Posted by: Bill Tracy | March 21, 2018

Pararis & MLUC

“People are afraid.” A Unitarian minister said those words to me 40 years ago. So far, it’s the most important thing ever said to me. As I was wearing spiritual training wheels at the time I didn’t fully understand. It’s a long story. Until recently I never knew how deep it went.

 

Lately, I’ve been waiting for a nice day to do some photographing around the Philadelphia area. Given onerous bridge tolls I don’t go across the river on a whim. I wasn’t looking for any great revelations or images. I just wanted to revisit places I had lived and worked when I was young and make a few images for posterity sake. Last Saturday’s weather looked good so on Friday night I did some mapping and basic research. While doing so, I visited the Web site of the Main Line Unitarian Church (MLUC) in Devon, PA. since it was on my photo agenda. I was a member there in the late seventies and early eighties, and I’ve always considered that experience to have been my spiritual training wheels. I was around 30 years old and sort of wrestling with the “Hound of Heaven” at the time. I was taking a hard look at the Unitarian ministry. It seemed like the least “organized religious” thing you could do and still be a cleric of sorts working with people.

Main Line Unitarian Church, Devon, PA

Main Line Unitarian Church, Devon, PA

The Web site told me the church was still there, but the building I had known, a large, stately old stone mansion had been lost in a fire. I listened to a recording of a church member I had known, Del Tweedie, say, “In February, 1990, the old mansion burned to the ground.” He said, “The fire was a huge trauma at the time,” and Friday night that news jolted me. It was like I’d been hit in the chest with a sledge hammer, and I started shaking. Apparently my experience at that church was more foundational than I knew. I guess it sounds like silly high drama, but I had to go straight to bed, hold my eyes closed and wait for sleep to come in the dark.

Although I never consciously understood it, the old mansion had become a foundation stone of my psyche. “But it was stone” kept going through my mind when confronted with the reality that it had burned down. “It was stone,” and I had blithely conceived of it as impervious to anything that might come along in peaceful Devon, Pennsylvania. The eight volunteer fire companies that quelled the inferno early Monday morning, February 19, 1990 had never crossed my mind. Bad way to start a week!

Present day meeting room at MLUC

Present day meeting room at MLUC

Saturday morning I knew I had to change my photo shooting plans and go directly to Main Line Unitarian. While the building I knew was gone, I needed to know what that building represented was still there and as foundational as ever. I hadn’t been there in over 30 years, and the experience was almost ghostly. There was a grand new building, yes, but as I opened the door and walked in, I was walking into the old mansion. The old staircase was there, the member name tags, the windows looking over the glorious wooded grounds — at least that’s how it felt. A few church members were working around the place on Saturday, sprucing up for spring; they did not acknowledge me — as if I were an unseen ghost in the place. I went into the meeting room (what would be called a “sanctuary” in a more traditional church). It was larger, but the grand old piano was there. It had survived the fire, and it still dwarfed the room. I took a seat in the middle of the space, closed my eyes, and I just let things be. Experiences I’d had there came back, people were all about, alternatively quiet, singing, laughing, listening. I opened my eyes in the empty room again and looked out the windows as I had done so many Sunday mornings back then. I felt the deep tranquility and serenity of the trees and grounds and birds and sunlight. So on a day in March, with springtime a certain promise, I began to let go the grief as the trauma subsided. I also began to understand the role MLUC had played in my spiritual “formation.” That foundation feels stronger than the old stone mansion.

For the next hour or so I took some pictures around the place, yet I remained a ghost as no one seemed to see me. Before leaving I spoke with some folks working on the grounds. One of the women told me she came out to the church the morning after the fire. “It was still steaming and smoldering,” she said. The loss was incomprehensible, a “huge trauma” as Mr. Tweedie had said. So much had happened for me in those years at MLUC as we call it. The rest of my life was built on that foundation, so it had to be recalled and replayed over the coming days.

Aprons at the ready. The sharing of food has always been fundamental to the MLUC community.

Aprons at the ready. The sharing of food has always been fundamental to the MLUC community.

