I was a part-time hippie and a fashionable socialist. I actually owned a Mao jacket and The Little Red Book of the sayings of Chairman Mao. I marched in protest. I sat in protest and I played guitar in protest. I slept on the floor. I tried to be a vegetarian. I was partial to Trotsky, but I think that was really about the cool glasses he wore. I actually leafletted for feminism. I was an idiot. I snapped out of it when the peace committee at my college had a huge fight between the violently non-violent and the non-violently non-violent. (I took the side of the non-violently nonviolent.)
I was also dallying with interesting religions at the time and ended up in a Pentecostal prayer group at the same time that I was giving up on political activism. I found out that prayer works a whole lot better than community organizing. It seems inevitable that today’s liberators are tomorrow’s tyrants. You can’t have a just society without just citizens. The conversion of the citizen is the only way to change a nation. We, the clergy of the sixties, blew it. We failed utterly.
I spent my early ministry pre- and post-ordination on the Puerto Rican west side. We had a huge youth prayer group, four or five hundred teenagers. They weren’t all saints, by any means. It was a great place to meet girls. The gangs would wait to kill people coming out of the prayer group. There were prayer meetings that exited to gunfire. I was too dumb to know how dangerous it was, and what was really going on in the back pews.
Now it’s 40 years later. I don’t hear much about Puerto Rican gangs on the west side anymore. I hear about Puerto Rican accountants, attorneys, electricians, mechanics and secretaries. What happened? A lot of things, but one thing that I know happened for many was conversion. There were so many different groups all pushing for conversion to Christ. We used to hold youth rallies that would attract a thousand kids. We would work out truces with the gangs so kids could pass over gang boundaries for the weekend. We had no budgets, and not much organization, but we fed and entertained a thousand kids for whole weekends. The highlight of the rally always came when a thousand kids surged forward to accept Jesus as their personal Lord and savior.
It was hokey, tears and slobber and people walking around with Kleenex boxes. It was about as theologically deep as a puddle. It had all the decorum and dignity of a clown car. The Saul Alinsky, Carl Rogers-trained clergy of the neighborhood were appalled and did their best to put an end to it. This unbalanced and overly emotional sort of thing was dangerous and certainly not Catholic as far as they were concerned. So, a lot of these kids went un-pastored after their conversion and a lot of them joined protestant Pentecostal churches that were happy to shepherd them. Some drifted back into old ways, but they could never quite forget their encounter with Christ and now, 40 years later as I look back at that time that has absorbed so much of my life and energy, it occurs to me that, on a certain level, it worked. To find out that God was real and that Jesus loved them broke the cycle of poverty and violence for many of them.
We never told them that society had messed them up. We told them that sin had messed them up and that they could repent and Christ would accept them. The Latin community that I knew was torn by marital instability, violence, alcohol, substance abuse, gambling and prostitution. When someone experienced a conversion, especially in a fundamentalist church, it was the end of gambling, the end of wasting money on the botanicas (voodoo stores) the end of smoking, drinking, gambling, etc.
Automatically, a person who underwent a conversion and was socialized into one of the strict storefront churches was suddenly richer, safer and more involved with their families. I won’t say that they were all happily-ever-after-stories, but they certainly were not sad-and-hopeless-ever-after stories.
The local Catholic pastors, and their fundraising efforts never seemed to mind drinking, smoking and bingo in the basement. That sort of thing kept the schools open. I have no objection to a dance or a Las Vegas night or any of that stuff when its purpose is to bring people together as a family, especially in a community that isn’t enslaved by all that, but when slowly, quietly become the main focus of the institution; it ceases to be a religious institution.
Well, guess what? We have to close a lot of things, and my suspicion is that back in the grand old sixties if we the clergy had been what the Lord had wanted and not so much a community organizing group, we would not be facing this kind of current mess.
To be continued