For the first time in weeks, I've had a chance to read some of The Life and Labors of Reuben Gaylord. When we last left the book, the First Congregational Church in Omaha was established. Today I read on from that point in May 1856 to December of 1858.
One overarching theme is the struggle of frontier life. The winters are harsh. The summers are hot. There is much economic uncertainty. Sickness abounds. There is much death. Yet the people push forward, building homes, churches, and businesses and hoping for a great city.
Rev. Gaylord continues his missionary endeavors--visiting new settlements, planting churches, forming the Congregational Association of Nebraska, writing reports, etc.
The quarter has been one of excitement and activity in the outer world. Strangers have been pouring in upon us continually. Property has doubled, and, in some cases, quadrupled in value. Although a number of buildings go up every week, yet many have to live in tents. There are now eight store-houses going up on one street, five of them brick.
The Home Missionary Society appealed for more ministers to move west:
If now there are any young men of energy, courage, and devotion, who are eager to grapple with difficulties, and who would rejoice to subdue the wilderness into a garden of the Lord, the two territories, Kansas and Nebraska, both hold out to them most charming opportunities. And if there are any ministers at the east conscious of undeveloped or unused resources of body and of mind, and who long for more toil, exposure, exaction, accomplishment, who are impatient to "see things moving about them," and are earnest to throw their whole life and soul into a noble enterprise, we point them to these prairies of Kansas and Nebraska, now bursting out into population, coming thickly as forest buds in spring time.
Charming opportunities for toil!
First Congregational, Omaha began building a church house:
Through the favor of a kind Providence liberally disposing the hearts of this people, we have been able to erect our house of worship, enclose it, and finish the basement ready for use. The upper room cannot be completed for want of material until next spring. The house is 27 by 36 feet, of brick, substantially built in good style, with a basement room 19 by 24 feet in the inside. This is in every way pleasant and inviting, and will seat a very good congregation.
In the latter half of 1857 he reports the building is complete:
The house is now entirely completed, and last Sabbath was dedicated with appropriate services to the worship of the Triune God. It was well filled with an interested congregation. There are forty-five pews, affording seats for 225 persons. All express themselves well pleased, and I have been able to submit a report which is quite satisfactory. The building has cost $4,500, exclusive of furnishings.
The women of the church then had a sewing fair to raise $400 for the blinds and furnishings.
Their youngest child died, and they later came to adopt a girl. Dr. Miller came to them about this family. The mother and youngest baby and died and the father was quite ill. The girls were discovered in a cold, hungry condition. The Gaylords took the youngest girl and the oldest was fostered by a handful of different families in the community. They eventually adopted the girl. Her father at some point left Omaha.
He later wrote that the death of their own son made it easier for them to minister to other families losing children.
Often he went without being paid, or paied less than he should have been.
He records the record snowfalls. 4 feet of snow. Thirty degrees below zero on a Sunday morning. Only 30 people turned out for church that day.
They organized a temperance society.
Omaha's economy was growing fast, until economic failures elsewhere in the country collapsed the economy in Omaha. Banks failed. Many people moved away. At the time his wife was visiting in the East, and there was no money for him to send to her. She had to borrow money to return home. The good effect of the collapse--it checked the "spirit of speculation."
The town of Fontanelle, where he had planted the second church, held the first revival in the territory. The Congregationalists, Baptists, and Methodists cooperated in this effort. He wrote that "the Spirit of God rested upon the people" and that it was "truly a time of refreshing."
About Bellevue he wrote:
There is very little interest in religious things there. The Presbyterians have commenced building a church, but think they will not go on, owing to the difficulty of collecting the subscriptions.
He did eventually plant a church there.
They settled into the life of the community. He wrote to his traveling wife about his visits to various townsfolk, the new building around time, who constructed new homes, who married whom, who died, local politics, etc. Many siginificant Omaha names are mentioned--Hanscom, Woolworth, Kellom, etc.
He was invited to preach in Fort Calhoun (and later established a church there) and was surprised by one person:
It rained on Wednesday evening, but I preached at Calhoun to a good congregation. Have promised to be with them next Sabbath. I found there a grandson of Cottom Mather. He is the father of Mrs. Stevens, and is between sixty and seventy years of age.
