Closing Words by Rev. Tom Goldsmith Volume 2

03 September 2020

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We were both new to seminary. He was a Presbyterian, brimming with confidence.  I was not very self-assured, and therefore listened with amazement as he regaled a bunch of us first-year students with stories of God tapping him on the shoulder. He  was destined for law school when God dialed him up and changed the roadmap. In the best interest of Unitarian Universalism I decided not share my call to the ministry. I never have. But it shouldn’t be a secret, either. I have only a few months left to tell the story.

As undergraduates during the Vietnam War, my friends and I with low lottery draft numbers, sought ways to avoid combat. One friend was denied Conscientious Objector status and was drafted. One guy was blind as a bat and we envied him. (None of us had a doctor who would offer the bone spur exemption). Two went to Canada (separately), and are still there today. And then there was Harvey. 

We saw Harvey off at the airport, a time long ago when you could still wander to the gate and hug someone goodbye. Harvey was off to Sweden. He was a bit teary and anxious, so we offered guarantees that he would find a beautiful Swedish woman, the dream of his life. We would all be jealous. Was it the power of suggestion? Harvey did in fact propose marriage to the woman he sat next to on the plane. She accepted before they landed in Stockholm. We still believe to this day that wires got crossed and Harvey appeared in someone else’s movie. 

Although I took a year of Swedish in college, I remained convinced that my fate would be far different from Harvey’s.  So instead of an exodus out of the country, I entered Harvard Divinity School with tremendous trepidation. I sought a 4D, known as a Divinity deferment. I was joining the army of the Lord. 

I was riddled with doubt because of all the stereotypes about ministers: Always had to wear black, sound pious, and use both hands to shake the one hand of others. But I packed my bags including a Bible freshly purchased for the occasion, and drove up to Cambridge. Finding the Divinity School in the age before Siri wasn’t easy. Finally I located Divinity Avenue, but with an ominous street sign: Dead End. I wanted to go back home.

It turned out that the Presbyterian fellow who received divine attention, was an anomaly. The school was bustling with longhaired freaks, the pungent smell of marijuana wafting in the sacred halls, and Birkenstocks were essential footwear. I was not the only one seeking a 4D.

 The war ended in 1973, but I stayed in seminary because I was having too much fun. I really got into it, and by my second year was tutoring two first-year Southern Baptists in New Testament Exegesis. 

Young UU ministers in the Boston area would visit the Divinity School frequently, and I recall many who shared that Vietnam had defined their entire ministry. What would their ministry look like without the War? We had no answers. 

The war may have ended but some U.S. troops remained behind in Vietnam for two years. I know that fact very well. On the week before my 26th birthday, I was selected by The First Parish of Scituate as a pre-candidate. The idyllic town was nestled into the coastline, halfway between Boston and Cape Cod. The Search Committee arranged for me to speak in a “neutral pulpit” in Woburn, Massachusetts. I was ready. I had a fun and light-hearted service carefully planned as I drove to the church on Sunday, May 4th, 1975. Woburn, however, had something else on its mind. The entire town was draped in black. American flags hung from every house, and bunting lined every porch. The streets were deserted. The ushers at the church were somber. Again I thought about trespassing into someone else’s movie, but asked one usher to clue me in. Obviously this was not normal. I learned that two days before, on May 2nd, the very last soldier to die in Vietnam as troops were pulling out was Corporal McMahon from Woburn, Massachusetts. I had ten minutes to change my fun-filled service.

A great lesson learned that day which I still carry with me: Ministry cannot rely on a fixed script. Adapting on the fly is what we all do, but ministers must do so publicly. If the words don’t match the tenor of the day, switch to law school. 

I’ve had some time to reflect on what defines a ministry. Vietnam may not have been a weighty influence for my ministry, but I did get a little sampling just as the troops were finalizing their withdrawal. If I were visiting seminarians today, I couldn’t name the marker event that defined my ministry. There have been far too many wars fought without a shred of moral standing. Maybe the normalization of greed defined my ministry. Maybe climate change. If I entered the ministry just six years ago I would say Black Lives Matter defined my ministry. 

With 45 years of ministry in the barrel, beginning with Scituate and closing out with Salt Lake City, ministry can only be defined by change. Crises of different durations come and go, and the challenge for ministers is keeping the script fresh and relevant. What has defined my ministry for the past four years is disturbingly different from any other era in my ministry.  It has been especially difficult to witness the dismantling of democracy, the elimination of basic human rights, the empowerment of a gun culture. While these grave concerns have defined all of our lives, ministers are charged with finding the words to call it what it is; finding the hope to see us through the storm. This congregation has been very dear to me, crucial in helping us all navigate the big issues of our time whenever they occur. 

And of course hope is why we come to church. We can be good cynics alone at home. But we crave the energy of a congregation in which we find the love and support to define how we ought to live our lives. To be called into ministry by whatever door you enter, is a seldom-experienced privilege.

Tom Goldsmith