Paul Carlson selected for 2012 lifetime achievement award
by Yonat Shimron
For years, Paul R. Carlson was torn between two callings,
one as a religion reporter, the other as a pastor. But Carlson, now 82, has
never been torn about the Religion Newswriters Association, a group he joined
In recognition of his many contributions to religion reporting and to the RNA,
the RNA Board voted this spring to recognize Carlson with the William A. Reed
Lifetime Achievement Award. The award will be given during the Oct. 4-6 RNA
Conference in Bethesda, Md.
A reporter for many years–first with the Binghamton (NY) Sun, and later
with United Press, The Stroudsburg Record (now The Pocono Record),
and finally, Religion News Service–Carlson loved religion reporting before it
was ever popular.
"The biggest value of the job,” he wrote, "was to widen my encounter
and understanding of religion beyond the narrow parameters of Baptist beliefs,
as well as Protestant fundamentalism in general.”
After serving for many years in public relations, including as Secretary for
Publicity with the World Council of Churches in Geneva, Switzerland, Carlson
was ordained and served as a pastor of a Presbyterian church in Queens, N.Y. He
also completed a doctorate in Education from New York University. His
dissertation subject was interfaith relations, a concern that runs throughout
his life’s work.
His seminal book on the subject is Christianity After Auschwitz:
Evangelicals Encounter Judaism in the New Millennium. He has written seven
Last year, Carlson wrote a short memoir of his life as a religion reporter
titled A Scribe By Trade: A Religion Reporter’s Sentimental Journey (see excerpt below).
In February, RNA published the piece on its website, calling it "a love
story.” And there’s really no better way to describe his affection for RNA and
for religion reporters generally.
"Now in the sunset of life,” Carlson wrote, "I can look back on my
twin careers as a cleric and as a journalist and say quite frankly that I have
far more happy memories of my association with fellow journalists than I do
with many clergy.”
Carlson, and his wife, Myrtle, have been attending RNA meetings off and on
through the years. They plan to attend this year’s conference, health
A Scribe By Trade: A Religion Reporter’s Sentimental Journey
By Paul R. Carlson
It certainly wasn’t easy to bid farewell to the old Binghamton (NY) Sun in the Fall of 1950 to become a student at the Providence Bible Institute in Rhode Island. The move was all the harder when my city editor expressed wonderment that any reporter interested in religion would abandon what he considered a "congregation” of thousands to prepare to serve one of a couple hundred at best. All things considered, the move to New England was asking a lot of the girl who gave up her own job to walk down the aisle with me just a month earlier.
As I reflect upon my bride’s sacrifice more than 60 years later, I am repeatedly drawn to the solo New York State Assemblyman Richard H. Knauf sang when we exchanged vows at the Bridgewater Baptist Church in Montrose, PA. We first heard the words of "The Love of God,” when George Beverly Shea sang them at a Billy Graham Crusade. Since then, we have learned that its lyrics are based, in part, on the Jewish poem Hadamut, written in Aramaic in 1096 by Meir Ben Isaac Nehorai, a cantor in Worms, Germany. Here are those words which are still sung on Shavuot, or the Feast of Weeks, when Jews celebrate God giving them the Torah:
Could we with ink the ocean fill, And were the skies of parchment made, Were every stalk on earth a quill, And every man a scribe by trade, To write the love of God above, Would drain the ocean drive. Nor could the scroll contain the whole, Though stretched from sky to sky.
These words are said to have been pencilled on the wall of a room in an asylum by a demented patient in a moment of lucidity. When Frederick M. Lehman, a Christian pastor and hymn writer, came across these words of Jewish origin many years later, he added the first and second verses. They have since been translated in 19 languages, binding Jews and Christians in a recognition of the unfathomable love of God.
What is further striking to us is that this poem somehow reflects our spiritual odyssey as religion journalists, who moved from the strict Fundamentalism of our youth to a recognition of God’s universal love for His entire creation. There is something liberating about covering a story about Jewish concerns one day, another about Roman Catholic values the next, and, at the end of the day, having the privilege of serving as an adjunct instructor at a Jesuit university. As an old Pentecostal friend would have remarked: "That’s enough to make a Presbyterian shout!”
I realize all-too-well my schmaltzy memoir will be seen by some as unbecoming of a serious journalist. In response, I can only ask the reader’s indulgence as I pay tribute to certain people, organizations and events, that offered personal joy and fulfilment along the way. Above all, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to my beloved Myrt, with whom I celebrated my 61st wedding anniversary on August 5, 2011. She has always been there to encourage and help me, even in the darkest days and in the most challenging times.
I have often marveled that there was virtually nothing that Myrt could not do. On one occasion, she was asked to fill in on the social desk of The Stroudsburg Record when its editor, Bobby Westbrook, was on vacation. For two weeks, I sat across from her each night as she wrote the items and handled the make up for as many as three pages. As for this present undertaking, she knew exactly where to find letters, pictures and scrapbooks, some dating back before our marriage, that she had collected over the years.
I must also pay tribute to two veteran editors of The Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin, to whom I turned for help when I couldn’t for the life of me remember how to spell the surname of Sun City Editor Chuck Voorhis, to whom I owe so much for giving me my start as a religion writer.
News Editor Charlie Jaworski surmised correctly that it was V-o-o-r-h-i-s. But, to double check, he turned to former Sports Editor John W. Fox for confirmation. And thus began a brief but delightful e-mail exchange between John and yours truly.
Fox filled me in on three others I remember quite well from my days in Binghamton. The late and lamented Sam Nash was the sports editor of The Sun, who occasionally filled the slot of city editor when Voorhis was otherwise engaged. Sam gave me a Catholic Missal just before I left for The Savannah Evening Press, with a cautionary word not to display it among what he feared could be hostile Southern Protestants. But not to worry. I’ll always remember Sam as one of the finest wordsmiths I have ever known. Sam was taken ill and later died at a ball game.
John Fox remembers it well because he joined The Binghamton Press sports department in June, 1949, right after graduating from Syracuse University. Nash died, he recalls, a week or two later.
Bill Behan started out at The Sun about the same time but was lured to The Press not log afterward. A fine reporter and sharp dresser, was a devout Catholic who one evening invited me to his apartment after work to talk theology over Scotch. When I called Bill some years later, he told me he had become a doting grandfather, particularly after his wife’s death.
And then there was Bill Lawton, another good journalist who began at The Sun and also ended up on The Press, where, as John Fox says, he served nobly for many years as Editorial Page director Sadly, Lawton died about 1999, after being bedridden the last fours years of his life.
May they rest in peace.
On a lighter note, I’ll never forget a beastly hot, sticky night when Sam Nash was filling in for Chuck as city editor. It was after midnight, as I recall, when the wooden steps creaked under the weight of an IBM public relations man who wanted to get something into the paper at that late hour. Others would have been told to get lost. But not this consummate flack.
He was sweating profusely, and chomping on a cigar, as he answered Sam’s welcome by dropping a case of ice cold beer on the floor, and pleading: "I’ve got a couple more cases downstairs. ”Will someone help me carry them up?"
Of course, the IBM story made the second edition.
Of all my colleagues on The Sun none was more of a character than Joe Diehl, the police reporter. Apart from his wife, there was no one Diehl loved more than his dog, Rex the Hex. On one occasion, Joe threw the newsroom into turmoil when he slammed down his telephone, and shouted: "My wife’s not home, and the damn dog won’t answer the phone.”
When it came to the Religion beat, the anecdotes are virtually endless. Harold Schachern of The Detroit News beaming with an almost celestial glow upon eating a dish of vanilla ice cream. And Margaret Vance of The Newark (NJ) Morning News grousing about Caspar Nannes of The Washington (DC) Star having to have his steak and potatoes precisely at six o’clock.
One of my most indelible memories was that of the night of JFK’s assassination when I hand delivered a statement from Eugene Carson Blake to The New York Herald-Tribune and found Jo-Ann Price pounding out the religion angle of the tragedy on a beaten up old typewriter with her nose almost touching the keyboard. I laid the text on her desk and left without a word.
Perhaps Lance Zavitz of The Buffalo Evening News offered an observation at RNA’s 1957 annual meeting which may be a fitting ending for the preface to this self-indulgent exercise. about people I came to know and love. Lance noted at that time:
There won’t be any more need for preachers in heaven because everyone will be saved, and there won’t be any need for physicians because all will be healed. But there always will be the need for reporters to let the people on the north side know what’s happening on the south side.
And every RNA member said, Amen!
Buck Hill Falls
Ghosts now roam the empty halls of the imposing Northeastern Pennsylvania hostelry where leaders of American Protestantism once addressed the challenges facing the churches of their day.
That at least is the rumor about The Inn at Buck Hill Falls, PA, whose guest register once included the names of such luminaries as Eleanor Roosevelt, Helen Keller, Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King, Jr, as well as those actively working toward the goal of Christian unity.
But then The Inn fell upon hard times, giving rise to tall tales heightened by a sensational television series that its only occupants now are those ghosts bent upon mayhem, murder and madness.
Whatever the case, I will always be grateful that it was there in 1955 that I covered my first national religion meeting as a reporter for The Stroudsburg (now Pocono) Record. A year later, I was also filing stories from Buck Hill Falls to The New York Times.
From its modest beginning in 1901 as an 18-room retreat house for Philadelphia Quakers, The Inn eventually expanded into a secluded 400-room conference center with an indoor swimming pool and a huge covered porch from which guests could enjoy afternoon tea in rocking chairs as they viewed the picturesque Pocono Mountains below.
For many, travel to The Inn involved boarding the Lackawanna Railroad’s fabled Phoebe Snow in New York City and disembarking in Cresco, PA, where they would be met by limousine and from there shuttled to this resort known for its fine food and sheer elegance.
Apart from the annual Quaker retreats, one of the first major national religion gathering at The Inn was held in June, 1929, under the sponsorship of the interdenominational Christian Herald, which then boasted of an impressive circulation of more than 235,000.
Focusing on a growing interest in church union, the conference drew heavy coverage from Time Magazine, which attributed its success to Stanley High, editor of The Christian Herald, and the brain child behind the meeting.
According to Time, there was consensus among participants that "the perils that face Christianity have no regard for denominational lines,” while, at the same time, "the problems that most vitally confront Christians are nonsectarian.”
For many, Time reported, there was little justification to support "surplus of Protestant church edifices, with three times as many sittings as there are adherents.”
In the wake of World War II, there had been an uptake in church attendance, and with it renewed interest in ending what was being described as "the scandal of our divisions.” In pursuit of that goal, the World Council of Churches held its first assembly in Amsterdam in 1948, and elected a sturdy Dutch theologian named Dr. Willem Adolph Visser’t Hooft as its general secretary.
Vim, as he was affectionately known among colleagues, was an ideal choice because he somehow had the contacts and savvy to keep the lines of communication open among church leaders on both sides of the conflict until war’s end.
On this side of the Atlantic, the Federal (now National) Council of Churches sought to pursue the same objectives as its international counterpart. Together, leaders of both groups would find their way to The Inn to deal with concerns common to both.
I had been on deck at The Inn only a few months when I received a letter from Harold Faber, then day national news editor of The New York Times, asking whether I would be interested in filing stories from there.
In that letter of January 26, 1956, Mr. Faber made it clear that this appointment was to be limited to Buck Hill Falls, because, he said, his newspaper already had a correspondent in place to cover the wider Pocono Mountain area.
If interested, Faber said he had an immediate assignment for me. "We would like to start with the Foreign Missions Board of the Congregational Christian Churches at Buck Hill Falls, January 30 to February 2,” Faber said. "Will you please send us 150 words a day, to be received here before 6 P.M..”
What I wasn’t aware of then was that the Congregational Christian Churches would merge with the Evangelical and Reformed Church in Cleveland in June, 1957, to form the United Church of Christ. As it turned out, my wife Myrt and I were to personally witness this historic event which was to change our own lives in remarkable ways.
Apart from covering those sessions, I became one of eight new members of the Religion Newswriters Association (RNA), which was holding its eighth annual meeting in conjunction with that leading to the creation of a new mainline denomination. Stroudsburg Record city editor Jim Riley noted my participation in his column:
Paul was one of the 12 finalists to compete for the James O. Supple Memorial Award, given each year for excellence in church news reporting.
The coveted prize finally went to Adon Taft, Miami, Florida, but Carlson was one of the dozen entries in the battle right down to the final vote. Paul’s writing was on display at the Hotel Cleveland.
A total of 85 papers, from all sections of the United States, were represented at the convention.
"Congratulations,” Jim wrote, "are certainly in order.”
Earlier that year, I received first prize for spot news and a second place for a feature series I wrote for the newspaper, in Division 2 of the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publishers Association’s Better Writing Contest.
The spot news story involved the deaths of five students who were returning to the Stroudsburg State Teachers College after a break when their car was hit head-on by a Greyhound bus on a fog-shrouded, icy stretch of road. If memory serves correctly, the driver was sentenced to two years in prison following the incident. Of my handling of the story, Robert N. Caldwell of The Bayonne (NJ) Times, wrote:
Paul R. Carlson was direct, complete, and literate in covering an accident in which five young men were killed. He avoided the pitfalls that are too common in newspaper descriptions of such accidents. He let his facts and their sound organization carry the story without intruding his own adjectives and his own emotions into the story. His work is thoroughly professional.
Apart from getting to know some of the top religion writers of the secular press, the Cleveland meeting also introduced me to the David C. Cook Publishing Company, a major purveyor of Protestant Sunday school literature. Jim English, its editorial director, was there hoping to enlist RNA members in writing an occasional piece for his company.
As it turned out, David C. Cook provided me with assignments throughout my seminary years and beyond. I also got to know the company’s top executives, including Lee Vance, the power behind the throne, as well as David C. Cook, III, who turned up at the WCC assembly in New Delhi, who picked up the tab for lunch at Gaylord’s on Connaught Circle.
All this, thanks to a series of events that began at Buck Hill Falls an eventually led me to Cleveland and membership in RNA. Pretty heady stuff for a kid in his mid-twenties!
So heady in fact that I took full advantage of the evening receptions hosted by The Cleveland Plain Dealer and The Cleveland Press. There I was introduced to a devilishly delicious drink. Something called a martini.
I was well into my second drink when it was announced that dinner was about to be served. Myrt and I were to sit next to Bob Whitaker of The Providence Journal-Bulletin and his wife. At some point, Bob inquired as to my whereabouts; but not even Myrt knew that I was trying to sleep off the effects of two martinis under a table in an adjoining banquet hall!
But not to worry.
Myrt and I made it to Pittsburgh the next afternoon to meet Dr. Jarvis Cotton, vice-president of what was then Western (now Pittsburgh) Theological Seminary. We were there to inquire whether the seminary would accept me as a student in the Fall of 1957 after Princeton seminary had turned me down flat because I had no more than a bachelor’s degree from Providence Bible Institute in Rhode Island.
When Dr. Cotton learned of my niche with The New York Times, he calculated that yes, despite the lateness of my request, Western could find a spot for me that Fall. And while married student housing was tight, he said, the seminary would somehow find an apartment for Myrt, our son Paul, Jr, and me.
We hadn’t settled in our apartment a week before I discovered that my work as a journalist would serve me well in seminary. Bob Kinchloe, the head of the Pittsburgh Area Council of Churches, asked if I would be interested in serving as his part time public relations associate. I accepted the offer and the first thing I did was to create a tabloid newspaper for the council.
A short time later, Don Bolles, Sr., a former AP staffer who was then public relations director for the National Council of Churches, stopped by Kinchloe’s office and asked whether the seminary would allow me to skip classes for a week in early December to help out in the press room at the NCC’s triennial meeting in St. Louis. When I reported the request to the school, Dean Frank McCloy sent me a brief note:
The Faculty has granted you permission to absent yourself from classes in the first week of December in order to attend the meetings of the National Council.
I was off to St. Louis, stopping first in Chicago to see family members, and then flying onward to St. Louis on a Delta red eye for $16.
When I arrived at the Keil Auditorium for the meeting, George Cornell saw me struggling with my suitcase and carried it into the convention hall and the thence to the press room.
Apart from the proceedings at this solemn assembly, there occurred an incident still remembered by a few of RNA’s oldest members.
After the lights went out in the press room one night, a few scribes were about to exit the Kiel from the street level exhibit floor. There they came upon a little calf on exhibit for the Heifer Project. Feeling sorry for the little guy, they decided to let him romp outside his pen for awhile. After sampling some potent potables, they returned and decided they had better return the calf to his pen. When morning came, the scribes doubled up in laughter as they saw a maintenance man with a broom scratching his head wondering how the calf managed to leave his calling card outside the pen.
The nagging question of whether I would continue in journalism or answer the call to the ministry was determined – at least for the near term. My days at The Inn were temporarily ended. But they were far from over. I would return time and again in the years ahead.
Before saying au revoir to this lovely venue in 1957, I could look back with a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction over the leaders I had met and the stories I had covered there during my brief stint with The New York Times.
While there, I had covered sessions of the Episcopal House of Bishops, the World and National councils of churches, and the top leaders of other mainline Protestant bodies.
None impressed me more than Methodist Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam, in part because of his kindness one snowy night when he spared me a dicey drive to Cresco where I was to pick up the text of an address he delivered at The Inn earlier that day. At his suggestion, we instead met at the East Stroudsburg train station where we went over the text during a 20-minute layover before his train continued on to New York City.
When Bishop Oxnam died of Parkinson’s disease in 1963, many friends and colleagues insisted that his death had been hastened by the treatment he received from House Un-American Activities Committee a decade earlier. One critic summed up the 42 counts of subversion against Oxnam by accusing him of "serv[ing] God on Sunday and Communist front organizations the rest of the week.”
