Once I had a conversation with a man who traveled for a living. He said that if he were in a town he didn’t know and got lonesome for some good company, he’d seek out either AA or UU. Interesting folks with tales to tell in both contexts. (Forget AAA or NRA.) I suspect he traveled among cities rather than small towns like those in Montana. What UU types who enjoy church do for a backup is attend the Methodist services.
For instance, Don Marble, who in his UU phase saved the original Unitarian Church in Helena from being converted to a trendy restaurant by enforcing the original contract giving the building to the city, is now a dependable Methodist and so is his friend, Arlo Skaari. They are compassionate towards all people, inclusive, alert and informed, and not afraid of social action. Skaari has been a guardian of the Sweetgrass Hills for many years. I can see the hills from here. They are volcanic and contain enough gold to make entrepreneurs want to grind them up and run them through a cyanide heap leach pad, even though the hills create a watershed for a place always short of water.
In 1988-89 I served the Blackfeet Parish as the Methodist minister, though I suspect I appeared on their books as a lay preacher. The point was that because I was an ordained UU minister, I could live in the parsonage to keep it from being taxed and since we made a straight-across deal -- housing for preaching -- it solved both our money problems. It was a very good year. Partly it was made possible because from 1961 when I came to teach, that was “my church.” No one else from the Scriver family attended there, though they had been members of the Presbyterian church that was folded into it in the thirties. Bob Scriver paid for one of the stained glass windows in the present church in memory of his parents. His brother’s funeral’s was there.
When I arrived in Helena to be the circuit riding UU minister, we were greatly helped by the Methodist church there and met in their chapel, though it made the “recovering Christians” nervous. They just had to get over it. That was an excellent three years. Geri Fenn in Bozeman was a pledging member of both UU and Methodist groups, but we met in the Congregational Church, which is also a pretty good alternative to UU in most small towns.
Since I was once a circuit-rider myself, I was interested to see what the new Methodist minister assigned to Valier might be like. Valier is now part of a “three-point charge” so their minister travels among Sunburst, Shelby and Valier. I only knew she was female and I had to drive over to read the message board outside the church to find out what time to meet. 4PM. She must start the day with Sunburst and Shelby, then come here. It’s a couple hours’ drive maybe, and she seems to be living in Shelby or Sunburst. She told us about her daughter, who is training her horse and got her jaw knocked out of alignment when her horse’s flung-back head hit her chin. She has two other daughters.
I didn’t know any of this when I sat in the back pew. When I first came here in 1999, I used to attend because I was friends with the minister. Since that time I’ve not been in sympathy. The congregation was scattered, mostly older, sitting spread out towards the back. I watched them come in.
Here came a woman I saw only from the back at first: maybe forty, wearing a sleeveless top and a soft skirt that swayed with her strong walk, nut-brown hair in a glossy bob with bangs, big silver gleaming earrings and a jubilant voice. Yup, that was the one. She’s only been here a few days. No one knew where the light switches were for the sanctuary. No one knew exactly how to make the PA system work so we heard a lot of screeches from failed experiments. Finally she decided her voice was loud enough, and she was right.
She came down from the lecturn and spoke with no notes except to check the numbers for the hymns. The topic was from the Lectionary. An interdenominational committee in some mysterious place makes up a list of suggestions: one piece of scripture from the Old Testament, one from the New Testament, and one from the Gospel. The year I preached to Methodists I had a great time making a game of getting all three bits of scripture into one sermon, but most people sensibly choose one.
Dolly Collins (yes, that’s her name) chose the Gospel, Mark 6:14-29, and checked the usual translation with the Greek. It was about Herod cutting off John the Baptist’s head. She explicated this vividly in terms of power and the misuse of power to suppress rival powers. She spoke without manuscript or even notes. I would have dragged in the Middle East, but she didn’t. The benediction was the familiar Irish one that begins “May the road rise to meet you. . .” I didn’t stay for coffee because there would be cookies to resist. The Valierians could tell her about me. Maybe she already knew who I was. We probably won’t relate much in the ordinary world, partly because she won’t be in Valier very much.
While I was in Browning for Indian Days, I stopped in at the parsonage, which is a ranch house just out of town, to meet the new minister there. Young married man with no children and a shaved head. Strong and handsome, educated as an engineer which his engineer father insisted upon. He had to fight to be a minister and he’s been here three or four times before with youth service groups, so he knows what the place is like. It hasn’t changed much: there was a problem with the septic system in 1989 and there is today. His three point charge is St. Mary, Browning and Heart Butte and he probably also starts at the north end where the St. Mary congregation this time of year includes tourists and ends in Heart Butte. Out there no one remembered to shut down the water last fall so all the pipes have burst. A youth group is in residence and can’t live without hot showers. Good thing this guy is an engineer! When I stopped by the Browning church, I was met by a “missionary,” a chirpy little woman who wanted to embrace me and who was managing another visiting Methodist group. She’s been smoothing the transition between ministers.
It occurs to me that originally the Methodist presence here was supposed to be a mission to the Indians, but now it appears that it has become a mission to Iowa youngsters who need a spiritual infusion through doing good works in an exotic place. Nothing wrong with that. But it’s a lot of work to schedule, manage, and guide them. Religion, like everything else, is a “river” -- an ever-changing process that either adapts or dies. Methodism appears to be up to the challenge.