“An Appreciation of Jack Mendelsohn”

“Called Into the Great, Open, Windy World:
An Appreciation of Jack Mendelsohn, 1918-2012”
A Sermon by Rev. John E. Gibbons
Delivered on Sunday, October 28, 2012
at The First Parish in Bedford, Massachusetts


Opening Words

Come, then, to this place to worship with the soul, to elevate the spirit to God. Let not this house be desecrated by a religion of show. Let it not degenerate into a place of forms. Let not your pews be occupied by lifeless machines. Do not come here to take part in lethargic repetitions of sacred words. Do not come from a cold sense of duty, to quiet conscience with the thought of having paid a debt to God. Do not come to perform a present task to insure a future heaven. Come to find heaven now, to anticipate the happiness of that better world by breathing its spirit, to bind your souls indissolubly to your Maker. Come to worship in spirit and in truth, that is, intelligently, rationally, with clear judgment, with just and honorable conceptions of the Infinite, not prostrating your understandings, not renouncing the divine gift of reason, but offering an enlightened homage, such as is due to the Fountain of intelligence and truth. — Come to worship with the heart as well as intellect, with life, fervor, zeal. Sleep over your business if you will, but not over your religion.

– William Ellery Channing, adapted


“l Call That Mind Free”

I call that mind free which masters the senses, and which recognizes its own reality and greatness:

Which passes life, not in asking what it shall eat or drink, but in hungering, thirsting, and seeking after righteousness.

I call that mind free which jealously guards its intellectual rights and powers, which does not content itself with a passive or hereditary faith:

Which opens itself to light whencesoever it may come; which receives new truth as an angel from heaven.

I call that mind free which is not passively framed by outward circumstances, and is not the creature of accidental impulse:

Which discovers everywhere the radiant signatures of the infinite spirit, and in them finds help to its own spiritual enlargement.

I call that mind free which protects itself against the usurpations of society, and which does not cower to human opinion:

Which refuses to be the slave or tool of the many or of the few, and guards its empire over itself as nobler than the empire of the world.

I call that mind free which resists the bondage of habit, which does not mechanically copy the past, nor live on its old virtues:

But which listens for new and higher monitions of conscience, and rejoices to pour itself forth in fresh and higher exertions.

I call that mind free which sets no bounds to its love, which, wherever they are seen, delights in virtue and sympathizes with suffering:

Which recognizes in all human beings the image of God and the rights of God’s children, and offers itself up a willing sacrifice to the cause of humankind.

I call that mind free which has cast off all fear but that of wrongdoing, and which no menace or peril can enthrall:

Which is calm in the midst of tumults, and possesses itself, though all else be lost.

-William Ellery Channing



When in 1997 Jack Mendelsohn accepted our denomination’s highest honor, the Distinguished Service Award, he chose the occasion to critique the oft-quoted claim by Theodore Parker (later picked up by Martin Luther King, Jr.) that “the arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice.”   Jack agreed that the universe is long but, wary of unwarranted optimism, he warned that there is nothing inevitable.  “Nothing is settled! ” Jack exclaimed.  “Nothing!  If – if! – it is to bend toward justice, it will be human hands that do the bending, and those hands can be our hands.”

In the world of Unitarian Universalism and beyond, Jack Mendelsohn singularly exemplified the possibility and power of human agency to make a difference.  He is significantly responsible for making Unitarian Universalism what so many of us assume it of course is but which Unitarian Universalism always really wasn’t: that is, a public ministry, ever committed to freedom, justice, human rights and the spirit of democracy.

Though there have been historic UU public ministries, like that of John Haynes Holmes who inspired Mendelsohn, social justice was not always a core priority for Unitarians or Universalists.  As a prolific author and indefatigable activist, Mendelsohn redefined our faith for the 20th century.  With human agency at the center, Jack Mendelsohn is largely responsible for making social justice essential to the DNA of Unitarian Universalist identity.