In response, the bishop warned the committee that it’s actions were giving rise "to a new and vicious expression of Ku-Kluxism in which an innocent person may be beaten by unknown assailants who are cloaked in anonymity and, at times, immunity.”
Oxnam was hardly alone among the major leaders of American Protestantism to be singled out for libel and harassment by Senator McCarthy and his cohorts. Another was the Rev. Dr. Roswell P. Barnes, then associate general secretary of the National Council of Churches and later the WCC’s top representative in the United States.
Eventually, Bishop Oxnam, Dr. Barnes, and other targets of the HUAC witch hunt were cleared of all charges, while the rogue Republican senator died in disgrace in 1957 – the year I had entered seminary.
Little did I know then that my acceptance of the post of editor of the English edition of Ecumenical Press Service (EPS) three years later would keep me involved in journalism for much of my ministry. It also helped me maintain friendships with members of RNA, as we covered religion around the U.S. and abroad – including my old stomping ground in Buck Hill Falls.
On one occasion, the Rev. Dr. James W. Kennedy, a prominent Episcopal cleric and editor of his denomination’s Forward Movement Publications, approached me at The Inn and asked whether I would tackle the job of writing a refutation of the canards still being put forth by the radical right at the expense of mainline American Protestantism.
Jim admitted that United Press religion writer Louis Cassels had previously turned him down. But he added that there was the munificent sum of $150 awaiting me if I could churn out a manuscript for his Miniature Book series in 60-days.
When I accepted the challenge, he was true to his word. He called on the morning of the 60th day to remind me of the deadline. My wife informed him that it was already in the mail, and he, in turn, promised that the $150 check would go out that same day!
As it turned out, it was Dr. Cynthia Wedel, later NCC president, who gave the book its name. She called it God’s Church – Not Ours, and it sold for 25-cents a copy and distributed nationwide by the National Council of Churches.
Meanwhile, the truth had eluded me for some time as to how and why The New York Times had contacted me in the first place about the Buck Hill Falls job. As it turned out, the answer had been staring me in the face all along in that letter from Harold Faber.
"Mr. Dugan suggested your name to me,” Faber had explained, "and, if you are interested, we can try it and see if it works out to our mutual satisfaction.”
Of course, "Mr. Dugan” was none other than George Dugan, who served as The Times’ own religion news editor and reporter for 31 years until his retirement in 1978.
A friend until his death in 1982, George undoubtedly based his good word for me on the basis of stories I had filed with RNS in the wake of a flood that battered the Pocono Mountains in 1955, killing more than 100 residents and vacationers, and destroying some 20,000 homes and 60 bridges.
One of those stories involved what I called "an army of Mennonite volunteers” who arrived in the area soon after flood waters receded to aid in the task of cleaning up mud-filled homes and streets.
A Red Cross representative said at the time that the men would first handle the "rough stuff,” and then the women would wash everything from walls to dishes. "When they leave,” he added, "the house [will be] immaculate.”
When that story reached the desk of RNS founder Louis Minsky, he responded by telegram: "Thanks for the good Mennonite story. Please rush good photos volunteers in action.”
And so we did.
I had met Lou in the flesh earlier that year when I went to New York City to inquire about full time employment with Religious News Service. As it turned out, I instead opted to take the job that led me to The Inn At Buck Hill Falls.
British-born Minsky established RNS in 1934, under the auspices of the National Conference of Christians and Jews in an effort to combat anti-Semitism and to provide both the secular and religious press with balanced and bias-free news about all religions in the United States and abroad.
With Minsky’s death in 1957, the role of editor-in-chief passed on to Lillian Block, his assistant from the beginning, and a woman loved by all religion journalists of her time. If Lou had a fetish for keeping a line of sharpened copy pencils at his disposal, Lillian was addicted to Virginia Slims which may well have hastened her own death.
One of my favorite recollections of Lillian involved my coverage of the International Council of Christians and Jews in Heppenheim, Germany. While the stories were brief, they gained the attention of Dr. David Hyatt, who was attending the sessions as then president of the NCCJ. Shortly thereafter, Lillian informed me that Dr. Hyatt had told her to give me more than the customary amount for my work. "But,” she added," don’t always expect this much in the future.”
During my initial encounter with RNS in 1955, Minsky and Block were operating out of a cavernous loft where the day’s news stories were hammered out the old fashioned way – on typewriters – and then mimeographed and mailed out to an expanding list of subscribers.
It was left to Lillian’s successor, Gerald Renner, to play a leading role in introducing technological advances in the RNS newsroom, first in New York, and later in Washington, D.C.
From its humble beginnings, the daily and weekly news wires of RNS (now Religion News Service) are syndicated in hundreds of newspapers, reaching more than 20-million readers worldwide.
One can almost visualize Lillian celebrating this remarkable growth by lighting another Virginia Slim, and remarking, "You’ve come a long way, baby!”
My introduction to religion journalism came shortly after New Year’s Day 1948, when I was moved to the city staff of the now-defunct Binghamton (NY) Sun after a short and rocky start as the newspaper’s correspondent in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania.
I was one of ten who graduated the previous May from Brooklyn High School, located about 12-miles from Montrose, the county seat of Susquehanna County. The next year the old high school closed its doors for good, giving future students the opportunity to attend classes at the new spick-and-span regional Mountain View High School, about six-miles away.
When my father presented me with a suitcase that Christmas, I knew it was time to make up my mind whether I wanted to be a preacher man or try to land a job as a reporter. I was torn between the two careers throughout high school.
As it turned out, I was accepted for admittance to Baptist Bible Seminary, then located in the First Baptist Church of Johnson City, NY. There was no charge for tuition, but I did have to pay for food and housing at a cost of $15 a week – a burden my mother tried to assume until it became too much to bear.
Money had always been a problem from the day my folks bought a house and four acres in Brooklyn. The idea was that Mom would keep the home fires burning for herself and two boys, while Dad continued to work in New York City. Each week he would send Mom enough for routine expenses and the mortgage, but we saw him only on holidays and during his Summer vacation. His dream of finding independence on those four acres ended when he was forced to take early retirement because of his health. He died not long afterward at 61 of lung cancer.
As for Baptist Bible Seminary, I became increasingly put off by the intellectual strait jacket that came along with the free tuition. The course in "Elemental Theology” required students to memorize sections of a book by that name, with the punctuation included. What’s more, certain books in the library were declared off-limits to all but members of the senior class.I got my hands on one of them. It was entitled The Creed of Presbyterians.
Meanwhile, with money so tight, I decided to see if I could get a job to ease the burden my mother had assumed. That brought me to The Binghamton Sun, where I approached City Editor Charles W. Voorhis with my hat in hand. I was willing to do anything, I said, pointing out that I had taken a course offered by the Newspaper Institute of America while still in high school.
Mr. Voorhis hesitated for a minute and then conceded that The Sun had been looking for someone to replace an older reporter who had been covering Susquehanna County. He was willing to give me a try, he said. The starting pay would be $25-a-week.
I thought I died and went to heaven.
Mr. Voorhis hired me, he later insisted, only because I appeared at the back door after he had kicked me out through the front entrance. While that was pure hogwash, he certainly had reason to question whether he made a mistake because not long after I began work, he had to admonish me to be more careful about my choice of words.
"You said the Montrose girls basketball team was going to doff new uniforms,” he wrote on a piece of copy paper. "Holy cow, guy, doff means take off. You mean don. Voorhis”
But all was forgotten with my coverage of the November elections and my stories about a hired man who killed a farm owner." Not long afterward, I was promoted to the city staff as religion editor, as of January, 1948, and with the promotion came a $2.50 raise in pay.
Voorhis offered another perk the day I joined the city staff. "Call me Chuck,” he said, through a cigarette dangling in his month.
I indeed was coming up in the world.
Truth be told, most reporters in those days sought to avoid the religion beat with a passion. "Few journalists volunteered for the religion beat,” says William Lobdell. himself a onetime religion writer for The Los Angeles Times. It was one step lower than writing obits, traditionally the last rung on the ladder before a reporter was drummed out of journalism."
For a kid not quite out of his teens, however, it was heaven, pure heaven.
As for Baptist Bible Seminary, the best part of the week had been Sunday dinner served by a cordial lady with the improbable name of Mrs. Murphy. If memory serves me right, I think the cost of chicken and biscuits and dessert was 25-cents.
I can blame my formal break with the school to a carload of older reporters, most of them World War II veterans, who had taken me under their wing. As we arrived at the apartment I had been sharing with two other students, they sang with one loud voice: "For he’s a jolly good fellow.”
The landlord informed me the next morning that it would be necessary for me to find other lodging. Not only had I been guilty of carousing the night before, he scolded; he had also smelled cigarette smoke roiling out from behind the door to my room. That just wouldn’t do.
While I’m sure the school would still find my vices unacceptable, it left Johnson City in the 1960s and reestablished itself on a campus in Clark Summit, PA, where today it enjoys considerable attention and respect. It is now accredited by both the Middle States Association of Colleges and the Association for Biblical Higher Education.
As for myself, I think I knew all along that, as a budding Calvinist, I had been predestined to take my place in the Fourth Estate.
One of my weekly tasks as religion editor was to compile the listings for the Saturday Church Page, which included snippets about what would be going on in Triple City churches on Sunday and during the week ahead.
For reasons known only to God, Chuck also gave me the job of going to the local farmers market each Saturday to collect the weekly prices for meat and vegetables which would then be published the following Monday. It was a task I relished because it gave me a chance to wolf down a hot roast beef sandwich with mashed potatoes and gravy for 25-cents.
On one occasion, Chuck went so far as to assign me to cover a mobile home show on a Saturday night because he knew the job came with a free meal!
But the biggest value of the job was to widen my encounter and understanding of religion beyond the narrow parameters of Baptist beliefs, as well as Protestant fundamentalism in general.
One early eye-opener occurred at the First Presbyterian Church of Binghamton, among whose members was the family of Walter (Bud) Lyons, The Sun’s managing editor.
I had been assigned to cover a week-long evangelistic meeting at the church which was to be conducted by two Baptist preachers. I felt pretty much at home until the time came for the offering after which one of the evangelists put the collection in a clothe bag and hid it under his chair. It just didn’t look right; but it turned out to be a portend of things to come.
I felt much more at home covering the weekly Erev Shabbat services at Temple Israel, then located next to the old Binghamton Public Library on Exchange Street. At the time, the congregation was looking for a new rabbi, and each week a new candidate appeared in the pulpit.
Finally, I received a call from the chair of the rabbinical search committee who informed me that Temple Israel had found its man. His name was Rabbi Jacob Hurwitz, and, he said, he would give me a bio and glossy of the successful candidate, if I came down to his store right away. When I walked in the door, he declared, "Ah, my nemesis,” and then handed me the prize for faithful attendance at shul each Friday evening.
It was sweet victory to scoop my counterpart on The Binghamton Press.
Rabbi Hurwitz was a scholarly gentleman who graduated from Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City in 1938. My first encounter with him came after the celebration of Pesach when he appeared in the newsroom and said he’d like to discuss a column I had written earlier about Passover.
It turned out that the rabbi was concerned that I had approached this major festival of the Jewish year from a Christian perspective. Equally troubling, this 19-year-old biblical whiz kid had confused the story of Abraham’s intended sacrifice of his son Isaac (Genesis 22) with that of the first Passover night when God saved His people Israel from the judgment inflicted upon the Egyptians (Exodus 12).
Apart from sloppy journalism, the erroneous column sought to buttress my faith at the expense of demeaning that of Rabbi Hurwitz and other Jews.
That encounter with the new spiritual leader of Temple Israel was for me a defining moment. A few years ago, I wrote a lengthy letter to the rabbi to thank him for the gracious counsel he offered that day at the beginning of my career in religion journalism. Sadly, the letter was returned with the notation: "Deceased.”
He retired in 1982 after serving as Temple Israel’s rabbi for close to 35-years, during which time synagogue membership increased to the point that it outgrew its facilities on Exchange Street and moved to a new and larger building on Deerfield Place in nearby Vestal. He died in June, 2003.
Had I written sooner, Rabbi Hurwitz would have learned of my long involvement in the ongoing Jewish-Christian dialogue, which accepts the basic premise that every religion has the right of self-definition. He may also have been pleased to know that my book, Christianity After Auschwitz, based on my NYU doctoral dissertation, drew kudos from the distinguished Jewish scholar, Rabbi Jacob Neusner, and other academics.
How different was my encounter with a Presbyterian cleric who had fled then-Communist Czechoslovakia to find sanctuary and a church in Binghamton. I don’t remember exactly what I could have written that offended him; but I do remember that he threatened me with libel unless I wrote a retraction.
Over the years, I have met other clergy who give religion a bad name. They always remind me of the admonition Stanley Walker, onetime city editor of the old New York Herald-Tribune., gave to fledgling reporters when quoting clerics.
"They are the most touchy set of quibblers who ever plagued a well-intentioned editor,” he charged. [They are like] a shadowy Greek chorus … fretting in parsonage studies, ready upon the slightest stimulus to launch, via telephone, anything from a rebuke to a holy war."
I’ll always remember a British cleric who took me to task years later when I was editing the English language edition of Ecumenical Press Service (EPS), a weekly service of the World Council of Churches in Geneva. His gripe? I had referred to Beijing rather than to Peking in a story out of China!
While my critic saw some veiled political motive behind the use of Beijing, the fact is that there had been no name change for the Chinese capital. In 1949, the Peoples Republic of China simply adopted the pinyin transliteration method and Peking became known in the west as Beijing – with both the old and new spelling approximating something like pay-cheeng in Chinese!
Now in the sunset of life, I can look back on my twin careers as a cleric and as a journalist and say quite frankly that I have far more happy memories of my association with fellow journalists than I do with many clergy.
Let me give you an example.
The scoop has always been a hallowed objective of every reporter, punctuated by the need to get it first, but get it right. A corollary has it that a journalist is only as good as his or her sources. I always kept these twin goals in mind as I moved up the ladder from religion editor to covering the courts and eventually city hall, the top reportorial beat.
As a result, I was ready when a call came in for me on city desk late one night just before the first edition was to go the press. It was Broome County District Attorney Robert O. Brink who informed me he had a story but was only going to tell it once. And there began the D.A.’s announcement that the head of the city’s squad had just been arrested on charges of collusion with local bookmakers.
Chuck quickly fed me copy paper to take down notes, and then, with cigarette dangling, got up from the slot and moved to a bell on the far wall to signal the composing room that it would need to replate the second edition. When it hit the mail room, I was there to see my byline in 10-point type gracing the story on page one.
On my way to the courthouse the next day, I ran into Woody Fischette, my rival on The Binghamton Press. A fine reporter, he remarked graciously, "You lucky dog.” In this case, the D.A. provided him with a significant update that appeared on Page One of The Press the next afternoon.
In my experience, clergy don’t always act with like that. Many will be miffed when a colleague receives a personal or professional boon. Some may actually feel threatened by the popularity or good fortune of others in their profession.
I have found veteran journalists to be especially kind to those who are just beginning to make their way up the ladder of the Fourth Estate. A case in point involved my early coverage the Wyoming Conference of the Methodist Church, held that year at Tabernacle Methodist Church in Binghamton.
Gordon Williams, a seasoned reporter for The Scranton Tribune, sought me out the next day to congratulate me on my story. I couldn’t have been happier than had I hit the jackpot. Wow!
Then how and why did I get involved with the Baptists in the first place?
Well, there was this healthy farm girl with long brown braids, you see, whom I met in June, 1946, a year before my high school graduation, who really caught my eye at a week-long evangelistic meeting, held in a little country church on the Meshoppen Creek road, halfway between Brooklyn and Montrose.
Her name was Myrtle Warner, who graduated from Montrose High School a year earlier, and was then holding down a job as a stenographer for the Pennsylvania Department of Public Assistance in Montrose. I soon learned she was one of three daughters of Earl and Emmagene Warner, who owned a farm a mile or two down the Meshoppen Creek Road. The family were devout members of the Bridgewater Baptist Church uptown.
It was Myrtle’s dad who engaged the Rev. Joseph Harrison, a fellow Baptist, to conduct the evangelistic rally in the little church illuminated by kerosene lamps and heated by an potbelly stove. As Reverend Harrison knelt one night with a new convert, his prayer was interrupted when he let out a loud cry of "Ouch!” A wasp attracted by the heat had stung him on the seat of his pants.
At week’s end, Myrtle’s Dad took out a leather pouch to pay the evangelist for his services. There were a few dollar bills and a lot of change, $24.50 in all – a half dollar shy of the $25 he intended to pay the preacher. When he turned to me and asked if I had any money, I withdrew my allowance for the week, a fifty-cent piece, and dutifully handed it over to make up the deficit.
My fifty-cent contribution turned out to be a good investment. I started to attend the Warner family’s church, and Myrtle accepted my invitations to share ice cream at Hearn’s after the services. Our first big date was a trip to Scranton, where we attended a Methodist youth meeting, and had lunch at the Purple Cow. I had to sell a pig to finance the expedition – much to my father’s disapproval. That is, until he met Myrtle!
By the time I joined The Sun, Myrtle and I argued week after week over some petty matters – usually religion – only to make up by the time we were to see one another again. If there was one thing she couldn’t understand was the reason I was attracted to book stores – even Catholic book stores – that departed from the strict Baptist line.
