Posts Tagged ‘religion’

More from the Methodist church retreat. This, believe it or not, is one of the reverends.

When the Blumenaus of Hope Street crossed paths with a noteworthy person or people, I like to write about it.

For instance, I’ve written about times my dad not only saw but chatted with his jazz idols, and the time my grandpa convinced one of the NFL’s finest defensive players to stand still for a casual portrait.

One of the faces in the photography post of earlier today merits the same treatment; and hopefully, I can do justice to his accomplishments.

But first, inevitably, a few words about me.

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Having been born in the summer of 1973, I came along too late to witness the socially active priests of the 1960s — people like the Berrigan brothers, and Milwaukee’s Father James Groppi, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and of course the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

I always understood the Rev. Dr. King to be a giant of his generation. But from what I read in retrospect, some of the other socially active men of the cloth seemed rather too keenly interested in publicity.

(As a pop-culture fan, I am reminded of the lines from Paul Simon’s “Me and Julio Down By The Schoolyard”: “Then the radical priest come to get me released / And we was all on the cover of Newsweek.”)

Indeed, my template for the socially active priest is probably the Rev. Scot Sloan, the gently parodic composite introduced by Doonesbury’s Garry Trudeau in the early 1970s.

The early Sloan, while earnest, was a bit too self-aware … a bit too interested in projecting the right image of coolness in his book-jacket photo, and a bit too excited when a national magazine described him as “the fighting young priest who can talk to the kids.”

When I saw my grandfather’s portrait of a handsome young minister, puffing a cigarette as coolly as if he’d just played a set at Birdland, I thought to myself, “What have we here? Another fighting young priest who can talk to the kids?

My father and Google have jointly convinced me that considerably more respect is called for.

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When the cigarette photo was taken — as well as the other photos in this post — Rev. John C. Raines was 24 years old and nearing the end of a two-year period as youth minister at my family’s church, Springdale Methodist.

He made a deep impression there, in my father’s words:

He was indeed a smart dude and wonderful teacher. … He was one sharp dude, really.  Told me if I applied myself I could be a knockout classical organist in three years (I was a high school junior at the time).  Unfortunately, I chose jazz.  And that engineering stuff.  

He was the perfect youth minister when he was 24; knew everyone and knew that there was no one way to reach everyone.  All the girls loved him because he was cool, athletic, good looking (your grandmother thought he looked like a Greek God), had a great smile.

Rev John Raines

Raines’ subsequent career would show a substantial amount of backbone to go along with the quick mind and charming smile.

As mentioned in my earlier post, he was an active participant in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. In 1961, the first year of the Freedom Riders, he was arrested with several compatriots for protesting the segregation of the Little Rock, Ark., bus station. (Fifty years later, Raines noted, the city’s mayor welcomed him back to town as a “public hero.”)

Ten years later, Raines took part in an even more audacious act of civil resistance: With his wife, Bonnie, and six others, he helped plan and execute the burglary of an FBI office in Media, Pa., near Philadelphia.

In a remarkable action against the nation’s top investigative agency, the group made off undetected with more than 1,000 documents that showed the extent of surveillance the government was devoting to its own citizens, particularly those active in protest.

A statement issued by the group explained its purpose. (The highlights are mine.):

On the night of March 8, 1971, the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI removed files from the Media, Pennsylvania, office of the FBI. These files will now be studied to determine: one, the nature and extent of surveillance and intimidation carried on by this office of the FBI, particularly against groups and individuals working for a more just, humane and peaceful society; two, to determine how much of the FBI’s efforts are spent on relatively minor crimes by the poor and the powerless against whom they can get a more glamorous conviction rate, instead of investigating truly serious crimes by those with money and influence which cause great damage to the lives of many people—crimes such as war profiteering, monopolistic practices, institutional racism, organized crime, and the mass distribution of lethal drugs; finally, three, the extent of illegal practices by the FBI, such as eavesdropping, entrapment, and the use of provocateurs and informers.

As this study proceeds, the results obtained along with the FBI documents pertaining to them will be sent to people in public life who have demonstrated the integrity, courage and commitment to democratic values which are necessary to effectively challenge the repressive policies of the FBI.

Some of the newspapers that received copies of the documents declined to print them. But the Washington Post wrote the story and others followed, giving the country its clearest look at the disruptive reach of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.

None of the burglars were caught or charged, despite an extensive investigation. Washington Post reporter Betty Medsger, who broke the story in 1971, later wrote that only one of the eight was on the agency’s list of suspects when the case was closed in 1976.

The surviving burglars came forward about a year ago. Raines — who drove the getaway car and helped distribute the documents — told the New York Times that the group saw itself as a last line of defense against overreaching government surveillance.

“It looks like we’re terribly reckless people,” Mr. Raines said. “But there was absolutely no one in Washington — senators, congressmen, even the president — who dared hold J. Edgar Hoover to accountability.”

“It became pretty obvious to us,” he said, “that if we don’t do it, nobody will.”

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If those two incidents had been the extent of Raines’ career, it would have been remarkable.

Of course, they weren’t. He also taught for more than 40 years at Temple University in Philadelphia, serving for a time as the chair of the college’s Department of Religion. (Raines continues to teach a class at Temple but is now largely retired.)

An online festschrift compiled by his students shows the respect he engendered in that role, with contributions including “My Heartfelt Gratitude to Professor John C. Raines” and “I Chose Temple (Because of John Raines).”

To quote the introduction:

His example, as well as his words, makes him one of the premier scholars of the academy; and for his witness, his testimony, and his example, we—his students—are deeply grateful.

The cigarette-puffing young man of 1960 seems to have approached the times he lived in with an uncommon amount of both wisdom and willingness to act.

That seems worthy of note and respect, not just on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but every day.