Mendelsohn entered our ministry with a single goal: to make the world a better place. Too often religion was anti-intellectual, conformist, effete and subservient.  In Unitarianism, Mendelsohn saw the unfulfilled potential for a world-changing movement.  Writing in the 1940’s, Mendelsohn acknowledged, “for all its shackles of New England traditionalism and best-family-ness, it granted freedom to its ministers and deep faith in the moral competence of humanity.”

Thus Mendelsohn championed a liberal religious movement that is modern, smart, edgy, counter-cultural and dangerous to every power and principality that would smother the human spirit.   In print, in the pulpit, around the world and on the front lines of every progressive cause, Jack Mendelsohn made Unitarian Universalism something meaningful, exciting, attractive and important, a vital and vigorous approach to life that makes a difference and matters.

Born at home in Cambridge, MA, in 1918 to professional pianist Anna Torrey and Jack Mendelsohn, Sr., a music publisher, he regarded his mother with deepest affection.  He said,  “It was difficult for me to think of God as being other than a woman, like my mother.”

Thus, when he was eight, he was deeply affected by his mother’s death from peritonitis.  “All that mattered to me was the loss of the most important person in the world. I was hurt and angry, desolate and resentful. For the first time in my life I had asked God for something.  I had begged God for something! And God had turned and slapped me in the face, as I had seen some parents strike my playmates.  Since that moment religious questions have never been far from my thoughts. It may be a gift or a neurosis, but I am gripped with the habit of religious searching.”

Mendelsohn’s searchings led to the ministry where, following education at Boston University and Harvard Divinity School, he served congregations – first, as a student he was the “acting minister” in Brewster, MA, (a title that amused him and where he also played semi-pro baseball – second base – in the Cape Cod League), then a brief ministry at the Beverly church in Chicago where he was ordained in 1945, then Rockford, IL, Indianapolis, IN, the Arlington Street Church in Boston, the First Unitarian Church in Chicago, and finally here at First Parish where, after serving 10 years, he was named our Minister Emeritus in 1988.

In Indianapolis in 1956, he stood up for the separation of church and state, objecting to the religious content of the public school curriculum and threatening suit.

In his 10-year ministry in Boston, beginning in 1959, Jack transformed the liberal but stodgy Arlington Street congregation by welcoming artists, young people and Boston’s new black leadership.  Public figures like Kevin White and Mike and Kitty Dukakis were often in the pews.

Thinking that “Jack” was too informal a name, a Beacon Hill Brahmin parishioner once offered to pay the legal expenses for him to change his name from “Jack” to “John.”  He declined; that parishioner might have been aghast to learn that the name on his birth certificate was “Jacob.”

A confidant of public figures such as Adlai Stevenson, Saul Alinsky, Kurt Vonnegut, Robert Kennedy and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Mendelsohn’s was an engaged, public and controversial ministry that confronted every establishment of racism, sexism and injustice.

I recall hearing Kurt Vonnegut speak in Cambridge.  He prefaced his remarks by noting that Jack Mendelsohn had conducted his father’s memorial service.  “That was all right,” Vonnegut said, “my father was dead at the time.”

Jack’s friendships were legion.  Always an advocate for a “wide ministry,” his width of friendship included Richard Cardinal Cushing, Archbishop of Boston, with whom he shared activist passions and an occasional strong drink. With Martin Luther King, Jr., he marched in Selma, AL in 1965 where one of Jack’s Arlington Street parishioners, the Rev. James Reeb, was murdered.

Jack went to the Reeb’s home in Boston when he learned what had happened.  Reeb’s wife asked that Jack go to their 13-year old son’s bedroom and be the one to break the news that his father would likely die of his injuries.  Perhaps he remembered his mother’s death but Jack never forgot that awful night.

