Religious and Moral Issues
Part 11: Hamilton M E Church - Vietnam Years
Don Riley came to Hamilton with two school age sons, and preschool or kindergarden daughter. Wife and mother Nancy had been killed in an auto accident. Our daughter arrived for a visit. Esther’s arrival was practically the same time as Don Riley’s move.
Esther made a big batch of cookies and took part up to the new minister. She came back home to report he was “a lonely, lost man”. I really should find time for more complete research. Maybe I’ll rewrite this later with more depth. Don took a while to be understood. I was at Girl Scout camp for his first month or three. Then I probably attended a few Sundays before going off on a fall trip of maybe two or three months.
Don was informal and bearded. He referred in his sermons a great deal to his dead wife Nancy, to his three children, and to his Babtist minister Dad, and other members and events of his childhood family. Don had been a member of a group “Parents without Partners.” He helped to get such a group started in Keokuk (I think).
These were years of the Vietnam war and of the campus rebellion – youth rebellion in general. Don seemed to feel all of that and expressed it a great deal in his Sunday church services. But somewhere along that time he began dating a local church girl – Trudy Knipe. Trudy had some college work and then decided she wanted to be a nurse. She was in school up around Chicago when they decided to marry. She traveled even after the wedding to complete that semester or term. Then she took more work at Keokuk Jr college. She finally completed her studies while having a baby “Donnie”. She passed the Iowa state nursing exams. And took part time nursing work in a Quincy hospital.
Sometime along in there came the presidential election year (1972?) Don’s Sunday services became quite political, anti Nixon, anti war – in face – very ANTI. I found I was going to Sunday School and morning Worship in a calm optimistic frame of mind and I was going home again very upset and taut – “tied in knots”. I tried to tell myself the election would soon be past and Don’s sermons would change. They did not.
I tried to reach Don by phone and by stopping at the parsonage. But I put my best efforts into trying to put my feelings on paper. My rough draft of a letter to Don Reiley is here somewhere in the house. I seem to think better on paper. I first took my letter to Dola and Dick Humphry. One of them was on the Pastor-Parish committee. They were non committal and had no answer for me. I told them I’d go ahead and get my letter to Don. Dick did remind me I should sign the letter – which I fully intended to do when I typed or rewrote it. I left the signed letter in the parsonage mail box.
In brief I wrote of my feelings I’ve expressed in this book some 2 or 3 paragraphs back. When I attended church to get my “batteries charged” for the week to come, I found I left feeling more “run down” than when I arrived. I wanted help for ordinary day by day life. I wrote that it was the minister’s privilege to speak on what he felt important. I was my privilege to stay home rather than attend.
I have never, in all the years since, heard a word about that letter or in reply from Don. I did stay away for two months or more – until Mary Wait, back from their trip to the Orient, talked me into attending again. The sermons seemed better to me. In the years since I’ve been discovering that I was far from alone in my objections. Clayton Hanlin stayed away for most of the remainder of Don’s time here – even tho I told Clayton 2 or 3 times that he would find things different if he just came and gave Don a chance. I think there were several who stayed away.
I feel they were the losers – unless they were the sort who require a very formal worship service. Don was very informal. He still made me winch at times – not for myself, but for Trudy and his boys. He used family stories to illustrate points. I think, I hope, the family became inured, for as with Jesus and His parables, Don’s stories gave life to an idea.
Don’s later services had me feeling I was really in God’s house. God was my friend, and we were happy. One sermon rather expressed many of his services “Hallelujah Anyway” – even if things are not perfect “Hallelujah Anyway”! There was even some gently ribbing and teasing between pulpit and pew. Several times my name came out that way.
I had a habit of staying away when the Communion service was to be. But some one desired more frequent communion so Don tried to have it once a month. Most all of those would be served in the pew. Don found contemporary readings instead of that in the hymn book, which is lifted almost word by word from the traditional Book of Common Prayer and Worship of the old Church of England. I found I could take the Don Riley style of Communion. The old formal style does not seem to fit my ideas of Jesus or of God.
During the later years of Don being here I became more and more involved in church events and official committees. I maintained somewhat of a “low key”. These later years of the 1970’s were a time or resurgence of “Bible Christians”, “Born Again Christians”, “Faith Healers”. A “Christian Witness Mission” about 1975 or 1976 brought several adult couples to our church from the district or conference. At times it got emotional to my discomfort, but it seemed to mean a lot to some. Melted in my mind with that was a cooperative Lenten series on Sunday nights, organized by Martin Olsen of Bethel Presbyterian. I did speak up with my ideas, as topic and conditions seemed to permit. A college boy Warren McNeill & I seemed to agree.
One of these times as a small buzz group was breaking up, Mrs Komotar whispered to me briefly in a way that I knew she must be feeling as I felt – astonished at the strict literal interpretation of the Bible. I meet with Frank – her husband – in a frank discussion group two years or so later. We should have gotten better acquainted. They moved late in 1978. I think both were teachers.
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