“You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.”
Thomas Merton (2009). “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander”
Rain beats against the bathroom window, as I brush my teeth before going to bed. The bathroom mirror reflects the crucifix hanging over our bed. I stare into my own eyes in the mirror’s reflection, goose bumps cover my body. A deep feeling of gratitude flows from my heart, gratitude for almost fifty years as a priest, gratitude for staying on the right path, whatever that was, through many twists and turns, dense thickets of despair. Gratitude for Grace, for the unearned, undeserved, out of left field gift of God’s subtle nudges; gratitude for one man’s mentoring of an immature, clueless twenty-five-year old new priest.
I remember his penetrating eyes through thick glasses, handsome, thirty-four-years old, jet black hair that matched his priest’s cassock. I first met Father Bob Cornelison on the sidewalk in front of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Altadena, California in 1962. Little was I to know that this man would change my life and shape my ministry as a priest.
I was visiting the church with members of the Pasadena High School Key Club, a boy’s honorary society, as part of our monthly house of worship visits. Last month we visited an Orthodox Jewish Temple.
Fr. Bob expressed a smiling welcome and quickly made one of his joking remarks that sets strangers chuckling and relaxes the formalities. We entered the church before the service and sat in the front pew. Do not do this if you are visiting a Roman Catholic, Episcopal or Lutheran Church for the first time. Do not do this! The liturgical calisthenics will throw you off, as you will not know when to stand (to praise), sit (to learn) and kneel (to pray). Gratefully, I was seated next to my high school English Classics teacher, Mr. John Stewart, a rather stern Episcopalian, who coached us through the service.
I returned to St. Mark’s more frequently, as my new high school girl friend was an Episcopalian and member of the parish. I could spend more time with her if I went to the church.
1962 was a completely different church experience from today. My old friend, Father Richard Parker of Saint Cross Parish, Hermosa Beach, wistfully remembered: “Back in those days, you just opened the front door of the church, and people poured in.” That was true at St. Marks: the church was always filled on Sundays and lots of children were at Sunday School classes. But there were other notable differences from today. The altar was pressed up against the east facing wall, the priest did almost all the speaking, women wore hats and gloves to church, and only men held leadership on the church council/vestry/parish council. In the Episcopal Church the language of worship was thee and thou, based on the old Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Spirituality at that time was more about duty and tradition.
As a Presbyterian, these Episcopal liturgical calisthenics were strange but intriguing. Previously, at Trinity Presbyterian Church, in Hastings Ranch, I sat in the pew most of the time. Communion was handed out in trays with grape juice. Body movement in the Episcopal Church made you pay attention. But I could not take communion as I was not (yet) confirmed.
I remember a men’s retreat at Mount Calvary Monastery, the Anglican Benedictine community in the mountains high above Montecito and Santa Barbara. The place was packed with men and boys, the monks presenting long lectures on spirituality. But the setting was incredible, with expansive views of the California coast. A gold, seventeenth century Spanish reredos framed the high altar, enshrouded with a dense cloud of incense, as the monks chanted the Magnificat at Vespers. Some deep longing within me awakened, as the priest elevated the Host in the early morning mass.
My life was never the same after one Sunday experience. We had been following the Civil Rights Movement in my social psychology class at USC. On March 7, 1965, in a voting rights march in Alabama, State troopers and county posse men violently attacked the marchers with billy clubs and tear gas, to become known as Bloody Sunday. I can still recall the video images of the violence depicted on Walter Cronkite CBS News: a wounded woman lying helplessly on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Another march to Selma, Alabama was organized, and a call went out to religious leaders throughout the country. The following Sunday, Fr. Bob announced to the congregation that he was going to Selma to march with Dr. King. This was very dangerous, as I knew that there were deaths resulting from the previous marches. I imagined Fr. Bob implanted within the violent TV images I had already seen. I was afraid for him. The empathy within the congregation was mixed. I remember some red-faced men huddled together on the patio outside the church at coffee hour, animated in their anger and disapproval of Fr. Bob. But off he went. Two weeks later he returned and shared his experience of marching with Dr. King, and his own visceral feelings of fear and dread, as they marched through taunting, rock throwing crowds.
My life changed forever, because something stirred deep within me: I want to live my life like Fr. Bob. Vocation as a priest was unformed; my family had tutored me all these years to become a pediatrician.
I immersed myself into the life of the parish, teaching Sunday School to a wild bunch of third graders. I momentarily turned my back from the children, and before I knew it most of the boys would escape through the open back window. The choir became family to me, as my quivering tenor voice attempted to blend in the anthem.
