I regretted to see in the January 2 New York Times that Peter Steinfels was writing his final “Beliefs” column. I’ve rarely missed a Steinfels column over the years. They were consistently respectful and totally devoid of either simplistic advocacy or simplistic criticism. Steinfels attempted to understand and analyze the complexity of religion in contemporary America.
Tom walked into my office looking glum. He tossed his backpack on the floor, fell into a chair by my desk, sighed, and then rummaged through his bag for the registrar’s form. Tom is a first-year seminary student, and I’m his counselor. We walked through the courses he would be taking, most of them part of our core curriculum. Tom’s lack of enthusiasm was screaming at me. Finally I took the bait: “So, Tom, what’s the matter?” His hands went up in the air as he shot back, “What’s the deal with all of these required courses? When do we get to study things that are relevant?” Ah, I thought, the old “Let’s make thousands of years of inherited tradition relevant to me” argument. I’d just had a similar conversation with a woman in the congregation where I serve, who wondered why we repeat the “same old creed” each Sunday.
Who cares about history? I think about this question a lot because of my job as director of the Congregational Library in Boston. My association with this venerable Yankee institution, a large collection of things both important and inexplicable, means I’m often invited to churches that are celebrating anniversaries.
I began the visit with “Hello, I’m the new pastor at the Presbyterian church.” An innocent enough introduction, I thought. “Wow. But you’re so young!” came the reply.“Well, I just started. And sure, I’m on the young side,” I said, hoping to move on quickly.“No, I mean, you’re really young!”At this point it was difficult to know what to say. To be honest, I was frustrated. I hadn't gone to college plus seminary plus spent an extra year as intern only to have my lack of wrinkles and my intact hairline greeted with shock.
William Robeson, a former slave and father of civil rights leader and singer Paul Robeson, became pastor of the Witherspoon Presbyterian Church in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1879. After 21 years of service, white members of the presbytery forced him out because of his outspoken efforts to end racism and repeal Jim Crow laws in Princeton. The congregation had to sell the manse due to loss of funding. The church repurchased the manse in 2005 and turned it into the Paul Robeson House, a meeting place to advance human rights. In an act of racial reconciliation, the Synod of the Northeast is clearing the debt of $175,000 that remains on the mortgage held by the congregation (PCUSA, November 13).