Updated: Jul 28, 2020
by Carmen Cook.
Rising on Lexington Avenue, a graceful church steeple stood assertively above the noise and traffic, reminding me of the white wooden steeple of the Methodist church I attended as a child so many years ago. I used to catch frogs in its damp cement basement. That Methodist Church folded in my small Iowa town. The building was deconsecrated and sold at auction to a farmer who repurposed it for his hog house. The building where my brother and I were baptized became home to little piglets who became fine, fat hogs, hams on the hoof. Its former steeple was imprinted on me as a call to the spiritual as I walked the two blocks to church in my Sunday best with my parents and brother.
Heeding the call of the All Souls steeple, I attended a Sunday Service without knowing it was the first Sunday after Forrest Church’s death. The congregation was in mourning. I’d heard of Forrest Church but here I would gain an understanding of his ministry, his writing, the power of his preaching, his human flaws, his courage in the face of death and his profound ministry of: Like what you have. Be who you are. Do what you can.
He prepared his congregation for his death. Galen Guengerich became his hand-picked successor. The powerful music program under Walter Klauss continued. I became a Unitarian and started reading about our history.
When my dear brother died on a June night, I called Galen very late, in deep grief. He called me back at 6:30 in the morning to comfort me and offer his counseling. The tenets of Unitarianism took some adjusting but letting go of the Apostles Creed wasn’t all that difficult. Seeing Jesus as an exemplary human rather than a deity took a little longer, but it made sense. One wonderful Sunday morning Ana Levy-Lyons preached: “Heaven is a big place. There’s lots of room and we’re all going there. So stop worrying, get on with your life and do some good!”
Reverend David Robb, the Scholar in Residence, at the helm of the Adult Education Program of poetry, literature, great music, art, theologians, Shakespeare, Biblical texts, the environment and many other topics inspired intimate sharing of deeply held beliefs and feelings on these important topics.
Having a moral issue to handle when I was to speak at the funeral of a friend, I sought the counsel of Rev. Dick Leonard who had been in the same position himself once. He advised me to speak the truth and I did. “God makes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust.” Dick is always coming up with ways to serve and inspire, just as he did when he marched with Dr. King to Selma.
I got to know All Souls members. Marietta Moskin, a concentration camp survivor, made a new life in America after the war as an economist and writer of children’s books. Cornelia Do rode her bicycle through Amsterdam as a teenager quietly delivering loaves of bread to those in hiding. “I save only one life,” she exclaimed. “Cornelia, if you saved one life, you saved the world,” I exclaimed.
The remarkable Laura Pedersen, a Unitarian from Buffalo, New York, shared her enormous wit and penetrating integrity in featured talks about people, authors, and current events. Who would guess she is also a veteran Wall Street trading phenom, current author, playwright, stand-up comic, ordained minister and lifetime Unitarian?
I learned that during the AIDS crisis All Souls took a leading role in de-stigmatizing the disease by papering overnight buses and subways with posters saying “AIDS is a human disease deserving a human response.”
Joining the Women’s Reading Group, started many years ago by Mary-Ella Holst, I read “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” for the first time. Although I had worked for the War on Poverty Committee in Memphis as a VISTA Volunteer in the 1960’s and 1970’s, I cut my liberal teeth on the “Autobiography of Malcolm X” overlooking the pre-civil war classic which Abraham Lincoln said, upon meeting its author Harriett Beecher Stowe, “So you’re the little lady who started the big war!”
All Souls is responsive to change. The superbly gifted Alejandro Hernandez-Valdez became our new music director. Trent Johnson became organist and assistant music director. Both brought their own brilliance to All Souls music.
The Writers Group has given me the opportunity to hone my writing skills, creating short stories and writing a memoir. Marilyn Mehr, PhD., author and psychotherapist has been the steadying force in the Writing Group for years. Her sensitive leadership brings out the best in us. We miss our late beloved co-leader Margie Barab. We welcome the keen editor and writer Tim Kelly’s new co-leadership. He met his wife Anne in the Writers Group! Take that, Match.com! It’s happenin’ here at All Souls. We even have our own scribe, Valorie Dawson, who keeps track of who reads when and notifies us with love that we are on the agenda.
There’s always something cooking at All Souls, especially with Monday Night Hospitality and Friday Soup and with its large group of volunteers and hungry guests.
We have our disagreements, flare-ups, divisions and departures as well as new members. Money is tight at times, flows at other times. We are a congregation.
I am thankful for that beckoning steeple without which I could have taken the crosstown bus back to the West Side and missed an exceptional experience of healing, learning, spirituality, growth and richness with an extraordinary group of New Yorkers.