I was awed by the gutsiness of the congregational ancestors at First United Methodist Church Tucson where I served. The church was built in the late 1800s in the old downtown district. They voted in early November of 1929 to relocate the church across the street from the main gate of the new college in town. The primary purpose of that plan was to honor the importance of secular education as a contribution to society. It was not an attempt to gain an advantage to evangelize. They had in mind Wesley’s proclamation…that of caring for the welfare of all beings. It was a highly controversial proposal for the church at that time, partly because the campus was more than five miles outside the city limits in those days. So, they lost a number of members over that vote.
At the end of that month the stock market crashed and they felt a need to revisit their vision and take another vote. A few more members departed but the dream held. The hard economy made it virtually impossible to make the transition, but the church women saved the day and generated funds by selling toilet paper door-to-door. I got in a little trouble by pointing out at their 125th anniversary celebration that that’s how they made ends meet back then.
…But, but…No wait…I should say ‘and, and’…A testament to the success of their dream, the Methodist dream nationwide, was that 16 public schools in Tucson were named after members of that congregation. The church remains to this day across the street from the main gate of the University of Arizona. The Tucson Church vision under-girded a wider dream held by Methodists across the country in those years. As we know there are now over a hundred and twenty universities and colleges founded by the denomination; among them USC, Emery, Northwestern, Boston University, Southern Methodist, Drew, Duke, Ohio Wesleyan, Illinois Wesleyan, Nebraska Wesleyan, Vanderbilt.
My guess is masses of university faculty members, administrative staff and public school teachers were drawn to attend Methodist churches because of those grand contributions to society. They may not have been attracted initially to the worship or educational aspects of church life, but they liked the Methodist image of caring for society with no faith strings attached.
A number of those great establishments have medical schools which dovetail with another huge Methodist dream over a hundred years ago, that of building some of the most prominent hospitals in the country and the world, such as the famous Methodist Heart hospital in Houston. And then there is Good Samaritan, the esteemed regional hospital in Phoenix. I have been telling about the dream of a single soul of First Methodist Church in Phoenix related to that grand enterprise. Her name was Lulu Clifton, a Methodist Deaconess and dreamer, who is credited with founding Good Samaritan Hospital. Scores of medical personnel began attending Methodist churches out of sheer admiration for our efforts to meet the physical needs of the masses.
A few years ago Bill Moyers challenged a graduating class at Southern Methodist University in his commencement address. He concluded his remarks by saying
“I know something about the DNA in this institution – the history that created this unique university. Although most of you are not Methodists, you can be proud of the Methodist in SMU. At the time of the American Revolution only a few hundred people identified with Methodism. By the Civil War it was the largest church in the country with one in three church members calling Methodism their faith community.”
I believe Moyers is a Baptist, but he ended his presentation by proclaiming “No institution has done more to shape America’s moral imagination. If America is going to be fixed, I believe someone with this DNA will be needed to do it. It’s possible.”
I think many of us may strive to remain Methodists because we have a nagging notion that we do our best when we rely upon our congregations to nurture courageous dreamers who find ways to contribute to the health and welfare of the masses. It’s an audacious gesture but that’s just who we are and who we’ve been.
We have dying churches across our country that are down to a few dozens in the pews with full-time pastors having near $100,000 packages and sitting on million dollar-plus properties. I honestly did little about that when I served as a district superintendent. Please, Lord, let someone else deal with it. Now I can dream big in my retirement.
What if we were able to urge those small congregations across America to sell off their property and attend other churches and have those proceeds go to severe needs in our culture? What if those profits were to go to national or global educational needs, environmental disasters or health care for the poor? Bill Moyers would be proud of us and there might be citizens who learned about the projects who might choose to attend our churches.