Jack Mendelsohn once asked me what kind of minister I wanted to be. “You can be a ‘movement minister,’ if you want. Plenty of our ministers are casual and activist and even effective. But I always knew I wanted to serve an urban church, a downtown church where some of my parishioners would be bankers and attorneys. I knew I needed to learn to wear a suit so that I could meet with powerful people if I wanted to get the work done.” I decided then that I needed to learn how to wear a suit.
When I learned of Jack’s death on October 11, I was deeply saddened, wishing I had found the time, in the past year, to get to Maynard, Massachusetts to see him once more and to again say “thank you” for the encouragement he had given me (and hundreds of others!) both by his exhilarating ministry and by his personal connection. Jack encouraged me to learn congregation-based community organization when I was in seminary, telling me the stories of his own relationship with Saul Alinsky and his hope that an effective organization might be built in Boston. Greater Boston Interfaith Organization was the culmination of a dream that Jack had had from the 1960s when he brought Alinsky to Boston to do a site visit. “Couldn’t be done here,” was Alinsky’s assessment of Boston and its culture of prestige, elitism, division among ethnicities and silent and secret financial and political control. By the 1990s, Alinsky’s heirs, including Jim Drake, organizer of the United Farm Workers grape and lettuce boycotts, and Lew Finfer, director of the Organizing and Leadership Training Center, took up the charge and were successful. Jack encouraged me to make GBIO a significant part of my ministry. Eventually, I served three years as GBIO’s president.
Jack’s “Being Liberal in and Illiberal Age” is a book I always have near at hand. (It is in a coveted corner of my study at First Unitarian Balto.) I have heard Jack preach on themes from the book, and savor its call for an understanding that life can be large and complicated and sweet and meaningful. Jack was large and complicated; and I always found him sweet, and believing that I might have a ministry that is meaningful. When he wrote my letter of introduction to the UUA Department of Ministry, he indicated that we would be taking a chance, the UUA and I, in my becoming a minister. He feard that I might find minsitry too small, too confining for the interests that I had in theater and music and politics. But he also saw a coherence between the kinds of community rituals I had been fortunate to be asked to co-create; and new that my sense of the liturgical could be useful in the right congregational setting. And so he encouraged us both, the Department of Ministry and me: take a chance. Dare to dream. Even risk occasional failure in the struggle to find the liberal way through an illiberal world.
Thank you, Jack, for the life of justice that you lived. Thank you for the legacy of love that you leave.