Fr. Bob’s curate, Fr. Pat Tomter, was right out of seminary. I still can’t believe it to this day, but most Sundays I would go to his home after the Sunday Services and hang out with him and his wife. From my own experience later in life, this was deep fatigue time for a priest after a busy week of ministry and several Sunday services. But there I was, on the Tomter’s couch, asking probing theological questions. The approachable clergy at St. Mark’s fostered my nascent faith.
I applied for Postulancy, the beginning step toward seminary and ordination. But I was rejected, as my life was in turmoil. I spent my last year of college at Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio. My uncle, Dr. John Trever, was my Old Testament professor. He was notable as the scholar who first identified the Dead Sea Scrolls as authentic, when they were discovered in caves by the Dead Sea. He urged me to apply for seminary without the Bishop’s approval and to go to Pacific School of Religion, the Interdenominational seminary in Berkeley, California.
The Summer of Love
“There had to be a whole new scene, they said, and the only way to do it was to make the big move — either figuratively or literally — from Berkeley to the Haight-Ashbury, from pragmatism to mysticism, from politics to dope… The thrust is no longer for “change” or “progress” or “revolution,” but merely to escape, to live on the far perimeter of a world that might have been.”
Hunter S. Thompson, The Hippies.
I was not on the normal, approved track to ordination, but I began seminary August 1967, the Summer of Love! Berkeley was exotic with flower children parading along Telegraph Avenue, past head shops, bookstores and coffee houses. San Francisco across the bay was the locus of the counter cultural movement.
I arrived at the seminary dorm, opened the front door and Marty Murdock was rushing out the door. He gave me a quick welcome, asking:
“Want to come to a party in San Francisco?”
Off we went in his rusty grey VW, arriving at the exact corner of Haight and Ashbury. A live band blasted music from Golden Gate Park across the street. My heart was pounding. What was happening?
We walked upstairs to the second floor of an apartment building. The door opened to a lovely, long-haired women with a bright smile.
“Hi Marty. Come on in.”
I entered the expansive living room, filled with young ladies and young men. A bearded, blond fellow sat in the corner playing the guitar.
As I now remember, all the young ladies there were former Immaculate Heart of Mary nuns who had left the Order in Los Angeles after conflict with Cardinal Macintyre. They now worked as nurses at the University of California Medical Center. And the young men: novices in the Christian Brothers, a Roman Catholic monastic community. At the geographic center of the Summer of Love, at Haight and Ashbury, I was probably at the most G rated party in America.
The first year of seminary involved field work out in the community. Pacific School of Religion (PSR) was a progressive school, wanting us to do secular field work. Some worked at the Black Panthers’ food bank and community center at St. Augustine’s Church in Oakland. I was assigned to the Urban League in Berkeley, working as an employment counselor with other young African American community organizers, some of whom became city council members in Berkeley and Oakland. I remember meeting many African American residents of the neighborhood, seeking work, trying to survive with dignity and support a family. That milieu of desperation pushed me to work long hours to secure interviews for the clients.
There were frequent demonstrations against the Viet Nam War at U C Berkeley, a few blocks south of the seminary. My fellow students participated in the demonstrations there and at the Oakland Induction Center. Several times at breakfast, I would hear about students who had been arrested the previous day and spent the night at Santa Rita Jail.
I spent another semester in the Clinical Pastoral Education program, requiring full-time work as a hospital chaplain. My first day I was assigned to ICU, where I helped zip up the body of a patient who had died. Shortly after, I went to the waiting room with the doctor, who spoke with the family about the death. I wore a crucifix around my neck. I remember the man who died was a postal worker. His wife walked up to me, saw the cross around my neck, and began to angrily pound my chest, crying “Why? Why? Why?”
As I entered Herrick Memorial Hospital every morning through the ER, I took a deep breath and prayed for God’s grace. No textbook or class lecture was going to help me here. I made the rounds to the different units, never knowing what I would encounter when I entered a patient’s room. I floated on grace: to be a listening presence and learned to pray from deep within my heart without a prayer book.
The CPE hospital program was enough evidence to show that my life had stabilized. I reapplied for Postulancy. Fr. Bob secured quick support from the Vestry to get the paperwork going. He went with me to the Diocesan Office for an interview with the Standing Committee. His gravitas with all those male priests, the Old Boys’ Network, carried the day.
