Thursday, February 1, 2024

Charles Luther Kloss, pastor 1896-1904 and 1911-1918

“Genuine Authority”

sermon for Sunday, January 28, 2023 - Heritage Sunday
including thoughts on the life and ministry of
the Rev. Dr. Charles Luther Kloss

Jesus and his new disciples went into their home town of Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 

They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 

Just then there was in their synagogue a man with a spirit of uncleanness, which cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 

But Jesus rebuked the spirit, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 

And the unclean spirit, convulsing the man and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 

They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 

At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee. (Mark 1:21-28)

Jesus taught, the gospel of Mark says about him, “as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” What exactly did the author mean by that?

It might be that, for the scribes, one’s highest understanding of an encounter with the scriptures meant diving into a debate about the meaning of a passage. The true scholar would defer to wiser interpreters. Authority, in that case, would indicate it was based in the strongest argument or, perhaps, the one that most agreed with your perspective. Authority was in the text but had to be teased out.

Possibly, Mark was saying that Jesus’ understanding of Torah was precise and spot-on. His authority was not like that of the scribes.

But the evangelist continues with another example of Jesus’ unexpected version of authority. Suddenly, a man possessed by a spirit of ritual uncleanness confronts Jesus. The rabbi commands the spirit to silence and casts it out of the poor soul.

Now the observers are even more amazed than they were at the end of Jesus’ message. They perceive that he is possessed of an authority that not only states with precision the meaning of the Law and the Prophets, but he can command spirits. He not only won’t take guff from human opponents, he won’t take it from supernatural opponents either.

It is tempting to read this passage and imagine that Jesus was some kind of an authoritarian, insisting on his interpretation of scripture and his alone (not as the scribes). Or one might be persuaded that his authority was some kind of supernatural endowment that he’d been bestowed.

Personally, I don’t think either option is correct. I am persuaded that Jesus’ authority, which wasn’t like that of the scribes and which could cause even unclean spirits to comply, was rooted in the way he interacted with others. He met people where they were and as they were. He, and his truest disciples after him, would be faithful to others and seeking to live the love of God.

As an indication of what I mean by this, consider what Paul said to the Corinthians:

When I came to you, siblings, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you with lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. (1 Corinthians 2:1-2)

In short, Paul wanted Christians to be acquainted with Jesus has he had been, confronted by an individual who could know them and who had lived as they would hope to - the most faithful and gracious life they could. He knew that human beings are the best example of their own religion, not doctrine or dogma.

Kloss in 1896

This is Heritage Sunday, as we’ve said, and the individual I want to talk with you about was the eighth pastor of the church, Charles Luther Kloss (which may have been pronounced, “close”). Dr. Kloss published a tract not long after he arrived here as pastor in 1898. It was titled, “Personality and Truth,” and it was a meditation on this very matter I’m discussing with you now. He would write:
It would be a document of surpassing value to go through history and disclose how men surrendered, not so much to the moral theories and teachings of Jesus, as to His personality, something greater than any word He said. He is the Way, the Truth and the Life.

It was how Jesus incarnated the Word of God that made Christianity a movement. It was who he was – for others – that drew his followers close and caused them to want to be like him. 

Any doctrine or dogma, theologic or economic, no matter how valuable, is bound to moulder on the shelf unless it captures a living person. To have power it must be incarnate.

That is what Jesus did for the Word, and – Kloss was convinced – what every individual Christian must endeavor to do as well.

Kloss would identify a grand series of examples of this – the apostle Paul, Dante, Martin Luther, and (lest you think he would shy from controversy) Charles Darwin – each of these men striving bravely to make what they understood into what they lived. 

Yes, Dr. Kloss could be very enthusiastic about human potential, particularly Christian human potential. Indeed, another tract he published, this one at the start of his pastorate in Philadelphia, was taken from four sermons he, no doubt, had preached here. “Four Studies in Optimism,” he called it. In it he identified how the qualities of enthusiasm, self-sacrifice, fearlessness, and prompt blessings are essential to genuine Christian living. All of them make the practitioner better and incline them to still greater works.

Rev. Daniel Kloss

Charles Luther Kloss was of the generation that came of age after the Civil War who were optimistic, perhaps out of necessity, perhaps as a balance to the grief that was teeming around them due to a war that had claimed more lives than just those who had died. Born in 1862, in New Berlin, Pennsylvania, he was the middle son of Daniel and Rebecca Kloss. 

Rebecca Kloss

Both his parents were descended from Germans who had settled Pennsylvania in the late 1700s, and they kept their family traditions, to a point. Daniel was a Lutheran pastor who left that tradition in the 1870s to become a Congregationalist. His first assignment as a Congregationalist was the new church start in Axtell, Kansas, a refueling and water station for trains on the Western Pacific Railroad, about parallel with St. Joseph, Missouri, and not far south from the Nebraska state line. Axtell was the town where Charles Luther Kloss spent his youth.

After high school in Axtell, Charles went to Highland College in Highland, Kansas. He earned a B.A. there in 1882, a B.D. from Yale Divinity School in 1885, after which he was ordained, and a master’s degree from Highland in 1886. He also attended a course of study at the Universities of Berlin and of Heidelberg, in 1886 and 1887. 

Upon his return to the States and his return to the church at Axtell, he met Mary Phillips. She was the church organist. After marrying in 1888, they moved to Argentine, Kansas, where he served a church until 1891. He served the Tabernacle Church in Kansas City from 1891 to 1897, and our church from 1898 to 1904. 