It was 10 years before the fire at Main Line that I was sitting in the First Unitarian Church in downtown Philadelphia talking with the minister there. We were talking about the hows and whys of my pursuing a Unitarian ministry when, out of nowhere and seemingly unrelated to anything we were discussing, he simply said, “People are afraid.” It got very quiet as those words dangled like a gaping question mark in the air. I had no idea why he had said it, and I didn’t have the good sense to ask him. So we continued the conversation as if nothing had happened. Over the next months I kept coming back to those three words, and slowly I began to understand. People are afraid — and with good reason. Much of what motivates us comes from a deep place of darkness and fear.

We have no idea why we are here. We are born and we come of age in this realm with only questions that have no certain answers. Who are we? How did we get here? What are we supposed to be doing? In our confusion, we seek refuge, some relief from the uncertainty and fear. Many clothe themselves in the ancient wisdom of people who have come before — religious texts and stories going back through countless generations of people who were here before us, people asking the same questions. Some seek their answers in reason, science, the perfection of mathematics, the learnings of physics, chemistry, etc. In adulthood, most of us come to find some kind of beliefs that satisfy our questionings, and we call it faith. That’s what I was wrestling with in those MLUC years. It was quite an experience, and like any good spiritual training, it left more questions than answers.

Religious education, "Sunday School," is a major part of the MLUC experience for families.

Religious education, “Sunday School,” is a major part of the MLUC experience for families.

At the time I was close to and working with the Berrigan brothers, Philip and Rev. Daniel after they and six other anti-nuclear peace workers had damaged nuclear weapons at what was then the General Electric facility in nearby King of Prussia, PA. They were on trial in Norristown and we were providing housing, transportation and such for supporters. The “we” being myself and other supporters, mostly the nascent Brandywine Peace Community, and mostly not MLUC members. I was the chairman of the social action or social concerns committee or whatever it was called at the time. The MLUC minister at the time, Brad Greeley, and I had more than one argument about how deeply the church should insert itself into such a controversial issue at the time. My youthful exuberance and need for action was not so compatible with the Unitarian need for deliberation and full commitment from the community. Such is the way we learn that spirituality cannot be embraced alone.

In October, 1979, I visited a Unitarian seminary. It was one stop on a chilly 7000-mile motorcycle ride through autumn. Training today is probably different, but at that time you had three basic choices to train as a Unitarian minister. You could go to Harvard Divinity School. You could train through the Theological Union at the University of Chicago. Or, you could go to a small school that was part of the Berkeley Theological Union, Starr King in California. It is named for a Unitarian minister, Thomas Starr King. Going from east to west, the schools became more “progressive.” Harvard promised a very traditional and conventional grounding in Christian theology. By the time you got to Starr King, it was almost an anything goes approach to spirituality and ministry. I never envisioned myself in a conventional ministerial role, the minister in a traditional church. I was not sure exactly what I was seeking as a ministerial goal. I knew I wanted writing to be part of it, and I knew that social activism had to play a big role. Sadly, Starr King could offer me neither a program nor even guidance. A few years ago I learned that Starr King has now added a social advocacy path to ministry in their training. “Sacred Activism” is now embodied in their Master of Arts in Social Change program. I was sadly, many years ahead of the times. And so, like the television version of “Bronson,” I got on my motorcycle and headed back east. I had learned the academics did not seem to have an entire grasp of spirituality.

Grab a name tag as you come in the front door.

Grab a name tag as you come in the front door.

There was one more stop to be made on that 1979 trip. In the Ozark backwoods of southern Missouri, I consulted a Unitarian muse. Lester Mondale was a retired and legendary Unitarian minister living in a primitive log cabin with his wife, Marie. They hosted me for a couple of days as we talked about Unitarian ministry. He was in his mid-seventies at the time and was enduring some notoriety as the eldest brother of then U.S. vice president, Walter Mondale. Lester had done mostly traditional ministry in congregations, but he had also been a writer and a leading thinker in the Humanist tradition. While we spent many hours talking (mostly listening on my part), his most potent advice was that if you had inclinations toward social activism that could be controversial, you had better be independently wealthy if you were going to act from the base of a traditional church. A congregation could exert their political will, and if you did not have the financial resources to be independent, you were going to be very frustrated and unfulfilled — and your church members weren’t going to find much spiritual nurturance in the whole mess either. He gave me a copy of a book he had written, Preachers in Purgatory, and sent me on my way. While his counsel was wise, for me, even the ministerial muse could not penetrate the deep clouds that seemed to shroud the spiritual refuge I wanted.