Recalling their time at the Arlington Street Church, former governor Michael Dukakis remembers, “It’s hard to describe just how important Jack was to young people like Kitty and me as we were gradually coming of age politically and philosophically during the McCarthy era and beyond. People think times are tough these days, but the Tea Party and its views are a pale imitation of the kind of hysteria that ruled the land at that time. There weren’t many people, including people of the cloth, who had the courage to stand up and call us to our better values, and Jack was one of them. Kitty and I are affiliated with different religions, but an occasional sermon at the Arlington Street Church was balm for our souls. He was very, very special.”

A defining moment occurred at the UUA’s General Assembly in Boston in 1969. When the demands of African-Americans and their allies were spurned, Mendelsohn led a “walkout” of several hundred delegates.  Mendelsohn was spat upon and one colleague said, “If I had a gun, I would have shot you.”

Jack was a master of righteous indignation and, since his death, I cannot tell you how many people have reminded me that “Jack did not suffer fools gladly.”  Margaret Woodside is a friend of mine and a retired religious educator.  Last week she emailed me this story:

“It was maybe 1969, I was doing a 2 week summer workshop for Directors of Religious Education at First Church, Chicago. At the time, I had a good friend from my home town who was a draft resister. He was in Chicago as part of the resistance movement and he was the editor and printer of a free newspaper. I invited him to come to have dinner with me at the Chicago Theological Seminary, where we took our meals. When he arrived, his hands were black with the ink he was working with on the press. It was just ground into the skin AND he had long curly hair. The servers refused to serve him and insisted that he leave. Jack was eating dinner so I went to him for help. Jack was furious and mopped up the floor with those servers. He welcomed my friend and invited us to have dinner with him. It was vintage Jack.”

Margaret now attends our church in Oakland, California, and she told me that last Sunday two parishioners there lit candles in Jack’s honor and remembrance.  I am sure candles were lit around the world.  Our former assistant minister Maud Robinson, now at our church in Edinburgh, Scotland tells me that her parishioners remember him preaching there in 1980 when Jack chaired the worldwide bicentennial celebration of the birth of William Ellery Channing.

Also in the 1980’s, as minister in Chicago, and as leader of the Alliance to End Repression, Jack filed suit against the police department whose notorious “Red Squad” was collaborating with the FBI, harassing and spying on law-abiding but liberal citizens – and he won.  He would have noted, with righteous indignation, this week’s revelation that the Boston police have been doing the same thing!

After Bedford, Jack served interim ministries in Santa Barbara, (where he hated preaching two sermons every Sunday), as well as the Community Church in Boston and our church in Beverly, Massachusetts.

In recent years as well, Jack was CEO of the Civil Rights Project that produced the PBS civil rights documentary Eyes on the Prize and where, at Blackside, Inc., he collaborated with his friend, filmmaker Henry Hampton.

Jack gave leadership in every corner of Unitarian Universalism, serving the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Women and Religion Committee, Beacon Press, Collegium, the UU Ministers Association and the UU Service Committee.

In the 1940’s after the war, the denomination sent him to Europe to learn more about the collaboration of Unitarians and communists (he discovered in some places at least, as leaders of the resistance, they were one and the same people!).

In the 1950’s before the merger of Unitarians and Universalists, it was Jack who was the Unitarian whip, the one with maps and pushpins who organized and campaigned for Unitarian churches to vote in favor of merger.  Some of us know Ray Hopkins, who now lives at Ferry Beach – and it was Ray who campaigned for Universalists to do the same thing.

In the 1960’s Jack was in the thick of the civil rights, anti-war and emerging women’s movements.  This poster is an iconic image of a draft resistance service at Arlington Street Church in 1967 where draft cards were burned – an action that Jack supported with some reluctance.  Like Channing, he too could be a reluctant radical for Jack was also a pragmatist.  Because events like the draft resistance service provoked threats to firebomb the church, the church’s insurance company cancelled their coverage and because no one would insure the property, for years the members kept a 24-hour a day rotation to protect the building.