He writes of all the places he is routinely visiting--Fremont, Fontanelle, Calhoun, Florence, Bellevue, Elkhorn.
In November 1858, he traveled back to Danville, Iowa to meet his returning wife. It was his first break in over two years. They visited old friends, dropped Sarah off for school, and then started traveling back across Iowa in December (which they had done in 1855). Though the winter seems somewhat better on this second trip, they still had their adventures-crossing swollen rivers, getting stuck in the mud, making long detours, and having trouble crossing the Missouri because it had begun to ice in.
They returned to their study having been pleasantly decorated by the ladies of the church, under the direction of Mrs. Richardson, "making it both convenient and attractive." Mrs. Gaylord wrote<
Again the threads of daily life were taken up, and the work resumed which had already grown to gigantic proportions.
Come, Let Us Go
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational UCC
1 December 2013
This is a glorious vision. Jerusalem will be a city of peace, and all the nations of the world will stream to it. It will be a welcoming and inclusive city, forming a new multi-cultural community. God will reign there, and the people of the world will bring their problems to God to be adjudicated. Kind of like a United Nations, the world's problems will be solved. War shall be no more, as the issues that arise between peoples will be settled peacefully, avoiding violence. Then the nations of the world will be able to turn all those resources previously committed to war towards a more beautiful future. Those resources can be spent on things that help people—feeding them, strengthening them, healing them, building the community. Paul Simpson Duke writes, "The world's curriculum is converted from learning war to learning the ways of God."
And after telling us about this beautiful dream, the prophet turns to us and says, "Come, let us go."
The prophet Isaiah invites us to take a road trip, to learn the ways of God.
The road is a rich symbol. Our culture abounds with references to it. Just today we've sung a snippet of the "Servant Song" with its line, "We are travelers on the road," and heard poems by Walt Whitman and Robert Frost.
The road can serve as an expression of our search for meaning, our optimism about the future, even our freedom.
The road can also, at times, represent a place of danger. In The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring the Hobbits yell, "Get off the road" because of the danger it exposes them to.
The road teaches us to expect the unexpected. And it changes us. For we never come back quite the same from any good trip.
This Advent, we are going to accept the prophet Isaiah's invitation. We are going to take a road trip to search the ways of God and discover something about ourselves. Join us as "Travelers on the Road."
Robert Frost's poem is fascinating. When I mentioned our Advent theme, people immediately recommended it. The poem is fascinating because it is so often misunderstood. Even Robert Frost was surprised that people misunderstood his poem.
He was not advocating taking the less traveled road. He was, instead, making fun of the stories we tell ourselves to justify the choices we make.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Sure, we reach decision points in life where a choice has to be made. Sure, there can be anxiety in such a decision, because we might spend the rest of our lives wondering "what if?"
But, who knows that another road could not have been just as interesting. If we had followed that road instead, we would later tell stories to explain how important that choice was.
Reading Frost's poem should bring us a dose of perspective, even humility, about the paths in life we choose. Maybe Frost wants to relieve our anxiety about the choice and remind us to enjoy the trip.
In 2008, Michael and I took a road trip from Oklahoma City to Turlock, California to visit his brother. I took with me John Steinbeck's Travels with Charley in Search of America, which I read during my turns in the passenger seat. On the opening page of the book Steinbeck writes:
Once a journey is designed, equipped, and put in process; a new factor enters and takes over. A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us. Tour masters, schedules, reservations, brass-bound and inevitable, dash themselves to wreckage on the personality of the trip. Only when this is recognized can the blown-in-the-glass bum relax and go along with it. Only then do the frustrations fall away. In this a journey is like a marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it. I feel better now, having said this, although only those who have experienced it will understand it.
That trip took us to some of the most amazing natural locations in America – the Grand Canyon, the Mojave Desert, the Pacific Ocean, Yosemite Valley, the Giant Sequoias. Such places overwhelm you, humble you, and inspire you all at once.
