Thursday, June 14, 2018

Religion on U.S. 44

First Church, Winsted
If you hop in a car in Plymouth, Massachusetts, where the Pilgrims landed seeking not so much religious freedom, as we were taught in Sunday School, as the right to establish their view of what Christianity should look like when molded into everyday practice, and head out on U.S. Route 44 to Providence and Hartford and beyond, just before you leave New England you'll pass through a town called Winsted, where Route 44 (known here as "Main Street") will suddenly fill with one old stone church after another – if not right on the highway and with a Main Street address, not far off the highway.

 I grew up in Winsted, Connecticut. I didn't know anybody who didn't go to church or synagogue, except for my father. His worldview was that “churches are where you find all the hypocrites.” He may have believed in God – he never spoke of things religious, so I’m not sure – but he saw no reason to put on his Sunday-go-to-meetin’ clothes when he could use the time for hunting and fishing.

My mother came from a Lutheran family, my father from a (Northern) Baptist one, but when my mother married in 1938, women still took direction from their men. She gave up her German family name and took on a Scottish one, and she gave up her Lutheran church and became a Baptist. In form, at least. Doctrine never figured large in my mother’s life in the church. Every Sunday morning is was roast in the oven at 9 o'clock, kids to Sunday School by 10, church at 11, home and roast out at noon, mash some potatoes, open a can of peas and boil them for ten minutes, and obey the commandment to rest on The Lord's Day. For my sister and me it was school and church, for my mother work and church. When we met new people it was never, "Do you go to church?" It was "Which church do you go to?"

Original First Baptist, as it appeared in 1890
The Baptists of Winsted, Connecticut had once had to mingle either with the Methodists or the Congregationalists of a Sunday morning, but managed by 1890 to put enough shekels together to build a building of their own. It was located in the very center of town, on Case Avenue, just around the corner from the post office.  I have no idea why it was called the “First” Baptist Church; it was the only Baptist church. Perhaps, being Baptists, they expected there would likely be a split at some point, Baptists being notorious for going their own way at the slightest pretext, and they didn’t want to have to put up all new signs and change the stationery. In any case, when I started school, I also started Sunday School at First Baptist and less than a year after Hitler was defeated in Europe I was already learning about Joseph and his coat of many colors and Jonah in the belly of the whale.

Second Congregational Church, from a 1909 photograph
By 1949, however, the Baptists no longer had the numbers to maintain their church and were forced to merge with one of the two Congregational churches – we had one at each end of town – the First Congregational Church on the East End, where the Still River met the Mad, and The Second Congregational Church on the West End, where U.S. Route 44 leaves New England on its meandering from Plymouth, Massachusetts, through Providence and Hartford and Winsted to the ignominy of Kerhonkson, New York, population 1684.

Once in bed with the Congregationalists, the Baptists didn’t stand a chance maintaining a distinct identity. They were way outnumbered. I still got dunked (had to go to the Baptist Church in Torrington for that) and I still learned we were the proud inheritors of a tradition established in Providence by Roger Williams – who threw off the tyranny of the Congregationalists when he left Massachusetts to start his own church there. But mostly I was sucked into the community who prided themselves on being the children of the Pilgrims. Not really. We didn't know much about church history, although “Pilgrim” lived on in our use of the Pilgrim Hymnal, and I came to be active in the youth group known as the “Pilgrim Fellowship.” Officially, we were “The First Church – Baptist and Congregational.” If anybody asked, I was a Congregationalist.

Church life dominated my home town in the 1940s and 50s, as I was growing up. Most of my friends
St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church, Winsted
were Catholics and I used to go to mass with them every morning at 6 a.m. during Lent. We made a big deal of it, and got together for breakfast afterwards before school. I felt drawn to this place of mystery before St. Joseph's spent a fortune on new lighting only to discover when they turned them on, mysterious had become dingy and they now had to paint the place. It smelled of incense and was dark and cavernous compared to the “meeting place” environment of my Congregational Church home. It was the hocus-pocus, the "magic show," the liturgy probably more than anything else, that led to my leaving the Pilgrim folk behind once I had left my small home town for college. I also wanted to be told what to believe, and “be nice” just didn’t do it for me. “Be nice” was all I understood Congregational “doctrine” to be.

I had shopped around before joining the Lutherans.  Winsted’s downtown is basically one long Main Street. Starting on the East Side was the First Church. Then came the Episcopal Church. Then the giant “queen on the hill,” St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church. Then what was the First Baptist, then the Methodist Church, and finally the Second Congregational.

I knew them all. I was hired at sixteen to be the organist at the United Methodist Church. My piano teacher was the organist at Second Congregational, and I went there from time to time just to hear her play, and my boy scout troop met there, as well. Outside of my own home, life was school and church and precious little else.