A temporary break-up was inevitable. It came with an offer for me to join the staff of The Savannah (GA) Evening Press. It turned out to be a short-lived stint because I came down with a stomach problem that went from nasty to serious. With no little regret I was forced to return home.
No Yankee could have been treated with more kindness than that shown to me in Savannah. Here are some of the memories I carry with me about my short stay in this beautiful southern city:
On one occasion, the managing editor took a brief vacation. Before his departure, he had this advice for the man who would be writing editorials in his absence: "Blast the New Deal. Lay off the Palestine question. And observe all other items with interest.”
The Evening Press had a unique way of covering religion in those days. Each reporter was responsible for covering the news of his own denomination. In my case, I was assigned to the Baptists, which proved to be a good deal for me one evening when I found myself sitting at the head table at a dinner meeting at which a good steak was the culinary center piece.
While Myrtle has prima facie evidence that I wrote more letters to her parents than I did to her during my southern sojourn, I do remember one pining epistle personally addressed to her in which I declared: "Even a skinny guy can fall in love.” I still think that letter tipped the scale in my favor over any other suiter.
It wasn’t long afterward that I took the train to Washington, D.C., the first stop on the long trip home. As sick as I was, I visited the office of U. S. Representative Edwin Arthur Hall, a Binghamton Republican, in search of a story that would let Chuck know I was headed home.When I finally got there, a neighbor remarked to my mother that I looked like death warmed over.
If anything contributed to my recovery, it was the burning desire to return to The Sun. After an agonizing wait, Chuck finally offered me a job covering the swing beat. So there is a heaven, after all.
With my return, it also became evident that Myrtle and I would be heading to the altar. We’d fight over the weekend, make up by mail during the week ahead, and renew the process week-after-week. But things settled down when I presented her with an engagement ring – bought on time, of course.
I think the deal was sealed the day after I responded to a late night call that a New York State trooper had been shot and killed. I hurried to his home, managed to walk out with every picture of him – even those on the wall – and then write a story for the second edition.
The next evening, Myrtle and I had a romantic dinner at the Community Coffee Shop, where a string quartet serenaded us as we ate. Myrtle ordered an egg dish, fearing that anything else might end up on floor because of her then limited experience in restaurants.
When I told Chuck of our upcoming wedding, he revealed that he had been married three times – the first to a Protestant, the second time to a Catholic, and the third time to a Jew. "The Jew,” he said, "is the best.”
Her name was Natalie. And when I called their home in Lake Worth, Florida, after Chuck’s retirement from The Sun, Natalie urged me to try to get her husband not to work so hard in semi-retirement covering golf for a newspaper in West Palm Beach. She was the proverbial Jewish mother, and when Chuck died in August, 1973, Natalie was listed as his only survivor.
The evening before my own wedding, an older reporter pulled me aside and asked if I knew much about marriage. When I conceded that I did not, Jim Clugstone handed me a copy of Harmony In Marriage which he and his wife received from their minister on the eve of their nuptials. After work, he then marched me down to Hamlin’s Drug Store on Court Street to better prepare me for my own wedding night. I still treasure Jim’s sensitivity and kindness today after more than 60 years of marriage.
Of course, our wedding ceremony was held at the Bridgewater Baptist Church where Myrtle and her family worshiped. Never has this strict fundamentalist congregation entertained a celebration like ours before or since!
For ushers, we had two fellow reporters. Bob White was a charmer, who one day invited me to accompany him in a Piper Cub to Norwich, N.Y., where he wanted to make a surprise visit to his girlfriend of the moment. While I lost contact with Bob, there was talk that he rammed a jet into a hangar while serving in the U.S. Air Force. Our second usher was Stew Woolley, with whom we have kept in touch for more than 60 years. His great claim to fame occurred at the copy desk of The Sarasota (FL) Herald Tribune, where he one day hit the wrong computer key and instantly set the body of a story in 72-point type.
Standing in awe of Chuck, I settled instead for Don Smith as my best man. Don was a kindly soul who drank his way from a newspaper job in Shanghai to the copy desk at The Sun. As we waited for a signal to enter the sanctuary, Don reached for a flask and asked if I wanted a drink. When I turned down his offer, he raised the flask to his mouth, and said: "Well, I do.”
Potent potables were also on the minds on the assembled Broome County politicians with whom I daily came into contact on the city hall beat. With the service over, they all paraded into the fellowship hall where Myrtle’s farmer dad scooped out lemonade from a 40-quart stainless steel milk can. "Where’s the booze?” the assorted Democrats and Republicans groused before pleading a need to get to another venue.
The only exception was New York State Assemblyman Richard H. Knauf, a Republican and a devout Baptist, who sang the "Love of God” from the chancel during the service.
With festivities over, Myrtle traded her $18 wedding gown for street clothing and then we waited for the first Greyhound Bus to take us somewhere. We soon found ourselves aboard a bus headed for Scranton, where a second took us on to Hazleton. Once there, we checked in to a six dollar room at the Altamont Hotel for our wedding night.
That was on Saturday, and by Monday afternoon, we were back in Binghamton, and I was back covering city hall.
Within the month, I handed in my resignation at The Sun, so that my bride and I could begin married life in New England. It was a gut-wrenching move, particularly when Chuck asked me to consider that I would have a much larger "congregation” as a journalist. But I persisted and became a student at the Providence Bible Institute. It was left to my new bride to put bread on the table.
Now the rest of the story.
There’s no doubt that I looked upon Chuck Voorhis as a father figure, who exercised a perfect blend of discipline and kindness for a kid still in his teens when he joined The Sun staff. One example of these twin traits occurred when he asked me if I wanted to go to a clam bake sponsored by the New York State Police the following day on the Pennsylvania side of the border. It was a real eye opener to find the Keystone cops joining their Broome County colleagues at a shindig also attended by some of the area’s infamous gambling figures. I had a great time. When it was over, it was back to work as usual.
As for my Dad, my brother Don and I saw very little of him because of his frail health and the economic necessity of him working for Con Ed in New York City to pay off the mortgage in Susquehanna County. It was left to my mother to raise two boys virtually by herself. While Dad was the consummate worrier, Mom exuded optimism even in the most dire circumstances.
My parents were the products of the Great Depression. Dad was the only person I ever knew who could complete The Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle with a blue ballpoint pen – despite the fact he had only a tenth grade education. He lived in a third floor walk up in Brooklyn for four dollars a week, keeping only a small amount for his own necessities, and sending the rest to Mom for her expenses. I loved them both.
With Chuck, the passing years had left me in the ironical position of being uncertain as to how to spell his last name. Thankfully, two veteran editors of The Press & Sun-Bulletin came to my rescue. News editor Charlie Jaworski sent an e-mail saying he and former sports editor John W. Fox were of the opinion that it was spelled V-o-o-r-h-i-s, which was confirmed when my wife discovered that memo of years past in which Chuck admonished me to never again write about a girl’s basketball team doffing new uniforms. It was signed Voorhis.
Meanwhile, I had no idea whatever that my own love for The Sun and The Sun-Bulletin would one day turn into a family affair.
Talk about sibling rivalries. Don joined the editorial staff as state editor of what became The Binghamton Sun-Bulletin in the 1960s. After a stint there, he found a spot on The Stroudsburg Record before ending up covering the Northampton County Courthouse for The Easton (PA) Express.
When I moved into public relations posts for ecumenical and denominational agencies, Don followed. He first became the assistant to Erik Modean in the News Bureau of the Lutheran Council in the USA. Erik himself had earlier served as the Protestant news editor for RNS and was a founder and life member of the Religion Newswriters Association.
Then, in 1971, Don received an offer from the Lutheran Church in America (LCA) that he couldn’t refuse. With Erik’s blessing, he was commissioned by the LCA to establish a news bureau for the Indonesian Council of Churches in Jakarta. When he returned to America two years later, he abandoned the Fourth Estate to become a travel executive for a multinational corporation, remaining there until retirement.
But it was our mother, Betty Robins Carlson, a feisty survivor of many handicaps that would have done in lesser beings, who really surprised both Don and me. One day she let us know that she had become the Susquehanna County correspondent for The Sun-Bulletin. Not long afterward, she snagged a similar post with The Scranton Tribune. She was in seventh heaven.
Meanwhile, I had graduated from seminary and was serving as pastor of the Presbyterian church in Pine Plains, N.Y., when that old itch to return to my journalistic roots hit me hard. So hard that I prevailed upon Chuck to allow me to spend my summer vacation working at The Sun-Bulletin.
That old itch never left me. It remained even after I settled in as the associate director of the United Presbyterian Office of Information in New York City following my stint with the WCC in Geneva. When Frank Heinze, the office’s legendary director, pondered ways to heighten our denomination’s presence in the secular media, the light went on.
I suggested we could see if some newspaper would be interested in co-sponsoring a one-day seminar on the topic, "Pastor, Meet the Press.” But where to hold the pilot seminar? Where else? In Binghamton, of course!
Frank liked the idea, and so did Sun-Bulletin publisher David Bernstein.
All local clergy received invitations to attend the luncheon meeting at the Arlington Hotel, for which our office picked up the tab. We also arranged for a well-known religion writer to be the speaker. Both Bernstein and Chuck Voorhis fielded questions and concerns from attending clergy. When it was over, Bernstein discovered his newspaper could save time and money by doing away with the Church Calendar, published weekly on the Saturday Church Page. And so this relic of days past was deleted and the space henceforth was put to better use.
With Chuck’s retirement a few years later, I received a call from David Bernstein asking if I could meet him at Longchamps Restaurant in New York City. At that meeting in February, 1969, David made an offer I found hard to refuse. He wondered if I would be interested in succeeding Chuck as executive editor of The Sun-Bulletin.
As it turned out, it was a good thing that I ultimately turned down the offer because John Fox informed me only recently that The Sun-Bulletin was on the rocks when it came under the Gannett umbrella a little more two years later.
At the time, my decision to pass up Bernstein’s offer was based upon more personal and, well, familial considerations. With a feisty woman like Mom, my best laid plans sometimes went awry. That was the case when I told her of David’s offer. Her response: "I’m not going to work under you!”
So it was that I said goodbye to my first love as a newsman, offering David the lame excuse that I felt a higher calling, even though that was a shade from the truth.
With that, Mom continued basking in the limelight of the politicos and police she covered for the Binghamton and Scranton newspapers. When failing health required her to enter a nursing home, she had a telephone installed at her bedside. From there, she kept in touch daily with her sources. In fact, the last thing she did the night before she died in November, 1980, was to make her state police checks.
Mom was well represented by clergy who eulogized her remarkable life. At her funeral service, participants included Episcopal, United Methodist, and Universalist ministers – and another longtime friend, Monsignor Donald A. Deuel, then pastor of the Holy Name of Mary Catholic Church in Montrose.
Her editors lionized her in columns, and her pallbearers were of course reporters, two from The Sun-Bulletin and two from The Scranton Tribune.
With that, Betty Robins Carlson logged off with a thirty and good night to all points!
Myrtle and I left Binghamton in September, 1950 – a month after our marriage – with high hopes and $600 between us to begin married life at the Providence Bible Institute in Rhode Island. In making the move, I had forfeited a weekly salary of $55, while my bride gave up somewhere between thirty-five to forty dollars a week from her job at the Department of Public Assistance in Montrose.
While tuition was negligible, we were responsible as a married couple for finding off-campus housing and meeting all other personal expenses. It wasn’t long before we found a small apartment at 66 Park Street, which had a living room, bathroom, kitchenette, and a small bedroom with a Murphy bed. The rent was twelve dollars a week.
It wasn’t long before Myrtle found work as a typist with the Brown & Sharpe Manufacturing Company, located within walking distance of our apartment. Her salary was about the same as she had been receiving before our marriage.
Reality quickly set in when it came to the matter of two trying to live on one paycheck. We bought a set of budget envelopes and tried to parcel out the amount Myrtle was now receiving weekly. So much for rent. Food. Other necessities. And, of course, our tithe.
One of the few times during the week that we used the trolley was to travel to the Big Bear market on Saturday evenings to buy canned goods for as little as five cents each. We’d return home with grocery bags ready to burst from the weight.
Even with keeping a tight budget, there were some scary moments. On one occasion, we shared our last can of tomato soup with one or two other students who were in the same financial predicament. On another, we used a charge card from The Outlet Company, whose flagship Provident store also housed Radio Station WJAR. With it, we brought a canned ham. Without it, we would have gone hungry over the weekend and until Myrt was paid on Monday.
We somehow made it through that first year despite our dire financial straits.
That year was also a time when we made some adjustments that departed from life back home. For one thing, my wife cut her long braids in favor of a shorter hair style. She also liked the idea of being called Myrt, a name that has persisted until this day. And, wonder of wonders, we were so attracted to the pastor and congregation of the First Presbyterian Church of Providence that we became associate members.
At the same time, we both realized that we needed additional income to make life more tolerable. The answer came by my return to journalism. It came in a way that today’s crop of journalists could hardly imagine.
Those in the media today are college educated and far more professional than in my day. Many have investigative talents that generally eluded my contemporaries and me. Those with networking skills are also more likely to land jobs when others fail to do so in an ever-diminishing market.
With my generation, it was a different matter entirely. Many found work simply by turning to the want ads in Editor & Publisher, which cost all of ten dollars for a three-year subscription. Others simply went knocking on doors until one opened for them.
That was my case with The Binghamton Sun, and it was now to be the case when I took the bus from Providence to Boston one day and knocked on the door of Henry Minot, manager of the Boston Bureau of United Press.
The sun was certainly smiling on me that day because the Boston Bureau had been hard-pressed to get news out of Providence and the rest of Rhode Island. It could count on radio station WJAR to lend a hand on some major stories; but it was another thing entirely when it came to day-to-day news. I turned out to be a short-term answer to the bureau’s needs until it was able to establish a regular bureau in Providence.
Mr. Minot offered me $25 a week to make daily telephone calls to the bureau with news emanating from Providence and the rest of Rhode Island. Although most stories were gleaned from The Providence Journal-Bulletin, others required my personal coverage. I walked out of Minot’s office that day with the hope of some desperately needed financial aid and a United Press card which stated that reporters were not to use them for check-cashing purposes!
It wasn’t long afterward that I received a call from Boston to hustle out to the Rhode Island State Prison in West Warwick where the attorneys general of both Rhode Island and Massachusetts were about to interview "Specs” O’Keefe, one of the participants in the so-called "Great Brinks Robbery” in Boston in 1950. The lawmen were expected to issue a joint statement after interrogating "Specs” as to where he and his accomplices had stashed the loot.
For me, it meant taking a bus to West Warwick where I joined other reporters already on the scene. As the evening dragged on, there was the question of locating enough land lines to phone our stories into our respective news rooms, since the idea of cell phones and laptops were then beyond imagination.
What did exist were warm-hearted home-owners who readily opened their doors to assorted journalists, itching to get to phones when the attorneys general appeared. As it turned out, "Specs” really didn’t tell us much that evening. But a quick-witted photographer from the once-fabled Boston Post used his Speed Graphic to get a shot of Specs’" girlfriend as she sought to elude reporters through the backdoor of the prison.
There was no question that United Press expected me to drop everything at the drop of a hat, regardless of my class schedule, whenever a story was about to break. That certainly was true one day when I was taking a final exam. Get right down to Superior Court, I was told, because the bursar of Brown University is about to be arraigned on embezzlement charges.
Actually, I had an inside tip on this one, thanks to Stew Woolley, the usher at our wedding, who by then had become the assistant director of the university’s public relations office. It was one of the few times I ever held back in breaking a story early because Stew had told me of the upcoming arrest in confidence, and I did not want to do anything that would jeopardize the job of an important source.
As far as religion news was concerned, ecumenism hadn’t quite taken hold in Rhode Island and elsewhere during the early 1950s. It is true that the World Council of Churches held its founding assembly in Amsterdam in 1948. But mistrust between Protestants and Roman Catholics remained widespread, certainly in Providence, where the diocesan bishop, Most Rev. Russell J. McVinney, forbade the faithful from attending Protestant weddings or honoring the couples in other ways.
Within the next decade, however, there was a perceptible thawing in interfaith relations, not only among Christians, but also within the context of Christian-Jewish relations. Nowhere was this development more telling than within the Diocese of Providence where Father Edward H. Flannery paid tribute to Bishop McVinney for allowing him "utter freedom” in the writing of his 1965 landmark study: The Anguish of the Jews, in which he documented 23 centuries of anti-Semitism.
Meanwhile, the most important religion story for me personally broke on October 25, 1950, months before I began covering Rhode Island for United Press. It involved Providence Bible Institute – my own school – which had submitted the winning bid for an historic 150-acre estate in Barrington, R.I.
It was a case of high drama when the two bids submitted were opened in court. The judge involved inspected both offers and inquired whether there had been collusion between the parties. Assured that none existed, h e declared that PBI had submitted the winning bid of $331,001 – one dollar more than that of its competitor!
When the news reached the PBI campus at 100 State Street, students and faculty quickly gathered in Winn Hall for prayer and the singing of the hymn, "Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow.”
PBI’s acquisition of the historic estate, once the property of Barrington’s prestigious Peck family, was immediately dubbed the "Miracle Dollar Campus” – a designation that turned out to be both a public relations and fund-raising boon. It wasn’t long afterward that the mortgage was paid off in full!
Belton Court, the show piece of the estate, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.
In personal terms, my baccalaureate degree reads Barrington College, not Providence Bible Institute. Since then, Barrington College has merged with Gordon College, a premier evangelical institution of higher learning in New England.
Of course, the biggest story during our time in Providence centered on the birth of our first son, Paul, Jr., who with his wife, Laura Anne, are now senior research scientists with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission.