Rev. Dr. John Watson

In 1900, the Congregational Union called for its churches across the U.S. to adopt a lengthy creed as part of our process for receiving new members. Dr. Kloss (he received honorary degrees from Highland College and Drury College during his first pastorate here) wrote a creed of his own. It was based on a document penned by the Rev. Dr. John Watson (who wrote had the pseudonym Ian MacLaren). Watson an English theologian, lecturer, and ecumenist who devised in 1896 what he called “A Creed of Christian Life.” Dr. Watson’s creed went:
I believe in the Fatherhood of God. I believe in the words of Jesus. I believe in a clean heart. I believe in the service of love. I believe in the unworldly life. I believe in the beatitudes. I promise to trust God and follow Christ; to forgive my enemies, and to seek after the righteousness of God.

Dr. Kloss’s adaptation of this statement included a familiar opening line of the affirmation of the International Order of Odd Fellows. Their opening line expanded Dr. Watson’s sentiment to “I believe in the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man.” This addition was crucial to Dr. Kloss’s optimistic estimation of a Christian’s potential. Thus, Webster Groves’s Creed said,
I believe in the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. I believe that Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. I believe in the clean heart, the unworldly life, and the service of love that Jesus taught and exemplified. I accept His Spirit and His teaching.

He wanted his people to become attached not to mystical statements of faith but to ideas they could actually accomplish, which had been Dr. Watson’s intention also. 

The words found favor here, and I have little doubt that their universality and Dr. Kloss’s winning personality set our church off with success that would not abate for three-quarters of a century. We would continue to repeat the Creed in worship until 1984, and I adapted a form of it into the reception of new members ritual we use.

Dr. Kloss carried the Creed with him to all of his subsequent churches. It was featured on the covers of bulletins in Philadelphia and San Mateo, as it had been here.

His sermons were peppered with optimistic references, calling upon individuals to take responsibility. He often quoted the Sam Foss poem “Bring Me Men,” which imagines the voice of God saying:
Bring me men to match my mountains;
Bring me men to match my plains;
Men with empires in their purpose,
And new eras in their brains.
Bring me men to match my prairies,
Men to match my inland seas,
Men whose thought shall pave a highway
Up to ampler destinies;
Pioneers to clear Thought’s marshlands,
And to cleanse old Error’s fen;
Bring me men to match my mountains –
Bring me men!

His confidence in the authority of personality over the authority of doctrine, for convincing others of the value of our religion did not rest solely on the shoulders of men, however.

When he arrived here, one of the first actions he took was to prevent the women’s groups, whose primary purpose at the time seemed to be fundraising to offset the interest on the church’s mortgage, from scheduling any more dinners or socials or any other “entertainments.” Catherine Twining Moody, who would become one of the pastor’s dearest friends, would write of this,
The Woman’s Association gave one sigh of relief, but so great a change was this new order of things that the busy women who had for years racked their brains and nerves over devices for putting their mite into the treasury, seemed suddenly to have lost their natural occupation… [I]n due time the space vacated by entertainments was filled with useful work for charitable institutions… (A Brief History of First Congregational Church of Webster Groves, 1906)

In January 1902, Kloss told church members that he was frustrated with only having presided twelve weddings in 1901. He asserted that he wanted women who were ready to marry to go ahead and propose. He said, he thought that by doing this he would be bound to preside at least 50 weddings in 1902. He printed this suggestion in the weekly bulletin, and a member of the church who was a journalist with the daily newspaper, the St. Louis Republic, published his opinion paragraph there. Next, the Post-Dispatch picked it up. The idea seemed to shake some people to their cores, and his testimony got picked up by papers across the country! 

The item as described, in the Republic
January 3, 1902

Piles of letters, pro and con, filled the church mailbox in response.

Follow-up story in the January 17
Marthasville Record

Shortly after arriving to begin his second pastorate here, in 1912, Dr. Kloss – still inspired by his understanding of “Personality and Truth” – would spearhead an effort to fill what is now the north end of our east parking lot with a recreational facility for youth. He struggled until 1916, trying to pull together the $16,000 he said the church would need to make the vision a reality, but it never came to pass. This was by all indications his sole disappointment in his work here as pastor.

As I read the rest of his history among us, I perceive that he considered the recreational facility effort at best as a personal failure. At worst, he considered it a vote of no confidence on the part of the church. And by the end of 1917, he had set his sites on California. Charles Kloss concluded his service at churches in Oakland and San Mateo.

But he never lost his sense of optimism. He never lost his belief in the truth of Christ expressed through the human spirit, which draws us in, impels us onward, and holds us… close (Kloss?) – winning hearts and spirits for the good news of God’s love. For there lies reliable authority, not in doctrine, not in dogma, but in “Christ, and him crucified.” (1 Cor 2:2)


Saturday, November 18, 2023

Bonds Home Historic Status Achieved

I have been in the news, lately, with my new friend Gayle Jones. Links to the news reports – both print and television – are included at the end of this article.

On January 29 of this year, I delivered a sermon[1] which used as an illustration church members Melvin and Thyra Bonds who in 1965 had sued the city of Webster Groves for having changed the zoning around their home from residential to light industrial. The lawsuit ended in 1968 when, after losing on appeal, the Bondses were denied any further appeal or a transfer of the case to the state Supreme Court.

