chalice with rainbow flame
First Unitarian Universalist Church of Essex County

The Lost Shepherd

A sermon by Barnaby Feder
Delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Essex County
March 14, 2010

The invitation to be a guest in your pulpit today could not have come at a better time for me. I've become fascinated in the past few months by the uplifting yet sobering story of an extraordinary Universalist minister, Luke Garner. Uplifting because Garner was a model of social conscience in the 1920's and 30's. He was the kind of leader we often hear about in those pep-talk sermons where we remind ourselves that Unitarians and Universalists have exercised a positive influence in American life out of proportion to our numbers. But Garner was driven from the pulpit while still a young man by parishioners worried that his actions threatened the continued existence of their congregation. And then we forgot about him.

A few longtime members here may know why this of all the churches in our denomination is the place to begin to reclaim Garner as a source of inspiration. This is the church that absorbed the remnants of his once proud Newark congregation in 1965. Later, Garner himself showed up and worshiped here during the last years of his life. It was here that his memorial service was held when he died in 1979 and where the Garner family and friends returned 11 years later for the memorial service of his wife, Geneva.

Honesty requires disclosure that I am still in the early stages of getting to know Garner. I've been interested for several years in how it came to be that our movement has no congregation in Newark, New Jersey's largest city. As far as I can tell, the Unitarians never managed to organize a congregation there but the Universalists, I discovered, were a voice for reform and liberalism for over a century. Garner was just a name on a list of the Universalist congregation's ministers for me until this January when my web surfing led me to "Nazis in Newark," a local history by Warren Grover. The book spotlighted Garner's exceptional courage as Newark's first and throughout most of the 1930's -- only Protestant minister to actively support the Jewish community's lonely effort to oppose Nazi Germany and combat local anti-Semitic groups it was sponsoring. But that represented only one part of Garner's prophetic ministry and I mean prophetic in the old Biblical sense of challenging one's own people to behave righteously, not in the sense of predicting the future. So this morning, I hope to reintroduce you to one of our lost shepherds. My goal is not just to honor his name but also to kindle renewed interest in the Universalist values that gave him the strength to serve us as he did. I believe we belong in Newark and countless other urban areas where our presence has waned or disappeared. Remembering Garner may help us get there.

His given name was Lucius Hamilton Garner. He was born in Waverly, Ala., on Nov. 23, 1899. Family lore suggests that he was descended from loggers and traders who lived in South Carolina before moving west. His father, Robert, eked out a living from a small pecan farm. Somewhere in the moving around, the Garner family encountered itinerant ministers preaching Universalism and they embraced it. Robert Garner became a lay minister and conducted services and classes on his farm when Luke was a child. Luke told a convention of New York State Universalists in 1935, "I can scarcely remember when, for any period of time, I have wanted to be anything except a minister in the Universalist denomination."

Luke could not have expected an easy time of it. Universalism is a tradition that faced a constant struggle for acceptance, even in the years just before the Civil War when it reached the peak of its popularity. The early American Universalists preached that God is such a loving and powerful father that he could not be defeated in his desire to save all his children from damnation. To be sure, they argued passionately among themselves over whether humans who lived sinfully had to endure a period of punishment in their afterlives. One prominent Universalist pioneer, Elhanan Winchester, preached that evil doers would suffer up to 50,000 years of torment after death. But one way another, they all agreed, everyone was eventually bound for heaven. Male, female, black, white, Christian, non-Christian everyone!

You can easily imagine that this sounded to other religious groups like a dangerous invitation to wanton behavior. Without the threat of eternal damnation, why would anyone behave? Even the early American Unitarians, who agreed with the Universalists on a wide range of religious issues, generally left room in their theology for depraved people to choose eternal Hell. The Universalists' democratic view of life after death spilled over into how they practiced their religion. Throughout the early decades of the 19th century, they ordained just about any man who seemed to have the aptitude for ministry. In the second half of the century, they became pioneers in the ordination of women. The most famous of their early preachers, John Murray, had been in debtors' prison in London not long before sailing for America in 1770. And Hosea Ballou, whose 1805 Treatise on Atonement, became the guiding theological statement of the young movement, was a largely self-educated farm boy from New Hampshire. Many early Universalist evangelists relished hostile reactions and were quick to ridicule religious adversaries, to the delight of their largely rural and working class congregants. The tone was set early by Murray, who refused to be rattled when a potentially lethal rock came crashing through a window and narrowly missed his head during a sermon he was delivering in Boston in 1774. Murray retrieved the rock and holding it up to the congregation said, "This argument is solid and weighty, but it is neither rational nor convincing."