Jack’s affinity for controversy energized both his supporters and his detractors, and in a hard-fought 1977campaign for the presidency of the UUA in which he and two other candidates barnstormed the entire country, Jack was narrowly defeated. Jack’s memory of history was undiminished and only a few days before his death, Jack reminded me that he lost that election by a margin of 45 votes.  45! Not 44, not 46. 45!  This “Jack.” button is from that campaign.  (John wore the campaign button on his lapel.)

There was nothing quite like being with Jack at a UUA General Assembly.  He could not go 50 feet down a convention hallway without being greeted by 75 friends.  Walking with him, it took forever to get where we were going!

The Rev. Bill Sinkford, a former student of Jack’s who became the first African-American president of the UUA, recalls “What a life and what a loss. Jack’s death leaves an empty place in my heart and in the heart of our Unitarian Universalist faith. Jack was one of the premier faith voices for justice for decades. From racial justice to the empowerment of women and the work for BGLT rights, Jack was there. He managed the delicate balance of providing leadership while at the same time supporting and following the leadership of others, especially those on the margins. In our work to stand on the side of love, we would do well to remember how Jack stood and how he walked with others toward the Beloved Community.

“He will be remembered most, I expect, for his justice work.  I remember most, however, his tender heart, his willingness to ask for and offer forgiveness, and his amazing ability to use our past and his past to point the way to a better tomorrow. I miss him so.”

Denny Davidoff, former Moderator of the UUA and who preached from this pulpit at the dedication of our 2000 addition, recalls “Jack Mendelsohn understood and championed the cause of feminism within the UUA when lots of other people, men and women alike, were grumbling about ‘uppity women.’ As usual he got it fast and fought for it hard.”

Jack championed an expansive and inclusive ministry: “To minister,” Jack said, “- and here the word embraces laity and clergy alike – is to be called out of our pretensions, poses, and protective facades and into the great, open, windy world, where we are at least alive, even if tremblingly so, and where the chances of confirming the sanctities of our blundering hearts are endless.”

He wrote Reluctant Radical, a biography of Channing; The Martyrs, a memoir of those who gave their lives in the civil rights movement – Emmett Till, Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney, Viola Liuzzo, James Reeb and others; The Forest Calls Back, the story of Dr. Theodor Binder’s humanitarian work in Peru; God, Allah, and Ju-Ju – a prescient work about the emerging democracies in post-colonial Africa (he was called in by the State Department because he had broken bread with heads of state whom no one in the government had ever met!); and the basic text of Unitarian Universalism, still in print, Being Liberal in an Illiberal Age – dedicated to his liberal companions, “the wild asses noted in the 39th chapter of Job, who roam the barren wilderness searching after every green thing.”  The wild asses – that’s you!

Jack accompanied Jesse Jackson on diplomatic missions that met with Fidel Castro, Yasser Arafat, and Hafez al-Assad in Syria where in 1984 they secured the release of captured American Navy pilot, Lt. Robert Goodman. Learning that Goodman would be released, Jackson enthusiastically gripped Jack in a bear-hug that fractured three of Jack’s ribs!

I recall going with Jack to a breakfast meeting of black Boston clergy when Jackson was the speaker.  However improbably, Jackson turned to Jack and told the assembled clergy that “ it was Jack who taught me how to pray!”  Jack stood with those ministers through some very difficult times and they remembered and honored him with profound affection.

When the Rev. Al Sharpton visited Bedford in 1995, during the “time for all ages” I asked him, what, as a child, did he want to do when he grew up?  Without missing a beat, Sharpton replied that he “wanted to grow up to be Jack Mendelsohn!”

“To us,” he wrote in Being Liberal in an Illiberal Age,  “creating a religious way of life is far too important to be left to the propounders of creeds and dogmas.  We become Unitarian Universalists not by substituting one confession of faith for another, but by opening our minds to receive truth and inspiration from every possible source.  The most fundamental of all our principles, then, is individual freedom of religious belief–the principle of the free mind.”