Back at MLUC, members and staff were supportive of my quest. Many members encouraged me to pursue the ministry. Brad, the minister, kindly invited me to the monthly meetings of the local Unitarian ministers group. I was voted to the MLUC Board of Trustees for a term. I recall teaching a fundamental photography course one season. But the spiritual formation, such as it was, did not seem to be yielding fruit. Eventually, I got a job offer in Washington, DC and I spent the next 10 years working the dark side — the intersection of corporate avarice and soulless government. It was my spiritual desert; everyone must go through one. MLUC groundings got me through, and I finally walked away from the dark side.

Still a stone presence at MLUC. Roofing work was being done the day I was there.

Still a stone presence at MLUC. Roofing work was being done the day I was there.

I went on to found a shelter for homeless HIV/AIDS people in Atlantic City, NJ. For three years I lived with the folks there and ministered to them as best I could. It was a fulfillment I could not have imagined in my spiritual training wheels days. My last 10 working years were spent in a prison ministry. In the words of the Christian Bible’s works of mercy, “Visit the prisoner.” I worked with prisoners, counseling, teaching, listening, forgiving — and getting some spiritual training wheels under a few of them. Today I can still hear a prisoner across the yard yelling, “Hey, Brilliant Bill” at me. It was a name they give me as recognition of my respect for them as people, and I cherish it.

A place for children to grow at MLUC.

A place for children to grow at MLUC.

While my time at MLUC did not directly provide what I thought I was looking for, it did provide a foundation for seeing and learning when the time was right. Without the experience embodied in that old stone mansion, I could not have been the “minister” I later became. As the old aphorism suggests, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” MLUC prepared me to be ready when the teacher appeared. And despite the loss of a building, I know that same MLUC is still there providing for spiritual seekers at every level.

Pararis = Latin, meaning “you have been prepared.”

 

.

An art exhibit at MLUC highlights the human cost of our addiction to guns.

An art exhibit at MLUC highlights the human cost of our addiction to guns.

Advertisements

Responses

  1. Wow, thank you. That was very moving for me. I now attend MLUC and am also finding solace and therapy in photography, so enjoyed both your writing as well as your visual perspective.

  2. I always enjoy your articles and this one was no exception. Thank you for a moving story.

  3. What a wonderful story! I’ve been an MLUC member since ’78, another beneficiary of Brad Greeley’s ministry, suffering the traumatic loss of our church home in 1990 to fire. I am very touched by your own deep feelings of loss so many years later on learning the news. It took a while, but I came to see that it’s really all the people that make up a congregation that is the church…ministers, staff, teachers, musicians, young, old, all of us. We’ve seen a transition into a much more socially active church over the years. It’s a delicate balance with the important need to nourish our spiritual lives. Best wishes, Bill, and looking forward to reading more from you!

  4. Why are we here? Well as I see it, our Creator whom I call God put us here and this is Heaven if you will. Not heaven as it is taught in the churches but truly the Heaven that our Creator wanted for us. Think of it this way. Our life, that is how we perceive our life is all up to the individual. It is a state of mind. We have the ability to create our own universe in our own mind everyday. Each day the power is in our own mind. Make it the best day of your life and if some bullshit comes along deal with it. Some stuff happens we cannot change it, well, get along with your life, you can still make this the best day of your life. It is all in your mind, God wants us happy creatures He gave us so much, just find it in your mind. This is my take on Life, now that I have been given another chance at it. F@#& the rest of it. Sorry Bill, you know how I am with that F word. Love ya my Friend.

  5. Thanks, Joe. Love you too!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s

Categories

%d bloggers like this: