Shun not the struggle; reading from the Book of Lowell

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“What is going to become of our old world anyway?” A Methodist publication asked. “Are we going back and back into a new Dark Ages, or is this the beginning of a new day, just the darkness before the dawn? Sometimes we wonder.”

The questions are timely, but they were asked in February of 1944. 

Westmoreland Town Historian, Nancy Pritchard, let me borrow a scrapbook that’s filled with bulletins, clippings, and pamphlets from Lowell Methodist Church. They span a period in time from May of 1943 until August 1945. This collection chronicles how the faith community in Westmoreland’s Northwestern hamlet of Lowell dealt with the challenges of their time: World War II, the earliest stirrings of the civil rights movement, and the dawn of the Atomic Age.

“We bring you our first words of greeting in this little bulletin,” Pastor Paul M. Husted wrote in the May 23, 1943, bulletin of the Lowell Methodist Church. “During the next few days, we will be moving into the parsonage and here to become better acquainted with the members and friends of the church.”

Pastor Husted’s first bulletin features the words to “Be Strong,” a hymn that was written by  Maltbie Davenport Babcock, a noted clergyman and writer in the last half of the eighteenth century. 

“Shun not the struggle,”  he wrote. “Face it…Stand up, speak out, and bravely, in God’s name.”

According to “Westmoreland 200 Years,” the church had burned to the ground only thirteen years earlier but had been rebuilt and “prospered well.” The book describes it as “the scene of many community affairs, church suppers, and fellowship meetings.” 

June 13, 1943’s bulletin announced that the parsonage had gotten a telephone and that the number was 2659 W1. By Sept. 5, 1943, he announced that they were so popular that, “Several people have told us they enjoy the[m]” and that people should take theirs “along home to someone who did not get out to the service.” 

Miss Florence Ward and Carleton Nelson of Clark Mills were united in marriage Saturday, October 16, 1943, in the church, Catherine Ward of Lowell and Harold Townsend of Westmoreland were the attendants. At the end of that month, the church hosted a Community Halloween Social with a grand march and prizes for the fanciest, funniest, and most original costumes. 

That year there were “hobby shows,” a Red Cross group, mite boxes were distributed, filled with coins, and returned as offerings to support missionary work; Mrs. Goodale and Miss Mildred Tudman were in charge of those. 

The bulletin from Thanksgiving Week 1943 encouraged parishioners to name five things for which they were thankful, reasoning that, “no matter what our circumstances, it is possible for us all to find reasons for a profound Thanksgiving.”

At Christmas, parishioners were encouraged to donate toys to be distributed by the Red Cross. The ladies in the church’s sewing group were asked to “bring along bits of bright colored wool or wooden button molds,” with the promise, “We have some interesting work for you!” The church was planning for that family night with Christmas entertainment and reminding members that “church members have a wonderful opportunity to honor the Dear Redeemer,” and encouraging people to “Read again that Christmas story from the Bible and sing again the lovely carols.”

In January of that year, the Council of Bishops of the Methodist Church mounted a crusade calling upon its worldwide membership to choose “international collaboration [for] enduring peace,” “World Law And Order based upon justice and brotherhood,” and to “Reject isolationism.”

Rev. Husted’s bulletins from early 1944 declared that “The Methodist Church aims to view the perplexing times and problems which we face today in the light of the teachings of Jesus.” He goes on to write, “We believe that to be silent in the face of need, injustice, and exploitation would be to deny Him.” The bulletin also says, “We believe that personality possesses the highest value…since personality is being oppressed in so many parts of the world, we work for its emancipation.”

There was a February Valentine’s Day party for “young adults of the church and community.” Miss Ida Reveley’s Red Cross group continued to meet every Thursday. The flock prepared for Lent as a period of “intense devotion in preparation for better Christian life and service.”

Then on Feb. 13, 1944, was the Methodist Church’s “Brotherhood Sunday,” where they focused on “Race Relations.” The gospel reading was Acts 10, 28, in which God commands Peter, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” Rev. Husted’s sermon was entitled, “The Human Race.”