Learning a few weeks after delivering the sermon that the Bondses’ daughter Gayle Jones lives in her childhood home, I sent Gayle a letter along with a copy of my sermon. Shortly afterward, she and I determined that we would seek a protected status for her home, for a number of reasons of historic import:

  • First and foremost, her home was the demonstration model of a 13-unit development called “Marvin Court,” which had been conceived by Bennie Gordon, Jr., in 1955 and marketed specifically to middle-class African Americans in 1956;
  • Mr. Gordon did this at a time when Webster Groves had was seeking to restore and revitalize areas historically owned and occupied by its Black population (North Webster / Webster Heights);
  • In 1957, white neighbors literally said, “Not in my back yard,” in some cases selling their homes that adjoined the development, and threatened Roosevelt Federal Savings & Loan, the lender for the project, with boycott. This caused the financial institution to withdraw its funding going forward and scuttled any further hope for the development; and
  • In 1964, in pursuit of an Urban Renewal Plan established by the city’s Land Clearance for Reclamation Authority in 1960 (shortly after annexing Webster Heights), the City Council rezoned all 13 acres adjoining the Bonds home to the west and the north, including land platted for the Marvin Court development (Bennie Gordon’s Subdivision);
  • Gayle and I wanted to prevent the possible future purchase of the home by an adjoining business and its subsequent rezoning to match properties around it; and, finally,
  • We hoped to affirm her parents’ courage and Bennie Gordon’s vision.

On November 21, the Webster Groves City Council, upon unanimous recommendation of the Historic Preservation Commission, voted to declare 15 Marvin Court as a historic building, for all it represents. Gayle Jones and her son Nathan were presented by Mayor Laura Arnold with a plaque to attach to their home and a framed display of ads and articles about their home.

My personal opinion is that this recognition ought to be just the "tip of the iceberg" along the way toward restorative justice for the residents of an historic neighborhood replaced for the most part by an industrial park... All of those whose homes were cleared away by the City in the name of urban renewal deserve to have their stories told and historic wrongs reversed in their favor. There will be more to come.


My Testimony at Oct 11 Historic Preservation Commission Meeting

Webster-Kirkwood Times – Nov 16, 2023 –

KMOV – Nov 7, 2023 –

KMOV – Oct 18, 2023 –

KTVI – Oct 11, 2023 –

Friday, November 17, 2023

Balancing Act - What is the balance of nostalgia and justice?

Micah 6:1-8; Matthew 5:1-12 

When I named this message, I called it, “Balancing Act,” because I was thinking about today being our Heritage Sunday[1], and about the temptation I find myself answering when I’m doing genealogical research or just thinking about my grandparents and great-grandparents, to feel purely nostalgic.

It’s not as though things were better, back then, and the problem also isn’t balancing nostalgia with hope. So, what I’m going to say may not have a whole lot to do with that title. (As my friend the Rev. Janice Barnes[2] has told me, the title you give to a sermon in advance is often a placeholder until you can get an actual message together.)

To begin, I want to acknowledge, this morning, that we are a violent people in a violent society wrapped up in a violent world. And I want to say what I believe: that this need not be the condition in which we must, or our children must, or our descendants beyond our children and their loved ones must, live. We live in a violent world, but this world need not remain this way.

It is also simply and plainly true that, to prevent such violence, we will have to get to work. And hard work! Work that infringes upon our comfort, our daily comfort.

Friday, the Memphis Police Department released video of the lethal beating of Tyre Nichols by police officers and the evident compliance of other first responders with the brutality of those officers. Media have played back audio and video of the incident, and it is difficult to argue with the insistence of many Americans that the culture of policing in the United States must be fundamentally changed, so that incidents like this no longer occur. Yes, we have some hard work before us.

Last Sunday, I mentioned two incidents in California of gun violence against multiple people celebrating the Lunar New Year, and yesterday in Los Angeles there was another such incident. In just the first three weeks of 2023 there were 40 mass shootings (shootings in which at least 4 people were shot). Also, an average of 110 Americans die each day because of gun violence. We and all the people of this planet must come to believe genuinely that we cannot successfully solve our problems through force of arms.

No one has said this clearly enough: You do not win by force of arms. You subdue, perhaps, or you tyrannize, or you terrorize. But you do not win. Haiti is besieged from within by gangs. In Myanmar the government outlaws voices of freedom, but those same freedom voices when in power persecuted the Rohingya ethnic group. Holocaust Remembrance Day was this past week, recalling the state-sponsored murder in German-occupied territories of 6 million Jews and Roma and LGBT people during World War II; and somehow, anti-Semitic hate and racism and homophobia and transphobia are on the rise.

And Russia remains intent upon taking over Ukraine.

So you see… This is going to be hard work.

Where shall we begin? Because, you know the problem isn’t just angry people or fearful people or people who will take unfair advantage. There are also problems like poverty and disenfranchisement which so contribute to conditions of violence that they may be identified with violence themselves.

There is a movement among people of faith in Webster Groves not just to ignore red-lining and racial covenants anymore but to get actual legislation passed stating that discrimination is illegal. In Evanston, Illinois, a city in which I served two different churches and attended another, programs are being created and administered today for the sake of restorative justice (call it, reparations) for people of African descent who experienced Jim Crow laws between 1919 and 1969. This justice is available to their descendants if they themselves are no longer living. The City government is funding this municipal initiative through a marijuana sales tax, but there is also an initiative of the Evanston Interfaith Action Council in which churches and synagogues are committing major portions of their endowments, or just making commitments, to a central fund being administered by Black Evanstonians.

Poverty is violence, and economic development can mean healing and restoration.

What does our God require of us?