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“The Reverend, Rabbi and Rod” sounds like the start of a walks-into-a-bar joke.

In real life, it was a minor chapter in the long history of community radio … a small part of a nationwide movement to bring popular music into the church … and a curious footnote to a long-ago Christmas.

Put aside your last-minute wrapping, then, and switch on the Wayback Radio. (Are the tubes glowing? Good. We’ll proceed.)

December 25-26, 1964.

December 25-26, 1964.

“The Rev” mentioned above was Rev. E. King Hempel of the North Stamford Congregational Church. The rabbi’s name is lost to history, at least among the Blumenau family.

Together, the men of the cloth hosted a weekly talk show on WSTC-AM, Stamford’s longtime local news and talk radio station.

This sort of Upstanding, Thoughtful Community Programming was once a staple of America’s locally owned, community-focused radio stations. I’m sure this kind of show carries on today in the world of low-budget local radio, interrupted only by the occasional teenage jokester calling in to request “Free Bird.”

(The Interwebs tell me “WSTC” stood for STamford, Connecticut, as indeed it probably did. Radio call letters are a marvelous topic of discussion … there is a station in Massachusetts that will forever be known to me as Wet Porno Love Music. But I digress, big-time.)

“Rod” was my father, a sage 21 years old at the time. He wasn’t a regular panelist on “The Reverend and the Rabbi,” not having the necessary qualifications.

Instead, he was in front of the mic as a special guest, discussing a most contemporary topic — the marriage of worship and popular music.

The day after the Rev., the Rabbi and Rod rocked the mic together, my dad led a special jazz worship service at North Stamford Congregational Church. He pulled together a small combo to play music he wrote himself. (Today he dismisses it as “lousy.” No recording survives.)

An ad for the jazz service. Presumably this hung in Stamford's hipper hangouts.

An ad for the jazz service, courtesy the Rod Blumenau Collection. Presumably this flyer hung in Stamford’s hipper hash dens.

My dad, in a small way, was part of a nationwide movement of musicians looking for ways to combine faith and jazz.

By the mid-’60s, Duke Ellington and Vince Guaraldi were composing and performing in church settings, while John Coltrane, Albert Ayler and others were cutting music that was deeply spiritual, if not directly intended for performance in church.

Tenor saxophonist Ed Summerlin is often credited with pioneering the movement with his 1959 composition Requiem for Mary Jo, which he followed up with similarly themed pieces like Jazz Vesper Services.

Summerlin appeared on national TV in 1960 to discuss his “liturgical jazz,” which leaned more toward the cerebral than the gutbucket. (He also performed, around the same time, at the Methodist church across the street from my grandparents’ house on Hope Street. My dad attended.)

The idea of jazz in church spread quickly. My dad’s band director at Stamford High, Russ Martino, performed a local jazz service in the early ’60s. And Herb Hodgson, the Protestant chaplain at the college my dad attended, was enthusiastic about new ideas. My dad remembers him as “a really cool guy,” a rare accolade for a man of the cloth.

So, in 1963, with Hodgson’s encouragement, my dad rounded up some musician friends at college and performed a musical service of his own at a church in downtown Troy, N.Y. He reprised the music, with some of the same musicians, in Stamford in December 1964.

The idea, he says now, was to promote the legitimacy of jazz as a music capable of expressing spirituality and connecting with a 20th-century audience. (This was much the same point he made on the radio with the Reverend and the Rabbi, too.)

In his words:

I didn’t believe in a religion that said you have to say the same words in the same language as Jesus did, or people in Rome did. I thought you could express your feelings in a modern way. … I thought, “Jazz is legitimate, serious music with which one can contemplate the meaning of life just as much as Bach or Beethoven. Why not?”

There was no burning bush or flash of light … I just thought it would be kind of fun.

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The service in Stamford was a special event held in the evening and was promoted as a “Demonstration Service,” which rubbed my dad wrong:

That suggested even E. King wasn’t convinced of my position. In Troy, we did it in a downtown church, and it was their Sunday morning service — take it or leave it.

The faith-jazz trend, as it turned out, would have larger obstacles to overcome than the misgivings of local reverends.

While the movement would produce some memorable recordings, such as Ellington’s first Sacred Concert, jazz’s niche popularity limited its penetration into mainstream church services. By the Seventies, the guitar, not the tenor sax, would become the chosen weapon of preachers trying to reach the masses in Their Own Language.

My dad says:

The fallacy of my reasoning, which I did not realize at the time, is what a small minority of the U.S. population jazz lovers were. I thought jazz represented youth, modernity; in actuality, that died with WWII. Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry represented youth and modernity!

Today many churches feature house bands which play their (amateur) stylistic interpretation of the “music du jour.” Probably a large percentage of their congregation views this music as their own, and therefore, this does a better job of making liturgy more meaningful than jazz ever did.

That doesn’t stop musicians from continuing to bring jazz into churches. My dad performed jazz services many times when I was growing up. Those were blowing sessions, rather than formally programmed liturgical music. And they usually drew a full house or close to it.

The Sixties vision of jazz as a link to the common man will probably never come true.

But if every man prays in his own language, then there seems no reason why jazz can’t be one of them.

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As a side note, check out my grandpa’s Christmas calendar entry: A record high of 63 degrees on Christmas Day, 1964, followed by 60 degrees the next day.

I doubt that’s still the record, but it’s warm, even by today’s standards. (As I write this, the National Weather Service is calling for a high of 36 degrees in Stamford on Christmas Day 2012.)

My grandfather’s illustrations try to capture a sense of holiday gaiety. I love the intricate blue-and-white ornament; he put some time and effort into that. But the green grass underneath the tree makes it clear this was no white Christmas.

Thanks for reading and have happy holidays, whether they’re green, white or somewhere in between.

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