The responsive reading that Sunday morning ends with, “A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another; even as I have loved you, that ye also love lone another; by this, all men know that you are my disciples.”

Seventy-six years later, on Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020, it was me who gave the reading at the Lowell Methodist Church’s Sunday services. I read something very similar and equally apt. It was from Romans 13:5-14, “…and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”

It was the morning after a Black Lives Matter protest had been held in Utica that, while peaceful, had stirred a tempest of ugly racist rumors and social media disinformation. I was thinking about that when I read the words about loving your neighbor. 

Right before I was called to the alter to give the readings, Pastor Fred Bailey noticed that the mask he was wearing had nothing written on it. 

“I want ‘End Racism’ written on it,” he said, motioning across his face. “End racism. I believe we can do it, perhaps even in my lifetime.”

I looked up from the readings I had been glancing over one last time. 

“In addition to that, we need to end all prejudice of every kind,” he added and looked over at me. “This is where I stand.”

The previous Sunday, my friend John Furman sent a tweet from Aldersgate, a summer camp and retreat center owned by the Upper New York Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.  

“Happy to be a #Methodist, a fighter for #socialjustice and a spreader of #love, #kindness, and the #HolySpirit,” he tweeted.

“I’m becoming a Methodist, too,” I tweeted back. “Little by little.”

On Oct, 16, 1943, four months before the Lowell Methodist Church’s “Brotherhood Sunday” with its focus on “race relations,” the Halloween party had featured a minstrel show. 

In 2020 the church hierarchy and doctrine need to evolve further to integrate it’s gay and lesbian members and clergy fully. My faith in the future of the church grows the more I learn about it’s past. 

“Next Sunday we are going to go back in history,” our current Pastor Fred Bailey said in his sermon, “It makes me think of John Wesley, and one of the things that John Wesley said was ‘give me a dozen spirit-filled preachers, and I will change the world.’”

On Sunday, September 20, the church will celebrate the 200th anniversary of the first religious services in Lowell. See the article in this paper for details. 

John Wesley began the revival movement in the Church of England known as “Methodism.” Wesleyan theology focused on the process of “sanctification,”; as a state pursued rather than a starting point. Scholars say that he would greet people by asking, “How is it with your soul?”

Theologian David Werner presented a paper at the Asbury Theological Seminary in 2010 positing that “for Wesley, how one was doing internally (in one’s soul) was directly connected to what one did, or how one lived out the Christian life externally.”

Werner used the analogy of a tree being “known by its fruit.”

He wrote that Wesley used that analogy to explain that true religion “is, properly and strictly, a principle within, seated in the inmost soul, and thence manifesting itself by these outward fruits, on all suitable occasions.”

The bulletins and the history don’t reflect all the questioning, and praying for change, and doubts that people in Lowell must have been grappling with for two hundred years. Those uncertainties were “seated in their innermost soul.” 

But the clippings do show the “outward fruits.” Two centuries of working towards “sanctification” manifesting itself in charitable works and fellowship, for people living through the Civil War, two World Wars, the Great Depression, Vietnam, and now COVID-19 and increased social unrest. 

“It matters not that you may be Presbyterian, or Episcopal, or Catholic, or any other denomination as the case may be,” Pastor Husted wrote in a church bulletin seventy-six years ago. “Here we may work together [with] no barriers of denominationalism will be visible… can’t we all be one happy people working together to help ourselves and others to live an abundant life.”

That’s worth celebrating. I think about the last line of The Great Gatsby, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” My grandparents were Methodists. I didn’t attend the church until recently, in my late forties. I believe I was drawn to it for a reason. It is my past, and in my genes, and, like me, it struggles. So I “beat on” with it because faith takes work and an embracing, not shunning, of the struggle.

Ron Klopfanstein welcomes your questions, comments, and story ideas. Like him at Facebook.com/BeMoreWestmo and follow him at Twitter.com/RonKlopfanstein

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