United Methodist Church, Winsted
Once away at college I was free to explore other possibilities, and the day I discovered the Lutherans beating the drum over how everybody knows Christ comes “in, with and under” the Eucharist, as Luther explained it, and not the way the Catholics had it, I found what I was sure was the Promised Land. Did the Catholics really think it turned into the  “actual” body and blood of Christ? How ridiculous could you get?

I was finally home, defending truth against falsehood. What more could one ask of life. I would spend a weekend in New York at some point, checking out Union Theological Seminary. Finally, I had some real religion I could sink my teeth into. And, whether I was just covering all the bases or simply avoiding the dark suspicion there was something too scary to face going on in the sexuality department, I sought refuge in piety. Because there was no Lutheran Church in Middlebury, Vermont, and we had access to the Lutheran Eucharist only once a month when the pastor from the Dartmouth Campus in Hanover made his rounds, I got special dispensation from the Episcopal bishop of Vermont to take communion at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Middlebury, where I started attending every Sunday with my Episcopalian roommate.

Looking back, I am surprised it took as long as it did for me to realize that there was something suspect about all these different religious denominations struggling for dominance. One attended church because one was a member of a particular cultural group – Italian, Polish, Irish or French Canadian meant you were Catholic, Scandinavian or German meant you were Lutheran. One went for the identity first. Only then did one stop to figure out what one was given to believe. From the priest, minister or rabbi – or perhaps the Sunday School teacher. Tell me what I believe, please. I'll write it down and try to remember.

St. James Episcopal Church, Winsted, with the spire of
the neighboring St. Joseph's RC Church in the background
The religious foundation I had built up around me in Winsted, Connecticut began to fall apart my junior year in college when I went off to Munich. By now an ardent convert to Lutheranism, I sought out the Lutheran dormitory as a place to live. In no time, my culture shock at being in a country that was not my own was multiplied when I discovered the Lutherans of Munich were nothing like the Lutherans of New England I had known. I finally had to admit it was the outer trappings, not the doctrine, which had drawn me in to church membership. The doubts about doctrine took a while to blossom into a full-fledged non-belief, but by the time I returned to the U.S., I was no longer the kid I was growing up; the mind set of my youth, saturated with organized religion, was no more. I had moved from Stage 1 – ardent “believer” to Stage 2 – “doubter.” It would take the painfully slow discovery of my homosexuality to move me to Stage 3 – “ardent” foe of any and all organized religion. And not all that chummy with religious faith of any kind, actually.

Temple Beth El - across the street from First Church
At some point in my struggle to face the loss of certainty that religion had once provided I mentioned – just in passing, I thought – to a therapist I had sought out that “religion was no longer a part of my life.” He had a response which gave me serious pause: “I think you got rid of the golden calf that was religion; you still have to deal with the mould it came in.”

In the fifty years since Winsted might well have been called “Religion along Route 44” things have changed mightily. Then, in my world at least, the big dividing line was between Catholics and Protestants (Jews didn't really count - we didn't know where to put them when it came to doctrine), with the Protestants divided among liturgically focused and non-liturgically focused denominations, and non-believers being pretty much out of the picture. Today the divisions are very different. I live almost exclusively among secularists, people for whom it matters little whether one comes from a catholic or a protestant or Jewish background. Religious people divide into “seekers” and “bashers.” Seekers are searching for spiritual meaning; bashers are intent upon forcing the rest of the world to see things their way. The former are “open,” inclined toward rational and critical thinking and live comfortably side by side with secularist non-believers; the latter are “closed” and inclined, as I was as a youth, to want somebody to take over to dictate precisely what it is they (and everybody else) should believe.

Politics these days, to use that very apt expression Omar’s father uses in speaking of India in  My Beautiful Laundrette, has been “sodomized by religion.” As usual, the religious seekers, inclined as they are to modesty and to allowing their opponents a full hearing, are at a disadvantage, and the bashers have taken center stage. Not only are they in possession of the naturally autocratic (single-belief) religions – the Mormons, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Pentecostalists – but they have infiltrated the mainstream large-tent religious organizations, as well. The Roman Catholics are split right down the middle, the authoritarian, hierarchy-based church on the one hand, and – in a concept articulated in Vatican II – the ecclesia – the “body of believers” focused less on absolutes, more on pastoral care and the Sermon on the Mount values of love and compassion.

Lutherans in America divide similarly. Ardent traditionalists, descendants of the German Lutherans who resisted Frederick William III of Prussia’s attempt to create a union with the Reformed Church, created the Missouri Synod, known for its claim of biblical inerrancy. Other Lutherans have a more ecumenical orientation.