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”

What does our God require of us? Where should we begin?

Dare I say, we ought to begin by remembering. Ancient Europeans believed that memory resides in the heart. We’ve put it in the head, but I want to ponder with you for a moment the possibility that your memory is heart-centered. Just rest in that idea for a moment: that the same place prayer comes from, the same place that healing comes from, the same place that will identify for you whether or not you feel whole, is the place where your memories live.

I’m not saying that this is the perfect way to address our problems, but I want to put you in your hearts. I mean, most of us have at least some European blood in us, however it got there, so why not take advantage of that perspective. You know the saying that goes with this: “Home is where the heart is…”

Now, while you’re contemplating that, let me take you a little south from Europe, to a place where people actually have a saying about the importance of remembering in order that we may imagine a generative and productive future. The Akan people of what is now Ghana in West Africa have a concept – sankofa – which is depicted on the cover of this morning’s bulletin. As Cliff Aerie[3] explained in his August edition of last year’s Jazz for the Journey series, sankofa means, “look to the past to inform the future.” This is symbolized by a bird, sometimes flying and looking back over its shoulder. In our depiction, the bird has reached back to take up its egg which will become a new life.

You have to see what’s behind you, in order to decide your most positive direction. Sankofa.

There is so much about Christian faith, and the Jewish faith before it, and the Islamic faith as well, that is centered in remembering. Our major holidays are rooted in studying memories – Passover, Holy Week, Ramadan. The past informs the future for us, by reminding us of the faithfulness of our Creator and Sustainer, our Savior and Redeemer. The Holy One has brought us up out of bondage and given us the word of life. And we are thankful.

One hundred fifty-seven years we have been meeting here in Webster Groves, as this manifestation of the Body of Christ. And practically every year we have sat ourselves down, and we have remembered – William Plant and the Porters and the Martlings and the Helfensteins and the Monroes and the Studleys and the Prehns[4] and Jennie Davis[5] and the Moodys[6], and Dr. Kloss who wrote Our Creed, and Edward Hart[7] and whoever those women were who modeled for Sylvester Annan, the stained glass artist who created our “Sermon on the Mount” window, and Dr. Inglis and the Obatas[8] and Robert Parker[9] and Arno Haack who led the Board of Deacons when the Obatas and Rev. Parker asked to join the church so that this white church didn’t say no. And so many we’ve bade farewell just since I’ve been here – Tremayne and Parker and Morley and Patterson and Davis and so many others who helped us define who we are.

These all remind us why we are as we are. And in the cases of the Obatas and Robert Parker and Jennie Davis Sharp, we have come to recognize people who stood out from the main group but who called us to stand by our principles and follow our Savior’s example of humbleness and humility.

A few months ago, I became acquainted with another such person – Thyra Johnson Bonds, who was a member here from 1957 when she and her husband moved to Webster, until her death in 2005. It was up until the early 1970s that she was active, especially teaching Sunday School. Her daughters Kassandra and Gayle were active too, right up to about 8th Grade.

Mrs. Bonds made her mark on Webster history when she brought suit against the City of Webster Groves. The Bonds had bought their house – a sweet little ranch with a carport – in 1957, in a neighborhood which was on the other side of the tracks from Tuxedo Park. Homes to the east and south of where they built had been popping up for 20 or 30 years. The Bonds, however, had built in the very southeast corner of a 13-acre tract of land slated for “redevelopment.” Now, when the Bonds heard “redevelopment,” they thought what any of us might have thought: that the houses to the north and west of them would be rehabbed or torn down and new houses put in their place.

You see, that 13-acre tract contained a neighborhood about as rundown as any you might ever see in Webster Groves. Directly across Kirkham Avenue from First Baptist Church, the homes there were either owned or rented by low-income African American families and individuals. Many of these homes had no indoor plumbing  (meaning that, yes, there were still housing units in our fair city as late as the mid-1960s with standing privies!). So, yes, redevelopment was needed.

But the City’s idea of redevelopment, flush as it was with new federal Community Redevelopment funds, was not the same as the Bonds. The City’s newly formed Land Clearance for Redevelopment Commission determined to clear out those homes, and the City Planning Commission elected to rezone that entire 13-acre tract from “residential” to “light industrial”… well, all 13 acres, that is, except for that sweet little, brand new ranch home with a carport.

And so, from 1964 through to the end of 1968, Mrs. Bonds and her attorney offered objection after objection, first to the City Council and then to whatever court would hear her, expressing her concern that the value of her property would tank, because what she and Mr. Bonds had imagined for themselves and their daughters – a neighborhood with actual neighbors all around them – had been prevented. She sued, for the sake of recapturing the value of that house.

And she lost. And then she lost on appeal. And finally, she couldn’t get a hearing before the Missouri Supreme Court.

Now that you know about Thyra Bonds, what do you think we might be able to do – as a city, as a church, as individuals – that can take the reality of being Black in Webster Groves, or wherever you may live, and empower restoration? Or is there something like this that we might be doing, individually or together, for the sake of making safe the lives of people of Asian descent in our country? Or of children and youth? Can we actually enable economic development, maybe even make sure that “redevelopment” means the same thing to everyone?

And before someone goes off and says that what I’m doing is preaching politics, remember what we read in Micah – that litany of instances in which God (unbidden!) turned things around for Israel and then asked, “What ought to be required of you?” And then Jesus in Matthew recited a similar litany of vulnerable people whom God is blessing (And I do believe that the unstated comment there from Jesus is, “God is blessing these… if only the world would too!”). Blessed are the poor in spirit; blessed are the peacemakers; blessed are you when you are persecuted and reviled. All of that, I want to believe, he said because he knows how hard our work is going to be – individually and together.