Truth is, a trip like that renews your love for this country. And it's not just the grand landscapes that remind you how beautiful it is. Your love is renewed by the glorious human creations. Observing the Golden Gate Bridge through the fog on the Marin Highlands, one realizes that it is among the most beautiful things human beings have ever built. The wind farms on the Tehachapi Range in central California catch the evening light and whimsically look like a mountain covered with pinwheels. And every time I stand at the Hoover Dam I am flabbergasted by how such a thing can be built and am made dizzy just looking at it.
On that trip we met a town that became a new favourite--Williams, Arizona located about 30 miles west of Flagstaff. There, at the Pine Country Restaurant they serve the best pies I've ever eaten – no surer proof of the ultimate goodness of the universe have I yet discovered.
That trip did take me, as Steinbeck. It took me to places of wonder, beauty, and joy: sunset at the Grand Canyon, taking a nap beside Mirror Lake at Yosemite, eating sesame chicken in Chinatown, or simply catching up with old friends visited along the way.
But the trip took me in other ways as well. Despite Steinbeck's warning, I'm one of those people who struggle with controlling the trip. Now, I don't plan every detail and rush from place to place like some people. But I want everything to go well. I have high expectations. And often when other factors take control I get agitated, anxious, and can become a real jerk.
On that trip it happened in Barstow. Michael and I later decided Barstow itself was at fault. It's one of those ugly and depressing towns that just puts you in a bad mood.
We got lost. We were hungry. We were tired and needed a break from driving, having just crossed the desert. We had a stupid fight. I wish I could say I learned my lesson and have never done that on a trip again, but that is not true.
These journeys have a way of exposing us in ways that we do not always like. We get lost in beauty and wonder, but we might also see the sides of ourselves we don't like.
Driving home from that trip late at night, as each Oklahoma town came within site – Erick, Sayre, Elk City, Clinton, Weathford, El Reno – my sense of being in my own place was restored by the slow process of driving, each minute one step closer to home.
Yet, when you get there, your place has changed. Home is smaller, having traveled in the larger world. Yet, paradoxically, home is also bigger, as memory draws all things together and those places and times of one's journey become a part of one's self in that place called "home."
So, what does our Advent road trip have in store? Where will the ways of God lead us? What will we learn about ourselves? How will we be changed?
Pack your bags. Load up the car. Get the maps and GPS ready. Make sure you've got what you need. And let's set out. Turn the radio up and sing along. Watch the roadside shadows speed along. We are headed home for Christmas.
Come, let us go.
Looking up poems with road imagery for my Advent series, I discovered this beautiful poem:
The Hope of the World
Letter from Birmingham Jail, Paragraphs 25-39
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational UCC
24 November 2013
In the autumn of 2007, while I was still living in Oklahoma, I was asked to lead a session on the intersection between religion and bullying. It was for a conference entitled "Stop Hate in the Hallways" which was organized by the Cimarron Alliance Foundation to address bullying based on race, religion, sexual orientation, and gender identity. That year in Oklahoma, there was particular concern that year for the mistreatment of Latino, Muslim, and LGBT kids because of the rhetoric in the political sphere targeting those populations.
The session I organized was entitled "Religion: Both Cause and Cure." I assembled a diverse panel – a Conservative Jewish rabbi, a Catholic priest, a Sufi Muslim professor, a Baptist youth minister, and a Unitarian. And I framed the discussion around a paradox which baffled me. On the one hand, all the world's major religions teach respect, compassion, even love of other humans, particularly those who are different from us. As such, religious faith should help to cure our prejudices. Yet, on the other hand, religion is often the source of prejudice that leads to harassment, discrimination, and bullying of others. "How do you explain this paradox?" I asked the panelists.
I don't remember any of the answers, but I remain bothered by this paradox.
In recent years our brothers in the Roman Catholic hierarchy have taken a strange position on religious liberty, which further illustrates this paradox. They have argued repeatedly that it violates the religious freedom of a Catholic business person to make it illegal for him to discriminate, particularly against LGBT people. I've highlighted some of the danger of this view before, but one thing that puzzles me about it, something I've directly confronted some of my Catholic brothers with, is the question, "Isn't it your responsibility as the pastors to teach your parishoners compassion towards those who are different, rather than defending their mistreatment of others as a human right?"