Once I came to recognize my sexual nature as nothing more than an arbitrary point on the spectrum of sexuality (were I still a Christian, I’d no doubt call my homosexuality “God-given”), I began the long journey of siding with other LGBT people in their struggle to get out from under condemnation of the authoritarian bashers. I no longer march in protest, but enjoy the fruits of the labor of gay liberation activists of years gone by (including my own, modest as they were) most of the time. But I still celebrate the victories and pay attention to the setbacks, like the recent one when the Supreme Court granted permission to that baker in Colorado to use religion as an excuse to discriminate against gay men, when you know they would not have permitted that license if the victims of his bigotry were blacks or Jews.

I almost never get to Winsted, Connecticut anymore. It takes too much out of me to squeeze into the ever tighter seats of a transcontinental jet liner and run with too-heavy carry-on luggage from one terminal to another when changing planes. (I know I could pack better, but give me a little space here). But I can still visit online, as I did the other day when trying to recall some detail about my piano teacher because I woke one morning, dying to know whatever happened to her. Trying to track her down led to the discovery that the Second Congregational Church (my piano teacher's organist job, remember) was now called “The Second Church – Baptist and Congregational.”

Wait a minute. It was the First Church that the Baptists joined. It was always the First Church – Baptist and Congregational and the Second Congregational Church.

Turns out the Baptists are still doing their thing. You remember how the Southern Baptist Convention got started, right? Separated from the Northern Baptists over the right to own slaves.

I told you that the Baptists of Winsted joined the First (not the Second) Congregationalists in 1947, but I didn’t tell you what happened after that. Ten years later, in 1957, after a flood had caused severe damage in both churches, they decided to merge and put all their money into just the Second Church building. But too many First people decided they had made a terrible mistake and both congregations went back to their old homes. And here’s where doctrine suddenly reared its head in this most unlikely of places. The First Church became associated with the United Church of Christ (UCC), a “liberal” church body which, along with the Unitarians, were among the first American churches to embrace gay people. The Second Church chose instead to declare themselves more biblical, biblical being anti-gay, to their way of thinking. Makes you wonder. Were they embarrassed at having gone to all the trouble to put the two churches together and now had to come up with a better reason than that they were too lazy to cross town (many living equidistant to both churches, actually)?  Then, on top of it all, the “biblical” Baptists decided to split on doctrinal grounds as well. The result is that Winsted, Connecticut now has, in addition to its several churches along Main Street (U.S. Route 44) one on each end of town: both with Baptist and Congregational subgroups.

This little incongruity reflects the larger absurdity of politics in an America sodomized by religion. Winsted is a small out-of-the-way New England town with a large Catholic Church forced against its will to be a big-tent church home to both the likes of the Knights of Columbus, who believe they are doing God’s work in slaying sexual perversion, and Vatican II catholics, who want everybody to know they are leaving the decision of who’s a sinner and who’s not up to God. And two distinct protestant churches, one on each end of town, carrying two denominational names. Officially, they are now the First Church, Baptist and Congregational and the Church of Christ, Baptist and Congregational, but the Second church still uses that name, if their web page is any indication.

Who’d ever guess that “First” would be a code-word for gay friendly and “Second” a code-word for homophobic?

Who’d ever guess that Christians could be such a confused and confusing lot?

The Red Men's Hall (IORM), the
erstwhile First Baptist Church of Winsted
And who'd ever guess that my father, who so assiduously avoided the church that he nonetheless thought it proper that my mother should attend (despite the hypocrites), would find his way back there one day once it was no longer a church?  

The IORM is a fraternal organization of pseudo-Indians who considered themselves the sons of the original guys who dumped the tea into Boston Harbor back in the day. They had dressed up as Mohawks, you see. Noble patriots, they considered themselves in time, even though they had evolved into a white-man only organization. Section 1 of their charter reads 
Sec. 1. No person shall be entitled to adoption into the Order except a free white male of good moral character and standing, of the full age of twenty-one great suns, who believes in the existence of a Great Spirit, the Creator and Preserver of the Universe, and is possessed of some known reputable means of support.
 My father, bless his heart, thought he was doing me a favor, when I told him I was gay, by introducing me to the bartender at the Red Men's. It wasn't somebody I could relate to, but I had to give my father points for trying. The Red Men's Hall was once known as The First Baptist Church of Winsted, Connecticut.  The Baptists sold it to them when they merged with the First Congregationalists, back when my father decided he'd prefer not to associate with hypocrites.

Drinkers, well that's a different story. My father had no beef with drinkers.

photo credits

1. St. Joseph Roman Catholic Church -
2. First Baptist Church of Winsted as it appeared in 1890, now home to the Improved Order of Red Men
3. First Baptist Church building now being used as the IORM, from a Google Maps screenshot
4. First Church of Winsted (FCOW) - 
5. St. James Episcopal Church of Winsted -
6. Second Congregational Church (now Church of Christ, Baptist and Congregational):
7. United Methodist Church of Winsted  -
8. Temple Beth El - 

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