I received news of the blessed event from Lying-In Hospital by way of the coin telephone in the lobby of our apartment building. I had used the devise daily to make collect calls to the United Press in Boston, inserting a nickle each time and immediately retrieving it when the call went through. There were also times when the police or other news sources would reach me day or night by means of that contraption of a bygone era. But news that day of our firstborn’s arrival beat all other news seven ways to Sunday.
During her pregnancy, Myrt would accompany me downtown to pick up the latest edition of The Providence Bulletin, and then we would head for F. W. Woolworth’s to scan its pages over a nickel cup of coffee. The waitresses there fussed over the mother-to-be and made certain we kept them up-to-date before and after the baby’s birth. It was a time we both remember with delight.
When it came to money, it was a different story. On one occasion, I picked up a ticket for illegally parking our recently-acquired 1932 Dodge sedan. No leniency was shown to this errant reporter when I presented myself at police headquarters. So I paid the fine even though it meant canceling Myrt’s prenatal visit to Dr. Jones, her obstetrician, scheduled for later that afternoon. His fee like the cost of the fine was two dollars.
As for Lying-In Hospital, Myrt remained in a ward there for well over a week. All of the other women had given birth on previous occasions and were grateful for a respite before having to care for another child. To this day, we have no idea as to who absorbed the cost of Myrt’s delivery and the hospital stay. We suspect Dr. Jones had a hand in it. We know the Lord did!
Actually, Brown & Sharpe itself had a maternity leave policy that was quite good for its day. Under its terms, women received $60 a week for six weeks before and six weeks after delivery. In our case, the plan added about $30 more a week to our combined income – allowing us to live high on the hog for about three months!
But then the other shoe hit the floor. I had been with United Press for about two years when I received a letter from Henry Minot notifying me that United Press would be setting up a bureau in Providence. While devastating, he thanked me warmly for my services and urged me to use him as a reference in the future.
What’s more, the loss of my job with United Press didn’t mean I was abandoning journalism altogether. I merely turned to another aspect of the craft. I sold magazines for the Keystone Readers’ Service, often earning twice as much each week as I had been as a stringer.
Meanwhile, finding a baby sitter remained a recurring problem. The problem arose the minute Myrt arrived at our apartment with our newborn son. Mrs. Patterson, the building superintendent, sent us a note to the effect that, while Jesus blessed the little children, we would have to find other housing immediately.
We did manage to locate a fire trap off of Jewett Avenue for an additional twelve dollars a month, plus utilities. It consisted of a bedroom, bathroom, and a small kitchen-living room that was heated by an oil stove that on occasion filled the place with smoke.
The bright side was that a young couple with a child of their own had moved into an apartment in the house fronting the street. Their names were Adolf and Anne Guggenbuhl-Craig of Zurich, Switzerland. Adolf was completing a residency at Rhode Island General Hospital, while Anne remained a stay-at-home mom caring for her son, Adfolfi. Anne willingly agreed to baby sit Paul, Jr., whom she viewed as the perfect playmate for Adolfi. In turn, we agreed to pay Anne the munificent sum of ten dollars a week for our son’s day care.
Little did we know then that Dr. Adolf Guggenbuhl-Craig would one day become an internationally-recognized Jungian analyst, eventually serving as president of Carl Gustav Jung Institute in his native Zurich, as well as president 0f the International Association of Analytical Psychology. A prolific author, Adolf is especially remembered for his book, Marriage: Dead or Alive. He died in 2008.
Our friendship with this remarkable couple didn’t end with their return to Switzerland. But more about that in a later chapter.
Meanwhile, their departure meant that we had a pressing need for a new babysitter. When one prospect fizzled, Myrt and I decided we had enough. It was time to make a move, a decision made easier by the fact that the PBI faculty allowed me to take three off-campus seminars to complete my bachelor’s degree in history.
While Myrt continued working for Brown & Sharpe, I took care of our little boy, and, at the same time, wrote some 20 letters to East Coast newspapers in search of a job. In no time flat, I received three offers. I accepted the one from WNBH, the radio affiliate of The New Bedford (MA) Standard-Times, about 60 miles away.
Our time in New Bedford was especially difficult for Myrt, who became part of a car pool that traveled from there to Providence and back each day during the work week. The defining moment came for us when she ended up as the designated driver on August 31, 1954, the day Hurricane Carol lashed New England with winds reaching as much as 100-miles an hour. It was only by God’s grace that she managed to get the last available gasoline at a station where the attendant was using a hand pump.
While my experience was by no means as harrowing, it was nerve-wracking to be constantly advising our radio listeners as to the wind speed and direction of this Category 2 storm, which many believe was the worst hurricane ever to strike Cape Cod. Sixty-eight people died as it moved between Narragansett Bay and New Bedford Harbor.
With my dad’s death in May, 1955, Myrt and I decided it was time to move closer to our families in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Three months later, I joined the editorial staff of The Stroudsburg Record, never guessing that our experience with hurricanes that summer had only begun.
It was a blistering hot day when I left Myrt off at the American Hotel in Stroudsburg where she boarded a bus to New York City and another to Providence, where she was to settle our affairs in New England before joining me permanently in Northeastern Pennsylvania. No sooner had she arrived there than the Pocono Mountains were hit by a one-two punch, first by Hurricane Connie and then by Hurricane Diane five days later.
In its editions of Thursday, August 18th, The Scranton Tribune reported that Diane had "barrel[ed] into Virginia” the day earlier; but forecasters believed the storm would not pose a "serious” threat in the Pocono Northeast. That turned out to be wishful thinking.
The rain began Thursday afternoon, and by the time Myrt called me at The Record early that evening, I reported that all hell had broken loose. Brodhead Creek, dividing the boroughs of Stroudsburg and East Stroudsburg, was transformed that night into a raging wall of water 2,000-feet wide and 30-feet high within a 30-minute period.
With the complete disruption of telephone and electric service, communication with the Stroudsburgs became virtually impossible. The situation was exacerbated by the loss of some 60 highway and railroad bridges. In all, Pennsylvania Governor George Leader set the monetary loss, including the damage and destruction of homes, at $1-billion.
Thanks to the U.S. Army Reserves, I was able to hitch a helicopter ride to and back from East Stroudsburg the next day, where the Lanterman Funeral Home provided me with the first death list with 17 names. The final tally recorded that close to 100 people had lost their lives in the raging torrent, 46 of them at a Christian camp built near Analomink on the banks of Brodhead Creek. Most were children.
Within hours, a post-flood edition of The Record hit the street with an initial report about the loss of life and property. It was made possible when innovative employees in the composing room hooked up tanks of propane to fire up the Linotype machines to get the job done.
A half-century later, I still have twinges of conscience that I benefitted financially and professionally from the misery of others because I had been in the right place at the right time to provide the wire services and several major newspapers with the original story and with updates for days to come. My experience in this case mirrored that of other journalists past and present who have sought to inform the public of tragic events with sensitivity and compassion.
It was during this period that I filed my first story with RNS. It told of a large group of Mennonite volunteers who worked tirelessly to help clean up the physical mess left in the wake of Hurricane Diane. "We dig low into the mud,” they said, "to lift up the Cross of Christ.”
That story turned out to be the catalyst that gave me the opportunity to cover The Inn at Buck Hill Falls for The New York Times and really launch my career in religion journalism.
Not only did RNS like the story, but Lou Minsky sent a return telegram requesting that I send some "good pictures” to accompany its publication.
As noted earlier, George Dugan was responsible for suggesting that I might be able to fill a niche for The New York Times at Buck Hill Falls. When I think of him today, I also remember a host of other luminaries in all media who have covered religion, or what members of RNA call "journalism’s best beat.”
Were George around today, he’d have a slew of stories to tell about his earlier days at RNS after Lillian Block took over the reins of editor following Lou Minsky’s death.
"Lillian edited copy, assigned stories, catalogued, and even took to the road to sell RNS to editors,” George recalled at the time of her death. "And she had time for laughter.
"She brought fun to RNS,” he added. "There were some occasions, in the middle of a serious news conference, when Lillian would catch the humor of a situation and break into peels of laughter – so much that she literally had to wipe away the tears of sheer enjoyment.”
Not that Lillian was alone when it came to mixing tears with laughter. George himself was known to shed tears when recounting stories about himself with self-deprecating humor.
On one occasion, George and I found ourselves in Albany, New York, where we both were covering the story of a controversial United Presbyterian minister who had lost his bid to retain his Manhattan pulpit after the Presbytery of New York City had ruled against him on the matter.
The case involved the Rev. Dr. Stuart Hamilton Merriam who had been called as pastor of the Broadway United Presbyterian Church in 1961, only to come under presbytery scrutiny within a year on the pretext that it wanted someone more suitable to serve the student community at nearby Columbia University.
At that point, Dr.Merriam appealed to the United Presbyterian Synod of New York for administrative relief. That appeal was heard in 1962, at Albany’s First Presbyterian Church. George and I were both there, Dugan for The Times, and I as the newly-hired associate director of denomination’s Office of Information.
During a break in the morning session, George was moved to tears, not because of the case at hand, but because he questioned whether he was going to make it to the hearing on time that morning. "I was wondering why my car was so sluggish,” he allowed, as his tears mingled with guffaws. "And then I looked down and realized I was driving on the Thruway all along in second gear.”
But it was no laughing matter for Dr. Merriam. The Synod upheld the judgment of Presbytery, leaving him with a final option of taking his case to the Permanent Judicial Commission of the United Presbyterian General Assembly, the denomination’s highest court.When it, too, ruled against him, Merriam left the Presbyterian fold and spent the rest of his ministry as a missionary in Papua, New Guinea.
The name Willem Adolf Visser’t Hooft first came to my attention in 1958, while I was a second year student at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, and this sturdy Christian statesman was at work fostering ecumenical relationships as the first general secretary of the World Council of Churches.
This remarkable Dutch Reformed Christian statesman had come to Pittsburgh that year to deliver an address at the General Assembly that brought into being the United Presbyterian Church in the USA by the merger of two predecessor Presbyterian bodies. I had been tapped tolend a helping hand in the press room of this historic General Assembly, thanks to an understanding seminary faculty.
Vim, as he was known to colleagues, had established an office in Geneva, Switzerland, during the height of World War II. From this neutral venue, he managed to keep the channels of communication open between church leaders in both the Axis and Allied nations. They included clerics of the stature of the Rev. Dr. George Bell, dean of Canterbury, in England, and the beloved anti-Nazi Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Germany.
Then known as the World Council of Churches in the Process of Formation, Visser t’Hooft was among those Christian leaders from various church traditions who were looking forward to war’s end when it would be possible to establish an ecumenical coalition that would impact society around the globe.
When hostilities ended, Visser’t Hooft was the natural choice to become the first general secretary of the WCC when it held its First Assembly in 1948 in Amsterdam. He and others moved quickly to integrate the German churches into the movement, a task made easier when its leaders admitted complicity with the Nazi regime and sought forgiveness and reconciliation with other Christians.
As for my own plans following seminary, a now a bit of an excursus is in order.
I had thought only of settling down as pastor of a lovely congregation in Trafford, PA, a suburb of Pittsburgh. But that changed radically five months later when I received a telephone call early one morning from none other than Roswell Barnes. When I informed my wife about its nature, she laughed, and remarked, "Go back downstairs, and then let me know what he really said.”
There was every reason for her to dismiss my report as pure hogwash because Dr. Barnes had called to let me know the World Council was in need of an English-speaking journalist to fill a one-year appointment in Geneva in preparation for its Third Assembly in Delhi, India in 1961. Would I be interested in filling that slot, he asked.
With a minimum of hesitation, I tentatively accepted the invitation, knowing that the Trafford congregation would be stunned by my departure were I to leave so soon after my call as pastor. At the time, our elder son, Paul, Jr., or J.R., was nine years old, while his baby brother, Timothy, just nine days old, that day in July, 1960 when I was ordained and installed in Trafford.
As it turned out, hardly any time had elapsed between the call from Ros Barnes in New York and receipt of a cablegram from Geneva, which read: "Invite you to join information staff WCC, Geneva. It was signed, Visser’t Hooft.”
It was only later that I learned that my name had actually been put forth for the slot byBetty Thompson, who handled public relations for the U.S. Conference of the World Council of Churches, and years later retired after a distinguished career as an executive of the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries.
At the time of the invitation, the Trafford Session was understandably upset to hear of my plan to leave the church so suddenly. However, Redstone Presbytery General Presbyter William Strohm played a key role in intervening on my behalf after the WCC made it clear as to why it was seeking to engage an experienced American religion journalist in preparation for the upcoming New Delhi assembly. Frank Northum, WCC financial officer in Geneva, added his sincere thanks in a letter both to the presbytery and the congregation.
On November 30th, my brother Don drove Myrt and me to the airport in Wilkes Barre, where we caught an early morning stomach-turning DC–3 flight to Newark. But we landed safely, and made our way to Manhattan, where the World Council had made reservations for that night at the Prince George Hotel.
That afternoon, we went down to the pier to check on our belongings which were to accompany us when we set sail the next day for Cherbourg, France, aboard the original Queen Elizabeth, then the largest ship at sea. Although it had not yet arrived in port, our steamer trunks and Tim’s stroller were there. We paid the ‘in bond’ charges at that time to assure these items would be shipped on to Geneva ahead of our arrival there. All else was crammed into our tourist class stateroom, there to remain until our disembarkation in France.
It was bitterly cold that evening, but not to the degree that it kept Bea Noxon, a Carlson family friend, from joining them at Hurley’s Bar, a Manhattan landmark made famous by late night television hosts Jack Paar and Johnny Carson. When we headed back to the hotel, Myrt remarked that she thought she would die if she faced the wind.
The bone-chilling cold remained the next day when we boarded the Queen Elizabeth. It was, in fact, so cold that many who planned to wish passengers a bon voyage left the pier before a crew member made the familiar announcement: "All ashore that’s going ashore.” Of course, that was in more placid times when friends and loved ones were permitted to visit staterooms up until the time the ship moved away from its moorings and out to sea.
At that point, we experienced what Myrt called "a funny feeling” as the gangway was lifted and brightly colored streamers fell from the ship and into the water. We were about to leave our homeland, the comfortable and familiar, for another part of the world. The intensity of that moment was heightened for us as the ship’s orchestra played ‘Anchors Away’ and ’The Stars and Stripes Forever." The tugboats eased our ship into open waters.
Many passengers continued to brave the cold and cutting wind to catch a glimpse of Lady Liberty against the slate gray sky. Only one thing remained before we all retreated to the warmth of our cabins. And that was to go to our assigned places on deck for the mandatory safety drill required in the event of an emergency at sea.
Once settled inside, we found our stateroom to be reasonably large and comfortable, or what Myrt later described in a letter home as "nice and big” "We’re perfectly comfortable,” she noted. "Timmy’s crib is tiny, but he pulls on the side the same way he does his own. He’s following his old pattern perfectly.” It wasn’t long before Miss Kirk, his nanny for the voyage, introduced herself and said she would take care of his bottles and look after him when we were outside our cabin.
Meanwhile, the poulet ala Cunard proved to be quite tasty that first evening.
Eight days later, we disembarked in Cherbourg, and from there, a waiting boat train whisked us to Gare Saint Lazare in Paris. A porter helped us with our luggage for the short walk to the Hotel Terminus where the WCC had made reservations for us for the night. Come morning, we left by taxi for Gare de Lyon where our train to Geneva awaited us.
En route to Geneva, a gastronomic delight awaited us in the dining car. As we entered the dining area, we found a member of the culinary staff scrubbing and cutting vegetables that soon would be served to hungry passengers. Along with an appropriate wine, it was a meal to remember!
And then before we knew it, a conductor went through the train shouting, "Geneve,” the city oCalvin, Knox, the World Council of Churches, and our new home for the year ahead.
Awaiting us on the platform at Gare Cornavin was a beaming John Taylor, who with his wife Lou were to become two of our dearest friends until their untimely deaths some years later. At that time, John was the WCC’s chief photographer. His earlier work appeared in Life andmany other major periodicals of the day.
After checking on our "in bond” luggage, John helped us take care of other formalities. Changing dollars into Swiss francs. A visit to a Migros supermarket to buy a few staples. And then to our apartment at 14 Route de Colovrex in Grand Saconnex, a Geneva suburb near the French border town of Ferney Voltaire.
There were other formalities to be taken care of the next day. First a thorough physical checkup at L’Hospital Cantonal to make sure we weren’t bringing any infectious disease into Switzerland. Once cleared, we received our picture ID card, or permis de sejour, required of all expatriates working in Switzerland.
It was later left to Moya Burton of the WCC’s administrative staff to help us open a very modest account at the luxurious private Banque Lombard, where the ever-dramatic Moya swept through the ornate entrance and right to the bank manager, proclaiming, "Bon Jour!” She made it known they were old friends, and he quickly exchanged somewhat less than two hundred and fifty dollars into 1,000 Swiss francs.
Those were the days. Our rent in Grand Saconnex was 800 francs, or less than $200. Were it available, that same apartment today would rent for $800 or more. The tables have certainly turned. The once-mighty Greenback fell to a record low of less than 80 Swiss centimes at the height of America’s debt crisis of 2011.
With formalities settled, it was time to make my appearance at the compound of buildings on route de Malagnou, where the headquarters of the World Council of Churches was located. I found my office on the first floor in the building nestled at the far end of the park-like setting.
