by Donald Schell
Part 1 of 3
Through the run-up to the1960 election our evangelical church pastor warned us repeatedly that if America elected a Roman Catholic president he would be taking orders from the Vatican. Catholics, he said, had to obey the Pope, so they weren’t like us Christians who acknowledged no authority but the Bible. He explained all this repeatedly to adult groups, to our youth group, and to the whole congregation gathered for Wednesday evening potluck (after we’d sung The Doxology but before he said grace over the meal). Whenever he’d say this, he’d also point out that he wasn’t saying it from the pulpit, which, he said, would have been bringing religion into politics the way Martin Luther King did; and no, we didn’t do that.
The pastor’s warnings about a Catholic president were the first and only time I remember a pastor in that church making any kind of political statement. Here’s how we didn’t talk politics in church: everyone voted Republican with the exception of my occasionally outspoken Boys’ Sunday School teacher. People’s intended vote was expressed in their Nixon lapel buttons. Our Sunday School teacher’s intention to vote for Kennedy came out when we asked him why he wasn’t wearing a Nixon button.
Before the election we hadn’t prayed in church for President Eisenhower and after Kennedy’s election nothing changed. Protestant or Catholic, we didn’t pray for the President. But after Kennedy was elected, our pastor’s new worried look reminded us of his warning – we knew he was waiting for Kennedy to announce he was appointing an American Ambassador to the Vatican. That, our pastor had explained, would be the first thing the Pope would require of a Catholic president.
Meanwhile the pastor’s words had heightened my questions about who Christians listen to and talk to and share table with. His questions about Kennedy started me thinking about who we’ll sit with, eat with, and listen and talk to, questions that define who we are.
I was elated at the inaugural to hear Robert Frost, a poet I read and admired, recite “The Gift Outright.” And when Pablo Casals accepted Kennedy’s insistent invitation to play at the White House, I went out and purchased his recording of Bach’s Cello Suites and listened to them again and again.
Meanwhile the pastor’s concern about Martin Luther King’s mixing faith and politics got me watching this new and unusual pastor for hints of a bigger vision of Christian faith. I began seeing Jesus the reconciler in Gandhi and King and I began praying for God’s justice to roll down like waters. Soon I was reading Thomas Merton on war and peace and thinking about “deterrence,” “mutually assured destruction,” and the threat of thermonuclear war.
Back at church Sunday morning sermons were expository tours of the Epistles of St. Paul and Sunday evening sermons continued to expound the end of the world from the Book of Revelation. Sunday evenings we heard how the re-establishment of a nation of Israel was a sure sign that Armageddon and the Second Coming of Christ would happen in our lifetimes, and the subtler question of whether Gog and Magog was the Soviet Union or Europe’s NATO alliance. In social studies class at school we talked about the U-2 spy plane that had photographed new Soviet missile installations in Cuba just ninety miles from U.S. soil. I couldn’t sit through the Sunday evening expositions of Revelation any more. Yes, I thought, the end of the world could be near, but it won’t begin with a land battle in Palestine. My fellow peacenik friends and government voices confident of deterrence by mutually assured destruction thought missiles in Cuba moved the nuclear clock much closer to high noon.
Wednesday, October 24, 1962, the principal’s voice over the public address system interrupted our social studies class and every class in school. Soviet ships were steaming toward the U.S. Naval blockade of Cuba. We were to remain in our seats and listen to live radio broadcast of unfolding events. Our social studies teacher said that if the U.S. Navy was compelled to use force to stop the Soviet ships, the principal would be deciding whether to send us home immediately or to do a duck and cover drill to prepare the school for the air-raid sirens. This time the sirens would be real.
So we sat and listened to the full speed advance of Soviet ships. I watched the slow minute by minute click of the classroom clock over our teacher’s head. We all believed we were hearing the beginning of World War III. Soviet ships steaming on. No change in course. And then for a moment the radio was quiet and cautiously, incredulously the reporter said it looked like the Soviet ships could be slowing. No, they were definitely slowing. Another lull, a real silence, and he said, “The Soviet ships have stopped.”
We sat in stunned silence until our single roar of cheers and laughter and clapping joined every other classroom in the school. The world had not ended. I let go of my shallow breathing with long sighs, and in the next moments thought of my learner’s permit and drivers’ ed classes I was about to begin. Perhaps we had a future ahead. Maybe I would get a driver’s license, graduate from high school, and go to the ‘college of my choice.’
That spring on my 16th birthday I did pass my driver’s test. And then senior year! I was driving stick shift, I’d quit the swimming team, dropped my boring AP English class for drama and become stage manager for the school play. I was working on my college applications and re-reading Dr. Zhivago. Life seemed full of promise.
On Friday, November 22, 1963, as we were in the open outdoor corridors passing between classes, the principal’s voice over the P.A. announced that the President had been shot. He was in surgery. I’d never been outside to hear the principal’s voice and didn’t know the P.A. system had speakers in the corridors. When the next announcement came we were in class. The President was dead and we were being sent home.
It was a sunny November day in California. The afternoon unfolded in slow motion. Trying to write it now, I realize that I’ve combined memories of the light and shadow from that afternoon with wholly different afternoon watching the light and shadows of a solar eclipse.
I have no memories of the next day, Saturday. But I do remember going to church that Sunday, hoping we’d hear a prayer for the nation, for the Kennedy family, for our new President, for peace. Nothing. A sermon on Ephesians and long pastoral prayer that avoided what I knew was on everyone’s heart and mind. Nothing.
The next week in school was mercifully short but also confusing. President Johnson declared Monday a national day of mourning, a school holiday for Kennedy’s funeral. Tuesday and Wednesday were ordinary school days. But normal life? We had two days of aimless wondering how we’d carry on and then it was Thanksgiving. And how would Thanksgiving work? What were we supposed to be thankful for? With a devastating loss and not knowing how the world holds together, how do you give thanks?
Mother was cooking all morning. Another crisp beautiful California autumn day. My grandmother was coming, mother’s mother, and Great Uncle Purdy and his wife. My grandfather, Purdy’s brother, had died before I was born. Purdy, I was assured, was NOT like his brother. My dad, the physician, wasn’t on call. I liked that. I knew Dad would say the table prayer, and I was pretty sure he’d find a way, somehow to pray for the nation. There’d be nine of us at table – the three elders, my parents, my younger sisters and brother, and me. Mother had me setting the table with the good silver and she asked us to dress for Thanksgiving dinner – no tie but a nice white shirt.
We stood around the table as mother brought the turkey in and put it in front of dad. It waited there for his surgery-trained precision carving, because he asked us pause for a moment before grace. Purdy couldn’t kept still – “That son of a you-know-what got what was coming to him.” The muscles in my neck and shoulders pinch tight as I remember hearing him. I can see his old man’s hard certainty on his face of just to my left. Across the table stood my grandmother, no lover of Democrats. I turned to see her face because a half breath after Purdy, she said, “Purdy, that’s the last we’ll hear of that kind of talk. A woman’s been made a widow and there’s young children with no father and our country just lost its President.” When she needed it my grandmother’s height and voice made her a commanding presence. She held Purdy’s gaze in the silence after her words until dad said, “Let’s pray,” and he offered the prayer I’d wished I’d heard on Sunday.
And then we, the rest of us, sat while he stood carving the turkey and asked who wanted dark meat. Dad’s prayer had been all the words the assassination would get before in our stumbling way we tried to have Thanksgiving dinner. Purdy sat at table with us and talked about the ordinary dull things I’d expect him to talk about.
Part 1/3 – watch for Part 2
The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.