Wednesday, July 04, 2012


When the Fourth of July fell on a Sunday about twenty years ago, I had been scheduled to preach at Atkinson Church in Oregon City, Oregon.  Living in Portland where I grew up, out of ministerial fellowship and working for my living as a clerical specialist for the City of Portland,  I  did pulpit supply at Atkinson Church in Oregon City  or at their breakaway fellowship across the Willamette River in West Linn  UU communities often fall into an earth-and-moon configuration in which there is a large church with a small fellowship not far away.  It’s a matter of culture more than dogma.  Fellowships are nearly family churches, close knit and free-wheeling.  A church is building and minister, organist and office manager.  I enjoyed both of these groups immensely.
Atkinson Church’s history goes back to 1844.  (Look for their history on their website.)  Oregon City proudly preserves many historic houses, including that of Doctor John McLoughlin, factor of the Hudson’s Bay Company who ran the Pacific Northwest before it was even a territory of the United States.  The two-story gracious home was moved from Fort Vancouver to its present location on top of the bluff overlooking the town.  Oregon City is a barrier to ship travel on the Willamette because of the falls that supplied energy for industries in the early days.  Before white people, it was a great place for tribal people to catch eels.
From the Atkinson website:  “Founded in 1844, Atkinson Memorial Church is the oldest self-governing religious society in the continental West. During its history, it has been in fellowship with two denominational traditions: the Unitarian Universalist Association and the National Association of Congregational Churches. Founded as a Congregationalist church originally, Atkinson was dually affiliated for a number of years. Recently, the church has elected to be a member UUA church. Both traditions have long-time fraternal ties and common historical roots in 17th and 18th century New England, beginning with the Mayflower Pilgrims of 1620.”
The beautiful historic building with its distinctive round sanctuary, like all such edifices, always has maintenance problems that press on the budget.  The congregation itself split once when the much more numerous conservative members left in the Fifties.  Another splinter group of more liberal members formed South Park Fellowship later.  The core congregation clung desperately to the identity its key historical minister, Reverend Harold Bachelder, defined with an Edwin Markham quote:
He drew a circle that shut me out —
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in.
A third fellowship, newly formed and from an aggressive new-fangled point of view I call “Triumphalist Unitarianism,” gave the church its biggest trial in my time by joining them, sending their comfortable culture tail over teakettle.  The newcomers wanted the building.  It took a while to settle down, but they did.  Today they are stable, functioning and content with a female American Buddhist/UU minister.  But the more Christian Congregational element is pretty much gone and I suspect the mobile of the Markham quote has been taken down.  It looked like a mobile of the earth and moon.
In the last few weeks I’ve been exploring my own family history on my mother’s side which is as contentious than any church and over the same issues:  prosperity, cultural heritage, leadership rivalries, and so forth.  I find that in the early records I’m descended from a sea captain, the same as Bob Scriver was.  I could join the Daughters of the American Revolution or the Daughters of the Oregon Trail.   I’ve been the progressive satellite of an essentially conservative if various family.  
Much as I enjoyed Atkinson, I was a better fit at South Park where the members tended to be teachers, counselors, environmentalists, and Irish poets, Quite a bit younger, small enough to turn sermons into discussions and include the older children in them, they still meet at an arboretum created around a doctor’s house.  Just down the hill along the river on private property in those years some avant garde architect was building one of those white square houses.  This progressive congregation was not convinced it was environmentally sound.  They had their boundaries.  (There's always someone more far-out than you are!)
At Atkinson on the Fourth of July I decided I would NOT be progressive but would borrow the triumphalist mode to celebrate patriotism.  I preached about the Pacific Northwest, the fine qualities of Oregon, the courage and tenacity of those who walked the Oregon Trail (including my ancestors), and the abiding wonder of American Democracy in the face of every challenge.  We sang “America the Beautiful,” “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “Land of the Empire Builders” and “Roll on, Columbia, Roll on!”  The snow-capped faces of the congregation shone with delight and the voices rang out.  Is there anything wrong with that?  
Like Edwin Markham’s poetry, patriotism has gotten kind of narrowed and subdivided over the decades.  It gets harder and harder to draw a circle that takes everyone in.  More and more people want to stigmatize the heretic, the rebel, the different.  When we say “man” we don’t mean all human beings anymore.  Some don’t even mean the human species -- they can’t quite define WHAT they mean.  We’re exploring spaces both outer and inner, some trying to capture honor and some trying to capture the other guy’s fortunes -- or church or country.
I wonder what happened to that shockingly aggressive little fellowship that invaded Oregon City.   I can’t even remember their name so I can’t google for them.  They might have died out.  I preached there only once, and witnessed a fight full of insults -- some aimed at me!  One man insisted on challenging the leadership and since he was in a wheelchair, the board went to a room upstairs (no elevator) hoping he’d be excluded.  But he went up the stairs on his butt. In the end I think these folks were sort of like shock paddles that started the heart of Atkinson Church again, if only in self-defense. 
But the less-boisterous little South Park breakaway group preserved something precious that would not have persisted in a larger group.  In my Oregon heart, my sea captain genes, my long trail life, I still draw a circle that takes them all in.  Pioneers, renegades, Indians, eels, Doug firs dripping in the rain -- all, all.  
Our ways go wide and I know not whither,
But my song will search through the worlds for you,
Till the Seven Seas waste and the Seven Stars wither,
And the dream of the heart comes true.

I will find you there where our low life heightens,
Where the door of the Wonder again unbars,
Where the old love lures and the old fire whitens,
In the Stars behind the stars.
--Edwin Markham

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