In a 1981 sermon titled “A Heimlich Maneuver for America,” Mendelsohn raised alarm for a nation choking “…on a scam: the manipulation of politics by religious absolutists and the manipulation of spiritual malaise by reactionary politicians.”

His sermon concludes:

“Progressive and compassionate religious forces, like a silhouette painting, will begin to take new shape by what the rampant right in religion and politics is seemingly driven to do. It is critical, as we construct an activist interfaith agenda (and here Jack echoes the words of Channing with which we opened this service) that we will sanctify no self-serving pieties, no coarse manifestations of greed and privilege, no social amnesia in the name of personal salvation; that we will be defined by a sense of the holy that is genuinely liberating as well as commanding. There will be no play-acting, no mumbling by rote, no posturing.  We will commit ourselves to what transcends ourselves, to what makes the whole world, not just our private corners of it, more fit for living. We will cleave to history’s higher rather than its meaner meanings. We will act for the freedom and dignity of those to whom freedom and dignity are now a farce. Our disciplines will be humility and hope. Our faith will exalt love, justice and moral power, a marvelous mixture of openness and conviction.”  Somebody say Amen!

What I have preached to you, with some variations, is an appreciation I was asked to write for the UU World and is now posted on-line.  I was also asked to write a more personal postscript, and this is it:

Though, in the 1960’s, I was growing up in Chicago while Jack served the Arlington Street Church in Boston, I’ve known Jack since I was a teenager.  Elected a youth delegate, I came to Boston in 1969 for my first General Assembly. Despairing that the assembly had missed a defining opportunity to redress racism, I was among the hundreds of delegates, including most of the youth, who followed Jack and walked out.  Tears streamed down my cheeks and my vision blurred amidst the lights of TV news cameras.   We encamped at the Arlington Street Church.  Jack, of course, was at the center of the action.

The atmosphere, however, was not despondent; it was righteous and it was mobilizing.  We were rallied by seasoned veterans like Jack and Steve Fritchman but it was more like an Occupy site: part protest, part teach-in, participatory, rich in diversities of age and race, lay and ordained, ragtag but robust. We strategized and sang, tended to our wounds and fortified our spirits. We learned to follow and to lead.  An old photo in a UUA publication shows me speaking from the ASC pulpit before a motley congregation strewn about the sanctuary, legs dangling from the balconies.  It was history-making and it was hopeful.  Could anything be better?

These events were heady, heart-swelling and spirited; and Jack showed us the way.  We who walked out eventually returned, but we were forever changed.  We were a small part of a large history but we learned that history is something we indeed can change.  We learned that, despite its frailties and our own, Unitarian Universalism has power and glory.  We learned that all human beings have agency, that we can seize time and redeem our times.  Forty-three years ago, that is what Jack taught me and so many others and, though our paths vary, we know we walk in Jack’s footsteps.

In 1990 I had the honor of following Jack here.  Since then, he has given me good counsel and he has privileged me to be his counselor.  Often together we talked politics and baseball, celebrated victories, lamented losses, drank martinis, recounted the history and plotted the future of Unitarian Universalism, reconciled with brokenness and we pondered the meanings of our lives.  Sometimes I asked him easy questions about the state of the world.  Sometimes my questions were more difficult, like “Jack, how are you?”  In their living room, with my wife as sole witness, I officiated at Jack’s marriage to Judith, his true love.

There have been times when Jack endured me and I too endured him but our respect and affection have been constant and mutual.  Never did Jack more gladden my heart than when he regularly introduced me to others, saying, “This is my minister.”

Jack will always be mine.

And Jack will always be ours.


Closing Words

– from Wallace Stevens, “The Man with the Blue Guitar,” a favorite of Jack’s:

“The man bent over his guitar,
A shearsman of sorts. The day was green.
They said, “You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.”
The man replied, “Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.”
And they said then, “But play, you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,
A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are.”