East Anchorage United Methodist Church 1981-1988
There were many interesting experiences while I was the pastor at East Anchorage United Methodist Church from 1981-1988. Having come from a very tense situation in Nome, I was ready for a change in pace. Here are some of my memories.
THE RAPTURE IS OVER
It didn’t take me very long to establish myself at East Anchorage. Knowing that many Christians believe in the rapture, I announced that it had occurred on June 29, 1981. This date was selected by one of the leaders in Arizona who gathered his 50 followers in his home awaiting the rapture on a specific date. Hoping to put that “doctrine” to rest, I announced that the rapture had occurred on that date and for some reason, the most perfect people I knew were still around, including my mother. But more shocking than this was the fact that Jerry Prevo and Jerry Falwell were still around. What does that tell us? Jimmy Swaggert has lost his claim to holiness, but it doesn’t seem to prevent people from sending his organization millions of dollars (2015). So much energy spent on an idea that holds little to no merit, in my view.
(update) Even as I choose to ridicule the idea once again, I see that I got the date wrong. The Rev. Bill Maupin in Tucson, Arizona, predicted the date of June 28, 1981. Then he revised the date to August 7, 1981. The Internet provides no more updates. Fifty members of his group, including some persons with “education” sold their homes and gathered at Maupin’s home, awaiting the end. They waited in vain. The Internet does not provide any more information. They had their fifteen minutes of fame. Bad theology abounds.
I am reminded that this “idea” is related to Israel and there are many prominent preachers who are promoting the idea that “the end” is connected to what happens in Israel. So we see a very unholy alliance between politicians in Israel and certain high profile preachers in America. Nothing good can come from this and one thing is for sure – no amount of words or political manipulation will bring about the “rapture”. Shame on those who think otherwise.
PASTOR, I AM READY
While in Nome I had related to a family composed of grandmother and grandson. The grandson was very angry and unresponsive. The grandmother was after me to “turn him around”, but it was obvious that he was far from ready. One day I talked to him privately and told him that I was aware that he did not wish to have any conversation with me about religious matters, but that if he was every ready for conversation about the church, I would be available. Then I moved from Nome and lost track of him. One day while in the East Anchorage church alone with the door locked, I heard some one knocking. I opened the door and there was the young man. He simply said: “I am ready”. Wow!
It so happened that two young adults sought out the church that year and spent a very focused year learning what Christianity and faith was all about. One came from an angry period in his youth and the other came from a family that claimed to be atheistic in belief and practice. Both found help for their own lives from that year of study and reflection. It was a special experience for me.
NEVER PROUDER OF A CONGREGATION
A family participating in our church had a problem when I was out of town. When I returned a couple of individuals, including my wife, had organized thirty (30) volunteers to take care of their children during the husband’s working hours, so he could keep his job and his source of income. There was no expression of judgment about what had caused the problem, just a loving expression of service. I think of this when people are critical of the church in general. Not in this case. It was the church at its best.
“THE PASTOR IS TRYING TO KILL YOUR CHILDREN”
East Anchorage was a relatively small congregation with an average attendance around 100 persons. We were two blocks from a trailer court with 400 trailers and we were one mile from some of the most expensive homes in town, but access was blocked by a designated street that had not been opened. I petitioned the city to open the street and became aware that I needed the congregation to be behind my efforts.
Meanwhile the husband of one of my members who lived near that non-street became upset with my efforts and he did what any serious United Methodist evangelist would do – he went door to door with the message that “the United Methodist pastor is trying to kill your children” by opening up the dead-end street. Traffic would increase and thus “endanger all of our lives” or in this case “endanger the lives of your children”. When this matter was voted on by my congregation, it was defeated by a vote of something like 30 to 2 (Barbara stuck with me). Two of the leaders of the church took the critic over in a corner to tell him what they thought of his behavior. We had not seen him in church before this vote and his family felt the urge to go elsewhere after this vote. Sad, but true. I missed his wife, but I didn’t miss him because he had never been there before this great debate. The street remained closed.