Against this rugged non-conformist backdrop, it is easy to believe stories that came down in the Garner family of blacks being invited to worship alongside them and of harassment by the Klu Klux Klan. The late David Garner, Luke Garner's youngest son, recalled being told how his grandfather Robert would pull out his whip and battle his way through Klansmen who blocked the path of his buggy.

Luke Garner grew up fast. At the age of 17, he became principal of a rural elementary school. A year later, Garner went to work at the United States Steel factory in Birmingham and became a master electrician. Garner later called this exposure to factory work a formative experience in his life. His savings from that job allowed him to enroll at St. Lawrence University in upstate New York in 1921, a school noted for its Universalist seminary. Six years later, we find him married to his college sweetheart, Geneva, about to become a father, and happily serving as minister to two small-town Universalist churches near St. Lawrence. Then Newark came calling in the form of a letter from the Rev. Henry Rose, senior minister of the Universalist Church of the Redeemer. Universalism had arrived in Newark in 1834 in a period when the movement was growing rapidly and about to become the nation's sixth biggest denomination. But Christian fervor over doctrinal differences about the after-life would soon begin to wane. Increasingly, liberal Christians in many denominations focused on social reform and faith in human progress. As its distinctiveness eroded, Universalism declined. Amazingly, the Newark congregation had bucked the trend under Rose. Sunday attendance grew to 800 with as many as 1500 people showing up for special events. Now, as he neared 30 years in the Newark pulpit, Rose was growing anxious to find an associate who would quickly become his successor. Newark, he wrote to Garner, "affords a young man as great an opportunity (for influence) as we have in the whole denomination." I don't know how Garner came to Rose's attention, but Garner must have made quite an impression on him. Rose ignored an initial refusal and courted him for more than six months until Garner agreed to make the move. In May of 1929, Rose retired and Garner became senior minister. The church continued growing that first year. But as the 1930's unfolded, the Great Depression hammered Newark and the congregation. Rather than shy from controversy as the pressures grew, Garner stepped up his criticism of capitalism. He also campaigned for civil rights for the city's growing black population. Garner frequently made race issues the topic at a popular Community Forum lecture series he founded to bring renown outside speakers to the city. He helped push L. Bamberger, Newark's leading department store, to hire its first black sales clerks and a Newark hospital to hire its first black doctor. Garner was also reported to have founded New Jersey's first free mental health clinic, which he housed at the church. As a pacifist, he opposed the introduction of ROTC training at Newark high schools. And all the while he battled anti-Semitism.

I don't want to suggest that Garner focused every church activity on social justice concerns. He was in demand as a marriage counselor. Personal papers now stored at the New Jersey Historical Society indicate a strong interest in poetry and theater. He could be publicly tender-hearted. His sole surviving son, Fradley, told me via email of a day when for reasons he does not remember he got up from the table behind the altar where the congregation's younger children were coloring pictures during the sermon, walked up and thrust his hand into that of his father. Without pausing or commenting, Luke held his son's hand for the rest of the sermon.

But Garner's relentless activism drew increasingly bitter criticism from conservatives in the city and split the congregation. Garner won a congregational vote of support in 1935 in the first fight to unseat him. But rather than treading more carefully to mend the rifts, he defiantly continued to use his pulpit and the weekly Community Forum to endorse the views of provocative social critics, like the American socialist leader, Norman Thomas, who was one of his personal heroes. In a 1998 interview with Warren Grover, David Garner recalled an abortive abduction attempt aimed at him and his brother Peter. Garner had so many enemies that it was impossible to know where the threat may have originated.

The tensions boiled over at the congregation's annual meeting on Jan. 12, 1937. Conservative board members managed to get a motion to fire Garner approved after five hours of debate. The Christian Leader newspaper in an editorial two weeks later refused to condemn the vote but noted regretfully, "While some of us have been settling back in our easy chairs to read the last Atlantic Monthly, Garner has been out trying to see that friendless people had a friend and helper." In a sympathetic letter that Garner saved, Rev. Donald Evans, a Universalist minister in St. Paul, Minn. said "None of us have feathered beds but yours has been barbed wire."

