Guest Writer Tom Helling on Rev. Dr. Ledyard S. Baxter: A Lifetime Commitment to Fairness and Truth

It is a cold, windy and overcast February day, and my destination is the Old Steeple Church in Aquebogue, NY, approximately 100 miles due east of New York City.

I am traveling to speak with the pastor Reverend Dr. Ledyard S. Baxter, 65, or Rev Led as his current congregation named him six years ago. He is preparing for his fifth annual service on the compatibility of religion and science.

The service he is preparing for is less than a week away. The genesis of his commitment to this annual event is a document known as the Clergy Letter, which specifically addresses the evolution versus creationist controversy. It is set to coincide with Charles Darwin’s birthday, on February 12th.

Rev Led is unaware that he is one of only five pastors in the entire State of New York, and the sole pastor in the New York City/Long Island region focusing his sermon on this topic, according to the Clergy Letter’s web site. I am curious why his commitment is so unique in this region, and I’m wondering about the potential for recrimination in his congregation and the community, especially in terms of those of his Long Island neighbors who have strict Biblical ideas when it comes to evolution.

Meeting the Reverend for the first time, I can imagine the director at a casting call audition exclaiming, “We have our Reverend!” Rev Led is tall, graying, stands very erect and speaks softly in a deep baritone. His kindly demeanor makes a stranger feel immediately comfortable, a good skill for a man who spends his days counseling people about life, death, beliefs and everyday ethics.

His office is just off the sanctuary. His shelves are filled with books on theology, but he quickly points to a sizable collection on the topic of science and religion. Ian Graeme Barbour’s Issues in Science and Religion, The Language of God, by Francis Collins, and Michael Dowd’s Thank God for Evolution among them. On a wall full of framed memories, the dominant image is what appears to be a NASA photograph of the Earth as seen from an Apollo mission.

Rev Led’s interest in science is based upon an understanding of, but not expertise in, biological science. He recognizes that a deeper understanding of both science and the Bible is necessary to relate the compatibility of biological evolution with religious beliefs. It also requires a willingness to consider both, and as Rev Led suggests, “This does not work with biblical literalism. That is where the polarity continues.”

I question him regarding the impact of his commitment to the Clergy Letter project and Evolution Sunday. “It is just since I’ve been here [at Old Steeple Church in Aquebogue] really that I have felt the freedom and been blessed with the opportunity to delve into this. It certainly would have been more difficult to broach and explore these issues with a congregation and in a cross-congregational manner in any community in which I had served as clergy prior to Aquebogue.” [Rev Led had previously served with congregations in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts]

“You ask about impact, I don’t think people here have jumped up and said, yes, let’s organize and take it on the road and get other churches to do it. That’s my job. But, no one has sent me hate mail, and no one has even raised a question within the church” he adds.

By his “job”, Rev Led is referring to the extension of his influence beyond his congregation to the broader community, something he accomplishes now in a number of cross-denominational associations in the Town of Riverhead. [Area in which Aquebogue is found] His choice, however, is not to confront publically those colleagues in the clergy who believe in biblical literalism.

I gain a better understanding and appreciation for the Reverend’s means as he describes his education and commitments to community-based activism in his youth. He grew up in a small and homogeneous community, Newington, in central Connecticut, where he recalls never having an awareness of the meaning of “discrimination.” Rev Led describes the following “early lessons” in “learning how to break down barriers.”

He recalls one such opportunity in early 1966, his junior year at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. “Fred Hudson, the chaplain at Colby got me involved in a month of independent study between Christmas and the spring semester in which I was mentored by Dick Broholm, of the Metropolitan Associates of Philadelphia (MAP). This was a cross-denominational think tank that philosophized about how the church might get involved in politics and government, arts and education and business and industry. One issue addressed while I was there was redlining practices along the Mainline.” Redlining was the rejection of mortgages to certain ethnic groups, or entire neighborhoods. These practices prevented ethnic groups having access to funds that would help them improve their communities, and it often prevented them from moving to other communities. In this instance, it was occurring along the “Mainline”, a series of wealthy communities situated along the commuter railway lines from Philadelphia to the suburban areas west of the city.

This was only the beginning of an interest and commitment to principles of fairness and human rights. His pastor in Newington involved him “with a group at the University of Chicago Divinity School” several months later, during the summer of 1966. “It was a summer work/study program where we lived in this community of students with common interests and backgrounds, had to get a job and participate in reflection groups on readings and discussion.” This summer program, however, turned into much more.