I was shocked when one of the active members said that they liked the church as it was – small – and that helped explain why my efforts to grow the church may have had an uphill battle. We were able to reach one family in the trailer court. We also had one family that drove the long way around from the exclusive housing development to worship in our church.
And probably those who were told that I was out to kill their children would not have been motivated to try us out.
We had a serious vandalism problem at one point. There was a wooded area on our property and some youth did things we didn’t want them to do. At some point I did a stakeout and observed bad behavior and followed the child home. I knocked on the door and the father answered. I explained my concern and he looked me right in the eye and said his son had been home all evening. In my sternest voice I replied, “Sir, I have been standing out in the cold for two hours and I just followed your son to this house one minute ago.” For some reason, the Father folded and the problem stopped. They didn’t come to our church either.
BIGGEST PERSONAL ACHIEVEMENT
Some neighborhood children would heckle the church because of our address: 1666 Patterson. Don’t know who planted that idea, but without a congregational vote, I got the address changed to 1660 Patterson.. Only meant a new letterhead, among other things.
At a farewell party, after serving there seven years, I remember one colleague noting how popular I had become in Anchorage. Yes, I replied, I had discovered the secret. Don’t do anything and you will become popular. That was not the whole truth. I had become involved in some unpopular issues, but I did it quietly and behind the scenes. When one controversial issue came up, I gave the organizer a significant amount of money and asked him to keep my name out of it. He did and he was successful in whatever the issue was. I don’t even remember what the issue was, but it related to alcohol and I didn’t want to become known as a one note or one issue person.
Another reason for getting along so well at East Anchorage was that I developed the ability to listen to and affirm many individuals who did not necessarily agree with my take on things, but because they felt “listened to”, they didn’t give me a rough time. I remember one person being angry over a bad headline that communicated exactly the opposite of what was shared in the article. I calmed her down, but when people get angry, often the damage can not be undone, even with facts.
The biggest community battle I remember was the discussion over whether or not to change the Council of Churches into an Interfaith Council. In that context, it meant changing the by-laws so that the Jewish Rabbi could become a member. The Catholic Archbishop had sent down word that he wanted it to happen, so I gave it a great deal of energy. At the crucial meeting, the motion was defeated. I calmly expressed disappointment in their decision and indicated I would be spending my energy elsewhere. In other words, I threatened to resign. That is a power play that one should not use very often or with great discretion. In this case, the body called for a five minute recess and folks formed groups all around the room. I took a Catholic priest into a corner and berated him for his negative vote. I told him how disappointed I was to hear the same words out of his mouth about the Jewish rabbi that had been said about Catholic priests in the 1960’s after the Vatican council allowed priests to join Ministerial Associations. He changed his vote. In fact, everyone changed their vote in the sense that there were no negative votes. The motion passed. Then the Episcopal priest from the downtown church announced that he would no longer participate in the organization. No one called for a recess. The goal was achieved.
Often being ahead of my time on some issues, I had suggested including the Islamic Iman in the by-laws, but I was told not to push my luck. I do not know if the group ever included such a leader or not. They are included in many cities in America now when it comes to interfaith witness.
Change often is slow and rarely comes easily.
ELEPHANT ON MY CHEST
One evening, I felt a great constriction on my chest. Barbara insisted on calling 9-1-1. It was nice to know that she didn’t want to become a widow. I was popped into the hospital for all kinds of tests, including the iodine test to determine if I had a heart problem. It was good to learn that I had a good heart. Every pastor in Anchorage (there were twelve of them) made pastoral calls on their colleague, even my superintendent, who may have been the indirect cause of the constriction. That was an interesting experience. Some of my colleagues who visited longer said that we had brilliant conversations. I had no memory of them. I guess drugs can do interesting things.
It was a mystery as to what had happened, as I was getting along well with my spouse and my congregation. A doctor gave me a book: “Is it worth dying for?” and the title was helpful. I made the decision not to care as much about what was happening in the larger church. I decided “not to give a damn” about things I could not impact or influence and I think it helped.
There has been no recurrence…yet. I think I still give heartburn to some people but the “Letters to the Editor” have slowed down in retirement.