The firing left Garner and his wife scrambling to support themselves and their three sons. His situation was precarious until he secured a job late in the year as the director of Newark's recently formed Labor Relations Board. Later he went into private practice as a mediator of labor disputes. Garner's Unitarian and Universalist peers continued to admire him. In 1961, when the Unitarians and the struggling Universalists finally merged after more than a century of on again-off again discussion, Garner was appointed as one of the initial members of the Committee on Appraisal, an oversight board the newly formed Unitarian Universalist Association set up to monitor the progress of the merger. Garner continued to preach occasionally as a guest speaker in liberal pulpits into the 1970's but his life as a prophetic parish minister was over scarcely more than a decade after it began. Considering the stresses his family had endured and the McCarthy era persecution of many of his former allies in social change advocacy, Garner's transition into a lower-profile, more financially secure lifestyle was certainly a rational move. He remained active on the boards of directors of cultural institutions like the Newark Museum and the Newark Public Library and served as President of the board of the Urban League of Essex County. I cannot help but wonder though whether it felt like a spiritual retreat and caused him grief. As late as 1935, he had said that his whole hope for the future was wrapped up in Universalist ministry.

The Newark Universalists clearly fared worse. Trapped in a crumbling building in downtown Newark, the congregation tried to revive itself by moving after World War II to a small building not far from here on the Glen Ridge-Orange border. But the decline continued, forcing the eventual merger with this originally Unitarian congregation just four years after the two denominations merged at the national level.

Did it have to come to this? Probably. Garner never wavered in his demanding vision of our movement's social mission. "In this church we shall not be at all concerned with the miraculous way Jesus was supposed to have been born; we shall be tremendously concerned about the condition into which thousands of children are born each day," he told his Newark congregation in 1929 in one of his first sermons as senior minister. Six years later, in the midst of his fight to keep his job, he said in his address to annual convention of New York State's Universalists, "if the church is going to matter at all in the new day that is coming, indeed if it is to exist at all as more than an historical relic, it has got to take religion off of the altar and into the street." Moreover, he continued, "The church must stop caring so much about whether it continues to live. Garner went on to paraphrase Jesus' teaching in the Gospel of Matthew that those willing to give up their lives in answer to God's calling actually gain them. And that faith seems never to have died. Just months after being fired in 1937, Garner said in a speech at his alma mater, " The triumph of goodness is so certain that Jesus, in speaking of the triumph of his kingdom, could only compare it to a natural process, the growth of a mustard seed. God has indeed set before us an open book, and no man can shut it."

Such determined optimism seems to leave us with the flip side of the criticism hurled at the early Universalists. Instead of why does it matter if we sin, Garner's certainty that goodness will triumph raises the question of why are we required to fight and sacrifice for justice? I think the answer to both questions is actually the same. The early Universalists said that the reason God loves humanity despite its sinful nature is that an element of the divine lies within each of us. Because of that which is divine in us, we can never be truly happy or whole in this life when we turn toward sin. Sin does not produce eternal damnation. It produces human misery, which is why God calls us to respond with acts of love and mercy. Views of God and sin have evolved but the one constant in Universalist theology has been the centrality of divine love.

We see that in "Progressive Universalism," a thesis I found among Garner's papers. It is unsigned and may not be his work but I believe it is there because it reflected his theology. "No longer is power the primary attribute of God," the thesis says. God is rather the "spirit of love" a phrase Fradley Garner recalls his father using constantly. God becomes real to the humblest soul, the thesis says, by the appeal of love to our highest moments and deepest insights. The thesis goes on to defend science, the insights of psychology and the use of reason as necessary to religion. ""Just as pipes confine steam and convert into useful power what would otherwise by only a misty cloud, so reason has served to confine the spirit of Universalism -- the spirit of love, brotherhood, justice, and mercy, so that it would not become as free vapor in the air but as an effective force in human life."

Does living in these values require the Universalist label or formal membership in a U.U. community? Of course not. But Garner's story reminds us that the Universalist perspective on our common destiny can help us look beyond aspects of diversity we need to respect to our common needs. We will have to do that if we are ever to once again be of service in places like Newark. Being of service cannot on its own create or secure the future of a U.U. congregation in Newark. But Garner lived in the conviction that love of our neighbors is the only course to which we are called in this life by that which is divine and thus the only secure foundation on which to build our churches anywhere. I believe that is still true. I leave you with a parting suggestion. Perhaps this congregation might join together with others in the region in something we might call Garner initiatives visible U.U. social action in Newark. Scattered work is already underway. One program I know of is the Montclair congregation's annual gift giving drive for Newark's Newton St. school. But more can be accomplished if we work together. I can't think of a better way to keep Garner's spirit alive. As the poet Goethe said, "A tradition cannot be inherited, it must be earned."


Closing words -- We have come together today bearing the scars of our defeats and the burdens of our disappointments trusting that in making time for worship in this sacred space, we nourish that which is divine in each of us. Dear God, Spirit of Love, we pray that your words have been spoken here today. We pray that your words have been heard. Amen.