her patient advocacy for improved health services to the elderly as the leader of the county's Taskforce on Aging.  Several congregational traditions began under Rev. Merritt's leadership. The Barn Service, held for many years at Helen Wright’s barn, became an annual culminating celebration to the church year. The Tree of Life was adopted as a congregational symbol. Chalice Lighting was introduced as an opening for religious services. She also reformed church stewardship introducing an orderly budget system and an annual pledge drive. Within a few years the church had for the first time in years achieved some financial stability.

In the early eighties the church's lively music program and members interested in theater came together to launch Paradise People, an annual musical review. It evolved into a separate community project which finally split from the church, but church members including music director choir director Kathy Bruhnke and master of ceremonies Larry Dille revived the concept in 1999, as Dille's Follies, which ran annually for several years.

After Rev. Merritt left in December of 1982, the congregation, in another daring move, tapped a young husband and wife ministerial team, the Rev. Stephen Washburn and the Rev. Dianne Arakawa who began their ministry in August of 1983.

In 1984, the church also changed its name to the Congregational Unitarian Church. It was felt that few people understood what Universalism meant, but that many more were aware of Unitarianism. It was hoped the new name would help attract new members who were specifically searching for a UU Church. In that it was successful. From that point on almost all new members who joined the church expressing a denominational preference identified themselves as Unitarian Universalists.

A strong commitment to social justice was a highlight of these years.  The church was deeply involved in community projects such as local food pantries. The congregation's most notable project, however, was becoming a founding site for the rotating PADS homeless shelter.

The church was eager to offer its space as the Woodstock PADS sight. The City Council, however, feared that a homeless shelter would attract undesirables from out of the county who would loiter, panhandle and resort to petty crime. They declared that a homeless shelter required zoning and licensing as a hotel and threatened to close the site by police force if the church opened it. Rev. Washburn rallied the Congregation in his most memorable sermon and the Church Council unanimously agreed to open the shelter anyway and dare the local authorities to raid the church. They won the gamble, the city backed down and the PADS shelter, which still uses the Church every Wednesday night in October through April, opened successfully.

The congregation also reached out to the fledgling Jewish Congregation of McHenry County, which held services in the church building until they were able to purchase a building for the synagogue in Ridgefield. In the late 1990’s a new Reform Jewish congregation, Tikkun Olan, also also found a welcoming home. The tradition of open handed hospitality continued later as a Zen meditation group and the group that ultimately became the Blue Lotus Temple both found homes.

In 1990 the church was, however, again in bad shape. It was without a minister, demoralized by demoralized from internal strife, and in serious financial difficulty due to a significant loss in membership. The church sanctuary of the aging building was literally falling apart. There were gaping holes in the ceiling, damaged and cracked plaster and a dim lighting system. 

The Church Council determined that the congregation in its current financial condition could not afford the services of a full time minister. A search through UU channels was not successful. But the leadership found in McHenry County a former Presbyterian minister who had recently served the small  Methodist congregation in his hometown of Alden and was known in the county as an activist on human rights issues. The Rev. Dan Larsen was offered the part time pulpit of the church and he accepted beginning the longest and arguably the most successful ministry in the congregation’s history.

Rev. Larsen hit the ground running, challenging the congregation to get its house in order by initiating a major capital campaign to renovate the sanctuary. With the proceeds of that campaign and by mortgaging the parsonage, the sanctuary was completely remodeled.

The producers film Ground Hog Day, then being filmed in Woodstock asked to use the church for a wedding scene. They would pay for the paint, but demanded to select the colors. Not only did it save the church $5000, but it also rescued it from a brewing controversy over the color scheme.