Dr. King was so troubled by the lack of support from the white churches, that in this Letter he dropped his diplomatic approach and moved to chastisement, powerfully articulated in those scathing questions, "What kind of people worship here? Who is their God?"
I have occasionally wondered the same thing about some religious people, even fellow Christians. Do they really practice the same religion I do? Do they really worship the same God I do?
In this section of the Letter, King shames the white clergy. They are hypocritical. They are failing to follow the teachings of their own faith traditions. They are blind to the "colony of heaven" eminently visible before them.
Their blindness, failures, and hypocrisies are signs that the church is weak, ineffectual, inauthentic, and irrelevant.
This word of God to the churches is a scathing attack upon complacency and the status quo. An attack that I believe the followers of Jesus Christ must listen to in every age to come, so that we too do not fall back into the same complacency, irrelevance, and complicity with evil.
This week we learned the sad news that T. Merton Rymph died in September. We were a little annoyed we had not heard before, but, more importantly, we were sad at the loss. Mert was the Senior Minister here from 1967-1975, a time of great cultural turmoil around the Vietnam War, race relations, the women's movement, and more.
Mert was actively involved in race relations while he pastored in Wichita, Kansas and Manchester, New Hampshire before coming here. He was a member of the NAACP and participated in lobbying Congress on civil rights legislation. He had even met Martin Luther King once while they were in seminary.
His Greenwich, Connecticut obituary described his time pastoring in Omaha as follows:
Omaha was a place of tumult at the time, experiencing some of the worst segregation and unrest of any urban center in America. Here he was highly involved in integration efforts and outreach across boundaries.
A couple of years ago I called Mert, retired in New Hampshire on his farm, Wit's End. We had the most wonderful conversation, which made it clear why he was so beloved by many of you. I had heard some tidbits about the racial issues he had encountered in Omaha, but I didn't know many details, so I asked him about them. His answer, "Well, Scott, that question can only be answered in person and over a glass of scotch."
He then invited Michael and me to come to Wits End to visit him and Jackie. They would be happy to put us up for a few days. We just had to bring the scotch.
I regret that we never took that trip. I intended to take him up on that offer, thinking I had more time. I guess this is a reminder that we shouldn't put things off.
Mert Rymph helped to guide this church through the transformational time that was the 1960's and 1970's. He did so believing strongly that the church should be involved in service to the community. That we should be relevant. He preached that spiritual renewal was possible with "faith, imagination, hope, determination, love and reconciliation."
Dr. King was angry at the failures of the Christian church. His criticisms cut deep. But they also came from one who served as a minister of the gospel, someone deeply in love with the church. Despite all its failures and sins, he still believed that the church could be "the hope of the world."
And what does a church that is the hope of the world look like? King gives some indication in the letter with descriptions like "sublime courage, . . . willingness to suffer, and . . . amazing discipline."
Reading this section of the Letter resonated with some things my friend, the Rev. Dr. Jim Antal, Massachusetts Conference Minister has said in regards to the church and its response to global climate change. Two weeks ago, while he was presenting to our First Forum, via Skype, he talked about how people of faith are uniquely positioned to lead this environmental movement because our tradition teaches us about sacrifice and the common good. Jim has called for the American church to renew its understanding of and commitment to sacrifice.
Last year, delivering the keynote address to the Annual Gathering of the Nebraska Conference, he said,
strategically speaking, I believe that the only hope we have for a redeemed earth is
the wholesale transformation of what it means to be religious. As we have learned from the major social change movements that have succeeded, people of faith have provided leadership without which the movement would have failed. As people of faith who are rooted in communities of faith, we bring to our engagement positive, transformative
qualities that are essential to re-direct society's momentum – qualities like resilience, hope, imagination, vision and courage.
A committed and engaged church, which takes seriously the gospel of Jesus Christ – a church that is strong, courageous, and authentic, will be effective and relevant. It will be the hope of the world. I want to be part of a church like that.