What immediately struck me was the ability of so many WCC staff members, including secretaries, to converse in languages other than their own. No one was more adept in this regard than Visser’t Hooft himself. I’ll never forget my first of many weekly meetings during which he would check the stories filed for the three editions of Ecumenical Press Service )EPS). He would survey my file in English, then switch effortlessly to French, or German, making certain that nothing was lost in translation, and never missing a beat in the process.
Meanwhile, John Taylor and his wife Lou looked after the Carlson family, after our arrival in Geneva two weeks before Christmas.
John first made certain that J.R didn’t miss out on festivities associated with L’Escalade, harking back to December 12, 1602, when a housewife at an upstairs window poured a cauldron of boiling soup on the advancing troops loyal to the Duke of Savoy, thereby assuring Geneva’s continued status as a free city.
And then there was the Christmas party for the entire WCC staff at Route de Malagnou, at which Dr. Leslie Cooke, director of Interchurch Aid and Relief, acted as toastmaster. I recall his greeting that evening verbatim. It went like this:
Bon soir, Madames et Monsieurs. Guten abend, meine Damen und Herren. Good evening, Ladies and Gentlemen.
And then, with a twinkle and a wave, he twitted:
And to our American colleagues, Howdy.
It was a fun-filled evening.
However, it wasn’t long afterward that another surprise awaited us. We had barely unpacked and settled in at the apartment when we learned the World Council was offering my family and me the opportunity to escape the gray dampness of Geneva to spend the Christmas holiday in sunny and somewhat warmer Locarno , located at the north end of beautiful Lake Maggiore, in the southern Italian-speaking Canton of Ticino. The stipulation? I was to write a story about Casa Locarno, a rest home for furloughed missionaries and international students unable to return home for the holidays.
Travel arrangements for the family were made by Hassan, who handled such matters at that time. He made train and hotel reservations for three nights at the Hotel Orselina. We began our journey began on Christmas Eve, leaving Geneva’s Gare Cornavin that afternoon, connecting in Domodossola in the Italian Piedmont for the alpine train to Locarno. It was quite a ride!
For starters, everyone chuckled when the the Italian customs inspector passed around Myrt’s passport photo which also pictured Timmy and J.R. – her Bambino and Bambino Grande. Then, as the train began its alpine ascent, it made a short stop near the Simplon Pass before moving again. It had already gained speed when horrified passengers watched helplessly as one well-oiled gentleman realized he had missed his stop and jumped from the train into the darkness of the alpine night.
People were still abuzz about the poor chap’s fate when the train pulled into Locarno at the north end of Lake Maggiore. Awaiting us was a limousine to whisk us off to the luxurious resorthotel overlooking the lake. The snow-covered Alps rose in the distance. Myrt calculated that our two rooms cost 32 francs, or about eight dollars, a day. Now a suite would be out-of-sight for all but the well-heeled.
Paul’s first task on a sun-drenched Christmas morning was to locate Casa Locarno, where the missionaries and students were to spend the holidays. He arranged to interview the group later in the day, and then took J.R. on a stroll to find a few gifts for Myrt and the boys. For Myrt, a pale blue coffee pot with sugar and creamer. For J.R. Swiss chocolate. And, for Timmy, a little red telephone that winds up and buzzes. "It was a Christmas Day,” Myrt later wrote, "that none of us will ever forget.”
When our sojourn in Locarno ended, we headed next to Torino where an English-speaking travel agent helped Paul find a pension for 1700 Italian lira, or all of three dollars, a night. In a letter home, Myrt noted:
Even though it had a blazing hot radiator until about 10 p.m., the room was frigid. I put two pairs of pajamas and a sweater on Timmy, and he slept on Paul’s suitcase which opens flat. [The owner] gave us plenty of blankets, and we were warm as toast as long as we were in bed. We heated Timmy’s two and six o’clock bottles by putting them in bed with us.
We arrived in Torino when this capital of the Piedmont was beautifully decked out for the twin celebrations of Christmas and the centennial of the Republic of Italy, fashioned by the unification of the various independent states. When we left, we headed for Torre Pellice, center of the Waldensian Church, a pre-Reformation Protestant movement named after Peter Waldo, whose followers settled in this valley in the Piedmont in the early 13th Century.
However, it wasn’t until 1532 that these Waldensians met secretly in a grotto near Torre Pellice. With William Farel, Anthony Saunier and a close associate of John Calvin, who urged them to abandon secrecy and openly adopt the confessions of the Swiss and French Reformed churches. They did so at what became known as the Synod of Chanforan.
While numerically small, the movement today holds disproportional strength and influence because of its active involvement in society. It enjoys close fraternal ties to both the Methodist and Baptist churches of Italy, as well as other denominations elsewhere. It also been a member of the World Council of Churches since the formation of the WCC in 1948.
We had stopped in Torre Pellice in the hope that I would be able to interview a present day leader of the church about its involvement in providing a safe haven for refugee families during World War II. But the interview never occurred because the pastor in question was away from Torre Pellice at the time.
Nevertheless, we were there for the night. We found a pension not far from the railroad station. We had two adjoining rooms, with the temperature hovering about two degrees warmer than outside. Myrt was grateful that the radiators remained hot enough to heat Tim’s bottles and that she was able to wash and dry his diapers on a clothesline the woman proprietor provided. In a journal, Myrt wrote:
The next morning we awakened to blazing sun on the diapers, and the street that was deserted the night before … was alive with markets. In fact, street after street. The people from the mountains with red, red cheeks and bare hands were selling everything from potatoes, carrots, oranges, apples, eggs, chocolate, and cookies, to wool blankets, yarns, skirts, aprons, plastics, glassware, china, etc… The people came with cars, horses and burros, streaming down the hillsides, selling chickens, goats and calves, too. I think it was the nicest experience I’ve had in Europe.
We left Torre Pellici that afternoon and were back in our apartment late that night.
That would be the only trip we would make as a family during our year in Geneva, although Myrt and I were able to get away together for a few days in Germany sometime later.
All other travel was solo in search of a story.
I made two memorable trips to Greece, the first to the distant island of Kythira, on the western edge of the Aegean Sea, and a second to Ioannina in the far north province of Epirus. In both cases, the World Council was involved in large, ongoing development projects.
My visit to Kythira came as a result of a request Orthodox Bishop Meletios made to the WCC in 1958, asking for technical assistance to find water on his parched island. A year later, a Dutch couple, Jurjen and Anna Koksma, volunteered to to meet the challenge.
An architect and civil engineer, Koksma arrived from Holland in 1959. After conferring with Bishop Meletios about available community resources, this hardy Fresian began the task of finding fresh water for the people of the island. With the completion of that project, the Koksmas remained to head up a WCC team of volunteers that engaged in the further development of the island for years to come. Their love affair with Kythira was such they remained there until their deaths, that of Anna in December, 1993, and Jurgen in November, 2004. Both are buried at the cemetery Agia Anastasia on the road from Potamos to Karavas.
Things have certainly changed since I spent a long weekend with this delightful couple sometime in mid–1961, when an elderly woman stopped Mr. Koksma and me on a walk around the island. Eyes beaming, she pointed to him and announced: "He brought water to our island.” In the intervening 50-years, Kythira has blossomed beyond expectations. Today it boasts of its own airport, rental car agencies, excellent hotels, and pristine beaches.
Such was not the case that day a half-century ago when I boarded a small ship at Piraeus and set out on the overnight journey to Kythira, 254 kilometers from Athens, at the southernmost tip of the Peloponnese. The food was uninspiring but adequate, and the bed in my small cabin had a heavy paper container in which to unload dinner were the seas to become excessively rough.
As the craggy hills of Kythira came into sight the next day, it was necessary for the crew to lower a launch to ferry passengers ashore. There waiting at dockside was Jurgen Koksma and the beginning of an unforgettable weekend. He and Anna took me to a rustic taverna for dinner that evening, and, upon returning to their home a surprise awaited me.
My hosts had remarked earlier that Bishop Meletios had expressed his disappointment that he would be in Athens and unavailable to meet the WCC’s representative from Geneva. But he didn’t allow the matter to end there. A telegram sent in care of the Koksmas said he had arranged for us to be his guests at Sunday luncheon at the beautiful Monastery Mytriion.
The monks were in high spirits when we arrived there the next day. The food was excellent, accompanied by a fine vintage. When I inquired why the monks rolled their knuckles together, they laughed. "That’s so the bishop doesn’t hear us if we pour too much wine.”
Then it was time to return to Athens, where I later met the bishop at his hotel. He spoke warmly about his appreciation for all that the Koksmas and the WCC were doing to improve conditions on his island between the Aegean and Ionian seas.
Upon returning to Geneva, my major task was to edit the weekly English edition of Ecumenical Press Service. That is, until the WCC assigned me return to Greece to do a series of stories on it s other volunteer programs there.
While the trip to Kythira had taken me far south to the legendary birthplace of the love goddess Aphrodite, this next junket would involve travel to the extreme north, to Ioannina, the largest city in the Province of Epirus, just a few kilometers from the then hostile Albanian border.
Hassan made round trip airline reservations for me between Athens and Ioannina and also booked me for a night into a modest hotel near Syntagma Square, situated close to the old royal palace, the Greek Parliament building, and the major hotels and businesses.
I was prepared for a bit of turbulence when I boarded the Olympic Airlines DC–3 flight north to Ioannina. But it was another matter when the pilot swooped very low and flew between the peaks of the Pindus mountain range on either side. I was relieved when we finally touched down on a patch of grass in Ioannina!
After checking into the modest Hotel Xenia, I contacted Halbert and Alice Hiteman, who left their 325-acre dairy farm in Upstate New York, to direct a series of volunteer projects under the aegis of the WCC’s Division of Inter-Church Aid and Service to Refugees. The volunteers themselves came from various national and religious backgrounds to engage in everything from agricultural and technical assistance, to refugee relief and feeding hungry children.
Their work in Ioannina covered a 60-mile radius that often took them into areas so remote they were accessible only by donkey or by trudging through deep mud for hours. Every activity was carried out in cooperation with the Greek Orthodox Church and the appropriate government agencies. In fact, when the Ioannina program was established in 1950, it was by invitation of Archbishop Spyridon and with the approval of the Greek ministries of agriculture and welfare.
One of the first team undertakings was to clear an ancient Turkish drainage tunnel which had been clogged for years, reducing once-fertile farmland into an unproductive swamp. Once cleared, the team established a 200-acre experimental farm. Hybrid seeds and fertilizers were introduced, as well as crop rotation. And the volunteers were able to turn the land over to the villagers who then farmed it cooperatively.
Of all the projects, the one that impressed me most was the "Ioannina Broiler” program, supervised by Paul Harnish, a young poultry expert from Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
When it was launched in 1953 with what Harnish called "a few wings and a prayer,” few villagers would accept free chicks because they were skeptical about trying anything new. But that changed by the time of my visit some eight years later. By then, more than 150 people were engaged in the project, making it possible to produce 60,000 broilers which in turn would add some $30,000 in 1961 dollars in income for the local economy.
Shortly before my visit, a hotel owner decided to serve "Ioannina broilers” to the king and queen of Greece while they were on a visit to Epirus. Paul Harnish, who was on hand to receive the order, knew the project was a success when the royal guests dug their forks into these new "kotopoulo” instead of the tough, scrawny native birds.
By then, the broilers were being shipped from the mountainous northern region of Epirus as far south as Athens and to such well-known tourist spots as Corfu.
Memory fails me after a half-century as to whether I put my own fork into one of these birds at dinner the night before I left Ioannina to return to Athens and then Geneva.
Shortly afterward, Philippe Maury, the brilliant director of the Department of Information, decided it would be wise to hold a staff meeting in preparation for the Third Assembly. It would be more productive, he thought, if we met at a good restaurant for lunch rather than hold the meeting at Malagnou.
Philippe was the son of the Rev. Pierre Maury, a French Reformed pastor and one of Visser’t Hooft’s closest friends. His apprenticeship as a publicist occurred during the war when he was associated with the French Resistance against Hitler. Vim was constantly intrigued by what he called Philippe’s "insatiable curiosite intellectuelle and his catholic interest in all aspects of human life.” He certainly was the right man to head the World Council’s information staff.
Philippe was also a charmer. We knew instinctively that we would have a good time at that staff meeting. He had chosen a good restaurant with outdoor tables and a passing stream. There we feasted on plate after plate of perches washed down with a good wine. I don’t recall what we accomplished that afternoon; but I still get a chuckle when I think of Philippe trying to catch a bee in an empty wine bottle.
It wasn’t long afterward that Philippe told me the World Council was about to resettle a group of Old Believers from Russia on the Italian Riviera. He said he wanted me to go down to Nice in advance of their arrival and that he would meet me there.
If that DC–3 flight skirting the Pindus river was unsettling, it was child’s play compared to my flight over the Pyrenees Mountains from Geneva to Nice in an Air France Caravelle. It wasn’t until a stewardess served me a stiff martini that my heart rate began to slow down as I loosened my grip on the armrest of my seat.
After lunch the next day, Philippe and I went out to the Cote d’Azur Airport to await the arrival of a group of Old Believers who fled Russia in the 1920s, and remained in exile in Harbin, China until 1961, when the WCC offered to resettle them elsewhere.
These particular exiles were part of a larger group of Old Believers who were forced to leave Russia in the 17th Century after Russian Orthodox Patriarch Nikon sought to centralize power by making certain changes that would mirror the liturgy already used in the Greek Orthodox Church.
But the Old Believers would have none of it. They insisted the changes made by Nikon in 1652 would actually undermine the true faith. Many fled during a series of ensuing crises. finding temporary havens in many other parts of the wold, including Romania, Turkey and Brazil.Those who ended up in Harbin, and other parts of China, survived against impossible odds, particularly after the Chinese Government vigorously opposed their quest for religious freedom.
The resettlement of the Old Believers from Harbin went off without a hitch after the WCC met them on the tarmac in Nice. There was only one minor problem. The airline insisted on charging a double fare in one instance because a particularly obese woman required two seats.
With the approach of Fall, we realized we would have to accept the Guggenbuhls invitation to spend a weekend with them in Zurich immediately or miss out on the opportunity. The WCC’s Third Assembly was slated to begin in a few weeks. So Zurich was now or never.
Adolph was there at the Hauptbahnhof to greet us when we arrived late on a Friday evening. J.R. had gone ahead earlier so that he could renew his acquaintance with Adolfi with them he shared a few months of infancy back in Providence. Truth be told, neither youngster had an inkling of a memory of the other.
Adolf and Anne proved to be perfect hosts, providing us with one of the most memorable evenings of our year in Switzerland. The highlight was dinner at the old Guild house on the Limmat River with which the Guggenbuhl familly had been associated for many years. The food was a culinary delight, as was the wine that accompanied the meal.
While Adolf and I kept in touch sporadically after our return to the States, it was only after his death in July, 2008, that I learned about the full measure of this man who went from "fixing smashed heads on Saturday nights” as a resident at Rhode Island Hospital to becoming one of the foremost Jungian therapists in the world.
Once back in Geneva, we had to get down to the business of preparing for the family’s return to the U.S. after the WCC’s Third Assembly in India.
It was agreed that Myrt and the boys would precede me by flying to New York on KLM. I would join them after the New Delhi gathering by sailing to New York on the SS America along with our baggage.
The weather seemed clear enough when I took Myrt and the boys to Geneva’s Cointrin Airport to board their flight to Amsterdam. But the Constellation was delayed briefly there because of weather, and was then further delayed for several hours more at Schiphol Airport near Amsterdam. Myrt’s only concern was to notify mother about the new time of arrival in New York. KLM saw to it that Timmy was cared for as she and JR settled down to a porkchop dinner at the airline’s expense. That was then!
Meanwhile, I had chosen the option of traveling throughout the Middle East for several days before flying on to New Delhi.
When I left Geneva in early November, my first stop was Beirut, Lebanon, then known as "the Paris of the Middle East.” If memory serves correctly, I checked into the Palm Beach Hotel near the airport and downtown Beirut. For meals, I found a gem of a restaurant with a French flair, called the Liberte.
The highlight of my time in Lebanon was a day tour through the fertile Bekaa Valley to the temple complex at Baalbek, occupied first by the Phoenicians ans later by the Romans. Located about 53 miles from Beirut, the Phoenicians built a temple there to the god of the Bekaa Valley. When the Romans later conquered the area, they renamed it Heliopolis, the City of the Sun, and built temples honoring the gods Jupiter, Venus and Bacchus, as a symbol, of imperial power. This Parthenon is larger than that of Athens and remains one of the wonders of the ancient world. Now a primary tourist destination, the area is also known as Lebanon’s most important farming region.
After lunch at a picturesque mountainside restaurant, we returned to Beirut, where I planned my next day’s journey to Damascus and then onward to what was then called the Hashemite Kingdom of Trans-Jordan. I turned to the same travel agent who arranged my visit to Baalbek. He seemed to go out of his way for me, first, because I was an American, and, secondly, because he was the proud father of a daughter who graduated from the American University of Beirut.
When I met him late the next afternoon, he handed me my itinerary. I was to share a ride to Damascus in a public taxi, sitting in the back seat between two garlic-chewing Arabs. That evening, I would be spending the night at the New Semiramis Hotel in the heart of downtown Damascus. The final leg of my journey would involve another shared taxi ride, this time to Jerusalem, via Amman, Jordan.
My stay in Damascus was a bit disconcerting. The Semiramis was more than adequate, but I abandoned any thought of sightseeing that evening when I found a heavy military presence in the streets near the hotel. It would have been nice to walk along the street called Straight where Ananias restored sight to the Apostle Paul (Acts 9:11). That night in Damascus was not the time.