Over the next few years there were continuing improvements to the building. 
From the beginning Rev. Larsen’s keen interest in social justice issues fueled the congregation's already strong commitment in the area. When the Gulf War broke out the Peace and Justice Committee led the county's only protest at a demonstration on Woodstock Square.  In the months after the 9/11 attacks the congregation reached out to local Muslims and defended diversity in the community.  It played a leading role in organizing local opposition to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

There was outreach to the Latino community which led to the formation of what eventually became the Interfaith Council for Social Justice.  Rev. Larsen and the congregation provided services to Latino families and help lead protests to growing anti-immigrant hysteria.  The congregation helped found the Peace and Justice Festival on Woodstock Square as an alternative event to a local rally by the Ku Klux Klan. The festival continued on as Diversity Day for twelve more years.

The list of social service and social justice initiatives of Rev. Larsen’s 19 year ministry are too long and too well remembered to be fully enumerated.

By 2000 the congregation was thriving again and the building was bursting with activity and community uses.  Rev. Larsen was able to come on full time.  In the May 2000, after members identifying with the old Congregationalist roots dwindled to less than a handful, the Congregation voted unanimously to end affiliation with the United Church of Christ and to become an unequivocally Unitarian Universalist.

Meanwhile the Congregation worked toward its accreditation as a Welcoming Congregation, open to gay, lesbian, and transgendered people.  It led the way in early AIDS education and advocacy, provided a home to PFLAG and McHenry County Pride, the first openly Gay organization in the county, and advocated for marriage equality.

In 2005-2006 the Congregation spent more than a year celebrating the centennial anniversary of the church building.  The highlights were burying a time capsule in the walls of the sanctuary and the instillation of seven new stained glass windows in the social room commemorating the spiritual influences on the congregation.  Designed and created by Pam Lopatin window representing earth centered spirituality, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, science and humanism, and Native American spirituality, surround a dazzling Tree of Life whose leaves are made up of the colored glass from each of the other windows.

On July 12, 2009 the Congregational Unitarian Church officially changed its name the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Woodstock.

Six months later, Rev. Larsen began his transition into retirement and the process to call a new minster began.  The Rev. James Hobart, the Rev. Karen McFarland, and now the Rev. Jennifer Slade, have helped lead the congregation through the process.

In the summer of this year, the former Haystacks Manor restaurant on Bull Valley Road in McHenry went to auction sale at a bargain price.  Don Metivier, fresh off a term as moderator, bought the building and ground and offered to the congregation.  It all happened very quickly but in rapid succession the congregation voted to accept the gift and then to actually move to the new location.  At the same time the Blue Lotus Temple, expressed interest in buying the Woodstock building.  After the sale was complete and various zoning and building code matters were taken care of, the congregation is moving effective January 1, 2012.

It is both a sad and hopeful time, this last leave taking.  We are happy that our beloved home is in good hands and the PADS and other services will be able to continue here.  There is a lot of work ahead to plan and create a real home out of the building McHenry.  Services will start there on January 8.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

That Socialist Pledge of Allegiance

There was a war on.  That might explain why Congress was in session on December 28, 1942 instead of taking their customary leisurely holiday break.  It was on that day that they finally stopped tinkering with an amendment to the Flag Code adopted earlier on June 22.  In doing so they officially recognized the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag first trotted out for Columbus Day, 1892.

Of course, there were some minor changes to the pledge crafted by Francis Bellamy for the popular children’s magazine Youth’s Companion, where the Baptist minister was on staff.  He was not only a Christian, but also a socialist and first cousin of the utopian socialist Edward Bellamy, whose novel Looking Backwards was one of the most influential books of the late 19th Century.

Pledges of allegiance were still controversial n those days.  After the Civil War former Confederates who wanted their civil rights restored had to swear allegiance to the Union.  Even as late as the 1890 the most un-reconstructed of the old veterans were still refusing to do so.

Bellamy hoped to include the younger generations of Southerners in a new mood of national reconciliation.  But he also wanted to include the children of waves of immigrants then flooding American cities making a new pledge of inclusiveness in their new nation.  He originally wanted to include the words equality and fraternity in the pledge to make that clear, but his editors feared that their inclusion would be resisted by school authorities.