Returning to seminary, I discovered a few weeks later that Fr. Bob had resigned from St. Mark’s to become Rector of St. Mary’s Parish, Laguna Beach. He moved with his five children, LeighB, Nina, Katie, Bobby and Eve and wife Nancy, to a beach cottage overlooking the Pacific Ocean
LSD Capital of the Universe
“He used to hang out with a group called the Brotherhood of Eternal Love,” he said. “They’d get loaded, go up to those caves and maybe spend a couple of nights up there chanting to the moon. Whoever wanted to could follow Leary up.”
Neal Purcell quoted in article L A Times
y DAVID HALDANE
MARCH 31, 2003
To any young person growing up in southern California, especially my hometown of Pasadena, Laguna Beach was the idyllic beach town. It was where many of us went for spring break and in the summer, to escape the brutal heat of the San Gabriel Valley. Secluded coves and expansive beaches inspired California Impressionist Frank Cuprien, Edgar Payne and William Wendt.
At the time, St. Mary’s was a traditional village church. Father John Houser had been pastor for many years. The expectation of ministry was that the rector would be in the church office for drop ins, counseling for sacraments, and make pastoral calls at the hospital. It was a tranquil world. “You just opened the church door on Sunday, and the people poured in.”
How did Fr. Bob break into this introverted, conservative culture?
“When I came to my interview, I wore my Brooks Brothers suit and Florsheim shoes and I got them to laugh a lot.”
But this was 1968 and America was in cultural upheaval. Under the surface of this village of beaches, art festivals and expensive homes was a dark world. Laguna Beach was the home of LSD evangelist Timothy Leary. His cohorts were the Brotherhood of Eternal Love. They would all load up on LSD and hole up in the caves off Laguna Canyon Road and chant far into the night. Followers of Leary hung out at the infamous Mystic Arts head shop on PCH.
The year Fr. Bob began ministry at St. Mary’s, rookie Laguna Beach Police Officer Neal Purcell was patrolling late at night, turning into Woodland Drive, just off Laguna Canyon Road. A car with motor running was stopped in the middle of the road. Purcell investigated, encountering Leary, his wife Rosemary and teen-aged son John. The car was full of marijuana and hashish. Purcell’s arrest made him nationally famous. Leary received a ten-year prison sentence. The Brotherhood of Eternal Love, “the Hippie Mafia,” hired the radical Weather Underground organization for $25,000 to help Leary escape from prison and go to Algeria.
Laguna Beach needed the ministry of Fr. Bob. He spent more time out of the church office than in it, on the boardwalk talking with surfers and at Mystic Arts with hippie youth. As a licensed marriage and family counselor, he established easy rapport with troubled youth, many from the old money families of Emerald Bay and Three Arch Bay. He was one of the founders of the Laguna Beach Free Clinic. Preach the Gospel at all times, when necessary use words. Fr. Bob was living out his Gospel in the community. As his reputation grew, so did the parish, attracting medical professionals, therapists and professors at University of California at Irvine. But seeds of dissent were being sowed, soon to yield a harvest of anger and hate.
I graduated from seminary June 1970. There were no jobs in the Diocese of Los Angeles for newly ordained priests. I found some day jobs working construction and in restaurants. By August, Fr. Bob wanted me to work with him full time, but there was little money. Dr. Neal and Meredith Amsden, in Emerald Bay, invited me to live with them and their four children. I would also receive $200 a month for my VW car payment. I started full time August 1970.
Fr. Bob said that a new priest needed to know his parish. I should make as many home visits as I could to establish relationships. From that time on, I made home visits a priority for the next fifty years. In those early visits I began to hear the voices of dissent:
“He wasn’t in the church office when I dropped in last Tuesday.”
“He’s spending too much time out in the community and not on church business. Someone saw him hanging out at Mystic Arts!”
As these families welcomed me, there was a clear temptation: for me to save the parish from Fr. Bob.
My seminary church music professor Fr. Norm Mealy warned me:
“Brad, when you go to a parish, people will tempt you to be a critic of the Rector. Remember, you are not the Messiah who has been sent by God to save the parish from the Rector.”
I never forgot those words and the core virtue of professional loyalty. That which was not shared with me in Private Confession I would openly share with Fr. Bob. I never criticized him to others. I was direct with him about any differences between us.
The seeds of dissent came into full flowering October 1970. A parish meeting was called. The Bishop’s representative Dean Gary Adams, a former Nevada Congressman, presided. The Traditionalists were well organized, led by a local estate attorney. Shrill, angry voices cried out a litany of indictments, mostly about Fr. Bob’s ministry in the community.