Are we relegated to a future that resembles the past? Or shall we be able to open our theological imaginations, our evangelistic hope, our remembering and expectant hearts, to a new future – a true and faithful future in which we study war and violence no more?


[1] The First Congregational Church of Webster Groves was founded on January 31, 1866, by the signing of a covenant by ten residents of the village.

[2] The Rev. Janice Barnes is retired clergy, a former staff member at First Church, and currently an esteemed member of the Congregation.

[3] Director of First Church’s Ministry of Imagination, Creativity, and the Arts (MICA), the Rev. Cliff Aerie is an ordained minister in our denomination, the United Church of Christ. MICA produced a series of musical, worshipful programs in 2022 which were called, “Jazz for the Journey.” It is also the creative force behind our Good Friday Blues services and Jazz Noel.

[4] Some of the church’s founding members.

[5] A First Church member from 1878 to 1883, and first African American schoolmistress of what would become Douglass School in North Webster, Jennie Davis would emigrate to Liberia and become the founder of the Women’s Department of Liberia College. She returned to the United States in 1903, including a stop in Webster Groves, to raise funds for a new, industrial arts education project at Mount Coffee, Liberia. The project was touted by such luminaries of the time as the writers Edward Everett Hale and Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins.

[6] A prominent family of the church, now, for six generations.

[7] Mayor of Webster Groves at the turn of the Twentieth Century, in whose memory the “Sermon on the Mount” window is dedicated. Of the characters depicted in the window, all are female except for Jesus.

[8] A Japanese-American family sponsored by the church, 1943-1945, after being relocated to Webster Groves from the Topaz Mountain internment camp in Utah.

[9] First African American ordained in a Missouri Congregational church, in 1951.

Sunday, January 15, 2023

Memories of Joyce Berger

I am sad to announce the death of our dear sister Joyce Berger, age 97 years and 51 weeks. 

She was the youngest of three daughters born to William & Mabel (Wyatt) Ingram. She grew up in Wellsville, Missouri, where her father was a postal clerk and her mother ran the household. The family moved to the near north side of St. Louis in the late 1930s, where Joyce’s father became a letter carrier and she attended Soldan High School. She married Soldan classmate Robert P. Ferguson, Jr., in 1945. He was a pilot in the Air Corps and Air Force, flying missions in the Pacific theater in WWII and in Korea. During this time, she and their two children – Robert III and Lucia – lived in Michigan, Arizona, and Florida, before Joyce returned permanently to St. Louis with the children.

Joyce joined First Church with her second husband Allen on December 11, 1960. The newsletter then, The Word, records the two of them and their son Bob becoming members – Allen and Joyce by letter of transfer from Presbyterian churches nearby.

When she and Allen married, his parents lived in a large house on Mason Avenue in Webster Groves, not far from First Congregational, and the newlyweds were looking for “a neutral church” to be a part of. They had each been attending other churches in Webster, and the great stone church at the top of the hill from his parents’ house intrigued them. Once they were introduced to Dr. Inglis and First Webster, she liked to say, it was an immediate match.

Photo of Allen & Joyce
They had met through mutual friends. Allen was a widower with a daughter Judy who was 5 and twins David and Kathy who were 2 (The children’s mother Helen tragically had died while birthing the twins.). Joyce’s son Bob was 13 by this time, and her daughter Lucia was 12. In setting up their new home, the two parents would adopt each other’s children. 

Allen was a salesman who traveled a lot. Joyce made a career locally with the Republican party. In 1972, she ran the St. Louis County campaign of gubernatorial candidate Christopher “Kit” Bond whose emphasis on government reform was the great attractor for her. When Mr. Bond was unable to attend local campaign events, Joyce went in his place. This, she said, was her favorite job. Her least favorite had been working with the County Election Board, which she said was filled with people who were, in her opinion, “unqualified political appointees.”

Joyce spoke very fondly of the days when Allen taught the 5th and 6th grade boys Sunday School class and she the girls. After a few years, she opted for the 2nd and 3rd graders, and enjoyed that assignment even more.

She was an adult chaperone for the 1968 youth mission trip to Rough Rock, Arizona. She told me that she didn’t particularly like being stationed on the floor in a sleeping bag in front of the exterior door of the girls’ quarters, but Joyce was the preventer of liaisons and other mischief! The work of assisting others and guiding youth in how to do so was very gratifying and made the overnight conditions somewhat excusable. Joyce would quote another parent on one of these excursions who complained that “If I never hear another Beatles song, it will be too soon.” Joyce would laugh at this and said that the other parent was too rough on the Beatles.

She and Allen were fixtures at First Church for as long as they lived. Allen died in 2004 with an untreatable cancer. They were married for almost 44 years.

Joyce moved from their home on Wilshire Terrace, to The Algonquin apartments across Gore Avenue from the church, in 2013. Not long afterward, she got a new next door neighbor, Jean Tarkington. Jean’s mother, Della Bobbitt, had worked as one of First Church’s cooks in 1950s and 60s, in the days before potluck luncheons and dinners were served here. Jean had fond memories of the church, from helping out her mother as a kitchen assistant. Joyce was fascinated by Jean, who is almost six feet tall with a broad smile and a quiet demeanor. They loved that they had the church in common, even if neither of them had known the other from before.