When we left the city the next morning, it wasn’t long before the desert heat became oppressive. We got some relief when the taxi made a rest stop at an oasis about mid-point between Damascus and Jordan. Never did a cold beer taste better. Then it was on to Amman and my transfer to another taxi that would take me to Arab Jerusalem. The windshield on the passenger’s side of the old clunker was notable for a blood-ringed hole about the size of a human head. Notwithstanding, we made it safely to Jerusalem.
My first stop was the Middle East Airlines office in the center of town to inquire if its staff could recommend a moderate hotel for the next two nights. The Azzara proved more than adequate, so I set out to fulfil a request made to me by the editor of the French edition of EPS before I left Geneva. She asked that I drop off a package for an Israeli friend at the convent of the Sisters of Sion in the Old City. The sisters, she said, would deliver it when Israeli authorities permitted them to pass into Israel through the Mandelbaum Gate during the upcoming Christmas holiday.
That done, I set out to find a Jordanian guide to help me make the best use of my limited time during my first visit to the Holy Land. A Franciscan priest put me in contact with a young Arab Christian, named Victor Sabella, who showed up at my hotel early the next morning to take me to Bethlehem, six miles from Jerusalem.
As with so many other taxi rides in the Middle East, our trip to Bethlehem via the old mountain road, was not for the faint of heart. We twisted around tight curves at a high speed on a road without guard rails until we came to a stop in Manger Square. What a relief!
The historic town was lined with souvenir shops, some restaurants, and other small businesses. But the center piece for pilgrims has always been the Church of the Nativity, one of the oldest churches in the world, marking the birthplace of Jesus Christ. The 1,700 year-old basilica has somehow survived invasions, rebellions and earthquakes, along with periodic sectarian feuds among monks who zealously guard their respective pieces of turf.
That evening I drank endless cups of coffee with an Arab businessman, who complained about the nachba, or catastrophe, caused by the Israeli presence not far away. When I later wrote to my wife, I said: "The hatred toward the Jews is so strong here that you can cut it with a knife.”
Less than seven years later, the Israelis would decisively defeat the Arabs, paving the way for a united Jerusalem and the return of the Kotel, or Western Wall, to the Jews for the first time in hundreds of years.
When I left the next afternoon on my MEA flight back to Beirut, I discovered I had committed a serious error that could have cost me dearly had it not been for a disgusted but understanding Lebanese customs official. With much yet to learn about foreign travel, I had left the country and had attempted to return with only a single entry visa.
I had to sweat it out for awhile until he relented and allowed me back into Beirut just to pick up my luggage before leaving later that evening on an Air India flight to New Delhi. There was only one catch: I had to leave my US passport with him until I returned. True to his word, he was still there when I went to retrieve it a short time later. Try that trick today at your own risk. It was dicey even then.
When I finally reached the Indian capital, I was carrying with me a bug I certainly didn’t want. It was a case of "Delhi Belly” which I had picked up somewhere along the way. Had it not been for Eric Modean, who showed up about that same time, I would have remained in deep do-do. He saved the day by sharing with me a new medication his doctor back home had given him for just such eventualities. I was a new man within hours.
Apart from my gut problem, my nerves were further frayed when a boy appeared out of nowhere on Janpath Road with an offer he thought I couldn’t refuse. "Cobra, sahib?” he inquired. For a few paisas, or maybe even a rupee, he would remove a reptile from a sack and have it dance before me.
I couldn’t wait to get to the press room. There I found David Runge of The Milwaukee Journal and Willmar Thorkelson of The Minneapolis Star had already requisitioned desks and typewriters for the duration. When Dugan appeared, he was laughing amid tears. As usual, he had a story to tell.
The Man from The Times said he felt downright scruffy when he emerged from the rear cabin during the stopover in London and found Billy Graham looking like a fashion plate as he left the first class section. That just wouldn’t do.
So George used his time at Heathrow to really spruce up. He shaved. The works. "When we arrived in New Delhi,” he said, "I looked pretty good, and Graham looked like a bum.”
The New Delhi assembly was distinguished by the fact that it received into membership 23 new churches since meeting in Evanston, Illinois, seven years earlier. That brought the total number to 197, the Russian Orthodox Church being by far the largest. With the integration of several other Orthodox churches at the same time, the 577 delegates made it clear that the World Council could no longer be perceived merely as a worldwide coalition of Protestant churches.
The New Delhi assembly also approved merging the International Missionary Council into its fold, with the creation of the new Division of World Mission and Evangelism. While delegates continued to study the WCC’s role in discussions with non-Christian religions, it held fast to the assembly’s theme: Jesus Christ – the Light of the World.
The New Delhi assembly represented what Time Magazine at the time heralded as "the greatest gathering of Christians since the 16th Century, when the Council of Trent worked for 18 years to counter the Protestant Reformation.” "Behind all the well-organized confusion, Time reported in a cover story, ”a vast regrouping of Christendom seems to be taking shape . . "
From the magazine’s perspective, this world gathering of Christians represented one of the hallmarks of what it called "the Ecumenical Century.”
And I was there to take in all of the excitement which, as Time put it, included "hustling to and fro between auditorium and committee room, the 15,000 daily blizzard of mimeographed paper, lost traveler’s checks, the distracting snake charmers, and the non-stop talking across language barriers.”
As to me remaining in Geneva after New Delhi, Philippe had asked whether I would sign on for an additional three year stint. But Myrt and I both felt that one year as expatriates was enough at that point in our lives. That decision was reinforced by a letter I had received from the Rev. Frank H. Heinze, director the United Presbyterian Office of Information. He said he would be among the denominational publicists coming to New Delhi, and would like to talk with me about becoming his associate in New York City.
The deal with Frank was sealed when I met him at the Janpath Hotel some weeks later. I would start my new job right after New Year’s Day, 1962. Frank and I were to have our bumps along the way. But he became and remained a close friend until his death. In fact, he sent me a postcard just before his passing in which he acknowledged that friendship and thanked me for it.
From my perspective, Frank was the epitome of a good church publicist. He was the only executive other than the stated clerk of the General Assembly who maintained offices both in the Witherspoon Building in Philadelphia and at the Interchurch Center in New York City. One of this most important functions of any public relations executive, he once told me, was to be seen of men. He knew everyone of importance in the church, and he also made certain his office door was open to all.
I will always be grateful that Frank gave me opportunities that I will always cherish as a journalist.
I was only on board a few weeks when Frank assigned me to cover the five regional meetings of United Presbyterian Men, which drew a total of some 10,000 men to their sessions, held annually in Sacramento, Denver, Des Moines, Chicago and New York City.
During its heyday in the 1960s, the organization was able to enlist such luminaries to its speakers platform as Charles Malik, at onetime Lebanon’s Ambassador to the United States and the United Nations, who succeeded Eleanor Roosevelt as chair of the UN’s Human Rights Commission.
Certainly one of my most memorable assignments came when Frank announced that I would be one of five public relations staffers from mainline denominations who would escort a group of 18 Soviet clerics around the country in early 1963. Their visit was to be in return for one that leaders of the National Council of Churches made to the USSR the year earlier.
Before dividing into groups, the Soviet churchmen were to be observers at the next General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church, meeting that year in Denver, Colorado. I ended up with five in my group – a ranking leader of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow, as well as clerics from the Orthodox Church of Georgia, the Armenian Church, and Evangelical Lutheran pastors from Latvia and Estonia.
Each escort was given $200 in travelers check, a letter stating we were official representatives of the National Council of Churches, and a detailed itinerary for each group. TWA Airline tickets and hotel reservations were also included in our individual packets. We were given a telephone number for the US State Department should any difficulty arise during our journey.
From the moment we set out from Denver, there was no doubt there was a clearly defined pecking order. Russian Orthodox Archpriest Vsevoled Dmitreivitch Schpiller was to be the major spokesperson. The poor Evangelical Lutheran pastor from Estonia sat virtually in silence. His Latvian colleague by contrast had little or nothing to say officially but kept up a steady stream of conversation with me in broken English and German. I was, he declared, his "kleine bruder.”
In one sense, the most intriguing member of my group was Boris Nelyubin, whom I would run into at other ecumenical meetings following the admission of the Russian Orthodox Church into WCC membership. A likeable chap, Boris was to be our interpreter as we traveled from city to city. There is little question he was also to be the group’s "minder.”
We had barely taken off from Denver to Des Moines when our turbo prop ran into foul weather. It wasn’t so much a matter of turbulence as that of heavy wet snow accumulating on the windshield. I was sitting directly behind the open door of the flight deck and watched as the pilot worked in vain to clear it with the windshield wipers. With apologies, he reported that we would be touching down in Omaha, where a bus would take the group on to Des Moines, 135 miles away.
It was a miserable trip. The bus was cold, and we were all tired and hungry by the time we pulled up at the entrance of the Hotel Savory somewhere around nine o’clock. And guess what? We were greeted by a group holding placards reading, "Send the Red Butchers Home,”"Take Off Those False Beards.” They were followers of the Rev. Carl McIntire and others who opposed this exchange between NCC leaders and their Soviet counterparts.
The situation was hardly better at hotel check-in. The Savory was in an uproar as scores of good old American revelers were celebrating something or other. With food service unavailable because of the late hour, our visitors took their room keys in silence and marched off to bed. The Mayor of Des Moines, I informed them, would be giving them the key to the city in the morning. Meanwhile, the noise remained unabated until I called the front desk and said I had specific instructions to alert the State Department if we encountered any problems along the way.
The new day brought a punishing schedule of local appearances for our visitors. Our first stop was Drake University, where students engaged in a surprisingly knowledgeable discussion with our guests. It was left to Iowa’s Episcopal Bishop Gordon Smith to personally drive us through heavy snow to our next meeting several miles from Des Moines, before returning there to observe medical advancements at the Iowa United Methodist Medical Center. Our day ended with a dinner meeting at the local YMCA, where a reporter for The Des Moines Register and Tribune popped the question that many were eager to have answered: "Are you Communists?”
Having first raised the question on the street earlier in the day, the reporter was asked to hold back his inquiry until the dinner meeting where it would be answered forthrightly and in depth. That’s exactly what happened that evening as the clerics noted they simply could not be both clergymen and Communists in the Soviet Union. Although the reporter pressed the issue, any subtleties remained unanswered. A bland report appeared in the newspaper the next day.
When we departed Des Moines for Dayton the next afternoon, our flight ran into more heavy weather, and we were forced to spend the night in Chicago, where United Airlines provided both hotel accommodations and dinner at its expense. Early the next morning, we were off to Dayton, where I encountered my first challenge of the day.
The Orthodox priests had adequate robes and vestments. But the Baltic Lutherans, I discovered, had come to America with little change of clothing. My Latvian friend was in fact hard-pressed to change the shirt he had been wearing since the start of our trip. Luckily, I was able to locate a men’s shop about a block away from our hotel. But how to know his neck size?
We solved that problem by taking a strip of newspaper and placing it around his neck, marking off as best we could to get the correct measurement. Then I ran off with it to that men’s shop, where the owner took the tape and came up the news that the best he could offer was a size 19. There was a grimace when my friend tried to button the shirt back at the hotel. But it was left to the Orthodox priest from Georgia to interject, "He says it’s too tight.” Tight or not, he wore that shirt at the luncheon hosted that day by the National Cash Register Company, and for the rest of the trip.
As guests of NCR, we were ushered to the head of the horseshoe ring in the company’s dining room. Seated on either side of their guests were NCR executives in descending order. At the end of each heel sat the lowest of the low. After a perfunctory greeting, we were served a tough flat steak of questionable origin.
But the most tacky moment occurred on the way to lunch when one executive made it a point to parade these clerics past the vast parking lot and scores of cookie cutter houses, allowing that NCR employees shared that American dream of possessing nice homes and cars. I could not help wonder what the sophisticated Archpriest Schpiller thought of the charade.
Whatever the case, I had a bit of a mutiny on my hands when I reminded the group it was scheduled to make an appearance before some local church leaders several miles away. There was such steel in their response to yet another meeting, these clerics of mine sounded like an Anvil Chorus, as they replied in unison, Nyet, Nyet, and, again, Nyet!
If I ever felt sorry for anyone, it was the local chairman who had to explain why these visitors would be a non-show. His entreaties for them to change their minds met with another round of Nyet. They needed a rest from their labors in Amerika!
Meanwhile, their escort used this down-time to pay his respects to the family of Bill Heck, whose funeral was being held in Dayton during our stay in the city. Bill was a proud member of the Religion Newswriters Association, and his wife expressed her gratitude that I was there for Bill during this difficult period.
If lunch was a washout, dinner that evening was a high point of the trip. As guests of the Marianist Brothers at the University of Dayton, we were served an excellent T-bone steak and baked potato in a cozy faculty dining room, which led one of the brothers to remark: Don’t think we eat like this every night."
After dinner, the Archpriest willingly agreed to a request to record a bit of classical Russian in one of language labs. All were moved as he recounted his acquaintance with the man who would become Pope John XXIII when both served their respective communions in diplomatic posts in Bulgaria.
The next morning we boarded a flight to JFK, where we would say goodbye to our Soviet friends. But not before party time.
Boris informed me that the group wanted to give me a few items to remember them by. Two Russian art books. A silver tea glass holder in a presentation box. And an album with the most recent Russian stamps, including those depicting Yuri Gagarin, the Cosmonaut who made the first flight into outer space.
When we landed that afternoon at JFK, we entered the newly-completed TWA Flight Center, a stunning complex designed by Eero Saarinen, and then known as the "Grand Central of the Jet Age.” Awaiting our arrival were the other groups of Soviet clergy and their respective escorts. Sadly, there was a buzz that not everything went as planned.
American Baptist escort Dean Goodwin was livid as he recounted how and why a member of his group was abruptly recalled to Moscow when hr placed his confidence in the wrong man. Carl McIntire’s supporters had hounded all of the Soviet clergy groups every step of the way throughout the United States. But their most reprehensible act occurred in a southern city when one of them approached Dean and said he would like to visit one of the Russian Baptists in Goodwin’s group. He said the Baptist leader had befriended this man’s mother in the Soviet Union.
The two men talked for hours, and, during their conversation, the Baptist leader confided about the religious situation in the USSR at that time. The next day this purported friend of the family appeared at a McIntire protest rally and blew the whistle on their discussion. His account was fully covered by the secular press, and the Russian Baptist was promptly interrogated by Soviet authorities before being sent home. When Goodwin later met the whistle blower, he looked him in the eye, and raged, "Judas!”
Now back in New York City, the NYPD had sent a member of its spit-and-polish diplomatic unit to be on hand at the TWA Flight Center to assure that all would go smoothly as the clerics said a final goodbye to their escorts. Somehow this impeccably dressed police officer learned that the AP’s George Cornell and I were headed into the city, and he offered us a lift.
As it turned out, that was not the last I was to see of our interpreter, Boris Nelyubin, who often turned up at major WCC meetings after the Russian Orthodox Church joined the World Council of Churches. I was pleasantly surprised to find him at the Conference on World Mission and Evangelism in Mexico City in December, 1963. By then, he was serving as the secretary to the representative of Patriarch Alexis in Geneva.
When we met that evening at one of the chic watering holes on the Paseo de la Reforma, Boris directed our conversation to the question as to whom I thought would likely be elected to succeed Visser ’ Hooft when he retired five years hence. It was a matter of great concern both to the leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church, as well as to Soviet officials outside the church.
Although I was hardly a person to comment on the matter, I realized my friend Boris had come up in the world since last serving as my interpreter on the earlier exchange visit. He was in fact an aparatchik of the USSR Ministry of Church Affairs, who now had close ties to Alexis. For me, the answer to his question was a no-brainer, even though it reflected an American bias.
The name of the Rev. Dr. Eugene Carson Blake had already come up in American church circles. He was a natural for the job. He had served as the highest executive officer of his own Presbyterian Church, as well as president of the National Council of Churches.
But it was a sermon Blake had delivered at San Francisco’s Grace Episcopal Cathedral in late 1960 that was then defining him as the consummate ecumenist. Blake deplored the "scandal” of Protestant disunity and called for the creation of a church "truly catholic, truly reformed,” that would embrace fully one-third American Protestantism at that time.
W hile Blake’s detractors accused him of wanting to establish "a super church,” the proposal it caught fire in many quarters, giving birth to the Consultation on Church Union (COCU).
Of course, Boris knew all of this. And, more significantly, he was also well aware that Blake had visited Moscow in 1956 to build relationships with Patriarch Alexis and the Russian Orthodox Church.
It was therefore not that surprising to me that Eugene Carson Blake did succeed W. A. Visser’t Hooft as the WCC’s general secretary about three years after Boris and I shared small talk about the matter at an outdoor café on the Paseo de la Reforma in Mexico City.
At the same time, there are those who have argued that the original glow that so attracted Time and the media in general began to slowly fade with Visser’t Hooft’s retirement in 1966. Few would question that he represented a formidable force for good when he was named the WCC’s first general secretary During his long tenure, he proved to be the proverbial right man, in the right place, at the right time.
John Garrett, the WCC’s director of communication from 1954 to 1960, has noted that Vim was a "world citizen,” a man with complete idiomatic command of several languages, along with French, German, and English, which he spoke fluently. He felt as much at home with heads of state and members of the diplomatic corps as he did with church dignitaries.
During the war years, Visser’t Hooft played a major role in the resistance movement against Hitler. "He became a key point in the European underground,” Garrett recalls in his tribute to Vim on the 100th anniversary of his birth. He used spy tactics, concealing microfilm messages in lead pencils. Militants sought him out in neutral Geneva. The World Council of Churches was coming to birth during the trauma."
