Closing Words by Rev. Tom Goldsmith Volume 4

13 October 2020


During each presidential election cycle, I am reminded of my first foray into politics from the pulpit. Some would call it a disaster; I prefer to regard it with humor. The year was 1972 when Richard Nixon soundly beat George McGovern.  Only Massachusetts prevented the landslide from being a complete sweep of all 50 states. 

Long before the UUA had its sophisticated internship program for seminarians to work in churches, we had a simplified version called “student ministry.” All ministerial hopefuls had to clock 20 hours a week in a church for a full year. I felt especially fortunate in having been selected by the First Parish of Framingham, Massachusetts, with the highly regarded Rev. Chuck Gaines as my supervisor. The year was 1972. 

Student ministers ought to have a sign posted on their backs much like student drivers who while being trained alert all vehicles on the road that their car is driven by an inexperienced person, potentially dangerous and unpredictable.  

On the Sunday before the 1972 presidential election, my supervisor gave me the green light for the first time to mount the pulpit and offer a prayer. Framingham, a bedroom community of Boston, boasted a fairly large UU congregation filled with mostly conservative business people working in the insurance industries. I thought they needed a conversion experience, and so I took the prayer as an opportunity to light a liberal flame under their pews.  

I mostly remember delivering a lecture on sin 101 to to an unsuspecting congregation. I proved beyond a shadow of liberal doubt that Nixon was shamefully guilty of every moral violation that pointed to depravity. It didn’t sound much like a prayer despite affixing an “amen” at the end. I knew I was in trouble immediately following the service. The brief conversation with my supervisor went like this: 

Chuck: I’ll see you in my office tomorrow morning.
Tom: You mean Tuesday morning. We meet on Tuesdays.
Chuck: No. I mean tomorrow.  

Although I was taken to the woodshed, the meeting revealed the kind of lessons learned when taught by a skilled and gentle teacher. I quipped that McGovern won Massachusetts only by the margin of those who heard my prayer. We dropped the topic, and in spite of it all, became good friends. Even some church members had the grace to offer me a second chance.  I owe a lot to Chuck even to this day.  

I was the third of a troika of student ministers who worked under Chuck’s guidance over three successive years. After I finished, Chuck decided to take a breather from supervision. He proudly referred to us as his “boys,” moving on to successful ministries following his tutelage. But he also conceded it was time for him to recover from the intensity and exhaustive nature of supervising young bucks. His congregation was quite conventional, possible models for Norman Rockwell, and poor Chuck tried to protect them from an onslaught of left-leaning  divinity students.  

First there was Phil Zwerling, two years ahead of me, and a devout Marxist. Phil spent a lot of time in Cuba perfecting his economic worldview. He not only spoke like a Marxist, he was the genuine article. I invited him to guest speak in Scituate, Massachusetts, my first church. In coffee hour I inquired among my members, “Isn’t he great?” The consensus was an emphatic “no!” 

But Phil found his niche at the First Church in Los Angeles, a church made legend by its minister in the late 40’s, 50’s, and early 60’s, Stephen Fritchman. If you don’t know him, at least Google him or read his biography called Heretic. The LA church had 1200 members in those years when the House on un-American Activities drove liberals insane. All nonprofits had to sign a loyalty oath back then, and Fritchman publicly refused to do so and denounced the new rules as scandalous in a Democracy. The Hollywood 10, who were blackballed by the film industry, supported the church along with countless famous leftish leaders.  

Although the church was but a shell of its former historic presence by the time Phil became their minister, he did introduce some radical ideas for that time. But something very unexpected happened. He married a police officer, a woman from the LAPD. I was happy for him, but wondered if Marxism is something one outgrew in mature years. But who can underestimate the power of love and strange bedfellows and opposites attracting.  I lost touch with Phil soon after his marriage. 

The second of Chuck’s “boys” was Scott McClellan, one year ahead of me. Scott was a Yale undergraduate, and he roomed together with the cartoonist, Gary Trudeau. Highly influenced by the Yale college chaplain, William Sloane Coffin during the Vietnam years, Scott became the chaplain at Stanford. Meanwhile, Trudeau named the minister in his Doonesbury cartoon strip, Rev. Scotty. (What are friends for?) Scott officiated the wedding ceremony of Gary Trudeau and Jane Pauley, which might as well have been a royal wedding at the time. 

The infamous three student ministers of Framingham, Massachusetts in the early 70’s, were trying to advance progressive ideas upon a congregation not quite ready to receive them. The same can be said about circumstances today. Seminarians in the 2020’s are learning to advance multiculturalism and antiracism in congregations not quite ready to welcome the complex changes that need to take place. Disturbing comfort levels, even in liberal congregations who like their church run a certain manner proves an arduous task. It will take a lot of education, and I believe our congregation is ready to absorb and consider the extent of what is actually involved in becoming an antiracist congregation.  

We are fortunate that Rev. Monica Dobbins will soon facilitate two discussions within our congregation on the 8thprinciple. The addition to our highly valued 7 principles, pursues active approaches to antiracism. And the UUA is also preparing a study guide for congregations based on the report of the UUA Commission on Institutional Change called, “Widening the Circle of Concern.” 

As my final year of ministry rapidly winds down, I am heartened by the serious effort underway to help UU congregations finally catch up to their inclusive rhetoric.Antiracism will underscore significantly different ways of doing business in a predominantly white denomination.  

I think perhaps that all of Chuck’s “boys” may wish they were starting ministry all over again. These are exciting times for our congregations to make profound inroads into a completely new understanding of Unitarian Universalism. 

One last footnote: My Framingham supervisor, Chuck Gaines, eventually left the parish ministry to work for the UUA. His ran the Ministerial Settlement, Office, responsible for matching congregations in search of the “right” minister. When I knew the time had come to leave New England ministry in order to add a little more excitement to my life, I felt very confident scheduling an appointment with Chuck. After all, he knew me. 

“So you want an exciting church experience?” he smiled. He stood up from behind his desk and walked over to shelf containing scads of glossy oversized loose-leaf binders. “Here, take a look at this one,” he said. It was a packet from the First Unitarian Church in Salt Lake City. It described the kind of opportunity they could provide for the right minister.  

“I think you might like it,” he said. 
“O.K. I’ll take a look.”

Tom Goldsmith