During their years as neighbors, Jean and Joyce became quite close. In August of 2014, Jean appeared in tears at Joyce’s door. “What’s wrong?” Joyce asked her. “They’re killing our babies!” Jean cried, and Joyce brought her sobbing friend inside and sat her down. She made them some tea, and spent the afternoon listening and finding her heart opening up to concerns she had never even considered. Jean was reacting to the killing of Michael Brown, Jr., and the desecration of his body which lay in the open for four hours in the heat of that summer Saturday in Ferguson. Hostile reaction arose among African Americans and allies across the region; Jean’s response was despair.

“What could I do?” Joyce asked me, when we visited a few days later. “What can I do?” Joyce realized, that day and for the rest of her relationship with Jean, how powerless anyone can feel who has come to recognize that the world’s people cannot afford the distances we’ve poised between ourselves.

One Sunday in late 2017, not long after the announcement of the engagement of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle, Joyce appeared at my office door with a thin package which she said she thought my daughter Gwen ought to have. It wasn’t a Christmas present, she said, but something Joyce had found when out shopping, and the inspiration hit her. Inside, Gwen found a book of paper doll cutouts of the couple which she absolutely cherished. Gwen was 11 at the time, and Mrs. Berger thereafter was one of her favorite adults at church.

It was around this time that Joyce’s attendance began to flag. “It’s hard to get moving in the morning,” she confessed to me. Thus I would come to visit her more often than she would get to worship. 

Joyce was my first in-person visit since the COVID pandemic began. She moved from The Algonquin to an assisted living setting at Cape Albeon Senior Living, in the spring of 2020. Her friend Jean moved out of The Algonquin at about the same time, to be closer to her daughter in Springfield, Missouri. 

The move came after the pandemic forced lockdowns, but Joyce, as a newcomer, still had to be isolated in her room for two weeks before she could circulate among other residents. Her room was just a few doors down from the residence of church members Carol and Bob McCoy, and Joyce had decided that Cape Albeon would be a good setting for here because Bob and Carol would be living there, too. Carol died in December 2020, however, and Bob moved back to independent living. Prior to his death seven months after Carol’s, Bob would sometimes pop over for a visit, but afterward she was left without any close friends nearby. 

For this reason, she was thankful for other church friends. There had been a time when she played bridge weekly with Janet Fales and Elaine Coe (and another friend she said I wouldn't know), and those friends would still stop over, though minus the bridge. Kay Roush and Marilyn Claggett were dear Friend-to-Friend visitors. Tracey Harris looked her up while doing her Clinical Pastoral Education course at Cape Albeon. Her son David came by about daily; Lucia brought her home for suppers weekly, and the other children were similarly attentive. She always fantasized with David about attending worship, some Sunday, and I would occasionally get voicemail messages from him reporting upcoming weekends when they thought they would try.

Joyce was satisfied with her living situation – “great staff,” she said, “good food, and everything on one level.” She kept bird feeders outside her patio door to watch nature’s activity. “I have it pretty good,” she reflected often.

David called me in February of this year, and reported that his mother wished I would stop by to talk about matters regarding death. It wasn’t the first time I’d visited for this reason. Joyce had asked me over, a couple of times when she was at The Algonquin, with similar requests. “I just need to talk this out,” she would say.

In February, she ventured to say that she was confused about what happens when we die. She said, she thought she agreed with one friend “that heaven isn’t a bunch of little people dancing around on clouds,” as she put it, “but I don’t know what it is.” I stated my opinion to her that anybody who says that they do know what death is, is lying to you. We talked for a little while about God as a great mystery. The theologian Paul Tillich said that God is the Ground of all being, not being itself, not A being, but that Source from which all existence springs. We both said that we felt satisfied by this way of thinking, even if it didn’t concretely answer her questions about death.

“I’ve had a good life,” she would say. There was a way that she inflected this statement that would cause me to think that she maybe was saying she didn’t deserve life to have been as good as it has been. She was troubled by ways in which she felt that she’d failed as a daughter or as a mother, maybe even as a friend. 

When I prayed with her at the end February’s visit, I found myself expressing to God the profound mystery that we experience about the Divine and what the future holds in store, even beyond this life. As I spoke the “Amen,” with tears in her eyes she said, “Thank you. That hit the spot.”

My final visit with Joyce was a couple of weeks ago. I had just presided another church member’s memorial service, and Pastoral Assistant Halley Kim appeared at my door with a note. Joyce’s son Bob had called to inform me that the family was transitioning Joyce to hospice care. I rang him back, and we both shed tears, aware that she was about to know what she had previously only pondered about death and afterlife. He and I were alternately sad for ourselves and joyous for her. I told Bob that I would go to see her, and I did just a few moments later. 

In that call with him, I heard him reflecting the way his mother would, about life and love. Days later I spoke with Lucia and thought I heard Joyce’s voice – the same inflection and cadence. And David and I texted back and forth about those Sunday visits that never quite were able to happen.

Joyce was weak when I got to her room on January 3. She was reclining on the couch, asleep, so I roused her. Her eyes fluttered open, and she smiled to see me. I stayed only about five minutes, until she told me she was ready to take another nap. As I prepared to go, her demeanor suddenly brightened. “Have a great time!” she exclaimed. “Thank you,” I said, “and a happy new year to you.” She replied, “Much love!” and waved ever so slightly. “Love to you too,” I answered and left her to her nap.