Frank Reynolds, who is currently Professor Emeritus of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago managed the program and a PhD student named Larry Greenfield currently the Executive Minister of the American Baptists Churches of Chicago was Rev Led’s mentor. “Larry knew Jesse Jackson, and when the Southern Christian Leadership Conference came north that summer to demonstrate in Chicago, Larry asked if we would be interested in participating” he recalls.

This was the summer that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Dr. Martin Luther King’s political base, committed to eight months of marching in communities in the Chicago area to promote equal rights for black Americans. Primary focus of these marches was on housing, education and jobs. They were documented as some of the most difficult such efforts that Southern Christian Leadership Conference leadership had encountered, and Rev Led participated in four major civil rights marches that summer, learning about nonviolent protests from no less than Dr. King and Ralph Abernathy. The impact of the hatred he experienced firsthand must have had a great impact on this young man from Newington.

Ledyard Baxter (with glasses); Chicago Freedom movement, 1966 Source: A Brief Guide to Sites of the Chicago Freedom Movement; Ralph, James; Middlebury College; 2006 (photo courtesy of the Chicago History Museum)

Graduating from Colby College in 1967, Rev Led enrolled at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, then a center of Protestant social justice thinking. During his studies at Union, his interest in social ethics motivated him to take a year off to work with Bill Webber of the East Harlem Protestant Parish and the Metropolitan Urban Service Training program (MUST). He spent the year working in Harlem as a welfare rights and welfare caseworker, and in the Bronx, for the Welfare Department.

For a man who would spend his life trying to balance worldly justice with a religious message, these early experiences were transformational. Rev Led talks about “falling into these opportunities” as if he just happened to be at the right place at the right time. Perhaps so. But all along the way, he seems to have made choices to stand up for what he believed was right, to add not only his voice, or signature in the case of the Clergy Letter, but to be an active participant in society, a model for others. His choice to devote a service to present the compatibility of science and religion is but one example of this.

Wearing Christ On Your Sleeve

Much seriousness is traipsing the front pages of newspapers and our minds these days: floods, food shortages and price hikes, and political-social unrest in Egypt and bordering states. It’s right that our hearts and minds focus on these heavy matters. But it really leaves little time for the less consequential to inhabit our thoughts. That’s why I’m thankful that Union graduate Robert Loring sent me this website that sells Christian clothing. Before you get ahead of yourself with thoughts of habits or white collars or austere monkish robes, think much more modern. Think graphic… Ed Hardy, even. (Do you think I can get an Ed Hardy habit?)

What does this type of garb have to say? While many are evangelical in nature — this image attesting – for me it is saying less about a reflection on being a person of “the way”, and more about a way of being part of a culture. Which brings up the long debate of how Christ and Culture have always been weaving in and out of each other. It gets at the question, what is Christ’s way in the world? A survey on that question can be found in H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture, where he describes various understandings of Christ “against,” “of,” and “above” culture, Christ “transforming” culture, and Christ in “paradoxical” relation to culture. I would find it difficult to pinpoint one of these above the other, though my hopes are on the transformational element. The thing is, like these shirts, we seem to make God in our image rather than the other way around. If Christ can inhabit the front of our shirts, can Christ also inhabit the whole or our being to transform us and a world toward the commonwealth of God? Does a shirt that says “Jesus is my homeboy” work toward that end?

Your thoughts on the aesthetics and popular renderings of Christ are welcome here.

Guest Writer Cathy Cornell: 48 Hours in Juarez

Marriage is all about sharing…So I’d like to share my blog with my wife, Cathy Cornell, who recently returned from a trip to Ciudad Juarez in Mexico.  These are her reflections.

Paul Knitter

Fourteen more people were killed in Ciudad Juarez during the first forty-eight hours of this week. This is not an unusual toll for Juarez…but one that is more deeply troubling and sad for me now that I have witnessed the life of the people there this past weekend. What follows is my journal recounting my recent forty-eight hours in Juarez.

Peter Hinde, Carmelite priest, and Betty Campbell, Mercy sister, both dear friends, were there to meet me at the downtown bus station in El Paso, Texas as I hopped off Bus #33 from the airport. We walked the few minutes to the border and over the bridge to Juarez. The first surprise was how different this border crossing is from the crossing in Nogales (across from where my mother lives in Tucson); in violence-torn Juarez there’s no swarm of vendors because there’s no stream of tourists.

