Waitstill Hastings Sharp was ordained to the Unitarian ministry in 1933, the year when Franklin Delano Roosevelt became President of the United States and Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. Martha was, by training, a social worker, having been trained at Hull House in Chicago. The couple’s son, Hastings, was six years old and their daughter, Martha, two years old when the Sharps were asked to go to Europe to provide direct aid to the largest Unitarian congregation in the world, the Unitarian Church of Prague.
The Prague congregation had always been a cosmopolitan center, but as intellectuals and radicals fled the Nazi regime in Germany and the Sudetenland, the congregation became increasingly a home for dissent and aspiration for freedom. The Sharps provided some material aid to refugees, but grew increasingly convinced that what they really needed to do was to help people escape. And so they worked the extensive relationships of Unitarians with people in London, Paris and the United States to find governments ready to take refugees and situations that might provide housing and jobs.
When the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia, the Sharps learned through their underground contacts that they were going to be arrested. Waitstill was, at the time, organizing illegal money transfers in London, and Martha was able to flee Prague to join her husband in England. The two then returned home.
But not for long. The American Unitarian Associaiton President Frederick May Eliot convinced them to travel to Europe to help set up a more permanent operation in Lisbon, and the Unitarian Service Committee was born.
I have many personal connections with the Sharps. Martha went to Pembroke College at Brown University (my alma mater), and Waitstill served the Unitarian congregation in Flint, Michigan, which was my own ministerial call before coming to Baltimore. But the moment in the film that took me by surprise was the interviews with Rev. Jack Mendelsohn, who had been my mentor in the early years of my ministry and who challenged me to be a minister with a civic vision pursuing a public ministry. And as I am, in general, a bit of a cry-baby, you may imagine that I was (and am!) moved deeply by tonight’s viewing.
A version of the film suitable for classroom use is available on the Facebook page of “Facing History and Ourselves.” [Two Who Dared classroom version] The LGBTQ Humanist Council, a project of the American Humanist Association, plans a viewing of the full theatrical release during June.