Based on my experience at East Anchorage, I have told many that “inclusive language” creates even more controversy that equal rights for gays and lesbians. I based this on one worship service that focused on the importance of “inclusive language”. After the sermon two individuals attacked my position. One woman communicated that if I ever used the inclusive language scripture again, she would leave the church. Rest of the story – due to material shared in United Methodist Women meetings, she came to me a year later and apologized. A man actually came to the front at the close of worship and shouted at me, fists clinched and veins on his face bulging and saying: “Why do you make such a big deal out of something that is so unimportant?” Come again? Unimportant? Oh well, a few months later, when I was serving another church, he died and his last words to his wife was to contact me to do his memorial service. At that service, I began by saying that this individual could be very stubborn and his extended family laughed with enthusiasm. I had nailed it. With the permission of my successor, I had returned to do the eulogy. Sadly, he did not reach out to the family after the service. A missed opportunity for him. I left town immediately after the benediction.
After the difficult experience on inclusive language at East Anchorage, I led by example. Inclusive language in worship bulletins and in my sermons. It didn’t work! But at least I didn’t get rejected over inclusive language in my last three churches. Probably few even noticed. But I certainly wasn’t successful at getting people to change their language. God is still He and many men still refer to woman as ladies. Change takes place not at all or very slowly. Hymns and bad translations have more influence than this preacher. What really gets me are United Methodist female pastors who still use exclusive language.
As I will note elsewhere, Hope Retreat Center was a favorite place of mine. Personal retreats were a part of my routine and whenever possible I would take others to the end of Palmer Valley. When my brother Wayne visited we went there and found a vehicle hopelessly stuck 92 feet from the road. My brother’s tow rope was 90 feet long. We improvised and rescued a grateful owner, but the rope was never the same. We also hiked in Girdwood, going to the summit area on the Crow Pass Trail. Awesome views are available there. Lake Eklutna was also a favorite place to visit. Portage Glacier and Matanuska Glacier were two other spots easily accessible from Anchorage. One of my regrets is not taking advantage of these places more often. Hatcher Pass Road out of Palmer-Wasilla provided great recreational opportunities, but we rarely took the time to enjoy them. Most of the time, it was work, work, work! One available recreation did not tempt me: skiing. The closest I got to skiing was visiting members in the hospitals with broken legs. Even today, one of the dangers of cross country skiing is having encounters with moose on the groomed trails. Moose rarely lose in such encounters. One time I walked to church on Sunday morning, only to discover a moose and calf in the church yard. I turned around and went back home to get my car. One should never trust a cow moose with a calf.
On one of my retreat times at the Hope Retreat Center, I read an entire book by Lyle Schaller “It’s a Different World”. I would read until I got sleepy and then I would sleep. It helped explain the changes I was experiencing in ministry. Such as: when I started in the 1950’s people welcomed pastoral calls without prior appointment. In the 1980’s, calling without an appointment was offensive to many people and some didn’t wish to be visited at all. In today’s world (2018) pastors are seen as coaches and trainers and pastoral care is the responsibility of the many, not the few. When you think about it, it makes sense. But living in changing times was not easy.
One humorous experience was visiting a former Catholic family who thought I was going to inspect their house (look in the closets) when I scheduled a pastoral call. We were very close for several years.
THE REST OF THE STORY
East Anchorage United Methodist Church was closed in 2016 on its 50th anniversary. Attendance had dropped to such a low level that it was unsustainable. The Alaska United Methodist Conference offices are now located in the building, as of 2019. I was unable to go for the final service. It is just as well. The nearby trailer park was leveled several years ago. The last time I drove by, it was still undeveloped. The nearby Anchorage Baptist Temple continues to thrive. Most of the participants transferred to St. John United Methodist Church. Some went to Anchor Park United Methodist Church.
A FUNNY STORY
Once upon a time, Dr. Jerry Prevo (Anchorage Baptist Temple) hired some one to picket his church and he was exposed. As he dealt with his embarrassment, his elders brought him a new suit of clothes. When I learned of this, I asked my congregation why they didn’t buy me a suit of clothes. Just saying.