During the twenty years or so I’ve been back in Montana, only one person has read all my blog posts every day the whole time. That was Carl Clapp. I knew because of the little map on the righthand edge of the blog, which shows when and where people are when they read the blog. Every day in the middle of the morning it would show “Oregon City” and that was Carl.
Normally he didn’t start conversation via email, though he had my url address and I wouldn’t have objected. But back a while I did get a message from him. I was a little surprised, but it was praise and approval of most (not all) of my ideas, so why would I object? I answered warmly. Now that I look back, it was probably the moment that Carl was diagnosed with cancer. His wife, June, let me know yesterday that he had died.
Carl was able to stay home with hospice support and he was coherent to the end, which meant people were able to visit and tell stories just as they were accustomed to do on Sunday mornings.
The Unitarian fellowship movement was originally started to serve far-flung Unitarians in groups too small to support a minister. But there were other reasons for their popularity and success. Some “recovering Christians” had been so snakebit by bad clergy that they refused to be in the same space with them, much less listen to what they said. Some people were such iconoclasts that they just didn’t agree with the available congregation, even though the foundation of the gathering was the honoring of differences. A few fellowships were meant to be “seeds” in places that could support a “proper” church but didn’t. And then there was the influence of the Quakers who weren’t word-centered, but honored merely being together for an attentive period of time.
I never knew why South Park UU Fellowship originally diverged from the Oregon City UU Church which had begun as a Congregational Church in 1844 and then moved into a less Christian stance. The congregation held dual affiliation with the UU’s and the Congregationalists until 1998, after the members of Boones Ferry Unitarian Universalist Congregation voted to join Atkinson Memorial Church. In the rough water around that — a time when I was working for the City of Portland and doing pulpit supply in the area — the Atkinson Church finally became the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Willamette Falls. They kept the remarkable historic building in a town with several historic structures, including the home of Dr. John McLoughlin, the “White-Headed Eagle” who was the factor for the Hudson’s Bay Company whose hegemony didn’t end until the 49th parallel became the border with Canada in 1856.
Carl Clapp was neither a rebel nor a conformist. He simply thought for himself and a small congregation formed around him. His manner was warm and gracious but he was clearly the inclusive center of a group with the same feeling. The small size of the group helped them know and include each other. Most members were on the line between science and the humanities: teachers, biologists, rangers. Carl was an art teacher and his wife, June, was a music teacher. They are quite different from both the abiding Congregationalists and the arriving techies who had founded Boones Ferry UU Fellowship and wanted growth and a building — fast.
McLean House, West Linn, OR
South Park UU Fellowship had no church building, but they still meet in the same place, an historic doctor’s house, built to include a clinic on the premises, situated in an arboretum overlooking the Willamette River at the west end of the bridge from West Linn to Oregon City. Members were drawn from both sides of the river, mostly families. When the kids got to adolescence, the children did not leave and even now those who have settled locally and are raising families still attend. New people are welcome.
The Sunday morning that persists in my mind was after there had been some media attention to kids who were getting tattoos and piercings. I tried to take an anthropological point of view, but the kids — who always actively spoke their minds during the so-called “sermon” which was more like a discussion anyway — took it to the personal level. I had offered “branding” as being the outer limits of what a person could do to mark themselves and asked, in a smart aleck way, “What’s next? Mutilation?” They informed me that they already knew of this happening. Mostly the ends of fingers cut off, which I recognized as being the old Blackfeet way of mourning. The youngsters were grieving for the world.
Far less extreme subjects — or maybe they weren’t — were about the natural world with as much emphasis on its beauty as on its usefulness. The UU principle that was central spoke of “the interdependent web of all being.” Another favorite speaker was a female poet from Ireland.
Carl didn’t seem to act like a minister, but his presence served that purpose, not as a preacher or someone hustling tithes and membership, but as a model of what a gentle, strong, supportive and loving man could be. He steered clear of the idea of seminary and didn’t try to attend the meetings of the ministers, though according to UU polity, anyone recognized as the leader of a UU group could have legally attended. He wasn’t interested in becoming famous.
Nor did June act as though she had some special entitlement or dispensation as his wife. She just played the piano and tended to the details all the women and even some of the men watched out for. The marriage was 57 years long. (If I can figure out how to convert the photo June sent to a format that will post, I'll add it later.)
Awareness was the keynote, even of the youngsters. It’s something that is not taught, but comes from its modelling and expression in others. Carl had an endless supply that reached out to everyone. I never saw him on any occasion except the Sunday morning gathering and yet his graceful attentiveness reached me in Montana.
Carl Clapp was 81 years old, born on 06/23/1936. The following is from his dearly beloved wife, June.
After six weeks of home hospice for heart and kidney problems, Carl Clapp passed away on Saturday, February 24 2018, surrounded by his wife, children, grandchildren and close relatives.