Friday, June 22, 2001
Reverend Eugene Widrick says good-bye
On Sunday morning, Reverend Eugene (Woody) Widrick ascended the stairs to the pulpit at the First Religious Society to deliver his final sermon before retiring at the end of August. Widrick's sermon, "What We Are Given To Do", marked the end of Widrick's 24 years of service to the Unitarian Universalist Church on the Green in Carlisle.
Not long ago, when I spoke with Widrick in his office in the new addition to the church, he was eager to tell me about his years at the First Religious Society, which began January 1, 1977.
In response to my observation that the ministers and priests who serve the churches in Carlisle seem to stay on for a long period of time, he had this to say: "In my case, it was inertia." In a more serious vein he continued, "It was a good match. It was a time of no social unrest or conflicts that tore the church apart. It was after the Vietnam War had ended and the years of the civil rights movement when many ministers spoke out and lost their jobs.
"After you have been in a church for a while it takes on the coloration of the minister. Some of the church is made of the people who stayed when you came. Those that didn't like you have left and those that come in are the people who like what you are doing."
Speaking of his tenure at the church, he felt it was a very good congregation to work with. "Our tendency is to try to work on the basis of consensus. When we put up a building addition, it took a long time. It wasn't just 51 per cent of the people who wanted to build it, but everyone supported it. This is a healthy but slow way to go about doing things.
"In this church we want to be with one another and work together," said Widrick. "There's lots of doing stuff together. It's a nice congregation with good people. We're a fortunate congregation, fortunate where we live, fortunate we don't have problems with poverty or lack of services. There are not many people living in Carlisle without an adequate income. Sometimes we hold at arm's length the problems that other churches must deal with, and sometimes it makes us feel guilty.
"The First Religious Society is very much Carlisle-centered," continued Widrick. "Over 90% of the congregation comes from Carlisle. In this area, you can drive six miles in almost any direction and you'll find a Unitarian Church.
"The church has grown a lot. We have approximately 150 members, an active church school, a marvelous church secretary, a lovely music director who is creative and active and a congregation that encourages them," Widrick reported. "We are offering more programs which include an active men's group, a woman's group, a group interested in ecology, as well as the outreach programsThe House of Hope, Habitat for Humanity, Cambodian Orphans, and the Open Pantry. This congregation gives of itself to others...there is a lot of that going on here."
"The role of a church is to
help a community and the
people in the community find their souls."
Asked about the role of the First Religious Society in the life of Carlisle, Widrick smiled and said, "We maintain the most beautiful building in Carlisle." Pursuing a more serious line of thought Widrick added, "The role of a church is to help a community and the people in the community find their souls. Life is not about property. What we have is not the measure of who we are. Religion helps people to find other values than materialism. Camus once said, 'we need a reason to live.' We can try to get away with accumulation as a reason to live, but someday that won't be enough."
As for Carlisle, "It's been described as paradise and it fits the ideal of an American community," explained Widrick. "There are nice houses on the nicest pieces of land; there is a good school system and generally good neighbors. There are not the issues that other people have to live with in other communities.
"If there are flaws [in Carlisle],
one might be the change from a rural to a suburban community, which has weakened the social structure."
"If there are flaws, one might be the change from a rural to a suburban community, which has weakened the social structure," observed Widrick. "People used to come out here to live in the country or start a farm. Now a house in Carlisle is an investment. That's not all bad. The town has to find a way to build community spirit, things like Old Home Day, the schools. People need to continue to search for ways to build community. Churches are a great way to build community, meet people, find a sense of commonality.
"People go to church for one reason, loneliness," continued Widrick. "There are two kinds of loneliness, personal loneliness where you want to meet people and be a part of a community, and then there is cosmic loneliness where you want to know you have a place in the universe. Even people living in two-million-dollar houses need community and a sense of place. Our job as a church is to remind people there is a place to help them answer that question.
"Carlisle has a great future as long as people work on their sense of community and keep trying to widen their perception. We are fortunate to have the money, the resources, the contacts, knowledge, intelligence and opportunity to make the world a better place."
Widrick, now about to take his first sabbatical, looks back on his life and wonders "How did this ever happen?" He is a man who has come a long way from his roots in rural upstate New York. He grew up in the small town of Belfort (pop. 28) in a farm family that ran his grandmother's farm. His father's people were Mennonites and his mother was a member of the Church of the Nazarene-Pentecostal, but the family was not especially active in church affairs.
He attended a small regional high school, where he was a member of a graduating class of 17 or 18. While most of his classmates stayed on in Belfort, Widrick went on to study at the State University of New York (SUNY) in Potsdam, earning a bachelor's degree in education, and later a master's degree in library science. It was in Cortland, New York where he spent five years as a librarian, that Widrick met Trudi, his wife-to-be, and "got religion."
At Tufts Divinity School where many of his professors were of Universalist Unitarian background, Widrick studied and received an academic degree. The school closed soon after he graduated. His first two assignments were to small churches in Stafford, Connecticut and Laconia, New Hampshire. In 1968 after his wife accused him of having no sense of adventure, he signed a three-year contract to serve a small Unitarian Church in Cape Town, South Africa, "a beautiful city on the fairest cape in all the world."
"The odd quirk in apartheid," explained Widrick, "was that there was no government control in the church. There was a complete separation of church and state in South Africa which protected a small integrated church like ours." At the time, said Widrick, the Dutch Reform Church, the largest church in the country, was not racially integrated, while the Church of England was integrated.
"This was a beautiful country and the people were beautiful," recalled Widrick. "What they were doing to themselves and each other was tragic. They destroyed lots of lives on the basis of skin color. There was little activism while I was there. The government was harsh, brutal and swift, if they thought you were a threat. They thought nothing of killing people.
"My experience in South Africa made me realize how fortunate we are in this country and how careless we are with our good fortune," continued Widrick. "It made me realize the value of a religious view of life, in the sense that there is more in our lives than prosperity. Apartheid really was about dividing the wealth. The other thing I learned was the difference between the United States and South Africa. In South Africa they exploited labor that lived within walking distance of where you lived. In the U.S it's the people living in Mexico or Indonesia who are not nearby."
Widrick and his wife returned to America from South Africa in 1971 and settled in the struggling mill-town of North Adams, Massachusetts, where he served in a Unitarian church for five years before moving to Carlisle in 1977.
Now newly retired, Reverend Widrick will have to wait to contemplate how he will spend his time off, as he and Trudi are on their way to Cleveland this week to attend the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly. When he returns he'll be thinking of what he might do next. "I've never been in this position before," admits Widrick. "I might go back to pottery, oil painting or writing. All ministers say they will write," he adds with a laugh. "I'll just let it flow for a couple of months before I make any decisions."
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