(Originally written for "Down in the Valley" at uumissoula.blogspot.com.)
All summer I meant to get busy on my archives — ten filing cabinets full of the remnants of my vocational life sequence: teaching English, animal control development, Bob Scriver’s career as a sculptor, flood plains and irrigation systems, and writing in a lot of different contexts.
The most important collection of materials was the records of the Unitarian Universalist Montana Ministry, four very different fellowships (congregations without ministers) in Montana. This partially subsidized experiment of Methodist-style circuit-riding came out of my love for Montana and desire to be here and the work of two district executives: Russ Lockwood and Emil Gudmandson who believed in rural Western congregations.
Unitarianism is usually a thought-based heresy, characterized by places with dense populations. The belief was that two in every thousand people is naturally a Unitarian which meant a high education level and a certain temperament, willing to be a minority. Universalism, which merged with Unitarians in 1961 at a General Assembly in Portland, OR, was a more rural group, more Christian, but separated by the belief that a loving God would never condemn anyone eternally.
The merger was never quite comfortable and other groups began to join informally: social progressives, environmentalists, feminists, formerly Jewish, presently Buddhist, and atheists. All the religious Others. In the Fifties the pressure to prove one was “Christian” produced “Fellowships” which were something like Quakers or Baptists in their self-sufficiency without ministers. By the Seventies there were a lot of them and some wanted to “grow” them into proper churches. I found the Portland, OR, Unitarians in 1975. At the time the Pacific Northwest District extended up through BC to Alaska and was probably the most dynamic set of ministers on the continent: powerful brilliant men with goals for the district. They were about to be invaded by female ministers and to be cut in half by the Canadian independence movement.
There were six fellowships in Montana: the two university towns, Great Falls which was based on refineries, the railroad, and the Air Force; and Helena which was the state capital. The state has two literal “sides” — the wet and mountainous Western valleys and the dry flat eastern prairie. Billings, way out on the dry side, related to Denver more than to Western Montana, and Whitefish was still small. Both felt strongly anti-ministerial and would not participate in this circuit-riding plan.
I lived in a Ford F150 van and traveled. The first year I was at one fellowship every Sunday, but people complained that this wasn’t enough, so two fellowships who traditionally had evening services were paired with two morning meetings. Then I did a morning service and an evening service. The drive between them was about a hundred miles. We had no idea that by the present many Christian ministers on the prairie, particularly Catholics, would be following the same pattern.
Each of these Montana groups had a distinct personality. Missoula was the flagship, with a building, Leslie Fiedler’s former residence. The town was developed with a lot of hardwood trees reminiscent of New England and the humanities style there was also influenced by the Ivy League. The university had been highly impacted by the GI Bill, partly because so many Montanans were veterans and because many professors were needed quickly.
It was a great opportunity for young scholars who hoped to move on up to Harvard/Yale/Princeton as a second stage. In reality, tenure meant that the college boom ended, a bulge something like the baby boom, before those scholars could find openings. They would spend their careers in small state universities. There was a little bitterness. The same thing happened later with the professors who went to Canada. Demographics are as crucial as economics when it comes to building institutions.
Developing fellowships meant creating statewide connections among people — the whole state had about the same number of people as a city — and getting everyone full of leadership principles. We assumed that the Seven Principles of the denomination were as good as it gets and would never need revision. The money came partly from a Universalist cache that had been hidden at merger to save it from the Unitarians. It was meant for rural goals and Gudmundson and Lockwood raided it. The fellowships also contributed and one individual made a $10,000 contribution that paid for the van.
My contribution was a very low salary, a demanding work load, and the lack of any benefits. The two things that would damage my future were the lack of social security contributions and the damage to my prospects for good future placements, because hiring churches look for prestige which to them means numbers and money. The normal progression for traditional ministers is a few years serving small churches and then a kind of pyramid which peaks with a major city church. Since I was forty and unmarried, I was not likely to rise in status. There just wasn’t enough time.
But the reward was being in Montana, doing something considered daring and courageous, and having chances to swing by the Blackfeet Rez to keep in touch with old friends and Bob Scriver. Our marriage had merely been a four-year experiment in a lifelong friendship. In Montana that was seen as a good thing. Later it was not.
So this week during the surprisingly fine weather, I rolled up the garage door and set to work sorting. I took on Missoula first. After a few hours of reading clips, obits, working agreements, correspondence, old newsletters, I was pretty emotional. I hadn’t expected it, but Missoula was the place where we had the highest aspirations, the most internal dissension, and where my weaknesses were most perilous. We “triggered” each other’s pride, tempers, desolations and definitions of achievement. I finally decided I wasn’t fit to be a minister. I didn’t know until much later about the suicides, the closeting, the abuse, and the depression that have always plagued the whole area.
The romance of being a writer has always been a good cover. The community of writers in Missoula is semi-academic but also controlled by the middle class combination of books with shop-keeping. This is the heart of the Montana Festival of the Book: sales. The academic side assured people of the quality and worthiness of the writing, but it was meant to end up with sales, even to make a living for writers. That’s an impossible goal — even more so now. Few academically trained writers end up writing best-sellers, but they can usually make a living by teaching hopefuls.
Full of emotion, I stuffed a box for Missoula and set about finding someone there who would receive it. I got a shock. It shouldn’t have been a surprise. The Millennial version of UU fellowships is only like the groups I knew in that they are poly-nuclear, collaborate for the sake of children, and usually at least half newcomers. They had no memory of me. They were busy reinventing the wheel. Their numbers and expectations were those of 1982.
The very factors of history that would be helpful for them are what they reject, because they feel full of discovery and newness. My old bitternesses, diagnoses, theories, and little achievements were not just unwelcome, but must sound shockingly toxic. They were busy and didn’t appreciate any interference. They are also sequestered, as much as I am in my cat-ridden hermitage. Separateness is protection in a hostile and draining world.
Also, partly because of a vacuum where the district executive should have been operating, they conceived the grandiose idea that they could buy an historical two-story school and were gripped by their idealistic edifice complex. Unfortunately, the neighborhood did not welcome any kind of religious organization and went to court to prevent them from acquiring the building. It has to feel terrible. It is time to rekindle the love for their humble bungalow.
Now I’ll see what the other groups are like. Great Falls has disappeared — the town itself has dwindled. Bozeman has thrived. Helena putters along at its own speed. The UU leadership is not interested in Montana. They are hard pressed to maintain their status as a denomination with prestige and a place on the confused and crushing American scene. We’ll see what happens on Tuesday, but no one will know what it means to UU’s.
It won’t mean much of anything to me unless they cancel social security and Medicare. My writing path is not even based on Montana. I will not be “saving” anyone. But since Missoula has such a need for their own history without the energy to find and preserve it, I started a blog where I’ll stash what I know. www.uumissoula.blogspot.com “Down in the Valley.” We can’t let Krakauer have all the fun.