Dean Adams let these furious voices beat their drum for an hour. Then he asked to hear from those who found hope in Fr. Bob’s ministry. Articulate, thoughtful, calm voices from many community leaders shared anecdotes about Fr. Bob’s help and effectiveness. Without seeking a direct vote, Dean Adams asked: “Is there anyone who feels the current situation in the parish is hopeless?” The estate attorney stood up, made a last angry statement, and stomped out of the church with a cluster of his minions. The Dean invited the congregation to stand and pray for the parish and Fr. Bob’s ministry.
From that day on, St. Mary’s grew as a beacon of service to the community and a congregation practicing Christ’s inclusive love for all.
Reflecting on Fr. Bob’s innate leadership in ministry and his mentoring of this young priest, I find understanding in Chris Lowney’s book Heroic Leadership. Lowney shares Jesuit leadership secrets that include ingenuity, love and heroism.
Ingenuity: “Leaders make themselves and others comfortable in a changing world. They eagerly explore new ideas, approaches, and cultures rather than shrink defensively from what lurks around life’s next corner.”
Fr. Bob encountered an introverted, sleepy village church imbedded in a milieu of significant cultural change, including dark elements of drug and alcohol addiction, poverty among the immigrant hotel and restaurant service community, mental health issues and homelessness. Fr. Bob adapted his counseling skills, fostering relationships in the Laguna community. He taught me that the church must be flexible and adaptable to different community needs.
I worked with Fr. Bob in developing the resource of the extensive parish property to serve the community and generate innovate programs, which included:
*Human Options: a comprehensive program for abused women.
*A day labor center.
*HUD Senior Housing
*Friendship Shelter housing for the homeless.
*alternative school for creative high school students.
*settlement housing for two Vietnamese refugee families
*Drug and alcohol recovery programs
Fr. Bob and I tried to involve some of the more traditional Laguna Beach churches in these community programs, but we were told, “First, we want people to be immersed in the Word of God. After they know the Word, then we can work with the community.”
However, I am reminded of St. Pachomius, the third century founder of cenobitic communal monasticism. He was a prisoner of war in Egypt. The early church’s core ministry was working in the slums and prisons. Christians brought Pachomius food and healed his wounds. After several visits, he asked, “Why are you doing this for me?” They responded, “We are Christians. This is what we do.” “Tell me about who you are.” And so, the witnessing and teaching began.
Many unchurched people joined the church and grew into deep faith in Jesus Christ because of the witness of Fr. Bob and St. Mary’s parish.
Love: “Leaders face the world with a confident, healthy sense of themselves as endowed with talent, dignity, and the potential to lead. They find exactly these same attributes in others and passionately commit to honoring and unlocking the potential they find in themselves and in others. They create environments bound and energized by loyalty, affection and mutual support.”
Fr. Bob shared many aspects of ministry with me equally; he did not pigeonhole me into being only a youth minister or curate. He empowered me to act on his behalf. He is someone I came to love and with whom I honestly shared my struggles. It was not difficult to be loyal and trust his leadership.
Heroism: “Leaders imagine an inspiring future and strive to shape it rather than passively watching the future happen around them. Heroes extract gold from the opportunities at hand rather than waiting for golden opportunities to be handed to me.”
In the 1970s, Holy Week, between Palm Sunday and Easter Day, was the traditional Spring Break, when hundreds of young people and college students flooded Laguna Beach. The musical Jesus Christ Superstar was on Broadway. The soundtrack to the music was a popular LP Album. Fr. Jim Friedrich, an inspired genius with visual media, developed a slide show of classical art and contemporary images integrated into the entire soundtrack of the musical. The movie had not yet been made. On Good Friday night, a 12 by 12 projection screen was positioned in the sanctuary. Jim had two slide projectors with filters. Word was spread throughout the town and the local head shops. The church was filled to overflowing with hippies with long hair fragrant with incense and jingling beads. Most of these folks hadn’t been in church for years. And here they were, thoroughly enjoying a presentation of the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ on Good Friday via a Broadway musical.
Every Good Friday evening through the 1970s, we presented a different film based on the Gospel of Jesus, including Godspell, Pasolini’s Gospel of Matthew, and the Greatest Story Ever Told.