There won’t be a memorial service for Joyce, nor a burial. Like Allen, she donated her body to science, and those who benefit academically from her contribution will see that she is honored properly. In the springtime a stonecutter will come and etch her name just below Allen’s on a stone in the churchyard, and her family will gather to make a dedication of that token to her memory. All of us who knew her will carry forward the love and joy, caring and concern, and maybe just a hint of doubt and guilt, to keep us humble as she was.


Wednesday, April 1, 2020

A Message from the Pastor - April 1, 2020
Some thoughts about courage and love

Grace and peace to you.

You may have noticed that none of us leading worship, these past few Sundays, has done more than offer caution and a few prayers about how to face these anxious times. And I have to tell you, you’re right.

My own practice for these past few weeks has been to observe an abundance of caution and to help our lay leadership to make decisions in our congregation’s and wider community’s best interest. I have sat down with other religious leaders (through a variety of live and live-stream media platforms), to discuss ways to make sure that the life of our faith communities continues unabated and undaunted. I have been learning through trial-and-error the ins and outs of video and audio production, so that all of us might still feel connected with God and one another. It has been my central purpose to assure that we are not prevented from maintaining our organizational integrity and, even, outreach.

I am a pragmatist at heart, and pragmatism has been my primary mode of operation: to keep on keeping on and to assure you by this, that our institution is going to be OK, that we will get through this moment, and that we may even be stronger for having endured it.

Still, there’s something of a proverbial elephant in our virtual room which we’ve been shifting ourselves around but never really acknowledging.

You see, there was this conversation among staff members, yesterday, about how we are all experiencing a lack of sleep, dreams that indicate new levels of stress in us, and something like that twitchiness that comes with spring fever (though we are well past the equinox) as we ride out this time in isolation and quarantine. Our anxieties are high, our families’ anxieties are high, our friends’ anxieties are high.

We have been told that the next couple of weeks will include a spike in the rates of infection and death that baffle the imagination. And though it may not be as severe as past epidemics, like the flu that struck the world in 1918 and 1919 or the smallpox that obliterated entire Native American communities during the time of colonization, not one of us will be unaffected by the loss of life. It is not out of the question that we will have loved ones or others in our spheres of acquaintance who will have died with COVID-19.

How do we remain dauntless in the face of such a threat?

I’ll be honest: I’m not sure we do.

My faith tells me, however, that answering anxiety with fear and hiding, responding to intimidation with paralysis, will not accomplish the high goal of love to which we are bound by the grace of our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. That said, following medical and scientific advice by remaining sheltered in place is not the same as fear and hiding. Isolation and quarantine are not paralysis. Exercising caution and following protocols we’ve been given are reasonable and proper measures for us.

But we really must not give in to fear.

A while back in one worship setting, I mentioned the popular understanding that there are 365 occasions in the Bible in which something like the words, “Be not afraid,” are spoken. The sentiment is that there is one such saying for every day of the year.

The command is not repeated that often, I observed, but “Be not afraid” or something like it is repeated around half that many times and it’s a simple project just to repeat the reminder every six months. It becomes a year, and doing so we will have more than accommodated any perceived lack on the part of the Bible.

We can use that kind of encouragement, can’t we.

Why is that admonition, “Fear not,” repeated so often in our holy scriptures?

The only conclusion I can draw is that the anxiety making us so restless now was even more common in the days when the Bible’s books were written – from 4000 to 2000 years ago. You know that we have enjoyed ourselves a privilege of ease and contentment that our spiritual ancestors did not, thanks to so many innovations of medicine and hygiene and expectations of civility and loving kindness.

I would go further. You know as well as I that there are entire communities, entire strata of human society in fact, who have before this time experienced anxious pains like those that beset us and trouble our sleep and interrupt our daily routines. People living in poverty, people living as refugees, people whose physical existence is threatened or curtailed by persistent perils everyday, and people enduring mental illness or addiction, know exactly this sort of dread. How might my next interpersonal encounter harm me? we wonder now... with them!

I also consider that the threats we have named, the ways in which people do harm to one another, deserve to be taken seriously and treated seriously... including exposing each other unnecessarily or unintentionally to infection with COVID-19. To take these anxieties seriously will be to acknowledge our own unsuspected privilege.

We must be courageous. Our God insists on it.

For those who are experiencing fear and anxiety, that courage will most likely come by facing our certain vulnerabilities but not surrendering to them. We are being told over and over again how to limit the spread of this virus – stay home, wash your hands for 20 seconds or more at a time, if you must go out then maintain a distance of six feet between yourself and others and disinfect when you return.

For those who are resentful of the abundance of caution being required of us, who don’t see what all the fuss is about, or who are frustrated by the curtailing of our accustomed freedoms, to you I say, practice the courage of wisdom and humility. Acknowledge that there are at least a few people out there who know more than you do about what’s best for you and your neighbor in this moment. And learn how a new commandment is repeated so often by Jesus of Nazareth that it easily equals the command to be fearless. His command, “Love one another,” is only best accomplished when we put aside our own desires or attitudes, and consider the care of others foremost.

We are living in a challenging time. We will endure this fearsome time. As the apostle has said, “God’s grace is sufficient for us.” Love for God and for one another has been the bedrock of faith for so many before us and around us, and it will be our firm foundation as well.

It will.

So, be safe. Be well. Be of good courage.

May blessings abound for you.

And peace be upon you.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Not Many People Write of Jesus Kneeling

A poem by David Denoon

Not many people write of Jesus kneeling
Not to pray, or perhaps to pray,
But to wash
To bear the water and the pour
Stripped to the waist as he will be again
All too soon
This time, though, because
This is what the servant does
To wash the feet
One bends
One kneels
Half-naked before the splash and the mess,
A day’s walking is a filthy thing.