Armin Boyens, another onetime Geneva staff member, has noted that Visser’t Hooft never had any illusions regarding the churches within the Soviet bloc. He had crafted "a carefully balanced stance,” says Boyens, that allowed for a vigorous defense of human rights within the Communist orbit.
For Garrett, Visser’t Hooft was a realist on this score. "He knew the churches were, in essence, islands of faith in a vast menacing sea, [who] advised staff members when visiting, to watch out for state infiltrators in church administrations.
He called them ’nursemaids, a point I kept in mind while shepherding the group of Soviet clerics around our country early in 1963.
It must be left for historians to assess whether Vim remained too long at his post. "After his retirement,” says Garrett, "he was given office space in the Ecumenical Center [where] he wrote his memoirs.
"Staff members clustered round him during coffee breaks to hang on his words. He had become a legend – a guru. Did he linger too long? Did he stand in his successors light?”
That’s a fair question, particularly for those who would question the effectiveness of his immediate successor, Dr. Eugene Carson Blake.
Unlike Vim, Blake’s linguistic background was limited to English, and American English, at that, when he took over the post of secretary general. In an effort to overcome this deficiency, I remember that he signed up for a course in French from Berlitz, to better prepare him for life in Geneva.
Perhaps the most serious criticism was that Vim’s balanced approach to East-West relations began to erode under Blake and his successors. Much of this criticism centered on the WCC’s Program to Combat Racism, which drew fire throughout its existence for funding causes espoused by the far-left. In 1970, for example, Reader’s Digest claimed the program had contributed to 14 liberation groups involved in revolutionary activities, some of them Communist in ideology and recipients of arms from the USSR.
Another matter that has continued to draw heat in some quarters is that the program rather consistently took positions that were anti-Zionist in tone and biased against Jewish State. Former Israeli Justice Minister Amnon Rubenstein went so far at one point to say of the program’s leadership: "They just hate Israel.”
Meanwhile, the WCC’s increasing Marxist tilt following Visser’t Hooft’s retirement began to take its toll on the its credibility, a fact many trace back to the inclusion of East bloc churches among its members. At the center of the storm was Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Nikodim of Leningrad, who became of the WCC’s six presidents, despite reported ties to the KGB. "Only after the collapse of …communism,” Front Page Magazine reported, "did some WCC officials sheepishly admit they should have said a bit more about religious oppression under communion.”
It’s not surprising that this leftist skew increasingly took is toll on the WCC’s bottom line, a reality shared by the National Council of Churches in the USA, which more often than not echoed the current line from Geneva.
Money matters had become so desperate for the National Council by September, 2011, that the once-influential American ecumenical body expressed fears it was fast approaching bankruptcy. The situation was exacerbated by the fact that some of its major member churches were themselves encountering financial difficulties.
Whatever its weaknesses, however, the ecumenical movement as I knew it representedworld Christianity at its best in so many ways. If it failed to fully recognize the threat of Soviet penetration, it was more out of naivete than complicity.
In retrospect, I cherish every moment I enjoyed as a WCC staff member. The stories I covered showed the churches at their best. Refugees were resettled, living standards were raised, and ecumenical leaders ot the stature of Gene Blake took a stand against racism in any form, whether it appeared in South Africa or the United States.
Blake’s critics would do well to remember him as a natural-born reconciler, who did more than talk about what he called the "scandal” of division within American Protestantism. He walked the talk when it came to the civil rights struggle of the 1960s. In fact, he was proud, he said, that he was one of the first national church leaders to be a arrested on behalf of blacks in July, 1963.
His arrest was preceded by a soul-searching discussion a month earlier at a National Council of Churches general board meeting of the at which members questioned whether it was enough for the NCC to issue pious expressions of concern on behalf of the Negro. According to Time magazine, Blake mused: "Some time or other we are all going to have to stand and be on the receiving end of a fire hose.”
As it turned out, Dr. Blake was spared the fire hose, but he was arrested along with other white religious leaders when they attempted to integrate the Gwynn Oak Amusement Park outside Baltimore. His picture appeared the next morning on the front page of The Baltimore Sun, along with that of a black minister who accompanied him. Later that day, I met him in a stairwell at the Interchurch Center in Manhattan, and remarked: "You never stood taller.” The onetime Princeton lettered guard smiled in appreciation.
Little did I know then that Frank Heinze would soon be handing me the plum assignment of covering the civil rights story for our office and Presbyterian Life magazine early in the new year.
My first trip to Mississippi occurred sometime in February, 1964, after nine Presbyterian ministers were arrested in Hattiesburg on January 29th for refusing to obey orders not to march in front of a barricaded area in front of the Forrest County Courthouse.
The nine were part of a larger group of clerics and civil rights leaders who had been pressing for voter registration rights for the county’s 7,000 blacks of voting age.
In February, the nine were found guilty of breach of peace by City Judge Mildred W. Norris, who threw the book at them. She handed down the maximum penalty in each case – a $200 fine and four months in jail. Before their release on appeal on $750 bond each, I visited the men cramped together in a hot sticky cell, inching past a chained snarling dog on the way.
My visit was a moral booster for them, especially when they discovered I had brought along copies of The Hattiesburg American which carried an update regarding their case.
I was also there on March 9th when their appeal was heard before County Judge William Haralson, the epitome of judicial propriety. At one point, he addressed one of the defendants, Emil J. Hattoon, Jr. of Decatur, Illinois, and inquired, "Hattoon? Is that a Dutch name?” To which the defendant replied, "No, your honor. Syrian.”
Haralson smiled and moved to the next matter, telling the defendants they were not permitted to sit in the Negro section of his courtroom. When two refused to move, the judge held them in contempt of court and ordered the sheriff to haul them off to jail.
Court then adjourned until 5 p.m. because of hurricane force winds. When the case was then resumed, County Prosecutor James Duke asked each defendant: "I understand you men are entering a plea of nolo contendere [I do not wish to contend]. Is that your plea?” All answered in the affirmative.Thereupon, Judge Haralson fined each $400 and returned to each $350 of his bond. A $10 fine was levied on the two held in contempt of court. All waived the right to appeal, although they remained convinced they were within their constitutional rights when they crossed the barricade.
When we later met in New Orleans awaiting our connecting flights, the tired clerics stopped in the bar for a drink. Their stand in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, was now behind them.
But the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project was still in its initial planning stages. Before it actually got underway, some 1,000 young volunteers, most of them white, traveled to the campus of Western College in Oxford, Ohio, for orientation before joining thousands of blacks for a massive voter registration drive in Mississippi.
The orientation sessions, held between June 14 and June 27, brought out the top leadership of America’s black community, as well as some 100 volunteer doctors, nurses, psychologists, and lawyers as support staff. The media was also well represented. My own participation was on behalf of both the Presbyterian and NCC information offices.
What the various civil rights groups wanted to avoid at all costs was the violence and bloodshed that marred similar efforts the preceding year.
My lasting memory of this orientation week was to stand on a campus mound one evening conversing with a black friend until he indicated we should be silent. As we linked arms in a large circle, black and white began to sing words I had not heard before. " … Deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome some day … "
Little did anyone know that evening that one week into the orientation, on June 21st, to be exact – three young civil rights workers would be murdered by Klansmen near Philadelphia, Mississippi. It wasn’t until four decades later that Edgar Ray Killen, then 80, was convicted of manslaughter. A grand jury refused to call for the arrest of seven other original suspects in the killings of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner.
Their murders were not the first, nor would they be the last, to be committed against "uppity negras” and their white supporters who had traveled to the deep South to in a quest to achieve racial justice.
A year earlier, four black Sunday school pupils were killed, and 23 others injured, when a bomb exploded at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, where prominent civil rights leaders had been laying plans to register the city’s black citizens to vote. Only a week earlier, then Alabama Governor George Wallace told The New York Times "a few first-class funerals” were needed to halt integration.
The bombing occurred on September 15, 1963. and, within the month, Robert Chambliss, a member of the Ku Klux Klan, was identified as the man who placed the dynamite under the steps of the church. While he was acquitted of murder at that time, he was sentenced to six-months in jail and fined $100 for possessing dynamite without a permit.
But that was not the end of the story. The case was reopened in November, 1977, when new evidence against Chambliss was uncovered. This time he was found guilty of the crime and sentenced to life in prison. He died there eight years later at the age of 73.
The Birmingham bombing itself touched a raw nerve in all but the most jaundiced Americans. One person viscerally affected by the crime was a black activist named Angela Davis, who had been acquainted earlier with the four murder victims. Their deaths served to further radicalize this self-avowed Communist, who, in 1970, was arrested on murder and conspiracy charges growing out of a shootout in a California courtroom in which two people were killed.
Davis ended up on the FBI’s most wanted list after eluding police for two months following her indictment on the charges. She was brought to trial in March, 1972, only to beacquitted three months later by an all white jury that recognized the political nature of the case.
Before it was all over, however, Angela Davis had become the focal point of one of the hottest controversies to rock the United Presbyterian Church. At issue was the fact that $10,000 had been allocated to her defense by the denomination’s Commission on Religion and Race (CORAR), which had been established in the wake of the Birmingham bombing.
While Davis herself was said to have wanted nothing to do with the money, some 7,000 church members from across the country railed against CORAR’s intent in the first place. Echoes of their opposition continue today, even though the money was eventually replaced from private sources.
In their zeal to show unqualified support for racial equality, the Presbyterians had misjudged the feelings of their larger constituency, many of whom registered their opposition with their feet.
While I was not involved in covering the Angela Davis case, I did have a hand in reporting about a Black Nationalist minister with ties to the United Church of Christ. His name was Albert B. Cleage, Jr., who arrived on the scene during the "long hot summers” of the mid–1960s.
His message was straightforward. It’s all well and good to talk about nonviolence, but it is of no value either as a political strategy or a philosophy. For Cleage, the urban rebellions of the late 1960s were just a "dress rehearsal” for the real revolution yet to come.
While he did concede that violence is undesirable, he insisted it was necessary in an age of rapid change. It was therefore the duty and destiny of the black church, he added, to serve as the cornerstone of the new black nation that would emerge.
My one encounter with Cleage occurred after leaving the United Presbyterian Office of Information to accept a corresponding position with the UCC in the late Sixties.. At the time, he was a featured speaker at a major UCC meeting in southern Connecticut.
There was little question that the largely white group of United Church leaders accepted his message in rapt attention, despite his radical rejection of the traditional concept of the church.
Apart from this message, Cleage had to deal with a personal problem that may have had some bearing on his overall perspective. My initial impression was that he was an albino based upon another writer’s description of his "pink complexion, blue eyes, and almost blond hair.” His first biographer was Hiley Ward, an award-winning religion editor with The Detroit Free Press, who noted that his light skin coloring "left him with a life long identity crisis.”
Whatever the case, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had expressed his personal concern about the civil rights movement being torn by violence. In fact, it was just such an outbreak during a sanitation workers strike in Memphis that led him to return to the city for yet another march and speech on April 4, 1968. There he was shot and killed by a sniper’s bullet as he stood on a balcony of the Lorraine Motel later that day.
In that speech before his death, he almost had a premonition of what lay ahead. "I’m not fearing any man,” he declared. "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
Meanwhile, I was fast coming to the conclusion that I had enough being a flack for religious agencies. That idea was buttressed in June, 1968,when Dr. Everett C. Parker, the UCC’s legendary media czar, had me telephone UPI religion writer Louis Cassells with the latest press release concerning the United Church of Christ.
I could sense something was wrong when there was a slight pause after Lou himself answered the call. "Right now,” he fumed, "I’m trying to write a lead on the Bobby Kennedy assassination. So you can tell Mr. Parker … ”
I had enough of the often inconsequential pap disguised as a press release. So I jumped at the chance to serve as pastor of my boyhood church when the opportunity came in the summer of 1970. Those eight years at the Glen Morris Presbyterian Church, not far from JFK International Airport, were some of the happiest and most productive of my career.
Now The Rest Of The Story
It was during those years at Glen Morris that I completed my doctorate in education at New York university and later had the privilege of serving as an adjunct at the University of Scranton, a Jesuit institution. It was also a time when I became immersed in interfaith affairs at the national and wold levels
What’s more, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that my return to the Presbyterian pulpit didn’t disqualify me from covering an occasional story for RNS, as well as filling in as an information associate for the US Conference of the World Council of Churches at the Interchurch Center in New York City, which has been variously described as the "God Box,” or as "Heaven on the Hudson.”
But first a few words about the Consultation on Church Union, better known as COCU, or among some detractors as Cuckoo!
As already noted, the story began on December 6, 1960, when the late Episcopal Bishop James Pike invited Dr. Blake to preach from his pulpit in Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. What Blake did on that occasion was to issue a call to Protestants to unite in the creation of a new church "truly catholic and truly reformed..”
The story caught the imagination of those shared Blake’s antipathy against the weakness and waste of a divided Christendom. But there were others, such as United Methodist Bishop Gerald Kennedy of Los Angeles, who questioned the feasibility of the proposal from the start, citing his concern that it would only succeed if crafted along authoritarian lines. "That’s fine for the Roman Catholic Church,” he said, "but I think that a great many Protestants would be shocked at the thought.”
As it turned out, the Blake-Pike Proposal brought about the Consultation on Church Union in 1962, when leaders of four denominations met at the Nassau Inn in Princeton, NJ, to discuss the matter. They represented Blake’s own United Presbyterian Church, along with others from the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, and the Disciples of Christ. At that first meeting,participants added a third element to Blake’s formula, calling for the creation of a church not only truly catholic and truly reformed, but also truly evangelical.
The idea was front page news coming from Eugene Carson Blake, whom Time Magazine whose name was "synonymous in church circles with efficient organization, knowing diplomacy, and zeal for unity.” The media went so far as to nickname him Mr. Protestant."
I was privileged to be there at the creation, as well as for two later meetings., after that first blush of excitement subsided and the press turnout became smaller. The last time I worked in the press room, Chicago Tribune religion editor Richard Philbrick asked if I could interview the Episcopal Bishop of Chicago and send him a couple hundred words afterwards. Dick wouldn’t be making it to Princeton on that occasion.
Philbrick was hardly alone among media that had grown weary of the endless discussions on such matters as to what the role of the historic episcopate would be in a united church "truly catholic, truly reformed, and truly evangelical.”
Even more telling from my perspective was the virtually unacknowledged fact that the participating bureaucrats came to recognize that their respective denominations would be required to make personal sacrifices "if the scandal of our division” ever were to end. The idea that they themselves might be similarly affected was never discussed in public.
To be sure, a plan of union eventually was presented but never acted upon. Representatives of nine denominations tried to keep the vision alive when they met in Memphis, Tennessee, in January, 2002, under the banner, "Churches Uniting In Christ.” This time they shared the more modest goal of the mutual recognition of their respective ministries by 2007.
For the most part, the press wasn’t listening this time around.
With my own return to the parish ministry, I found myself increasingly involved in the affairs of the local Jewish community.
My interest in Judaism goes back at least as far as to that defining moment when Rabbi Jacob Hurwitz stopped by my desk at The Binghamton Sun and gently chided me for casting a major festival of the Jewish year in decidedly Christian terms. His demeanor impressed me greatly because it was that of a kindly scholar rather than that of a scold.
That interest was reinforced when I joined the staff of The Stroudsburg Record same years later and struck up a friendship with Rabbi Yehudah R, Perkins, spiritual leader of Temple Israel there. He willingly accepted our invitation to our home, bringing with him a box of Isaeli chocolate.
Rabbi Perkins also taught me my first words in Hebrew, using the same techniques he used with Jewish youngsters. For example, he would say, "It’s a sin not to know the difference between a sin and a shin.”
And Myrt and I were right there at Temple Israel when it was announced that the synagogue was going to hold a seminar on Judaism. When we laid down the two dollar tuition fee, Rabbi Perkins smiled, as he handed it back. "It’s a scholarship,” he explained. I held on to those two crisp bills for years to come, hoping to exchange them one day for shekels in Israel.
Another early highlight in our growing bond to Judaism occurred during our years as a student at the Providence Bible Institute. While there, the local media reported that then-Israeli Minister of Labor Golda Meir was going to speak at the Rhode Island Auditorium to promote the sale, if I remember correctly, of Israel Bonds. It was later said of this future Israeli Prime Minister that she arrived in the United States with ten dollars in her pocketbook and left with pledges of ten million. Of course, Myrt and I made sure to hear her speak that night.
As I recall, the genesis of my continued interest in Jewish matters occurred sometime before my call to the Glen Morris pulpit, when The New York Times broke the story of a self-proclaimed Jewish Nazi who was virtually living in our back yard. His name was Daniel Burros, who, according to accounts, had been bar-mitzvahed on March 4, 1950, by Rabbi Morris Appleman of Talmud Torah, a small shul not far from Glen Morris. That, of course, was before he took the"irrevocable” of a storm trooper of the American Nazi Party.
Daniel Burros went much further than merely rejecting his Jewish heritage. He became a Jew hater and a Jew-baiter, who would close all of his diatribes with the words: "Judah Verrecke!” Perish Jews!
When news about Burros filtered into The Times city room, the metropolitan editor walked to the desk of six-foot-five McCandlish Phillips and handed him the assignment of uncovering the truth about the case. "Find out,” he was told, "why a nice Jewish boy would become a Nazi.”