The last month, as I have preached this series, I have been excited to hear the feedback from many of you. In particular, I have enjoyed the stories that some of you have shared about your experiences in the Civil Rights Movement. Luther MacNaughton was a Freedom Rider. Ken Friedman-Fitch attended the March on Washington. John Beerling participated in the march from Selma to Montgomery. Others of you may have had similar experiences.
When the church is obedient to the call of Jesus, we can be the hope of world. We can not only imagine that another world is possible, we can make it a reality. The "Letter from Birmingham Jail" and the Civil Rights Movement prove that.
In June of 1963, President John F. Kennedy, whom we remember this weekend, gave his groundbreaking address to the nation on Civil Rights. Prompted by the Letter and the events in Birmingham, he declared for the movement and against a more moderate approach. He said, "Now the time has come for this Nation to fulfill its promise." Many experienced this as a tipping point, as the moderate conscience was now fully aroused.
It did not mean that victory had been won. The next day Medgar Evers was murdered. On September 15 the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was bombed, killing Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley. Bloody Sunday was still two years away.
Despite the reality of evil in this world, the tunnel of hope had been carved through the mountain of despair. In 1964 would come the Civil Rights Act, and the Voting Rights Act the next year. And the Letter would go on to influence other campaigns for justice and human rights. It was used by leaders in the Solidarity Movement in Poland, in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, in the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, by dissidents in Argentina, and by Palestinian activists. The young Chinese students in Tiananmen Square wore shirts announcing "We shall overcome," and pro-democracy websites in Iran have translated the Letter into Farsi.
Jonathan Rieder, near the conclusion of his book on the Letter, entitled The Gospel of Freedom, declares that those who struggled in this movement were a testimony that normal people can bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice. That by "praying, working, and protesting together" they could "bring that day."
He then declares that even Martin Luther King, with all his faith and hope, did not foresee what would come. I quote:
He did not even know what we know, the even-greater fruits that his labor would help to bring in the decades ahead: the overthrow of Jim Crow, the erosion of the most brutal forms of racism, the making of a black middle class, the achievement of cultural pride and recognition, the growth of black political power, the election of the nation's first black president, and the extension of rights and recognition to women, gays, children, prisoners, the mentally ill, the disabled, and immigrants.
What kind of people worship here? Who is their God?
Here, it is the God of Abraham and Sarah and Hagar who delivered the people out of slavery and established them in a Promised Land flowing with milk and honey. The God who proclaimed that justice will roll down like water and righteousness like a flowing stream. The God incarnate in Jesus Christ who invited us to love our enemies and who died to set us free.
The people who worship here, we hope, are those kind of people – authentic, courageous, sacrificial, imaginative, loving, determined, effective, relevant. People who are not weary in doing what is right. A colony of heaven. The hope of the world.
In his book A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow, David L. Chappell contends that it was religious faith which led to the victory of the Civil Rights Movement over segregation, as the latter was unable to draw on religion or use it as an organizing or motivating force, while being confronted with a movement that basically was the Third Great Awakening.
Toward the end of the book, he has an interesting couple of paragraphs that I wanted to share:
It would remain for a later conservative movement, one that sublimated the racism of the southern white masses and built its power within the churches, to hammer together a radical (and largely successful) conservative insurgency. The more recent "Christian Right," led by such propagandists as Ralph Reed and Pat Robertson, swept southern white society and much of the rest of the country. What we see in the earlier failure of the segregationist movement is the failure of racism to solidify a conservative coalition. The conservative masses today may well harbor as much racism in their hearts as they ever did. But they learned the lesson of the civil rights struggle: racism does not work well as a force for overcoming social conflicts within the so-called white race.
Religion, apparently, works better: that was a lesson that black southerner taught white southerners by using religion to overcome the social conflicts within their race (for a brief but crucial period of struggle from about 1955 to 1965). A new church-supported conservatism now rarely mentions race. The triumph in the 1970s and 1980s of that new, church-supported conservatism in the post-Jim Crow South is the measure of how well a new generation of conservatives has learned the lessons of history.