Not many people accept Jesus kneeling
Not to pray, or perhaps to pray,
But to wash
Peter, yes, but Judas too –
Neither understanding servanthood,
Leadership –
Disquieted by troubled water
Disoriented by him
Down on his knees
Both stop
Both stare
Disrobed themselves, but not obviously,
Denial and betrayal hidden.

Not many people recall Jesus kneeling
Not to pray, or perhaps to pray,
But to wash
The basin’s clouding contents show
No Savior, no, instead a woman bowed
Flask of nard
Her hair uncovered
Immodestly wiping his feet
Not six days past
Once there
Once here
She clothed the moment in adoration
Disquieting parallels, the two.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Loving the Stranger Prevents Complicity in Hatred
Let's Get to It!

I propose something new for us as a Christian community at the First Congregational Church of Webster Groves. Really, it's just something to be renewed, but we need to approach it as if we have never done it before. That is, to fearlessly and actively seek new opportunities for hospitality and love with people who do not believe or practice faith in the same ways we do.

We need to recognize and energize around the understanding in our sacred texts that loving the stranger is our greatest goal for faithfulness.

On Friday afternoon in New Zealand, you know by now, an armed white nationalist entered mosques in Christchurch and murdered dozens of people. On Friday afternoon in Ballwin, Missouri, I went to the Daar Ul-Islam mosque of the Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis for an interfaith gathering reacting to the Christchurch attacks. After about half an hour of greetings from leaders of Jewish and Christian communities and acknowledgments from the host imam and other Islamic religious leaders from the area, those of us gathered adjourned to a series of informal greetings and embraces with tears and words of affirmation for one another. Circulating around the room I ended up hugging my friend Imam Ibrahim Hasic twice, catching up briefly about our families and communities, and realizing that we don't make nearly enough time for each other outside of work.

As I left the mosque, I was keenly aware of the three uniformed men who were providing security and traffic control. It reminded me of a conversation I'd had, two days before. I had attended a clergy meeting in which a Christian minister and a Jewish rabbi reflected about their communities' experiences with an Islamic center, the three communities together developing a program for little children to teach them about their traditions' mutual values and different ways of expressing those values. The Christian mentioned the importance of a security guard, something he had not considered when he had first imagined the program. At every gathering of the "Sprouts of Peace" program, there is uniformed, armed peace officer for everyone's protection.

There came to my mind my words with church members, after shootings at churches that happened a couple of months ago, that arming our greeters would be foolhardy and that keeping our building's doors unlocked and unguarded is part of our hospitality. I am not sure I was ever quite so profoundly clear about the privilege my religion and my religious community's historic identity (as a liberal Christian group, dreaming of diversity but definitely white in the overwhelming majority).

At least as far as being targeted for being counter to the culture of the mainstream is concerned, First Church is safe from the threat of terrorism. The only possibility I see, of a need for a guard at the door, would be in a case like that which our presenters were providing, in which we might be sharing programming with a predictably targeted group.

On that Wednesday, I reflected about how, on Monday, I had spent the morning in a gathering of leaders from many faith traditions around a table sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council. We were discussing with Prof. David Oughton of St. Louis University the history of Christian anti-Semitism and just how intractable it can be. I ached to have a similar discussion among the people of my church and, by extension, my community generally. I longed to remind them that we are not blameless, even if we have distanced ourselves over the past many decades from the vilification or demonization of these others. The mere statement of suspicion by one faith-based voice against another implicates the first in the persecution of the other.

First Church has concentrated a lot, over the last few years, on anti-racism and the importance of recognizing our unintended complicity in the preservation of racism and racist expectations. We have heralded our church's history of promoting civil rights for people of different colors and cultures than our own. We haven't, however, looked as long and hard lately at the ways in which we perpetuate prejudice against other religious groups, either actively or passively.

Oh, I make our Confirmation students, their mentors, and teachers attend worship, prayer, and meditation gatherings at Jewish, Islamic, Baha'i, and Buddhist meeting places nearby; I assign them the task of attending services in at least two other Christian communities. (And I know some of the adults of my church go to bar and bat mitzvah celebrations, and many attended services at nearby synagogues, the Shabbat after the Tree of Life massacre.) But there needs to be a voice and example coming from among us, active and fearless (even if that fearlessness is based in entitlement and privilege). This voice may be, sometimes, even prophetic in affirming to our wider community those people who believe or practice faithfully, but differently, than we do.

We can face hatred and ignorance with love. We are privileged enough to be able to do this without fear. When we establish new love, when we cultivate our friendships across religions as well as across race, when we invite others into new relationships and networks of care and concern, we generate a process that can bridge the chasm of cruelty, of fear, of hate.

If we are silent and if we do nothing, we are implicated in the murderous actions of terrorist cowards. We can and must fearlessly and actively seek new opportunities for hospitality and love. We can and must change the course of our culture because we change our own expectations of ourselves and of others. We know the price that will continue to be paid if we do nothing.

Loving the stranger is our greatest goal for faithfulness.

Yes, the best way forward is to generate relationships and networks of care and concern that prevent Fridays and other days like the one Christchurch just experienced. This was true on Wednesday, as my clergy meeting heard about those Abrahamic young people in the "Sprouts of Peace" program. It is just as true on Mondays, as my colleagues and I are discovering monthly. It is true, every day, and will be always.