Real Christian Conscience and Commitment
Chip Berlet printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Mon May 07, 2007 at 08:34:27 PM EST

On Sunday, April 29th hundreds of us gathered at the St. Paul United Church of Christ in Downers Grove, Illinois to celebrate the life and mourn the death of John Curtis Koehler. "Curt" was a high school teacher, journalist, printer, civil rights and labor activist, and fan of music and theater. Curt was born in 1950 and died April 7, 2007 after a mighty struggle against brain cancer. Curt's wife, the Rev. Denise Griebler, and their two children were there when a seizure robbed Curt of life.

Curt's sense of humor was indomitable. Being rolled into the operating theater for brain surgery, a nurse asked Curt what he wanted her to pray for. "Peace in the world," he replied.

We both shared a strange sense of humor when we first met over 40 years ago in junior high school in suburban northern New Jersey. We also attended the same Presbyterian Church where we became involved in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. In our youth group we read the essay by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." Curt and I worked with another church youth group member, Sue Kaiser, along with several friends, to set up a church coffeehouse (it was in the sanctuary—our church had no basement). We traded entertainment with another church coffeehouse up the road. I went and read poetry at the "Escarole" coffeehouse, while our coffeehouse, the "Purple Kumquat," got the teenage singing duo Maggie and Terre Roche, who later were joined by their sister Suzzy and became the folk trio the Roches. (So as it turned out, it was not an even trade).

Along with another young woman from our area, Curt, Sue, and I were sent as youth delegates to a National Council of Churches conference on Church and Society in Detroit in 1967. I've forgotten the name of the other young woman, and it was not reported in our local papers at the time, since she was Black, and thus was excised from the photograph of the four of us who were delegates from our region.

In Detroit we had our complacent White suburban ideas challenged. We saw an amazing multimedia presentation put together by Harvey Cox and examining racism, war, poverty, and other issues. One night some of us went over to the local underground newspaper. We joined other youth delegates to stage a "love feast" in a nearby park where we fed the hungry and celebrated life along with some Diggers who were driving back to California after the attempt to levitate the Pentagon in an antiwar rally. Margaret Mead sent over a pomegranate, with a note saying that it was the fruit of love, and thus no proper "love feast" could be staged without it. I've always wondered who ended up with that collectable note?

When we arrived back in New Jersey, our pastor, the Rev. Robert Hugh Reed, sent us a clipping from the December 1967 issue of a conservative Baptist newspaper, the Crusader. "Extremists Prominent in US Conference on Church and Society" blared the headline.

"The group studying 'The Role of Violence in Social Change" sharply criticized the church for lack of action against what it calls the 'systemic' violence in our society—'practices which exact exorbitant interest rates from the poor, inadequate health systems…inadequate housing…police practices that result in death and injury….' It urged that non-violent efforts to get rid of systemic violence should move beyond marches and picketing to massive campaign[s] in civil disobedience, non-cooperation with the state, strike, and economic boycotts."

Precisely! Heavens…what are we waiting for? In King's Letter he observes: " We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it must be demanded by the oppressed…. Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever."

The Crusader also griped about our religious services:

"Worship services at the conference were almost as revolutionary as the problems the conference dealt with: A young dancer in an electric blue leotard interpreted words of the fortieth Psalm; and excerpts from the morning newspapers were interjected into the traditional liturgy."

Heavens! Precisely! What's the problem? Oh, that's right, it is all "extremism." Well, King had something to say about that too:

" though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love … Amos an extremist for justice …Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel … Was Not Martin Luther an extremist … Abraham Lincoln … And Thomas Jefferson: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal …’ So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be.…"

The Rev. Denise Griebler, is the pastor at St. Michaels United Church of Christ in Illinois. She is also a longstanding social justice activist. The UCC is the target of another campaign against so-called "extremism," this time funded by right-wing ideologues who claim the name of God to defend their unfair and disproportionate power, wealth and privilege. They have the audacity to use the name "Institute on Religion and Democracy," when what they are doing is undermining democracy. They claim the name "renewal" when what they are doing is deeply reactionary, repressive, and regressive.

On the website of St. Michaels United Church of Christ is the note:

IF... understand that faith is a matter of mind as well as heart, and that taking the Bible seriously means it cannot always be taken literally know that God's love embraces all persons equally, no matter their gender, race, or sexual identity believe that Christ calls us to be nothing less than global citizens, that social expression of love is justice, and that spiritual concerns are inseparable from commitment to the natural world've wished for a more open and embracing community of faith to nurture your spirit and raise your children


...we invite you to join us at St. Michael's UCC and explore all the ways that God is still speaking.

The Rev. Denise Griebler is one of the many Christian leaders throughout the world working for real democracy and renewal. I treasure the times that Curt and I celebrated communion together under the blessing of Denise and in the company of our friends. Curt will be remembered as one who walked the walk. We can do no less.

Chip Berlet, Senior Analyst, Political Research Associates

The Public Eye: Website of Political Research Associates
Chip's Blog

Good to hear of your roots in the church.  In our denomination we had some great crusaders who took some unpopular stands during this time.  Sadly our denomination has been hijacked by the wrong kind of oppressive types.  Sorry to hear of the loss of a good friend and man.

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