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Repeating History

I've been scanning old documents into my computer.

Some of them have been personal documents. For example, I was re-reading a seven-page summary I did of my family's trip to Europe. The summary, along with photos, was sent to all the family members we had visited during our nine-week trip. I was 11 when I wrote it. I do remember writing and typing it. Apparently, I didn't know how to spell cathedral because it was consistently spelled Cathredral. Bless my parents who left it with all it (surprisingly few) typing errors. And, apparently, I had a sarcastic streak to my writing even then. At the end of our trip, we spent a few days in New York: "That afternoon we went through St. John the Divine (we hadn't seen a church in so long)..." I have no idea how that sarcasm translated to the many German speakers who received the summary.

I've also been scanning old church bulletins from St. Stephen's. In addition to seeing how worship has changed, I've enjoyed looking at the list of activities, recognizing names, and being surprised.

Let me state upfront what my image is of the church in the 1950s. Males, young and old, dressed in suits and ties. Females, young and old, in Sunday dress, many women with hats. The choir (young and old) always dressed in robes for worship. Very white. The church is busy every day of the week, hosting groups and rehearsals.

The bulletins have largely reinforced my image. In the summer of 1949, a bulletin announcement said that men were at liberty to remove their coats during the worship service.

There were activities at church almost every day of the week: Luther League (intermediate, senior and adult), Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Ladies' Aid, sewing and knitting groups, multiple women's Bible study groups taking place in the afternoon and evenings.

The bulletins were frequently printed on pre-printed sheets, which contained a photo on the cover, and a brief article on the back. The pictures on the cover that display people without exception portray white, middle-class intact families. Images to illustrate the articles also frequently portrayed that "ideal" family.

This image fits with the church I attended in the 60s and 70s. My church, however, could proudly say that we had a black family in our congregation.

So, looking through the calendar of events for St. Stephen's in the early 1950s I noticed

a Race Relations Group, and a Bible and Human Rights Group. Granted, I haven't seen anything to indicate that these groups met more than two or three times, but I will keep looking. I was a bit surprised to see such groups at what I assume was a pretty "white" congregation (yes, that's my prejudice). But I was also pleased to see this other side, and forward-looking side, of St. Stephen's.

Reading the pre-printed articles has been quite interesting. (They were provided by Muhlenberg Press, which specialized in printing Lutheran-oriented publications.)

A couple that caught my attention:

February 11, 1951

Participator or Spectator

Someone has said that many of us Americans suffer from a peculiar disease called "spectatoritis," this is, we become too used to being spectators. . . . It is dangerous to carry this into church. Sometimes we catch ourselves mechanically performing the actions of standing and sitting while we watch the pastor do the worshiping. He reads the lessons, preaches the sermon, and offers the prayer. We become mere spectators. . . . It's that peculiar "malady" that undoubtedly accounts for so many people saying that they "don't get anything out of coming to church." . . . Our conscious and thoughtful participation in the service is just as important to its success as the part the pastor plays. . . . In conducting a service of worship, our pastor is not serving as a "go-between" between ourselves and God. He is acting as our leader -- leading us in worship as we individually feel ourselves brought into God's presence. We can experience God's presence when we come in the proper spirit and perform our part of the service.

This resonated with me in this time of on-line worship. It takes effort on our part to be a part of the worship: praying and praising with the hymns, adding our own petitions to the prayers, hearing the words of the Bible lessons and sermon. It's so easy to be distant from the service when it's on your phone or computer screen. It takes work to make the worship work. When we come back to worship in-person, there will still be a distance between us, so getting something out of worship will require us to perform our part of the service by participating, not just being a spectator.

February 18, 1951

Beautiful Saviour

This article talked about the fact that there were no contemporary portraits of Jesus. So, when artists did begin to portray Jesus to decorate their churches, they had to work out what he might have looked like.

It was not until the end of the "dark ages" that European art really awoke, and then the favorite subject of painters was Jesus. . . . Each generation of artists has represented Jesus according to the ideas of its own time. Each portrays him according to its own national ideals. There has emerged what we may call a "standard" portrait, well represented in the modern paintings by J.M.H. Hoffmann and others. . . . But will this be the Jesus of Chinese Christians or African Christians when the artists of the growing churches of other lands begin to paint him as they see him? It is fortunate that there is no actual photograph of the Master, because every race and every age may freely portray the Son of Man in their own way."

Again, I was pleasantly surprised to see this as an issue almost 70 years ago. It's frightening that even now we can hear prominent people declare that Jesus is white.

It's my naiveté to be surprised that these "modern" issues were known and being dealt with long before I was born. And it points out that if we are ignorant of our history, we are doomed to repeat it. We're still fighting issues of race relations, human rights, apathy in worship, and the image of Jesus.

- Ann Iona Warner


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