A Facebook friend from my small hometown in Northern Michigan recently posted this picture of Father Bob, who was the priest at the Episcopal Church I attended as a youngster. It has been a long time since I have thought of him, yet his influence on me at a formative stage of life was profound, and this picture brought it back vividly. (Thanks, Larry H., for posting it).
A native of Massachusetts and graduate of Harvard, Father Bob made his way to our small town parish for his first job out of divinity school– he was ordained not long after arriving. I was 11 at the time, just entering the catechism that would lead to confirmation at the age of 12, and in fact my fellow sixth graders and I were his first class. At the time, I was lukewarm to religion and found it both tedious and implausible–could all those children in Africa and Asia that I read about in My Weekly Reader really be going to hell if they weren’t baptized??
Father Bob, one of a group of activist young men who graduated from the Episcopal Theological School in the early 1960s, was an ardent civil rights supporter, and later, an anti-Vietnam war activist. In our catechism class, we talked little about the Episcopal liturgy–or going to heaven or hell–but a great deal about the social issues of the day. To Father Bob, religion was about action–if we were to emulate Jesus, we could not stand idly by in the face of injustice and poverty. Coming from a more urbane and diverse environment, he must have felt it a special duty to enlarge our world, insulated as we were in our solidly white, homogeneous community. Although I was ultimately to leave Christianity for Judaism, I have to credit Father Bob with giving me a sense of religion as a living thing, requiring daily, rather than once weekly, action, and for opening my eyes to injustice.
Father Bob’s impact on the congregation was also significant, though not all accepted the messages he delivered. During his sermons, he liked to leave the lectern and walk down into the congregation–a tendency that some of the congregants, used to having their priest remain safely ensconced behind a lectern, found discomfiting. One Sunday, during a particularly impassioned sermon, he took the Bible and threw it on the floor. The congregation gasped almost in unison, with several “well, I never…..s” heard loudly from the back of the church. I was sitting in the choir where I had a ringside seat. “The Bible is not a holy book if it sits on your shelf, for show, and is never opened,” Father Bob declared. “It is only a book. You do the Bible more dishonor and disrespect by failing to read and learn from it, than I just did by throwing it down on the floor.” This sermon was the talk of the congregation not for weeks, but for years afterwards and now, nearly half a century later, it still leaves an impression on me.
Father Bob left after only a few years, going to a large Episcopal congregation in inner city Detroit, where he became heavily involved in the civil rights struggle and, by that time, the protests against the Vietnam War. He died, I heard, before reaching 50–a candle that burnt brightly but briefly. As I think of him now, I recall a passage from the Epistles that captures his passion and what he tried to teach:
What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. But some one will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.
May he rest in peace.