The pledge as he drafted it was published in the magazine without attribution.  But it was promoted heavily to its 500,000 readers and endorsed by the National Education Association.  President William McKinley was prevailed upon to declare it part of the national Columbus Day observances of the 400 anniversary of the Italian navigator’s alleged discovery of the New World.  

On October 12, 1892 children across the country recited the following brief pledge at the opening of school:
I pledge allegiance to my flag and the republic for which it stands: one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all.
It could be said in 12 second flat.  As prescribed in the magazine, the children faced a flag being held by the teacher and held their right arms straight out, palms down in what became the Bellamy Salute.

This was meant to be a onetime event, timed to co-inside with the opening of the World’s Colombian Exposition in Chicago.  But it turned out to be so popular that some schools began using the pledge at the opening of assemblies, concerts, and sporting events.  Others made it a weekly or daily practice.  The hyper patriotism accompanying the Spanish American War and World War II spread the practice further.

Unfortunately for Bellamy, his hopes that the pledge would be inclusionary were dashed almost from the beginning.  Many interpreted it as a litmus test for Americanism—meaning native, White Protestants.  In some schools the children of non-citizen immigrants were forbidden from participating.  Elsewhere those whose religion was thought to preclude the recitations of oaths were debarred.  In the segregated schools of the South, white children often recited the pledge, but Black ones in their schools sometime did not lest they get the idea that they would ever have the rights of citizens.

Tinkering with the original words was meant to make these things clear.  In 1923 an outfit called the National Flag Conference changed the words from “my flag,” to “The Flag of the United States” so that ignorant immigrant children would not believe they were saluting the flag their home countries.  A year later, still unsatisfied, the changed to “The Flag of the United States of America.”

The June ’44 amendment to the Flag Act codified the words:

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
The change made in December at the suggestion of President Franklin D. Roosevelt substituted the hand over the heart for civilians for the stiff armed Bellamy salute, which then had an uncomfortable resemblance to the salute used by the Nazis. 

Changes were not over.  During the post-war Red Scare complaints were rising that the pledge did not defend American values against Godless Communism.  Louis A. Bowman, a chaplain for the hyper-patriotic Sons of Liberty first inserted the words under God into the pledge in 1948. 

The following year Catholic Bishops, eager to prove that Catholics could be “real Americans” and concerned with attacks on the Church in the zone of Soviet influence in Europe and in parts of China under People’s Army control, began a campaign to have the additional language officially adopted.
Despite appeals to President Truman and resolutions introduced in Congress, no amendment to the words was made.

Freshly minted President Dwight Eisenhower had a problem.  Despite his enormous personal popularity as a World War II hero and easy election victory, the right wing of his own party distrusted him for coziness with the Soviets during the war.  Notoriously indifferent to religion, he had come under attack as an atheist.  To combat the later problem, Ike allowed himself to be baptized a Presbyterian, although neither his public practice of worship nor the general lack of God language in his speech changed much.  But on Lincoln’s Birthday, 1954 his ceremonial duties included attending worship at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, where Lincoln had also made occasional public displays of unfelt piety. The Rev. George MacPherson Docherty took advantage of his captive audience by launching into a sermon calling for the inclusion of the religious language in the pledge because Lincoln had apparently inserted the words under God in the Gettysburg Address as delivered.

Eisenhower recognized an opportunity to prove his Americanism and his Christianity.  The next day he forwarded a message to Congress asking the wording of the pledge be changed.  It passed through Congress like an Ex-Lax milkshake.  Ike was able to sign it into law with a flourish on June 14, 1954—Flag Day.

Civil libertarians have opposed the additional language ever since.  Many court challenges have been filed, but none have yet succeeded.  The best that they were able to do is allow children who could not in good conscience recite the pledge excuse themselves.  

The controversy, and a feeling that daily recitation was cutting into instructional time, has made about half the states drop the pledge or make it a local option.  In keeping with court decisions the rest of the states “encourage” children to participate in the pledge.

One suspects the whole thing is not what Francis Bellamy had in mind.