In fact, at first, it looks like a ghost town. Empty, skeletal foundations mark the spot where a business area had been planned. Only a few years ago, the area was cluttered with shops, hotels, bars and prostitution. Today only empty, hollow streets.

The boarded up buildings along the dusty roads of the neighborhoods are the most obvious sign of trouble here – so many places closed up because owners couldn’t or wouldn’t pay the extortion fees (reported to be $100 a week). And the stories I heard – of the woman who was kidnapped in May and returned because her family was able to scrape together the $100,000 ransom; slowly she was healing from the horror of that experience…or Maricela who was murdered outside the government building in Chihuahua because she persistently demanded justice for the prior killing of her daughter … or the teenage boy from the neighborhood who went out to ride the dunes in his new car and never returned (his body was found days later).

And then we arrived at Peter and Betty’s home, Casa Tabor – a colorful and peaceful oasis in this desert, a community house of hospitality and peace. A place of beauty, of memory, of life, possibility and creativity. I walked with Betty to the nearby store and saw the neighborhood soccer court where the head of the soccer team was gunned down not long ago (there are no longer swimming pools or other recreation areas for young people and only one library). We entered a local store (open only because they do pay the extortion) and its warm welcoming environment with smiling neighbors and a shopkeeper who likes to joke around. This was my introduction to the paradox of Juarez.

I’ve come to Ciudad Juarez to join the fast to end the bloodshed; it was led by churches and human rights organizations as part of the bi-national rally for peace and justice on this troubled border. The crowd gathered at the Benito Juarez monument downtown – families and loved ones of so many murdered or disappeared, seminarians, priests, nuns and joined by journalists, photographers and people from other countries who desire peaceful change.

Banners hung on the fence surrounding the monument – the most prominent being “No More Bloodshed” and Ni Una Más” (not one more) protesting the savagery against women which has claimed the lives of 446 women from Chihuahua state last year. A multicolored homemade banner commemorate the life of their beloved “Tatic,” the recently deceased Bishop Samuel Ruíz García from Chiapas.

As the bell rang, those of us fasting donned little white masks covering our mouths to mark the beginning of our fast. Representatives from the organizing groups – numerous parishes, Paso del Norte Human Rights Center, Migrant Human Rights Center, Women Workers Pastoral Center of the diocese of Juarez passionately called for an end to the violence and madness. Local seminarians led us in prayers for peace and a clown lightened and activated our energies by engaging all of us (including the somber seminarians on stage) to wave our arms and jump up and down in unison. Our many grins and giggles helped us tolerate the sadness, grief and tension that held us all.

Then a caravan of vans and cars snaked through the city to the border fence at Anapra where we joined others on “el otro lado” (“the other side” as El Paso is called) for a bi-national rally for Peace and Justice Without Borders at noon. The US Border Police monitored the scene from the El Paso side while the Juarez side was completely without police protection. From the crowd in El Paso we heard strong statements critical of US immigration policy, of US drug consumption that fuels the violence in Juarez, of the lack of regulations to limit the thousands of guns bought in the US which are used to perpetrate the horror, and of US military and economic policies that undermine the possibility of a sustainable solution to this nightmare. Poems and songs, prayers and pleas, testimonies of family members who have lost loved ones to the violence…of kidnappings, shootings, and awful torture. More stories were told and many tears shed. The children mimicked the clown’s antics and then settled down in a circle while their minds, for a short precious time, were captivated with silliness and joy.

On the way home, a female lawyer spoke of her increasing hopelessness of finding a way out of this deadly morass where seven to ten people lose their lives each day…and we spoke of the need to keep going as well as to care for ourselves and each other. The inspiration of the day’s gathering was palpable, but the uncertainty of the future weighed heavily on those who are trying to build a culture of peace.

A short while later, with the sun going down, I walked with Peter and Betty down the uneven dusty road, past modest homes and unsteady shacks, past children playing in the yards, dogs barking, and grownups doing their daily errands. Life goes on in Juarez. Moments later we were at the church at the bottom of the valley. Betty and I took our seats and greeted many friends in the parish and Peter processed in with the other priests to begin the Mass in celebration of Pastor Arturo’s fourth anniversary in the priesthood. With standing room only, the people sang and prayed together with gusto. Yes, this is Juarez too. This is Juarez where we gather in an upstairs room decorated with brightly colored balloons and streamers, a room filled to capacity with tables and chairs and heavy plates of delicious rice, beans and meats for all. This is Juarez – ancianos, babies, toddlers and teens, all together, full of life, with such beauty and joy.