I married Janice Ellen Breed in 1971 who worked in Emergency Medicine at South Coast Community Hospital. Her own health ministry complimented our work with the homeless and addicted, as these persons were also her patients.
There are no Outcasts
“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Galatians 3:28 NIV
Two experiences at St. Mary’s Church changed my perspective of the Episcopal Church forever.
On July 29, 1974, eleven women were “illegally” ordained priests by three bishops in Philadelphia, PA., two years before the Episcopal Church would officially authorized ordination of women.
A month later, while Fr. Bob was on vacation, one of the new priests, The Rev. Carter Hayward, visited friends in Laguna Beach. Some women approached me to ask if she could celebrate Eucharist at the Thursday healing service. Looking back, it’s hard to engage with whatever hesitation I had about that. I needed some time to think about it. I said yes and attended the service, but The Rev. Hayward celebrated the full liturgy. It was not up to me to think or feel this way, but I remember experiencing her competency and priestly authority at that service. The Anglican Communion continues to painfully struggle with this movement of the Holy Spirit.
Later, when I became Rector at Messiah Parish, Santa Ana, I made it my mission to recruit and empower other women priests to work with me as equal colleagues. I know that the successful growth and enrichment of that parish was greatly due to the ministry of those six women, all of whom became rectors on their own, including one bishop.
A year later, 1975, a young man called me and asked if I would do some couples’ counseling. I agreed. A few days later the young man appeared in the church office with another man, his partner. Laguna Beach had been a welcoming community to the LGBT community for decades. But this counseling was a deeper engagement for me with two gay men.
We had several sessions together, working on conflict management. What has stayed with me ever since is my impression of their long-time commitment, care and love for one another. Surely, God was working and present within the love between these two men.
By 1975, Fr. Bob had been rector for seven years. Remarkably, many of the conservative traditionalists who stomped out of the church October 1970, had returned. The estate attorney become the clerk of the Vestry/Parish Council. The parish welcomed this diversity of voices and values.
A few years later, one of the matriarchs of Emerald Bay, a vocal opponent of Fr. Bob’s ministry with troubled youth, drug addicts and mentally ill, would herself graduate with a marriage and family degree. For many years, she led a wonderful non-profit that provided services to the very population that previously had been outcasts to her.
These experiences crystalized a vision I had of what the church must be: an inclusive community in Christ, where there are no outcasts.
Jesus gives us a radical vision of the Kingdom of God: there should be no liberal or conservative, anglo or person of color, new or traditional, feminist or antifeminist, pro-life or pro-choice, Democrat or Republican or any other ideological pocket that should matter in terms of who is welcome and who can be part of the Church.
John Shea wrote “The heavenly banquet is open to all who are willing to sit down with all.”
“The task of church is to stand toe to toe, shoulder to shoulder, and heart to heart with people absolutely different from ourselves—but who, with us, share one faith, one Lord, one baptism, and one God who is Father and Mother of all. To live and worship beyond differences is what it means to have a bosom that is not a ghetto.
The Holy Longing, Ron Rolheiser, p 131.
I shared ministry with Fr. Bob for eleven years. Many people told me that was too long; I should have moved on to my own parish before that. I was very choosy about where I wanted to go; the Spirit hadn’t grabbed me yet. But the physics of human relationship took their natural path. For mentor and mentee that often means a fracture in the relationship. I felt that tension building up for the past two years. It got nasty sometimes. But the Spirit did speak, and I was led to a declining parish in downtown Santa Ana, fifteen miles away. What had once been an affluent supply town for surrounding cattle ranches had become a densely populated, Latino dominant urban center. The church was on the verge of becoming a mission. The leadership knew that they had to engage with the surrounding community if the parish was to have a future: a perfect fit for my education with Fr. Bob about becoming a spiritual lighthouse to the city and a church where there are no outcasts.
Fr. Bob and I had little contact for several years. In his retirement, he entered an alcohol recovery program. The Twelve Steps became an essential compliment to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Fr. Bob ran a sober living home that guided and supported many persons into recovery.
A week before he died, I visited Fr. Bob at his home. I stood at the side of his bed. That beautiful smile was there and the penetrating eyes within a frail thin body. I held his hand, reminding him that I loved him. It was brief, as I kissed him and said, “Bob, I will see you again on the other side.”
Chris Lowney, Heroic Leadership: Best Practices from a 450-Yeard-Old Company that Changed the World.
Neal Purcell quoted in article L A Times
y DAVID HALDANE
MARCH 31, 2003
Thomas Merton (2009). “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander”.