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1969 - Jonathan's Wake, Yippie, Reparations and Ecclesiastical Lassitude


With the smell of tear gas still in my nostrils, I moved with my family from Chicago to Stockbridge, MA, in September,1968. Within a year, I was more embroiled in activism than since the early days of the 1960s 

  
I was looking for a dramatic ecumenical initiative. As part of the Presbyterian delegation to COCU (The Consultation on Church Union), my ideas were present in in the proposals that were being considered.  Still,  there were indications that the white mainline church was gearing up for retreat from struggle. Renewal Magazine had prodded churches to examine their financial  commitments and endowment strategies. There were few takers.

At a Consultation meeting in Atlanta in 1969, I proposed that we give reparations to support Black community development. I learned on the heels of this of the fissure developing on the liberal side. This proposal coming from my lips was less than welcome among newly minted Black Power advocates. I have never been a fan of what I consider to be largely rhetorical radicalism. Soon after I made this suggestion Jim Forman began a campaign for reparations aimed at the American mainline churches. I began to organize a movement to support the Forman effort. In specific terms, I proposed that denominations give reparations as part of their move to unite at the local level.

The core of Jonathan's Wake included Lew Wilkins who had become a close ally and friend since we met my time in Geneva in 1966, Fred Lord, an insurance executive in Stockbridge, Jim McGraw who was still running Renewal Magazine and Will Campbell of the Committee of Southern Churchmen, perhaps my longest-term colleague over all these years. Each brought indispensable help. We aimed at a National Council of Churches assembly to be held in December 1969 at Cobo Hall in Detroit. Jim  and I had been schooled in the tactics of Yippie which uses humor and imagination to create public presence. I named my effort Jonathan's Wake, largely because Stockbridge has been where Jonathan Edward lived and worked, an  exile in his own day. By the time of the Detroit meeting, we had gained national publicity as a confrontational force.

Once we gathered at the Hotel Tuller, our answer to the NCC's lodging at the Ponchartrain, it became clear that whatever my agenda was, it appealed less than the ideas of the Berkeley Free (Submarine) Church, the largest force allied with us. They  were in Detroit to oppose the Vietnam war and skewer the complicity of the churches in it.  I could have little objection to that. But the actual development of our confrontation became a melange of dramatic actions at Cobo Hall combined with my sober reflections on ecumenism in various media reports. We ended up forcing the Assembly to reject police  intervention in ecclesiastical disputes.  This vote was immediately overturned by an intervention from one William Thompson, a fellow Presbyterian also active in COCU. He forced a two-thirds vote and we lost. At this point I made a dramatic exit from Cobo Hall and ended up being consoled by a fellow Jonathan's Wake participant who muttered, "I did not believe the truth about denominations until now." This was proof that at least one person understood what I was trying to do.

Jonathan's Wake helped to spawn a number of further actions aimed at challenging the retreat from social relevance. The years since have seen the mainline shrink and what activism remains is largely visible in back and forth in the political realm. I doubt the person-on-the-street could answer a specific question assuming the existence of a Protestant mainline in the United States.

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