Before leaving Juarez, I wrote fifteen more names on the memorial mural of the dead of Juarez in the patio behind Casa Tabor. As I wrote, my sadness and horror at the tremendous loss and grief of the people broke through very forcefully. I walked the labyrinth that Peter created in the garden nearby as I prayed that all may be free from this suffering. I chatted with Betty’s chickens (Chula, Bonita and Hermosa) in their brightly colored coop as the sadness moved through me and the joy of being with good friends comforted me. This is Juarez, where people grieve amidst the suffering and death in their community and where people comfort one another and celebrate life. I’m reminded of the chant we said after a distraught and angry parent gave their testimony – No Estás Sola – You are not alone. We must find ways to respond to the people of Juarez – by visiting and supporting their brave workers for justice, by working in our country to end the insidious ways our country’s policies promote and sustain this violence (for more information, see juarez/8457), and most of all, to remember our one-ness with our brothers and sisters in Juarez.

Juarez – You are not alone.

Cathy Cornell
New York, NY
February 4, 2011

W&C finds Religion in the News… no really.

This seminarian is no different from anyone else. These have been disturbing, nonsensical days that I can hardly begin to make meaning of one way or the other. When I don’t understand–especially when phrases from the middle ages pop up in present political rhetoric–I look to the wiser ones that have gone before me. So what does blood libel mean anyway? Union’s Mary Boys talked to CNN today to help us understand. Yes, Wheat and the Chaff is actually highlighting religion in the media. Imagine that. Enjoy!

And friends, I don’t know much, but if you have someone you love, tell ‘em. That may not seem to have anything to do with this article, but I can assure you it has everything to do with the healing we all need right now.

The Middle Class Dilemma: More or Enough?

Two seemingly unrelated stories led off NPR’s Morning Edition today. One was the story of an Arizona family who decided not just to live within their means, but to live within their needs. The other, more vexing story, was about an obscure bit of financial jargon: “Quantitative Easing.” For all you normal people out there, quantitative easing “means creating massive amounts of money out of thin air with the hope of getting the economy back on track.” These two tales of financial austerity and financial magic appear tangential at best. But, my goodness, they are so deeply interconnected. In an America where a privileged class psyche permeates much of our culture, the word austerity sounds synonymous with the gallows–a kind of torture for which one would never volunteer. The Donnell family sees it differently.

The median household income in America is $50,000 a year. The Donnell’s live off exactly that number. They used to earn two times that, swimming in the river of the American myth of prosperity, and living by an ethos of, as Gregg Donell puts it, “the need for more things.” They stopped living that way, though, beginning to recognize and appreciate their gifts rather than succumb to the desire to buy them.

Quantitative easing is something altogether different. Its a complex word with a simple meaning. Remember when your parents would tell you money doesn’t grow on trees, they were right; it can come out of thin air. QE is essentially what happened in the 2008 stimulus package that went out to major banking centers. Firms possessed large bundles of bonds no one would buy so the Federal Reserve bought them. And here’s the trick, they did it with a surge of money right off the press.

QE is an answer to the necessary task of keeping our economy afloat. And as Paul Krugman argues another wave of stimulus money is very necessary, even if it is politically unappetizing. QE exemplifies the paradox of our current economic state. If we don’t funnel money into credit lending institutions our economy sinks further, but when that money for nothing is handed over it sets a priority for the way we organize our society. And that’s what’s troubling about QE: it’s a lesson in how our supply-side economy works vis-à-vis how we act as a society. The Federal Reserves’ money out of thin air goes into the major financial firms which,  further fuels speculation, further widens the income gap, further allows exploitation of limited resources, and further instantiates a psychological entitlement for the proverbial “more.”

The question I have is does this pattern of economic practice continue to delay the inevitable? That is, as a country we have been living beyond our means for far too long. Is austerity really our enemy?  I wonder what would happen if middle-class families started making financial decisions the way the Donnell’s do: living by what they need rather than living through the desire for more. Of course a large spending freeze doesn’t sound good to any economist, but what would it mean to finally realize we have more than enough to live content lives. The Niebuhrian in me tells me to get real, but what a hope. More Donnell families might just have the power to do something radically sublime. It may instill enough humility that we can move from conversations about quantitative easing and the desire for more to conversations about the joys of living with enough. Oh but the doubting question remains: can middle-class families make such radical financial  statements, or be faulted for not doing so, when the seduction of wealth continues to always beckon one nigh?