In the process, Phillips met with Burros and revealed he knew about his Jewish identity and planned to write about it in The Times. When Burros threatened him unless he killed the story, the reporter said that decision was not his to make. Two days after their meeting, Burros picked up the Sunday edition of the newspaper and found himself on Page One. Soon after reading it, he shot himself with a revolver, first in the chest, then in the head.
There is no question that this tragic story had a profound effect on me. It played a role in me choosing to write my doctoral dissertation of the Holocaust and also pen an article for the orthodox Jewish Press, entitled Ani Ma’Amin, which in Hebrew mean, "I Believe,” and relate to Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles of the Jewish faith. About the same time, I wrote a paperback for the David C. Cook Publishing Company. It was called O Christian! O Jew!, which the publishers said was "an earnest look into the heart and soul of Judaism – from ancient Abraham to modern Israel – for Christians who are willing to admit past failures, but seek a bridge of reconciliation”
The outpouring of appreciation from the Jewish community was such that it opened doors for me to participate in the ongoing Jewish-Christian encounter at the national level, from speaking in synagogues, ro attending interfaith meetings, and, on one occasion, handling press relations at a major Israel seminar in Washington, DC. It also involved several trips to Israel, including one taken during the height of Operation Peace for Galilee, which the Israelis mounted to in 1982 to rout Yasser Arafat and his PLO from southern Lebanon for good.
The Israeli incursion began on June 6, and eight days later, their forces had reached the outskirts of Beirut. By the time I arrived, the Israeli authorities were keeping journalists out of Beirut because heavy fighting was still going on in the area. My goal was to write about the operation from the Israeli perspective for Christian media.
But I first had to get my credentials from military authorities at Beit Agron, the Israeli press center in Jerusalem. When I made my appearance there, a middle-aged soldier met us at the entrance where he was reading a newspaper. When we inquired about getting press authorization, he held tightly on to his newspaper but left his weapon lying unguarded on the desk, as he directed us to the proper floor. Myrt and I recall the incident as giving substance to that old adage that Jews are the most book intoxicated people in the world.
With my credentials approved, I was issued a temporary Israeli press card from a pretty female soldier named Sherri, who remarked; "Have a good time in Lebanon.”
About 4:30 the next morning, an old friend, Irene Shaloma Levy, picked me up in her beaten up Peugeot and we headed north out of Jerusalem to Mettula near the Lebanese and Syrian borders. The sun had risen by the time we reached Beit She’an and continued north to a hotel in Metulla, where we met Oded, an Israeli army officer, who was to be our escort for the day.
An ELAL Airline employee in civilian life, Oded explained we would be entering Lebanon through the Good Fence at Metulla and then heading toward Nabatiye before continuing on to Sidon, where I would have the opportunity to meet and interview a Maronite priest and his family.
But we were soon to learn that the best laid plans sometimes go awry. We had no sooner entered Lebanon than the old Peugeot went into a ditch. Even with Oded’s help, there it remained until a Lebanese family dressed in their Sunday best appeared and gave us the needed boost to get the clunker on firm ground and send us on our way.
When we arrived in Sidon during the heat of the day, we were immediately struck by an anomaly of a war that was still raging to the north. There at the edge of the Mediterranean Sea stood the wreck of a ferris wheel in the heavily damaged amusement park at the southern edge of the city’s Corniche.
But life goes on even in the midst of war, a fact made clear by signs in the windows of nearby shops that summer sales were then in progress. I was stopped by two enterprising boys who sold me souvenirs of this visit to their country.
It was then time to jump into Irene’s car and head for the pleasant home of the Maronite priest, passing the Mieh Mieh refugee camp on the way. The camp, established by UNRWA in 1954, remains both a blight and a source of contention in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
With typical Arab hospitality, the priest’s wife served her guests tea and cake, while Oded removed the clip from his weapon and allowed the little boy to play with it on the floor. It was clear from our exchange that Lebanese Christians warmly welcomed Israel’s efforts to rid the country from Arafat and members of his PLO.
Leaving Sidon, we headed north along the Coastal Highway before turning inland enroute once again to Nabatiye and the Beaufort Castle, rising some 717 meters, or 2,352 feet, above sea level, and commanding a view of much of Upper Galilee and Southern Lebanon.
While the castle had served as a symbol of Saladin’s conquest over the Crusaders back in the 13the Century, it represented Palestinian power over the region seven centuries later. The Northern Command of the Israeli Defense Forces was determined to wrest the castle from Arafat and his PLO because the latter had constantly shelled Israeli communities below on numerous occasions in the past.
That quest turned into reality on June 6, 1982, when the IDF designated 23 members of its crack Golani Brigade, supported by 65 engineers, to carry out the mission. The assault began under cover of darkness, and by 6 o’clock the next morning, Israeli forces had routed the PLO, and had taken control of the mountain. Six Israeli commandos, and several Palestinian troops, were killed in this first major battle of the 1982 war.
But war had given way to good natured banter when Oded and his two tag-alongs turned up at the Beaufort about two months later. We received a warm welcome from the young IDF soldiers on duty there, as well as a bit of background information regarding Israel’s successful military operation there. Then, after exchanging some hearty "Shaloms,” we piled into the old Peugeot and headed back to Metulla, grateful to Oded, whom we left at the hotel, and then made our way to Nahariya, for one last stop on a long day’s journey.
Our destination this time was Nes Ammim, a Christian moshav, situated about seven minutes by car from either Nahariya or the port city of Akko in the Western Galilee. It was founded in the early 1960s, by a group of Dutch, German and Swiss Christians who sought to show their solidarity with Jews and Judaism.
The name itself means "a banner of the people,” taken from Isaiah 11:10, and the idea was to remind Christians that the Jewish interpretation of the Scriptures is as valid as their own. At the outset, the founders of Nes Ammim sought to boost the Israeli economy through agricultural production. It has since focused on the operation of a 48-room hotel that attracts both Israelis and tourists alike.
We were dead tired by the time we left the picturesque site and barely able to focus on the menu at a small restaurant in nearby Nahariya. Both Irene and I settled for a bowl of thick soup even though that was to be our first food for the day. Hot and grimy, we then jumped into the car to begin the roughly 100-mile trip back to Jerusalem.
Barely able to keep our eyes open, we tried to revive ourselves by stopping somewhere along the Coastal Highway for a Coke and to breathe in some fresh night air. But that didn’t fully revive us. And, on one or two occasions, I caught Irene nodding to stay awake. So help me, she was driving almost asleep at the wheel by the time we entered Jerusalem some time after midnight.
Don’t get me wrong. Irene Levy, now in her eighties, is not only a good driver, this American expat is also extremely knowledgeable about the land of Israel which she has called home for decades. One historical gem, known to Irene but not many others, is that the old Mandelbaum Gate, once dividing Jewish and Arab Jerusalem, was so named because it sat plum on the site of a three story house occupied by Simchoh and Esther Mandelbaum at the end of Shmuel Hanavi Street.
At the same time, we remember another occasion when Irene’s driving skills were tested as she was driving the Carlsons to a restaurant near the Mandelbaum Gate. As she approached an intersection, another car decided to play chicken, and our old friend had to jam the brakes to avoid an accident.
"It’s just a good thing,” she quipped, that "the One who keeps Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps” (Psalm 121:4).
With that, we had a good laugh.
But enough, already.
Dr. Eugene Carson Blake was larger than life in so many ways. His own love for the ministry led him to encourage seminary students in what was then regarded as "this high calling.” While he championed the burning social issues of his day, he did so in the spirit of a man who sought to reconcile rather than divide.
However, Blake had his share of enemies, both in the churches and among the media, some of whom considered his social stance Marxist or that of a Fellow Traveler. While he was known as plain Gene among his friends, his critics invariably referred to him as "Carson Blake.” I last saw Gene at a memorial service for the WCC’s acclaimed photographer, John Taylor, whose own life prematurely ended after he picked up a virus in Spain. At that time, hissight was virtually gone, and he was using a cane, a physical shadow of his younger days when he was a Princeton Letterman and later was to be acknowledged as an unquestioned leader of American Protestantism.
Gene remained one of my references until his death.
Dr. W. A. Visser t’Hooft was introduced to the ecumenical movement by Dr. John R. Mott, longtime head of the YMCA and the World’s Student Christian Federation. For 10 years, Vim served as editor of the WSCF’s quarterly magazine, whose motto was Ut Omnes Unum Sint – That all may be one.
Mott himself was an American Methodist layman, whom many historians considered the most trusted Christian leader of his time. In 1946, he received a Nobel Prize for supporting organizations promoting peace.
Visser’t Hooft often referred to his indebtedness to Mott who was with him on his first visit to the United States. While here, he became interested in the social gospel and later wrote his doctoral dissertation on the movement at the University of Leiden.
Like Mott, Vim always stood the side of the angels.. He never sanctioned unity at any price. His own Christ-centered convictions were summed up in a slim volume, No Other Name, in which he condemned syncretism in any form.
At the same time, Visser’t Hooft was keenly aware of the need to stand up for the WCC’s friends and supporters. I remember one particular occasion when a young Third World theologian submitted an article for EPS in which he expressed criticism of the United States over some matter. Vim read it and suggested the writer not forget all of the support American Christians give to the ecumenical movement.
During World War II, Visser ’ Hooft was able to keep the lines of communication open between church leaders on both sides of the conflict. At one point his Geneva apartment became a meeting place for some 14 to 16 members of the German Resistance to carry out activities against the Third Reich. Dietrich Bonhoeffer himself spent time with Vim, both in London and Geneva, before returning to Germany and his eventual martyrdom at the hands of the Nazis in the closing days of the war.
"As I look back on … attempts to help the Jews during the war years, I feel far from proud,” he writes in his Memoirs. "In some post-war publications my role has been presented as an example of active assistance to the Jews in their hour of crisis. But does this not amount that in the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king?
However, there is another side of this story. Vim tells of being in constant touch, in Geneva, with Gerhart Riegner, Secretary General of the World Jewish Congress, who was himself a refugee from Germany." Both men experienced lukewarm interest at best, when they urged Allied leaders to take decisive action on behalf of European Jewry.
"I can only add that in those years I learned t have deep appreciation for the Jews with whom I was in constant touch. I could say with conviction in a Jewish meeting at the end of the war that during the war the Jewish people had won in me a friend.”
I last saw Vim at a meeting of the U.S. Conference of the World Council of Churches at Buck Hill Falls, where he was being honored for his long service to Christ and the ecumenical movement.
After the meeting, I walked over to say goodbye as he sat holding a treasure given to him on that occasion. Age had been creeping up on him, but, in that instant, I saw a boy with a new "toy.” A smile spread across his face as he grasped a copy of Peakes Bible Commentary as if it were a pearl of great price.
Dr. Roswell Parkhurst Barnes has been placed among what Time magazine once called that "great generation of ecumenical architects” which also included Visser’t Hooft, Henry P. Van Dusen of Union Theological Seminary and … Anglican Bishop of Chichester, Dr. G.K.A. Bell.
Little did I ever think he and his wife, Helen, would remain our friends long after that early morning telephone call to Trafford, PA, when he inquired whether I would accept Visser’t Hooft’s invitation to join the WCC’s information staff in Geneva.
It was only in retirement that I discovered that our childhood homes in Northeastern Pennsylvania were separated by a mere 20 miles from "Spring Hill,” the Barnes homestead outside Rushville, PA, where Ros and Helen would settle after his own retirement due in part to health considerations. We also discovered we were both listed as retired members on the rolls of Lackawanna Presbytery.
It seemed a little bit presumptuous of me to ask Ros to speak at my installation as executive director of the United Churches of Northeastern Pennsylvania. I certainly was not in the same league as former US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles who asked Dr. Barnes to conduct his funeral service despite their strong differences on foreign policy matters. But that evening following the scheduled speaker, Ros strode with dignity to the front of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Scranton and, unannounced, delivered a brief exposition on local ecumenism that left his hearers spellbound.
While Roswell P. Barnes left an indelible imprint on both the church and society of his time, the Wyoming Seminary of Kingston, PA, left an indelible lifelong impression upon him. It was here that he "prepped,” and, if memory serves me correctly, it was here that he and the former Helen Bosworth met, fell in love and were later married.
Sometime before his death, Ros asked me if I would drive them back to his old prep school because he no longer felt comfortable behind the wheel. It turned out to be a memorable evening as Ros celebrated the 65th anniversary of his graduation, and Helen, her 66th.
On the way home that night, Ros told a story he knew would warm the cockles of an old reporter’s heart. "You know,” he confided, "I once received $20 for covering a story for the AP.”There was what I believe is called a pregnant pause, and then he added. "It was a murder.”
After that, we would receive their annual Christmas letter, first from Spring Hill, then from a retirement home. At one point, Ros reported the he’d spend his days reading to Helen who was rapidly failing. The final letter came from a family member who reported that Ros himself had passed away.
John Taylor handed me one of his older Leica’s before my trip to Kythera and told me to shoot some film showing some of the work the World Council was accomplishing on the island. How like John to let a neophyte try his hand at a trade which had earned him an international reputation.
Before joining the WCC as its media and graphics expert, Taylor had traveled the world with his camera, taking many prizes for photos that appeared in major periodicals in the United States and abroad. With his move to Geneva, his travels continued even though his photos centered on the ecumenical mission worldwide. One of his last photos that I could locate is that of a doctor from the Basel Mission treating a child in a hospital in the Cameroons.
Apart from his work, John and his wife Lou were people persons. He was there at Gare Cornavin the day we arrived in Geneva, and both remained there for us whatever our need of the moment. The welcome mat was always out at their home for dinner. And John introduced us to that Swiss culinary delight called fondue in its many varieties. He had a warning when dipping the bread into the pot. "Drink something hot like tea,” he advised. "If you drink something cold, it may turn into a ball of cheese in your stomach.”
John and Lou not only watched out for us as a family, but he played host to my brother Don when he visited us in Geneva. While Myrt remained back home with Lou, John packed Don, JR and I into his old VW one afternoon, and off we went to Chamonix to ski. After our ascent by the Aiguille du Midi cable car, we had a panorama view of Mont-Blanc and the Vallee Blanche. Surveying the distance below, we decided prudence was the better part of valor. So we settled for apres skiing rather than skiing itself. Lou had dinner waiting for us back in Geneva.
Along with countless other friends, Myrt and I hardly were prepared to learn that John had died after picking up a virus while he and Lou were vacationing in Malaga. It was too much for Lou, who was now left to tend for an autistic child virtually alone. She died a short time later.
I treasure a Meerschaum pipe John brought me as a gift he purchased while on a photo assignment in Turkey.
Dr. Adolph Guggenbuhl and I kept in touch sporadically after our return to the States, but it was only after his death in July, 2008, that I learned about the full measure of this man who went from "fixing smashed heads on Saturday nights” as a resident at Rhode Island Hospital to becoming one of the foremost Jungian therapists in the world. Here are just a few items I wish I had known earlier.
His father was an editor and publisher of the Schweizer Spiegel, a monthly magazine that played an important role in the fight against National Socialism.
His childhood was marred by the fact he spent much of it in children’s homes and sanitariums because of illness and his parents business obligations.
He studied theology for four semesters with the intent of becoming a pastor, but he switched to history in Basel where he established a foundation for the protection of Jewish students.
His decision to become a Jungian therapist was sealed when his brother Allen committed suicide by throwing himself under a subway train in New York City. He suffered greatly because of his brother’s death.
But things brightened for Adolf in 1949, when he spent the summer at a work camp in Aberdeen, Scotland. There he met a girl at a church service who enchanted him by her singing voice. Her name was Anne Craig. After a year of correspondence, they were married in Aberdeen in 1950.
To think that our friendship was forged about two years later when Anne agreed to babysit Paul, Jr., while her new husband was completing his medical degree in Providence. How blessed we were to have known them.
One could never be certain just who might be turning up for Tea Time at Malagnou on any given afternoon. It might be the Indian theologian D. T. Niles, or Leslie Newbigin, the Presbyterian who became a bishop of the Church of North India.
I have to admit I stood in awe one day when I found Pastor Martin Niemoeller holding a tea cup and chatting with colleagues at Malagnou. By then the physical scars had been erased on this Christian leader who ended up as a personal prisoner of Hitler, and all because of a sermon, Gott ist mein Fuhrer. Not the Nazis, not Hitler. But God. After years of suffering, Pastor Niemoeller was honored for his courage and now served as a member of the presidium of the World Council of Churches.
In his Memoirs, Visser’t Hooft himself pays tribute to Madeleine Barot, whose name is etched in the Avenue of the Just at Yad Yashem in Jerusalem for her contributions to European Jewry during the height of the Holocaust. He writes of Mlle Barot "making several ”illegal" journeys to Geneva on behalf of the French Protestant youth organization Cimade to make certain in advance that Jews rescued from internment camps in southern France would find safe haven in Switzerland after Cimade brought them ”at great personal risk across the mountain passes to Switzerland."
I remember Vim sharing a humorous story of Mlle. Barot one day helping a young Jewish refugee scale a fence to freedom in neutral Switzerland. As she attempted to do the same, she fell smack on top of a startled border guard. Thankfully, he let them both pass.
Only the most serious students of the modern ecumenical movement are acquainted with the names and contributions of these ecumenical pioneers. Even the name Visser’t Hooft was unknown to most people in his home town of Haarlem in the Netherlands when my wife and I inquired about him there some years ago.
The World Council of Churches itself has moved from Route de Malagnou to new quarters in the Ecumenical Center not far from the Palais de Nations, the headquarters of many other international agencies. The Museum of Clocks and Mechanical Instruments now occupies the space in that "lovely little park,” which we old timers fondly remember simply as "Malagnou..”